Sunday, September 30, 2007

Animals Are A Blessing

We were blessed today by a host of critters and their human companions. We have never included a Blessing of the Animals service in our liturgical schedule but we chose this Sunday, close to the Feast of St. Francis (October 4th,) the patron saint of animals.

It was a perfect day to be out on the lawn and a number of people scurried home after worship to retrieve their retrievers, as well as all the other members of their families with four legs.

The cats, dogs, and bunny --about 20 in all -- were well behaved as Rev. Cathy and I blessed each one. Our resident veterinarian, Rich, reflected on the way our pets make their way into our hearts. We included a memorial moment for those animals who went to their reward during the past year. There were 50 humans on hand and there were more adults than kids.

Once again this was a pleasant surprise at St. Paul's although I should know by now that this friendly and hospitable congregation would also respond to the blessing of pets.

God bless the animals.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Keeping Abreast of Worship

There was a report on television this evening on a continent-wide Breast feeding Awareness event. This morning at 11 am women across North America breast fed their little ones. Many gatherings were organized, some in public places, to remind passers-by that breastfeeding is natural -- some would say God-given.

It caught my attention because recently a young mom in the congregation asked me what is "kosher" when she comes to church with her newborn. Is it okay to breastfeed?

It was the first time I have been asked this practical question in 28 years of ministry. All three of our children were breastfed and we felt that this was the healthiest option, not to mention portable! My answer to the mom was, feed away.

We set up barriers to the presence of our young families and wonder why they don't come to worship. I admit that some Sundays I am doing all I can to hold my train of thought when babies cry and moms move around. I remind myself that I would rather experience this any day than the solemn silence of a sanctuary without children.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Imagine Peace

I almost share a birthday with the late, great John Lennon of Beatles fame. On October 9th this year, the 67th anniversary of his birth, a Peace Tower will be dedicated in his honour in his hometown of Liverpool. His wife, Yoko Ono will do the honours which is nice even though we still haven't got over our suspicion that she broke up the Beatles.
There is a Canadian connection for Lennon's passion for peace. John and Yoko staged a "bed in" in Montreal in 1968 -- hey, the sixties were a little different -- and while in bed they recorded the song Give Peace a Chance with a few dozen of their friends. Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers was one of them.
Lennon also wrote and recorded Imagine an ethereal tune that I was uncomfortable with as an earnest youth because of the line "imagine there's no religion." John was addressing all the powerful forces that contribute to violence and war in the world, but I didn't catch on to that until later.
We need to give peace a chance in Burma and the Sudan and Iraq and so many other places. Imagine a world where violence is eliminated. Isn't that an important part of Christ's message?
You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death in Myanmar

I had to add this photo of a street in Myanmar empty of protesters, except for the sandals left behind when soldiers dispersed them with tear gas and clubs and bullets. We now know that a number of protesters have died, including buddhist monks.
The international community, including the churches, need to increase the pressure on a government infamous for its brutality. Even though it may have little immediate impact, turning blind eye is not the answer.
Please continue to pray. This may be a turning point in the history of this country and the monks and nuns could lead the way.

Evil in God's Name

Warren Jeffs is a criminal. He was convicted two days ago of complicity in the rape of a fourteen year-old girl. Warren Jeffs is an evil man in my estimation, although he claims to be a deeply religious person. He is the leader of a breakaway Mormon sect in the United States that practices polygamy and arranges marriages for young women -- girls really -- with men who are often double, triple, quadruple their age. That is where the rape comes in. These girls have no choice about sexual activity or marriage. It is abhorent, but they support their convictions from the bible.

This is not just an American problem. There is an offshoot of this sect in the town of Bountiful, British Columbia. Unfortunately the bible can be tortured to say what the unscrupulous and the misguided want it to say. It can be used to subvert the message of love and replace it with prejudices and evil practices. It's strange, but many Christians fear that a secular, Godless society will soon condone polygamy. At this time the only practitioners in North America are religious.

I hope Jeffs and his cohorts go to prison for a long time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Never Strangers

This afternoon I spent time with folk I hadn't met before. Both situations were requests from caring friends whom I do know. I certainly don't see myself as chaplain to Clarington but I'm glad to respond to situations where those without a pastor need to talk.

The couple wanted to talk about relationship stuff. Eventually we got around to God and how religion might be part of their lives. The conversation was serious and yet flowed easily. And we did manage to laugh along the way.

The other visit happened in a hospital. Someone who has been dealt a tough hand with cancer. He was willing to talk about faith and wondered if St. Paul's has a prayer list to which he could be added. I assured him we did and would. Before he was taken away for x-rays we prayed together. Oh yes -- we laughed.

As a Myers Briggs introvert it isn't my natural inclination to meet people for the first time but I appreciated these encounters. While there is a degree of risk for me I'm always impressed by the courage of others to go beneath the surface and into the deeper things of faith.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monk Power

Yesterday I spoke on the passage from 1 Timothy that calls us to pray for those in positions of authority. I offered that prayer issues in action and that action is a form of prayer.
The same day thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns took to the streets of cities in Myanmar, formerly Burma. They were peacefully demonstrating against the oppressive military regime which has held sway for decades. So far the military has not responded even though they have quickly responded to protest in the past.
Wherever the monks and nuns have marched civilians have joined them, often joining hands to form protective cordons on either side. The poem below is by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become a symbol of determined protest in Myanmar and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The film Beyond Rangoon (1995) offers a portrait of the turmoil in the earlier years of the junta.
In The Quiet Land( Aung San Suu Kyi)
In the Quiet Land, no one can tell
if there's someone who's listening for secrets they can sell.
The informers are paid in the blood of the land
and no one dares speak what the tyrants won't stand.
In the quiet land of Burma,no one laughs and no one thinks out loud.
In the quiet land of Burma,you can hear it in the silence of the crowd
In the Quiet Land, no one can say
when the soldiers are comingto carry them away.
The Chinese want a road; the French want the oil;
the Thais take the timber; and SLORC takes the spoils...
In the Quiet Land....In the Quiet Land, no one can hear
what is silenced by murder and covered up with fear.
But, despite what is forced, freedom's a sound
that liars can't fake and no shouting can drown.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Life and Breath

Yesterday was No Car Day in 107 Chinese cities. A great idea except that it didn't work. As you can see, Beijing streets were clogged with vehicles. The encouragement to bring out the bicycles was largely ignored.

There is no point in being critical. We know that a similar declaration would have little impact here in Canada. It may be that the Chinese government will be more persistent.

A few days ago I suggested that we approach our driving habits and the alternatives as a spiritual matter. It is a matter of life and breath.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Aspiration and Perspiration

Comedian Rick Mercer is what Newfoundlanders term "saucy." He has a wonderful ability to skewer politicians in his rants and yet he doesn't come across as mean-spirited. I guess smart, perceptive and saucy are enough.

In the Globe and Mail today he takes aim at the "aspirational goals" established by Pacific Rim nations. During the summer Prime Minister Harper made his way to Australia to speak earnestly about addressing the challenge of responding to global warming. A short time ago he really couldn't have cared less, but since I'm in the transformation business I'll give Harper the benefit of the doubt. Then the leaders announced they would aspire to meeting certain goals.

Mercer maintains that when you aspire to something you may already know that you're not going to get there. He offers that it is like aspiring to get along with your annoying sister-in-law on the drive to Thanksgiving dinner. It's a nice idea, but it ain't going to happen. She will annoy you and its all down hill from there.

I don't mind that these leaders pledged to be aspirational. I hope they will also be perspirational.
The life of faith includes both lofty goals and a determination to reach them, by the grace of God. Politics should as well.

We need our nation and others to use all the ingenuity and political will to make immediate changes for both short and long term results. Enough with the scare tactics and vagaries.
PS. Most sisters-in-law are wonderful people, so feel free not to remind me that this is the case!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More Clergy Stress

I can't get over the number of people who have read the Toronto Star article on clergy stress I mentioned a couple of days ago and chatted with me about it. I can't remember a newspaper piece which has generated more response. Some are surprised by the assertions, although not skeptical, and others have already figured that this must be the case.

I'm not sure what to make of the discussion. Is there some part of most of us, including clergy, which holds on to an image of the invincible spiritual leader able to vanquish evil and jump over tall pulpits at a single bound?

I can really only speak about what I have discovered along the way. I have finite human resources, even when I seek God's strength and guidance. The more I attempt to be superhuman the more likely I am to "crash and burn." I love people but I can't be Jesus. I am a better husband, parent, pastor, person, when I understand my limitations. I'm a Christian seven days a week and twenty four hours a day. But I can only be a pastor some of the time, both as a high calling and as a job that pays the bills.

We will all do better to live beyond the myths.

Readin', writin', and religion

John Tory couldn't have known the controversy his proposal to fund religious schools in Ontario would stir up. While his intentions are good, it may cost him the election in Ontario. It would be an expensive enterprise and the electorate is suspicious of where this would lead.

I am opposed to funding religious schools even though I have seen examples such as the Christian School in Bowmanville in action and am really impressed by what they are doing by way of values education. But I began my ministry in Newfoundland where all sectarian schools were funded by the government and the education system was a mess. Eventually they went from a system of many denomination schools to one public system to end the starvation of funding for decent education.

I do believe that religion as a subject should be part of the curriculum. Twenty years ago the United Church and other denominations offered a well-reasoned proposal for education about religion, arguing that whatever the personal convictions of recipients, religion has shaped our society. Then each faith community could teach its particular creeds and values within its place of worship. The government actually began to train teachers to this end, but eventually the initiative was dropped.
n a pluralistic society the education system can honour the historical and ongoing role of religion and we can be diligent in sharing our Christian convictions within congregational life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Double the Worry

This morning my daily online devotional message arrived. It actually arrived twice, which was strange. It is on the subject of worry which is an important reminder for me and for all of us. The effects of stress and anxiety is a huge and costly health problem in North American. It is also a spiritual issue. You may find today's thought and a related one from a couple of weeks ago to be helpful.


Worry is a disabling "faith." It impoverishes the present by borrowing from tomorrow's imagined troubles.

-- The Wesley Bible


"Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6,7 NAB)

It is said that our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

-- Charles H. Spurgeon

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hallelujahs and Amens

Walks in the Spring are hallelujahs. Ice disappears from marshes and streams and shades of green emerge from buff coloured grasses and dormant branches. There is a din of bird song which scientists tell us has a specific mating purpose, but it sounds like praise to me. I can hardly wait for those April and May saunters.

At this time of the year I still make a point of getting out but we seem to move from hallelujah to amen. The birds that were territorial a few months ago are now flocking together. Last evening we saw a gaggle of blue jays in the top of a tree and when they took flight we counted eighteen of them. Another evening we watched as scores of monarchs landed on a branch to roost for the night. When they were still they appeared to be faded leaves. With each new arrival the others stirred and suddenly there was a flutter of stained glass. It is still a glorious time of the late summer but it becomes an amen and a farewell.

As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time and a season for everything.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Clergy Stress

On Saturday the Toronto Star published an article on clergy stress that was quite well done. I was intrigued because earlier in the week I arranged some "face time" with an out-of-town colleague who had seemed unsettled lately. It turned out that he had just explored the possibility of stress leave through the appropriate church official and with his doctor.

This is a dedicated minister who serves a pastoral charge with several preaching points. From what I can see he is conscientious and creative and feels that God called him to this vocation. There is simply nothing left in the tank. He needs some sabbath time from the daily demands of ministry.

A surprising number of pastors and priests across denominations feel this way, as the article points out. I am writing this on a Monday morning when I came in for a couple of hours to get "ahead of the game" on some important stuff for this week. I have an agenda chock full of activity and as always, I don't know what unscheduled situations will emerge. In my first two hours in my study I have not studied, as was my intention. I have responded to the demands and queries that I had not anticipated. While it was not what I expected in the day it seldom is. The interruptions can be the most important part of experiencing Christ's presence but they are also an adventure.

What I hear and what I experience is that it is not the crises of the moment that do ministers in. It is the bigger shifts in our culture, the anti-authoritarian mood, the decline in church attendance, the high expectations to be a wonder worker, the financial woes of congregations, all of which combine to "quench the spirit" in clergy. And many of us end up feeling isolated.

Is our vocation more demanding than others? Maybe not, but it can be just as stressful as other professions.

So, pray for your pastor and remember that she or he is a person. We need a life apart from our work, as well as positive feed-back (when deserved) and the recognition that we are real people with our own desire to grow spiritually.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Last Gasp Olympics

When my mother first began taking Canadians travellers to China nearly thirty years ago the country had just opened to tourists. She was impressed by many things including the swarms of bicycles on city streets and the relative absence of motorized vehicles.

This has changed, as have so many other things. China is probably the world's largest producer of bicycles but now millions of them are exported. While cycling is still the principle form of transportation in what was the Hidden Kingdom everyone wants a car and the steady increase in prosperity is making that possible for many. The number of confrontations between cyclists and motorists is growing. Shanghai is considering banning bicycles to make motorized traffic run more smoothly.

In Beijing the government is taking the opposite approach. A million cars have been ordered off the roads so that the air quality will improve. China has some of the smoggiest cities of the world and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands die each year from respiratory diseases. The Chinese government wants to make sure that the world's athletes can breathe when they arrive for the Olympics. The citizens of Beijing may be dusting off their bicycles for a few months.

Of course we are dependent on our vehicles every day in the "905." We commute to work and to church. We have drive-through restaurants and banks. When we see an adult riding a bike for transportation rather than exercize we wonder if they are poor or a "character." Who would choose to get around that way? We were pleasantly surprised this summer to see so many bike paths in Montreal and rural Quebec. There it is a lifestyle choice, not an oddity.

Get rid of our cars? Not likely. Still, we can consider walking and cycling as spiritual acts, as ways to care for the earth and our bodies. Jesus hoofed it and I can conjure up a great image of Jesus and the disciples trying to keep robes out of spokes, if bicycles had been available. WWJC -- what would Jesus cycle?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What God Has Brought Together

I am no statistician but I am often intrigued by figures. There were some fascinating Statscan figures in the paper this morning, helping us make some sense of the state of matrimony in Canada.

I read that there are roughly three million married couples in Canada and about 7500 of those couples are same gender. Of course same gender marriage has only been around for a couple of years but to this point these 15000 people represent a small portion of one percent of married couples. By my math 99.75% of Canadian married couples are heterosexual. For those committed to the traditional view of marriage, there is obviously no need to be worried yet.

I am not raising this as a defense of same gender marriage, nor as a criticism. Certainly every Christian must make a prayerful decision about God's intention for marriage and fidelity within marriage. It does make me wonder about the gloom and doom proclaimed three years ago about the assault on marriage that same gender relationships would represent.

As I read the other statistics from the report it seemed to me that churches can have positive roles in supporting couples as they make their challenging way through life, including the raising of children.

We can also ponder our response to single parent families and those households where there is commitment but not legal marriage. Mainline churches such as the United Church tend to be mute or at least muffled on this subject, but our communities of faith can make a difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Caution: Resurrection Zone

While I was on vacation someone gave me a copy of Time magazine which featured Billy Graham. The article was interesting but a much smaller piece in this issue intrigued me more.

Apparently the Chinese government has made it illegal to be reincarnated without official permission. As weird as this sounds, it is actually an issue of political control. The Dalai Lama is a leader in exile for occupied Tibet and the Chinese government doesn't want any unregulated reincarnation of successors to take place. Good luck on that one.

It made me wonder if a ban on resurrection would make a difference in our country. We are still a predominantly Christian nation, at least by the numbers, and therefore we are people of the resurrection. Yet we might ask what effect this faith has as individual Christians and communities of faith. There is a tendency to become "clubby" in our life together rather than counter-cultural. Our government is probably quite content for us to say whatever we want about Easter and the resurrection not just because we live in a democracy but because it doesn't make much of a stir.

To live the resurrection is to live the unruly hope of both a present and future promise. It affects every aspect of our lives. It allows our imaginations to take flight and our hands and feet to be at work in the world. Christ is our graciously seditious leader and saviour who makes all things new.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11 Hospitality

Halifax Airport September 11, 2007

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13: 1-2

What to say on the sixth anniversary of what we all call 9/11? I could reflect on the way our world has changed as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 as well as other acts of senseless violence since then. I could comment on the way we co-opt God for the cause of hatred rather than love.

How about generosity and hospitality as the topic for the day? We were living in Halifax, Nova Scotia six years ago and as a result of the attacks forty five international flights made unscheduled landings at Halifax airport. Thousands of people were suddenly in a country they had not intended to visit, dealing with fear and a sense of dislocation. The governments and people of Nova Scotia responded magnificently.

I was at a meeting of Presbytery that evening and we discovered that a number of churches had already offered their space as shelter for these refugees. The congregation I served made the same offer although we weren't called upon, but many others did provide a "home away from home" during the next few days.

It was a heart-warming story of welcome in distressing circumstances, a gospel story. Last year, on the fifth anniversary, Condeleeza Rice visited Halifax to express gratitude on behalf of the American people. That expression of thanks was well deserved.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Welcome Cathy

Seven male cooks and one woman supervisor. Isn't this a scary photo? Last evening more than a hundred St. Paul's folk gathered at the church for a barbeque to welcome our new staff person, the Rev. Cathy Russell. A good part of our time together was visiting and eating, finely honed skills in our congregation. A visitor to our morning worship commented on the warm buzz of conversation before the service began. In the less restrained atmosphere of the evening meal the buzz stepped up to a dull roar.

After we ate we took part in what was billed as a loonie auction. Donated items were sold with only one dollar coins allowed to raise the bids. It meant that children enthusiastically took part in the proceedings and it was all "low key," not to mention looney in another meaning of the word. At our table we watched as one little girl's grandmother bid with great determination on a couple of TV character dolls. When she won, the child couldn't contain her glee. It was worth the evening to be next to her. Somehow these coins tossed in baskets along with other donations brought in more than $2,000!

We hope Cathy does feel welcome in our midst. We know that she offers considerable gifts to our life together. She will bring a strong Christian faith to her ministry to young families and children, as well as worship and visitation.

I'm sure she saw the enthusiastic efforts of the group who put this event together. It won't be the last time.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


The number of people at the rally on Tuesday was between two and three hundred, a strong statement to Clarington Council. During the meeting council members heard from consultants that it was important to take their time in choosing a site and technology for an incinerator. We can hope that council will ask whether incineration is the answer or one option among many.

It is important that Christians make their voices heard in responsible and direct ways

Friday, September 07, 2007

No "Away"

On Tuesday evening more than a hundred people of all ages milled about peacefully and rather amiably in front of the municipal council chambers in Bowmanville. They were protesting the proposal to build an incinerator which will burn the garbage from Durham, York and other regions with which the municipality might establish a working relationship. The likely site would be at Courtice Rd. and the 401 highway although two other possible sites have been identified just to the east of Bowmanville.

The euphemism employed by council is Energy From Waste, as though burning garbage will become some wonderful new source of heat and light. Frankly, I view the use of this term as deliberately confusing and an insult to our intelligence.

The idea of Clarington becoming the new Michigan with trucks rolling in from all over Southern Ontario makes me shudder. We do have to dispose of our garbage, but stepping away from efforts to reduce waste and divert it through recycling is not the solution. And there will be more pollutants in our already overburdened air. As Will McDonough and Michael Braungart say in their book Cradle to Cradle, for too long we have hoped that our waste will simply be taken away when there is no "away."

I was proud to count nearly two dozen St. Paul's folk at the rally, from age three to seventy three, or thereabouts. We were called to action by a physician in the congregation who has become a somewhat reluctant public speaker and activist, although she is doing very well in this new role. She sees this as both a physical health issue and a spiritual wholeness concern. We are called to care for the well-being of the planet and its creatures as Christ's people.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bloggin' On!

When I began my blog a year ago I wasn't all that sure why I would venture into something that was so far beyond my day-to-day experience and comfort zone. When it was first suggested by our webmaster, Dean, I was hazy on what a weblog was and I doubt that I had ever visited one.

What was I supposed to natter on about? It turns out that I use my blog to do some reflection on my personal life, my work in ministry, and my perception of the world we live in. Because it is on our church website I include some "Godtalk" in every entry, and I do believe that God can be at the centre of everything in life. I make my comments on the state of the world but I try not be too controversial. It has become a way to meet up with you between Sundays.

I heard today that there are 30 million bloggers in China and that this is as close to free speech as is possible in this rapidly changing nation with 1.2 billion citizens. The commentator suggested that political and social change may be hastened by the critiques of these bloggers. I certainly don't know if this is the case, but wouldn't it be great if it were true.

I am dubious about some aspects of our rapidly changing technology. We are fed so much information without a whole lot of wisdom. But maybe we will look back a few years from now and conclude that the blogosphere is a help rather than a hindrance.

Although my goals are much more modest than changing the world, I will keep plugging away.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Honest to God Saints

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of an honest saint. Most of us know the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. An east European nun, Teresa felt a call to ministry to the poor in India. She had virtually no resources or financial backing in the beginning but she first established a mission to lepers, then to those living with AIDs, the modern-day leprosy. She emphasized the radical call to love which is the gospel of Christ.

We have heard recently that Mother Teresa expressed doubts in her correspondence with others and for decades struggled to experience the presence of Christ. Yet she perservered in her work and encouraged others to join her.

In this day of media scrutiny it is next to impossible to be "saintly" in the old sense. There have never been perfectly Godly people but in other eras images were rehabilitated and amplified. Today all public figures are revealed as real human beings with flaws and personal crises. I admire Mother Teresa of Calcutta for living the gospel as a follower of Christ who wrestled with the pain of this world. In that respect we are all the saints and we all have a mission.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

As I walked to work I saw parents shepherding little ones toward the public school which is near St. Paul's.

This morning desks like these will fill up with students of all ages. In every classroom there will be a teacher whose role will be navigate through the curriculum for this year.

On Sunday we had a small holiday weekend congregation but there were ten teachers present-- more than a dozen if the retirees were included. Are teachers more devout or are they simply aware of the need for divine guidance as they head back into the classroom?

I don't envy the challenge that teachers in the twenty first century face. All professions, including ministry, face much more of an anti-authoritarian mood in our culture. Gaining respect in the classroom is not easy. My own feeling is that in a more secular society there is less of a moral framework for many children. Yet we all have high expectations of what teachers will achieve, including values education.

As the school year begins we can pray for the students as they learn and grow. I would encourage you to keep teachers in your prayers as well. They deserve our respect and our support.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Labour Day

Sam the sheepdog and Ralph the wolf used to "punch out" on the time clock after a hard day protecting and chasing sheep. These were fun cartoons. Soon more than a thousand GM workers in Oshawa will no longer need to do the equivalent of punching the clock and their lives will change. Along with economic hardship there may be a crisis of meaning. Our work shapes our sense of self.

Did you know that the Labour Day tradition began in Canada in 1872? The US and Britain and other countries observe it, but it began with us. So you can be grateful for Canucks of yore for this long weekend.

Of course some of us work today and tomorrow. Our older daughter is at home from university this summer and working. While she doesn't like working Sundays, it is required in the job with which she pays for a good part of her education. She wishes she could come to church and she feels a bit guilty. Needless to say, I work most Sundays myself. I do go to church for my job but I really don't get to worship because I'm "on." Sometimes I wish I could just rest on the Christian Sabbath after nearly 30 years of being a worship leader. This morning we spoke briefly over breakfast and headed to our places of employment.

I will be speaking about the balance between work and play and worship this morning because of the Labour Day weekend. I hope you can find that challenging equilibrium in your own life through the grace of Christ.