Saturday, October 31, 2009

Caskets in Aisle Seven

I have offered a couple of times that I have been fortunate through the years to work with funeral directors who are decent, client-focussed, and hard-working. There are many demands in ministry, but I wouldn't trade my job for theirs.

That said, I am aware that the funeral industry has come to shape funeral practices, especially in locales such as Southern Ontario. Most funerals are held in funeral "chapels" (interesting name don't you think?) rather than churches. During my years in Halifax I had only one funeral away from the church but here it is almost a given.

And the provision of various practical aspects of the funeral process rests almost entirely with the funeral homes or chapels. I was intrigued to see that Walmart is now selling caskets in its bid to take over the retail world. The casket in the Walmart ad above is called the "Mom Remembered" at about $900 dollars. That is really inexpensive, and even their priciest model comes in at about three times that amount. Still a, well, a bargain. My sense is that lots of people make their decisions about things like the casket based on emotion rather than cost. Who wants to "cheap out" on dear old mom or dad? But there is no denying that funerals can be really expensive and the source of tension in families.

What is your reaction to Walmart's venture into the realm of funeral supplies? Stick to the flat screen TV's and groceries? Or do you figure this makes sense?
You just never know what you will read about on this blog!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Practical Compassion

I had one of those heartwarming moments in ministry yesterday. Near the end of the day a couple from the congregation rang the church doorbell and I answered. They had a bag of food items for the Salvation Army Food Bank, which the St. Paul's congregation supports. On Sunday I mentioned that while our goal for each month in our 175th anniversary year is 175 food items, it looked at though we could double that to the 350 mark if folk brought in another 90 items in the last few days of this month. Between what was there on Sunday and contributions during the week we exceeded that number by more than twenty items. What a great group of people.

During the summer I went over to the Army food bank and was given a tour. Well-organized, clean, and even computerized to track those who have received help. Along with stocked shelves they "build" basic grocery bags, then let people customize them to suit their household's needs. I was told that the need is up considerably, a comment confirmed by the S.A. officers at a recent ministerial meeting.

Food banks are a "necessary evil" in some respects, but they are a Godsend to many people in tough times. They are such an understandable and practical way for those of us in better circumstances to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need.

Do you contribute to the food box at St. Paul's or where you live? What do you tell your kids, if you are parents? Have you ever been a client of a food bank?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

H1N1 Guinea Swine

Human Guinea Pig or Swine reporting: I had my vaccine this morning. After writing yesterday's blog I got an email from the hospital chaplain saying that "spiritual care providers" (that includes me) could get the shot along with hospital staff, starting this morning. So, I went in and, lo and behold, no line-up whatsoever. If there is no blog tomorrow you'll know there are serious side effects.
Actually, I mentioned to the nurse the concerns of parents in my congregation. She said that I should encourage you all to have your children innoculated.

I think my heart rate went up a bit as the nurse was about to jab -- what was I doing? But life tends to put things into perspective. I had to stay in the hospital for a minimum of fifteen minutes so I multi-tasked. I went to see our three members who are currently patients. One is a guy nearing ninety who is very ill in special care. Another just had surgery to remove a tumour. The third is in her eighties and has an inoperable brain tumour. Somehow my personal concerns faded into the background as I talked with them.

On my walk back to the church I met a woman on the street who wondered if there was a church nearby. I realized she was looking for St. John's where the Clarington Connections drop-in takes place. 'I'm schizophrenic" she told me matter-of-factly. Again, a matter of perspective.

I'll keep you posted if anything exciting happens as a result of my jab.

Unholy Tensions

It has been fifteen years since I visited Israel. I led groups there four times in eight years, then stopped because there never seemed to be a good time to avoid unrest. I really enjoyed those trips in part because of the people who were part of them, but also because of the opportunity to let the geography and the architecture speak to me of distant times. There is nothing like travelling around Israel to help lift the Jesus story off the pages of the Good Book and other books to give it added dimensions of meaning.

Unfortunately Israel is a place of strife, including fighting related to religion. The supposedly holiest places are often the most contentious. On Sunday there were clashes between young Palestinians and soldiers on and around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The one photo above gives a good view of the Dome of the Rock, controlled by Muslims and the Western Wall below controlled by Jews. There are often clashes between aggressive members of both groups. Not far away is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians fight amongst themselves!

This is one of the dreariest realities of religion, taking the fundamental messages of peace, love and compassion and distorting them to foment hatred, mistrust, and violence.

Do you feel that you have a clear picture of what motivates tension in Jerusalem or does it baffle you? Would it help to have an opportunity to have some of the issues explained?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Love in the Time of H1N1

I'm sure that many parents in Ontario have been rattled by the news of the deaths of a 13-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl from H1N1. In the case of the boy, his mother is a nurse and they were attentive to his symptoms yet he succumbed so quickly.

It seems that H1N1 talk is incessant and pervasive. We can't turn on the TV or radio without hearing about it and there are conflicting outlooks about the virus itself and the need to get a preventative injection. I will get the shot because I work with vulnerable people and in situations where it is easy to spread the 'flu. Yesterday I visited several people in Bowmanville hospital and there were masks everywhere. I had to mask, gown, and glove to visit one person in the critical care unit. I was aware of the cautions issued and my need for precaution because our two twenty-something daughters are home for their reading weeks and they are in a high-risk group.

We are also taking what we hope are appropriate steps at St. Paul's, encouraging people not to shake hands over the next while and providing hand sanitizing stations. It seems the prudent and Christian thing to do in unusual circumstances.

Are you worried? Too much fretting? Will you get a seasonal 'flu and/or H1N1 shot?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It's Adam and Eve, right? Male and female God made them -- Jesus said that, so it must be true. Yes, except that defining male and female and gender differentiation can be quite complex. Take the ongoing discussion of the person pictured above, a South African athlete by the name of Caster Semenya. Semenya was raised as a girl because there was no evidence of male sexual organs and she sees herself as a young woman. The doubt about her gender has come as she competed at a high level as an athlete. It didn't seem to be an issue until she began to win, and then the controversy erupted. When it was pointed out that she looked like a guy in track clothes she went to great pains to appear feminine.

Sadly, officials in South Africa have bungled the situation, requiring Semenya to undergo testing then declaring that she is a hermaphrodite, having both female and male sexual characterics. Suddenly her biology became public knowledge, even as she was attempting to grasp the possibility that what she had taken for granted through a lifetime might not be so straightforward. It was unfair and cruel.

The subject of sexual determination and awareness is addressed in a very readable and bestselling novel, Middlesex. We are beginning to realize that gender differentiation is probably a continuum rather than polar opposites. While this is difficult to grasp, it seems to me that it is important for the Christian community to listen and learn, prayerfully and compassionately.
Does this story trouble you? Why?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hymn Sing

Do you enjoy singing hymns? By hymns I mean songs of praise and worship which invite participation by the gathered community of the faithful.

Yesterday I heard about a Canadian hymn contest sponsored by the Pax Christi chorale in Toronto. Unfortunately the interview came on the day the contest was coming to its culmination in a concert in the city. If we had been aware earlier it would have been well worth attending. The chorale performed what they chose as the top eighteen submissions from about seventy. Obviously hymn writing is alive and well in this country.

These are, of course, new hymns which are often not appreciated by regular worshippers. Some folk are less than bashful about stating their preference for older hymns. There are great traditional hymns of the faith which have helped shaped our theology. Some of the "moldy goldies" are not so great. While they are familiar and may be very singable the theology leave a lot to be desired.

The same can be true of newer hymns and choruses. I have been in contemporary services where the music is just plain awful with tunes and words that are a nightmare. At the same time there are so many new hymns which are wonderful and speak to the time we live in.

Yesterday our worship supported the International Day of Action in response to climate change. We sang Morning Has Broken and For the Beauty of the Earth, two hymns of praise to the Creator. We also sang Touch the Earth Lightly which calls us to responsibility as Christ's followers. Old and new hymns with a powerful message.

What are your thoughts about hymns? Do you like to stick to the traditional ones? Are you impatient that we don't sing more of the newer music?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Love and Death

Last year I blogged about the Rev. Forrest Church, a Unitarian minister in the United States who was already well known as a preacher and author when he was diagnosed with esophogeal cancer and given a few months to live. The diagnosis proved to be incorrect although a few weeks ago, three years after his death sentence, Church died. His reprieve gave him time to write two more books including Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow.

As a minister I'm both intrigued and blessed when presented to walk with a person as they are confronted with a tough diagnosis or move through the final stages of life. So many do so with a grace and peace I wonder whether I will have when my time comes. O course it is my time as it is for all of us. I don't mean to be morbid when I say that we all have only months to live. Most of us hope that the months will be measured in years and decades but this life is finite. The Rev. Church wanted to live whatever time he had left with grace and dignity, and living out the compassion and love he believed in so strongly before the bad news.

Apparently a favourite saying was "Do what you can, want what you have, and be who you are.” As Christians we speak of the Christ who is the source of abundant life now, as well as the eternal life to come. His phrase is an abundant life directive.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Planet for All Creatures

Tomorrow is an international day of awareness about climate change, an important subject as we come closer to the conference on the subject taking place in Copenhagen during December. Churches and faith groups have been encouraged to address climate change in whatever ways they can this week with the clear message that this is a spiritual issue.

We will be using a reading from the book of Job where the poor schmo is reminded that God is the creator of everything, including every living creature. We will also read from Psalm 104 which celebrates a planet meant for the enjoyment of "all creatures great and small," not just human beings.

Some conservative Christian groups are strongly opposed to an environmental emphasis at any time, feeling that it diverts people from the message of salvation. To me this is pathetically misguided and not biblical. God's desire is for a diverse and balanced world shared by all creatures.
The photos above are from a wildlife contest in Europe. The snow flea is a tiny insect while the wolf is a magnificent predator in full hunting mode. They are God's creatures too, and deserve to thrive on a planet that humans are changing. The faith community can make a positive difference.
Find out more about tomorrow's Day of Action at

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Graphic Bible

When I was a teen a young illustrator was producing counter-cultural and risque comics such as Fritz the Cat. R Crumb is now in his later sixties and he has come up with an interesting and perhaps controversial project, his version of the book of Genesis. Actually, it isn't really his version because he is sticking to the King James Version of the text, all fifty chapters worth. Because he is the illustrator there are plenty of buxom women and bare-knuckle dust-ups. This is definitely not a book for children. I find it interesting that Crumb portrays God in an anthropomorphic image, the old male with a white beard.

Crumb doesn't really explain why he has chosen the first book of the bible because he certainly doesn't believe it is the word of God. There is lots of action though and he comments that we would do a lot better paying attention to the message of Jesus than the blood and gore of Genesis.

I understand what he is saying, but the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel, the exile and reconciliation of Jacob, and the movement toward forgiveness with Joseph and his brothers are archetypal stories. These themes are repeated constantly in literature and films.And there is powerful poetry and mythological weight in the creation story and Noah and the ark.

What are your thoughts about using this format to unfold the story? There are much more "child-friendly" comic book or graphic novel versions of the biblical stories. Does Crumb's Genesis intrigue you?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Learning Freedom and Equality

The other evening I listened to the news about widespread electoral fraud in Afghanistan and muttered aloud my disgust that we are spending billions of dollars and the even more valuable lives of our soldiers in a country that can't seem to get close to democracy despite our efforts for support.

Since then we have heard that there will be another opportunity for the Afghan people to choose its leaders. And then there are photos like the one above which give me "cause for pause." This is a picture of teachers in training. As you can well see, the trainees are all women and they will be teaching girls as well as boys when they are done. The conditions for their education are hardly ideal, and this in a country where females have been treated like chattel, threatened and even killed for not knowing their place.

For all my misgivings about the Canadian presence in Afghanistan I keep drifting back to an underlying sense that God's intention for our world is that men and women be treated equally, and that all people deserve the opportunity to choose those who will govern them. If the Taliban return to power, those possibilites for equality and democracy will disappear, all in the name of a judgemental, exclusive Allah. I have no doubt that millions of Afghans worship their Creator and want freedom. While war is ultimately not the answer, there is a glimmer of hope because of the presence of other nations.

Anyone else struggle with this?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Courtside Forgiveness?

At the risk of being admonished by readers from both sexes, I'll admit I throw in a sports story from time to time to appeal to male blog followers. Sexist stereotyping? So did you hear about the rabbi and the basketball team from Israel? This is not a joke, but an actual incident in a charity game between the New York Knicks and Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Maccabi coach, pictured above, got heated over what he felt was a bad call by the referee and eventually he was through out of the game. Except he wouldn't leave. Eventually there was divine intervention, or at least by someone from the "God squad." Read on:

The game was halted for about eight minutes when Coach Gershon continued to linger near Maccabi's bench – a delay that included a rabbi trying to intervene by asking the NBA's replacement referees calling the game to allow Gershon to stay. "I explained that this is not a regular game and the kids are watching and (it's) important that there will be peace and forgive him," Rabbi Yitchak Dovid Grossman said of his talks with the officials. "If you forgive him, I can speak to the children and say, `You also forgive. If you have a fight, you forgive.' But he says this is the law, that you must obey." Gershon eventually left after a discussion with the referees, his assistant coaches and NBA security.

Some sports have introduced instant replay to help the officials. I wonder if instant forgiveness is close at hand? Then again, it doesn't sound as though the coach was prepared to repent and sin no more.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Doing the Right Thing

Do you remember the final episodes of the hit sitcom Seinfeld? Jerry and his cronies laugh at a person in distress, in part because of the victim's size, and fail to go to his aid. To their surprise they are charged under a Good Samaritan law, and end up facing all the people to whom they had responded callously through the years in a court of law. They are convicted and go to jail, thus ending the series.

I thought of this while listening to the CBC radio series White Coat, Black Art which addresses medical issues (excellent, bye the way.) The subject was the perceived obligation of physicians to go to the assistance of those in distress even when "the meter is off." The host interviewed a doctor who went to the assistance of a woman who had collapsed on a plane. There were a number of physicians on the aircraft, but he was the only one who responded. In fact the pregnant woman was lying at the feet of an obstetrican who didn't budge to assist her. One of the questions addressed in the White Coat show is whether Samaritanship (my term) is a moral or a legal obligation -- or both.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is only in the gospel of Luke, but it one of the best known of Jesus' stories and people are aware of its content, even if they are not religious. The gag made sense in Seinfeld without having to explain what a good Samaritan is.

Have you been a Good Samaritan along the way? Do you have regrets about not responding to someone in need? I can answer "yes" to both questions.
The program airs again today on CBC Radio 1 at 11:30.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

God's Party Ain't Over!

Where to begin about today's worship?

We had a wonderfully engaging guest speaker in the person of Cuyler Black, a Christian cartoonist and humourist featured in the Observer magazine with his Inherit the Mirth cartoons. He managed to be really funny and really Christian at the same time. My wife Ruth figures he looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Donny Osmond, which has to be taken as a compliment!

Our senior choir and junior choir and the music group Fish for Breakfast led our singing and offered up praise worthy of an important birthday party.

And then there was the Collective of Black Artists (COBA) who knocked our WASP socks off. They danced and drummed us into worship in a way that was breath-taking and powerful. The drummers stayed at the front through worship and "juiced" every other piece of music along the way. Our last hymn was Celtic in character and they managed to catch the vibe, even though it wasn't exactly their genre.

What do we do for an encore on our 175th? Well tonight, Cuyler and Fish for Breakfast will lead another service at 7:00 for youth and the young at heart. Not bad for a venerable old congregation.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Choosing Fun Over Drudgery

I mentioned that a group of ministry colleagues has been getting together to look at the book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! The author, Paul Nixon, works through his six principles for church vitality:

Choosing Life Over Death
Choosing Community Over Isolation
Choosing Fun Over Drudgery
Choosing Bold Over Mild
Choosing Frontier Over Fortress
Choosing Now Rather Than Later

I highlighted the third principle because this evening St. Paul's is choosing fun over drudgery. At the latest tally about 160 people will gather at a nearby hall for a catered dinner with a great menu. Then more than 200 people with find their way into the church for a reunion of the St. Paul's Players, a drama group from "days of yore" who have been getting their synapses back in gear to entertain the congregation.

These are not fun times for many congregations. With shrinking, aging membership there is a lot of fretting, and hand-wringing and a sense that the faith community is a bottomless pit of work. It's harder to celebrate the abundant life Christ brings and the joy which comes from being with others.

Kudos to the organizing committee that has worked so hard to bring today's events and others into being during our 175th anniversary. We may call you God's Fun Brigade.
Oh yes, don't miss tomorrow's worship!

Friday, October 16, 2009

"I Owe, I Owe..."

When our three young adult children graduated from college and university in the Spring of 2008 we couldn't have been prouder. Our son knew already that he was on his way toward his next degree, but our daughters asked if they could come home for a few months as they considered their options. They both found steady work although one juggled four jobs, sometimes working 20 hours one week and 60 another. The uncertainty was not pleasant and the work was not in their areas of education. The "few" months turned out to be seventeen and eighteen months, but they have moved out again. Both have gone back to school, the university grad to college and the college grad to a degree program. We learned first hand about the so-called Boomerang generation and the difficulty young people are experiencing in finding work during an economic downturn.

We know the term "Protestant work ethic" although we often associate it with a Calvinist approach to employment where people are "driven" in their work to the detriment of all else. In fact John Calvin whose 500th anniversary is celebrated this year had a deep conviction that work is part of the Godly life, and that it can be both a sign of grace and a response to salvation in Christ. For Calvin our daily labours can bring meaning to life, although God is the ultimate source of life's purpose. Bet you don't think about the theology of work when you head out the door in the morning singing "I owe, I owe, it's off to work I go!"

What are your thoughts about work in these tough times? Do you know people who are unemployed or under-employed because of the downturn? Some of you have chosen to be stay-at-home parents for a time. Is this ever awkward in your circle of friends? At least one reader has ventured into self-employment. Nerve-wracking or satisfying? How is retirement after a life-time of work?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

God's Pub Night

There was an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper earlier this week about congregations that have started up "pub night" discussion groups as a way of gathering people to talk about God. These groups get together in local drinking establishments, presumably ones where the music or televisions aren't blaring and chat about faith issues.

It sounds as though they are quite successful and somewhat to my surprise the pastor interviewed was from a conservative, charismatic congregation. This would once have been forbidden ground in most churches, including the majority in our denomination, but apparently no longer. The pastor says that while they gather as a group, other patrons who overhear their conversations sometimes join in.

It sounds like a good idea to me. I'm an "all things in moderation" kind of guy, so I have no problem with bending an elbow while discussing my faith. Obviously no one is forced to attend these evenings and the intention is to create a more relaxed atmosphere away from the church building. While the article doesn't say anything about the gender of participants it sounds like more of a guy thing. It makes me think of the literary group formed by the eminent Christians of another era including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien who met regularly in a pub they nicknamed the Bird and Baby because of its sign.

What do you think? Are you appalled? Is it a good idea? Are you wondering when we'll get started?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Abundant Life

In the Spring I feel a sense of urgency about getting outside, taking in all the signs of a re-emerging world. In the Fall there is a similar intensity, in reverse. I am aware of shortening daylight hours, the departure of birds, the dying of plant life. So I need to get out and take advantage of the days, especially before the time change curtails evening walks.

A week ago I was at Second Marsh the protected area south of the GM headquarters in Oshawa. I often mention the marsh as an impressive example of how creation can exhibit balance and diversity if we give it half a chance. Even though Canada's busiest highway roars not far away the marsh is filled with creatures. Along with various herons and egrets and hawks and owls and ducks there are a variety of mammals. We have seen deer and coyotes and beaver and mink. Second Marsh is also a staging area for monarch butterflies.

But during that walk a week ago I saw otters for the first time, a family of them.(click on photo for better view.) I have no idea if they were passing through or getting established. How did they get to the marsh with a significant urban centre close at hand?

We often speak of God's gift of abundant life in Christ as though it is restricted to humans. I do believe that abundance and diversity is God's plan for all creation.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Moving On

Two weeks ago I visited one of our octogenarians who has been housebound for several months now. Up until the late Spring she has been amazingly independent, still shovelling her driveway and cutting her grass and driving her car. Then her body began to fail her in about half a dozen ways. She admitted that when I showed up at her hospital room in May she figured she must be on her way out. She recovered enough to go home, but barely, and the next few months were tough.

When I saw her recently she was unsteady on her pins , and anxious about keeping up with everything. Her son is very attentive, her neighbours are wonderful and her church family supportive. But she has a hard time letting others help her. We talked about her going to some sort of assisted living facility and she agreed that she should visit a friend who recently went into a nice place in Bowmanville, but I wasn't going to hold me breath.

Late last week she fell and spent several hours under a chair until a neighbour figured out something was wrong. Her son called to ask about the place we had spoken about during the visit. I saw her in hospital, once again, this time black and blue in body and spirit.

This is one of the hardest parts of my job. This is a person I really like, and I admire her feisty spirit. Still the time comes for all of us to move on, although its easier said than done.

We prayed for the courage to accept that change, but it is never easy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scroll Down to the Commandments

I have to smile at all the hoopla over the brief exhibition of the Ten Commandments fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum. They are on display for roughly eighty hours to ensure that they are not damaged by light. And we are all going to race into Toronto to see a Hebrew text of a code of living that is largely ignored in our culture anyway. Don't get me wrong, I found the exhibit of the scrolls to be fascinating and we are organizing a trip to the ROM in November. It just strikes me as a bit odd that we are all supposed to be breathless over this decalogue that has largely become the Ten Suggestions for all practical purposes.

No idols? We are gaga over celebrities of the moral stature of the late Michael Jackson. No coveting? The economy won't recover unless we return to buy, buy, buy. Remember the sabbath and keep it holy? How quaint.

In addition there will be guest lecturers at the ROM on the relevance of the Commandments for our day. One of them is renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens who virulently attacks religion in all its expressions. But there isn't a rabbi in sight for the series.

Here's a thought: how about we all read the commandments in English, or whatever our first language might be, and ask ourselves how they apply to our lives in October 2009.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Giving Thanks

What am I grateful for this Thanksgiving weekend? I am happy that two of our three children are here to participate in our family meal. I am looking forward to a worship service today at which the Mayberrys. a couple who have worked with the Canadian Food Grains Bank for more than 25 years will be with us to share the important work of this ecumenical organization.

I am grateful for the St. Paul's choir members who showed up in force to sing at a wedding yesterday. The two people who were married are into their seventies and I have spent a fair amount of time with them because both have experienced serious health problems. Circumstances were finally right for them to "get hitched" and because the groom had been a choir member I asked our gang if they would take part in the service.

Doug, our music director, had them sing The Glory of Love which is not exactly religious but it was surely appropriate

As long as there's the two of us,
we've got the world and all it's charms.
And when the world is through with us,
we've got each other's arms.

You've got to win a little,
lose a little,yes,
and always have the blues a little.

That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.

The initial look of recognition on the faces of the bride and groom, the big grins, the tapping toes and nodding heads told me they were thrilled. This will be memoir material without a doubt.

The gifts of the faith community come in many forms.

What are you grateful for this weekend?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Living Cathedrals

The tree in the photograph above (click on it to get a better image) was taken by National Geographic photographer, Michael Nichols. This redwood is over 300 feet or nearly 100 metres tall. There is no camera that can capture an image of this height in the confines of a forest, so this is actually a composite of more than 83 photographic images. Nichols took photos for the recent cover story on redwoods and became fascinated with these trees.

I feel that trees are one of the glories of creation and so often taken for granted, particularly here in Canada where they are generally common. I am writing from home where I look out at a huge spruce, a cedar, several maples and a catalpa tree. Since we have lived in the manse we have planted a spruce to replace another sizeable tree that came down in a storm, two small pines, a serviceberry tree, and a lilac. Our predecessors also took it upon themselves to plant a number of trees and bushes on the property. We moved here from beautiful Halifax, the City of Trees, where the downtown streets are lined with magnificent, overarching trees.

Years ago Ruth accompanied me on a trip to Vancouver Island which was church business with a bit of vacation tacked on. We drove to the west coast and Pacific Rim Park where there are a couple of trails through old growth forest. The experience was akin to the emotional response to seeing whales. Beside one giant there was a sign saying that it would have been a seedling when Marco Polo set out for China in the 13th century.

I have noted before that the bible is full of references to trees and the tree of life figures in the first book of the bible, Genesis, and the last, the Revelation of John.

Do you have any personal reflections on trees, either because of their presence in your life, or their absence (we have at least one reader from Saskatchewan!)

Friday, October 09, 2009

A More Peaceful Planet

Two blog entries in one day. I felt I had to react or respond to the surprising news this morning that President Barack Obama of the United States has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. To put it as eloquently as I can, "Huh?' I am an admirer of Obama, although I have the impression that his agenda has been overly ambitious during the first months of his presidency.

Still, I am struggling with this award. The United States has the largest nuclear arsenal of any nation and is still engaged in a questionable war in Iraq. The American war machine is formidable, and peace often seems to be viewed down the barrel of a gun. While Obama's intentions are good it is hard to find concrete examples of a diplomatic movement toward what we might define as peace. He hasn't achieved anything yet!

We have to assume that the Nobel committee has based this award on the shift away from the Bush regime's bully-boy approach, and toward international cooperation under Obama. My first reaction is that a peace prize shouldn't be awarded on the basis of good intentions. On the other hand, many Christian peace activists of our era and others have persevered on the basis of what might be, rather than what is.

We could argue that the Prince of Peace, the One who taught "blessed are the peacemakers" was a magnificent failure because two thousand years later there is still so much strife in the world. Yet we continue to live with this hope of a peaceful world, despite what we see around us. Christian activist Clarence Jordan offered decades ago that "hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change."

We'll just have to hope and pray that this peace prize will lead to a more peaceful planet. What was your reaction to this announcement?

Cradle to Grave with Christ

Gary Crawford 1996

This afternoon I will go to the cemetery to conduct the commital service for a long-time member who died earlier this year. The family has finally been able to arrange for everyone to be present who wants to be here for an event that will be both solemn and an expression of gratitude.

An hour later I will take a couple through the rehearsal for a wedding which will happen tomorrow. This will be somewhat unusual in that both bride and groom have been collecting their pensions for a few years now. It's lovely that they can celebrate the covenant of marriage surrounded by children from earlier marriages, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As it happens, the family of our departed member is musical and wants to sing at the graveside, so we will. The couple getting married is also musical, so our choir will sing at the wedding.

A commital is, by its nature, what comes after the funeral, while a rehearsal comes before the marriage. There have been a few occasions when I conducted both a funeral and a wedding ceremony on the same day. It is a challenge to move from one mood to another, whatever the order of the events. We joke about clergy being in the "hatch, match and dispatch" business but there is a poignancy when grief and celebration coincide. Our trust is that God revealed in Christ is present and redeeming in both. Artist Gary Crawford illustrated our United Church creed in 1996 and I appreciate the image above.

We are called to be the Church...
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

To Whom Much is Given...

I must confess that I was a bit surprised when only reader Johnny responded to a recent blog in which I noted that Canada was number eight on a list of 144 countries included in an international peace index. I offered that the beauty and peace of this country was both gift and responsibility. I would say that the responsibility to others is even more of an imperative for people of faith.

So here comes another ranking, this time for the best country in the world in which to live. New Zealand was the most peaceable nation while Norway is the best in which to live. Of 182 countries included in the index, Canada is number four, the same as last year.

You guessed it, I will suggest again that the privilege of being Canadian invites practical, generous response to those less fortunate. There are so many passages in scripture which remind us that God loves the poor and downcast and that to follow God means exhibiting compassion.

The chorus What Does the Lord Require of You is a paraphrase of Micah 6 with the words

What does the Lord require of you?
To seek justice and love kindness,
and walk humbly with your God.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mammoth Question

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, best known for his version of the theory of evolution. Polls have been done in various countries to discover how many people actually believe in evolution. Americans are much less likely to agree with the theory than in other developed nations. Only 39% accept evolution while 59% of Canadians do. In both countries over 20% flat-out don't believe in evolution, and I would imagine lots of them are conservative Christians.

People have left congregations I served because I accept evolution. Strangely, I have to admit that I am a "small C" creationist in that I believe in a Creator God. I just think that God has brought diversity to this planet through the process of evolving species, as random as that process would appear.

Which bring me to the photo above and the story that goes with it. While you may assume that it is of a baby elephant it is actually of a one-month old mammoth that lived 40,000 thousand years ago and was kept almost perfectly intact in the cold of Siberia. There were traces of its mother's milk in its stomach.

Mammoths are a species that became extinct relatively recently in the scheme of Earth's geological history. How do Creationists deal with these extinctions if God brought all species into being in one moment? Why allow certain creatures to disappear? There is plenty of evidence of other extinctions, of adaptations over the course of only a few generations, and -yes-- of evolution.

Any thoughts? Is this puzzling for you or have you "made your peace?"

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Failure of Trust

I am haunted by the news out of Nova Scotia that a Roman Catholic bishop, Raymond Lahey, has been charged with possession of child pornography. The story is disturbing on so many levels. More and more I realize that the internet, a wonderful technological advancement, has its chilling dark side. Many people are lured into activity which they may convince themselves is harmless because it is conducted in the privacy of their own homes, yet is hugely destructive.

Bishop Lahey was the Roman Catholic official responsible for financial reparations and apologies to a number of people whose lives were deeply scarred as a result of sexual abuse by clergy. That he was allegedly availing himself of child porn is creepy. How could he have possibly taken on the one responsibility while engaging in this abuse of children at the same time? I'm sure we're agreed that even if there was no physical contact with children, they had to be exploited and abused to produce the pornography.

I am also disturbed to hear that the alert about Lahey's use of porn was sounded twenty years ago but somehow he was not held accountable and continued to be given greater responsibility within the church. This is a sin.

Finally, I grieve for all the committed laypeople and clergy of the Roman Catholic church who are suffering through yet another betrayal of trust. I know so many RC's who are devout Christians and I have benefitted from my dealings with priests through the years. There are aspects of Catholic spirituality that we would do well to emulate. Still, this is a horror story.

I am not interested in slamming the Roman Catholic church. Honestly, I have held off on commenting on this story because I don't want to simply be negative about brothers and sisters in Christ. I am interested in your reactions to this news.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Blessed Creatures

Yesterday we had fewer creatures and humans at our annual Blessing of the Animals. There were nine dogs, two nervous cats, and one bunny. Twenty five to thirty humans accompanied them, including a number of people, young and old, who came sans pets.

As we were finishing up our resident sheep farmer was leaving the church and mentioned that when his lambs go to market Muslim buyers turn to the east and pray a blessing on the creatures who will grace the tables at their various feasts. We have heard from our sheep-raising friends that Muslims pay a premium for lambs that are "perfect" (as much as they can be) with undocked tails, no noticeable blemishes, and with genitalia intact for the males. Good news, no castration, bad news, served with mint jelly!

We may figure this is a mixed blessing, since these lambs will end up as supper, but it is a good reminder. Canadians treat certain animals as members of the family willing to spend large amounts of money on their care and wellbeing. Then we cheerfully eat others without many thoughts about their fate. Of course this leads some to become vegetarians. It should nudge the rest of us to think about the ethical treatment of those who do become our food.

The prayer we use in our Blessing of the Animals service speaks of animals that work (including guide dogs and police dogs) and those animals which live on farms. Just because farm animals nourish us doesn't mean that we can't treat them with respect. We are told that it was practice of Aboriginal Canadians to give thanks to the Creator for the life of the creatures they killed for food. Not a bad idea.
Please say a prayer for the cat, Tippy, who went on "the lam(b)" from yesterday's service.
Good news. The cat came back --the very next day -- she wasn't a goner!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Acts of God?

One of today's readings is from the book of Job, the original When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In my sermon I mention the events and circumstances that lead us to question life's fairness and God's fairness. One example I offer is the natural disasters which kill innocent people which are often termed "acts of God" even by those who don't really attribute them to God. As it turns out, this week several Asian countries were rocked by typhoons, a tsunami, and an earthquake which killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.

Climate change scientists are suggesting that many of these extreme weather events are "acts of humanity" brought about by our behaviour. While there are still many who try to discredit human activity as a cause of climate and weather change (they are not one and the same) there is a growing body of evidence that our choices are affecting the patterns of the planet.

It is a long way from Asia to the Northwest Passage in the Arctic but events this summer also support the effects of human activity on climate. Large ships made their way through the passage sought by explorers through the centuries. The ice which has always been the impediment broke up and allowed ship traffic. The first time this happened was in 2007 and Canada is staking its territorial claim on these waters.

It's a small, climate changed world, after all.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Compost to Compost?

I just had to share this with you. A TV celebrity chef in Britain, Keith Floyd, died recently and he was buried in an eco-friendly casket made of banana leaves. I am fascinated because even though I pronounce "earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust" at the graveside, our mortal remains just aren't that compostable, shall we say. We have developed practices that keep us from becoming earth and ashes and dust once again. Our dead bodies are filled with potent chemicals and put in expensive and durable caskets. We even install concrete vaults in the ground to keep our graves from collapsing. Cremation has become a popular alternative in our society, but it takes a lot of energy to reduce our water-based bodies to ashes. Floyd's body and casket were cremated, but it wouldn't have required the same number of BTU's.

I have actually attended a workshop on environmentally sustainable burials and discovered that governments don't really like the idea. They are worried about contamination so there are lots of rules about burial that make it difficult to establish cemeteries that might eventually become forests or don't require manicuring like golf courses. So cremation tends to be the alternative and families scatter the ashes here and there, without much thought about future generations and how they will honour the departed.

People like to say to me "just bury me in a pine box!" or a cardboard crate or something along these lines. It just isn't that easy, but maybe it should be. Any thoughts?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Living Church

A colleague sent out an email a few weeks ago inviting all the United Church ministers in our region called a presbytery to gather for a discussion in four two-hour sessions over four Thursday afternoons. He suggested we read a book with the provocative title I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! by Paul Nixon. Looking at the cover, the stance of the clergyperson, the title itself, and the exclamation mark offer a rather defiant approach rather than one of the alternatives, a passive "oh well, the world is changing" outlook.

United Churches in our area are hurting. Many have been contending with diminishing congregations, and a consumer mentality amongst some churchgoers -- what can you do for me when I want it? With the economic downturn this trend has become a crisis because congregational givings have dropped dramatically in a number of situations. Even some of our larger congregations are struggling and the outlook is rather gloomy.

Apparently later today more than a dozen of us with be gathering at the church of the guy who issued the invitation. I am encouraged that we aren't ready to be museum keepers or funeral directors for Christ's church.
Please keep us in your prayers. I'm not interested in a "woe is me" session, or group therapy. I would love it if the Holy Spirit works in and through us for something positive and life-giving, both for ourselves and our congregations. We are United Church but we could do with a pentecostal moment!