Monday, August 31, 2009

Let My People Go

I am making a brief home pit-stop before departing for the last few days of my vacation. Thanks to those who commented on blog entries during my absence and those of you who continued to check in.
I was away on a brothers road trip with my one sibling, Eric. Last year we drove to the south shore of Nova Scotia and while there I read The Book of Negroes. We realized that we were a few kilometres from Birchtown, essentially the final Canadian destination for Aminata, the central character. We visited the exhibit on black history located there.

This year we drove to the deep American south, our final stop being Savannah Georgia. Savannnah is a city steeped in history and uniquely southern. On the way we stopped in Charleston, South Carolina, and discovered that there was a slavery museum in the city. The Slave Mart Museum is situated in one of the few enclosed slave markets which existed during the years of the trade in human beings. The exhibits were excellent but it was sobering to walk through a building where people were bought and sold.

One exhibit reflected on the faith traditions of slaves, a combination of African animist traditions, Islam, and Christianity. It was noted that the bible was the source of inspirational stories of freedom and equality, including the exodus from slavery in Egypt by the Jewish people. Strangely, Aminata began her sojourn in the Americas in Charleston, on the slave floor. Eric also read The Book of Negroes and we both appreciated these opportunities to expand our knowledge of this era,

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bon Appetit

The movie Julie and Julia is a delight. You have probably heard about this picture which tells the story of two women, one being the force of nature and the kitchen, Julia Child, and the other a blogger, Julie Powell, who cooks every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Critics have liked the film, although they offer that the Powell story element is weaker that the fascinating tale of Child's successful assault on the formidable bastion (bastille?) of Cordon Bleu cuisine.

Meryl Streep is wonderful as Julia Child and Amy Adams certainly holds her own as Julie Powell. In the end the film really isn't about French cooking, from my perspecitve. It is a celebration of love, strangely enough, and conviviality. There are a number of scenes of groups of people enjoying great food and each other's company.

It our fast-paced, fast-food society there isn't always much energy left for hospitality around a meal table. Yet, as I have noted before, Jesus did some of his best work over a good meal and one of the reasons he was criticised by religious leaders is that he appeared to be having too good a time with the wrong sort of people.

Make sure you see this one. Bon Appetit!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Another Second Chance

Football quarterback Michael Vick is busy these days learning a new offence and a new role as back-up QB for the Philadelphia Eagles. A couple of years ago he was a starter with the Atlanta Falcons, a very talented player with one of the biggest contracts in the game.

Then Vick was arrested for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. These fights are terrible under any circumstances but there was evidence that some animals kept at Vick's mansion were tortured, used as practice targets in the training of other dogs and killed. It was a despicable crime for which Vick was convicted, and sent to jail. He was also kicked out of the NFL and lost everything. Good. He wasn't allowed to escape prosecution because he was a high profile athlete.

Now he has served his prison time and been reinstated. The Eagles have taken a chance on him in a secondary role. Vick claims to have discovered a sustaining relationship with God and appeared contrite, although rather scripted, during a recent interview on Sixty Minutes.

Many media commentators and bloggers are less than impressed by his repentance and have expressed a high level of cynicism. I have no idea whether Vick is truly contrite and has begun a new life with God in it. While we all have to use good judgement, God has not appointed me to judge whether second chances should be granted. He has served his sentence and stated his intentions. Now it is up to him to show the world that he deserves a "do over."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Truly, Madly, Deeply

I was reading about the death of Anthony Minghella a little over a year ago. I was sorry to hear that he died for a number of reasons. One is that he was only fifty four, the flower of youth from my fifty four year old perspective. He also directed some big and good films, including the English Patient and Cold Mountain. My favorite Minghella picture was one I didn't know he directed and wrote until after he died. It was Truly, Madly, Deeply made in 1990 and starring Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

It is about a husband who dies unexpectedly and the wife who is inconsolable about the loss of the love of her life. She desparately wants him back, and he does return from beyond the grave. It turns out that what begins as an experience of great joy wears a bit thin when his "other side" buddies show up as well and hog the sitting room in their flat, watching TV well into the night.

I thought it was an entertaining and poignant reflection on loss and coming to grips with grief. I spend a lot of time with those who are losing, have lost, still feeling the loss of loved ones. It's not just physical death either. There are cruel diseases such as Alzheimer's , along with divorce and other crushing losses. Somehow Truly, Madly, Deeply makes the statement that while death may wound us it doesn't have the final say, a Christian conviction if ever there was one.

Have any of you seen it?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fullness of Life

Years ago I visited an elderly woman who didn't really know me and who lived in a nursing home half an hour away. I would go because her elderly husband asked me to go. He wasn't in great shape himself, but he still lived in his small lakeside home and got out to church with the help of canes. During a visit I noticed a photo on the nightstand of a woman in riding garb with each foot planted on the back of a horse. I asked the husband about this picture later, and he told me it was his wife in an earlier day. She had been a stunt rider and he became animated as he shared some of her exploits with me. I surprised him when I asked for a copy of the photograph but he complied. I wanted it to remind me that the people I visit in institutions were not always frail in body or mind. They lived full and active lives and deserved to be treated as God's precious children, however old they might be.

I searched this photo out recently after I told one of our St. Paul's members about it. And I thought about it again when I called one of our members about her mother, who is in failing health. The family has been so good to her, but all they can do now is wait for the end. I know they will honour who she was in the fullness of life.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Sin of Greed

Bernie Madoff "made off" with over a billion dollars worth of other peoples' money in his role as a trusted financial adviso in the States. Charities, learning institutions, individuals were all bilked. Some hapless folk lost virtually everything, young people had their scholarships evaporate, the marginalized became even poorer. It was a disgusting case of greed, because this was a Ponzi Scheme, using the influx of new money to pay dividends to longer term investors. Meanwhile, Madoff was using clients' money to finance a lavish personal lifestyle. Now he is jail for 150 years. Some of his victims hope he discovers the Fountain of Youth and lives that long.

Just as the first books about Madoff are published a Montreal financial advisor named Earl Jones (above) has been formally charged with stealing about 50 million dollars worth of his clients money. Among those investors are members of his own family and long-time friends. The forensic accounting work has already uncovered the theft of money to pay for private schools for grandchildren and luxurious trips.

This is the deadly sin of greed at its worst and its hard not to be angry about this betrayal of trust. These men deserve to go to jail.
It's odd but it has occurred to me that our children and grandchildren may look at us in ta similar light. How could we engage in the environmental Ponzi Scheme of lavish lifestyles, despite repeated warnings that the resources of the planet would run out sooner or later? It's unlikely that we will be hauled away in handcuffs to face trial, but we should be held accountable for our actions. It's hard to move out of a state of denial to blow the whistle on ourselves. I would like to think that there is still time for us to "make good" as God's people who are compassionate toward those around us and the generations to come.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Swimming Upstream

Five years ago when I went to the Taize Christian community in France I stayed for a night in a tiny, windowless room in the Hotel Esmerelda just across the Seine River from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The bridge spanning the river offered an impressive view of some of the great landmarks of the city. It didn't cross my mind that if I looked hard enough I might see salmon or sea trout in the murky waters below.

We hear so many disturbing and depressing stories about the degradation of the natural world as a result of human activity. A recent success story is the return of a number of fish species, includng salmon, which disappeared when the Seine river was turned into a glorified sewer and waste conduit.

These are the stories that remind me that human ingenuity can reverse the carelessness and destruction we have unleashed on the natural world. It isn't a "given" that humans are unable to co-exist with other creatures, particularly in urban settings. While the book of Genesis is often criticized because of its claim that God gave us dominion over the Earth, there is a strong encouragement to be stewards, conscientious and practical in our care of the beings with whom we share the planet. God has given us the intelligence to make good choices for the wellbeing of all living things. It's up to us to swim upstream as Christians, joining our intellect and passion in responsible Earth care.
I'm gone for a while, but my blog goes on! I have posted blogs for roughly every other day, until my return. So if you post a brilliant response (remember that others are reading) and I don't respond it isn't that I'm ignoring you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jobless Recovery

Have you heard the commentators on the economy speaking about a "jobless recovery" from the global downturn? While there have been encouraging signs that the markets are stabilizing and the threat of a worldwide economic crash are abating, it doesn't mean that people who are unemployed will go back to work.

Hey, I'm not an economist, but how did The Economy ( I capitalize intentionally) become an entity that can exist without benefitting people? Wasn't that part of the problem that got us into this mess in the first place? Instead of being a measure of prosperity generated by those who created goods and services, the economy became this bizarre creature which was built in a laboratory by those who could give the impression of wealth on computer screens. Many of the culprits who orchestrated the downfall produced nothing and may never be held accountable.

The biblical prophets warned repeatedly about those who live in comfort while others suffer. Listeners are reminded that God is not impressed by those who turn away from the destitute. They decry idols which are substitutes for the one true God who desires justice.

We know that there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians and millions of Americans who just want a job so they can provide for their families.

A "jobless recovery" seems like a false recovery to me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Aliens are Coming!

I'm not a fan of the sci-fi genre either in movies or books. I don't care much for films with a lot of CGI, the special effects which often overwhelm weak story lines. I can also live without action flicks with a lot of violence. So why did we go see District 9 on the weekend?

I heard and read lots of reviews saying this was a smart, thought-provoking, suspenseful movie. It is, and we both enjoyed it.

The District 9 of the title is essentially a detention camp for aliens who are rescued from a space ship which mysteriously ends up suspended over Johannesburg, South Africa. These intergalactic foreigners are saved from near starvation aboard the disabled craft, but their fate on Earth is hardly a "good news" story. They are considered a huge problem, creatures who are deemed intellectually inferior and nicknamed "prawns" a demeaning term that conjures up "kaffir" or worse to describe blacks.

I won't say anything further about the plot for your benefit, but it raises some important questions about how we relate to the supposed aliens of different kinds in our midst. Our suspicions about immigrants, those of other religions, those who just don't fit our sensibilities "alienate" us from others. It's so much easier to distance ourselves from those we dehumanize.

In the book of Exodus the people of Israel are warned "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." I'm fairly sure that these aliens did not arrive in a space craft, nor did they have tentacles. But the Good Samaritan may have taken care of a "prawn" as well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Health Care for All

Yikes! I thank God, literally, that I'm not an American in favour of universal health care. I would need to keep out of dark alleys...or maybe public meetings in which Democrats try to explain proposals for a public health care system. It seems that Joe and Jill Citizen in the States have been convinced that creating a health care program that offers affordable coverage for everyone is the work of the devil. A Canadian woman had been recruited for ads about the failure of our system and her need to go south of the border to get care for a life-threatening brain tumour. The fact that doctors have pointed out that she didn't have a tumour and that her condition was not terminal probably won't change much in public perception. The president has been vilified for his efforts and it has affected his popularity. Obama is also the target of a rumour that he is planning "death panels" to decide who lives and who dies under his proposed system. This allegation is both silly and evil, and it boggles the mind that it has been so widely circulated and embraced. The poster above is from the blog site of a woman who loves "God and country."

I figure that the American system is superior to ours -- for the small percentage of people who have the money to access it. In Canada we grumble about wait times and access to care, but polls show that most of us realize that the system is fair and efficient most of the time. And the statistics are out there: Canadians males live two years longer than American males while Canadian females live three years longer that their US counterparts. Our infant mortality rate is far lower, and we spend only about two-thirds, per capita, of what Americans spend on medical care. Lousy system?

I listened to some US tourists who were interviewed on the street in Toronto. They loved the city but didn't want our style of health care. One couple just came out and said that they wouldn't want to contribute to a system that might benefit poorer people who couldn't pay. The critics and fearmongers say this is communist or socialist. What is the word I'm looking for?....oh, yes, Christian.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to The Garden

Like, peace man. Of course today we might add "woman" or substitute "persons." No, "peace persons" just doesn't cut it. Forty years ago this weekend hundreds of thousands of young people descended on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York (it wasn't actually Woodstock) for a wallow in the mud and to listen to some of the top bands of the era. The decade of peace and free love was getting long in the tooth, and there had been too much social unrest during those years to argue that the Age of Aquarius was even close to dawning. Still the poster featured a white dove perched on the neck of a guitar.

The event was remarkably, well, peaceful, for such a huge gathering. Regrettably, two people died, one of an overdose, but two were also born that weekend. You have to wonder how many were born nine months later.

One of the songs written about Woodstock was by a young Canadian folksinger. Joni Mitchell. She wasn't actually there because she didn't want to cancel her appearance on the Dick Cavett talk show. How bourgeois. Her version was a little too ethereal for my tastes. I liked the rocking Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (another Canadian) version.

I came upon a child of god He was walking along the road

And I asked him, where are you going And this he told me

I'm going on down to Yasgurs farm I'm going to join in a rock n roll band

I'm going to camp out on the land I'm going to try an get my soul free

We are stardust We are golden

And weve got to get ourselves Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside youI have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning

Well maybe it is just the time of year Or maybe its the time of man

I don't know who l am But you know life is for learning

We are stardust We are golden

And we've got to get ourselves Back to the garden.

A bit corny and idealistic. Very corny and idealistic and strangely biblical in its overtones or undertones or whatever they are. I suppose the ideal of a better world isn't so bad.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Moderator Mardi Tindal

A new moderator was elected at General Council on Friday. She is 56-year-old Mardi Tindal, the fourth layperson and the first since 1992 to be elected to this post. She is currently director of Five Oaks, a United Church conference centre near Paris, Ontario, as well as being an author and former broadcaster.

In our democratic United Church the moderator does not make pronouncements of faith, but represents the denomination in a leadership role. Ms Tindal will serve for the next three years. We can be grateful for David Giuliani's leadership these past three years, despite life-threatening health issues, and pray for Mardi as she takes up this challenge.

Song of the Labyrinth

On Tuesday evening there was a unique and, to me, fascinating concert held in a Vancouver church. While the Borealis String Quartet played compositions by the Canadian composer, John Burke, members of the audience walked a labyrinth on the church floor. What an interesting spiritual experience!

We have been intrigued by labyrinths for the past dozen years or so. The concept of the labyrinth is a simple, winding pathway which eventually leads to the centre. The walker can't get lost, as with a maze, even though there are times when the path seems to be leading away from the destination. Walkers are often deeply touched by the experience.

While labyrinths are an ancient and universal spiritual tool, they have been incorporated into Christianity since the early centuries of our tradition. Perhaps the most famous was uncovered on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. It is about thirteen metres across and dates back to the year 1200.
Read more about labyrinths at

So much for this being a New Age invention, as some critics sniff.

In the past two decades labyrinths have been used by congregations of many different stripes as a contemplative tool. A group from my last congregation created a portable labyrinth and we often loaned it to other churches. We used it for ourselves at different times of the year including Good Friday.

I have walked labyrinths in different locations including two outdoor labyrinths at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. There is another outdoor one near Perth, Ontario which is called A Step Into Thyme, and the borders of the path are the herb, thyme.

Have you walked a labyrinth? Was it a meaningful experience?

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Dream Fish

Two Sundays ago there were about a dozen children in church, a bit of a surprise on a long weekend in the middle of summer. Since there is no Sunday School during July and August we have a box with stuff to do -- the children are not enthralled by my sermons!

I suggested to the kids that they might draw me pictures and I offered the idea of Jesus feeding the crowds, a text from John in the lectionary. Several of them revved up the crayons and one girl was so excited she had to bring me hers, special delivery, before worship was over. Heather let me know later that her work of art was on the bulletin board outside my office. She chose as her topic, Goldie: My Dream Fish, which I'm sure is in the bible somewhere. Hey, maybe Jesus fed the gang dream loaves and dream fishes.

It absolutely delights me that these children take my requests quite seriously. And that they trust I will want to see what they have created. We need to dream of a spacious faith family which has room for everyone. It was a bit noisy and active in the sanctuary that Sunday with the kids there.

Who cares!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Feel the Winds of God Today

I have been intrigued for years by Tibetan prayer flags. They are a traditional way of offering up prayers by writing petitions on pieces of coloured cloth and allowing them to flag in the breeze. This notion of prayers offered to the elements and the Judeo-Christian connection between wind and Spirit has stirred in me the desire to "adopt" this practice.

So how did I miss the request for congregations of the United Church to create prayer flags to be strung aloft in the meeting place for General Council? More than 400 congregations heard the call and they are adorning the hall where the commissioners are assembled. It will be interesting to hear whether this General Council is becalmed or moved by the Spirit of Life. One of my favorite hymns is an "oldy goldy" called I Feel the Winds of God Today.

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,

though heavy oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift;

if hope but light the water's crest, and Christ my bark will use,

I'll seek the seas at his behest, and brave another cruise.
Bye the way, each day there is an intro to the activities of the court through a brief Youtube video available on the General Council link I included with Monday's blog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Up Close and Personal

Check Deb Laforet's personal reflection on her experience at General Council during these first couple of days. It can be found as a response to my Monday blog on Council.The General Council 40 website also provides a great deal of useful info and updates.

The Least of These

When we lived in Halifax both my wife Ruth and our son Isaac worked in group homes for those with physical and mental handicaps and challenges. They worked in the same residence for a while, although at different times, and they reminisce with affection about the gang with which they worked.

One of their responsibilities was chaperoning residents to various events, including the local version of the Special Olympics. A couple of the residents loved the athletic challenge and I accompanied Ruth more than once, just to offer support. The thrill of accomplishment was so evident in their faces and moving for me as an onlooker.

Two days ago the founder of the Special Olympics, Eunice Shriver, died at the age of eighty eight . Shriver was one of the famous Kennedy clan, sister of JFK, Robert, and Ted. They also had a sister, Rosemary, who was mentally challenged and kept in the backgrounduntil Eunice began finding ways to enhance her life. It was a time when those with mental challenges were regarded as an embarrassment in many families. The organization Eunice began now involves more than a million athletes in 160 countries.

What a wonderful legacy from perhaps a lesser known member of one of the best known families in the world. There is a passage in Matthew, chapter 25 in which Jesus encourages his listeners to believe that when they are kind and generous to the dispossessed and unlovely, at least by society's standards, they are actually responding to him: "truly I tell you, just as you did it ton one of the least of these who are membersof my family you did it to me." It seems to me that Eunice Shriver, who was a person of faith, lived this message.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Prayer on the Rocks

In 1678 the Roman Catholics of two isolated Swiss alpine hamlets called Fiesch and Fieschertal prayed that they would be spared from the advancing Aletz glacier. The villagers promised to live virtuous lives and to continue to pray. In modern times women were prohibited from wearing coloured underwear so that the glacier would not be provoked. I want to know if they were on the honour system, or if someone was assigned to check.Some would argue that this was pure superstition but we might also conclude that 300 years later the village is still there, so something worked.

The hamlets are in the news because they have petitioned the pope to allow them to reverse the prayer. They now want to pray that the glacier not disappear. It is receding at a rate of about 30 metres a year, the result, experts say, of climate change. I have no idea whether the colour of underwear is part of this request. "Glacier is ice, ice is water and water is life," the local priest recently said to the villagers from the Valais region, which has sent its sons to protect the Vatican as Swiss Guards since the 16th century. "Without the glacier the springs run dry and the brooks evaporate. Men and women face great danger. Alps and pastures vanish and towns die out."

Here are people who are attempting to put the effects of climate change in a spiritual context, even if we feel they are a little misguided. Actually, our denomination and may others pray that people will come to their senses about the human impact on climate. We might be more inclined to ask ourselves how we can alter our ways for the benefit of the planet, but we understand that there is a faith element to all of this. And if God is the Creator, we can open up the conversation, which is what prayer really is.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Down to the Potter's House

Yesterday, August 9th, was the first day of the triennial meeting of the United Church of Canada's General Council. This is our national meeting, so four hundred commissioners from across the country have gathered in Kelowna, British Columbia. They are be joined by children and youth who will participate in concurrent events. There are also representatives from other denominations both in Canada and abroad. Our Saskatchewan reader, Deb, is there as a delegate while her husband Jeff will be a leader at the children's event. Their boys will participate as well.

General Council tends to be hectic, tedious, stimulating, all rolled into one. Big issues are presented, discussed, debated. My one trip to Council was in the early 1990's in Fredericton. Our most significant discussion that year was around same-gender unions, long before same-gender marriage became the law of the land. This year General Council has already been in the news because of a scheduled debate of a proposal about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

This time around much of the soul-searching will address the future shape of our denomination. One topic will be what is called transfer and settlement, the process by which newly ordained and commissioned ministers are sent to pastoral charges for their first call. The long-established system just doesn't work well any more.

The theme of General Council is Down to the Potter's House, a reference from Jeremiah 18 and an acknowledgement that God is in the process of reshaping our United Church. We figure we should have a bumper sticker on our car saying "We Brake For Potters" because we love stopping in at potter's studios. The best visits are the ones where we can see them shaping their work in inventive and creative ways. I really like this image for God.

Check out the General Council website

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Getting Angry

Today I will be speaking on the subject of anger because the reading from Ephesians includes these rather perplexing words: "be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." Anger is everywhere in our culture but I don't address it often in sermons. Preachers tend to move straight to forgiveness even though it is often our persistent anger that requires forgiveness. Anger wrecks relationships and a lot of pastoral care is around dealing with this emotion which is often perceived as negative.

I say perceived because anger isn't always wrong. In fact there are plenty of occasions when anger is not only understandable, it is reasonable and just. We tend to get stuck in our anger and it undermines our spiritual and physical health and wellbeing.

I have some excellent stuff on anger written by Christians but there are a couple of really thoughtful books written by Bhuddists, including Thich Nhat Hanh and Robert Thurman. Thurman quotes Aristotle who in turn quotes someone else offering that wrath "is far sweeter than honey, clouding the hearts of men like smoke."

I find that church folk are often reluctant to express anger because it a religious taboo. But the anger is often there and can be manifested in depression or what I think of as "sneaky" anger. It's the "smile to your face but stab you in the back" sort of anger. No one is shouting, but they might as well.

Any thoughts about your comfort or discomfort with anger?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Grave Expectations

I went to the cemetery a couple of days ago with the family of the elderly man who died last Sunday. I didn't do the comittal but I was invited to join them. It was a beautiful day so folk lingered in conversation after my colleague from the Reform church was finished. A young great-grandson, a member of St. Paul's, let go with a big yawn which declared that he was bored with adult chitchat, so I invited him to look at gravestones with me.

We discovered that technology and money have allowed those left behind to become much more imaginative with what I would call grave art. On one stone there was a transport truck, no doubt the occupation of the deceased. On another there was a racing sulky pulled by a horse, and on yet another a guitar. There were several farms scenes etched on the markers and one person will be fishing in perpetuity. There were even photos of those who had died, recessed into the stone. I'm told that companies in the States offer small LCD screens in the markers with video of the dearly departed!

On modern markers angels and crosses, not to mention grisly death's heads, were in short supply. The sense is that today's gravestones are going to celebrate what the individual enjoyed in this life rather than a promise of the life to come.
I don't really have much of an opinion on the subject one way or another, although I can imagine some people's tastes running toward tacky without much encouragement. What I do know is that we all have to deal with our own mortality. We all die and we must all ask the questions about what is to come. Gravestone artwork of any style doesn't really help us address those concerns.

What do you think about what I have described -- comforting or kooky?

Friday, August 07, 2009

To Blog or Not to Blog

I received an encouraging email from a regular blog reader a couple of days ago. She expressed her appreciation for both my blog and sermons posted on the website. While she doesn't respond through the comment option, I hear from her regularly. The same is true of others who read and comment verbally or through email. When I came back from vacation a number of you welcomed me back. Those of you who do comment might be interested to know that one person quoted practically "chapter and verse" on your responses. A number of readers let me know that they are curious about what others have written.

I am just about at the third anniversary of this blog and it actually becomes easier to write and reflect as time goes along. In the beginning it was work to come up with two or three blogs a week. Now my list of possible subjects nearly always exceeds the days in the week.

My goal with every entry is to make some sort of faith connection as I share information or tell a story. I do attempt to give you some insight into the life of this congregation and aspects of what happens in ministry. Although I see some readers virtually every Sunday, there are many things that just don't seem appropriate to share in worship, yet are are important elements of our life together.

In addition I glean the stories of faith from the world around us, some encouraging, some controversial. I offer my "take" on them and hope that you form your own opinions whether in print or over your cup of morning coffee.

Thanks for connecting along the way.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Christianity may be the majority religion on planet Earth, but Christians are in the minority in many countries. In Pakistan, as an example, 1.6 percent of the people are Christian, and currently they are under attack. Homes have been ransacked and burned. Churches have been vandalized. Individuals have been harassed and murdered. In one village 50 homes were destroyed and eight people killed.

Both Pope Benedict and the World Council of Churches,of which the United Church is a member, have chided the Pakistani government for its inaction on behalf of these beleaguered citizens. It appears that the police often turn a blind eye to the persecution and so it escalates.

I wonder how I would respond as a Christian if persecution began in this country which honours religious freedom. Would I retaliate, or would I be inclined to disappear from public view. While I want to believe that I would "dare to be a Daniel, dare to have a purpose firm, and dare to stand alone" as the old Sunday School chorus declared, I'm not toughened to hardship.

What are your thoughts about the appropriate response to the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world? Have you ever been scorned or shunned because of your faith?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Praise and Pandemics

Yesterday CBC radio's The Current had a panel discussion on immunization against the H1N1 flu virus. The concern is that it will be back with a vengeance in the Fall and the question is, who gets vaccinated first? One of the panelists was Dr. Francoise Baylis, a bioethics prof at Dalhousie and a former parishioner.

You wouldn't be aware that clergy are urged to get flu shots every year because of our contact with the public and the time we spend in institutions with the sick and elderly. During my years in Nova Scotia the public had to pay for a flu shot but mine was free because I was considered a frontline worker. Here clinic times are set up for clergy.

While it seemed as though the impact of H1N1 was overblown earlier this year, the possibility of a pandemic is real. I have chatted with colleagues about the impact of a pandemic on worshipping communities. If we are required to avoid group gatherings public worship would be in jeopardy for a while. The impact would be considerable, including financially. We'll trust in God's guidance along the way, but part of that guidance may be developing a pandemic strategy for congregations.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Our Daily Bread

This past Saturday morning was beautiful, so we hopped on our bikes and made our way through the countryside to Links greenhouses north and east of Bowmanville. It is a ten or eleven kilometre ride each way, but it was worth it. The produce is always fresh and we bought our first corn on the cob of the season. Even in a cool, wet summer this is a great time for the fruits of agriculture.

Last night we watched an acclaimed documentary called Our Daily Bread produced in Germany. It looks at the factory-style production of food in Europe and it is rather sobering. A variety of venues, including vast greenhouses, conveyor belt cow milking, fish farms, and even a salt mine are filmed in disturbing detail. Interspersed are segments showing workers in the lunch rooms of these places where they are employed, a reminder that we all require our daily bread or its equivalent. The number of employees shown is minimal however, with much of the work done by machines. I noticed how much of the produce in one greenhouse was left on the vine. The European Union requires by law that only virtually perfect fruit and vegetables are sold to consumers, meaning that thousands of tons of excellent produce is destroyed every year.

This film doesn't have a commentary or dialogue. The message is the film footage itself, letting viewers form opinions. It's interesting that the title, Our Daily Bread, is a phrase from the Lord's Prayer which we repeat in our worship every Sunday. Rarely do we ask where our daily food originates, or how it is produced.

I would recommend Our Daily Bread, although there are some scenes that are disturbing. Maybe we all need to see them. Has anyone else watched this DVD?

Monday, August 03, 2009

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Do you recall this photo? I posted it this past Spring after stopping along Middle Rd. and snapping a few shots of the daffodils, grape hyacinths, and other flowers. The elderly owner of the house was working in the garden that day, a man so slight that he didn't seem much bigger than the hoe he was using to scratch away at the weeds.

I admired the flowers, we chatted, and it turned out that he is the father of one of our St. Paul's staff members. We hadn't met before because he was a member of one of the reformed congregations in town. He kindly cut a big bouquet of daffodils for my wife, Ruth. Later he told his son and daughter-in-law that he had enjoyed the conversation and wondered if I might come to see him again. He has a terminal illness but he really just wanted to visit, so I went to see he and his wife.

On Friday I got an urgent call from the family saying that he had been taken to hospital. His pastor is out of town but I was available to go, read some psalms, say a prayer. Sometimes sequences of events seem more providential than coincidental.

Yesterday after church I went back to see how he is doing and our sense was that the end was near. As it happens, the epistle reading for the day was from Ephesians where it says "there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism..." There are times when we are more keenly aware that denominational lines don't mean much and we are simply invited to support one another in Christ's love.
Last evening I got a call that this old soul had gone to his reward.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Swimming Lessons

A mother and two daughters drowned recently in a hotel swimming pool in Eastern Ontario. This tragedy drew attention to the importance of teaching children the basics of swimming and the reminder that immigrant families need assistance in this regard because they often come from countries which don't have access to water the way we do.

CBC radio had a phone-in related to what sound like an excellent program for schools in Ontario to teach the essentials of swimming. All schools have to do is ask and fulfill some basic criteria to get help. The question asked to callers was whether swimming lessons were the responsibility of the education system or parents. Not surprisingly, the answer most respondents offered was "both." Public lessons reinforced by parental efforts produced the most effective education. The representative of the swimming program reminded listeners that parental involvement, particularly with young kids, was the best possible way of assuring children that they can learn to swim.

Maybe it's because we have baptized children twice during July that I drew a parallel with the life of faith. Parents and congregation make commitments to raise children in the Christian faith when a baby or young person is baptized. We don't just throw them into the pool and walk away, or expect them to find their way there on their own.

I love swimming and worked as a life guard in my teens. Last summer while on leave I was in a location where I could get in the water almost daily. It was in a secluded section of a river and it was wonderful to swim out from shore with the natural world around me. Eventually, though, I came back to the community of faith in which I swim in a very different manner.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Yesterday I conducted the funeral of the woman I mentioned in an earlier blog. We were able to express our appreciation for her life and commend her to God's eternal care.

I wore a clerical collar and a suit, funerals being virtually the only occasion now when I wear clerical garb. While some denominations require it while the clergy are on duty, few United Church ministers wear a collar regularly and some never do. I bought a couple of new ones recently, my others getting rather worn, and was shocked to discover that they were $54 each. I wonder if the uniforms at MacDonald's cost that much?

The service was in the morning, so I ended up wearing the black clerical shirt with the white collar for the rest of the day. It happened that I was called to the hospital to respond to another pastoral crisis, and I still had it on when I went to the public library. It always surprises me that people respond with deference, especially in this secular age. Individuals will say hello or smile. A boy of twelve or thirteen opened both doors for me at the library!

Obviously the collar stands for something that is not always negative in a culture that is often suspicious of religion, and sometimes for good reason. It's been said that the collar was taken from the slave collars of an earlier time, as a graphic reminder that clergy are servants of Christ.

All I know is that they just aren't very comfortable, and I would just as soon not draw attention to myself. But they seem to represent something or someone, even in this day and age.