Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Sex Please, We're Religious

We have all seen the women of fundamentalist Muslim communities, dressed in clothing that is designed to erase anything that might be considered feminine. Similarly, orthodox Jewish women who are modestly dressed and wearing wigs to cover the hair God gave them. Religions have tended to express caution about sexuality to the point of making it a source of shame rather than something to be celebrated. Christianity is as guilty in this regard as any other religion.

Does that mean that there should be no boundaries in terms of sexual expression? We are living in what is arguably the most hyper-sexualized society in history. Everything from rampant porn on the internet to musical and dance performances on television which would once have been restricted to strip clubs has changed our attitudes toward sex.

Tonight on the CBC radio program Ideas and again next Monday on a CBC television documentary the impact of changing sexual mores on teens will be explored by Lynn Glazier. I listened to Glazier this morning in an interview on radio. She points out what many of us have seen from a distance and some of you as parents see coming up for your kids. The pressure to be sexual and sexually active for young teens is enormous, often at a stage when the implications of this activity are not understood. School hallways are often the place where this pressure takes place.

As a pastor I wonder what we need to do as a faith community. The "total abstinence because sex is bad" approach of some denominations is a mistake, from my perspective. So is silence.

There are a number of readers with children moving into the tweens and teens stage of life. Several readers are teachers. What are your concerns, fears? Should the church be involved in healthy sex education? I welcome the thoughts and perspectives of others.

The Ideas program airs this evening at 9:05, with the second part next Wednesday. The TV documentary Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips: IT'S A TEEN'S WORLD, is on CBC Newsworld' The Passionate Eye Monday, October 5 at 10 pm E.T., repeating Sunday, Oct. 11 at 8 pm E.T.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Mercy

Susan Atkins at age 21

It was forty years ago this past August that the evil Charles Manson and his cult followers murdered several innocent people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. It was a high profile story because of our society's fascination with horrible deaths, and because of the fame of Tate's husband, director Roman Polanski, who was away from their home at the time.

One of the cult members Susan Atkins died the other day at the age of 61. Forty years ago she readily admitted at her trial that she had stabbed Tate to death, even as Tate pleaded for mercy. Atkinson was never released from prison, even after a recent plea to spend her last days with her family. The prosecutor at the sixties trial, Vincent Bugliosi felt that Atkins should have been released.

Atkins was one of those people who "finds God" in prison. Her faith in Christ gave her a degree of peace for her participation in evil. To quote from one article:

"Her last conscious moments were with her husband and her brother, and her last whispered word was 'Amen.' No one (on) the face of the Earth worked as hard as Susan did to right an unrightable wrong," her husband added.

It is easy to be cynical about jailhouse conversions but when I worked in chaplaincy at Kingston Penitentiary I spoke with men who were overwhelmed with guilt over the heinous crimes they had committed. They would not get out of jail early because of their remorse, but a new-found faith was the key to release from another sort of prison.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking Stock With God

This evening will mark the beginning of the Jewish holy day known as Yom Kippur. It is a solemn day intended for repentance and atonement. The shofar, a ram's horn is sounded, and observant Jews enter into a period of fasting. The magazine Tikkun includes a supplement every year inviting people of any and all faiths to do some serious reflection on their thoughts and actions. The supplement is a sort of self-examination work book. There are a number of headings to help the process:

What is spiritually out of alignment with my relationships?
How spiritually nourishing is my work?
Am I taking enough time to nourish my soul and body?
Am I giving real energy to Tikkun Olam, healing and repairing the world?

These questions and the supplementary questions are an excellent opportunity to "take stock" with God. Repentance is one of those religious words that we know but don't really understand. The Tikkun supplement is a worthwhile way to make it meaningful and practical.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peace When?

We tend to think about our own war dead and wounded when Canada is in conflict, but soldiers from other nations also die, including six Italians who were killed by a roadside bomb last week. This photo is of the seven-year-old son of one of the fallen. It breaks my heart, which makes me a bleeding heart, I suppose. I can live with that moniker.

Our 131st Canadian fatality also occurred last week and the family of the slain young man spoke out about the futulity of the mission in Afghanistan. I honestly don't know if this war is "unwinnable" nor am I sure about Canadian withdrawal. I am convinced that life will become harsher for women and children if alliance troops leave, but there are many countries in the world where circumstances are horrendous and Western nations have not invaded.

The older I get the more I am convinced that war is one of the demonic inventions of the human species. It kills the young and dehumanizes the participants and siphons away resources that could be directed toward the alleviation of poverty. And it leaves children bewildered and grieving and fatherless.

My mother cautioned me as a boy about using the word hate, because it is a strong word. I hate war with a passion. I hate how we justify it and how we glorify it. I will say again that I respect every brave soul who has served on behalf of my country and others. These sacrifices should be honoured. And war is still a bloody disgrace for beings of supposedly higher intelligence.

As I look at the bereft boy in the photo I want the world to listen to Jesus and to the calls for peace in every religious tradition. That may seem incredibly naiive and simplistic, but it makes more sense to me than war.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reaching Out

You are an eerily quiet bunch this week.

I had to smile when I saw this photo of an Anglican bishop today, one of four hanging out at Union Station. Why were these bishops on hand in full liturgical drag? They were handing out "invitations" to church, flyers welcoming busy commuters to attend worship.

Why not? As with any other flyer, people could say no. On the other hand, it might be the nudge that others need.

Churches in our area are trying to figure out how to catch the attention of those who lead busy and even hectic lives. Encouraging creating space in the schedules for God and the Christian community can be a tough sell. Recently our board agree to send out what we think is a creative postcard to some households in Bowmanville as our Fall nudge. I went on a drive with one of our readers who is on the Visioning and Strategic Planning committee at St. Paul's to check out newer neighbourhoods in the community. We found subdivisions we didn't realize existed and when we did a tally using one company's distribution map we were surprised to come up with nearly seven thousand households!

What a reminder that Bowmanville is growing and that our excellent facility in the heart of town is not exactly strategically placed. I wonder if a lot of these people are aware that the downtown exists?

We can hope and pray that those who have been pondering finding a church home will consider us. And that newcomers will be welcome.

Any creative efforts to reach out in your congregation?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dream State

We might know next to nothing about psychology but recognize the name of Carl Gustav Jung. Jung was a student of Freud who departed from his teacher and mentor in significant ways. Jung's personality types were appropriated to create the Myers Briggs Indicator that many of us undergone. Jung was much more open to the spiritual dimensions of the human psyche than Freud who thought God and the gods were a crock, despite his Jewish upbringing. As a result, Jung's psychology is often drawn upon by liberal Christians.

I was fascinated to read that an oversized, red leather bound book created by Jung will be released to the public in limited edition copies. This book is nearly one hundred years old and has been locked away for decades. It features many elaborate, fantastic coloured drawings made by Jung as an expression of his subconscious.

Through the years I have read scriptural stories about dreams and visions and wondered how they apply to our modern lives. Many people have spoken to me about their dreams, although often as though they were sharing a dark secret. Were biblical dreams and visions simply a way of speaking about psychological realities in a time before what we understand as psychological and psychiatric categories were developed? Or have we grown suspicious of the possibility of God breaking into our reality through our dream state, to our detriment?

The psychiatrist in the novel Prince of Tides comments that she is fascinated by dreams which she describes as the love letters and hate mail of the subconscious. Succinct.

Do you pay attention to your dreams? Are you comfortable with the possibility of a subconscious reality through which God speaks?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Kill...the Planet

It has been suggested by Christians who are environmentalists that there should be an eleventh commandment "Thou shalt care for God's Creation," or words to that effect. Maybe we could cover this sentiment in the original ten if we simply extended "Thou shalt not kill" to say "though shalt not kill God's Creation." (I have no idea why I am using King James language!)

I thought about this after reading the words of the president of the Maldive Islands a tiny group of islands in the Pacific which will disappear as sea levels rise due to climate change. He was speaking at the global summit on climate change currently underway at the United Nations. He didn't represent the "heavy hitters" such as the United States or China but he must have offered up the best sound bite of the day when he described our present course of non-action as a "global suicide pact." It's true isn't it? If we deliberately blew up our home while we were still inside, the death would be ruled a suicide. When we choose to destroy the Earth we live on it is often declared an economic necessity.

Nearly every nation agrees that major changes are necessary to change our self-destructive course, but in a series of international conferences those same nations argue that someone else must go first, or that it is only possible to proceed if others mend their foolish ways.

Prime Minister Harper did not attend the first sessions yesterday, which seems symbolic because Canada has been a "no show" when it comes to accepting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last evening he was part of a dinner made up of 25 world leaders with the secretary general of the UN as host. I hope Mr. Harper can digest the importance of acting now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Still Loved

The other day I visited one of our members in her new residence, which is a nursing home. Until recently she lived with her husband, a fine man who lovingly and practically cared for his wife. Eventually her decline, due to Alzhiemer's disease left him exhausted and in danger of serious health problems, so with the support of his adult children a difficult decision was made.

When I arrived her daughter was there for a visit and after a walk together I spent a few minutes alone with her. Her confusion was evident yet the gracious woman she was in the past was also apparent. I wondered how that vestige of the past remains, despite so much being taken from her by this disease. After we prayed she expressed her gratitude and I promised to return.

I thought of this person who is loved and who loves still as I heard the reports yesterday on world Alzheimer's Day. The grim prognosis is that the world-wide numbers will climb significantly, especially now that the life expectancy in countries such as India is on the rise. Already there are 35 million people who live with Alzheimer's worldwide, a ten percent increase of reported cases since 2005. While some who develop Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are "young" (in their forties and fifties) the majority are elderly.

Providing spiritual support and pastoral care to those with dementia is a challenge. What do these individuals remember and what are their benchmarks for conversations about faith. Often I read familiar passages of scripture and I pray. These activities often seem to bring comfort. In the end it is a ministry of presence that is probably most important. All of us can overcome our sense of helplessness to be kind to those who have what is a very cruel disease for everyone touched by it. Last week at bible study a member shared a book she appreciated called Still Alice, a novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova about someone who is "still Alice" despite her disease. Each person who lives with dementia is still at some level the person they once were, and still loved by God.

Any thoughts?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Let There be Peace on Earth

I am writing with a deep sense of gratitude this morning for the land I live in. I am here not by choice, but by birth, yet I don't think this diminishes my sense that I am blessed. During the summer we went to the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec which was beautiful. We camped north of Kingston, Ontario in a secluded spot of great tranquility. We have lived in Northern Ontario and Atlantic Canada and loved the opportunities to explore. In Canadian cities we have moved about with freedom and without any real fear. We have lived healthy lives with good care along the way and our adult children have grown up with many opportunities. We certainly aren't rich but we have never been close to being poor, which I suppose means we are wealthy.

This rhapsody is prompted by the publication of the Global Peace Index which uses a number of factors to assess the peacefulness of 144 nations around the world. At the top of the list was New Zealand, but Canada was there at number eight. Our American neighbours came in at 83 while Mexico was much farther down the list. At the bottom? Iraq.

While I gush about my true patriot love for Canada, I am also reminded of the undeserved privilege of living here, and the opportunity I have to make a difference for others who have so much less. It is easy to become complacent about our prosperity and security and assume that this is the way it is for everyone. I thank God for the peace of Canada but gratitude needs to issue in action.

There are readers who live near the Altantic Ocean and on the Praires, and near the Rockies. Any comments about where you are living? Thoughts about our responsibility to create a better, more peaceful world?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Prophet Carter?

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter often has the air of a kindly, grandfatherly man, doing nice, practical things for neighbours such as driving nails in a Habitat for Humanity building project, or teaching Sunday School in his home church.

It would be a mistake to assume that President Carter is Mr. Rogers. He was strongly criticized in recent years for calling Israel to task for their treatment of the Palestinians. Now he has "stirred the pot" by saying that the strong resistance to virtually everyone that current President Barack Obama is proposing is rooted in racism.

I find this intriguing, because it occurred to me even before Obama was elected that while he might come to power in a wave of "we have finally elected a black guy" there were many ways to make in next to impossible for him to govern. I am stunned by the level of virtriol directed toward the president. George Bush was afforded more respect as he led the country into war than Obama is receiving for proposals to provide health care for all who need it. The outlandish rumours about death panels, as well as the oft-repeated claim that he isn't American born could well be inspired by racism.

So, is Jimmy Carter an unlikely prophetic voice? The prophet Amos was a farmer, although I don't think the book that bears his name mentions peanuts as a crop. Is Carter right in claiming that racism is behind the resistance to President Obama?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Memory of Mary

A fair number of this blog's readers are too young to have first-hand memory of the sixties folk group known as Peter, Paul, and Mary. Mary Travers the sex-appeal member of a trio that included Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, died this week at age 72. She had contended with leukemia in recent years and finally succumbed.

Mary Travers wasn't just a pretty face in the trio. She had a powerful, urgent way of singing songs that were anthems of an era of civil rights protest and a call to justice. They sang pieces written by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot and had a big hit with the light-weight Puff the Magic Dragon, but it was songs such as If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind that made them icons of the call for equality and freedom for all. In the latter years of the sixties I was in my mid teens and I leaned toward rock music, but it was impossible to ignore Peter, Paul and Mary.

I have no idea what Mary Travers religious convictions were. Paul Stookey eventually became open about his Christian faith and became a popular Christian singer. Whatever her faith stance was, she passionately lived out the justice message which is very much at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Are you willing to admit that you remember Peter, Paul, and Mary? What are your recollections?

If I had a hammer I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening All over this land
I'd hammer out danger I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Matt and One X One

The Toronto International Film Festival has attracted both the stars and the stargazers again this September. One of them is Matt Damon, an affable, down-to-earth guy whose actual personality belies the hard-nosed, I-can-kill-you-with-my bare hands characters he often plays in movies.

Damon was here to promote his latest flick, The Informant!, which is getting great reviews. He also took time to act as spokeperson for one of his favorite causes, One X One --after he dealt with the rumours of his death!

The organization focuses on five key areas of a child's development: water, hunger, healthcare, education, and play. One X One supports projects in many poor and developing nations in different parts of the world. Since 2005 the organization has contributed six million dollars to various initiatives. Damon's endorsement at TIFF is a perfect fit because it was started by a Canadian woman, Joelle Berdugo-Adler, who previously made her mark with the Diesel jean brand.

We have many worthy causes in our churches to which we regularly contribute. It's important to remember that many key agencies are involved in practical compassion beyond those supported by religious communities.

Do you support charities and agencies that are not church-related? What do you think of celebrity endorsement and involvement with different causes?

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Nazem Kadri was the first round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. The rookie is making a positive impression at the training camp going on for the Leafs in Toronto, although he may return to junior hockey this year for further development. He is one of the fastest skaters on the squad and has turned heads.

"Fast" applies to Nazem Kadri in another context. He is the first Muslim to play for the Leafs and his presence at training camp came with special permission from the imam at his family mosque. Camp began during the last week of the yearly time of fasting in Islam known as Ramadan. Observant Muslims fast, or abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during this month-long religious season. It is next to impossible for a professional athlete to perform at a high level while fasting and so Kadri sought a dispensation from this expectation. I remember years ago that NBA great, Hakeem "the Dream" Olajawon chose to observe the expectations of Ramadan while playing, but it is a rarity.

Fasting is part of the Christian tradition as well, although few North American Christians practice it. It is certainly misunderstood, some thinking it is a form of ascetic deprivation which is harsh and unnecessary. In the gospels we read about Jesus' forty days of fasting before his ministry began, as a way of focussing on his relationship with God before beginning his ministry.

Have you ever fasted as a spiritual discipline (dieting doesn't count!)?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two Phone Calls

The other morning we received phone calls from two individuals who are not part of the St. Paul's flock. I listened as our administrator, Helen, fielded a call from someone who wanted to know if we were a Protestant church and whether we had a minister. Helen explained that we are Protestant and had two ordained ministers on staff. The woman on the other end of the line explained that she wanted someone to visit her elderly mother in a nursing home -- in Oshawa. Helen suggested that perhaps calling a church in Oshawa would make more sense. With that the woman exclaimed that this was not what she wanted to hear and hung up.

Around the same time I picked up one of the phone lines because Helen was busy on the other and I ended up in conversation with a new mother who wanted information about dedication and baptism. I explained that some churches baptize infants while others dedicated little ones and then baptize as a profession of faith by teens and adults. She asked thoughtful questions along the way, as well as explaining that she was relatively new to the community. It was a pleasant chat with someone who had no sense of entitlement and certainly wasn't belligerent in the way the other caller had been. I encouraged her to check out St. Paul's on a Sunday morning and she said she would.

I'm glad I got my call and sorry that Helen got hers. It can be rather unsettling, and it is a constant challenge in this rather secular, consumer mentality era to find the ways to enter into dialogue with those who are "unchurched" to use a popular term. Demanding the services of the Christian community is hardly a good starting point and attempts at civility are often ignored.

We will continue to be as open as possible, whatever the circumstances and ask for a good measure of God's grace!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Deliver Us From Evil

Vampire books are films and television shows are all the rage these days. Our daughters, in their twenties have gobbled up the Stephenie Meyer series of novels, and Twilight was made into a wildly successful movie. More films are on the way.

Of course the original vampire writer was Bram Stoker, but Anne Rice must be the most successful with her Vampire Chronicles series. Millions of copies were sold and most would agree that they are much better written that the Meyer books.

Rice is intriguing because she has, as I have written before, given up vampires for Jesus. She has returned to the Catholic faith of her earlier life and driven a stake through writing about evil. To that end she has written a couple of novels about the earlier life of Jesus. I read the first one and it was okay, but not gripping.

Now Rice has written an autobiographical book called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. If you are interested in hearing Rice speak about her spiritual journey check out the website for the CBC radio program called Tapestry. She was Mary Hines' guest on September 6th, but the broadcast is available on the site.

Are you/were you a Rice fan. Are you a vampire fan? Do you think that evil exists in this world? What about God's power to overcome evil?

Monday, September 14, 2009

God's Welcoming Committee

There were nine or ten newcomers in church yesterday, not uncommon as we start into the Fall. It tends to be a season of resolve to get reconnected with the faith community or to find a new church home.

I noticed a family of four on one side of the sanctuary and a couple on the other side who apparently knew one another because they were chatting during the "meet and greet" time following worship. It turns out that they are familiar with each other, but both households assumed that the other had been around for a while and could fill them in on St. Paul's. I was glad to see that they came back to the hall after the service because it is a challenge to come to a new church.

There was also a younger single woman in worship and she too stayed afterward. I spoke to her and she admitted that she was so nervous about coming out to church after years away that she couldn't eat breakfast. Fortunately she saw some familiar faces. I was relieved to see that all these folk were approached and welcomed by longer-standing members of the congregation.

Some people come to church for the first time and want to be known. Others are elusive, slipping out a door with amazing skill. Some feel at home immediately. Others struggle to find a place.

My years in ministry tell me that there is no sure-fire formula for creating a welcoming congregation. I have watched people get deeply involved very quickly and then disappear overnight. Then there are people who seem wary and standoffish who continue to worship and eventually get involved.

What I do know is that is it essential not to grow complacent in our life together, to realize that it is an act of courage for newcomers to show up at all. And we are God's welcoming committee.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Power of Words

This past week U.S. President Obama delivered an important speech on health care with legislators as his audience. Unlike our yappy parlimentary system where the Prime Minister is "fair game" for hecklers, in the States the President is usually shown great respect in these settings. A Republican congressman from South Carolina named Joe Wilson yelled out "you lie" at Obama. It sent shock waves through the country and Wilson apologized -- sort of. In a couple of days his Democratic opponent received $700,000 in donations, a strong statement of disapproval for Wilson from the public.

This was an interesting development as I wrote today's sermon called Taming Tongues. This is the heading in one bible for the passage in the book of James which condemns nasty speech. The writer says that cruel words are evil and like the spark which starts a forest fire.

I have seen and experienced the effect of incendiary speech in congregations. Unfortunately churches are often home for gossip and criticism.

I have also witnessed the power of thoughtful and encouraging speech from church members who use their words to build up rather than break down.

Whether the words we use are public or private, we need to recognize their power.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lost in a Good Book

I enjoyed the opportunity this morning to get together with fifteen people who wanted to discuss books. There is a long established book club at St. Paul's and the members meet monthly to chat, argue and muse over novels and other books chosen by participants. I offered to come and facilitate a conversation about the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson and its companion, Home.

These two novels are anything but "easy reads." Robinson finely crafts her stories, but they are demanding. The group was up to the task and they provided a host of insights into the characters and the bigger story of two families in a small Iowa town called Gilead.

I enjoy novels for the entertainment, the opportunity to become immersed in other worlds, and the challenge of seeing the world differently through a narrative.

What I appreciated about these two novels is the way they fill out the parable of the Prodigal Son. As meaningful as this story of Jesus is, it is rather tidy. Life is usually messy, as Gilead and and Home point out.

Have you read these novels? Did you see the theme of the lost child who returns home? Why do you read?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Prayers for Peace

Visual images can be so powerful, can't they? This a photo of Indian school children praying during a candelit vigil marking the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Just over 3,000 people died that day, if the 24 listed as missing are included. Nearly all were innocent civilians including nationals from 90 countries.

This was a highly effective act of terrorism, not so much because of the number of deaths (more people die daily around the world in traffic accidents) but because of the premeditated malice aimed at a nation and way of life. Most of us assumed that Canadians and Americans were shielded from this sort of senseless violence. The attacks in the U.S. and subsequent terrorist events in Spain and Great Britain made us feel less sure about our peace and security.

How do you feel eight years later? Billions have been spent on security measures and billions more on war. Has this made you feel more or less secure? Are you more suspicious of those who practice Islam? Is prayer a naiive response to terrorist evil? Can world peace be achieved?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

School's In

There are four or five regular blog readers who are teaching in the Ontario school system. They may not have time to peruse this entry because they are busily back in the classroom. At least one reader is in a new school this year, another challenge. I hope this is a good year for all of you, in this extremely important role. Thank you for your work.

We will soon be resuming Sunday School as well, after a successful Vacation Bible School in August. We are fortunate to have a dedicated Christian Development committee at St. Paul's, and teachers who give willingly of their time. Of course we are also blessed with children, given that many congregations no longer have a full Sunday School program, or any program for that matter.

You may not know that Sunday Schools began as essentially a social justice program in 18th century Britain. In the late 1700's Sunday Schools were developed to provide basic education for poor children who were already in the workforce. They were part Christian formation, part readin' writin' and 'rithmetic. They were also a method of controlling unruly and anti-social behaviour.

Sunday schools provided an alternative to Sunday rowdiness. The schools would also teach proper behaviour, enforcing cleanliness, providing Sunday clothing, and reprimanding children for lying, swearing, talking in an indecent manner, or other misbehaviour.

Every once in a while there are discussions about the effectiveness and future of Sunday School, and even calls to move on to another approach. I feel that it is still an important opportunity to learn the essentials of our Christian story, and to learn basic values related to our faith in the company of others.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Living Bread

While we were visiting with friends who live between Kingston and Ottawa we made our way to the hamlet of MacDonald's Corners for the Saturday farmer's market. Strictly speaking, there weren't any farmers present, but a number of growers had seasonal garden vegetables for sale. These booths were augmented by the goods of various artisans.

All this happens around an old schoolhouse which has become a vital community centre and the meeting place for a group of weavers. The "crone" of this weaving group is a delightful, ex-pat British woman whose first name is Ankaret. It was her idea to build an outdoor community oven which could be used by anyone who was trained in its use. The brick oven was fired up (wood fuel) and in use when we arrived, and I chatted with the folk who were baking delicious pizzas.

The concept intrigues me at several levels. What a creative community project in the part of rural Ontario which is often perceived as dying. Of course I am married to someone who once had a flourishing home baking business and still loves to bake when time allows.

I was also struck by the imagery of a communal oven as someone who serves the Christ who called himself the Bread of Life. Churches, at their best, can be "bakeries" which nourish the wider community. The fragrance and the taste will invite others to partake. In the Christian community Christ is the leaven which is essential to this bread.

I hope that the Mera Schoolhouse Community Oven is a great success.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I am back after the final days of my vacation. This past week we were camping in a spot remote enough that there wasn't even cell phone coverage, let alone access to the internet. The tranquility was a gift from God.

There is immediately plenty to do in this week, including evening meetings. The month of September always seems to be hectic, in a good way.

When I checked my blog I was pleased to see that a number of you commented during my absence. While most of us have been coming and going during the summer months there haven't been many postings without at least one response. Which is great. Because I wrote my vacation blog entries weeks ago I read back through them to jog my memory about what I had chosen. As always I found the responses thoughtful and worthwhile. If anything, they were more helpful from my perspective after I had stepped away for a while. I realize that there are other readers who are content to check in without online comment.

Thank you!

Monday, September 07, 2009

At a "Lost" for Words

The world is a week away from Dan Brown's latest thriller, The Lost Symbol. Literary critics almost universally despise Brown's "paint by numbers" approach to writing and author Salman Rushdie claims that Brown gives bad novels a bad name. The disdain has followed The DaVinci Code and its prequel, Angels and Demons into the movies. Of course "the Code" is one of the most successful novels ever, and the movie version took in about three quarters of a billion dollars at the box office.

What draws folk to these books? I read The DaVinci Code and is was a page-turner. A bloated, stilted, inaccurate page-turner. I did laugh out loud on occasion, astounded that the sleep-deprived hero, Robert Langdon, running for his life, would stop and offer mini-lectures on the "symbology" of art and religion. In the end it did a huge disservice to the worlds of art and religion but maybe it felt close enough to the truth that people felt dark secrets were being revealed.

I talked with individuals who enthused about the "findings" in these novels as though they were carefully researched exposes rather than the figment of a novelist's imagination.

Do we simply live in an era when any old trashing of organized religion, especially the Roman Catholic church, will suffice? Please let me know if you have your copy of The Lost Symbol on order.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

What I'm Looking For...

The venerable Irish pop/rock band U2 is coming to Toronto next weekend and the Anglican Church of the Redeemer is holding an evening event looking at the spiritual impact of their music. The lead singer, Bono, is well known for his social activism and he has willingly connected that passion with faith. While he doesn't want to be coopted by any religious group it is Christianity that has shaped him. Three of the four members of the band were part of a Christian group called Shalom thirty years ago but were told to choose between the music and their involvement with Shalom. There is no doubt (pun intended) that the band's music reflects deep spiritual yearning.

Here are some insights taken from U2 songs.

The 10 essential lessons from U2, from Greg Garrett's book, We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2, are principles for leading a spiritual life:
1. "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Faith is a journey. You can go on looking.
2. "Hello, hello/ I'm at a place called vertigo." It can be hard to find meaning in life's day-to-day chaos, so we look to something outside.
3. "We get to carry each other." Not only are we called to help one another, we are permitted to. It makes us better people.
4. "The goal is elevation." We are seeking transcendence for ourselves, our spirits, our world.
5. "I can't believe the news today / I can't close my eyes and make it go away." Ignoring the brokenness we see is not an option. We're called to help transform the world.
6. "It's a beautiful day / Don't let it slip away." We live in a marvellous creation. Care for it.
7. "What more in the name of love?" Risk everything for love, there is no higher value.
8. "We need love and peace." We need to seek other solutions than an eye for an eye, and we need to learn to return love for hate, or nothing will ever change.
9. "Sometimes you can't make it on your own." It's no shame to rely on others. We're made for companionship, especially in tough times.
10. "Walk on." Be strong. Don't stop working to healing the world.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Baptized Pagans

Notre Dame Bascilica Montreal

Recently the Globe and Mail offered an interesting feature article on the state of religion in the province of Quebec. After three hundred years of almost total cultural domination by the Roman Catholic church in the province, Quebeckers roundly rejected religion in a number of different ways. Comparitively few people attend church or get married in church. Many churches are essentially museums and only 6% of Quebec residents go to mass, the lowest percentage amongst Western nations. Point taken about forcing religion on people.

Yet a surprising number of Quebec couples choose to have children baptized even though they don't attend church, and there is always a public outcry when religious institutions are challenged, including plans to remove the crucifix from the national assembly. Hence the "baptized pagans" mention in the article.

The United Church is trying to figure out how to increase its presence in French-speaking Canada, including Quebec. At the recent General Council it was proposed that millions be spent expanding this ministry as an alternative for Francophones. This intrigues me in part because our son Isaac is training for the ministry in Montreal and is bilingual. He has preached in French in Montreal United Churches and he and wife Rebekah have attended a French-speaking congregation which is a "mixed bag" of those seeking a different perspective on Christianity.

I'm glad that the UCC is looking in this direction.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Vintage Muriel

Our oldest member at St. Paul's turns a thousand years old today. Actually she is only 103, but she does seem ancient. I went to see her in the nursing home not long ago and she was sitting in her chair, watching TV. She had a biography close at hand and her bible was open. She had been looking for the passage in the gospel of John where Simon carries Jesus' cross. She had been talking about this with a younger family member, although she didn't explain why.

She also told me that while crops were lousy in Canada this year, the rice harvest in China was excellent, so we could look forward to rice pudding!

Muriel does tend to wander from town to town as she speaks, and from era to era, but she is still a remarkable old woman. She always tells me how grateful she is for her long life and that she really can't complain about anything, Think about it: she lived through two global wars, a flu pandemic, the death of her beloved husband and a son. But life has been good.

When I tell her how wonderful she is she'll have none of it. She offered that she was the product of a loving Christian home which others may not have enjoyed. I find I get quite emotional spending time with her, she is so inspirational.

I read to her from her open bible. She hadn't chosen that particular page but Isaiah 40 was so appropriate:

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it...
but those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.