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)