Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Least of These

Yesterday I attended a turkey dinner beautifully prepared by a group from St. Paul's. They fed the regular participants of a drop-in centre. There are several group homes in Bowmanville for those living with mental health issues. The drop-in is an oasis of caring for people who have been pushed to the margins of our society.

Our folk include the drop-in gang at a dinner they put on once a month at the church for seniors. For the past few months they have set another table so that the drop-in group can enjoy a nourishing meal and a caring atmosphere.

Yesterday I said the blessing, but the true grace of Christ came through the hands that prepared the meal. I was deeply touched by their commitment.

And the people who were the recipients were gracious themselves, welcoming us warmly and thanking us profusely.

They say that the shepherds who first heard about Christ's birth were on the margins of their culture, among the lowly of first century society.

I'm grateful for this Christmas reminder.

The Longest Night

Today marks the Winter Solstice and the shortest number of daylight hours in the year. Some churches hold "Longest Night" or "Blue Christmas" services for those who find this time of the year difficult. It may be because of the darkness, which seems oppressive, or the psychological gloominess which comes from loss or separation. Christmas isn't an uplifting time for many and in these services Christ's light is acknowledged.

Recently I got a call from the library saying that the book I had reserved was in. I hadn't requested a book, or so I thought, but it turned out that months ago I asked for Joan Didion's remarkable memoir called The Year of Magical Thinking. Just before Christmas 2003 Didion's daughter was hospitalized with a totally unexpected and life-threatening illness. A few days after Christmas her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, died at the dinner table, struck down by a massive heart-attack.
Her life was suddenly and irrevocably changed. In January 2004 she wrote:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Although Didion carried on with the demands of life and supported her daughter back to health, that first year was marked by the "magical thinking" that Dunne would return. Her writing about grief is excruciating and exquisite at the same time. Often we don't know what those around us deal with in the silence.

While we won't have a Longest Night service, I will pray for and remember those who experience sadness and grief at this time. The painting above is by Holman-Hunt, a British artist of the 19th century. The Light of the World is a bit romanticized for my taste but it does offer the message that Christ lights our way.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Away in a Trash Bin

The ice around the North Pole reached a critically low level in September 2005.

I feel good this year about finishing up my Christmas shopping. Now I will grab a few minutes to wrap, although an article in the Toronto Star yesterday made me think twice about this practice.

At the risk of seeming like a Grinch here is a portion of the piece and the link.

Away in a trash bin

Envision Christmas morning, after all the hullabaloo, the pretty wrapping paper and bubble wrap and Scotch tape sitting in the middle of the living room.

According to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Ontarians throw away 900,000 extra tonnes of garbage during the holidays, including 288 million Christmas cards and 23 square kilometres of wrapping paper – enough to cover 3,000 football fields. We throw away 900 tonnes of aluminium foil and about 35,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Yikes. I regularly preach and reflect on caring for God's good earth, yet I know that too often I am part of the problem rather than the solution. Every day poses it choices and challenges, including our celebrations.

All cultures have their feast days and holy times, and we need to be joyful at the prospect of Christ's birth. But it was a simple, low-tech, and recyclable event, which we can honour by our own practices.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christ's Surprises

This year I have experienced several situations where Christ has managed to make what could be the overly familiar both fresh and meaningful. Last week I went to visit one of the dozen or so folk in our congregation over the age of ninety. She is terribly crippled by arthritis, twisted like an ancient tree. If that isn't enough, strokes have made communication difficult and she has reverted to her childhood Dutch rather than the English she learned after coming to this country following the war. I have visited before but I always feel helpless and awkward. I'm never sure what she is hearing. It must be so frustrating for her.

This time one of her three attentive daughters was present. She speaks Dutch, so "interpreted" some of my comments and questions to her mother. Then I suggested I read the Luke 2 Christmas story and she could translate. I worked my way through the passage, phrase by phrase, which the daughter patiently and creatively repeated in Dutch. It was tricky at points -- she was stumped by "while Quirinius was governor of Syria" -- but her mother nodded and helped out.

God has always reached over and around the barriers so that Good News can be shared.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holy Infant so Tender and Mild

Last evening was the first of three for the 2006 version of the Living Nativity at St. Paul's. A stable is erected every year on the front lawn, a star is placed on the side of the building, and a constellation of stars emerges from the congregation to take various roles.

A great deal of work goes into making this production a success. Through the years folk have braved fierce cold and pouring rain and just about every other form of weather you might imagine. This year we are putting global climate change out of our minds and giving thanks for balmy temperatures. The cast and audience numbered about 100, which wasn't too shabby for opening night.

The cast picture above (click on it for a larger image) does not include some important non-human actors. The extras includes sheep, goats and a donkey named Cricket who has taken part for more than twenty years.

Last night, at the meaningful moment of Jesus' birth, Cricket answered the call of nature. The torrent of pee was loud and long. Afterward the woman who played Mary shared that she almost said "Joseph, my water broke!"

Hey, two thousand years ago God was born in a stable and laid in a manger. If there were animals present, they would have been real animals. The baby Jesus was a real baby. Thanks for the reminder Cricket.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christ's Orchard

I went out to the country to visit a parishioner this week and on the way I passed an apple orchard. This is apple country, and the orchards are everywhere north of town. I slowed down on my way by because a backhoe and driver were methodically plucking the apple trees from the ground and laying them in rows. Why would the owners destroy an orchard? I asked one of our folk who is in the business and he told me that the trees probably weren't producing adequately. There is no room for sentiment in apple growing.

Not all that long ago apple trees were "traditional," growing to ten metres or so. Nearly all those are gone now, replaced by dwarf trees which give a much greater yield per hectare. That must have been a tough decision for the growers. It is a risk to take down trees that guarantee a crop in the present, with the hope that some new-fangled method will produce more in the future.

During Advent we hear about John the Baptist, Jesus' wild and crazy cousin, who says in this week's reading from Luke: "even now the axe is lying at the roots of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire." Then John points to Jesus as the Promised One, the Messiah who bring about God's new way.

I'm not the biggest fan of John the Baptist because he seems so harsh and "out there," but at times we need to hear the voices that can seem strident. They are really just getting our attention. A lot of congregations seem to be orchards that no longer bear much fruit even though they blossom from time to time. At the very least we need to be challenged beyond our places of comfort. John wasn't the first prophet to do this.

Are we willing to take risks so that Jesus can be seen and heard?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hanukkah Baptism

We are focussed on the lights of Advent and Christmas in the Christian church but tomorrow evening begins another festival of lights, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Hannukkah celebrates the miracle of light in the re-dedication of the temple many centuries ago.

I will put a Hanukkah menorah, or candelabra, on our communion table this Sunday because we will be celebrating the adult baptism of a relative newcomer to our congregation. He came to see me a few months ago, explaining that while he was raised in a Jewish family he had undergone a profound experience of Christ which led him, with some trepidation to our church. Coming to a Christian worship service was an entirely new experience.

I have to admit that in the beginning I was nervous, only because I am earnestly United Church and felt that I shouldn't be messing around in someone else's religion. In my mind this would be sheep-stealing of the worst kind. Mainline Christian clergy worry alot about "theological correctness."

Fortunately he persevered through membership classes and "learning the ropes" of worship and eventually he requested baptism. It finally occurred to me that I would be fine baptizing a converted atheist, but somehow leery about baptizing someone from the same faith in which Jesus was nourished, so I should lighten up. I can be a slow learner at times.

This Sunday I will experience a first -- the baptism of someone who has had a bar mitzvah. It will be one of the great privileges of my ministry.

I'm sure the Messiah will be pleased by this little but important miracle of re-dedication.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Silent Night, Holy Night

Yesterday I drove to another community with the daughter of an elderly woman who fell in her own home and is now hospitalized. The mother doesn't have a faith community so I offered to go and visit and pray. In the 45 minutes I was there it was apparent that while she had her times of clarity she was also slipping into confusion in other moments. It happens regularly with the "old old" and of course it is disconcerting for family

Everything came back into focus when I read a passage of scripture. I chose the Christmas story in Luke 2, with the angels and shepherds and the baby in the manger. She followed every word with a smile on her face and stopped me at one point to tell me how well she knew the story. It was one of those moments which make ministry very worthwhile. Here we were, not really knowing one another but the birth of a baby two thousand years ago gave us an intimate moment.

One year I visited a nursing home and went to the rooms of my various parishioners reading the same passage repeatedly. One of the last was an ancient soul who sat in the quiet when we were done and then said "we never get tired of this story, do we?" I was tempted to answer, "as a matter of fact I do" because I have gone through the words countless times. Ho hum. She was right though. The story of Christ's birth is so extra-ordinary we should never develop tired ears or hearts that are unable to be moved.

God can always be born for us again. Christ is coming.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Emily Carr

Last night I saw a CBC piece on an exhibit of the work of painter Emily Carr which is currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have been an admirer of Carr's work for years. She was a contemporary of the Group of Seven painters but she had her own unique style. She had an unconventional spiritual perspective, at least for the time, and to my mind she was a nature mystic, experiencing and expressing her spirituality through paintings filled with motion and energy.

This painting called Indian Church speaks to me because the church with its cross is in the midst of a cathedral of trees. The community of faith and the communion of living things are shown together. My constant hope is that Christians will see how interrelated they are.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Women of Faith

I am reading a book written by journalist Rena Pederson about the passing mention of a woman in the last chapter of the apostle Paul's letter to the church in Rome. Her name is Junia, although for centuries this person was called Junius in many translations. It is clearly a woman's name but it was changed to the masculine form because she is described in verse seven as "prominent among the apostles." The reasoning was that a woman couldn't have been identified and honoured by Paul as an apostle, so the name was altered. The book is not scholarly in style but it is very readable and intriguing.

For so long the church has either marginalized women or treated them as though they are "armed and dangerous." Actually, a number of religions have relegated women to second-class status, arguing both that this is God's will that and that they are really held in higher regard than it appears. These arguments are far from convincing, at least for me.

How do we honour women in our midst as the people of faith? How do we say that their roles are important? Perhaps we begin, as Paul the supposed misogynist did, with the names of those we cherish. While it was not my intent, I'm writing this on the anniversary of the dark day when a group of fourteen women were murdered in Montreal. In many of the memorial services the women are named rather than the perpetrator of the crime. The names of the Montreal fourteen are listed below.

Geneviève Bergeron, 21, was a 2nd year scholarship student in civil engineering.
Hélène Colgan, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and planned to take her master’s degree.
Nathalie Croteau, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering.
Barbara Daigneault, 22, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and held a teaching assistantship.
Anne-Marie Edward, 21, was a first year student in chemical engineering.
Maud Haviernick, 29, was a 2nd year student in engineering materials, a branch of metallurgy, and a graduate in environmental design.
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31, was a 2nd year engineering student specializing in engineering materials.
Maryse Laganière, 25, worked in the budget department of the Polytechnique.
Maryse Leclair, 23, was a 4th year student in engineering materials.
Anne-Marie Lemay, 27, was a 4th year student in mechanical engineering.
Sonia Pelletier, 28, was to graduate the next day in mechanical engineering. She was awarded a degree posthumously.
Michèle Richard, 21, was a 2nd year student in engineering materials.
Annie St-Arneault, 23, was a mechanical engineering student.
Annie Turcotte, 21, was a first year student in engineering materials.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Peace

I have always found it a challenge to stay in the season of Advent with all the Christmas pressure of the world around us. The themes of hope, peace, joy and love are too important to be glossed over.

This coming Sunday we will acknowledge peace which is God's "shalom" or wholeness, for all of creation. Last week I received the latest reflection from Peter Sawtell of Eco-Justice ministries and it bears repeating.

In it he mentions a couple in the United States, where he lives and works, who put up an outdoor wreath in which they formed a peace symbol. A neighbour complained to the homeowner's association that this was an inappropriate political statement that should be removed. The couple insisted that it wasn't a protest against the war in Iraq. It was just a peace symbol. They were still fined -- $25 a day -- until they took it down. The story made the national media across the border and finally the "powers that be" relented.

There are always principalities and powers which are suspicious of the motives of the way of peace. In another time they were unable to comprehend the message of the Prince of Peace and the brutal force of the Roman empire was brought to bear against him. Yet that empire is gone and we still celebrate the birth of Christ as the one who fulfills the promises of God.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. When we lived in Northern Ontario I was asked to serve on the AIDS committee of Sudbury. It was 1989 and while the scientific community was starting to understand HIV and AIDS, I didn't. I was nervous about how this involvement would be perceived by my congregation. I wasn't convinced that this disease was not communicable. When I began visiting AIDS patients in hospital I would wash my hands repeatedly afterward, knowing that I was going home to my wife and three young children.

I learned. My heart changed. This came about mostly because of my contact with those living with HIV/AIDS, both those who had contracted it and those who provided care. I came to appreciate that God was present in the living and the dying of this group of people. There were many sad moments and holy moments. These too were God's children. How could I have ever thought otherwise?

While HIV/AIDS has become manageable for most in North America, it is a devastating scourge in Africa. I just heard that former US president Bill Clinton has negotiated with the drug companies that produce anti-viral medication to provide low-cost drugs for children in African nations. It's about time.

This first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope. We can pray for a more hopeful future for those who live with AIDS.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Imagine a church...

From time to time I come across a succinct, meaningful portrait of Christ's church as it might be and can be. Here is one I found recently.

Imagine a church...

That couldn't sing without feeding the poor,

Nor feed the poor without nourishment from the eucharist,

Nor pass the peace without living peaceably in the world,

Nor be peacemakers without depending on prayer,

Nor pray without joining in robust song.

Gerald Schlabach

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creator and Creation

I'm back after a few days of retreat, a couple more days at a national church meeting, and a weekend with friends. With one of the best weeks of the fall in terms of weather I was able to walk and pray out-of-doors while on retreat, and the time with friends was at their riverside farm. The church meeting was excellent --all about faith and the natural world -- but it was inside the Church House tower in Toronto.

I left busy and noisy Toronto with my wife Ruth and travelled several hours to a rugged area of Ontario where there is blessed and almost palpable silence. The next morning I walked to the river where I saw otters moving sinuously through the water. They came so close to shore that I could see the fish they were diving for in their mouths. They were in such constant motion that it took ten minutes to establish there were five of them in total. Their disappearance and reappearance was like a delightful magic trick.

Seeing these otters reminded me of the Celtic mystics of ancient times. These saints often lived as hermits near a stream or pond. In one of the legends St. Kevin was able to live alone and praise God because a sympathetic otter came by regularly with a salmon for him to eat. It is a lovely tale of co-existence, although the salmon might not agree.

In our earnestness as Christians to respond to environmental crises it is important to pay attention to the creatures God the Creator has brought into being and simply delight in them. After a couple of days of strategizing and discussing direction for the United Church on creation I had a blessed opportunity to enjoy God's complex and eye-opening world.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Quiet Centre

Come and find the quiet centre,
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Shirley Murray

I will be away a good part of next week finding the "quiet centre." For years I have been heading off on silent retreat for a few days or a week at a time, whenever its possible. The Anishnabe Jesuit centre in Northern Ontario, Taize in France, Walburga Abbey in Colorado, the Cistercian Monastery in New Brunswick.

It's good to clear the clutter in the midst of men and women dedicated to prayer.

This time it's closer to home -- Manresa in Pickering. Check out the website.

Hand Up rather than Hand Out

I enjoy exchanging gifts with my wife Ruth at Christmas but every once in a while we decide to unplug the Holiday Machine and count our blessings. Last year we chose to contribute some money to an organization called Oikocredit instead. Oikocredit is a micro-credit bank run by the World Council of Churches. This bank makes loans to those who can't get money from "real" banks in developing countries, so they can start businesses.

Micro-credit has been in the news a lot this year. The Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2006 is Muhammad Yunus (above). He helped start the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has lifted millions of people out of poverty. Yunus was just in Halifax as the theme speaker at an international conference on micro-credit. I heard him on CBC radio's The Current, where he explained how he started out by loaning a few dollars to individuals who wanted to begin modest enterprises. Now millions have been helped to help themselves.

It's a great story and it has a happy ending. The repayment rate is almost a hundred percent. The vast majority of loans are made to women, who otherwise can't get credit. The next generation of loans are helping to pay for the university educations of children of those initial recipients. Philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Dells are supporting micro-credit because they see it works.

A Christian micro-credit ministry called Opportunity International actually started making loans five years before Grameen Bank. Oikocredit has made 100 million euros (roughly 150 million dollars Cdn) worth of credits in the first ten months of this year. Both organizations have congratulated Yunus and Grameen. They aren't in competition -- they just want to live a gospel of justice.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Blowin' in the Wind

An Irishman with a lovely voice told the story of plastic bags in his homeland this morning on CBC radio. It seems that until recently more than a billion bags a year were used in Ireland, resulting in a nasty blight on the landscape of the Emerald Isle. Now their use has been restricted by law and grocery stores sell cheap reusable bags. There has been a dramatic reduction in the litter strewn through the countryside.

We like to walk the beaches along Lake Ontario and there is so much plastic flotsam washed ashore. It's hard to imagine that it has only been in the past sixty years or so that plastic has been used widely. Now it is everywhere. When Thor Heyerdahl of Kontiki Expedition fame went to sea decades after his first raft adventure in the Pacific he observed that there is now a great deal of garbage in the form of plastic bobbing far from land. Biologists tell us that plastic objects kill thousands of birds and and seals and whales.

Ireland has a population of 4 million. There are now nearly 33 million Canadians using how many billions of plastic bags. For a while in the eighties many of us used alternatives. It could be a Christian choice to say "no thank you" to plastic when we are at the check-out.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Song of Faith

So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.

Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.

I'm just back from visiting one of our elderly members in hospital. She is a wonderful soul, 92 years old and still attending church until a week ago. She suffered what appears to be a stroke, and ended up in hospital, confused and incoherent. We have been trying to figure out whether she knows us. Today I spoke to her and she responded with a song. The word is that she has been singing lustily, waking up the neighbours, but with me it was a quiet tune I couldn't make out.

It makes sense that when she can't speak she sings. She was a choir member forever at St. Paul's and her former congregation. It's just part of who she is, and so I listened and prayed.

The United Church has a new faith statement, approved at the General Council meeting of 2006. It is called a Song of Faith, which I think is a wonderful title. Above is a portion of the opening stanzas.

When we are joyful as God's people we sing.
When we are sad and overwhelmed we can still sing.
Sometimes singing our faith is the only response that makes sense.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wondercafe Part Deux

An update on the kerfuffle. A few people have asked where the money is coming from for this initiative. Is it being commandeered from Mission and Service funds? Isn't it a lot of money for advertising? Take a look at the latest explanation from General Council. It satisfies me.


This week's launch of the Emerging Spirit advertising campaign has attracted considerable media attention and public discussion about the first series of ads produced for this three-year campaign.

a) No money from the Mission and Service Fund or money specificallyearmarked for outreach and traditional mission work is being used forthe Emerging Spirit campaign.The advertised $10.5 million cost comes from money held in reserves that originated with a number of designated bequests, the largest of which was the Morrison bequest.The Morrison bequest was a specific bequest that was to be used for innovative mission programs in Canada. We think Emerging Spirit fits well with this criterion.

b) Almost half of the total cost of Emerging Spirit is being used for support of local congregations and training of volunteer committees to help the church be a more open, welcoming place for all who visit or seek to join the church. We see this as a positive initiative no matter how many new members are attracted by the Emerging Spirit program.To date, there has been an enthusiastic response by congregations who will be a part of the very popular training events for those seeking tobe Welcoming Congregations.

c) The Emerging Spirit initiative received approval from the GeneralCouncil at its meeting in August in Thunder Bay. The resounding support at that event came from the elected delegates (commissioners) representing all parts of the country. That decision at General Councilfollowed a very full discussion of the campaign and its financial implications.

d) The Emerging Spirit ads are designed to attract attention, elicitconversation, and point people toward the WonderCafe website. Theirintent is not to make fun of personal religious belief or diminish basic religious understanding. Jesus probably looked for a similar reaction when he declared: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of aneedle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

e) The Emerging Spirit ad campaign is designed to communicate to ageneration of primarily 30- to 45-year-olds who have very little or noknowledge of organized religion and the contemporary church. The ads arenot intended to reach out to people who are already members and adherents of The United Church of Canada. These ads have been thoroughly tested with people in the age group they are intended for. We are confident the ads will attract the attention of 30- to 45-year-olds who don't go to church, and provoke discussion among them about faith andreligion issues.

f) The Emerging Spirit ad campaign is not attempting to define what theUnited Church is all about. Rather, it is meant to raise questions aboutfaith, religion, and other important questions of life, and invite discussion. It hopes to reach out to the millions of Canadians who feelthat organized religion isn't relevant to their lifestyle and theirlives. As a result, the ads must not feel "churchy" or be what many people would expect from The United Church of Canada. We are trying to get people to consider church in a different way. We believe these adswill do that.There are six print ads and a Web-based video. Not every ad will appealto every person; we expect that. That's why there are several, so we can be sure to appeal to the maximum number of people possible.

g) We recognize that the ads, and the boldness with which we have unveiled the campaign publicly, generated both praise and ridicule of The United Church of Canada. The latter response is particularly painful for long-standing faithful members of the United Church. Despite this,however, our confident hope is that as the Emerging Spirit campaign unfolds, these feelings of embarrassment will soon be replaced by a sense of renewed energy and commitment to the mission and ministry of The United Church of Canada.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Sinclair General Secretary, General Council
The United Church of Canada

Wonderfully Made

There is a first for everything! I just received an email from a young couple with the heading "My Baby." I was puzzled, knowing that they were expecting in April. They were excited because they just had an ultrasound done and could see the future, so they sent it to everyone on their email list. I haven't included their "baby picture" for reasons of privacy but it is remarkable to see photos of infants in the womb.

This immediately made me think of the verses from Psalm 139 which say to God "for it was you who formed my inward parts you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made..."

Sadly, I read these verses at the funeral for premature twins not long ago. It was a small service with only a few family members in attendance. They all shed tears of loss for the children they had never known. But the psalmist assures us that we are created and known by God from the beginning. This is of great comfort to me, and while we don't have guarantees at any stage of life I look forward to celebrating with the couple who sent me the email in a few months.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lest We Forget

I ran to the Bowmanville Cenotaph this morning to make the Remembrance service. I was delayed in getting there but I didn't want to miss this important annual memorial. The rain held off for most of the ceremonies and there was a big crowd. It probably helped that it was Saturday rather than a work and school day. And of course our troops are in the midst of an intense conflict in Afghanistan. Thousands of them are there, doing their best to move toward peace, even if they are not peacekeepers in this situation.

Today isn't a day to question why they are there. This is a day to say "thank you."

God keep our military personnel and support staff wherever they are serving.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The United Church managed to get into the news everywhere yesterday by opening a cafe. There is a new website called which is designed to reach a more youthful "unchurched" audience. There will be discussions of topical issues and a slightly irreverent approach to some subject matter. There is a bobblehead Jesus figure which ended up on the front page of one of our national newspapers, the Globe and Mail. Do we need to be concerned by this approach? I don't think so. Will it help reach the young and the spiritually restless? Maybe. So far the website has been flooded with "hits" and individuals posting comments. The lay-out is fun and thought-provoking.

It certainly won't address one of the pressing issues of our denomination, a largely rural church where hundreds of congregations are struggling for survival. We are one of a few denominations which attempts to have a presence in communities where the majority of young people head away for university and college and never return. We shouldn't beat up on ourselves for this reality, but we may not be able to sustain this presence for much longer either. And an E-Z Answer Squirrel might not have a quick solution for this one.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Church of General Motors

I went to the church of General Motors recently. It was a fascinating experience. I wheedled my way into a tour thanks to an accommodating member of my congregation who is in a management position with the vehicle maker. I let him know that I would like to see how an assembly plant works and he squeezed me into a tour with 250 representatives from dealerships who gathered to pick up pick-ups. Before the tour we had an hour of "church."

I figure churches have a lot to learn from the way they did things that morning. First off, they served coffee and doughnuts, which can't be bad. The visual presentation was expertly done and supported the speakers. The presenters themselves were enthusiastic, articulate and hopeful. Although GM has been struggling lately along with other North American automakers the tone was upbeat and future oriented. The reps were told to share the good news of these retooled vehicles -- if I recall correctly they were exhorted to be evangelical.

It seemed to me that the United Church could borrow a page from GM. We have become really mopey about aging and declining congregations and there isn't much that is hopeful in our corporate message. We can't deny that the lot is empty in some churches, but don't we have the best product possible? I won't belabour the analogy, but I came away encouraged to do the best I can to share the message of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Religion and Politics

When I think of religion and politics it is the stuff of American politics that comes to mind. Atheism is political suicide across the border and it seems that everyone "finds Jesus" when an election looms. Here in Canada we are a rather godless lot, but conservative Christianity seems to be okay in the Conservative party.

I have enjoyed listening to Elizabeth May, the new leader of the Green Party in Canada, as she talks about her faith. Recently she told an interviewer that she is considering becoming an Anglican priest after a few years as Prime Minister! I chatted with Elizabeth a few years ago after she had given a dynamite speech to a group of "tree-huggers" in Northern Ontario. At that time she was the head of the Sierra Club in Canada and she did an extraordinary job of encouraging some dispirited environmentalists. Tree-hugging in the north can result in a nasty encounter with a chainsaw. Afterward I asked her what kept her going with such verve, and she told me that her Christian faith is a key element to her hopeful outlook. I think Elizabeth's foray into Canadian politics is a breath of fresh air, although I may suggest to her that she not hold her breath on the Prime Minister thing. Below is the link to her take on balancing being a political party leader with involvement in her faith community.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Taste and See

I purchased a new book called The Spirituality of Art on Monday. It's a theme near and dear to my heart because my undergraduate degree was in Art History. A member of my student advisory committee sniffed that this was a waste of time when I knew I was going into the ministry. Why didn't I take useful stuff such as psychology? Another member pointed out that visual art and music had always been an important part of worship and spiritual expression.

The book speaks of how art in various forms connects us to the "thin places" where matter and spirit meet. It seemed to be an appropriate image as I read about it on Hallowe'en, a day the ancient Celts believed was the thinnest of places during the year. Jack O'Lanterns were originally intended to ward off the unwanted spirits of All Hallows Eve. We need art to draw us closer to God and invite us into the mystical experiences of our extremely material world.

A couple of years ago I entered the Musee D'Orsay in Paris about an hour before closing. On a cold February day I had stood in a long line, fretting that I wouldn't have enough time to savour the art work inside. I did have to hurry from room to room in this museum of Expressionist painting but it was anything but a waste of time. I could feel my spirit soaring as I drank in the works of Monet and Van Gogh and Degas and others. It was the equivalent of the best of worship I had experienced during the two previous weeks in the Taize Christian community.

The psalmist says "taste and see that the Lord is Good! (Psalm 34:8a)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Profits and Prophets

Exxon Reports $10.49 Billion Profit in Quarter

Published: October 26, 2006
The ExxonMobil Corporation reported today that it earned $10.49 billion in the third quarter, the second largest quarterly profit ever posted by a publicly traded American company. The largest on record was also reported by ExxonMobil — $10.71 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005...

Remember the Exxon Valdez? It was the oil tanker that ran aground near the Alaska shore in 1989, spilling up to 30 million gallons of crude oil over one of the most pristine wildlife areas of North America. An estimated 250,000 seabirds died, along with billions of salmon and herring eggs, bald eagles, sea otters and many other marine creatures. Eventually ExxonMobil came to a 1.1 billion dollar settlement to clean up the mess, but the Exxon Valdez still travels the seas under a different name and EM still makes more money than any other company on the planet.

Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah wanted to know "Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?" 12:1 NRSV Good questions. While we haven't been jolted by such a graphic disaster in recent years there are examples from Nigeria and Russia and other places where the welfare of creatures, including humans, are secondary to profits. The film Syriana gives us an ominous portrait of a planet where the goals of the companies which extract fossil fuels overrule governments and international law.

As with most of the prophets, Jeremiah wrestled with trusting in God and acting as God's agent with people who didn't want to listen. We can pay attention and care enough to get angry about the ways we are betraying ourselves and the planet. We can ask for the strength to act passionately in Christ's name.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

God the Creator

This Sunday, one of the scripture readings is from Job 38, one of the most poetic passages in the Old Testament. Here is a selection of verses and the website to read the entire chapter.

22‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
24 What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
25 Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,

and a way for the thunderbolt,
26 to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
28 ‘Has the rain a father,

or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoar-frost of heaven?
30 The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 ‘Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,

or loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stand Up!

On Saturday afternoon my wife, Ruth, noticed that the following day, October 15th, people around the world were going to stand up against poverty. While it was a symbolic event, it was also a simple gesture, so in worship the next day we asked the children to stand first, then the roughly 200 adults in the pews joined them in forming a circle around the sanctuary.

Why bother? One of the older children asked essentially that question. What difference does it make? In some respects, none. It doesn't feed anyone or give them medication, or bring back a loved one who has died of malnutrition or AIDS. It is a way of saying together that poverty is wrong and we know it. The bible says it is a sin and just maybe the jolt to our conscience will lead us to practical, compassionate action.

By Tuesday afternoon 23.5 million people had stood up in various ways in a total of nearly 12,000 events around the world. This is a Guinness record I'm pleased to be part of and as one follower of Christ I will do my best to make a difference in addressing poverty.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dying and Living

I have been frantically busy this week but yesterday helped me get in touch with reality.

I attended the funeral for a woman who was almost eighty and did nothing her entire life. Peggy was born with mental and physical limitations so she never married or raised a family or discovered meaningful employment or contributed to any organization.

She was something, someone, nonetheless. She was a child of God, as the minister who conducted the service pointed out with compassion. Her smile, her love of music and simple pleasures touched those around her.

I was there because Peggy was the sister of family friends. I met her years ago but I can't say I knew her. Still, I was touched by what was said at the funeral and reminded that we are loved in Christ as a gift of grace, not as something we earn by virtue of a list of accomplishments.

I went immediately after the service to a hospital where I visited a mother with her newborn baby. This sweet little guy is entirely dependent on his parents and others for every need, but he is already loved and cherished.

Both of these "holy moments" reminded me that I need to keep my priorities straight. A United Church statement of faith says "in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone."

Monday, October 02, 2006

My Junk

On Saturday I went to a matinee with my wife Ruth for the newly released documentary, Manufactured Landscapes. We have been fascinated by the photographs of Edward Burtynsky which focus on the terrible and strangely beautiful re-working of the natural world by human beings. The film documents a trip to industrial China. One segment focuses on the communities where our old North American computer junk is dismantled by hand so that the small component parts can be melted down for their valuable metals. The result is the degradation of the soil and water in these towns and cities as toxins are released. It also directly affects the health of the workers who use stone-age methods to take apart these high-tech components.

It struck me that the dark side of globalization is my usually unwitting complicity in shipping environmental problems to the other side of the planet. The economic "miracles" of China and India are coming at a great price. As a Christian this is not loving my neighbour, however distant he or she may be.

Is there a solution? Jesus also encouraged us to live simply and to be content with what we have.
My choices may not be the solution, but they can be a beginning.

Friday, September 29, 2006


In this way we differ from all the animals. It is not our capacity to think that makes us different, but our capacity to repent, and to forgive. Only humans can perform that most unnatural act, and by doing so only they can develop relationships that transcend the relentless law of nature.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

On October 10th I am beginning a study group on the subject of forgiveness. It's probably because of my preparation that I'm noticing that anger, apologies, hatred, forgiveness, alienation, retaliation, reconciliation, are all themes that show up on almost a daily basis in the news. Yesterday the head of the RCM Police in Canada apologized to Maher Arar for their part in his nightmarish suffering at the hands of the Syrians. Will Arar forgive them? Should he?

One of my favourite books on the subject of forgiveness is Helping People Forgive by David Augsburger. Augsburger says that forgiveness is a bridge which must bear weight under the coming and going of life. It's a helpful metaphor for me. All religions speak of forgiveness and Christianity focusses on the forgiving love of Jesus. But that forgiveness can't be flimsily constructed or it will fall to the ground.