Monday, January 31, 2011

Women and Anger

You might think that a dozen women in my living room talking about anger before worship would have me quaking in my boots. I was long gone before they arrived yesterday and I was actually glad they were there. My wife, Ruth, was leading the first of three sessions on Women and the Spirituality of Anger. Ruth is the outreach counsellor for Bethesda House, the local shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships. She leads workshops on women and anger, but this was a first connecting women, anger and faith.

We still live in a culture where women are encouraged to suppress anger or label it as something else. And when women do get angry they tend to be criticized for doing so much more readily than men.

What is appropriate anger for women who are Christians, and men, for that matter? Ruth was impressed by the turnout and the willingness of the women to participate. She tells me that they are an insightful bunch, which doesn't surprise me.

Female or male, do you feel you handle anger appropriately, or does it handle you? Were you one of the participants in this group? Should we address anger and the life of faith more openly?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Power of Worship

Last Sunday we worshipped at First Metropolitan United Church, the downtown Victoria congregation which hosted the Epiphany Explorations conference I was attending. It was a very positive worship experience for several reasons. We celebrated communion as congregants, something which is rare for me because I am almost always the celebrant and also unusual in that Ruth and I could worship side by side. Often my worship experiences are during the summer when congregations are in sleep mode and ministers are on vacation. It can be less than inspiring. The preacher was an energetic guest who had something to say and said it with conviction.

The music was sublime, and fit with my ultimate assessment that the music of Epiphany Explorations was the most meaningful aspect of the conference this year. There was a choral introit which led us into the presence of God. The singers were a dozen mostly university age types who weren't just performing, they were ministers of word and song.

We sang some hymns that were contemporary and one I didn't know. Thank God, including gratitude for the one that was new to me. After thirty years of ministry and fifty six years in the church I have come to love many older hymns more deeply as well as craving the mind and spirit opening music of faith which is the expression of God's living, in-this-moment Spirit. So I have to sing one hymn where I muddle along. Big deal! The next time I sing that one I will be more comfortablewith it, and by the third time it will be part of my repertoire. In one hymn the women sang one of the verses, and for another the men. Now, there were probably a hundred men within the congregation and they were basically a singin' crowd. But it was so moving! I got a big lump in my throat hearing so many men heartily singing God's praise.

With two exceptions you weren't at the conference. But most of you are regular worshippers. What does my description evoke for you about worship generally and music specifically?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Inside Job

Avarice or greed is a deadly sin, according to the list developed by the Roman Catholic church more than a thousand years ago. Apparently no one passed this information on to the gang on Wall Street before the global financial crash of 2008 which undermined the economies of many nations and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands around the world. It could be argued that the events follwing "915," had a greater global impact than the horrific terrorist attacks of 911.

I watched the award-winning documentary, The Inside Job, narrated by Matt Damon, on my return flight from Victoria. I was so sickened by the unadulterated greed of already wealthy financial "leaders" that I could barely continue to the end. The collusion of regulators, bankers, rating agencies, politicians, is almost beyond comprehension.

In many cases these persons (mostly men) made tens and hundreds of millions of dollars by betting against the companies they headed, knowing the risks they were taking using other peoples' money. What was worse, after the crash they took no responsibility for their wrongdoing, nor have any of them been punished. While President Obama "talked tough" about bring the perpetrators to justice, it hasn't happened and probably never will. In truth, many of those who profitted from their greedy actions are still working in the financial sector and prospering even further. The U.S. government hasn't enacted new restrictions to reign in this sort of pilfering.

This past week a report tabled by an official inquiry offered that the financial crisis in the U.S. which triggered the global recession was avoidable. What an understatement. The report essentially confirms everything contained in the film. The crash didn't happen because of a series of mistakes or unfortunate circumstances. It was unfettered greed on the part of people who clearly knew what they were doing. Some of this gang make Bernie Madoff look like a nice guy by comparison.

Have any of you seen The Inside Job? Why do you think the U.S. allows a monetary system which can create such disasters? What is the role of the church and religious leaders to speak out against this deadly sin?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Out of our Comfort Zone

One of the interesting and sometimes puzzling aspects of the Epiphany Explorations conference I attended in Victoria last week is the eclectic line-up of speakers over the five days. One might call it a smorgasbord at its best and a bit of a dog's breakfast at times. Don't get me wrong, it was very stimulating again this year, but trying to find a logical thread to the choices escaped me. Maybe that's good.

I was intrigued that Philip Yancey, an evangelical writer who has sold more than 16 million books, was the key speaker, addressing us three times. He is frank in saying that his fundamentalist upbringing was toxic and that he has spent a lifetime overcoming it. He is willing to say that several of the tenets of evangelicalism in the States including political lobbying against homosexual marriage and abortion don't make a lot of sense to him, given that they were not addressed by Jesus and barely addressed by the apostle Paul.

On the other hand he is refreshingly Christ-centred and willing to talk directly and openly about what this means in terms of the grace of God and in prayer. He is intelligent, personable, and quite funny. I think the audience enjoyed him even though he comes from outside the more liberal ethos of the United Church. Hey, I might have been most impressed by the fact that Yancey has now climbed all 54 of the mountains over 14,000 feet in his home state of Colorado.

Is it important to get the perspective of those who don't "toe the party line" theologically? Do you ever wonder if we get too ingrown in our denomination, to our detriment? Have any of you read a book by Philip Yancey or heard him speak?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Raheel Raza

One of the presenters at the Epiphany Explorations conference was Raheel Raza, a Muslim woman who passionately supports interfaith dialogue, and who upholds the dignity and rights of women. She sees this as the true message of the Quran and Islam rather than the misogynistic approach which has taken over in some expressions of this religion. Raza is a feisty, articulate soul who told us that she is currently number eight on a list of most-hated Muslim women. Her goal is to become number one!

A young Muslim woman came to a microphone and said she had been informed that women of her faith could not be political leaders such as prime ministers and presidents. Raza called her up to stand with her, and looking this young woman in the eye she said that nowhere in the Quran are women denied roles of leadership, mentioning that the Queen of Sheba is in the Quran.

Raza also told us that in her opinion Muslim women in Canada should not be allowed to vote or testify in court with faces covered because this practice is cultural, not religious.

Another older Christian woman came to the mike and mentioned that she had been scolded when young for showing up to drive an elderly woman to church wearing trousers, so rules about dress for women aren't restricted to Muslims!

What is your reaction to a Muslim woman who is convinced that equality is the more accurate interpretation of Islam? Do you think Islam is too patriarchal to be redeemed? Are we where we need to be in upholding equality in Christianity?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

God's Country

I will begin inflicting my musings on our time in Victoria on you, the longsuffering readers of this blog. I say "we" because Ruth joined me this time, although she spent time with our good friends while I bussed into the heart of the city each day. We did eke out time for some walks and Ruth was able to enjoy more time on trails and by the ocean with them. On a free day we drove up island to Mount Washington for some cross country skiing. You may have seen in the news that this resort received more than five metres of snow before Christmas. Yes, that is five metres, not feet.

Wherever we were we experienced stunning reminders of the beauty of creation in that very different climate. Sure they fret about the possibility of earthquakes, but what's a lil' earthquake given the opportunity to live in "God's Country." That's an expression we toss around, God's Country, but it honestly seems to fit in B.C. If one has any inclination toward God, it would be accelerated in the midst of this natural splendour.

These photos are of Ruth "tree-hugging" at Goldstream Park and then at Mystic Beach. I was part of the latter walk, a rough and ready clamber down to the beach. The last portion was a walkway made of one log that was between 20 and 25 metres long. At the beach, several waterfalls poured over the cliffs and into the sea.

Have you been to the Left Coast, either on Vancouver Island or the Mainland? I think of the old motto for B.C. which was Super Natural British Columbia. Fitting. What is God's Country for you?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Love Your Enemies!

I heard former nun and prolific author Karen Armstrong interviewed about her new book called The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. She figures that while religions are very different, all have a version of the Golden Rule, doing unto others as we would have them do to us. I would certainly agree. She feels that our only hope as humanity is to develop a deep sense of compassion which goes far beyond "play well with others." She sees compassion as something which requires commitment and fortitude. Again I agree, and would add that this radical compassion is rooted in our relationship with God, not just our own resolve.

The twelfth step is Love Your Enemies, which comes from Jesus. Armstrong also sees this love as radical and challenging. Once more I agree. Jesus told us to love our neighbours, which could let us off the hook to a degree. Loving our enemies is so much more demanding. I don't want to, but Jesus tells me that it is part of the package of following him. Since I am dealing with some fairly hefty resentments lately I should listen up. Today. Tomorrow. The next day.

How are you doing in the "love your enemies" department these days? Do Armstrong's Twelve Steps intrigue you?

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Would Jesus Drive Revisited

Well, will wonders never cease. The automaker many declared dead, or joked was now Government Motors, has experienced a resurrection. GM, so important to the economy of our neck of the woods, is making a steady recovery. Not only that, they now have a Car of the Year in the Chevy Volt. The Volt is one of two electric cars now available to consumers, along with the Nissan Leaf. This award intrigues me. Strictly speaking, is this car electric? It sounds as though it is a hybrid, but I quibble. And do we know enough about the Volt to declare it Car of the Year? Again, I quibble.

What we do know is that a major North American company and another from Japan are making production line electric vehicles for which there is a waiting list. In the U.S. there are big government rebates for going green, and some states are allowing them in HOV lanes with only the driver. In a few cities the owners are even allowed free parking.

One day these cars may be viewed as Flinstone-like in their technological crudeness, but they prove that alternatives to internal combustion engines are possible now. Jesus was a foot-power kinda guy, but who knows, he might choose to drive an electric vehicle.

Would you want to drive an electric car? Do you think this is the beginning of a shift? Should Christians want to drive alternative vehicles?

Sunday, January 23, 2011


We had a tough decision to make at our last St. Paul's board meeting. We heard a report on the state of our elevator which stops at our hall and upper level. Lately it doesn't want to stop, or start or open -- but other than that is works well! It isn't a joking matter. A child from the nursery school who is in a wheelchair uses our elevator, as do many older adults and others who attend events at St. Paul's. For several weeks now they haven't been able to use the elevator.

At the board meeting it was confirmed that the elevator needs $30,000 dollars worth of work. All new electronics, new doors, other changes. Even elevators get old and obsolete. Happy new year! Fortunately we have money in reserve to address some of this cost, but we will go back to the membership for the rest.

As of January 2012 every public space will be required to have an accessibility plan by the government. But more than the legal requirement, this is an issue of justice and compassion in a Christian community. What would it say about us if we didn't make our space, our programs, our worship open to everyone?

What are your thoughts about this? Do we have to put our money where our mouths are?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Forgetful Samaritans

It's strange to blog in advance, anticipating being away. There are always more subjects to write about than days to do so, but what if situations and topics arise after posting? When it was so cold earlier this week a woman died in Toronto, succumbing to frigid night time temperatures. She had Alzheimer's, so wandered from her home, but she did cry out for help. People heard her and didn't respond, which is beyond comprehension.

This was a cruel reminder about the fragility of those with dementia, a subject we have addressed a number of times. It was also a statement about a society where people are forgetting what it means to be a good neighbour. Christians have Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to instruct us on "going the distance" for others. It doesn't mean we do so and perhaps we all need to revisit the story.

What was your reaction when you heard about this incident?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hall of Fame Forgiveness

Robbie Alomar was one of the most athletic and entertaining baseball players I have ever watched. When he played as the shortstop in Toronto he made acrobatic plays that seemed to defy gravity. And I loved it when he invited us to watch the "Bloo Yays" on television. So I was one of the happy fans who was glad when he was electedrecently to the MLB Hall of Fame.

He didn't get in during his first year of eligiblity though, and it may be because of an ugly incident after he left the Jays. During a heated argument with an umpire, Alomar spat in his face. While that was fifteen years ago, it has stayed with Alomar.

What people don't always know is that Alomar apologized to umpire John Hirschbeck, and the apology was accepted. Alomar has made financial contributions to the foundation which does research into the brain disease which afflicted two of Hirschbeck's children. Alomar has commented that they are now friends and that God has somehow been in the midst of this.

The apology, the gracious acceptance, the restitution and reconciliation, are all important aspects of forgiveness. It usually doesn't work this way. Forgiveness is often unilateral rather than bilateral. Of course many times it doesn't happen at all.

What do you think about what happened here? Can forgiveness stories have a happy ending? How are you doing on the forgiveness front these days?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Finding Our Way

This past Sunday a group of 24 adults, leaders and parents, gathered after worship to discuss Christian development at St Paul's. It was an attempt -- a successful one I feel -- to find out from interested parents what they like about the current program and what we might do to improve it.

The two groups of a dozen discussed questions formulated by our Joints Needs Assessment Committee. The answers were encouraging, thoughtful, and offered insights and ideas about becoming more effective. There is no blueprint for doing this well, and yet our desire is to provide the most effective opportunities for our kids to grow in Christian faith. It doesn't matter that the trend is toward aging congregations without programs for young people. We have them, and so we need to be as supportive as possible for the children themselves and their families.

Any comments from readers who were in attendance? I felt that I learned from the responses of those present. Should we do more by way of face-to-face consultation? Do we really need to be concerned about programs for children and youth?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Deluge

We have watched with horrified fascination as an area the size of Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined has been flooded in the Queensland region of Australia. The city of Brisbane, population two million, has been paralyzed by the inundation. People have been warned that debris in the water might actually be crocodiles, and poisonous snakes are invading homes looking for higher ground. Oh boy.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, hundreds have died because of flooding and mudslides. While the two countries are thousands of kilometres apart, both are being affected by La Nina, a natural occurence in the Pacific Ocean. At least scientists are hoping it is natural. In both Australia and Brazil the flooding exceeds anything experienced before. Is this natural weather pattern being ramped up by human activity? Are record snowfalls in Europe also the result of climate change? No one is sure, except some religious types.

Many of the most fervent climate change deniers are conservative Christians. Because they have a one-track salvation mindset they view discussion of climate change as anti-Christian. Go figure.
We don't know whether the recent extremes of weather are signs of climate change. Weather is what happens today and tomorrow while climate is what happens over the long haul. I hope that we aren't slow-motion anti-Noah's, unable to recognize what is happening around us until it is too late. There is a growing body of scientific evidence telling us that climate change is real and of huge concern.
Should we just calm down over the weather extremes which have occurred recently? What do you make of the "trust Jesus and get saved" approach? Does it matter anymore even if we want to make a difference?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spiritual Renewal

I am in Victoria, British Columbia, in anticipation of this year's Epiphany Explorations conference. I attended for the first time last year and really enjoyed the range of speakers and the music leadership.

I decided to attend again in part because of the keynote speaker, Philip Yancey. I have really enjoyed Yancey's books through the years. He is a very thoughtful and accessible writer who comes out of the evangelical tradition. He is living proof that "thoughtful evangelical" is not an oxymoron.

The music leader this year is Marty Haugen whose pieces are in both Voices United and More Voices. In fact we sang Let Us Build A House to begin worship a couple of weeks ago. Marty was the music leader at the conference I attended in New Mexico last June, so it is a small world. I had a number of opportunities to chat with him during that week and was really impressed by his theology of music, along with the hymns and songs themselves.

I find that I really need the opportunities for spiritual renewal, whether it is through conferences and seminars, or retreat time. Sunday worship is work for ministers as are study groups, so we need to reacquaint ourselves with God and "think deep thoughts" with the assistance of others.

Take a look at the brochure for this year's conference. Does it make sense to you that clergy need these opportunities for spiritual renewal and stimulation?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Gift of Seasons

Painting by Jim A. Hall

I loved this past Saturday. The snow fell, I had no commitments away from home, so it was possible to just savour winter. Along with shovelling I refilled the birdfeeders. Later I looked out the window to see juncos, chickadees, even a couple of goldfinches who must be wondering why they didn't migrate. And then there was a male cardinal sitting on a branch just above one of the feeders. There was a simple pleasure in seeing these birds foraging for enough food to keep them going as I stood in the warmth of our family room.

We tend to be such grumblers about winter now, as though the modest amount of snow we now experience is a colossal imposition. The media are no help, offering dire predictions about basic snowfalls. How did we develop this memory loss about the realities of winter?

The determined birds are one of God's gifts of the season. What do you enjoy about winter? Any feathered visitors at your place?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Greatest Prayer

I fed my book addiction before Christmas with the purchase of John Dominic Crossan's latest book, The Greatest Prayer. The prayer referred to is what we Protestants call the Lord's Prayer and Roman Catholics call the Our Father. Crossan's books are always worthwhile even though I don't come to the same theological conclusions. This book reminded me that I have never preached in any depth on the prayer which Jesus offered in response to the request from his disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray." So, a sermon series it is.

Last week was an introduction and this week I'll focus on those first two words, "our Father." In the earliest days of the church this prayer was called the Abba Prayer. Abba was a term of intimacy along the lines of our English word "daddy." In The Message bible paraphrase Eugene Peterson uses "papa," which is equally startling. What if we began each week "our Daddy in heaven?" We tend to be rather cold in our imagery and metaphors for God in our more intellectual United Church tradition. In fact, there are times when I listen to UCC leaders where I get the sense that "God" is really used to describe whatever cause we happen to be supporting at the moment, rather that the Holy Other who is also Loving Parent. If we're not carefull Our God-talk is really us-talk, in all its earnestness.

Do you think that the Lord's Prayer is the Greatest Prayer in Christian tradition? What are your recollections about learning this prayer? Are you glad we still teach it? And what about that notion of God as a loving daddy or mommy?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Happy 400th KJV

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the bible. The KJV was a remarkable achievement, assembled by committees of biblical scholars throughout Britain. It was also a fascinating political decision on the part of King James the First. His predecessors had suppressed publication of English versions of the bible, fearing that reading "dangerous" passages about the reign of God bringing an end to the rule of earthly kings might lead to revolution. During the reign of Henry the Eighth translators were marked men, hunted down and killed throughout Europe. William Tyndale was the most notable amongst them, although much of his translation of the bible eventually made its way into the KJV.

King James decided it was a good strategy to maintain control over the translation process and made sure that a copy of the Authorized Version (KJV) was placed in every parish church. The argument is made that translating the bible into the vernacular in different countries paved the way for democracy, so some of the concerns of monarchs were realized.

There are an incredible number of translations and paraphrases available today, although the irony is that it a time when bibles are inexpensive and accessible they just aren't read, at least in our culture.

Do you care about this anniversary of the King James Version? Are you curious to know more? Have you found that the easier-to-read versions mean that you delve into the bible more?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Most of us know the old expression "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!" While it was a rather defiant schoolyard retort to taunting, it is entirely untrue. Words can be a powerful force for evil. Ruth, my wife, works as an outreach counsellor for the local women's shelter and she has many clients who are battered and humiliated by the words of their partners. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that words kill (Matt. 5:21-22.)

There have been two circumstances in the States this week that bring this home. A disturbed young man opened fire on a group of unsuspecting citizens in Arizona, killing six and injuring many more. There is a lot of soul-searching going on across the country about whether angry political rhetoric created a climate in which the step was taken from violent words to violent actions. To me the insanity of selling automatic weapons to anyone with a pulse is a bigger factor, not to mention the mental state of the shooter, but it is a discussion worth having.

The other item broadly covered was the publication of a new version of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain which substitutes the word "slave" for the author's "nigger." I use the actual word rather than the "n-word" because it does have such jolting, negative power. I was probably thirteen when I first read Huckleberry Finn and I was shocked to see this word in print. But the novel was one of the most influential in my life, because as I read through the novel it dawned on me that Twain was making a strong social statement about slavery through Huck, who has a series of awakenings. They allow him to regard Jim, the runaway slave, as a fully realized human being rather than just another nigger. I had never read anything like this before. I have mixed feeling about sanitizing the text.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the subject. Feel free to comment on either or both of these examples, or any of your own.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One Year Later

This is the first anniversary of the earthquake which turned the already beleaguered and impoverished nation of Haiti into a nightmare beyond imagining. We were all shocked by a death toll which exceeded 200,000 and the destruction of Port au Prince.

A year later the misery continues. The aid money which was raised in the billions has trickled into the country and to those who need it most. Damaged buildings are being demolished by workers using sledge hammers and pickaxes. Tens of thousands still live in conditions which led to the recent outbreak of cholera. There has been a wave of births including many to women who were raped.

Among the bright lights are the churches of Haiti, and the church-related ministries which are bringing relief through their partnerships. These ministries have been among the most successful in actually delivering aid and continuing to do the important work of education and health care. Here is a prayer written last year in the aftermath of the quake. It still hold true.

Prayer: Extend My Reach -- United Church of Christ

So far, Haiti seems so far from here,
where I live peering into a TV screen
broadcasting misery that splatters across my chest.
I want the images to do more than make me ache.
I need cries for help to touch more than my ears.
I long to matter to people when they most need aid.
So far, Haiti seems so far from my ability to help.

Extend my reach Lord.
May my meager gifts of money, prayerand a shoulder to cry on
help one more person than would be helped
if I just turn awayand do nothing.

What are your thoughts about Haiti a year after this disaster?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

That's What Friends Are For

The gospels are the ultimate Buddy Stories, wouldn't you agree? Yes, they tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Jesus wasn't on the road alone. For an estimated three years he rambled around his corner of the ancient world with a posse of followers. They squabbled and learned, abandoned Jesus and then renewed their commitment to his cause and to him. Despite the teacher student relationship, at his last meal with the disciples Jesus tells them that they are his friends, and that friends lay down their lives for friends.

Two of the best movies I saw in 2010 were stories of friendships, unusual though they were. The King's Speech is about the relationship which developed between King George VI of England and the speech therapist who helped him overcome his crippling stammer. At one point in the film the king admits that he has no friends because of the isolating role of a monarch. At the end of the film there is a scroll which tells us that they did remain friends until the end of the king"s life.

The other picture is The Fighter which is as much about the strange and powerful relationship between two step-brothers as it is about boxing. At times the relationship is so strained that they don't have much to do with one another, but in the end they are reconciled.

Did you see these movies? How important are friendships to you? Have you formed lasting friendships within your faith community?

Monday, January 10, 2011


Our son is currently in sunny Cuba and, believe it or not, he has mixed feelings about being there. Ike is in the "home stretch" toward ordination as a United Church minister and this last school term includes what is often called an Exposure Tour. The United Church has a partnership with the Presbyterian Church in Cuba and seminary students from McGill are required to go on this Cuba trip to see how the church functions in a very different environment. For decades Christians were treated poorly under Castro's regime and worshipping openly could lead to exclusion from promotions and professional advancement.

Isaac wasn't sure about this trip because he felt that it might be more valuable to visit a Aboriginal Reserve here in Canada instead, knowing the day might come when he worked on or near a native community. We have heard from him and he said that meeting with a Roman Catholic biship was very worthwhile.

They have moved from Havana to the town of Matanzas where there is a seminary. We visited this seminary a couple of years ago during a trip because Isaac was considering doing an exchange term. In the end he decided his Spanish was too sketchy to keep up academically. We were struck by the simple but beautiful seminary compound. It is at the top of a hill and there are terraced vegetable gardens which provide produce for the staff and students.

What are your thoughts about tours such as this one? Does it make sense to send students to other countries to discover how the church works there?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

On the Way to the Temple

I got an update the other day about what our Sunday school kids will be learning during the rest of January and into February. In January the series will be the stories of Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem. They will begin with his dedication in infancy, his visit as a precocious youth, then incidents from his adult life.

These are all great stories and the temple itself was a fascinating edifice. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world, built by Herod the Great, and replacing the far smaller first temple built by King Solomon. Part of this series of lessons will include the building of a balsawood temple, to engage them in the story.

It isn't easy keeping Sunday schools going these days. Many congregations have given up, and others aren't sure what to do. The key is to invite children into the Christian narrative found in the bible, and to encourage them to become mature Christians.

I am always impressed by the people who give their time in this important and rather thankless role of teaching Sunday school.

What do you remember about the Sunday school of your youth? Do you think there is still a place for Sunday School in this day and age? Have you taught recently?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bare Naked Mental Health

I wasn't going to blog today -- the sabbath and all -- but an edition of CBC radio's The Current has nudged me to do so. Yesterday former Bare Naked Lady band front man Steven Page hosted a program on mental health. He was chosen because of his own struggles with depression which he feels contributed to circumstances leading to his arrest for drug use a couple of years ago.

The program was an honest, "bare naked" exploration of a subject often cloaked in secrecy. People still don't want to publically acknowledge mental ill health because of the stigma and the practical implications.

It was pointed out that in Canada those worst served are teens, with only one in five getting adequate support from the "system." I put quotations around the word system because there is little that is systematic about mental health care. One doctor speaking about the problems with mental health care noted that if only one in five people who needed a hip replacement received one there would be a hue and cry. True. I had never heard before about the Evergreen mental health project for children and teens

I have mentioned before that walking with those with mental health issues, everything from debilitating depression to often dangerous bipolar illness and schizophrenia is a regular aspect of my ministry. It's so hard to see the individuals themselves and those who support them going through the nightmare of finding adequate support. We can advocate and pray for better health care.

Any comments on this? Have you experienced your own challenges in finding support through the medical system? Do you have any positive examples from your experience?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Orthodox Christmas Worship Service

Today is January 7th, Christmas Day for many Christians. The twelve days of the Christmas season are over, and the day of Epiphany when we turn our thoughts to the Magi or Wise Ones who travelled from the east to pay homage to the young Jesus came and went yesterday.

You might be thinking that this alternate Christmas isn't a big deal, but there are hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians around the world who celebrated Jesus' birth either yesterday or today. In countries such as Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, and the Ukraine today is a national holiday.

For me this is a reminder that no tradition has a "lock" on the way we approach our faith. The simplicity of that wondrous, tranforming birth roughly two thousand years ago has somehow led us to theological pouting sessions, suspicions and stereotypes, even violence and wars. How do we get it so wrong at times?

I figure that the best way to avoid the nonsense is to listen and to learn. Do I always have to agree with brothers and sisters in Christ? Nope, and there are times when I am in fundamental disagreement. I always hope that despite differences there can be some basis for respect and humility.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
Thou bidst us true and faithful be,
And trust in God unchangingly.
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee! !"

Today is the last of the twelve days of the Christmas season and the Day of Epiphany. In our household it is also the general target for getting the Christmas tree out of the house. We continue to purchase a real tree each year, one of the 13 to 14 million trees cut for Christmas in Canada and the United States each year.

I say cut, because somewhere between 5 and 10% of trees for sale don't find a home. Dealers have to dispose of them, not to mention all those trees that get dragged to the curb. In these days of increasing concern about the environment inventive ways of recycling the trees are being developed.
Many are chipped and composted. In the southern U.S. chipped trees have been used to rebuild natural coastal barriers after Hurricane Katrina. In one community a dealer chops trees which are then munched by elephants at the local zoo. There is an "aquatic habitat" project in California where trees are bundled and sunk in lakes as shelter for fish. Apparently the fish love the trees and they break down (the trees, not the fish) after a few years. The people in charge of the project actually chart the GPS coordinates which they give to those who fish in the lakes.

I find this all encouraging. We can be smart, and "have a care" for the planet, if we use the brains God gave us. Legend has it that Martin Luther began the Christmas tree tradition after seeing moonlight sifting through the branches of a fir one evening. What would he think today!
Are you encouraged by the inventiveness of municipalities. Where does your Christmas tree go?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Jaunters for Joan

On Sunday morning St. Paul's folk lined up after worship to sponsor "the McClelland Clan" in the Alzheimer's Walk for Memories taking place in Oshawa later this month. The response was excellent, and we as a congregation are very fond of this family, including grandfather Bill. Some of us have also got to know grandmother Joan, the person behind this initiative. Over time Joan has moved deeper into dementia, but she is still a person of worth, still exhibiting aspects of her lovely character even as she loses certain abilities.

On Sunday I encouraged everyone's support, commenting that dementia generally and Alzheimer's particularly will become a growing pastoral concern as the general population and church members age. I don't think we're particularly skilled in addressing this medical mystery and I hope we will get better. Increasingly this will be an aspect of our Christian ministry to the elderly.

I'm glad the McClellands are including their three daughters, Joan's grandchildren, because it is a practical way of providing support to the family member they love. There was an article in the New York Times back in November about how South Korean tweens and teens are being taught to be caregivers to dementia patients. They do role plays where some of them take on the characteristics of the elderly patients to get a sense of what they might encounter. What a wise program. This will build compassion and understanding.

I'm also glad that the McClelland's family project reminds us all that those with dementia have names, have personal histories, and are loved and cherished. And someday this could be any of us, and we hope and pray our families show respect and support.

What are your experiences with those living with dementia and Alzheimer's? What do you think about training young people in the practical realities of dementia?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Live Right Now

Getting up to trundle off to the gym at this time of the year just isn't fun. It's dark out there, and it's cold. Sometimes we shovel snow so we can drive to get exercise! In the end we're usually glad that we made the effort, but not always. Still, we do feel that the "body" part of care for Body, Mind and Spirit is essential.

The CBC, both television and radio, has begun a new focus on taking care of our bodies called Live Right Now after doing an extensive survey on the health of Canadians. One of the things the survey discovered is that we aren't all that honest with ourselves. About 6% of us consider ourselves obese, while it is actually around one quarter of all Canadians. And about 40% of Canadians make no conscious effort to get regular exercise.

This is an interesting challenge from a religious standpoint. On the one hand we realize that our media place an inordinate emphasis on the ideal body, and TV shows such as The Biggest Loser encourage an bizarre fascination with getting "whipped into shape" -- almost literally. We are exhorted by enthusiastic celebrities to join them in creating new "heavenly" bodies, only to hear that they have reverted to old habits. Why would faith communities support this?

On the other hand, many of us are unhealthy or dissatisfied because we are overweight. I will admit that I fret about my weight at times and don't enjoy the ravages of time. Those buff whippersnappers half my age at the gym don't help!As a minister I have spent time at hospital bedsides with those who have weight related illnesses and I have buried them too. There have even been parishioners who have stopped coming to church because they are ashamed of their weight.

It seems to me that our goal as communities of faith is to encourage healthy body images and healthy lifestyles because God has created us to be whole people in every aspect of our being. The church can be the place where we support one another in this. I feel that to Live Right Now is what God desires for us, that we are meant to enjoy abundant life now, even as we anticipate eternal life.

What are your struggles, triumphs, observations about all this?

Monday, January 03, 2011


This morning we drove our son Isaac and daughter-in-law Rebekah to the bus station for their trip back to Montreal. They have been with us for a week and saying goodbye was an emotional experience. We were keenly aware that this visit is the end of an era. Isaac will be ordained in May of this year, so their lives will change. Entering into ministry means busy Christmases and restrictions for travel through the season, not to mention exhaustion after it is all over.

Isaac will be amongst the first candidates for ministry to be able to negotiate an initial pastoral charge and it looks as though he will be serving in rural Quebec, not far from where Rebekah will be working as a freshwater biologist at Mt. St. Hilaire, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Their bilingualism is considered an asset in this rural community.

Well, after saying farewell at 8:00 am we chose to walk at Second Marsh, taking advantage of the calm and sunshine of the early morning. Our walk was soothing and beautiful. We spoke together about how spiritually restorative time in the natural world is for us.I know from past reflections that it is for many of you as well, but I'm always interested in hearing your thoughts.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Agreeing with the Pope

I agree with the Pope. Yes, I actually wrote this, despite disagreeing with the current pontiff regularly. In his Christmas message Pope Benedict called on Christians around the world to pray for our brothers and sisters who are undergoing persecution and harrassment. He mentioned the Christian communities in Iraq and China.

Since his message there have been several more reported incidents, including a bomb which went off outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, killing 21. More than a 1,000 worshippers had gathered for a New Year's eve mass. President Hosni Mubarak immediately denounced this attack, but the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt reports increasing attacks. In Iraq Christmas Eve and Day services were cancelled out of fear for the safety of worshippers.

There is no cause for this sort of extremism and suppression, but in continues. So, we can heed the pope and pray for safety and peace for Christians under attack.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy and Blessed New Year

Happy New Year everyone! Whatever that means. What does it mean to be happy anyway? And when does the new year begin: the first day of school, or the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the fiscal year, or January 1st? I hear you saying, "he's overthinking this one," which is probably true. Yet this seems to be the time when we take stock of the previous year, set goals and priorities, and maybe come up with a resolution or eight.

Yesterday a group of people gathered at the Anglican Convent of St. John the Divine to peer into the new year together. Surprisingly, both the Toronto Star and the CBC picked up on this rather unlikely New Year's Eve story, and I heard the sister who was coordinating the event interviewed.

Her hope was that rather than making resolutions, which tend to be an act of will, they could consider how to make room for God and open themselves to God's presence in fresh ways in the days ahead. As simple as that sounds, I think it is deceptively difficult. Even though we have just come through a season in which Christians celebrate God's loving, in-the-flesh presence in Christ, God can often seem like a distant concept rather than a steady companion. In my own life I sense that it is me, not God, who is distracted. I run around doing a lot of god-ish things at times, but lose my focus on the Godly life. Psalm One begins by saying happy are those who follow God and put their roots down deep, like trees planted by a river. Good advice.

Do you have any plans to shift priorities or reorient your life in the year ahead? What about God? Thoughts or insights about how you will create space in your heart and mind for the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer? Maybe we should all go and hang out with the nuns for a while.