Wednesday, December 31, 2008

God's Promise and Presence in 2009

We decided that today's exercize would take advantage of the winter sun. So we went to Second Marsh where it was -10, feeling like -20 with the wind. It was a dry cold, meaning that it is friggin' cold --and dry
During our five kilometre walk we saw tracks everywhere: fox, deer, rabbit, squirrel, and something we couldn't identify until we saw the vole scurrying across the path making the mystery trail.

At one spot we were swarmed by two dozen chickadees who gobbled down the offered seed in minutes. There was a small woodpecker and a hawk in the woods, and lots of ducks out on Lake Ontario. Finally we saw two white-tailed deer bounding across an open area.

The photos are of ice formed by the shore in wierd and wonderful formations during recent windy days. God's gift on New Year's Eve.

We pulled out the thermos at water's edge and toasted each other with hot tea; "God's promise and presence in 2009." This is certainly our prayer for all of you.

Violent Night, Unholy Night

The season of Christmas has been marred by the deaths of many in the area known as the Gaza Strip, adjacent to Israel. The provocation for the bombardment by Israel was rocket attacks by the militant group, Hamas. Hamas marked the end of a ceasefire by firing these home-made rockets randomly into the suburbs of Tel Aviv. The Israeli response was with much more sophisticated weaponry, although not so precise that they can avoid civilians, including children.

What a collosal, interminable mess. It would be wrong to downplay the threat that Hamas poses to Israeli security. Israel has the right to protect its citizens, but this has been called the fiercest bombardment in 40 years. As usual, the response results in great hardship to an area that is amongst the most crowded and impoverished in the world. Hamas is essentially a law unto itself in Gaza, so the innocent suffer when the militants are punished.

Yesterday I listened to one of the few psychiatrists in Gaza who spoke of the effect of the Israeli bombardment on children and others. There is a constant state of terror which makes normal life next to impossible. The United Nations has called for a resumed ceasefire, but who knows if anyone is listening. In fact, Israel has rejected the most recent proposal for a ceasefire.

In the region we associate with the angels' message of "peace on earth and good will toward all"
there is suspicion and anger and violence. Discouraging. We can pray as we have prayed for so long that this seemingly endless cycle of "an eye for an eye" come to an end.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Doubt and Certainty

There is no formal sacrament of confession in the United Church but we saw half a dozen members of the congregation atoning for their Christmas sins at the gym this morning. As we burned calories I'm sure we all hoped for bonus points.


Speaking of confession, for us 'tis the season to catch up on movies and yesterday it was Doubt starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman (what's with the Seymour?) and Amy Adams. A great cast in a thought-provoking film which is as much about religious certainty as it is doubt. The movie is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It is set in the early 1960's at a time when Pope John XXIII was shaking the Roman Catholic world with reforms which pleased some and disturbed others. Hoffman is the priest who embraces the prospect of a modernized church, Streep is the veteran nun and principal of a Catholic school who shuns change, and Adams is a young sister who is tugged by both perspectives.

Hoffman's priest offers up some interesting little homilies or sermonettes along the way, to a congregation that fills the church (times have changed.) One of his messages is about the uniting power of doubt. Later, in conversation with the older nun he insists that her certainty is an emotional response rather than based on fact.

If the conversation in our car on the return trip (it is in Whitby) is any indication, this would be a good film to see as a group, followed by a discussion.

Have any of you seen Doubt yet? Any other films you want to recommend to others?

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Wind Blows Where it Will

The bible is a very windy book, beginning with the Spirit or Wind of God brooding over the waters of creation. The prophet Elijah had an epiphany in the midst of a windstorm atop a mountain and Jesus told Nicodemus not only that he needed to be reborn, but that the wind of the Spirit blows where it will.

Yesterday we experienced winds of almost biblical proportions which swept across Ontario. Unfortunately those winds were destructive, leaving lots of people without power and toppling trees.

So, we went for a walk. We love these really windy days by the water because of the energy transmitted to the waves. Lake Ontario was in a fury and it was difficult to steady the camera to take pictures. (click on the images to enlarge) We walked through a wooded area to get to the water and we were keeping a careful eye on the massive trees. Still it was exhilarating.

At times we tend to sentimentalize and tame God, especially around Christmas. I like the powerful imagery of the unpredictable God who takes us to unexpected places, like the wind on a blustery winter day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

God Bless Us, Everyone!

I think my favorite Christmas movie is A Christmas Carol starring the incomparable Alistair Sim, although the Muppet version stands up nicely.

It is a story of the transformation of an angry misanthrope to a joyful philanthrope. Sim is wonderful in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. I was listening to the CBC program The Current this morning and a neuroscientist was interviewed, talking about the buzz we get from generosity. The brain actually changes as a result of a generous act. So generosity can be the entirely legal drug of choice for Christians!

Last evening a group of our young people went with Rev. Cathy to the seniors community nearby and sang carols to some of our members who can't get out, as well as a few who can. The seniors loved it, and so did the kids. Wonderful.

I hope that this is a time when you are deeply aware of the extravagant love of God in Christ. Even though we might exclaim "you shouldn't have!" that love is transformational.

I notice that the blog responses have dropped off as we get to "crunch time" around Christmas, so I will take a break for a few days and resume when the dust or the snowflakes settle. I hope you have a truly meaningful Christmas, whatever your circumstances, wherever you are.

As Tiny Tim said "God bless us, everyone!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Always Living Nativity

Last evening was ridiculously cold, thanks to the bitter wind prowling the streets of Bowmanville. I wondered what would happen to the annual production of the Nativity at St. Paul's. This year, for the first time, it was presented indoors but the audience had to get to the church sanctuary. Would people just stay home?

Blissfully, I had no responsibility in this drama, so I stood at the top of the entrance stairs and greeted people as they arrived. We did a Canadian winter version of "the Lord be with you, and also with you" as they pushed through the door. It was "brrrr, that wind is something" and I replied "ya, it's a cold one."

At curtain time (there was actually no curtain) about 125 people were in the pews and anticipating a very different telling of the story from the outdoor living nativity, yet with enough intersection to make it familiar.

It went extremely well and I give full credit to the two couples who organized, re-wrote, and directed the play. I was deeply moved by who was in the cast of two dozen. There were plenty of children who performed their roles with great dignity. Two "tweens," Amy and Kathryn were splendid as an angel and Mary. There were also many adults, from their thirties to their sixties who put in hours of rehearsal time in a busy season. My wife, Ruth, was a cast member and she assured me that spending the time getting to know these children was worth the effort, and that her two on-stage offspring were "sweeties."

To my way of thinking this was the best of churchiness, old-fashioned and modern at the same time, telling a story of God's love in Christ that needs to be told. I am so grateful that it happened once again, and that it really was a "living" nativity.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Gift of Winter

Another storm blew in this morning with plenty of snow. By the time worship began at 10:30 the sun was shining, but we were only at "half muster" in terms of congregational numbers. Some of them were from other churches which cancelled worship, so I was proud of our gang for getting out.

There have been lots of disruptions because of the snowstorms on Friday and again this morning. The highways were snarled and air travellers missed flights. While I feel badly for those were disappointed or in danger I have to confess that I love this snow. Yesterday we drove north to Long Sault, the conservation area on the Oak Ridges Moraine. It was cold but the sun shone brightly and the snow glistened. Some skiers had already broken a trail, so we skiied in their tracks through the woods. It was a glorious first cross-country run of the season in a place of quiet and beauty.

I posted a photo of trilliums from a Spring walk at Long Sault and then Fall colours from the same area. This Winter photo is a reminder of the gift of all seasons. The long blue shadows speak of the Winter Solstice and the brief daylight hours.
The word is that this will be the first year in many where the entire country will experience a white Christmas. Great!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Time for Feasting and Compassion

Forty pounds of contraband Beluga caviar was seized in Milan, Italy and the decision has been made to distribute it to the poor. Since caviar tends to be an acquired taste, it will be interesting to hear how it goes over with street people and those in shelters.

It's not unusual for the "down and out" to be recipients of largesse at this time of year. There is an organization of generous lawyers (no, this is not an oxymoron) who will be feeding Toronto's poor this Christmas in a lavish banquet featuring $2600 worth of filet mignon provided by one lawyer as well as $6000 in ten dollar bills to be distributed to the guests for whatever they want.

As tempting as it is to be cynical about this, it has a biblical precedent. Jesus told a parable about a banquet prepared for an A-list group of guests who all have other things to do. So the host decides to go out to the "highways and byways" to bring people to the table.

There is a great deal of generosity at this time of the year. I was proud of our UCW for providing a wonderful turkey dinner to the clients of Clarington Connections, the mental health drop-in, not once but twice this season. The first time a group joined the seniors who enjoyed their Christmas dinner at St. Paul's. The second time a group of volunteers, including a number from St. Paul's served up a lovely repast prepared by our folk at another church's hall.

At the same time my wife Ruth was downstairs in the building, distributing hampers to Bethesda House clients. RCMP officers carried the hampers out to the vehicles of the recipients.

Wouldn't it be great if we learned how to be so expansive in our outlook and compassion all through the year? Wouldn't it be truly meaningful if our society looked after the dispossessed and lonely as a matter of course? Just dreaming.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cradle, Cross and Forgiveness

As I walked out the door this morning the first flakes of "Stormageddon" (please, wasn't Katrina Stormageddon?) were falling and CBC radio was earnestly discussing how to "play well with others" at Christmas. A couple of experts were discussing how we can avoid conflict at this time of year when we expected to be luvvy duvvy.

This is really an important subject, as my pastoral and personal experience tells me. My parents parted company when I was in my late teens and my departed Dad seemed to choose this season to do and say things that were painful for his family, even though he was a minister.

I've had a couple of conversations this year with folk who are sorting out their emotions about family, realizing that there is something about Christmas which creates inner turmoil. One person confided that her former husband tends to become angry at this time of the year even though he is conciliatory during the rest of the year.

There is no point in being glib about this or suggesting easy answers -- there are none. Yet it is important to remember that Christmas is not just about the cradle, even though this is the obvious focus of the season. There is also the cross as that essential symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness and Christ's love. Over the years I have come to realize that forgiveness as a "letting go" is as necessary for the "forgiver" as for the "forgiven." Holding on to our grievances can be so destructive and why do we want to be misshapen because of what someone else has done? While we can't forget, we can choose a different way.

I would be interested in your observations and experiences.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent Surprises

Vincent Van Gogh

One afternoon earlier this week I made several visits to seniors in the congregation living with major health problems. I heard about cancer, chronic pain, and surgery in three households where the sufferers were amazingly stoic about it all. The fourth household was a little different.

I had to brace myself for the visit because the woman of the house tends to be negative -- unrelentingly negative. Her husband, who is not a member here, is consistently rude. During this visit he told me that our Commun-I-Care callers and others (me!) shouldn't "stick our noses in other people's business." Nice. I try to tell myself that Jesus loves the unlovely and I should too, but there are times when the self-talk wears thin.

As you might imagine, I strategized for a hasty exit. At a seemly moment I proposed prayer, to which they both nodded assent. I prayed for them both, because together they have a host of genuine health concerns.

When I finished and opened my eyes I was surprised to see that this crusty old guy who uses oxygen to breathe was on his knees with hands clasped. Both of them headed for the tissue box and dabbed their eyes. As I left he shook my hand and thanked me profusely for coming.

There are times when the Spirit of God gets through where I can't as an individual. I was tempted to leave without praying because they weren't my idea of good candidates. What do I know!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Advent Beauty

Recently I have enjoyed correspondence with a former parishioner from Halifax. I was contacted by artist Kathy Brown whose work I admired while living in Nova Scotia. Now she has added banner maker to her creative resume, designing a series of Advent hangings for the sanctuary of St. Andrew's church.

With my art history background and degree I am inclined to think of the Creator in terms of the artistic creation of the universe and draw on artistic images for inspiration in my faith. Kathy mentioned to me that she sees her artistic talents as a gift from God and I agree whole-heartedly. We also traded observations about the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, which houses a wonderful collection of Impressionist art. Strolling through its galleries is a religious experience.

I have often thought that St. Paul's would benefit from seasonal banners and rather than be jealous of St. Andrew's I will give more thought to how that could happen.

Do "pictures speak a thousand words" for you in worship spaces? Do images on the screen enhance your worship experience?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

All Poor Ones and Humble

The dog ate my homework, or something like that! I posted my completed blog this morning and only the title showed up.

I wrote just after returning from the gym to which I went without my "partner in crime" this morning. My wife Ruth decided that slugging boxes of food up stairs at St. John's church all day would be her work-out for the day.

The staff and a group of volunteers are putting together the hampers of food and toys for those who have lived in the Bethesda House shelter or used their outreach services during the year. These hampers make a huge difference to women and children who often leave abusive relationships with little more than the clothing on their backs.

Fortunately the community is very generous. Schools, service groups and churches all contribute to make Christmas meaningful for those who are struggling with the loss of the familiar at this time of year. When the choice is made to leave, it often means taking a drastic downturn in financial well-being.

It's hard to imagine that shelters such as Bethesda House have only been in existence in Canada for approximately 35 years. Before that people had to live with domestic violence, often with disastrous results. Then there was the shame of admitting abuse which was often accentuated rather than alleviated by the church.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this important cause and many others. Generosity is a form of prayer, but I would encourage you to keep in your prayers all who are vulnerable and lonely at this time of the year.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Joy to the World

Yesterday I recruited a little girl named Heather to help me light the third Advent candle, the candle of joy. She was an active participant in our worship service, having already sung in the junior choir. Our choirs joined together to open the service before I invited her forward.

Afterward I thanked her for her participation and she told me that she had been happy to be in church for the baptism which took place early in worship. It turns out that she loves babies and baptisms are amongst her favourite things in church.

She wasn't finished with her involvement. Later in the afternoon she was back with her family for the carol sing and potluck which attracted more than 50 people. It was a low-key and enjoyable event with people of all ages. At one point the song leader (a regular blog reader and contributor) invited the children to come up and sing a couple of their favourites. There was the girl and her sister singing with the rest. These kids seemed totally comfortable in front of the admittedly adoring adults, safe in our support and approval.

It seems to me that growing up in a loving faith environment is essential for Christian development. Our children need to experience Christian community as contributors, not just spectators. It turned out that during morning worship another young woman poured the water into the baptismal font and yet another read scripture in worship. The girl who read asked for the opportunity and her mother was surprised that she had been so bold. A week ago many of our confident and talented children led the White Gift service.

They aren't my actual children, but it feels like they are as I watch them flourish and grow in confidence. Our church needs them as much as they need us. They are the source of a great deal of joy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

O Tannenbaum

With ten-foot ceilings in the manse we need a whole lot of Christmas tree to fill out the space, so yesterday we headed north early in search of the perfect specimen. As we approached Tyrone we stopped in at Archibald's for a season's supply of cider and a big bag of apples. At Powell's, close to Long Sault, we were virtually alone because it was earlier in the morning. We tramped around for a while with saw at the ready, but in the end we returned to the pre-cut trees and a fine spruce which turned out to be almost exactly the right height. Things went well. We tied it to the roof of the car and managed to get it home without mishap. Then we wrestled it through the front door and into place with a minimum of spousal squabbling. Mission accomplished.
The tree at Christmas is yet another pagan tradition pilfered by Christianity. The evergreen tree now symbolizes, new life, rebrith, resurrection. Legend has it that reformer Martin Luther was walking home one evening and noticed the starlight twinkling through the branches of an evergreen tree. So began the tradition of candles on the branches which eventually became electric lights.

As you can see, our lights are now on the tree. Within the next few days our three adult children will get out their individual boxes of ornaments which are gifts from around the world, contributed by their globe-trotting grandmother.

What is your choice for a tree. Real or artificial? Any traditions?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

"Look at that moon!" Ruth exclaimed as we drove east into town last evening. It was huge above the horizon and very clear. It turns out that it was the brightest moon in the past fifteen years because it was closer to the Earth than it has been since 1993. In the Bay of Fundy there were exceptionally high tides.

I have written before about our urban disconnect from the natural cycles of our world. Yet our Judeo-Christian scriptures and feast days are strongly connected with those rhythms. Easter is on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the Spring equinox. It's likely that Christmas is celebrated at the Winter solstice because early followers of Christ "hid" the recognition of his birth in the midst of general revelry by Romans to avoid persecution.

I received an email from a couple in the congregation who are serving a pastoral charge in New Zealand for a few months. They note the many differences, including the contrast in temperature and lengthening days as they approach Christmas. They are heading toward the Summer solstice in shorts and tee-shirts. All the northern European carols about the light of Christ in darkening days seem a bit out of place in their adopted setting.

I like the fact that the celebrations of my faith are connected to the rhythms of creation and Creation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Voices in the Wilderness

Banner in Poznan

During Advent we hear about John the Baptist, the "bad news/Good News" prophet who prepared the way for the world changing presence of Jesus, the Christ. He calls listeners to repentance, a new direction of the heart and mind.

Our world is certainly changing. News about the economies of the world's nations has assaulted us for weeks now, and it as though nothing else in the world really matters. Here in Canada we have puzzled over the political turmoil of our normally staid nation. Lost in all of this is the United Nations conference on climate change taking place in Poznan, Poland. Remember last year in Bali? At that time it seemed that the only thing the media wanted to report on was the environment. This year there has been a deafening silence, and the twelve-day conference ends today with a whimper rather than a bang.

This doesn't mean that climate change has gone away as a priority for our planet. I heard this morning that scientists have revised their estimates of year-round open water in the Arctic from 2030 to 2015. That's six years from now. For years our John the Baptist environmentalists such as David Suzuki have been shouting in the wilderness of public apathy, telling us that the effects of climate change will be experienced sooner than later. Apparently they have been telling the truth. Unfortunately the truth sometimes hurts and calls us to a change of heart, to repentance of our foolish ways. Reading Environment Minister Jim Prentice's address to the conference yesterday does not offer much more than predictable and vague statements about commitment to healing the environment. Given that Canada ranks second last in the world in per capita carbon emissions, just ahead of Saudi Arabia, we should expect more.

I suppose the good news about climate change is that the conference in Poland still took place, despite other world woes, and the issues continue to be raised.

Is climate change still an important issue for you in spite of the other pressing issues? Do you hope that our government (whoever may be in power) will make this a priority even though there is a downturn in the economy? Do you believe that we can cooperate enough to find a new direction?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Social Gospel, Social Health-care

When I was in Maryland for my aunt's birthday a few weeks ago I chatted with one of my cousins' husband. He does finish carpentry in high-end homes and he was taking a "so far, so good" approach to the fact that he was still employed as the U.S. economy was taking a nose-dive. Unfortunately he just got the lay-off news half a million other Americans received during the previous month. We can pray that Doug and so many others in the U.S. and Canada will find meaningful work in a restored economic climate.

Something we don't think about here is that when many of our neighbours to the south are out of work they are also out of health benefits because they are insured through their employers. American right-wingers such as Bill O'Reilly love to deride Canada as a "communist" country because of our social system, but unemployed Canucks do ot have to worry about a loss of health care in hard times.

What about our lousy system though? What about the shortages of doctors and long wait times? Well, this Fall a number of our members have needed prompt attention for medical tests and surgery, and they have received it. We all hear about the delays and the horror stories but my experience as a pastor is that the majority of our folk are the beneficiaries of good to excellent care, in large part because of dedicated physicians. One of our members was told she had cancer on a Wednesday and her surgery took place the following Monday.

I serve on the Pastoral Services Advisory Committee for the local hospital, which includes the site manager and a physician. At our last meeting the doctor described some of the challenges and upcoming changes to health-care delivery in Ontario. At the end he told us that he still believes that our system is superior to one in which millions are uninsured.

Our social medicine was the brainchild of a determined clergyperson, turned politician, who saw that the poor and marginalized were not getting adequate medical care. Tommy Douglas' conviction about social medicine came out of his commitment to the social gospel. I hope we are grateful.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Light in the Darkness

Before I went into bible study this morning I wanted to blog about this day, December 10th, being the 60th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights. There was enough to do that I couldn't take the few minutes to write. Lo and behold, one of our study members, an "oldy but goody" whose passion for justice still burns brightly asked if we could light a candle in recognition of this important anniversary. I was impressed by her awareness. The others told me that at the last UCW meeting she had given candles to each member, asking them to acknowledge this day.
We see violations of what we have come to consider human rights around the world. The situation in Zimbabwe is a chilling example, as is the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Unfortunately at times nations such as Canada and the United States have violated those rights in the post-911 era. In Canada we were faced with our complicity in sending Maher Arar to torture in Syria, only to discover that he was entirely innocent. We are holding others without charges or prospect of a trial on suspicion of terrorism. A young Canadian has been held at Guantanamo Bay since he was fifteen, and even though he may be guilty as charged he has not been afforded the due process of law. Our government has been silent about this case. Of course, earlier this year our federal government apologized for violating the rights of tens of thousands of our aboriginal peoples in decades past and we have embarked on a process of Truth and Reconciliation.

Today reminds us that human rights shouldn't be subject to convenience, or our level of fear in a particular moment. We can't make the commitment to rights with our fingers crossed behind our backs. Our United Church and many of its members have upheld human rights through the years, believing this cause is a reflection of our faith in Christ.

I like the encouragement of our bible study member to light a candle. It could be a good discussion tool at our dinner tables this evening.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Standin' In The Need of Prayer

So, when we think of the activities of ten to thirteen year olds what comes to mind? Snowboarding at this time of year, and video games, and, of course, group prayer. Please choose the least likely activity from this list.

You may not know that on most Sunday mornings a group of "tweens" meets for their Sunday School class, staffed in rotation by a couple of dedicated volunteers and Rev. Cathy. They have been considering many aspects of the Christian faith and one of their weekly activities is prayer, in which they are all invited to participate.

Cathy tells me that they are remarkably willing pray-ers and now that they have established a level of trust with one another they bring the "matters of the heart." When one girl's grandmother suffered a stroke the others prayed earnestly. When they found out that one of Cathy and John's dogs is seriously ill they not only prayed but have followed up with kind inquiries. She says that the earnestness of the prayers and the high level of compassion is quite touching.

John Westerhoff maintains that Christianity is caught as well as taught, and that along with Christian education we need to be involved in Christian formation. We shouldn't be surprised about this because these are good kids from good homes, but it is encouraging to know that when the door is opened they willingly walk through it. They are learning by example to care for their friends and to be in conversation with the God who wants to converse with them.

I have joked that some of us would rather bungee-jump from the balcony than pray in public because most United Church adults haven't had the practice of praying with others. Are you comfortable with praying openly? Are you teaching your children to pray? What do you think about this aspect of the TNT Sunday School class?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Peace on Earth and in Every Nursing Home

On Friday I broke in to two Oshawa nursing homes to visit a man and a woman from our congregation. Both lived in Bowmanville but have been shifted to these institutions because of advancing dementia. I "broke in" using a code at one and security buttons at the other, in place to keep residents from a "break out." Once I was in, both places had helpful staff.

The man and the woman are individuals I have visited many time before. They both knew me and both were lucid, for the most part, as we talked. But the old gentleman (he is always gracious) drifted at times. He is now a major in the army, the nuns who run the place are crafty (it is a secular home) and he lost his wife recently (she has been gone for years.) I learned early in my ministry that I should just refrain from trying to correct those who are living in another reality, rather than just being confused in the moment. Sometimes I am simply a supportive presence in life's twilight because change will not happen.

At the end of our visit I asked him if he would like me to read scripture, commenting that he has always been a person of faith. He reminded me that he grew up in a Christian family and fortunately I know his story, the church in Kingston he attended as a boy which no longer exists and the father who was Sunday School superintendent.

I read the passage from Luke 2 about the birth of Jesus and the frightened shepherds and the angels who declared peace. His eyes filled with tears and he offered that it is such a beautiful story, which it is. We held hands as we prayed and then off I went to find the other home.

As we pray for peace on earth this Christmas we can also ask for peace in the spirits of these followers of Christ and others like them.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An Archbishop on Zimbabwe

A Day to Remember

On this day in 1989 a young man walked into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and opened fire on women he did know, but hated simply because of their gender. By the time the carnage was over 45 minutes later 14 of those women were dead and so was he. It was senseless murder that no one could explain.

This is a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It is an opportunity for all of us to recognize that violence against women is still commonplace and that the need of education in our society is far from over. Recently I talked with a dozen St. Paul's women about the work that my wife, Ruth, does as an outreach worker for the local shelter called Bethesda House. Three of the twelve shared their own stories of leaving situations of domestic abuse and two of them did so in the days before there were shelters. Day in and day out Ruth works with women who are trying to figure our how to find their way to safety, often after years of psychological and physical abuse. Some days she arrives home exhausted from the repeated stories of heartache and fear.

The gospels give us some remarkable stories of Jesus' compassion toward women on the margins of his culture. As I have mentioned before, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is the longest recorded encounter between Jesus and anyone in the gospels.

It's important to be aware that abused women are around us, as are their children. Tomorrow our White Gifts will go to Bethesda House and the Salvation Army and I hope people will be generous.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Hope for the Hopeless

For years my mother has supported the fine work of Dr. Paul Thistle (pictured above,) the chief medical officer of the Howard Hospital in northern Zimbabwe. Dr. Thistle is a Christian, a Salvation Army officer, who goes about his work with incredible grace and good humour despite circumstances which would overwhelm most of us. The hospital serves 250,000 people with an annual budget of $40,000 and only two doctors.

You may have heard that Zimbabwe is dealing with a cholera epidemic. That's not correct -- the country is not addressing this serious outbreak because there is virtually no health care infrastructure. Along with staggering inflation, food shortages, the stifling of political opposition, there is next to no state-run health care in Zimbabwee. Hospitals such as the one Dr. Thistle runs is reliant on donations from foreigners.

Desmond Tutu has expressed his deep frustration with what he sees in Zimbabwe by saying that the country which was once the "bread basket" of Africa is now a "basket case." So much of this collapse must be laid at the feet of the dictator Robert Mugabe. His disregard for the people he rules is evil, plain and simple. Recently an international delegation which included former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was denied access to the country and foreign reporters must be careful about what they say to the rest of the world. Mugabe does not want us to hear about the political suppression and the suffering of citizens.

What do we do? An international military intervention? If ever there was a case for U.N. intervention, this is it.

We can certainly pray for change and for the safety of Dr. Thistle and those like him. And we may choose to support oases of hope such as his hospital.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Reimagining Faith Communities

A faithful reader emailed me on the important experiment her congregation has entered into with another in the city of Kingston. St. Margaret's, her church home was established as a suburban congregation in the 1950's, judging from the architecture. The city has grown so they are no longer in "the burbs," the population in the area has aged, and the congregation has declined. Queen Street has a beautiful, historic limestone building inn the downtown that is in disrepair and needs a million dollars worth of work. The experiment is joint worship with the view to amalgamation. One of the ministers retired recently, so a sticky issue has been avoided, to a certain degree.

Our reader, who happens to be the music director at one of the churches, speaks of renewed vigour in congregational singing, a doubled choir, a new energy. I'm impressed that these two faith families could overcome the grief that often comes with decline, and the suspicion of the other to at least try something innovative. The story has developed enough buzz to make it into the local newspaper. Churches getting along is news!

These choices aren't automatic success stories because congregations have their unique characters, which don't always meld. During my days on a national committee I spoke in a church on the West Coast that was a combined congregation.When I offered my congratulations after the service a member told me that amalgamation wasn't exactly a grand success. The members from one congregation sat almost exclusively on one side of the centre aisle while the members from the other sat across the "great divide."

This doesn't mean we should give up on the idea of collaborative ministry. What do you think about efforts to reimagine and reconfigure how ministry happens in communities? Here in Bowmanville we have two very well maintained congregational physical plants less that two blocks from one another. Meanwhile the growth of the town stretches to the north, farther and farther away from the United Church presence.

Who should take the lead in proposing innovation or should nature just take its course?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Justice Issues Everywhere

On Saturday I wrote about the beauty and solitude of the farm north of Kingston where I spent two months this past summer. Although I was only 100 kilometres north of the busiest highway in Canada there was a sense of wilderness that many seek out in Algonquin Park and northward.
It happened that the investigative program W-Five did a piece on that area the same evening, and I came upon it in progress. Uranium companies have been staking the area and with a hundred dollar permit they can actually enter private property without permission and peg out a claim. It is an absurd Ontario law that allows this on land which has, in some cases, been owned by families for generations.

While some people in the area support the possibility of a mine, or mines, many more are opposed. There are signs saying NO URANIUM MINE everywhere. These people are there because they love the land, and in the case of the Native community, this is their ancestral land. There have been protests at a proposed mine site which resulted in the arrests of Native leaders and other concerned citizens. One Native leader was fined and jailed even though there was no violence or property damage. The man who lives at the highway end of the road on which I was living was among those arrested and charged for trespassing. The Morrisons, above, discovered that their land had been staked when Frank found a marker on his property.

This area is within the Bay of Quinte Conference of the United Church, of which we are a part here in Bowmanville. The Conference has attempted to stay abreast of the issues and inform its members. As I mentioned once before, the lack of physical confrontation has meant that this story has gone unreported by the media, for the most part. The Christian Peacemakers group has spent considerable time in the area and prayer vigils are held outside the mine site every Sunday afternoon.

This all serves as a reminder that issues of justice are as real in rural areas as in cities and towns. They just don't get the same attention.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Serving the Common Good

I can't help but look across the border and notice what is happening there politically, then comparing it with our Canadian situation.

President-elect Obama has put aside the temptation for "pay-back" by appointing a Democratic leadership rival and a prominent Republican to key leadership positions. Much of the U.S. media coverage applauds his efforts to form the most effective government possible to address the huge challenges of the day.

Here in Canada? The Prime Minister promised a new spirit of cooperation after the election, then included several "poison pill" items in the economic update that were partisan and petty. The opposition parties have responded with the proposal of a coalition government that may allow them to wrestle power from the Conservatives but sure doesn't look to be in the best interests of the Canadian people.

Is it too much to ask public servants to serve the public? Do they have a clue about how much is at stake here? I have blogged before about the privelege of voting which has an almost sacred quality because it allows us to participate in communal decision-making for a just society. I wish the politicians would model servant leadership for the betterment of Canada. Is this too much to ask?

How do you feel about all this?

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Holiday Train

Would you like to support the local Salvation Army food drive and be entertained at the same time? Show up this evening with some non-perishable food items or cash or both and enjoy the CPR Holiday Train as it makes its stop in Bowmanville. The beautifully decorated train makes visits to communities from Montreal to B.C. and Bowmanville has been an enthusiastic supporter of this relatively recent tradition. Each year a box car opens its doors and the gathered crowd is entertained by excellent musicians.

Two years ago the train was not scheduled for this community but people gathered at the usual corner of Scugog and Wellington just the same. We were in bed for the night and noticed an annoyingly protracted train whistle. I put up the blind to see the lights of the Holiday Train stretched across the Bowmanville Creek trestle. The engineer had decided to reward the faithful few with a quick stop.

The schedule lists Bowmanville for 9:15 to 9:30. It's difficult to get parking, but our driveway could accomodate a few extra cars. Make sure you are on the south side of the tracks or you will miss the show. For the more distant and out-of-province readers I suppose I could pick you up at the airport...

The Lazarus Effect

As I lay in the dark listening to the radio this morning I was reminded that not all the news about AIDS and HIV is negative. Today is World Aids Day and we know that in Africa huge numbers of people are affected by this disease and tens of thousands of children have been orphaned.

The radio interview was with a doctor from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto who is currently spending ten months of each year in Zomba, Malawi, working in an AIDS clinic, With a population of 13 million there are less than 100 doctors addressing AIDS.

The doctor, a woman, spoke with confidence about the difference the clinic is making. She gave the example of a nurse who is working in their pediatric unit who had been at death's door until she began taking AIDS drugs provided through international health organizations. This nurse has gone from being at the verge of adding to the grim statistics to helping others return to relative health.

The doctor is working through Dignitas which has the great slogan Living Results. In today's interview she described the positive results she sees with people such as her nurse as "the Lazarus effect." The biblical story of Lazarus is in John's gospel. Jesus raises his friend from the dead after finding Lazarus' sisters mourning and wondering why he hadn't been there to make a difference. It's good to hear good news today about those who are giving selflessly for the benefit of others.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A November Amble

Go to the gym, put up the Christmas lights, make bread for communion (okay, Ruth does that), rake the last bags of leaves, etc, etc. Welcome to Saturday. I don't need to tell you about the tasks of this day.

We decided that the gym would be forgotten today and replaced with a walk at Second Marsh. The week past was cold, windy, and wet and we are promised a dump of snow in the next couple of days, so we seized the moment.

We were surprised to discover a marsh virtually frozen over, although the waves of Lake Ontario were rolling into shore. In the small leads of open water there were still ducks and geese, a furtive muskrat, and at least four blue herons. One of them was huddled close to shore, on a pile of dogwood branches gathered by beavers as winter feed.

It was good to be out and walking in the natural world, even though the sunshine that lured us to the marsh had given way to gray skies by the time we got there. Someone has said that there is no bad weather for walking, only inappropriate clothing, and we were properly dressed.

The walk made me think of my time on restorative leave. The person who "managed" my leave was a psychologist I never met and with whom I didn't have a single conversation -- figure that out. He consulted with my physician who barely knew me until my months of leave, although he was very supportive and helpful. I was always aware though that I had fifteen minutes before he was feeling the pressure of his next patient.

My healing happened while I spent two months in the "back of beyond," living in a secluded farmhouse at the end of a dead-end road. During the day I listened to the wind and rain moving through trees like "a wave of applause" as one poetic writer termed it. There were wild creatures everywhere and even the dreaded mosquitoes provided the source for an aerial ballet as swallows chased them. In the evening I could hear the series of waterfalls a mile away which gave the name Ragged Chutes Road to the wonderful trail to nowhere on which I was living.

For me it was heavenly in every sense. God was there in the sounds and the signs and restored my soul.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Buy Nothing!

There are a couple of American readers of this blog, but they may not get to today's posting for a while because they will be...SHOPPING! Actually, I don't know this for sure, but today, the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S. has become one of the biggest shopping events of the year. It's called Black Friday, which may sound negative but refers to the turning point for many businesses when they move from "the red" to "the black" in yearly profitability.

Some time ago the magazine Adbusters encouraged readers to make a countercultural statement by declaring this Buy Nothing Day. The idea came from a Vancouver artist named Ted Dave. This concept has also been picked up in Great Britain where tomorrow is Buy Nothing Day, although the movement hasn't exactly taken the world by storm.

When Jesus speaks to us from the gospels he often encourages simplicity, and he models it as well. While our culture is supposedly based on Judeo-Christian values we have readily embraced consumerism. Even in an uncertain economy we will move relentlessly toward what has become a secularized consumer holiday rather than the celebration of the birth of a baby in a barn.

Do you think you could set aside a "buy nothing" day? How about reducing spending as a lifestyle choice? One blog reader decided to buy nothing new for six months last year after being inspired by an Oprah episode on de-cluttering. She was committed, but I seem to remember her falling off the wagon a few times. Simplifying our lives is hard! We think children are influenced by advertising, but adults enjoy the latest gadgets too.

Could locking up your credit cards be a faith statement? What choices have you made to simplify your life?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hope in the Darkness

I woke up this morning to hear that the death toll in Mumbai had risen to over one hundred and probably that many more people were being held hostage. Apparently five Canadians are among the hostages. I looked at the photograph on the front page of my newspaper to see pools of blood in the main train station of the city.
At times like this my anger rises and "turn the other cheek" is farthest from my mind. Yet I hate it when religion is used to justify division and violence. In this case it is Muslim extremists but it seems that the majority of religions are tarnished by cruelty perpetrated in God's name. These perversions are really false gods, the idols of darkness and destruction. No amount of crowing that these violence acts are committed in the name of the one true god makes it so.

The readings for this Sunday issue from the mouths of Isaiah and Jesus, two prophetic voices who acknowledge that dark times are real, but the God of love and justice prevails. We can only continue to pray that humanity will come to its senses.

What did you feel, what were your reactions to these latest acts of terrorism? This first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope. Are you still confident that God's hope and Christ's hope will prevail?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's a Small World...

I am trying to get my thoughts focussed on the season of Advent, 2008, so it was a little disorienting to receive yesterday the United Church book of Lenten reflections for 2009 called Why Would Jesus Say That? Eight months ago I was involved in the challenging exercise of taking three of Jesus' less transparent sayings and offering my interpretation. It seems like a lifetime ago and I had to root around in the book to discover what I had actually said!

I was pleased to see that people I know were among the other writers. My predecessor at St. Paul's the Rev. Nancy Knox is one of them. The person who followed me in Sudbury, the Rev. Bill Steadman is another. A friend from my teen years, the Rev. Drew Strickland (married to my high school best friend's sister) has also offered his reflections. I served on a national committee with another of the writers. The United Church is a national denomination and there are more than 2500 clergy, so often when visitors share the name of their minister I draw a blank. But it is pleasing to see the names of people I know and who have served the same pastoral charges.

Rev Cathy my co-worker here is also the child of a minister. We got talking about the charge served by both our fathers and realized that the same bedroom in the manse had served as the place to lay our childhood heads in different eras.

I won't break into a chorus of It's a Small World Afterall, but I might whistle it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No Easy Choices

I have met with the Ministry and Personnel Committee of St. Paul's congregation on several occasions since my return from restorative leave. They have told me that it is important to observe "day's off" in each week and while they were pastoral they were also firm. Do it!

Yesterday was one of those off days, and in the morning I got a call that an elderly man was dying in Oshawa hospital. While he wasn't active in the church, his wife has been, and she is a lovely person. Emergency surgery revealed extensive disease which couldn't be addressed by the surgery team. It was the wife calling and we spoke for a while before she signed off. She expressed no expectation that I go to the hospital but I mused about the situation for a while before I shaved, "dressed like a minister" and drove to Oshawa.

I sat and talked with the wife, her three adult children and in-laws. They decided to remove the ventilator because they had been given no hope of recovery. We talked, we even managed to laugh, and then we prayed. It was a holy time. Then, home I went. Early this morning he died.

Should I have chosen to stay at home? I suppose I could have asked another staff member to go, but the call was made to me. The reality of ministry is that it is not just a desk job, it is a people vocation and sometimes the response must be human. There is no clear-cut answer, and in the end I honestly felt I made the right choice. Taking another day away (the usual suggestion) isn't always possible, and there will be other emergencies.

My experience is that everyone appreciates the need for a minister to have personal time until their crisis occurs. It's understandable.And my calling is a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care. I understand what M&P is trying to do, and what I need to do to stay healthy, but at times there really aren't easy choices.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Christ of Guantanamo

Huge expectations have been mounded on the slight shoulders of President-elect Barack Obama. He is supposed to heal racial tensions at home, fix the economy, restore America's international reputation, end the war in Iraq -- just to name a few. One of the modest yet symbolically significant promises he can fulfill is to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This prison has come to symbolize much of what is wrong with the regime of President Bush. While trumpeting freedom and democracy he has maintained this offshore prison about which even military lawyers haved expressed grave misgivings.

Most of the prisoners from Western nations have been sent back to their countries of origin to be dealt with through the courts of law, thanks to the insistence of their governments. The rest of the inmates languish in Guantanamo, without formal charges in a number of cases, and without adequate legal representation. Persuasive arguments have been made that the U.S. is ignoring the Geneva Convention and its own laws on human rights.

There is a Canadian in Guantanamo named Omar Kadhr, who was fifteen when he was captured after a fire-fight in Afghanistan. The argument has been made that as a child soldier he should not be treated like adults and that whatever his age he should receive due process. The Canadian government has been silent in this case.

Yesterday in worship I used the image created by Robert Lentz of the Christ who looks out at the world through barbed wire. This icon is entitled Christ of Maryknoll, but I think of it as Barbed Wire Jesus. It could be Christ of Guantanamo. In the gospel lesson Jesus asks us to see him in the faces of those who are imprisoned, whether justly or unjustly.
Perhaps the new president will act on his conscience to see that justice is done.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Visitor

Last night we watched a film on DVD called The Visitor. It is one of those little films that doesn't get much attention because there are no stars, no special effects, yet gently leads us to ponder important stuff. The story is of a college prof in later middle age whose life has become rather meaningless and without purpose after the death of his wife.

Through a strange and totally unexpected series of circumstances his life intersects with those of a young couple, both "illegal aliens," one from Senegal and the other from Syria. Somehow the couple brings a new energy to his existence, largely through the young man who teaches the professor to play a drum. When authorities catch up with the young Syrian the passion of the professor is kindled on his behalf. It is an interesting story of who belongs and who doesn't, especially in a post-911 world.

This morning in worship we heard the passage from Matthew 25 in which Jesus says we will see him in the hungry, the dispossessed, the prisoner, and the stranger. The Visitor invites us to ask some important questions which fit well with this scripture.

Friday, November 21, 2008

First Fruits

The most recent Christian Century magazine has an encouraging article about the Broetjes', who run one of the biggest family-owned orchard companies in the U.S. In 2006 their apple crop was damaged and they could have claimed insurance -- if the full-time and migrant workers were laid off and the crop went unpicked.

This Christian family decided that it was more important to provide employment for their workers even if it meant no profit on the crop for that year. The rest of the article shows how the family, whose one million trees are under the name of First Fruits orchards (a biblical term) have always sought to honour God. They have given 75% of the profit from most of the orchards and 100% of the cherry profits to charitable causes. They have made sure that their employees had above-standard housing, medical care and education for their children. What a great story.

Right now there is an effort in Ontario to unionize farm and orchard labourers to protect their interests. I listened to a Ontario union rep on the CBC who readily conceded that many farm and orchard owners in this province treat their workers well, but some are exploitive. I have spoken with two orchard owners in this area who employ seasonal workers from other countries and obviously care about their health and well-being. The union is looking to insure workers rights through legislation. This may work, but ultimately the good will of the owners is necessary.

It's good to hear of people who are motivated by faith to do the right thing. Read the article and let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

With or Without...

On Tuesday evening Oshawa Presbytery met at St. Paul's and we debated an interesting "proposition" (no longer called a motion for some reason) about censoring clergy who are no longer in essential agreement with the Basis of Union of the United Church. It came from a minister whose pastoral charge was once in Scarborough Presbytery and adjacent to that served by the Rev. Gretta Vosper. Rev. Vosper has received a lot of attention because of her book With or Without God and her leadership in a congregation where God or gods are often not mentioned and scripture omitted entirely from worship. She is certainly not a Christian in any orthodox sense and unapologetic about her stance.

The thrust of the proposition was that clergy who are no longer in "essential agreement" (an official term) should be disciplined or removed from service, that the property should come under the control of presbytery, and the individual memberships of the congregations they represent should be called into question.

As a court we chose not to transmit this proposition to Conference but it was the source of lively conversation in the clergy lectionary group I attend and at the presbytery meeting. It was simply too broad for comfort and there are legal ramifications of which we might not be aware. But the stance of Vosper and others like her does not sit well with the majority of United Church clergy I know, nor with me. I have been mulling this over for the past couple of days.

We like to speak of the "big tent" of the United Church, with room for a wide range of theological outlooks. I offered to my colleagues that tents have entrances and exits and they have rooves and walls. To speak of a tent that has no parameters is to concede that we are just sleeping under the open sky.

While we are constantly refining our understanding of an infinite God, and seeking the Christ for our age, we are people of a living God and a living Christ. I think it's time for our General Council to re-read the Manual of the United Church and have the courage to act. It's probably time for the denomination to wish Godspeed (or ___speed) to some of these folk and even let them take the buildings with them. We are Christ's church, with or without Gretta Vosper.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Take it to the Lord in Prayer

I have to admit that I watched with a fair amount of glee as Sarah Palin was lampooned during the recent U.S. election for some of her gaffes. And I was shocked and appalled when the story broke that she spent twenty-two thousand dollars on a hairdresser during the first two weeks of October.

I was surprised to feel sympathy toward her when the criticism began after she expressed her conviction about seeking God's guidance for the future. The scorn poured down on her from all quarters, as though prayerfully asking for direction was a sign of being a half-wit. If it is, then I'm a member of Half-Wit's Anonymous. I've asked God to guide me before accepting every call to a congregation through the years, and while I can't say that I heard voices or that the clouds parted, I wouldn't have felt right without asking for guidance. As a pastor I sometimes I feel that I don't encourage congregants enough to "take it to the Lord in prayer" as they make major decisions.

That comment was one of the few times I appreciated her claim to be a Christian. I do wish Ms. Palin had spent a little more time in prayer before so maliciously attacking Barack Obama's character during the election campaign. Perhaps God will do a little remedial work with her on what constitutes Christian behaviour for a leader. And she may discover that God closes doors as well as opens them.

Do you pray about the important decisions in your lives?

Sunday Sex

A pastor by the name of Ed Young has told the members of his Grapevine megachurch in Dallas, Texas to have sex every day for a week. Of course they are supposed to be married and the couple must be a man and a woman. As you can see, he actually brought in a honkin' big bed to help illustrate his point. Apparently he wants his folk to be sexually active but not too inventive. He has set down this challenge because he believes that God has given us the gift of sex as the "superglue" to keep marriages intact. It's a metaphor I'm trying to get out of my head.

Actually, he should be commended for addressing the subjects of sexuality and sexual intercourse in church. When have you ever heard a sermon on the subject of sex? I don't think I have ever preached one -- and I'm fairly sure I would remember!

It's odd. Ministers marry couples who often have babies who are then baptized in church. We're assuming that something is going on in between the wedding and the baptism. But we just don't talk about it. I remember reading a professional journal article which issued a challenge to youth leaders to discuss sex in a responsible and positive way with the teens who attended their groups. I wonder how many leaders took up the challenge.

Even though Martin Luther left the Roman Catholic church and married, celebrating the gift of sex and procreation ,we tend to take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to sexuality in our Protestant churches. Some churches are very negative about sexuality. One of our daughters attended a church for a while during university. She went to a bible study for students where the leader, a woman in her thirties, advised that they should avoid sexual temptation by avoiding even holding hands before marriage. Our daughter stopped attending.

What do you think? Was Pastor Ed a brave guy or should he have kept his opinion and his bed to himself? Does the church have a role in creating a healthy outlook on sex and sexuality.

Bye the way, Ed challenged his flock to have sex from last Sunday to next Saturday, so if you want to participate you may have some catching up to do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

All in the Family

For the past few days I was out of the country so that I could participate in the 80th birthday celebration of my Aunt Jo. She is my mother's sister, a lively and fun-loving soul who lives in the state of Maryland. Her three children practiced the fine art of deception to totally surprise her with a party which celebrated their love for her and her love for them. The gathered clan included adult grandchildren and their adorable babies, as well as a grand-daughter who is about to give birth within weeks. There was a nice combination of blubbering and laughter to mark the occasion. Aunt Jo deserved the affection.

I drove down with my brother and neice to represent the Ontario clan and thoroughly enjoyed being part of the gathering. I am the outsider in a way because it is only in the past couple of years that I have reconnected with my cousins and their families. For years we have lived at too great a distance to visit regularly and my profession tends to require weekend work! Fortunately they have graciously welcomed the prodigal into the family circle. After the Saturday party I had a chance to chat with several of my cousins' children who are leading interesting lives.

How do we put a price on the value of family? In ministry there are many conversations with parishioners about family, often focussing on the tensions and pain of relationships. This is simply a reality of daily existence whether we seek Christ's presence in our lives or not.
When we read the bible there are many stories of families which put the fun in dysfunctional. There are also powerful stories of reconciliation and reunification. I think it is fair to say that Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son is the all-time favourite.

The thousand kilometre return trip yesterday got me home late in the evening, but it was worth it. I hope your family stories include opportunities for loving connection and hopeful reconciliation.