Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Strength of Love

This morning I donned a clerical collar for the third day in a row, something that I have done perhaps once or twice in many years of ministry. I usually put on a clerical shirt just for funerals and three days in succession is a rarity, thank God. I will conduct the third this afternoon, this one for an 89-year-old who has shown amazing resilience through the years but finally succumbed to the illnesses of aging. I got up feeling as though I had been wrung right out. It isn't just presiding at services, it is the intense preparation and emotional strain. An hour at the gym actually helped.

Yesterday the service at St. Paul's attracted close to 300 people as we commended 36-year-old David to God's care. We heard three powerful tributes to a man who had struggled with mental illness for a decade. The family demonstrated tremendous grace in their honesty about a son and brother, and considerable tenderness as they lauded his strengths.

I wondered how many people they ministered to in their grief: those who have gone through similar circumstances, or wrestle themselves with mental illness, or are bewildered as to why someone with so many gifts chose this path. We should be grateful to them for the strength they shared in the midst of fragility.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wedded Ballistics

Yesterday I listened to an interview with the Rev. Brent Hawkes who has been the pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto for decades. Some describe it as "the gay church" although while the majority of members are gay, it is an eclectic congregation.

Hawkes was asked to reflect back eight years to two marriages he performed, one for a male couple and the other for a female couple. Before the laws of the province changed to permit same-gender marriage, he published the banns for both couples. The language of the banns assumed that a couple was made up of two persons of the opposite gender, but it only stated that it was two persons. So, he went ahead with the marriages and later the law changed.

He shared that in the days leading up to the ceremonies the church was in the eye of a media hurricane. He received hate mail which included death threats. Unfortunately some of it came from Christians opposed to homosexuality and to same-gender marriage. He conducted the weddings wearing a bullet-proof vest and with a heavy police presence.

I know that readers have a range of opinions on same-gender marriage, which is not surprising in a diverse society where freedom of expression and religious conviction is encouraged.

Where are you in all this? Has your attitude changed with time (most of us were raised with particular views about homosexuality)? Do you continue with the convictions developed in earlier years? I ask this, not in judgement of anyone, but with real curiosity.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Up in the Air

We managed to get to the film Up in the Air before our Montreal family took the train home. We all enjoyed the picture -- funny, thoughtful, well-acted. George Clooney does a great job as a professional "firer" who criss-crosses America telling people that they are no longer employed. He does the dirty work that most employers don't want to do and he does it well. His character essentially lives in airplanes on his way to and from assignments, and not surprisingly he collects air miles as his one and only pastime.

He assures those he meets along the way that he is quite content with the nomadic but orderly life he lives. He is much more comfortable in well-appointed hotel rooms than the spartan apartment he keeps. He has no real relationships and likes it that way. How does the story unfold? I encourage you to go see whether he has a Scrooge-like conversion.

This week I will preside at funerals on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Two of the deceased were old and lived good and full lives. The third person died far too young. All were loved and loved others. Family and friends will gather in each case to say thank you and farewell and to commend them to God's care and keeping. We don't live in isolation, even when we are tempted to think that it protects us from pain or demands too much of us. As faith communities we do our best to move beyond isolation to mutual caring and compassion. We don't always do it well, but it is better than the alternative. Even though Christian faith is sometimes derided as "pie in the sky" it is often at its best when it is "down to earth", grounded in relationships.

Have any of you seen the movie? What are your perspectives on the importance of relationships? Relationship with God?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Coveting Day

In the New Year, leading up to the beginning of Lent, I will do a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. At no time during the three-year lectionary cycle do we get a chance to ponder the commandments, so I will address five during this period and the other five at another time. But which ones to choose?

On Boxing Day I'm thinking that "you shall not covet" would be a good choice. I can covet with the best of them. Last evening we were all poring over the flyers, looking for great bargains. In the end I decided that I will go the gym this morning rather than wrestle with the crowds at some big box store. I received some wonderful gifts yesterday and I want for nothing. How is it that I convince myself that I absolutely must have more, and more, and more?

Before Christmas some of the pundits were suggesting that we are suffering from "austerity fatigue," weary of restraint after nearly a year of recession. How ridiculous! We are not defined by our stuff, or the desire to purchase.

Which commandments would you like addressed? How about that coveting thing?

Happy shopping!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Comfort

This is Christmas Day and chances are none of you will reading a word I offer! That's certainly understandable because this is a time of celebration and family gatherings.

If you should get to this blog through the weekend, I invite you to pray for those who are in hospital from our church family (at least three this year) along with others. And for the two families who have experienced death, one tragically.

Every year I am aware of members of our flock who are lonely, or sick, or in the midst of grief and heartache as others are celebrating.

Christ has come for them, and we can only pray that they experience this comfort.

For all who are in the midst of joy this day, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conceiving Jesus

Many churches have given Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus lots of "air time" in recent weeks and tonight there will be plenty of nativity tableaux gracing Christmas Eve services. But one congregation in New Zealand has created a major stir with a billboard of the holy couple in bed and the caption "Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow." The idea was to jolt folk out of their Christmas sentimentality to really consider what the story is saying to us about God's involvement in Jesus' conception.

The result has been a fair amount of controversy and a man has taken it upon himself to paint over the image in what he must feel is righteous vandalism. It does raise important questions about how we interpret the stories of the gospels about Jesus' conception and birth. We all read Luke at the this time of the year but Mark and John say nothing about Jesus' birth, nor does the apostle Paul. Their focus is ministry, passion, and resurrection and for Paul, Good Friday and Easter are the main events.
One religious leader who finds the billboard offensive says this:
"Look, we haven't got a problem with the fact that they want a debate around the virgin birth, about sex and religion, we just don't think it's appropriate on a public billboard to be talking about the sexual prowess of God versus the sexual prowess of Joseph. That's a debate you have inside the church building, not on a public billboard that families and kids are going to see."

Do you think the billboard is irreverent or topical? How important is the birth of Christ to your faith?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nazareth and Jesus

We will hear the story of a pregnant woman and her husband making their way from the "town" of Nazareth to the "city" of Bethlehem where she gives birth to a child recognized by angels and shepherds as the Promised One of God. In reality Nazareth was little more than a hamlet and Bethlehem a village. Read below about an important discovery disclosed a couple of days ago.

NAZARETH, Israel — Days before Christmas, archaeologists on Monday unveiled what they said were the remains of the first dwelling in Nazareth that can be dated back to the time of Jesus — a find that could shed new light on what the hamlet was like during the period the New Testament says Jesus lived there as a boy.

The dwelling and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres (1.6 hectares). It was evidently populated by Jews of modest means who kept camouflaged grottos to hide from Roman invaders, said archaeologist Yardena Alexandre, excavations director at the Israel Antiquities Authority,

Based on clay and chalk shards found at the site, the dwelling appeared to house a “simple Jewish family,” Alexandre added, as workers at the site carefully chipped away at mud with small pickaxes to reveal stone walls.

Interesting. How does this fit with your mental image of Jesus' hometown? Disappointing or helpful?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Son and the Sun

Newgrange, Ireland

My patient wife, Ruth, smiles every year as a I count down the days until the Winter Solstice, which marks the shortest daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere, but also the beginning of lengthening days. I find I am affected by the lack of daylight, as are so many others. I want to eat too much and go into hibernation! It doesn't work out that way for those of us in ministry.

I have mentioned other years that while the celebration of the solstice is associated with pagan worship, it has a Christian connection. In the old Julian calendar the solstice was celebrated on December 25th each year, and it's thought that in the days when Christianity was still illegal believers celebrated Christ's birth at the same time so that other revellers and authorities wouldn't notice.

One of the truly remarkable monuments to the solstice is at Newgrange, Ireland. At dawn on Winter Solstice every year, just after 9am, the sun begins to rise across the Boyne Valley from Newgrange, over a hill known locally as Red Mountain. Given the right weather conditions, the event is spectacular. At four and a half minutes past nine, the light from the rising sun strikes the front of Newgrange, and enters into the passage through the roofbox which was specially designed to capture the rays of the sun. For the following fourteen minutes, the beam of light stretches into the passage of Newgrange and on into the central chamber, where, in Neolithic times, it illuminated the rear stone of the central recess of the chamber. This homage to the solstice was created in 3200 BCE, long before the pyramids or Stonehenge were erected.

Any comments on the Winter Solstice? Do you look forward to the lengthening daylight hours. Any solstice parties out there?

Monday, December 21, 2009

While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night

I often share stories of our elders and our youngsters but I thought I should let you know about two of our young adults, amonst those away for university in their first year. College/university students are the supposedly "lost" group who tend to drift away from organized religion, sometimes forever.

Recently our Pastoral Care Committee, Rev. Cathy, and Carol in our office worked together to create and send "care packages" to a number of first year students. Some of the enclosed items were fun and others were practical. It was a way of saying "we are thinking of you" in a concrete way.

A couple of Sundays ago Cathy read a thoughtful note from the pulpit, sent by one of the young women. And yesterday after church another of the recipients, home for the holidays, handed me a card she created (above) with its own note of gratitude. She especially like the socks.

Aren't you glad we have caring folk who came up with this idea?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Jewish Christmas Medley

We are getting into full carol mode these days, singing all the wonderful Christmas hymns from the past and a few from the present. Our carols tell the story of our faith in such a wonderful way.

Did you realize that most of the favourite secular songs of the season were written by Jews, not Christians? Take a look at the list:

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,”
“The Christmas Song” (yes, Mel Tormé was Jewish),

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,”

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,”

“Silver Bells,”

“Santa Baby,”

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

“Winter Wonderland”

I know it isn't politically correct to say this, but oy vey those Jews are good at everything!
Have you got a favourite on the list?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Medicinal Hugs and Religion

I would like to comment on the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit today, but I honestly don't have a clue as to whether the representatives came up with anything substantive. It feels more like Kyoto Light than a breakthrough.

So I'll tell you about a moment from visiting yesterday. I went to see a lovely elderly woman from our congregation who lives in a nursing home because of dementia. She almost always knows me by name when I show up and she goes out for hours on long walks and always finds her way back to the home. Yet she ruefully admits that she can't remember events from earlier in the day and others often inform her that she has been out for a walk she doesn't realize she has taken.

I found her in a sitting area along with three other women I didn't know. That didn't stop them from entering into the conversation and we had a lively chat for a half hour. I offered to read the Christmas story from Luke, and they were all pleased. After a prayer I offered a goodbye hug to our member and one of the others said "I want one of those!" In the end I hugged all four of them. I'm careful about physical touch and often wait years before I suggest a hug. They were lined up and ready,having met me less than an hour before. It was quite touching. Sometimes I find that the elderly enter into the vulnerability they probably haven't known since childhood.

A recent study has shown that hugs meet or exceed the effects of religion in a person's life. Why not go for both!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dog is God Spelled Backward

It was White Gift Sunday this past week and our Sunday School did a great job of leading worship. We had a guest who is visually impaired -- my sense is she has no sight. She came with her guide dog, a Labrador Retriever much like the one pictured above. And also like this one, it calmly lay down under the pew and stayed put for the duration. It was the first time in my thirty years of ministry that someone has come with their guide animal. One child earnestly suggested to her that dogs aren't allowed in church, but the woman gently explained that this is a special dog.

We received word from the government recently that because a church is a public place we must comply with the law when it comes to companion animals, not only for the visually impaired but those who have them to address anxiety and other disorders. That means pot-bellied pigs, ferrets, and rats can all come to church. You may feel that you have sat next to a rat in church before, but only figuratively speaking.

What do you think about a menagerie in church? I wonder about those with allergies. We could read about the ark for inspiration, or perhaps the stable.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Symbols of Light

That's reader Brian with his hand on the Olympic torch as it made it's way through Bowmanville. He was able to do the same back in the eighties.

Being around to see the Olympic torch pass by was not high on my priority list but yesterday I arrived back at the church from hospital visits just as people began cheering from nearby King St. So I walked the short block to be part of the festivities, wondering if Bowmanville was the only place in Canada where torchbearers had an honour guard of elephants, camels, zebras and caribou. A short while later I walked back from a nursing home and looked up to see the same critters moseying along Church St. on their way back to the zoo.

Do you know that Adolf Hitler was behind the Olympic torch relay tradition? The torch was not part of the modern-day Olympics until 1926, then Hitler decided in 1936 that a relay of perfect Aryan specimens running all the way from Greece to the Olympic stadium in Berlin would send a strong statement to the world about the values of the Third Reich. Despite these dubious beginnings the torch relay is seen in such a positive way by host countries.

As Christians we should understand that the negative connotations of a symbolic act can be made into something positive. The cross was a brutal form of execution used by a number of ancient cultures, including the Roman Empire. For centuries the Christian movement did not use the cross as a symbol of faith because it was such a humiliating and barbaric end to Jesus' life. Now we associate the darkness of Good Friday with sacrificial love and look to the resurrection of Easter as our hope.

Anyone else watch the torch pass by?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Put a New Spirit Within Me

6You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
9Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

A faithful reader observed last week that I must be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn't commented on the Tiger Woods debacle. At the time I don't think Tiger had fully admitted his infidelity, and I like so many others was sickened by the "feeding frenzy," even though everything pointed to his being a world class schmuck. What is more immoral, his serial cheating or the prurient pursuit of "the dirt" of his personal life? He is the subject of much scorn and many jokes: "Confucius say, he who drives well on the fairway, does not always fair well on the driveway" is one I can repeat.

I will reflect now because Tiger Woods has admitted his wrong-doing without attempting to blame anyone else. He has suffered personal consequences as a result of his unfaithfulness and he has promised to put aside fame, glory and reward, in order to mend the brokenness in his marriage -- something which honestly may be impossible. I suppose we will eventually know his level of sincerity.

The verses above from Psalm 51 are read every year as we enter into the season of Lent rather than Advent. They are the lament of King David who had it all, but wanted more. He understands that he is morally ill and needs to be restored to spiritual health. There are times when each of us needs to get on the right track with God when our lives are a mess. It's just that some of us are more famous than others. Our Christian faith invites us to say we are sorry and move forward in forgiveness toward reconciliation.

Perhaps the great immorality behind this story is that someone can become a billionaire by playing a sport well. Just when did we lose our moral compass on this one and idolize people for playing games?


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

O Unholy Night

I don't believe in capital punishment but I sure am tempted to say it should be meted out to those who destroy works of art. Well, I would have to put murdering human beings at the head of the queue, but I was saddened to hear that the 400-year- old nativity painting shown above was burned by the Italian mafia forty years ago. An informant who was involved has admitted that the thieves damaged it during the theft, then stored in a barn where critters gnawed away at it. So in the end they burned it. Disgusting.

While I am a huge fan of the artist Caravaggio this painting doesn't do much for me, although it fits the season. His depictions of the Last Supper are sublime and on my visits to the National Art Gallery in London I have headed to the one it owns first.

Caravaggio was a rogue himself. A womanizer (maybe a manizer) and boozer , he spent time in jail for brawling and was "on the lam" for a suspected murder for years. He was dead by the age of thirty seven having produced roughly eighty paintings that have survived to this day. His exceptional ability to bring drama to a work through the interplay of light and dark (chiarascuro) brought about a school of painters, the Caravaggisti. Really -- I'm not making this up!

Caravaggio was largely forgotten until the twentieth century. I wonder if it is because we are fascinated with bad boys and girls. The movie Amadeus accentuated Mozart's crudity, even while he was producing sublime music. And we are fascinated with the fallen celebs, everyone from Lindsay Lohan (where did she go?) to Tiger Woods (what's next for him?)
Why does this intrigue us so?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ring That Bell!

I will add to the blog entry below by mentioning that we rang our church bell for climate justice yesterday, along with churches around the world. We gave our recently reinforced bell tower a good workout by ringing 350 times, the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide considered an acceptable level in the atmosphere (we are approaching 390.)

We invited all present in worship, but particularly the children to ring the bell five times each on the way to 350. More than fifty individuals took part, the majority of them children, some very young. There were also several senior citizens. Thanks to Christopher who acted as our Quasimodo to assist the kids.

Did the children understand what they were doing? Most probably had only a vague notion, although they loved ringing that bell! Will ringing bells actually change anything? Not really, although this, to me, is part of the overall effort to raise awareness of a problem that is planetary in scope. A neighbour was curious about what we were doing, and it gave me the opportunity to explain the exercise.

What do you think? Are symbolic acts important or just whistling into the wind? Several parents are readers. What was the reaction of your children?

Climate Justice

6Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way...

These verses from the second chapter of the prophet Amos are a powerful indictment of greed aimed at those who consider themselved religious but don't live ethically. They have been cited often through the ages to address the inequities between rich and poor.

They come to mind as I listen to the news stories of tensions between developed and developing nations at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. A document was leaked earlier last week suggesting that richer nations should be held to a different standard (lower, not higher) than other countries. It felt like a justification of privilege that led some of the poorer nations to consider leaving the conference.

I trust that the religious delegations present during these two weeks will be attentive to these concerns as a matter of God's justice in the world. The words of an Israelite prophet from 2800 years ago who wouldn't have a clue about climate change still have currency in our time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sunday of Joy

It is our White Gift Sunday today so the joy theme is present in worship through the children, if not in a sermon.

Here is a reflection on joy from the Sound Bites online daily reading. It uses one of the lectionary readings for the day.

"Always be joyful, then, in the Lord; I repeat, be joyful. Let your good sense be obvious to everybody. The Lord is near. Never worry about anything; but tell God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petition shot through with gratitude, and the peace of God which is beyond our understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:4-7)

Advent is not only a time of promise and preparation; it is a time to rejoice. The rejoicing we do is in great part a celebration of the initial fulfillment of the promise made; it is a living into the unspeakable mystery that has already occurred and which is at the heart of the season. The mystery is this: that God is born.

Not only does this mystery speak to us of the inexpressible compassion of our God, who has entered intimately into history in order to participate fully in all that is most human, but it recalls for us that creation itself, especially the human person, has become the sacred locus of the encounter of the finite and the infinite. It is in the womb of the world that the radical promise of a new creation has been conceived, gestated, and born.

-- Wendy M. Wright in The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ's Coming (Nashville, Tenn.: Upper Room Books, 1992)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chappy Chanukah!

Well, the title doesn't quite work, because the guttural pronunciation for Hanukah doesn't look right for Happy. But if we have Jewish friends wishing them well or giving them a card last evening would have been fitting because it was the beginning of this minor Jewish festival. This is the first full day.

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukah is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and may occur from late November to late December. The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah and the miracle of Hanukah was that the oil for the menorah lasted eight days even though it appeared that there was only enough for one.

Some Jews in North America and Israel have created a "green Hanukah" in relation to this miracle of the oil, emphasizing reflection on energy conservation and energy independence. An example of this is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life's renewable energy campaign. It seems like a bit of a stretch, but why not, especially in the midst of the climate change summit in Copenhagen.

My favorite aspect of Hanukah is potato latke's the scumptious pancakes that taste best served with sour cream. While I have never had the jelly doughnuts, they sound divine.

Any Hanukah stories dear readers?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Prayers for Understanding

When the World Trade Towers were struck by the two aircraft on September 11, 2001, the landing gear from one of the them crashed into a nearby warehouse owned by Burlington Coats. The building was closed as a result but it has been put into service since then in an unusual way. It was purchased and is now used as a mosque, or at least the overflow from another New York City mosque.

The location is intentional on the part of the imam who preaches tolerance and interfaith understanding. "We want to push back against the extremists,” says Imam Feisal, 61. He has reached out to Jewish and Christian leaders who support his initiative.

Because some might interpret the presence of an Islamic place of prayer so close to Ground Zero as provocative there are no outward indications that this is a mosque, but there is a presence.

What do you think about this story? I figure religion is at it's worst when it calls for intolerance and at its best when it builds bridges of understanding and compassion. Do you think the presence of this place of prayer is insensitive?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Wave for Change

Last Saturday 20,000 people gathered in London, England to demand that the leaders assembling in Copenhagen come up with more than a token agreement on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. The various events across Britain were part of what was being called The Wave movement.

I was pleased to see that the events were kicked off with an ecumenical worship service at Westminster Central Hall, which involved both the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. There is a Salvation Army officer in the front row of the photo above. An estimated 3,000 people attended this service.

Our United Church moderator, Mardi Tindal, will attend the Climate Change Summit along with a small UCC delegation. I'm glad that we will be represented because our denomination has been outspoken on this issue for more than a decade. This is a matter of faith, from my perspective, both in terms of awe and respect for creation, and as a justice issue. We are reminded repeatedly that those who will be affected most and first by climate change will be the poor. I heard a radio piece recently which explored the fact that women in developing countries will bear the greatest burden because they procure water, do the majority of the farming, and care for children.

How do you feel about the United Church using dwindling resources to send folk to Copenhagen? Again I'll ask if you think that climate change is an issue for Christians to address?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Joy of Snow

22Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?

29From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoar-frost of heaven?

30The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.

These verses are from Job, chapter 38. Although I have already blogged for today I had to comment on the first snowstorm of the season. Even though we got off lightly (no snow at all, actually) during November, there was "shovel shock" this morning. After we came in from our labours I listened to the advice, given seriously during the CBC news, to adjust to the snow by driving with both hands on the steering wheel, a little slower, and to make sure that feet can reach the pedals. Okay, so no four-year-olds behind the wheel. Only in Southern Ontario would common sense be a breaking news item.

Children and dogs will probably regard today's snowfall as a gift from God. The rest of us can catch up to them. We cancelled our bible study this morning which would have focussed on the joy Sunday of Advent. The joy of snow!

Mastadon United?

I got an email from Joe recently, with a link to the diligent work by a heritage group trying to save rural United Churches which have been "decommissioned" after amalgamations with other congregations or outright closures. One of these church buildings is pictured above.
I wasn't sure how I should take this email. Joe has a strong interest in the arts so may have simply felt that I would be interested in this initiative. He also has a wry sense of humour, and the fact that there is a proposal to turn one of these defunct church buildings into a mastadon museum may have tickled his funny bone.

All I can say is that I laughed out loud. Mastadons were once a powerful species roaming the country, but are now extinct. What an apt, although disturbing metaphor for the United Church! While there are pockets of enthusiasm and even growth for the UCC we are, overall, the incredible shrinking, aging denomination.

As someone in my mid-fifties and with thirty years of ministry in the rear-view mirror I am keenly aware of my mastadon-in-training status. I have spent more than half my lifetime trying to buck the cultural trend away from organized religion, particularly in the mainline churches. In fact, I have been defiant at times about not sending up the white flag to our secular "signs of the times" but must confess that I am battle-weary.

Many of our older members are still passionate about their Christian communities but worn out. At St. Paul's we are blessed with involved younger families, including a number of readers, but you must notice that many of the younger crowd are rather half-hearted about active, involved faith. I congratulated a mother recently on being in church the morning of one daughter's birthday. The party was happening in the afternoon but the family decided both worship and festivities could happen the same day.

At the risk fo getting into a major fogey rant, maybe the real mastadons are the people who want the vestiges of another day, showing up for "hatch, match, and dispatch," but don't get that sustaining a living Christian community requires participation and discipleship. Do they realize that their mommies and daddies won't be around forever to keep the churches going?

I do wonder about the future of our denomination. I have seven years before my earliest retirement date, but I have a son, himself an endangered species because he is in his twenties, who will be ordained as a United Church minister in 2011. It will be a very different UCC for him.

Thanks for the inspiration Joe. I would love to hear from readers on this one.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Truth About Priests

My first thought was great, here we go with some RC bashing, but I was pleasantly surprised by the cover article for Maclean's magazine with the title The Truth About Priests. Yes it does point out the abysmal failure of the Roman Catholic church worldwide to address sexual abuse. And it asks lots of tough questions about the way the church has functioned and still does. But it points out that studies in the United States show at the worst of this terrible scandal somewhere between two and four percent of Roman Catholic priests were abusers. Now, this is two to four percent too many, but it also tells us that between ninety six and ninety eight percent were not involved in abuse.

We do tend to hold clergy to higher standards, in part because of their positions of trust and also because they are seen as representatives of a God of love, justice, and compassion. The violation of these principles is shocking and unacceptable. But the article notes that there is no evidence that being a priest, either gay or straight, puts a person at greater risk or propensity for being a sex offender.

As I have said before, I have been outraged by the revelations of violation of trust, yet I have been associated with priests who are hard working, much loved by parishioners, and committed followers of Jesus Christ. They have suffered from the infidelity of colleagues, and can say or do little in their own defense.

Think about it. There has been a rash of violations of trust by female teachers in recent years (a small percentage of men have been at it for a long time.) In the state of Florida there have been a number of high-profile cases involving women teachers and teen boys which has left officials bewildered. While this is statutory rape, I'm sure that there hasn't been a call for an end to female teachers, nor would it occur to us that all women teachers violate their codes of conduct, and the laws of the jurisdictions in which they live.

One thing is certainly true: sexual abuse is "soul murder," as one survivor chillingly puts it. How have you processed these disturbing revelations? How are clergy different from others in your opinion?

Monday, December 07, 2009

God Sees the Little Nuthatch Eat

I got an email from Kylie, one of the tween members of St. Paul's. She had been for a walk with her grandfather, reader Brian, who is putting some hours of his retirement to great use taking his grandkids for exploratory walks in the great out of doors. Kylie knew I was aware of the spot where this nuthatch was coaxed to eat seeds from the hand and she wanted me to see the photographic evidence. We have been quite successful with the chickadees but the nuthatches tend to hang around and watch, much warier about humans. This was an accomplishment!

I write often about the importance of encouraging our children to enjoy the natural world, what we Christians regard as God's creation. Watching and admiring the seasonal changes in our natural settings and interacting with the creatures which inhabit them is an essential step toward conscientious care and protection.

We sometimes wondered whether our three children would end up resenting how much of their early years was spent camping, canoeing, hiking. After all, they didn't have much of a choice. I'm relieved that in adulthood they appreciate the living world around them. And now we have a daughter-in-law who is a freshwater ecologist and with whom we can have great conversations.

Nice going Kylie, and keep up the noble work Brian. Any comments on what you do to encourage the children in your sphere of influence to appreciate creation?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Lest We Forget

It was twenty years ago today that a gunmen walked into Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique and opened fire on female engineering students. There was absolutely no provocation but fourteen promising young women lost their lives, as did the gunman who took his own life. The mother of the gunman heard about this massacre while at her church and before she knew that it was her son she suggested to others that they pray for those affected.

Days after this terrible event I was a male participant in a service and vigil hastily organized by some of my women colleagues. It felt awkward to be there someone, but my friends felt it was important that men be present. In the first few years afterward the congregation I served held memorial services in our chapel and distributed white ribbons to men on the Sunday closest to December sixth.

Much of that activity has faded although Rev. Cathy spoke on this subject today. My wife, Ruth, is the outreach worker for Bethesda House, the shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships, so the issues of violence toward women are always around us.

I should mention that many people in Quebec are upset that the federal government is moving toward canning the gun registry in this country. While I was never all that impressed by the registry I understand why they feel we are headed in the wrong direction on this.

I hope we don't forget how important it is to educate, to remember, to work toward change. I'm convinced that the churches can have a significant role in this.
Take a look at this article in yesterday's Toronto Star featuring a survivor of the shootings.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Justice for the Poor

This past week a large crowd held a candlelight vigil in Bhopal, India to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant. The leak resulted in the deaths of 10,000 impoverished people within seventy two hours and another 25,000 in the months and years afterward. Think about this; the initial 10,000 represents roughly three times the number killed in the U.S. as a result of the 911 attacks.During the years before Union Carbide was warned that a disaster might occur but the reports were ignored.

It was the worst industrial accident in history and all these years later there are still huge concerns about the toxic waste in the area around the closed plant as well as the state of the groundwater which people drink.
You might remember a blog about a novel called Animal's People which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It is told from the perspective of a young man who was born seriously deformed as a result of the enviromental problems resulting from an industrial accident in an Indian city. It is a remarkable story, funny and sad. There is an interesting mixture of religious outlooks including Christianity, represented by a loopy old nun ("mad as a leper's thumbnail") who refuses to leave the people she loves and is cherished by the residents.

God knows how many situations of injustice exist around our planet as a result of profits put ahead of people. We hear about this here in Canada, where native communities in Alberta insist their water is being poisoned by the oil sands projects.

Our United Church tends to shine a light on these situations, as best it can. Some other denominations criticize us for being overly concerned over social justice issues, without enough emphasis on personal salvation.

What do you think?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Advent Calendar

Although we are nearly a week into the Advent season I thought I would share with you this online Advent calendar offered through Christianity Today magazine. The art work is lovely without being sentimental.

Thank You!

The parents/grandparents arrive with the children for the nursery school every day and our administrator Helen buzzes them in through our secure door. One cheerful little guy yells out a hearty "thank you!" every single time. One day I dashed out to put a face to a voice and to compliment him on being so polite.

Well, yesterday he wasn't so cheerful. He was wailing away as he came through the door and I could hear his mother admonishing him for being so difficult. Then I heard a mournful "thank you!" despite the fact that he was in such a miserable mood. Now that's training.

We laughed at the contrast between his words and his demeanour, but that is life isn't it? There are times when we don't feel the slightest bit grateful, yet we still try to express it because we want to live toward thankfulness. The life of faith invites us to say "thank you!" even in the tough times and encourages us to believe that it is a gift from God.
I'm often struck by the lack of civility and gratitude around us. This boy modelled gratitude for our staff, even in his grumpiness.

Do you think we live in a grateful society? How easy is it for you to say thank you?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

One is the Loneliest Number

I'm showing my age by quoting from a Three Dog Night hit which is now forty years old.

There have been several reports in the media about a study on loneliness and the conclusion that loneliness is a "social disease" which can infect others.

Of course everything is a disease these days and we have to wonder what treatments will be proposed for this one. I must agree, though, that loneliness is a spiritual condition that affects, if not infects, many people. I often speak with people who are deeply affected by isolation and are deeply lonely. Some of them seem cheerful and gregarious in social settings yet feel they are on their own in life. I have offered many prayers with folk who are desperate to sense that they are not alone.

I do believe that Christian community is a way to address loneliness, although it is not a "happy pill." In the presence of like-minded people of faith we can experience acceptance, peace, and even joy. As a personal example, I have really enjoyed the company of the participants of our two study groups in recent weeks. Their shared insights, soul-searching and humour made my day when we gathered.

That said, I do feel that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Often I experience my deepest connection with God when there are no other human beings around.

How do you address loneliness? Does Christian community make a difference for you? Do you enjoy solitude?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Learning Creation

The New York Times offered an article on a kindergarten in New York state that is unique. The children in this program spend three hours a day outside, rain or shine, and their parents pay $7,000 a year for the privelege. Apparently kindergartens like this are already popular in Europe and Scandanavia but are only catching on now in North America. The New York state program takes place in a 325 acre park.

I think this is wonderful. In a time when virtual worlds and anxious over-protection shield children from experiences of the earth and forests there are some who have figured out how important this is for the development of motor skills, and a sense of wonder, as well as appreciation of other living things.

Our daughter who has been trained in Early Childhood Education pointed out to me earlier this year that daycares are required to provide outdoor opportunities for children in their care but many of them avoid the trouble of getting the kids into outside clothing. She ended up working in a setting with high standards including taking the children out whenever possible.

I wish this was a high priority for faith communities as well. Our Sunday School has planted bulbs and flowers in the Spring, but what if we chose to include an earthy faith component into the curriculum. Perhaps this generation would do a better job of "living with respect in Creation" than we have.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Good News for a Change

This past year, 2009, has been the year of the H1N1 pandemic. Fortunately it didn't become a global plague, but it did put a scare in us.

The pandemic of the decade was HIV/AIDS, although because it didn't affect as many of us directly it didn't have the same emotional impact. There are plenty of grim statistics, particularly from Africa, but there is also good news.

In North America HIV/AIDS has become a manageable illness with combinations or "cocktails" of drugs which allow many to live much longer and even function reasonably well in everyday activities. There has been a shift in perception about those living with this illness.

Some of us will remember when Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity began working with AIDS sufferers who were treated like lepers. Thank God attitudes and awareness has changed.

Perhaps the most important developments have been in Africa. Significant philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation have made a real difference in delivering support to those deeply affected. The voices of the prophets such as Canada's Stephen Lewis have been heard, and the internationial community has responded. Drug companies have lowered the prohibitive cost of drugs which meant that many sufferers went untreated.

On World Aids Day it is important to lift up the good news and to realize that there is still a considerable challenge before us.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Religious Freedom?

Reader Johnnie was candid in his response to Friday's blog, admitting that he has racially or religiously profiled someone in a way that probably wasn't deserved. He "fessed up" to something we have probably all done, the visceral response which overrides our intellectual convictions.

It's interesting that yesterday the citizens of Switzerland voted to ban minarets, the onion-shaped steeple on Muslim mosques. It is not retroactive, but there are only a handful of mosques in Switzerland anyway. It was assumed that this referundum would result in defeat of this racially tinged question. Instead about twenty percent more people voted in favour than predicted. A large majority of Swiss Muslims are Eastern European but there is a growing suspicion of Muslims in Europe, a backlash against aggressive statements and acts which stem from Islamist groups. In France the burka has been banned from schools and there is debate about banning it altogether.

I sometimes wonder how long it will be before someone challenges the public display of crosses on the exteriors of Christian buildings. And what about those offensive nativity scenes which sprout on church lawns at this time of the year?

What is your response to the ban in Switzerland? What are your thoughts about religious freedom and its limits?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Prayers for the Dead

What a horror the massacre in Mumbai was a year ago. Rampaging gunmen moved through several hotels, killing everyone in sight. A great evil in the name of religion.

I saw an interview with a Turkish couple who speak excellent English and are quite sophisticated in their ability to express themselves and ponder what unfolded in the midst of the chaos. The husband was herded into a stairwell with other guests by the gunmen and he pleaded with them for his life, telling them that he too was a Muslim. They asked him to recite a prayer and he began the prayer for the dead, the only one he knew by heart. The terrorists stopped him abruptly and told him to lie down. Then they massacred the rest of the captives. With emotion he recalled the shell casings raining down on him and being soaked in the blood of the others.

Later he was reunited with his wife and held in a room with three Indian women. The terrified women, including his wife, held hands for support. Then the gunmen came in, separated them from the three Indians, whom they then executed. The wife decided that despite the risk she must recite the prayer which had saved her husband's life over the three victims. They went to the bodies and did so together, wondering if this would be their death sentence, but the young men watched in silence before departing once more.

It was obvious that this brutality made no sense to them and was antithetical to their understanding of their faith. I wish Muslim leaders and the heads of Arab nations were more vocal in their opposition of violence, but I am convinced that the majority of Muslims decry harming others in God's name.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Prayer

I hope you don't mind that I've doubled up on blog entries a couple of times in this past week. Here is a Thanksgiving prayer from the venerable Book of Common Prayer sent out as part of an email devotional from a spiritual reflection ministry in the States.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty God, we give you thanks
for this life and all its blessings,
for joys great and simple,
for gifts and powers more than we deserve,
for love at the heart of your purpose
and wisdom in all your works,
for light in the world brought once in Christ
and always shining through your Spirit.
Giving thanks to you we pray

for that light to dawn upon us daily
that we may always have grateful hearts,
and a will to love and to serve you
to the end of our days.
Hear our prayer and our praises,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Well, yesterday the president pardoned the turkey and hundreds of thousands of people were on the move toward other family members. Thanksgiving is a huge deal in the States and the most significant gathering time in the year, ahead of Christmas. It is an opportunity to give thanks for abundance, security, prosperity. Of course this year's Thanksgiving is different. Millions are out of work and a quarter of those fortunate to own a home know that the actual value of their property has sunk below its mortgaged value. Recently president Obama was in China, cultivating the relationship with the nation which has become its banker, along with a cluster of Arab nations.

The latest Atlantic Monthly magazine has an article suggesting that a big reason for the current recession in the US is Christianity. Man, we get blamed for everything these days.

I do understand the premise of the article. In the past few decades the "health and wealth" gospel has been a powerful and pervasive message from many American pulpits. It is essentially the message that prosperity and abundance find their way to true believers. The American Dream has been intertwined with God's blessing, and that blessing is lots of cash.

One of the pastors featured in the article, a guy who is an unrelenting preacher of this message also happened to be a mortgage loan officer for two institutions. So he was promising that God would bless his congregation and then loaning them the money to buy houses they couldn't really afford. Today many of the foreclosure hotspots in the country coincide with areas where this message is preached.

While big-name Christian pastors such as Joel Osteen promote "health and wealth" so does someone like Oprah who endorsed the book The Secret.

Do you think that God blesses the faithful with material wellbeing? If not, how does God bless us/you?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Abortion Discussion Continued

A responder to yesterday's blog on abortion helpfully gave a link to the United Church statement on the subject. It is thoughtful and worth reading. Our silence is in the discussion at a congregational level, not in terms of an official position.

While I thanked this individual, I don't want this to be lost, so...

Just click to find your way there.

Good for the Soul

Two evenings ago there was a documentary on TV called The Science of the Soul. It explored the mysterious essence of being human which goes beyond the mechanics of our bodies and the synapses of our brains. This is what religious folk call the soul.

The doc makers spoke with scientists and physicians, who aren't inclined to use that term "soul" but are intrigued by that intangible and immeasurable essence. Where are we when we are under anaesthetic? Can we give any credence to "out of body" experiences? Why do the brains of people in supposed vegetative states respond to the same stimuli as those who are conscious? Is there some state between consciousness and unconsciousness which could be called the soul?

Some of the scientists are fascinated by this even though they don't believe in an afterlife or an eternal soul.

I have been at the bedsides of enough people who died to want to hear what these scientific types have to say. There is a sense in those moments of something, some life-force departing in death.

What do you think about this? Do you have a soul?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm Back!

I have a postscript to yesterday's blog about the children on Sunday. I have spoken to a couple of people since then and it prompted one more moment. A pregnant young mom spoke to me at the door after worship.I haven't seen her in quite a while and I wondered if she was a little sheepish and felt awkward about her extended absence, but we chatted. Her three year old was with her who looked up at me and said with great enthusiasm "I'm back!" My response was "I'm glad you are!" in a way I probably wouldn't with an adult. I looked to the mom and I think we both felt "enough said."

Right to Life?

I listened to a radio interview yesterday with a reporter for Slate Magazine who did a piece on abortion in China. Approximately 12 million abortions are performed every year in China, a staggering number really, roughly the population of Ontario. The reporter was intrigued because the number of abortions reflects a number of societal issues in China, including poor sex education in rural areas, persisting mores about premarital sex which lead to silence on the subject, and discouragement from having more than one child. Of course many of us might argue that a country of 1.3 billion people doesn't need more children, especially those who are unwanted.

It made me wonder about what our society and our faith communities do to discuss abortion in an open and honest way. Some churches, including the Roman Catholic church and a number of evangelical Christian denominations are emphatically against abortion under any circumstances. I was furious when I heard a few months ago that a doctor in South America had been excommunicated for performing an abortion on an nine-old-girl who had been raped by her step father. The doctor was convinced she would die if he didn't proceed. Where is the love of Christ in this?

On the other hand, our denomination says next to nothing on the subject. The official line is freedom of choice, but most UCC ministers avoid the subject like the plague. Some folk who have come to the United Church from other denominations have expressed puzzlement at our silence. Many years ago a woman came to me after having an abortion. She was filled with remorse and could hardly function. We walked through her pain over the months following, and in one discussion she wondered aloud if it would have helped to have heard something from the pulpit. Yet I just don't speak about the subject.

What are your thoughts? Obviously this is not just a religious issue. China has been staunchly atheistic for several generations now. Do we have a responsibility to discuss this openly and honestly? What about with our young people? Surely it is an ethical and moral issue and a very personal one as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Children's Sunday

We didn't focus on Children's Sunday yesterday, although we acknowledged the theme at the children's time and in our prayers. While it is an opportunity to consider children who live in poverty and poor health in countries around the world, it also brings to mind the importance of our own children and young people.

Yesterday I had a number of impromptu or serendipitous children's moments which were meaningful to me. A boy showed up for choir practice at nine thirty having missed the notice that junior choir was cancelled. He rode his bike to be there at that early hour. We chatted about what grade seven is like.

A girl turned ten yesterday and before worship she sought me ought to let me know. She was squirming with delight at the importance of the occasion and it was an impossibly lovely moment.

Another little girl came to show me her outfit and braids, and did a pirouette so I would get the full view. I laughed out loud.

Still another surprised me with a hug as I was speaking with a choir member before the service. I didn't see her coming (I am rather tall) so it was a stealth hug.

I could hardly get through the last hymn and the benediction because a baby who tends to mesmerize one side of the church was in the front row and fixing me with the sweetest smile. I just wanted to go down and take her in my arms, which I did before leaving the sanctuary.

And this morning I got an email message from a teen who liked the sermon!

I feel God's blessing through every one of these kids and so many more.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The American Dream

Yesterday Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest and most influential women in the world, tearily announced that in eighteen months her daytime television program is kaput. Oprah could probably have gone on forever and ever amen and been adored by her fans but she has other fish to fry. Ms. Winfrey is often feted for her wealth: apparently she rakes in about 275 million dollars a year and has a net worth exceeding two billion. She is also generous, having given away an estimated 300 million. Remarkable for a person who began her life in abject poverty and was sexually abused. There are few people who better represent the so-called American Dream and its hard not to admire what she has accomplished.

I would suggest that her role as spiritual guru is far more impressive than her wealth, and I am not being facetious here. It's hard to imagine anyone else in popular culture who has done more to promote the doctrine, if I can call it that, of self-help and self-actualization. While the statistics point to the fundamental unhappiness of Americans when it comes to depression, she has upheld the notion that we can unlock the inner light of peace and serenity through our choices and actions. And even though Oprah has struggled to walk the walk when it comes to healthy living and weight loss, she is easy to forgive because she comes across as a real and earnest person on a very emotionally accessible level.

It shouldn't be surprising that some Christian groups see her as dangerous, promoting her own cult. One reader told me that she was surprised at the vehement denunciation of Oprah by a friend. Why would she be so angry? Well the reaction may be overblown, but the friend "gets it" that Oprah provides an alternate spiritual experience.

What do you think about Oprah? Do you feel she has changed your life? Is she a guilty pleasure? Do you read her book recommendations? Fess up!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Up Against the Wall

I was really moved watching the CBC documentary Up Against the Wall last night. Film-maker Eileen Thalenberg considers the dozen walls which have been erected since the Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago. She focuses on the three walls put up by democracies to keep people out, including the "Tortilla Wall" seven hundred miles long keeping illegal Mexican immigrants out of the United States. At four million dollars a mile, my math figures that this will cost upwards of three billion dollars. While it looks imposing it isn't make a dent in the flow of drugs and weapons between the two countries.

We watch a Methodist minister who goes regularly to an imposing set of bars along the border in what is called Friendship Park. He serves communion to families and friends who gather on either side of the bars to talk. The security wall will soon make even this communication impossible and the pastor is arrested during the protest. Other volunteers walk sections of the wall in desert areas leaving food and water for those who may be in distress.

Without being heavy-handed the documentary invites us to ask what divides us and whether security can be established by barriers.
Did anyone else see this?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Second Chance

The St. Paul's congregation has been a strong supporter of Bethesda House, the shelter for at-risk women and children, as part of its outreach work. Part of the connection is that Ruth, my wife has been employed by Bethesda House, for several years as the child and youth worker, and for the past three years as an outreach worker.

Two weeks ago the outreach staff returned to their building after a year and a half in "exile" at the shelter. Their building, which is also home for the Second Chance store supporting Bethesda House, was destroyed by fire, so the staff was crammed into temporary space. Now they are in a bright, and brand new working environment.

The outreach workers have contact with those who need support but may not need to be in the shelter. Ruth is a trained counsellor who meets with those who are going through the trauma of leaving abusive situations. Often she accompanies clients to court.

She also does preventative work, running programs for teen girls which help them to consider what healthy relationship look like, and with teen boys addressing anger issues. She speaks at churches, guiding groups, and other organizations. Recently she was at UOIT, Ontario University, making a presentation in one of the courses.

Ruth and Bethesda House are very grateful for the interest and practical support of congregations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The B-I-B-L-E

The B-I-B-L-E, O that's the book for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God,
the B-I-B-L-E!

I think that's the way the old Sunday School chorus goes. It's been a long time! Today the words seem rather simplistic and not all that reflective of our approach to scripture. Still there is a confidence that the bible matters to us as Christians.

Shortly I will head into the second study group of the week on the same subject, the bible. We have approximately a dozen people in each of the two groups. The evening session includes four men, and we have several people between the two who are in their thirties and forties. The day-time group includes some who have been attending bible study for thirty years or more. This is sort of a Bible 101, although as always I am impressed by the insight and intelligence of participants. Our four sessions are in the form of addressing questions:

Are we still the People of the Book?
Is the bible still a Good Book (is it true?)
Is the bible a dangerous book?
Is the bible a devotional book?

I have invited those involved to be open and frank with their own questions and I've been intrigued by where the discussions have gone.

I was in conversation with several of my colleagues yesterday who are exasperated at offering study groups to which people don't come. I feel fortunate that we have our two groups, and wonder how we can stimulate more involvement, especially from those who have preconceptions about what discussing the bible might entail.

Do you read the bible as part of a regular routine? Do you have the opportunity to converse with others about your questions? Is the bible a mystery or a comfort, or both?