Friday, April 30, 2010

Among The Righteous

A couple of weeks ago I watched a fascinating and meaningful documentary on PBS called Among the Righteous about Arabs who helped to save Jews during the Second World War.

The film-maker is a Jew, Robert Satloff, and he decided to go down this unusual road after the horrific events of September 11th, 2001. His wife worked for the World Bank and he move with her to an Arab country as she pursued her career. He became even more aware of the blatant anti-semitism in some Arab countries, where the Holocaust, or Shoah, is either denied or celebrated.

Satloff set out to uncover stories of Arabs who were sympathetic to their Jewish neighbours and saved their lives when their countries were invaded by the Germans during WW2. He found them, and honours their stories in his documentary.

In Jerusalem there is a memorial to more than 20,000 "righteous gentiles," the men and women who were not Jews who protected Jewish neighbours and friends, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in the process. While only sixty of those 20,000 are Arabs, Satloff is convinced that there are many more.

Of course not all Arabs are Muslims. In Israel there is a small but persistent Arab Christian population. But Satloff points out that we need to be careful about stereotypes, even in this time of deep suspicion of those from Arab nations.

Does this surprise you? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stop, Look and Listen

I make a living kicking around words. I write every week in preparing a sermon and daily for this blog. I have been invited to write in other circumstances, including for two Lenten booklets for the national church. At the same time I am a very visual person and couldn't imagine my world without imbibing deeply of the natural beauty around us and the powerful statements of art and architecture.

To that end I included visual images in worship long before Powerpoint came along. Twenty years ago I began using overhead slides in sermons to illustrate what I was saying. When projection became more common in places of worship I was quick to embrace it. It is rare for me not to use visual images within a sermon, and while I sometimes include quotes, I am far more likely to use photographs and works of art as illustrations. I'm always trying to figure out whether images are enhancing or detracting from the message and when less is more.

There has been a lot written lately about the perils of Powerpoint, in any setting. The illustration above was part of a US military presentation on the situation in Afghanistan. Little wonder we are still there.

There are times when it seems that presenters are enthusiastically using projection without much sense of context or moderation. A family member was relieved when the interim minister in her congregation moved on. He seemed to be keener on bombarding them with images with his new toy than on the content of his message.

What are your thoughts on the augmentation of messages with images? Would you rather listen than look, are both helpful?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Racial Justice

Last week I went to a day-long workshop on racial justice. It was a United Church event and I was there because all clergy in the denomination are required to attend one. I showed up with about forty of my colleagues, although just about everyone I know was puzzled by the mandatory nature of this workshop. We just didn't want to be there, not because we don't believe in racial justice, but because just about every United Church minister I know does have deep convictions about racial equality and justice. But how could we not attend? As the colleague I travelled with said, if we are stubborn and don't go, how does it look -- I'm staying home to kick my grandmother instead!

As it turns out, the presenters were well prepared and took us through the process with intelligence and conviction. The trouble is, we didn't hear much we didn't already know. That doesn't mean we don't have work to do, nor that we don't have our own occasions of racism along the way, the sins of commission or omission. But a total of over a month of clergy time was spent being earnest about a subject on which we already have deep convictions.

This was the first event I was required to attend in 30 years of ministry, on any issue. There is even word that one conference has told its ministry personnel that they will not be permitted to accept a call unless they have completed this requirement. This is preposterous when we know that a very few United Church ministers don't believe in God, despite the Basis of Union and the vows they make at ordination. How can this be?

Every once in a while I shake my head at our denominational theological correctness. We spent no time at our event affirming the positive things done in our congregations to uphold justice. And while we did a "timeline of shame," looking at all the very real examples of injustice, we didn't include the examples of courageous action our United Church has taken through the years.

Accepting that a commitment to racial justice should be a "given" for any Christian in any denomination, what is your response to this?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Un-Samaritans

The Good Samaritan Vincent Van Gogh

Every once in a while I throw a Good Samaritan or a Bad Samaritan story your way.There were two news items tonight from different countries but with similar themes. In New York a surveillance camera caught the stabbing of a homeless man as he tried to defend a woman who was being attacked. As he lay on the sidewalk more than twenty people walked past the spot where he lay dying. Some actually took cell phone photographs and one person turned him over. None sought help.

In Toronto the Supposedly Good a man in his seventies was robbed on a subway train by two men in their twenties. The others on the car did nothing to help him.

Actually, it's easier to read Jesus' parable about a generous man from Samaria who crosses ethnic boundaries to help a Jewish man who has been attacked by thieves. It is his answer to the question, who is my neighbour? We tend to admire those who are generous and heroic and compassionate, but it can be difficult when we are in the moment.

Did the passersby in New York assume this was a drunk crumpled on the ground? Where they afraid that the assailant was nearby? Were the riders on the train simply hoping that the thieves wouldn't turn on them? It isn't always easy to do the right thing.

Have you ever chosen not to respond to someone in distress and regretted it later? Have you done the right thing with some risk or cost attached?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thank God for Spring!

I have been hauling my camera on walks during the past few weeks but despite the unseasonably warm weather the plants and creatures have stayed on a more traditional timeline.
Here are some photos from a Second Marsh saunter yesterday. I thank God for the changing seasons and the arrival of Spring.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sex Chalk Talk

Lego Adam and Eve

Well, Premier McGuinty here in Ontario threw 'er in reverse in a hurry! Earlier this week we heard about changes to sex education in the provincial school system. The electorate returned the favour and let him hear about how they felt about the changes, and for many it wasn't favourable. Leading the charge were religious groups, from the Roman Catholic church to conservative Protestants, to those from other faith communities. McGuinty decided to back off for the time being. Of course this doesn't mean that there won't be sex education in the public school system. It just may not be quite so explicit in the time frame proposed.

I'm not sure what to think. I do feel there is a place for sex education in the schools and, honestly, parents usually aren't very good at this. A lot of us got the anatomically correct version of sex ed at home, with a lot of discomfort attached, and the "dirty" version in the schoolyard. But how far should the school system introduce all this without parental consultation? There are probably a lot of moms and dads who are uncomfortable with their kids being introduced to the existence of oral and anal sex in grade school.

The church has a lousy record of affirming sexuality in practical terms, and while our United Church claims sex is good and a gift from God, we don't have a clue as to how to say that out loud. We have well-crafted documents which no one ever sees or talks about. We tend to shy away from scripture passages that are the slightest bit sensual or lusty.

What has your gut reaction been to the kerfuffle of the past week? Do you think a ramped-up sex education program in the schools is good, bad, or ugly? Would you squirm in your pew if a minister launched into a sermon celebrating sexuality? Take a look at Rosie DiManno's well-expressed column on the subject in the Toronto Star

Friday, April 23, 2010

Healing Prayer

At bible study on Wednesday we discussed a passage from the Acts of the Apostles which is a blockbuster healing story. A woman of faith named Tabitha dies and her friends mourn her death. They send a couple of men off to find Peter, the disciple of Jesus, and he travels a distance to get to them. He enters Tabitha's room alone and prays for her, and they emerge together. She has been raised from the dead, the ultimate healing.

We had what I found to be a stimulating conversation about prayers for healing, and the difference between healing and curing. A number of personal stories were shared amongst this group of women I admire greatly. They are "down to earth" and "heavenly-minded" at the same time. Some have experienced considerable losses and two cherished members of the group have died in the last year or so, affecting us all. I presided at both funerals and most of these women attended the services. Yet we continue to pray. I offered that while I am often puzzled and mystified as to what to pray, I can't not pray. Bad grammar, but you get the idea.

At the end I invited one of the members who is losing her sight into the centre of our circle and we joined around her in prayer. I found it a very emotional experience. She didn't claim remission of symptoms, but she knew she was loved by the others and by God.

Do you pray for the healing of others? Yourself? Does prayer matter?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day at 40

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the annual event inviting people to consider care and reverence for the planet which is our earthly home. Of course Earth Day is a secular event, yet each year more and more congregations and denominations take the opportunity to connect the theme of earth care with a conviction that God, the creator, expects us to "tend the garden" to use one image, and to "live with respect in Creation" to use the phrase from our United Church statement of faith.

My commitment as a worship leader to Earth Sunday (usually the Sunday before April 22nd) now stretches back twenty years or so. In the beginning I approached the theme carefully with worship committees and with the congregation. What if people thought this was a form of pantheism? Now I assume that we will observe this day and I use other opportunities during the year to explore what it means to be responsible, awe-filled Christians who care for the Earth. Many evangelical churches embrace creation care now, despite earlier suspicion.

I like the idea floated in Australia of observing a Creation liturgical season to go along with other seasons such as Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. I have experimented with that in worship in a couple of years.

Does it surprise you that the Earth Day concept is now middle aged?

Do you make the link between your Christian faith and earth care? Do you think the church should raise creation care issues? What about a four or six week season of Creation every year?
God is creative and self-giving,
generously moving
in all the near and distant corners of the universe.
Nothing exists that does not find its source in God.
Our first response to God’s providence is gratitude.
We sing thanksgiving.

Finding ourselves in a world of beauty and mystery,
of living things, diverse and interdependent,
of complex patterns of growth and evolution,
of subatomic particles and cosmic swirls,
we sing of God the Creator,
the Maker and Source of all that is.

Each part of creation reveals unique aspects of God the Creator,
who is both in creation and beyond it.
All parts of creation, animate and inanimate, are related.
All creation is good.
We sing of the Creator,
who made humans to live and move
and have their being in God.
Song of Faith UCC

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This Space for Rent

Sign of the times? This morning the Globe and Mail reported that the Anglican Church of Canada will seek corporate sponsorship, including visible advertising space, for it's national meeting called the synod. Here are a few lines from the article:

It’s the first time in its 117-year history that the Canadian church made its governing synod available for a mess of pottage - to use the language of the Bible’s Old Testament allusion to Esau selling his birthright for a lentil stew. For that matter, no other Canadian church is known to have sold advertising at its formal gatherings and access to its leaders.

This amazes me, although our United Church conferences and general council usually meet in arenas where we too could plaster the boards with ads. This proposal strikes me as an act of desperation. The Anglican church is declining faster than any other denomination in Canada (we sure have nothing to be smug about in the UCC.) And what if a major corporation offered to foot the bill for the whole shebang but its practices and goals were contrary to those of the church and the gospel?

At least it got the Anglicans on the front page of a national newspaper.

What do you think of this initiative? Should we be selling ad space on the St. Paul's steeple?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Do The Math

Did you see any of the news reports last week on the Do The Math food experiment by several Toronto notables? They agreed to attempt to live on the amount of groceries given to food bank recipients for a week. To their credit they stuck to the assignment even though it was very difficult, especially for those with families. One parent admitted that they were always hungry and that their hunger was heightened when they gave some of their food to their children. Another noted that all of the sociability of a meal disappears when you are ravenous. Food is gulped down with nothing left but dissatifaction.

This experiment, meant to draw attention to the serious problem for the poor of eating healthily, also pointed out that for all the good food banks do it isn't nearly enough. People were also invited to respond to an online survey about the minimum amount of money to survive in Toronto for a month. While the average estimate was fifteen hundred dollars, the actual welfare amount per month for a single person is just under six hundred dollars.

One of the most popular miracle stories in the gospels is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is a story of a meagre amount of food being multiplied to satisfy a hungry crowd. We're not waiting for Jesus to show up and perform a miracle with a few loaves of day-old bread and a couple of cans of tuna. I suspect he is waiting for us to create a society where that miracle takes place.

Have you ever gone through a period of time where you were consistently hungry? During my first year of university I had virtually no money and I remember being famished some days. Do you think it is a societal responsibility to feed the hungry, or will this encourage dependency on the state? What is our role as Christians?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Embracing Solitude

The New York Times published a piece last week about a man named Nick Fahey who has spent the last 16 years living on an island in Washington state's Puget Sound. It is an austere lifestyle but it works for him. He makes occasional forays to mainland to buy supplies and visit his woman friend --it must be an unusual relationship.

It's amazing how often stories such as this one appear in papers and magazines. In our noisy, hyper-connected world we seem to have a love/hate relationship with solitude. It appears to be a freaky choice, yet we can't walk away from it without curiosity.

Whenever I come back from a retreat where there has been silence, or after my two months in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere where I experienced a fair amount of solitude, folk want to know what it is like. Some are horrified at the prospect, as though I was sky-diving from a tall building, or swimming in piranha-infested waters. Why, oh why, would anyone choose to do this to themselves? Others long for the opportunity.

There is an excellent definition of solitude from Psychology Today which reminds us that solitude is different from loneliness.

There are many biblical stories of solitude, often as a preparation for times of intense interaction with others, or roles of leadership. In the bible solitude opens the eyes and ears to God. Jesus' forty days in the wilderness comes to mind, but there are many other accounts.

How are you with solitude? Could you last a day, or two, or ten with minimal contact or conversation with others? I have an idea what the introverts will say, but I would love to hear from extroverts as well.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Other Cheek

You may have heard that the late Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break the colour barrier in Major League Baseball, was honoured yesterday in MLB ballparks. For the day every player was number 42, the number Robinson wore.

In the 1940's there was a "gentleman's agreement" (some gentlemen) to keep people of colour off MLB teams. Branch Rickey, a devout Christian, and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided that this discrimination had to end, so he searched nationwide for the ideal African American man, one talented enough to play on major league teams and well-enough adjusted within himself to withstand the attacks sure to come in the racially prejudiced setting. Rickey chose Robinson, who was playing in the minors, and essentially interrogated him for hours about his ability to withstand the verbal abuse and prejudice.

Robinson was concerned that people would think he had no guts if he put up with the abuse. Rickey responded by saying he was looking for someone who had the guts to "turn the other cheek" quoting from Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

Rickey believed in Robinson's talent but he also exacted a promise of extreme patience and forbearance for three years, then offered him a contract. On October 23, 1945, Rickey made the historic announcement that Jackie Robinson, a black man, would play for the Montreal Royals, the minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. " Robinson went on to star in "The Show."

I was surprised to read that 25 years ago a little over a quarter of big league players were black, but today that percentage is a shade under ten. Maybe we haven't come all that far.

I admire both Rickey and Robinson but honestly, it's hard to imagine enduring that sort of discrimination without becoming consumed by anger. It seems to me that there is a difference between "grin and bear it" and "turn the other cheek." How do you do when it comes to turning the other cheek? Are you any good at turning away from escalating conflict, without resentment or bitterness?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Acts of What?

Volcanic Plume in Iceland

I was in to see our travel agent yesterday and she was frazzled. All day she has been problem-solving and soothing customers who are unable to fly on their scheduled flights to Britain. The erupting volcano in Iceland has filled the air with a fine ash that can clog up jet engines, causing catastrophic loss of thrust. In other words, planes fall down, go boom. While everyone flying would choose caution over death, it is a major inconvenience, one which might go on for days or weeks. In Iceland there are threats of major flooding as the nearby glacier melts from the heat.

I have been thinking about acts of nature, or Mother Nature, or God, to trot out some of the familiar terms. As humans we try to comprehend the impact of events over which we have no control. Earthquakes such as the one which hit Tibet and China this week and the eruption of the Icelandic volcano are fascinating and disturbing. We continue to use the term "acts of God" even though few of us believe that God is smiting sinners by giving Earth a shake. It's just that we aren't sure why these events seem to randomly affect some people and not others and we wonder when it will be our turn. Of course we humans tend to think of events that affect us as the most important.

The summer that Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines (1991!) we were living in Northern Ontario. The mantle of ash in the atmosphere caused a signficant drop in temperature. We went camping with our young family along the Superior shore and it was so cold in July that our water bucket had a skim of ice each morning. Our family vacation began to feel like a frosty form of child abuse.

Travel won't be any easier today with an estimated 17,000 flights affected, the biggest disruption of air travel since 911.
Any reactions or observations to what you are hearing and seeing? If they aren't acts of God what are they?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Mystery of the Shroud

I remember well the media flurry in the 1980's over what is called the Shroud of Turin. Turin is the Italian city where the shroud was located but it could also be called the Shroud of Jesus, or so say those who believe it is Jesus' burial cloth. That's why it is famous. A certain tradition held that this was one of the burial cloths left behind in the tomb after Jesus' resurrection. It was first mentioned in records from the thirteenth century, and it's provenance was difficult to prove or disprove. With carbon dating used in the 80's scientists demonstrated that it was created in the thirteenth century, which makes sense given the earliest attestations.

At the time I wondered what the stir was about. Even if it were authentic, it doesn't prove the resurrection. Protestants aren't big on objects of veneration so it just didn't seem all that important. What is curious are some of the features of the shroud. It is an negative image of a human form, not unlike the negative for a photograph from the "olden days." Why would an artist create this sort of image, especially in that era? The blood in the appropriate places on the image may be human blood. And the nail wounds in the arms are at the wrist rather than the hand. Paintings from that time nearly always show wounds in the palms of Christ's hands yet we are now reasonably sure that those crucified were nailed through the wrists. It all seems like an elaborate and innovative deception, if not the actual shroud.

The shroud went on display again on April 10th after years of careful storage.

Does the shroud intrigue you? Would you want to see it if you had the opportunity?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Swords Into Ploughshares

Do you remember the Doomsday Clock? I say "remember" even though it still exists. It was established in 1947 as a graphic way to illustrate the threat to the planet from nuclear weapons. In the late 70's and early 80's we were reminded that the clock was inching toward midnight with insane nuclear proliferation. Some of you will also recall the NFB short film, If You Love This Planet, which won an Oscar. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union the public concern over nuclear weapons diminished even though all those weapons are still out there.

This week there is a Nuclear Security Summit taking place in Washington involving 47 nations, some of which were once enemies. The goal is to reduce and destroy stockpiles of plutonium and existing weapons. You may be interested to know that while the clock reached a couple of minutes before midnight at the height of the Cold War, even now it has only been pushed back to 11:54 because of the concern about nuclear bomb-building materials getting into the hands of terrorists.

As Canadians we may think that President Obama's legacy will be the healthcare legislation passed earlier this year. I wonder if this initiative will ultimately be more important for the planet and Nobel peace prizeworthy.

In Isaiah there is a promise that the wolf and the lamb will one day lie down together in peace, and Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers." Blessed are world leaders who have the courage to find security in mutual cooperation and arms reduction.

Any reminiscences about the earlier years of nuclear stand-off? Were you scared? Do you appreciate what the Obama administration is working toward? Do you have fears and concerns now about the terrorist threat of procuring nuclear weapons?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All We Are Saying...

On Sunday the gospel lesson was from John and Jesus tells Thomas and the other disciples that forgiveness is essential. It is actually the only reference to forgiveness in the gospel of John, something that surprised me.

There was a truly puzzling forgiveness story in the news yesterday. The Vatican has decided to forgive John Lennon for his offhand comment at a news conference back in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was hugely controversial at the time, although it probably wouldn't make much of a stir if a musician said something along those lines today. I wasn't yet a teen when Lennon made the comment but I heard about it and was scandalized by this sacrilegious claim.

I'm wondering if the Pope knows that John has been dead for a while now. Why, oh why, would the Roman Catholic church extend forgiveness for something that none of us has thought about in decades? They seem to have more important issues to be addressing, such as the systemic cover-up of sexual abuse. Baffling.

Just the same, forgiveness is always a good plan. Does posthumous forgiveness make much sense to you? Have you ever forgiven anyone after they were dead and gone? Did it make a difference for you?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rev. Barbie

I had to chuckle over the news article on the invention, if we could call it that, of Rev. Barbie. Yes, that Barbie, who has taken on a number of different roles through the years, including a princess, a firefighter, and a ballerina. Now she is a woman of the cloth. The creator of Rev. Barbie is Julie Blake Fisher, an Episcopalian priest in the States who began making vestments for Barbie to illustrate them to children. Well, now she has won fame or notoriety with her "soul-searching" Barbie. Blake Fisher says her husband, also a priest, finds the Barbie wardrobe quite amusing.

Rev. Barbie even has her own Facebook page. You can check out some of her other outfits:

So, how are we to interpret this? Barbie has been a controversial figure through the years for her...figure! Buxom and impossibly small-waisted she has been criticized as a negative role model for girls and young woman. On the other hand, Rev. Barbie reinforces the role of women in ministry. Okay, I can't believe I'm actually writing in a serious way about a plastic clergyperson!

There are four women in ministry that I know of who read this blog. C'mon, tell us what you think. Of course everyone else is welcome to comment.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

End Times?

During the season of Easter the usual epistle or letter reading for each Sunday is replaced by that often confounding and downright scary book at the end of the New Testament, the Revelation to John. This series of visions also encourages us to trust that no matter how gloomy and death-dealing our world may seem, Christ is with us.

At our bible study on Wednesday I reminded members that in the seventies a popular book on Revelation was The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. No matter that Lindsey didn't have formal theological training or that he struggled to get his facts straight, the book was immensely popular. One of the study participants mentioned that here in Bowmanville a church distributed copies to every household in town, the pastor was so convinced that the final battle between the USA and the Soviet Union Lindsey described in considerable detail was imminent. Through the centuries some Christians have delighted in using Revelation as a cautionary blue print for the End Times, rather than as a vision of God's faithfulness in all things. Today the Left Behind series of novels is serving that negative role, unfortunately.

Think about it though. There is no longer a Soviet Union and this past week the United States and Russia signed a historic treaty to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Neither country has reached dove status just yet, but they are headed in the right direction.

Have you ever read Revelation or joined in a study? What are your thoughts about End Times theology?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

I wonder if Liz and Michelle have been on the blower to one another now that Spring is here? I know already that I will hear from my mother about my disrespect for the Queen, but the two were astonishingly cosy last year when the Obama's visited Britain. You just don't touch the monarch! I figure it was because both announced that they would have vegetable gardens, at Buckingham Palace and the White House. My theory is that they were leaning in to trade gardening tips. It was part of the effort to encourage people to live more healthily and grow their own produce.

I notice that the First Lady has already been outside with children this year, encouraging them to garden.

Gardens are very biblical, as you know. The bible begins and ends in a garden and we heard last Sunday that Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener on Easter morning. There are a gajillion agricultural references in both the older and newer testaments.

Do you plan to grow flowers and/or vegetables this year? We have heard that Deb will, and Ian has invited Susan to come and work in his yard! Our backyard plot is rather shaded so this year we will share a community garden plot with reader Brian. At home I have been stirring up the compost and filling up the rain barrels in anticipation. What about you?

Friday, April 09, 2010

Making Waves for Christ

When I was in my later teens and early twenties I was greatly influenced by the story and the writings of the late German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was part of the Confessing Church in Germany, resisting the Nazis. While he left the country and lived safely elsewhere for a time, he chose to return as a resister and witness to the horrors of Hitler's regime. Although Bonhoeffer was a strong believer in peace he was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. As a result he was executed in April 1945, just a few months before the end of the Second World War.
He was only 39.

Today a new biography of this remarkable man is being published to mark the 65th anniversary of his death. It's important that his life and death are still being honoured. Here is a Bonhoeffer quote:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power.

Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. Sermon on II Cor. 12:9

Should we be willing to give more offense and shock the world more as Christians? We tend to "fly under the radar" in our culture, to the extent that we no longer make much of an impact. Does the thought of being outspoken and perhaps ostracized for your faith make you uneasy?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

I Beg Your Pardon

Click on cartoon for larger image.

What a strange little phrase with a host of meanings. "I beg your pardon?," meaning I didn't catch what you said. "I beg your pardon!" meaning how dare you say that. Or the truly contrite, almost desperate words of apology: "I beg your pardon."

This week we have been hearing a lively and sometimes heated discussion of pardons in our criminal justice system. Disgraced hockey coach and convicted sexual abuser, Graham James, received a pardon and both the public and the Prime Minister were disgusted. Me too, but I realize that this pardon is extended to virtually anyone convicted of a crime in this country who has served his or her sentence. The only exceptions are those who have committed murder. Those pardoned are still convicted criminals. The pardon makes it more straightforward for an individual to search for work or travel out of the country.

I suppose it is the optics of a pardon that angers us, yet none of these persons has got off "Scot free" as the expression goes. As someone who has worked as a chaplain in a federal prison I realize the importance of the possibility of a new life for those who have committed crimes and paid their debt to society.

And wasn't this past weekend about forgiveness of sins and abundant and eternal life? I may not like Graham James, or what he has done, but he too needs the opportunity to start over. Tough one.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

L'Eglise Unie du Canada

There has been some good natured banter going on with our son, Isaac, who lives in Montreal with his wife Rebekah. Recently Isaac was interviewed on film in both English and French by the United Church, and now the English interview is on Youtube. He assumes the French interview will follow. The purpose was to showcase a candidate for the ministry who is living in French-speaking Canada, has attended one of our few French language congregations, and offered leadership in both official languages.

I suppose I am biased but I think he does a really good job. He admitted that the "min-doc" contains a lot of staged scenes and I wondered why the questions didn't invite him into a more God-talk. Still, as someone whose ability to speak French is restricted to cereal boxes, I though it turned out well.

The banter was around his saintliness in the documentary. He wondered when they were going to do the scene where he parted the waters of the Red Sea. I reminded him that they do walk as a couple between the snowbanks of downtown Montreal.

Take a look: It's worth it just to see me with a full head of dark hair and Ruth as a redhead!

Any thoughts? Did you realize that we have French-speaking congregations in the United Church? Have you heard that our General Council plans to expand that ministry?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Creation and Resurrection

After the second service on Sunday morning service several people said "you can go and relax now." Nice thought, but not always the reality. In fact, I was awake at 3:30 Monday morning, my mind racing. There was no good reason other than the intense activity of the previous two weeks. There is so much to do and so much detail in the various services and with our use of projection our responsibilities are ramped up. We have a great staff and a hard-working Worship and Music committee but this is the busiest time of the year for me -- even busier than Christmas.

Fortunately we were given the gift of beautiful weather and we managed to get out for some walks and bicycle rides in the midst of the activity. During the liturgically gloomy days of Holy Week it was wonderful to experience the improbable gift of an early Spring. I find these outdoors moments to be great stress relievers. And while the gym is good, it is always trumped by the natural world.

On walks I saw a garter and a brown snake. There was an unidentified butterfly. The kingfishers and swallows and mergansers and cardinals and blue herons were all back. For me this is a wonderful affirmation of the God of creation, even as we are celebrating the Christ of resurrection. All this with the absence of blackflies and mosquitoes!

Did you have opportunities to get outside this weekend?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Shared Meals

During yesterday's second Easter service we joined in our meal of faith, which is communion. From that family celebration we proceeded to another convivial meal, a turkey dinner in our own home with loved ones. It is important to connect the Jesus supper with the meals we share together. When we break bread together it is a holy moment, if we allow that to happen.

We opened windows to let in the glorious weather and doing so made me think of one of our best meals, ever. While we were living in Halifax friends graciously extended the use of their summer home to us over the Thanksgiving weekend, since they were living at a distance. it is situated on the ocean, near a national park and within a bird sanctuary (pictured above.)

The rest of my family went there on the Friday and I joined them with a couple of other friends after Sunday worship. It was a remarkable, balmy weekend so we opened every window in the place at mealtime, which allowed us to hear the wind in the trees and the water of the bay rolling in on shore.

The combination of wonderful food and conversation, along with the sensual quality of the surroundings gave a magical feel to the event. I can close my eyes and imagine the setting and the sense of the day. We have shared other marvellous meals in that place with the owners as well.

Did you share in a meaningful meal this weekend? Do you have recollections of memorable dinners through the years?

Sunday, April 04, 2010


I love Jesus. As soon as I type these words I feel an inner cringe because they are so "out there" and subject to all manner of misunderstanding. Am I a closet "holy roller" just waiting to burst into a chorus of Just As I Am? That said, it is my reality. While I would like to think of myself as "generously orthodox," respectful of other spiritual and religious outlooks, my faith is centred on Jesus.

Actually, I have to go a step further. The Jesus I love is more than a great teacher or a cosmic principle. He is the Christ, God incarnate, crucified and risen from the dead on Easter morning. I am well aware of the improbability of all of this being "true" -- certainly from a scientific viewpoint. Yet my life has not only been touched but changed by this life-long relationship.

Last week Maclean's magazine featured a cover article which looked at a new book by eminent historian Paul Johnston. Rather than being yet another effort to deconstruct Jesus or discredit Christianity, apparently his Jesus is a thoughtful, informed statement reflecting his own faith. I think I will buy it.

Whatever your faith, wherever you may be, Happy Easter. Christ is Risen!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Death Sentence

During Holy Week I tend to blog about...Holy Week. The events of this powerful drama consume me as I plan worship and see people who need to be seen in this season. Of course the events of the world go on, some good and life-giving, some dark and destructive. A few days ago terrorists struck once again, this time in Russia. How terrible that the innocent die so randomly, going about their day-to-day activities.

This week there was also a report from Amnesty International about executions around the globe in 2009. The good news was that there wasn't a single government sanctioned execution in Europe. I say "good news" not because I feel that those who are guilty of serious crimes should go unpunished. It's just that I agree with that old slogan: "Why kill people to prove that killling people is wrong?"

The troubling news is that thousands were executed in China, although there were no specifics because the numbers of people sentenced to the death penalty are a state secret. We know that in the past and perhaps today still, some of those killed are practitioners of various religions, including Christianity.

The report said at least 714 people were executed in 17 other countries, led by Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Methods of execution included beheading, stoning, electrocution, hanging, firing squads and lethal injection.

You may be surprised to learn that frm time to time there are still executions by crucifixion. It is a grim, painful form of the death penalty and the Romans knew it was an effective deterrent for crime and insurrection.

Do you connect Christ's crucifixion with reports about executions in the present day? What do you think about the death penalty?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Children in the Holy Week Drama

This past Sunday, which was Palm/Passion Sunday, two of our young people who are grades six and seven were leaders in the reading of the passion narrative. One took on the role of Jesus while the other was the narrator. There are places for the congregation to respond as well, acting as the crowd at Jesus' trial, along with other roles. It is an interesting and important challenge to engage children in what can be a compelling drama of our Christian faith. All during Lent we have involved children in a litany for candle-lighting, similar to what happens through Advent. When we washed feet last night on Maundy Thursday we invited a household with children to participate.

For today's Good Friday service Rev. Cathy has worked with the Junior Young People's group to do the Call to Worship, using symbols of the passion, and the Hi-C group for the Prayers of the People. She will have some of the same gang involved again at the early service on Sunday morning.
All we can hope is that they get a sense of the unfolding events from two thousand years ago. As I took the two young people through a practice of the passion narrative last week I stopped periodically to explain the bigger picture of the story they would be telling.
How important is it to involve children in worship? What happens in your church? Are your kids active participants?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Saving Souls

Father Bob Gilroy Society of Jesus
There was an essay in the Globe and Mail newspaper last week by Ann Diehl that struck a chord for Maundy Thursday. Diehl reflected on her childhood and her Roman Catholic upbringing. It was actually her dad who was the focus of the essay. He would attend worship from time to time with the rest of the family but it was obvious that he wasn't comfortable. She worried that he hadn't been baptized in any church and that the state of his soul was in peril.

Then one night near the end of Lent her concerns were dispelled. Her father was in the basement at his workbench while the rest of the family dutifully said the rosary upstairs. The front door flew open letting in a stormy blast, along with a man with scruffy hair and dirty clothes. Her mother screamed and led the children out the back door into the snow. Meanwhile her father bounded up the stairs to respond to the cries of distress. A few minutes later he encouraged them to come back into the house.

They found their dad in the foyer talking gently to the intruder. While the man, who was older, sat on the front stairs the father took off his shoes and began rubbing his gnarled and discoloured toes to bring back circulation. One child was sent to retrieve some heavy socks and another to get dad's fishing coat. Mom called the police but the father assured the officers who arrived that the man had done nothing wrong.

Ann Diehl offers that as a ten-year-old she didn't make the connection with Jesus washing his disciples' feet, but she no longer worried about the state of her father's soul. He died recently at age 94.

If you are at a Maundy Thursday service tonight, think about this story.