Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Taking Stock Spiritually

Last evening was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah involves blowing the shofar, or ram's horn, as well as sweet pastries in the evening meal. People may wish one another a sweet year. This is my kind of religion.

Rosh Hashanah is also a time for "taking stock," of asking what personal choices may be made to improve relationships or personal habits and behaviour. Tikkun magazine includes a printable "repentance workbook" every year inviting folk to ask questions such as:

What is spiritually out of alignment in my relationships?
How spiritually nourishing is my work?
Do I show adequate respect for my body?
Am I taking enough time to nourish my soul?

Important questions. Both the seasons of Advent and Lent were traditional times in Christianity to do some serious soul searching. Now Advent is swamped by the commercial Christmas and Lent may include some vague commitments to give up something.

We don't need to wallow in guilt or feel unworthy in our life of faith, but we probably all need a regular spiritual check-up or tune-up. And maybe a few sweet cakes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Missed Gems

Every once in a while I look back through recent blogs and find gems of response which weren't part of the original exchanges. This has been the case in the past week. I appreciate folk offering their insight whenever they come upon certain entries.

"I don't need to be anxious"

Cindy Klassen is the Canadian speed-skater who won five medals at the Olympics in Turin. She is obviously an athlete of great determination and skill. Klassen is also a Christian whose faith has been a sustaining force through good times and bad. Along with her on-ice triumphs she has worked through serious injury, as well as keeping vigil with a sister who was nearly killed in a car accident.

There was a front page article in the Globe and Mail recently about Ms. Klassen's faith and the small card which she carries with her containing words from Philippians 4, verses 6 and 7.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, by thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The wording is slightly different in the New Revised Standard Version of the bible but the spirit is the same. These verses and the ones that follow them have been very meaningful for me through the years. It's great that a national newspaper has put Cindy Klassen's witness on the front page.
It is good news for a change, grounded in the Good News of Christ.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Struggle Continues

The United Church of Canada has been ordaining women since the late 1930's, although those first women pastors did not have an easy time finding pastorates. Today more than half the students in our seminaries are women. My predecessor, Rev. Nancy, was much loved and effective for nine years at St. Paul's, and Rev. Cathy is a welcome addition to our staff. At least three women in ministry did internships at St. Paul's and are serving the wider church. We take for granted that leadership is not gender-specific.

I saw this past week that the one hundred Southern Baptist bookstores in the States have taken the latest issue of Gospel Today, an evangelical magazine, off their stands. Why? It features women pastors on the cover and a feature article about them inside. Every once in a while there are the little jolts, the reminders that issues of equality are still front and centre in some denominations.

The good news is that change continues to take place. In the Spring of 2007 Reformed churches in the U.S and Canada voted to open ordained ministry to women.
The struggle for equality continues but there are many hopeful signs.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mutual Understanding and Respect

This week a young man whose religious upbringing was Hindu but converted to Islam was convicted of terrorism in an Ontario court. He and roughly a dozen others plotted, rather ineptly, to blow up several key sites, and behead the Prime Minister. It's unlikely that this Keystone Cops bunch could have delivered on their plans but that doesn't matter. The intent was terrorism and the accused who knew what they were doing deserve to be punished.

This doesn't mean that all Muslims are terrorists or should be viewed with suspicion. It is deeply disturbing that a segment of Islam has adopted such violent precepts but we need to remember that this is a small minority of those who are Muslims in this country and elsewhere.

Maclean's magazine has an article in the latest issue on the efforts of moderate Muslims in Britain to expose the plots of their militant brethren in the country. Terrorism in the name of Allah is evil, but most Muslims agree with this and want to live peacefully.

In the times when I am tempted to drift toward false characterizations of other religions I need to remember that virtually every religion, including Christianity, has its extremists who promote hatred under the guise of commitment to God. There are times when I have been ashamed of what is done in the name of Jesus.
While vigilance against terrorism and other forms of religious violence is necessary, so is mutual understanding and respect.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Christians Vote

During the five years back in Ontario and living in Bowmanville we have lived through two municipal elections, two provincial elections, and now our second federal election. I am still waiting for a candidate from any party or any level of government to show up at my door. Was it something I said?

What would I ask about during this election? Are there questions I might pose that reflect my faith as a Christian?

Of course the economy is a pressing issue and with it the creation of jobs which are meaningful work with reasonable pay. Our area has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

I do feel that the environment is incredibly important and I would ask candidates to explain the position of their parties. I'm looking for straight answers on carbon reduction, support for alternate energy sources, and help for home-owners who want to reduce energy consumption.

I want to know how parties will go beyond the apology made to Aboriginal Canadians earlier this year and honour commitments around land claims and restitution.

I'm interested in views on justice, realizing that there are proposals to "toughen up" on penalties for youth. Although we probably all feel outrage when young people commit serious crimes, I know from experience (chaplain intern in a maximum security prison) that "teaching a lesson" to youth by putting them in prison is often an education in how to be a better crook.

There are others I consider important. How about you?
One more thing -- please vote!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Greed Is Good?

Twenty years ago Michael Douglas turned in an Oscar-winning performance in the film Wall St. playing corporate raider Gordon Gecko. His mantra, offered with evangelical zeal was "greed is good."

Yesterday the president of the United States warned of financial disaster in what should be a great and prosperous nation because of some very bad actors on Wall St. who have been living the "greed is good" credo. Obviously the financial crisis in the U.S. is a complex issue, but it sobering to hear about the gross profiteering of executives in many companies. The six "biggies" among corporate execs received a total of nearly $300 million last year. Executive salaries in the States now average 344 times the salary of an "foot soldier" worker. Those average workers and their partners and offspring will now be on the hook for a bail-out costing over $2,000 each. It's unfair. It's sickening. Wouldn't 700 billion dollars create a health care system that would be the envy of the world for the many Americans who can't afford good health insurance?

Jesus cautioned about the effects of wealth more than any other topic and warned about the love of money as the root of all evil. Greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins and deserves to be.
Of course we all need to be cautioned about greed and choose the antidote which is generosity.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Living Life to its Fullest

The first two respondents to my blog yesterday mentioned Anne of Green Gables as an early and continuing influence on their love of reading. As coincidence or synchronicity would have it, there was an article in the Globe and Mail this morning about the sad life and tragic death of Lucy Maude Montgomery, the author of the Anne books. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080924.wmontgomeryside24/BNStory/mentalhealth/home

The Globe also had a lengthy article on the writer in last Saturday's paper, featuring her granddaughter. After years of silence the family has decided to reveal their conviction that Montgomery took her own life. Her husband, a minister lived with chronic mental illness which deeply affected their relationship. Montgomery herself dealt with recurring depression which led to her untimely death. In that era of the early twentieth century depression was neither acknowledged nor discussed.

Yet Montgomery created a character in Anne Shirley who was an overcomer, an indominatable spirit. Anne was something of a "drama queen" in spilling out her emotions but she had a fierce will to live life to its fullness.

As someone who is easing back to work after a period of restorative leave I can say that I know what it is like to feel depleted in body, mind, and spirit, and even though I tell people I am in the abundant life business, no one is immune from sadness. I can say that I have never felt abandoned by God, nor outside Christ's love. And I have a loving family and friends and fine people in the communities of faith I have served as a source of strength. I hope you do as well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Love to Tell the Story

I'm glad that I was two-thirds of the way through The Story of Edgar Sawtelle when Oprah chose it as her most recent "book to read." I'm a bit perverse about Celebooks, the ones chosen by media stars. I see those stickers on the cover and turn elsewhere. They have every right to recommend books they enjoy, and often they are very good. It's just that I don't want that lemming feeling of being herded with the crowd. Oprah made a good pick by the way -- Edgar Sawtelle is an engrossing read, but I might not have bought it on her say-so.

I have noticed that a number of this blog's readers enjoy reading in general and novels in particular. Why do we read? There is the diversion and entertainment factor and let's face it, television reality shows just don't cut it a lot of the time.

There is something powerful in good story-telling that allows us understand ourselves and our world in a way that facts and figures just can't touch. As Christians we are part of a bigger story of love, forgiveness, pilgrimage, reconciliation, that is the "greatest story ever told." When people try to reduce the bible to an instruction manual or rule book I feel that they have missed the point of the greater narrative. This summer Ruth and I read through the Older Testament book called 1 Samuel. This story of Samuel and Saul and David is disturbing, challenging, nasty, inspiring. Sort of like life. We didn't like lots of it, but the narrative is quite gripping.

Why and what do you read?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Car Free Day?

Something tells me that Car Free Day will not be celebrated with enthusiasm in Bowmanville today. It is difficult in a community of commuters with limited access to public transportation to give up the automobile, even for a day. Still, there are several seniors in our congregation who walk everywhere and are undoubtedly healthier for it.
While Car Reduction Day doesn't have the same ring to it, we might ask whether we can reduce the number of times we crank over the ignition, simply because it is convenient. When can we walk rather than drive? Could our household manage with one car rather than two? Will we choose fuel efficiency in our next vehicle for the sake of the environment?
As I said last week, if walking worked for Jesus, we should try it more often.

The Homecoming

I was warmly welcomed back into the St. Paul's fold yesterday during worship. For me it is not a matter of slipping back into the congregation after an absence. I walk into the pulpit and reassume an important role as worship leader. One of the most significant aspects of my restorative leave was being anonymous for a couple of months, something that hasn't been possible since I was a young man. With the opening of a door I was back into a very public role.

At the same time it is good to be known in a community of faith that is warm and good-humoured. The St. Paul's congregation is so responsive, so open, and while this is the norm here it isn't everywhere. It was great to see the children who had physically grown during the past five months!

It was good to know that the congregation had faired well during my absence and as I looked out I saw several new faces. I spoke with these people after worship and heard of how they found their way to 178 Church St.

This is the way it should be in a living congregation. Growth in every aspect.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Take Back the Day and the Night

This year's Take Back the Night walk in Bowmanville attracted about half the participants of last year. The chaotic few months following the May fire which destroyed the Bethesda House shelter's outreach offices have been a constant "catch up" time for staff, so organization and advertising were slower to get off the ground.

Still, between 40 and 50 children, women, and men walked through the streets of downtown Bowmanville, escorted by police and fire vehicles. Representatives from police forces spoke to the group before the walk and joined in.

When Take Back the Night began men weren't allowed to participate because the premise was and still is that women and children should be able to walk the streets of any community in safety at any time of the day.

As a physically big man I rarely feel fear when I am walking by myself. It doesn't occur to me when I'm on a nature trail that I should be anxious about the approaching man, nor do I worry much about groups of teen boys walking toward me when it is dark. This is not the case for my wife and daughters. As a parent I did worry about our girls walking the streets while away at school.

The day after Bowmanville's Take Back the Night walk a 25-year-old female student was attacked in broad daylight in Toronto. She was sexually assaulted, and while an innocent victim, she is just that, a victim who will probably never be the same. The police said that she had done everything right.

I walked in Bowmanville because of the example of Christ who valued children and women in a society that was patriarchal. An important aspect of my Christian faith is the equality of all human beings and their right to live without fear. Okay, it's also because my wife, Ruth, works for Bethesda House.

I'm sure that the numbers for the walk will be back up next year and perhaps you will be a participant in your community.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Blog Along

Several times in the last week or so people have responded to my blog who haven't in the past. I'm delighted! These include folk who have been reading but haven't created a blogger account, which is necessary for a comment. Twice in the past few days I have been asked how to set up a blogger account. It's as straightforward as going to the blogger website and working through a few easy steps. You don't need to have your own blog, although some people do.

Why am I pleased that people have signed on? I benefit from the observations and perspectives of others and I'm sure readers do as well. Sometimes the comments offer practical information on subjects I have raised. And along with readers in Bowmanville and other parts of Ontario there are regulars in Nova Scotia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Maryland.

I notice that with my three children, all now in their twenties, the interactive world of the internet is a given. I am more inclined to the paper world of newspapers and magazines which provide information but don't allow for an immediate response, although most now have websites with the opportunity to "weigh in." It was a St. Paul's member in his twenties who encouraged me and prodded me to start the blog, sure that this would be a good vehicle for communication. I had never read a blog before he brought it up.

While I'm happy if you remain the strong, silent type, I do hope you will join us... and be gentle!

Hopeful signs

Yesterday we got a fair amount of media coverage concerning verbal gaffes by politicians and other news from the federal campaign trail. Then there was the provincial news conference about a cabinet shuffle with several portfolios dosey-doeing their partners.

Lost in all of this was energy minister George Smitherman's announcement about Ontario's deepened commitment to alternative forms of energy. There was nothing on the CBC today, nor anything I could find in the Globe and Mail. Yet it was an important announcement about a shift of thinking in this province.

Instead of staying the course with nuclear energy megaprojects and vast transmission lines the government will encourage smaller developments more widely spread across the province. And it will explore using biomass, the leftovers from agriculture and forestry as a source of fuel to replace coal.

I am encouraged by this development, if it translates from photo op to reality. We know that several European countries have already adopted this sort of diversification with success. They also buy energy produced by individuals. This happens now in Ontario, although for years private production of power was actually discouraged. Perhaps this green shift (where have I heard that term before?) will take hold in our province.

We are all getting greener in our outlook, including in our Christian communities. It's a matter of translating our hopeful faith into faith in action.

I'll get in a plug here. Our son, Isaac, is the coordinator of the Green Church project in Montreal, an interesting interdenominational initiative to help congregations become more environmentally responsible. These churches are doing everything from reducing throwaways to installing geothermal heating and cooling. They have just launched their website. Take a look at Greenchurch.org

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kid's are Great

Kid's are great. I met a brother and sister from the congregation on the street yesterday. I haven't seen them in five months but after a "hi David" they began a version of show and tell. Older sister pulled a poster for a Nintendo Wii game out of her backpack for me to see, then asked me to smell her new school eraser (lemon.) Little brother got me to look at an ant he had corralled on the sidewalk. I suppose they could have said "how was your summer?" or "how are you feeling?" but the "come and join my life" approach was just right.

Earlier in the day a St. Paul's mom told me that her daughter opened the letter I sent out to every household (she considers church mail fair game) and exclaimed "David's coming back!" I nodded in a ministerial fashion and mumbled something but inside the cockles of my heart warmed right up.

During the summer we attended a little country church with a tiny congregation. One Sunday I looked around and leaned over to Ruth to say that if there was a children's time we would qualify as the youngest people present. Nice folk but something or someone was missing.

I have said it before and I'll say it again. The children of a congregation bring an exuberance and joy that models the Christian message of abundant life. They minister to others (including the ministers) without knowing what ministry is. When they aren't in our midst we are impoverished.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Race That Is Set Before Us

Chantal Peticlerc. Does the name ring a bell? It should since Chantal just won her fifth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and her twenty-second over the course of five Olympic games. In Beijing she set three world records despite being just shy of her thirty ninth birthday.She is probably Canada's most successful Olympic athlete ever. Of course these are the other Olympics, the Paralympics. The powerful and beautiful Peticlerc races in a wheelchair and for some reason we don't acknowledge this sort of athletic accomplishment in the same way. The other night we watched the thrilling conclusion of a race during a sportscast and our twenty-one-year-old daughter, Emily, asked why we don't get the same coverage of these games.

It's a good question. What is a greater accomplishment, training to the height of one's abilities as an able-bodied person, or overcoming what many would consider a raw deal in life and excelling? Peticlerc lost the use of her legs in a car accident as a child and at age eighteen finished last in her first wheelchair race. She went on to become the dominant athlete in the world in her discipline and she retires at the top.

Wouldn't it be good if every school child in Canada was reminded of these accomplishments during this week? And as Christ's people we can be inspired to do our best in the circumstances we find ourselves.

In the book of Hebrews in the New Testament we find this encouragement to follow Christ:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverence the race that is set before us..." Hebrews 12:1

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Greening of Faith and Politics

I'm getting a kick out of feisty Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada's Green Party. Other party leaders wanted to keep her away from that dubious shindig called the televised leaders' debate. There was public outrage when the word got out that these guys wouldn't participate if she was there (hardly likely) and they eventually caved.

May is probably the most articulate of the party leaders and least inclined to bafflegab. The party may be shut out of electing a member to parliament once again but I'm convinced she will keep the other leaders honest in the debate on environmental issues. Let's hope she doesn't get goofy and strident the way participants often do in these debates.

Despite our national nervousness about the economy the environment still ranks number two as an election issue, and of course economy and ecology are closely related both in word origin and practical impact on Canadians.

I don't believe for a moment that her inclusion will open the door for just any kook to take part in the debate. The Greens have found candidates for virtually every riding in the country. May has earned our respect through years of government involvement and activism and should be treated accordingly.

Did anyone notice that our devout P.M. chose a Sunday morning to call the election? And that liberal-minded Elizabeth May was put out because it interfered with going to church? Life is filled with ironies.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thou Shalt Get Buff

Last week there was a front page article in a Canadian national newspaper headlined The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Get Buff about the growing trend in what appears to be conservative Christian congregations toward promoting fitness. Pastors who may have taken a more "pie-in-the-sky" approach to faith are leading by example and shedding the pudding through various forms of physical activity. As some of these faith families build new facilities they are including fitness rooms to promote good health.

I noticed that no United Church clergy were interviewed. It's strange. Even though the UCC espouses a practical and earthy Christianity, in my training for ministry and nearly three decades in the pastorate there has been next to no official emphasis on physical fitness. The United Church Observer magazine has addressed the subject well.We like to talk about "body, mind, and spirit" but there is a greater emphasis on the latter two.

After a moderator visited St. Paul's a couple of years ago I drove him back to Toronto and bent his ear. I suggested that continuing education funding be opened up to include gym memberships and that the national church provide incentives to clergy and their congregations for fitness activities. I offered that it would probably take some strain off our health benefits program since we have an aging workforce. Clergy live a fairly sedentary lifestyle in which people encourage us to eat at every turn. He sounded interested (I did have a captive audience) but so far, no announcements.

In the meantime I keep going to the gym and engaging in outdoor activities. I try to walk in a town which is based on hopping into a car for just about everything. I figure if Jesus and the disciples hoofed it everywhere it is probably a good idea.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

World Made By Hand

The people of Texas have been battered and bruised by Hurricane Ike, this weekend, although fortunately the loss of life has been minimal. Millions have been left without power and some have lost everything. Huge numbers were evacuated from Houston, the fourth largest city in America. This wasn't Katrina but Ike sure packed a wallop.

How would we cope if suddenly the world we know was tossed on its ear? Earlier this year I blogged about the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I have also mentioned Pest House by Jim Crace. Both are dystopian stories of catastrophic destruction and I found them to be quite grim. I just finished World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler. It pictures the U.S. roughly thirty years along, after the supplies of oil have disappeared. Vehicles have been rendered useless, as have electrical devices. Populations have shrunk because of diseases but there is a remnant of those who have learned to cope in what is essentially the world of our great-grandparents . While this novel is not overly pessimistic it does cause the reader to consider whether we could flourish in a world made by hand.

In the novels by Crace and Kunstler religion plays a part in the new world order, but it is an apocalyptic vision with ulterior motives. What if religions, including Christianity, were constructive in this moment, helping people to understand the necessity of living a more sustainable existence? I pray that we wake up while it is still possible to make a difference.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Great Canadian

Earlier this week Jean Vanier celebrated his 80th birthday. Although there was some media recognition it was understated, as is the man. In my opinion he is a great Canadian, not only in this era but in any.

Vanier was the founder of the L'Arche movement, the residences now established in many countries which are "arks" or shelters from the storm for those who live with mental and physical challenges or disabilities. Vanier's central principle is that every person is a child of God and should have the opportunity to live a life of dignity. These individuals are as deserving of Christ's love and our love as any other person. The prolific Christian writer, Henri Nouwen, left behind much of the acclaim he received to live in a L'Arche community in Thornhill Ontario.

I have heard Jean Vanier speak on several occasions. The first time was before I was ordained and he was speaking in the parking lot of a golf course just north of Kingston. I have no recollection of why he was there, nor do I remember what he said. I do remember being deeply impressed by his gentleness and wisdom and sense of humour. At that point his mother was still alive and he ruefully admitted that while he had his admirers his mother kept him humble by pointing out that he always seemed to be wearing clothes that needed washing.

I have no doubt that Vanier's practical movement was signficant in changing the way societies regard those who were once locked away from the world as defective and embarrassing. Both my wife Ruth and son Isaac worked in the same group home in Halifax where the residents were treated with the dignity Vanier espouses. From time to time they reminisce about that work with folk they came to love.

Jesus heard and saw those who were shunned and pushed to the margins of his culture. Thank God for persons such as Jean Vanier who have done the same.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Back from Green Pastures

What is it, ten or eleven weeks since I last blogged? During this self-imposed silence I have been away a good chunk of the time as part of my restorative leave from the life of St. Paul's. Last week I began easing back into the work of the congregation although not yet into worship life. That will come on September 21st. Today I signed hundreds of letters to be sent out to the congregation informing everyone of my gradual return.

It was good to be without access to the internet and even the telephone at times. This was an important aspect of restoring my soul, even though I had a hankerin' for a baseball score from time to time and plenty that I could have blogged about.

The photo here was one I took while I was away. I am accustomed to seeing blue herons by still waters, motionless as they wait for dinner to swim by. I saw the same intensity and concentration in this heron, but at the edge of a roiling river. It's always a challenge to find inner stillness next to the whitewater, and the challenge of our age.

We'll see how that works for me after this time of stepping away from the busyness of ministry. People have been wonderfully supportive and the congregation and staff have done admirably. I look forward to reconnecting with the flock in the days ahead.