Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Grim Reaper

One of the great film-makers, Ingmar Bergman, died over the weekend at the age of 89. He won three Academy Awards but none for what is considered his greatest picture, The Seventh Seal. The title is a reference from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. Bergman was fascinated with the brevity of life and almost cheerfully made movies which dealt with the darkness of death. While he professed no religious belief he grew up with a stern father who was a Lutheran pastor. In interviews he would recall as a boy slipping in to funeral services with all their solemnity.

The movie "still" above is from a scene in the Seventh Seal where the main character plays chess with the Grim Reaper. I suppose we are all engaged in that chess game whether we want to acknowledge it or not. We tend not to dwell on the fleeting nature of life -- how could we function otherwise? -- but from time to time we are aware that our days should not be taken for granted.

I arrived at the hospital this morning to discover that the elderly man I had been visiting during the past two months had died in the early hours of the morning. His family was wonderfully supportive and he knew it. Wife, children, grandchildren friends all sat by his side during the past few weeks. He died peacefully, which was a blessing.

Still, the diagnosis of terminal cancer a few weeks ago caught all of them off guard. While the spectre of death was at hand it didn't conquer them.

Christ showed us by encouragement and example how to play that chess game and we can be grateful.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Homering In On Faith

I don't know whether I will go to see the new Simpsons movie but millions will. What began as a brief animated sketch on the Tracey Ullman show became the longest running sitcom (18 years) in television history.
When our kids were young we weren't sure that we wanted them watching the bratty Bart. What sort of role model would he be? They countered by saying that there were lots of religious references on the show. I reluctantly watched with them and had to admit that while it was irreverent at times it was there. And the Simpson family went to church, prayed at meal time and on other occcasions, and endured Ned Flanders, the overly earnest evangelical neighbour. I got the impression that some of the writers must have grown up in the church to understand its foibles so well.
There is a best-selling book called The Gospel According to the Simpsons which looks at the religious imagery of the show. Is this the best way to get people thinking about faith? Maybe not, but there is precious little "God talk" on TV, so we may have to take what we can get.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Have you been praying for the group of humanitarian workers being held hostage by the Taliban
in Afghanistan? They are in grave peril and one of the group was brutally murdered two days ago.
These young South Koreans have been described in the Canadian media as missionaries and evangelicals, which might give the impression that they are in Afghanistan to proselytize. That is not the case. They are there to provide medical support and other forms of aid. Their capture is one more example of the despicable and cowardly actions of the Taliban.
They are Christians and are motivated by Christ's call to compassion and justice. It sounds as though the next day or so of negotiations will be absolutely crucial for their release.
Please pray for them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Divine Bruce Cockburn

Thursday. I'm away today but my blog is home.

I was interested to see that Canadian music icon, Bruce Cockburn, received an honorary doctor of divinity at a convocation this year at Queen's University in Kingston. Bruce must be getting long-in-the-tooth because he is now a member of the Order of Canada and has been granted no less than five honorary doctorates.

We have seen Cockburn in concert a number of times over the years, beginning in our university days. We have always appreciated his intelligent lyrics and his impressive guitar work.

In the 1970's he made very open statements about his new-found Christian faith. On the liner notes of one album he offers his thanks for the biblical book of psalms. While his spirituality has seemed more general in recent years he has continued to care about the state of the planet and of those human beings who live each day in poverty and fear. Remember the controversy over his song If I Had a Rocket Launcher back in the eighties? It was an expression of his outrage at the death and destruction he saw firsthand in Central America.

Do I have a favourite Cockburn song? It might be All the Diamonds.

All the diamonds in this world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight
Sparkling on the sea

I ran aground in a harbour town
Lost the taste for being free
Thank God He sent some gull-chased ship
To carry me to sea

Two thousand years and half a world away
Dying trees still grow greener when you pray
Silver scales flash bright and fade
In reeds along the shore

Like a pearl in sea of liquid jade
His ship comes shining
Like a crystal swan in a sky of suns
His ship comes shining.

All Creatures Great and Small -- continued

Allan Dwyer
Wednesday. I wrote this yesterday to be posted today. It still shows up as a Tuesday blog.

On Monday I was in the backyard by 8:30 to do my duty with the lawnmower. As I passed under one of the cedar trees I ran full-on into a spider web and ended up eyeball to eyeball with one of the creative critters who landed on a lens of my glasses. There are mornings when dozens of webs stretch from branches to lawn furniture and everything else. I must admit that I generally regard it as an annoyance but it is a reminder of the variety of creation. While puttering in the yard I also saw butterflies, including monarchs. The bumble bees and their various cousins were hard at work in the blossoms of the flowers. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something flying and spotted a hummingbird which landed briefly on the clothesline.

Come to think of it, we get lots of creatures. In our two bird baths we see cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches, robins. Their energy when bathing delights me.The feeder attracts chickadees and house finches, mourning doves, grackles. Woodpeckers work on the dead branches of the catalpa tree. We planted a serviceberry tree out front three years ago and this season the cedar waxwings came and stripped the berries in a day. I have looked to the sky while working around the house to see geese and herons flying above.

Mammals? Bats, squirrels, mice, chipmunks and rabbits. One morning while I was ironing a shirt I peered out the window and realized that the cat with the funny gait was actually a raccoon who had just dined in our compost. For a few days last year an injured skunk took up residence at the end of our yard, which made us rather nervous.

The Lord God made them all, even the mosquitoes.

Each Child Unique

We light our Christ candle on Sunday mornings and use it as an occasion to ask for Christ's presence in the personal events of the lives of our members, both celebrative and sad.

This past Sunday I was faced with an interesting challenge. Two children had birthdays on the same day. The boy wanted his birthday acknowledged while the girl didn't. The difficulty was that they are twins. How could I mention the brother's birthday and not the sister's? At the last moment she changed her mind, much to my relief.

It was a strong reminder that each child is an individual and unique. They have very personal tastes and traits, the way adults do. Those of us who are parents of several children certainly learn this and we wonder how our kids can be so different when they are raised in the same household.

We tend toward a "pack mentality" when we address children in the church and assume they are all the same. We speak of them as our future when what they need is to recognized for who they are in the present. They are important in Christ's family, one person at a time.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

To the Glory of the Gods

Today a $40 million place of worship opens in Toronto. It is not a church, rather a Hindu temple. I find it fascinating that some of the most impressive worship spaces built in recent years have been mosques and temples. Most new churches look more like Walmarts and Cineplexes than places designed to give glory to God.

This temple is ornamented with carving reminiscent of the fine craftsmanship of European cathedrals. One hundred carvers were brought from India to work on this project and over 4000 workers were involved. Obviously the Hindu community is passionate about this project and wants the city to be aware of who they are.

The Prime Minister, the Premier, and the Mayor of Toronto will all be on hand. An interesting statement on the multiculturalism and religious pluralism of our time. As I lead worship with the faithful few this morning I hope that we will not just be about "business as usual" but give glory to the God revealed in Christ.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Planet Ark

Noah's Ark -- Edward Hicks

While I was washing the dishes at lunch I listened to the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks. I enjoy the program even though half the time the discussion amongst scientists sails over my head. I am comforted that these clever men and women seem to have a clue about their varying subjects.

On today's show (a repeat?) Bob MacDonald interviewed Dr. Robert Shapiro, from New York University. He and his colleagues have formed the Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC). They want to save samples of just about everything on Earth and store it on the moon in the event we mess up the planet to the point where it is unliveable. It's not a very pleasant prospect, but possible. The task of gathering all this material is daunting and far more challenging than gathering creatures two-by-two. It is essentially "down-loading" a planet's DNA and culture.

I find it interesting that the story of Noah and his ark, the wooden rescue boat for all creatures just won't go away. Most biblical scholars consider it to be myth rather than history, but the great myths of civilization tell us something that we need to know in story form. Some things are God's truth, even when they didn't happen in space and time.

In Genesis 9, after the flood subsided, God tells Noah that this sort of destruction will never occur again at God's instigation. The story doesn't say that we can't do this to ourselves. I hope we "have a prayer" and wisen up. I hope we experience a rainbow.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Goodness and Evil and Harry

I'm not going to say that we skulked into the movie theatre last evening, but there weren't many couples in their fifties, sans children, in line for the new Harry Potter film. For some reason I have never taken to this series of books and pictures the way the rest of the world has. Just the same, they are good and this latest, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is about as grown-up as they get.
I see why some reviewers suggest that it isn't suitable for younger children because of frightening scenes. Goodness and evil, light and darkness are strong themes here and evil threatens to prevail. J,K. Rowling reminds us as well that life is not always fair and we carry with us heartache that can be overwhelming without support from beyond ourselves.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? A recent Washington Post article tells us that conservative Christians in the U.S. are now taking a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach to Pottermania. After decrying the witchcraft of the stories, they are making the connection between the themes of the Potter stories and our Christian story of redemption and the defeat of darkness.
There are vacation bible schools this year with titles such as Wizards and Wonders.
Why not? There is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tortillas and the Gas Tank

Had a tortilla lately? Okay, Canada is not Tortilla Central, but Mexico is. They are a staple of the diet -- billions served -- and they are made of corn. So is ethanol, the highly-touted fuel which will supposedly free us of oil dependency. Of course if we make fuel out of what we eat, chances are that what we eat will end up costing more because there is a less plentiful supply. That's what has happened in Mexico. Corn is being diverted to ethanol production and the cost tripled in the past year.

There is an interesting article in the Globe and Mail this morning about the rising costs of food around the world because of this diversion to fuel production. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070719.RINFLATION19/TPStory/?query=ethanol Pasta cost more in Italy and meat in Canada because of rising wheat markets. Palm oil prices are soaring in Indonesia. All because food is becoming fuel. What seemed like a great idea may widen the gap between rich and poor.

What is the answer? Jesus usual response was "keep it simple." When I read the gospels he never says that we should all become more prosperous in the conventional sense. He regularly encourages simplicity as the way to be closer to God and more content in this life.

Does that simplicity include being less of a consumer society, including the amount of fuel we burn in our cars? Probably.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I am an adopted Presbyterian these days. The minister down the street is on vacation and I am covering for him during his absence.

Last week I had the memorial service for the former custodian at St. Andrew's and he must have been a popular guy because the church was almost full. His widow was helpful in painting a portrait of her late husband so I was able to speak of him in a personal way. The congregation was extremely appreciative of my presence and I was pleased to be of support in a difficult time.

The next day I was in the hospital visiting members of my flock and noticed that there was a Presbyhooligan (a colleague's tongue-in-cheek term) in as well. When I got to her room I saw that I would need to glove and gown, which I hate doing, so I decided to keep on going. Even the supposedly large gear doesn't fit --it must be for plus-sized trolls. But the woman saw me at the door and called out. I donned the ill-fitting kit and walked in. We had a good chat although I could tell she was confused and lonely.

When she said that she was always either hot or cold I teased her about being Goldilocks and she laughed. At the end of our visit I suggested we pray, an offer she quickly accepted. Here I was with a person I didn't know, yet we shared the intimacy of speaking to God. She expressed her hope that I return.

Why do we make such a fuss about our differences? Why in downtown Bowmanville do we maintain buildings for three congregations that are very similar in background? Why don't we take "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" more seriously?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beware of the Plunderers

There haven't been many tears shed over the conviction of wealthy entrepeneur and author, Conrad Black. Even though he is no longer a Canadian citizen the various media outlets in this country gave his trial and its outcome an extraordinary amount of coverage. Black doesn't seem to realize that he is likely to go to jail, certain that his conviction will be overturned on appeal.

Why is Lord Black of Crossharbour a man that people love to hate? He is a person of considerable intelligence, witty and personable among friends, a very good historian. The quick answer is that he is also greedy and arrogant. Of course these are not punishable offenses in a court of law, but we probably felt that he got what he deserved because of his air of superiority and entitlement.

When I pondered this I wondered if Jesus' comment that we better be careful not to fixate on the speck in someone else's eye when we are staggering around with a log in our own applies here. Those of us who live in the privileged global West have enjoyed opulent lifestyles in the past couple of generations, unparalleled in human history. In recent years it has been pointed out that this has been at the expense of those in other parts of our world and of the planet itself. Even though we have been warned by environmentalists and the broader scientific community that we will pay for our plunder we insist that it is our right to live this way.

There may not be a day of reckoning for any of us in a courtroom, but aren't we a little uncomfortable about our greed and arrogance? Jesus calls us to a life of simplicity and justice.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Meeting Jesus

Jean Vanier, the remarkable Canadian Christian who founded the L'Arche movement http://www.larche.ca/en/ for those who live with physical and mental challenges spoke in his home country recently. The Executive Secretary of the United Church, Nora Sanders, was there. She mentions that at the end of his talk he was asked what he would identify as three priorities for the church in the 21st century. His answer had nothing to do with denominational "turf-wars" or money:

1. Be community, a place of belonging where people really listen to each other.

2. Open up the heart to the different.

3. Really come in contact with Jesus.

As always Vanier's words are simple but profound. Churches can become "clubby" if community does not have Christ at the centre. And we can end up chasing the "flavour of the day" in social and religious trends if we don't come into contact with Jesus. When we seek out a living relationship with Jesus, the Christ, we will be prepared to be different people in the world. We will develop new hearts and minds that open us the possibilities of life together that are not always safe or tidy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

These Are the Good Old Days

We tend to get a bit nostalgic about the "good old days" when people were kinder and more generous in outlook. Three unrelated and yet strongly connected announcements two days ago reminded me that in some ways we have improved over time.

David Onley (above), a television journalist, was named as the next lieutenant governor of the province of Ontario. Because of childhood polio he became dependent on a cane, first of all, then his scooter. His brain works just fine, and he will be a positive example for those who live with disabilities.

The same day we were told that a new Olympic quarter will be minted in Canada featuring a paralympic athlete. Would that have been a possibility, even a decade ago? Then the announcement that the double-amputee athlete, Oscar Pistorius, who runs on carbon fibre lower legs will compete against "abled" sprinters.

In earlier generations there would have been neither the opportunity nor the encouragement for these individuals to excel. Often those living with disabilities were kept in the shadows, an embarassment to their families. Now they consistently prove the stereotypes to be wrong.

Scripture tells us that we are made in God's image and Jesus had a persistent habit of acknowledging those were otherwise invisible in his culture. That image and worthiness doesn't have much to do with outward appearances, and it seems we are slowly learning.

Carly Simon sang a song years ago with a line in the chorus "these are the good old days." Maybe so.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You're Not the Pope of Me

Pope Benedict has long been known for his scholarship and he's probably a nice guy over a game of cribbage but he has annoyed me -- again. For some reason he has felt compelled to claim once more that Protestants aren't really in line for salvation "as is" and that our churches really aren't churches. Doesn't he have anything better to do in the summer than diss other members of the body of Christ?

This latest statement is actually a reiteration of ideas expressed in a document called Dominus Iesus http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFUNICI.HTM. In his attempt to uphold the Christian faith the pontiff has once again alienated sisters and brothers in Christ. You might figure he learned from the debacle with the Muslim community last year and took some sensitivity training.

Our United Church moderator, David Guiliano, wisely declined to get worked up about this statement in his public response. He pointed out that we would continue to be the Christian community, thank you very much, whether the pope conferred that status or not.

I'm going to keep in mind the many years of good relationships with Roman Catholic priests in different communities. I'm going to be grateful for the hospitality extended by various convents and monasteries while I was on retreat. I will continue to benefit from the richness of RC theology which has always been part of my reading.

I might even say a prayer for Pope Benedict.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Seven Wonders, One Christ

A contest was just completed in which people were asked to vote on seven alternate wonders of the world to augment the ancient list. Probably the least deserving from an architectural standpoint is the one I'm pleased to see on the list. It is the 30-metre-tall figure of Christ which overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro in South America. While I'm sure it is spectacular, visible day and night, there were other candidates more "wonderful" from a design standpoint.

This sculpture is an important reminder of Christ's constant presence in any circumstance. Rio is a city with great wealth and abject poverty. There is both religious fervour and the hedonism of its beaches and Carnival. These contrasts are real life and Christ is there in them all, offering a new and different way.

We may not be at church as much during the summer but this is a good time to ask how Christ is part of our lives in every day. Sometimes I get the feeling that Jesus is pushed into the background of our faith. Even when he is present, looming large and hands outstretched, we fail to notice him in our busyness. There is a hymn with the words:

Come to my heart, Lord Jesus; teach me to walk in your way.
Come to my heart, Lord Jesus come to my heart today.

A pretty good prayer for summer reflection.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Live Earth?

I am underwhelmed by the Live Earth phenomenon which swept the planet over the weekend. A series of concerts were held in various global venues featuring some of the top names of contemporary music, near-past and present. Madonna was the closing act in Britain and apparently it was a rousing finale.

Will these concerts do much? Aren't we already there when it comes to awareness of the issues of climate change? Someone would have to be living as a hermit not to have heard that humans are messing up the earth and water and air. And the performers involved in these concerts tend toward conspicuous consumption and jet around the world for both work and play. Sorry if I sound cynical. My age is probably showing.

I do think that the Live Earth Pledge is worthwhile, if we are willing to live it out in practical, self-sacrificial ways in every day of our lives. Which is sort of like being a Christian. It isn't just an event, it's a way of life.

1. To demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth;

2. To take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution as much as I can and offsetting the rest to become “carbon neutral;”

3. To fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2;

4. To work for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of my home, workplace, school, place of worship, and means of transportation;

5. To fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal;

6. To plant new trees and to join with others in preserving and protecting forests; and,

7. To buy from businesses and support leaders who share my commitment to solving the climate crisis and building a sustainable, just, and prosperous world for the 21st century.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Summer Viewing

I'm not big on animated films. There seem to be too many wise-cracking critters and formulaic plot lines. Ratatouille, which we saw a few nights ago, was a delightful exception. It is the story of a rat named Remy who wends his way to Paris, the City of Lights, to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef. As bizarre as it may sound, it is an excellent story with clever animation. And any movie that can make rats into sympathetic characters must be good. This film-maker, Brad Bird, also did The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, both pictures which went beyond the usual expectations of animated features.

Ratatouille gently asks us to consider what it means to embrace creativity rather than settling for the mundane and encourages us to live beyond stereotypes. Not a bad message for the church. We can aspire to be gourmet restaurants for a Soul Feast rather than spiritual fast-food joints.

Last night we went to see Sicko, Michael Moore's latest rant. He tends to paint an idealistic picture of health care in countries such as Canada, and we know better. But he effectively points out that the United States is the only country in the Western world without socialized health care. And he asks why Americans don't expect adequate medical care for everyone when there is public education, postal service, and general protection by firefighters and police.

While Sicko is more of a polemic than a documentary, I came away grateful to be living in Canada.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Stages of Faith

Some of you will remember my blog entries which showed the ultrasounds for a child in the womb. The couple are part of this congregation and on Sunday I will baptize young Isabelle, now several months old.

In my four years here at St. Paul's I have experienced signficant milestones of faith with this family. I was the minister who led the couple through an exploration of Christian faith and presided as they were baptized as adults, then joined the church. Last summer they were married at St. Paul's and there is a photo of the three of us on their wedding day tacked on my bulletin board.

I trust that it will soon be joined by a picture of the four of us as their child is added to the portrait on baptism day.

As you can imagine, this is one of the most satisfying aspects of ministry, travelling with folk through the stages of faith and commitment.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Summer Reading

With fewer evening meetings and less work pressure in general I tend to read more fiction in the summer. I am almost finished the latest novel by Jim Crace called The Pesthouse. I was introduced to Crace's writing through his intriguing novel about Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, Quarantine.

The Pesthouse is set in an unspecified time in the future when North America has collapsed into a new Dark Ages, perhaps because of disease. This is gloomy world of marauding robber gangs and wary people forced into a perpetually nomadic life. The only safe place in the novel is a compound created by a strange religious group called the Finger Baptists. This sect believes that human hands are the Devil's playground, so the holiest members have atrophied arms and fingers, depending on others to meet their every need.

There are few utopian novels these days. Stories such as The Children of Men by P.D James and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood paint a bleak, dystopian picture of the future with religion as dark and controlling. Our growing concern for the health of the planet certainly feeds into that anxious perspective. Religious extremism is also troubling.

I would like to believe that faith in God can nurture hope, although not necessarily cheery optimism. As a Christian I want to be thoughtful and willing to do some of the hard work of searching for solutions. Rather than choosing mindless absolutism and escapism I can be part of a present and future which respects God's creative and redemptive action in the world.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Speaking of Work...

I know that many of you will be away during the summer and I wonder about continuing with my blog during July and August. I will be around all of this month and some of August and I will gladly muse away if there are readers. My blog entries take a matter of minutes and I don't put pressure on myself to come up with something each day.

If continuing is beneficial for you please use the comment feature or send me an email at lionlamb@stpaulsunited.com


Summer Work Ethic

In the gym change room this morning one fellow commented to another "well, back to the grind" as they prepared to head out the door after their work-out. The recipient of this observation replied that work wasn't a grind for him, he loved what he was doing. He looked to me and asked how many people I know who could say they enjoyed going to work each day.

Good question. We are in a time of the year when we try to "vacate" our workplaces for some rest time. The fortunate eight percent of Ontarians who have cottages use the weekends for some R & R amongst the loons and the Sea-doos --okay, forget the latter.

Still, it is usually our work that affords us the the opportunity for recreation. The Protestant work ethic maintains that we should do the best we can in our employment, regardless of the reward, as a gift to God. I wonder how often we consider the godliness of our work. Martin Luther maintained that "All men whatever their calling ought to seek perfection in their work." I'm assuming we can include women in this as well!

While I'm not sure I want to strive for perfection, I do care about excellence. I try to remind myself that I am doing my best because I serve God. While I am in a profession that includes a lot of "God talk," it applies to us all.