Sunday, February 28, 2010

Press on Toward the Goal

Not that I have already obtained all this or have already reached the goal: but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly*call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14

The Olympics are drawing to a end and the closing ceremonies will take place tonight. I found myself squeezing in viewing time whenever possible during the past two weeks and actually saw several Canadian gold medal performances. I was excited to see Alex Bilodeau's medal ski run, but the golden moment was his inspirational brother, Frederic ,celebrating the victory on the sideline. I am in awe of Brian McKeever's accomplishment as a blind skier in the midst of sighted competitors, although getting bumped from his race at the last moment must have been a huge disappointment.

In my books bronze medal winner Joannie Rochette gets a platinum medal for courage, continuing to compete in skating despite her mother's sudden death. Devon Kershaw, our former neighbour in Sudbury and the same age as our son Isaac, along with partner Alex Harvey, finished higher in their cross country ski event than any Canadians before them, although they finished fourth.

There it is. Medals are great and I got a lump in my throat when the national anthem was played each time. But there were other forms of victory, without a doubt. The apostle Paul encouraged us to press on toward our spiritual goal in Christ, an allusion to Greek foot races. He doesn't mention gold, silver or bronze, or "owning the podium"-- just the endeavour of effort and excellence.

Have you enjoyed the Olympics? Does the medal count matter to you? Any highlights?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Take a Hike toward Justice

You have to love Clara Hughes, the only athlete from any country to win multiple medals at both summer and winter Olympic games. She capped her stellar career by winning a somewhat unexpected bronze medal, for which she was awarded $10,000. Clara could easily have justified this chunk of change as the fruits of her dedication. Instead she gave it away. She and her husband got a little lost on a car ramble through Vancouver last summer and they ended up in the lower east side of the city, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. After her win Clara decided to give her prize to a program which provides outdoor experiences for disadvantaged youth called Take a Hike. After the Turin Olympics she gave the same amount to Right to Play. What a woman.

There have been protests in Vancouver over the $6 billion price-tag for the Olympics when there are so many who live in abject poverty. The coalitions of activists include church groups working with those on the margins.

In tomorrow's sermon I will include a reminder of Christ's six "mercies" as found in Matthew 25.

Feed the Hungry
Give Drink to the Thirsty
Clothe the Naked
Shelter the Homeless
Visit the Sick
Visit those in Prison

Can spending so much on the Olympics be justified? Does it have to be "either/or? Should we nominate Clara for sainthood or elect her prime minister?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Africville Apology

Sometimes I wonder if there will be an official apology for the number of times we have apologized to various groups in recent years. It seems to be the thing to do these days, although I can't think of a group receiving an apology that they didn't deserve. The lastest came from the mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the remaining displaced residents of Africville. As the name might suggest, Africville was a community on the Bedford Basin inhabited by African Canadians until the early 1960's. The residents were evicted, supposedly to build one of the bridges across Halifax Harbour, although today a park called Seaview is on the land of the former Africville.

By an act of council the park will revert to the name Africville, and a controversial settlement of $3 million dollars will be paid out for various purposes. Mayor Peter Kelly offered these words: "We are sorry. You lost your homes, your church, all of the places where you gathered with family and friends to mark the milestones of your lives. For all of that, we apologize."

It will be interesting to see what happens next. I was at a gathering on the site of Africville a number of years ago when the federal heritage minister promised the rebuilding of the church, which was the hub of the community. It was an announcement made on the spur of the moment, and the former residents in attendance were hopeful, but the promise hasn't been realized. Since Christian faith was so important to these disenfranchised folk it was a great idea to create a museum in the form of a original church. Although it seemed to be an empty promise then, part of the $3 million is to build a replica of the church at Africville.

Were you aware of the sad history of Africville? (I have written about it before.) Is an apology such as this one a good thing, or "too little too late?" Should we apologize at all for the sins of the past, if we didn't commit them?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Northern Concerns

‘Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined.
2Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore.
3Miners put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
they are forgotten by travellers,
they sway suspended, remote from people.
5As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold. Job 28:1-6

What do you think of when you hear or see "Group of Seven artists?" I imagine it is images of pristine northern landscape, not industrial paintings such as the one above by Franklin Carmichael. He created this in 1930, in the town of Cobalt. This is the head of a mine from that era, the reason the town was established in the first place.

For eleven years our family lived in Northern Ontario and I became aware that Southern Ontarians knew next to nothing about the north and didn't really care. I had been part of the oblivious throng, unaware that the economy of the north generated a higher GDP than some of the Atlantic provinces and that while only 8% of Ontarians live in the north, it makes up more than 80% of the province's land mass. Mining is a huge generator of wealth and the pulp and paper industry is another big contributor. It's easy to forget that even in our high-tech age the metals used in just about everything must be extracted from the ground somewhere and we have some of the richest ore deposits on the planet here in Ontario.

Did you know that Sudbury nickel miners have been on strike for seven months? Did you know that one of the most efficient, productive, and environmentally friendly smelters in the world will soon be shut down in Timmins? Foreign companies own the mines and the smelter and they have drawn a tough line on costs, in part because of the availability of cheap labour in other countries.

I might be pushing it a little to say that mining is a spiritual issue, but it's important to remember those who work below surface level to provide the essentials of day-to-day living.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Whale of a Send-off

A whale which died off the coast of Vietnam has been honoured in what is essentially a funeral service. Can you imagine being asked to act as a pallbearer? Read the story.

HANOI, VIETNAM—Thousands of Vietnamese fishermen are giving a royal send-off to a 13.6-tonne dead whale, gathering at a southern Vietnamese village to pay homage at a funeral for the creature they call “Your Excellency.” Nearly 10,000 people have converged in Bac Lieu province to bid farewell to the 16-metre whale since he was dragged ashore Monday, said coast guard official Do Tien Ha.

They burned incense in his honour and planned to build a temple at the site of his burial, which was scheduled for Tuesday. Nearly 3,000 people will attend the whale’s last rites, to be held at the mouth of the Cai Cung River. In Vietnam’s fishing culture, whales are considered sacred. They are referred to by the title “ngai,” the same honorific used for kings, emperors and other esteemed leaders.

Ten thousand mourners! I have never done a funeral for any human that numbered more than four or five hundred in attendance. I have been asked to say a few words over a deceased family pet on occasion, and we do bless animals on the Feast of St. Francis each year. But full-fledged Fido finales (shameless alliteration)?

Some Christians would, well, roll over in their graves at the thought of a religious send-off for any critter other than a human. What do you think of this story? Do you wonder if our environment would be in better shape if we honoured animals other than humans? Or is this just silly?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Faith Talk and Innovation

Our neighbours at Faith United in Courtice, and their pastor Larry Doyle, have offered an innovative way to participate in a study discussion. They are going to look at a book called Devotional Classics with opportunities to participate "face to face" and online. The book gathers some of the great devotional reading through the centuries.

Anyone who participates is responsible for buying the book, but the first few readings will be available through the Faith website. It's an interesting idea, and this blog shows that there are thoughtful people who are interested in discussion on spiritual topics, even though they may not be in the same room when that conversation happens.

What do you think about offering study and conversation online? I like gathering because there is spontaneous conversation, laughter, the ability to see and hear the emotional responses of others. But why not exploit the communication opportunities which are out there?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Soundtrack for a Revolution

We spent Saturday afternoon in the dark of Toronto theatres, taking in two interesting films which probably won't make it to these parts. One was Crazy Heart, the story of a broken down country musician. Jeff Bridges is excellent in the role of Bad Blake. The other is the story of an angry teenage girl who lives in a housing complex in a bleak, nameless city in Britain. The film is Fish Tank and both the story and the acting are very real.

We would have liked to see the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution as well. As the name suggests, it is about the music which was at the core of the civil rights movement in the United States during the fifties and sixties. A fair amount of this music was Christian, which makes sense because churches were the places of inspiration for so many people who participated in change. These Christians felt that it was literally their God-given right to live as free and equal partners in society. While Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning..." change happened through the black churches and the music of those congregations poured out into the streets.

I'm never sure how to respond to Black History Month in our predominately white community but I have pointed out before that the late, great pianist Oscar Peterson wrote "Hymn to Freedom," a piece that was important during the civil rights movement.

Thoughts about the importance of music as a motivator for change, and what we can do to honour this month? Teachers, has anything happened in your schools?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Anno Domini

We begin our Lenten Sundays and the movement toward Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday --Easter. This is a season for reflection and contemplation, including asking ourselves who Jesus is for us. A lot is written these days about Jesus. Some question whether he actually existed. Others portray him as a social activist. A cosmic principle? Saviour of humanity? Christ of all Creation?

It's important to be able to ask our questions without fear, but also come to the conclusions which allow us to be disciples and live out our faith in Christ. I have provided a link with what is called a virtual museum and an exhibition of images which touch on the various aspects of who Christ has been perceived to be. Just click on any image on the wheel and it will enlarge and offer some commentary.

It's interesting that the term Anno Domini is used for the exhibit, the source of our "A.D." employed after the year eg. 2010 A.D. In scholarly circles the initials C.E. are often used denoting the Common Era, rather than A.D. which is "year of our Lord."

Which image or images speak to you? I am partial to the Chagall painting of a Jewish Jesus on the cross, displayed above. Are you still working to clarify your portrait of Jesus. Is he the Christ for you?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Begin the Beguines

I have finished up the novel, the Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland. It is an interesting read, a well-written suspense/mystery story set in the 14th century. It seems that the Middle Ages are an endless goldmine for period piece novels these days, and many of them are quite good. I can't rave about this book, but I enjoyed the historical twist which makes in unique.

The central characters are members of a little-known religious movement from that era, the Beguines. Women who may never have married, or were shunned because of their apparent infertility, came together in an informal religious movement that was outside the confines of the convent. Here is one description:

Béguines were an informal sisterhood of laywomen who did not have the means to or interest in entering a convent or were refused by religious orders but desired to live a life of service to God. (Their male counterparts were Beghards.) The community required celibacy although Béguines could later marry. Even though a vow of poverty was required to fulfill a life of charity and prayer, women of some wealth could keep their homes and land. So on one end of the economic spectrum were women of modest means, and on the other were women who owned property and often created small, free communities of Béguines.

Begun in present-day Holland, the movement also flourished in England, Germany, France, and the Low Countries in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Béguines created hospitals, homes for the aged, and orphanages. Somewhat like the Franciscans, Béguines took the biblical mandate of poverty and charity seriously for daily living. Their work with the sick and dying was gratefully accepted and badly needed during the Black Death that swept Europe in the 1300s.
Listen to an interview about the book with Karen Maitland

Have you heard about this movement? There has been a renewed interest in the Beguines as a early feminist movement. Are you intrigued. Will you look for the novel?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Coming Clean

On Wednesday evening I drew a comparison between King David, the penitent source of Psalm 51, and the disgraced golfing phenom, Tiger Woods. It happened that on Ash Wednesday Woods announced that he would meet the media today. I am not anticipating some great outpouring of contrition on Woods' part. His press conference will be carefully orchestrated. It is an "invitation only" gathering and he will not entertain questions. Basically, he will make a statement and leave.

Other golfers have expressed their annoyance because this comes in the midst of an important tournament. Why couldn't he have chosen another time? And TV networks are going to stop Olympic coverage to focus on this rather sordid display. So much for the emphasis on pure athletic endeavour.

The readings on Wednesday were about responding from the heart. Psalm 51 is a powerful recognition of wrong-doing and a cry for mercy. In the passage from Matthew 6 Jesus criticizes those who engage in public displays of piety when honest religion comes from within.

Are you feeling a little cynical about Tiger's press conference? I confess that I am. One headline asks How Will Tiger Spin His Tale? Is there much point after what he has done? What would you hope for from such an exercise? Wil he "come clean?"
Since I wrote this morning Tiger had his press conference. And as I am attempting to give up being judgemental for Lent I will try to take his statement at face value. Ultimately this is between Woods, his family and God. Here is part of what he said:
“I want to say to each of you simply and directly: I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behaviour. I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you. I have made you question who I am and how I have done the things I did. I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position. For all that I have done, I am so sorry. I have a lot to atone for,” he said, later adding: “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame. I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Deliver us from Evil

Last night at our Ash Wednesday service we joined together in a psalm attributed to a murderer, or at least someone who orchestrated a death. When the biblical King David decided he wanted the beautiful Bathsheba for himself, he arranged for her husband's death in battle. While he didn't hold the sword or the bow, he was complicit. After the fact David becomes aware of the implications of his dark deed, and repents.

It shouldn't surprise us that a biblical hero could commit a terrible wrong. There is no sub-species of human called homo criminalus. Real people, including supposed pillars of the community get caught up in circumstances and give way to passions and dark urges that lead them to do evil.

It has been interesting to see the responses to the alleged crimes of Colonel Russell Williams, the base commander at CFB Trenton. Strong evidence points to Williams as the perpetrator of sexual assaults and the murders of two innocent young women. Some have described him as a monster, perhaps feeling that no real human being could do what he did. Others ask, how had the psychological testing he underwent missed his flaws? This seems to be a naiive faith in psychology as a discipline. There is no psych version of a body scanner, any more than there is a spiritual scan for evil.

People with remarkable abilities and strengths end up doing things that hurt others in a variety of ways. Some go so far as physical violence and murder. When I was a chaplain intern at Kingston Penitentiary I met a number of "nice guys" who committed murder. When inhibitions are removed, or when people are driven by jealousy or rage, they can do just about anything.

What has been going through your minds as the story of Colonel Williams unfolds?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I like to live in the present when it comes to my faith, yet there can be great meaning in the traditions which inform us and encourage us from the past. Ash Wednesday is one of those traditions which arguably predates Christianity with the Judaic practice of dousing with ashes to demonstrate penitence.

The Eastern Orthodox Church started Great and Holy Lent on Sunday night, rather than today, after Forgiveness Vespers. I just like the sound of Forgiveness Vespers. Apparently it involves a moving rite of mutual forgiveness.

Here is an ancient prayer which speaks to me, except for the exclusive language and the chastity part!

O Lord and Master of my life,
take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency,lust of power, and idle talk;
But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King,grant me to see my own transgressions,
and not to judge my brother;
for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.
Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian - 4th century

Any of you planning to attend an Ash Wednesday service this year? Ours is at 7:00 pm and kids are welcome. Do the ashes spook you a little?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras

They say the Mardi Gras party started early in New Orleans this year, right after the Saints won the Superbowl. But today there will be plenty of revelry in that city and in many other locations to mark the last day before the beginning of Lent. The beads in the photo above are part of the celebration in New Orleans.

The tradition has been to have a "blow-out" before the austerity and self-denial of Lent, although Mardi Gras has taken on a bacchanalian life of its own. The idea was to use up all the butter, eggs, and milk in a home before fasting began, which prompted the Pancake Tuesday aspect of the day.

People still give stuff up for Lent, such as desserts, or alcohol. Years ago a parishioner committed himself to giving up anxiety for Lent. How about gossip? Others take things on for the forty days, including acts of compassion. Maybe we should do something like contribute a food item per day to the food bank. Or the cost of a coffee a day for Haiti.

Will you mix up a batch of pancakes today? Will you give up or take on anything for Lent?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Silent Spring, Fruitless Fall

So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey Exodus 3:8

This is one of roughly sixty reference to honey in the bible. It was the original sweetener and highly valued in most cultures.

Most of you are aware of the book entitled Silent Spring, written by environmentalist Rachel Carson in the early 1960's. It awakened North Americans to the dangers of pesticides and the possibility that the season of Spring would no longer be announced by songbirds, victims of chemical poisoning. As a result of her book some of the pesticides were banned while the use of others was curtailed.

Carson also warned of a "fruitless fall," aware that there was a similar threat to insects and particularly to the honey bees we depend upon to cross-pollinate everything from orchard crops to berries to cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes. In recent years honey bees, a species introduced to North America from Europe have been mysteriously disappearing in droves -- about a quarter of honey bee populations have already gone AWOL and no one knows why.

I am reading Rowan Jacobsen's book Fruitless Fall, (yup, I tend to read several books at the same time) which looks at the little miracle of bee pollination and tries to discover what it happening to these tiny but essential critters. You may be unaware that the real money in bee cultivation is not in producing honey anymore. The cash flows from trucking hives around from crop to crop for brief stays which will vastly increase yields. The trouble is, exposure to chemicals and the very process of constant displacement may be killing the bee that laid the golden honey (forgive my paraphrase.)

As a former small-scale beekeeper this saddens me and concerns me deeply. How do we keep screwing things up in terms of ecological balance? This is not a minor problem. Total collapse would change the way we eat and lead to vast problems in North American agriculture.

Have you heard about this? Do you make a point of buying local honey? Do you think we can change the factory-style approach to agriculture which provides cheap food but makes us vulnerable?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day

We finished up our Ten Commandment series today with commandment ten, do not covet or crave. It was a fun one to tackle and received the second highest number of votes from the congregation for possible sermons before the series began.

But we also acknowledged Valentine's Day and our administrator, Helen, came up with a great bulletin cover with a heart image on the front and a brief bio of St. Valentine on the back.

Of course Valentine was acknowledged as a saint for his sacrificial and generous love, not as the founder of Hallmark Cards. Don't get me wrong, I was romantic on Valentine's Day but the recognition has morphed from honouring someone who displayed love in the tradition of Jesus to yet another North American spendfest. Yesterday I was in the grocery store and a drug store and I had to smile at the desperate looking men, staring at racks of red junk and tired flowers in the hope that they would be inspired.

This morning on the CBC they recognized Valentine's Day by getting people to phone/text/email with stories of their worst dates. A movie reviewer chatted with the host about the most dysfunctional relationship movies. It was a downer!

I know this blog comes at you late in the day, but I would be interested to hear your comments on whether Valentine's Day matters to you, and any other thoughts on the nature of love. We all love comments!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Singing Gleefully

One of my favourite parts of Sunday morning happens well before worship begins. Most weeks a group of up to fifteen children shows up to warble away as members of our junior choir. Allanah and Janet and sometimes Nancy work diligently with these kids and the congregation loves them. I love seeing and hearing these children at 9:30 on Sunday mornings.

We are fortunate to still have a children's choir these days. But perhaps there will be a resurgence of interest. We're told that the television program Glee has sparked a new enthusiasm for choral singing in this age of the MP3 player. It is about a high school glee club and its gang of nerdy/cool participants.

I have mused before about music in the church, but what about the therapeutic qualities of singing, specifically? I don't mean listening to others sing, but the act of singing. According to Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project we should all be waggling our tonsils as a mood enhancer, regardless of whether we can hold a tune or not. Actually, that's one of the things I appreciate about the junior choir. They give God the glory whether they sing like angels or bull frogs. It's all good, as they say.

Personally, I love to sing many of the old hymns, but I am more open now than ever to the new music of praise.

Share your thoughts on singing gleefully.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stronger, Higher, Faster?

I will be watching the Olympics and cheering for Canadians athletes. For the first time I was really interested in the summer edition two years ago. Being on home soil (snow? ice?) I am keen to see how our dedicated men and women fare.

That doesn't mean I don't have some reservations. Is this good ol' earnest United Church guilt or what? I cringe when I hear that security alone will cost in the neighbourhood of a billion dollars. Couldn't we just get some of the biathalon athletes to use assault rifles and night scopes?

I feel weird when I hear that snow is being trucked hundreds of kilometres to cover the ski hills, or flown in by helicopter. Think about those urban myths of dozy Americans showing up in July with snow skis and toboggans expecting Canada to be the frozen north. What are the odds that a mountain in Canada wouldn't have snow in February?

And then there is the wildlife. Media love the juxtapositon of what they like to call Mother Nature and human endeavour. So we have seen a bear and a lynx running around the venues so far, and there will probably be more animals making the news. A reminder that we are enthusiastically encroaching on the habitat of some of God's other species.

Will you be watching over the next couple of weeks? Is Stronger, Higher, Faster a soaring celebration of humanity at its athletic best, or our version of the Tower of Babel?

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Today marks the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island prison, offshore from the South African mainland. Mandela was incarcerated for twenty seven years in a small cell. During that time he could have moved into the depths of bitterness and hatred. Instead he emerged to lead his nation toward integration. The statue above depicts Mandela's triumphant emergence from prison. Sadly, Mandela, at age ninety one was not well enough to return to the prison today.

Some argue that the South Africa of today is a grim example of failed hope and expectations. There is still such a long way to go and lawlessness is a threat to civil society. Yet the Peace and Reconciliation Commission led by former archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela's choice to move toward reconciliation in his leadership style probably kept the country from anarchy.

In the film Invictus the South African rugby team went to Robben Island where the captain, Francois Pienaar, found inspiration for perseverence as he stood in Mandela's cell. Of course we have stories of our New Testament heroes including the apostle Paul and John the Baptist and even Jesus (briefly) who spent lonely hours and days in prison. Ultimately they came to represent the freedom which overcomes dark empires.

Are you inspired by Mandela's story? Will those of you who have children remind them about this?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


The Chinese government is admitting to having waterways that are at least twice as polluted as previously reported. This shouldn't surprise us because we hear of serious incidents where major cities forbid using water from the rivers on which they are situated because of spills of toxins and other environmental problems. With a population well over a billion people it's hard to imagine how governments can ensure safe water supplies.

I got thinking about the stuff I own which comes from China. I have a guitar from China because it is good quality but much cheaper than one produced in North America. I have a jacket which I have worn for 15 years which comes from Mountain Equipment Coop. Their goods are always top quality and long-lasting. Guess where it was made? Of course, China has become a country of factories which pollute the air and the water and the soil. My inexpensive stuff has a high cost.

It seems to me that we need to be honest in recognizing that someone is paying the price we aren't willing to pay. I'm reading a book called The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel, which takes its title from an Oscar Wilde observation that "we know the price of everything and the cost of nothing." Patel points out that we encourage unsustainable economies which are harmful to the planet.

As I am preparing the last sermon in our Ten Commandments series I am thinking about what it means not to covet. I realize I shouldn't hanker after cheap stuff at someone else's expense. These workers and producers may live on the other side of the world, but it is the only planet God has given us, and we are asked to care for it.

Do you ever feel uneasy about an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to consumerism? Can we do anything about it?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


So many books, so little time. On the weekend I read a review of a book called 1492: The Year Our World Began which opens our vision beyond "in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." I had not realized that there were doomsayers predicting an apocalypse in the year Christopher Columbus sailed away in search of China and instead "discovered" North America.

Nor was I aware that this was the year when the Muslims who had ruled portions of Spain for nearly 800 years finally left for North Africa. From that time on Europe was associated with Christianity. In 1492 there was also a dispersal of the Jewish residents of Spain, the product of the Inquisition which began fourteen years before.

I was aware that Christians, Jews, and Muslims had peacefully co-existed in Spain for centuries. We have to wonder how our world would be different if that remarkable model for religious tolerance and respect had continued.

While at the Epiphany Explorations event one session involved a conversation between Lois Wilson (former moderator of the United Church), a local rabbi, and a graduate student from the University of Victoria. They were an example of civil conversation between adherents of the three great monotheistic faiths. As Wilson pointed out in her usual straightforward manner, to pretend there aren't differences produces religious "mush" but we have an obligation to listen with respect and to learn with openness.


Monday, February 08, 2010

Where Has the Time Gone?

When I log on to write a new blog entry I see the running tally of all the blogs I have written. This is number 900, which surprises me. I seem to remember telling you when I got to 600, and that was just a couple of days ago! I didn't blog during a portion of my restorative leave, in part because I was in a fairly isolated location where I barely had phone service, let alone internet access. In the earlier days, back in the Fall of 2006, I managed two or three blogs a week, and worked up a sweat creating that many. Yet here we are at 900.

As I have told you along the way, I try to restrict myself to twenty minutes per blog entry in my attempt to be a conscientious steward of my time. Still, that means a minimum of 300 hours of writing or nearly thirteen twenty-four days.

Along the way I have learned how to post in advance so the blog is there most days even if you are an early bird. And I have discovered how to get images for just about every subject. I rarely miss now because I have learned to jot down the stories, personal and otherwise, that intrigue me.
Fortunately blogging rarely seems like a task -- I enjoy the mental and creative exercise. My discovery during these past three and a half years is that I am already looking at the world through the eyes of my Christian faith, so why not write about it? Like my personal journal, which I write each day, this is a discipline, but a positive one. I have also learned that many of you are thoughtful, faithful observers of your world, and some of you are willing to share your insights with others. From my perspective the comments are as important as the blog entries themselves. Many of you feel the same way, even those of you who don't comment.

I hope the blog continues to meet a need. Thanks for reading and participating. Are there subjects you would like to see addressed? Are there ways the blog could be more interactive?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Right to Speak Out?

Tim Tebow is an excellent college football player in the United States. He has won the Heisman trophy as the top college player and set a bunch of records. He is open about his Christian faith to the point where he wears bible verses on his face during games. If you are curious the reference above from Ephesians is "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

Today, Superbowl Sunday, Tebow will be in the spotlight again, not as a player but as a controversial spokesperson for the anti-abortion movement in the States. Tebow is the son of Christian missionaries and years ago, while living in the Philippines, his very ill mother, Pam, was advised to have an abortion. She chose to go ahead with the pregnancy and birth and --you guessed it -- son Tim is the child.

There will be an expensive commercial during the Superbowl with Tebow and Pam at the centre. Critics are asking how the conservative religious group, Focus on the Family, got approval to air this ad when a commercial for the United Methodist denomination was refused a few years ago because it showed a church welcoming a gay couple.

What do you think of this commercial? Should the group he represents be allowed freedom of expression, if they have the money to pay for the ad (about 2.5 million dollars for 30 seconds)?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

God's Grace

The word "grace" is key to our understanding of Christianity. It is really a concept, of God's gracious, generous choice to become flesh in Jesus the Christ. In Christ we receive God's love, not on the basis of our merit but as gift. Grace tells us that we are forgiven and restored to right relationship with God.

Not surprisingly, the Salvation Army gave the name Grace to the hospitals it established across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This past week the Army followed through on the commitment it announced last year to withdraw from running Grace hospital in downtown Toronto. The denomination had already begun divesting itself of other hospitals over the past few years, for a number of reasons.

However, after a considerable public hue and cry the provincial government and the Salvation Army agreed to continue its partnership at Grace.

Various denominations have sponsored hospitals through the years. Virtually every Hotel Dieu hospital in the country originated with the Roman Catholic church. The United Church established hospitals and health missions across the country, although in recent decades our denomination has stepped back from this work. Many dedicated doctors, nurses, and other health professionals served faithfully in these facilities.

Shrinking membership in churches and stretched dollars have made this next to impossible to continue, not to mention huge costs for infrastructure upgrades and the purchase of medical technology.

What do you think about church involvement in healthcare facilities? I have spoken with agnostic physicians who feel that there is a better ethos in church-related hospitals. Should the Army stay in, or focus efforts elsewhere?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Care in Chaos

Those terrible Baptist, do-gooder/up to no-gooders! Stealing helpless children and spiriting them across the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. You may have seen the story earlier this week of the American religious group which was stopped, then charged with kidnapping Haitian children. The question was whether they would be prosecuted in the U.S. or Haiti. If you were like me I was not impressed by what they had done, especially knowing the concerns about opportunistic gangs taking children for human trafficking.

Well, the story isn't quite so simple. In yesterday's Globe and Mail there was an article about the desperate conditions in the village where these children are from. Already poor, the homes and vegetable plots of families were destroyed. Parents asked the Baptist group to take their children to safer locations, even though they struggled with the implications of separation. Some of the parents were injured and unable to care for their children, so they felt that leaving would mean they received food and care.

Was it a good idea for the Baptists to take these kids? Probably not. But this situation reminds us that in the midst of chaos is can be very difficult to know what is best. This Christian group assumed they were acting with compassion and made poor choices.

What was your reaction to this story? How do you feel now?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Dim the Lights, Bring up the Narrative

I had a hard enough time keeping up with films in the Best Picture category for the Academy Awards when the list was restricted to five nominees. This year it is up to ten, so I have my work cut out for me. Here are the hopefuls from 2009:

“The Blind Side”
“District 9”
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“A Serious Man”
“Up in the Air”

I managed to see Avatar, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air. I would really like to view The Hurt Locker and probably The Blind Side. I think Precious would be too bleak and Inglourious Bastards too bloody, but you never know. I thought Julie and Julia might have made the list.

I have commented before that I love movies that have a strong narrative, in part because the best of the bible and life in general is story-telling. Religion breaks down when we lose the narrative quality which conveys its truths. The bible narratives are often startlingly honest about the human condition.

Which movies did you enjoy the most from this list, and which would you like to see? Any theological insights?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Neil Young...theologian?

Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga. The Grammys belonged to young woman on Sunday night, or so it seemed. A couple of grizzled Canadian senior citizens did okay as well. Leonard Cohen copped a lifetime achievement award, while Neil Young was given a humanitarian honour. It's good to hear about the various causes he supports. I'm old enough to have watched Young move from folkie, to rocker, to philosopher and even theologian. In every phase he has sung with a look on his face as though someone just dropped a guitar on his foot. Have you heard his song, When God Made Me?

Was he thinking about my country,or the colour of my skin?
Was he thinking about my religion,and the way I worshipped him?
Did he create just me in his image,or every living thing?
When God made me.
When God made me.

Was he planning only for believers,or for those who just had faith?
Did he envision all wars that were fought in his name?
Did he say there was only one way to be close to him?
When God made me.
When God made me.

Did he give me the gift of love to say who I could choose?
When God made me.
When God made me.
When God made me.

Did he give me the gift of voice so some could silence me?
Did he give me the gift of vision not knowing what I might see?
Did he give me the gift of compassionto help my fellow man?

When God made me.
When God made me.
When God made me.

What do you think of Neil's theology? You don't have to be a Single Lady to answer this question.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Challenging Stereotypes

Chung Hyun Kyung must win the prize as the most intriguing speaker at the Epiphany Explorations conference. She is a Korean-American, eco-feminist, Christian Buddhist (or Buddhist Christian.) Not only is she in select company with that combination, she may be one of a kind! In one session she described to us her journey toward bringing together both Buddhism and Christianity as her faith expression.

In the other, she told us about a recently completed project which involved travelling to seventeen Muslim countries where she interviewed 200 Muslim women about peace. Chung is an engaging speaker and her presentation on her encounters with Muslim women was enlightening. Lo and behold, in each country she visited women were treated differently. In Turkey Muslim women had great freedom in every aspect of their lives while in Pakistan it can be extremely dangerous to be an independent woman.
One woman she spent time with in Pakistan had been gang-raped for her outspokenness. She ended up suing these men, which was unprecedented, and she won in large part because the local imam supported her cause as one of justice. The woman used the money of the settlement to build a school to educate girls.

A woman in Syria is a Hezbollah warrior, convinced that the only way to freedom is through armed response.

Chung`s talk reminded me that I should refrain from stereotypes. There is no more a typical Muslim woman than there is a typical Christian woman.

Does this surprise you? Encourage you?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Singing a Different Song

The speaker for three of our sessions was an American who looked like a cross between singer Kenny Rogers and Chad Kroeger from Nickleback. I'm not a fan of either of those entertainers, but Dr. Leonard Sweet was both entertaining and thought-provoking. He was introduced as a historian and a futurist -- an interesting combination.

Sweet admitted to us that he loves the Victorian era and has a house full of big, clunky furniture. But he acknowledges that he lives in the 21st century, not the 19th, and he accepts that reality. The implication of this observation seemed to be that a church which is bemoaning its decline is well equipped for a previous day, not the one in which we find ourselves.

Sweet was not a pessimist. To the contrary, with humour he invited us to be clear-eyed and inventive, open to the work of God's Spirit for the time in which we live. He is fond of acronyms: as an example, TGIF. Not the one which might come to mind but Twitter, Google, Internet, Facebook. He claims, rightly it seems to me, that this is the world in which young people function as they search for connection. He encouraged us to be what he calls post-Gutenberg people, accepting that a new revolution is well under way, not unlike the one prompted by the invention of moveable type. He reminded us that the Christian community is a place for authentic connection, if we are willing to let go of some of our assumptions about what it means to be church.

I might say more about Leonard Sweet, but what is your reaction to these comments?