Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mesa Verde

We came to Colorado a week early to combine some vacation with the conference I'm attending. Our friends here offered a number of suggestions for exploration, including a place they haven't visited because it is tucked away in what is known as the Four Corners of Colorado, far to the southwest. It is where the states of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado meet and the landscape is high desert.

Mesa Verde is a national park and the name means "green table" in Spanish. High atop this mesa Pueblo natives -- as many of 5,000-- lived for centuries, until about 1300 AD. They had a complex farming culture and in the last century of habitation they built cliff dwellings. One, called Cliff Palace, is the largest extant cliff dwelling in North America.

So, often we went with a AAA triptik and a GPS to guide us the 800 kilometres to Mesa Verde! The final 25 kilometres are the climb to the top of the 8,000 foot mesa along a rather harrowing road of constant switchbacks and dizzying drops to the valleys below. Have I ever mentioned I don't like heights?

Speaking of which, the Balcony House tour requires a climb up a 32 foot ladder (see previous comment about heights) and a squeeze through a tiny rock tunnel, narrower than my shoulders.

Even though life for these people was short (30-40 years) and half of the children didn't make it past five, there are many ceremonial and religious structures called kivas -- essentially their churches. It fascinated me that they would devote so much enerfgy to places for worship when life was nasty, brutish, and short. Perhaps the fleeting nature of life prompted them to do so.

Have any of you been to Mesa Verde? Or heard of it? Or want to go there! It was one of the most interesting experiences we have ever had.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Different Prophet

Colorado is a place of extraordinary beauty and friendly people. Apparently it is the state whose residents have been deemed most physically fit, thanks to a terrain and climate that encourages activities of all kinds. We have noticed that there is a lot of wealth alongside those who have been hit hard by the prolonged recession. In the city of Boulder there are plenty of beautiful people walking the Pearl St. Mall as well as plenty of beggars on street corners. One guy had a sign saying "Space Ship Needs Parts -- Please Give." Creative.

You may have heard that Warren Buffett, one of America's richest men has been at it again, rattling the cage of others with wealth. I wrote before about his challenge to other billionaires to give there money away. He and Bill Gates are leading the way and others have joined the club.

Now Buffett is saying that the rich don't pay enough tax. In an opinion piece in the New York Times he points out that in his office he has the lowest tax rate, one of the strange and sacrosanct realities of the "rich should get richer" outlook here. Needless to say, Buffett's comments have made him a lightning rod for criticism.

Thank God for his prophetic if unpopular voice -- at least that's my opinion. The prophet Amos in the Old Testament railed against those who go to worship yet "sell the needy for a pair of shoes. People weren't amused by Amos either.

What do you think about Buffett's comments?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rocky Mountain High...lands

We're off to the state of Colorado where I will be participating in a conference called God’s Earth: Too Big to Fail? An Eco-Justice Conversation Among Faith, Science & Culture. I decided on this conference because two of the presenters are people whose work I admire.

It doesn't hurt that the Highlands Presbyterian Conference Centre is in the Rocky Mountains. Even though it is at 8500 feet above sea level ( roughly 2 1/2 kilometres) I have actually seen it from above while hiking toward a nearby peak with a group of people a few years ago.

The conference and retreat centre I have visited in New Mexico called Ghost Ranch is also Presbyterian, in background although they now run independently. Unfortunately the size of our country and smaller population means creating and maintaining similar centres is very difficult. At the events I have attended I am the token Canuck. I'm glad that Ruth will travel with me this time.

I will report back!

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The opening of the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. is a big deal here in the States, where we are spending some time, and so it should be. Dr. King was the Baptist pastor who rose to prominence as the fearless and eloquent leader of the civil rights movement in the US during the fifties and sixties. Unfortunatetly the dedication of the memorial has been postponed from today until September because of Hurricane Irene.

King was a flawed person in some respects (aren't we all?) but his determination to carry out non-violent change for persons of colour altered the course of American history. It is fitting that President Obama will speak at the dedication.

The statue of King is huge and imposing, the first statue of an Afro-American in the capital. Take a virtual tour of the site at this address

Most Canadians are aware of some of MLK's history and legacy. What are your reflections about this memorial?

Bye the bye, the Chinese global influence is even evident in this memorial. A Chinese sculptor created it, out of stone quarried in China!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Practical Compassion

During the past few weeks St. Paul's members have been contributing to the United Church effort to address the famine in Somalia. Our denomination has partners in Somalia to help us get the food aid to those who need it.

I have been pleasantly surprised to see the total given by our member creep up toward $4,000, probably the most generous response to a humanitarian appeal since I have been here, at least through the congregation.

It's interesting that while it has become much easier to contribute to causes by phone or the internet, this situation has not motivated the generosity of Canadians. Some may be concerned that the food won't get to the hungry, but I figure it is a risk worth taking. I'm also intrigued by the notion of compassion fatigue. I figure we have given about $1,000 in total to several appeals during the past few years. In the overall picture of our income and what we spend on our pleasures it is peanuts. How could I be fatigued?

A newcomer to our congregation, a young woman without a Christian background, told me that one of the positives of coming to church is being encouraged to practical compassion by those around her in the community of faith. Maybe it's easier to give from the comfort of our homes, and maybe its easier not to give when we don't gather with others to hear that encouragement.

What is your perspective?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Evil in a Cage

During the past couple of weeks the former leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, has been on trial for crimes against his own people. Mubarak is a frail, sick man but he has been present in what amounts to a cage, as though he is a dangerous animal. The cage seems more theatre than actual security, a statement about his cruelty through the years.

Is Mubarak evil? The challenge of evil, which is certainly a biblical concept, is that it is hard to define. When we pray "deliver us from evil" each week there is no footnote directing us to a thorough explanation.

So who or what is evil and what causes it? Are the Mubaraks and Ghaddafi's of this world evil? Yes to the holocaust and Rwanda. I would describe child molesters as evil. The man who systematically shot defenseless young people in Norway a few weeks ago.

I notice that there is a growing interest in defining evil from a scientific perspective. Scales of evil are being developed and there is a new book called The Anatomy of Evil by Dr. Michael Stone. Yet the root cause of evil, both individually and collectively continues to be a mystery. Why do some persons and groups choose destructive acts?

Our New Creed invites us to "seek justice and resist evil." If we acknowledge the reality of evil then we can work to address it wherever we see it in our lives and in our world.

What is your perspective?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Start Huffin' and Puffin'!

I was at the gym yesterday and saw blog reader Ian, as well as another St. Paul's member. In fact there are a number of our members who hang out there fairly regularly and we all huff and puff in our various ways. Now someone like Ian is a young buck and looks fit, as does reader Johnny who is diligent in his physical regime. Others of us are making some concessions to age, and we do our best.

It turns out that "doing our best" makes a difference. According to recent studies, being physically active enough to work up a sweat and raise the heart rate at least three or four times a week has positive results in body, mind and spirit. They don't put it that way, but here are the findings. Keeping up this exercise pattern after age 40 can extend our lifespan by ten to fifteen years. It promotes the growth of new brain cells and aids memory. It reduces the risk of dementia by up to a third. And exercise is a mood enhancer which can lessen the possibility of depression.

What are we all waiting for! Of course, as good as it sounds, exercise takes time and will power. It can be a real challenge for busy parents and commuters and those who just don't enjoy working up a sweat. My wife Ruth and I find that the accountability of being active together is a strong motivator. When age sixty is out there on the horizon it gets easier to find excuses.

When Beth Lettner, our current pastoral care person was our parish nurse St. Paul's had a greater emphasis on the balance of body, mind and spirit. We changed Beth's job description and while we still have her dedication, we lost something in translation, it seems to me.

I have confidence in the life to come, but we were created to enjoy this present life to its fullness as well. What are your reflections on physical activity? Do you wish you were doing more? Should congregations be in the business of promoting physical health?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Life is Not Fair. Look Ahead.

Life is not fair. I wish it was, and that prayer and positive thinking could always make good things happen. But it just doesn't work this way and it has actually been ministry in Christ's church that has convinced me of this. I have seen many good and faithful people struggle with hard times, suffer, even die prematurely.

I have also had my faith strengthened by the courage lots of them demonstrate, and their refusal to descend into pity or anger at God. I don't understand the reasons or the outcomes, but I have been blessed and honoured to be a being a companion of those who move through the valley of the shadow of death with a strong sense of God's presence.

It sure seems as though life was unfair to Jack Layton. A number of friends and pundits are saying so, and how can we deny it? The guy didn't let cancer or surgery deter him in his goal to make the NDP a strong political party in this country and it looked as though his perserverence paid off. And for decades he has been a voice for the voiceless. You didn't have to share his politics to realize Canada needed Jack Layton as a social conscience.

But a new cancer creeps into his body and mere months after his political triumph he succumbs to death. As Julia, a mentally and physically challenged adult once said to me after the death of a friend and housemate: "dying sucks!'

Jack may have felt that the return of cancer was an unfair blow. But he left this life encouraging others; the sick, the young, those who want to make a difference through politics. Incredibly dignified, and those final words have grabbed my emotions repeatedly:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Amen. Thoughts?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Tradition Continues!

This morning a happy horde of little people will invade St. Paul's and we will be thrilled. The annual Vacation Bible School will get underway and leaders are ready -- or as ready as you can be given that a fair number of participants will just show up without preregistration.

Some parents see the various church VBS's as serial day camps to get the kids out of the house. That's okay. We see it as an opportunity to share the Good News of Christ with children in a setting that is fun and educational . Every year we are blessed with volunteers who could be doing a lot of other things, including sleeping in. I feel they make a huge difference in the lives of these kids, and I commend them.

My recollection of VBS is that it wasn't nearly as much fun as today but, hey, it was a long time ago. We had bible memory work contests that I didn't come close to winning.

What are you VBS memories? Are they still worthwhile in your estimation? Are you involved in some way?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Addicted to Oil

Protesters are gathered in the thousands in Washington D.C this weekend and many of them are being arrested. The reason? They want to keep Canadian oil/tar sands out of the States. They are actually against the Keystone pipeline which will carry 900,00 barrels of the bitumen through several states on the way to a refinery in the south. Talk about crude.

I'm not a fan of Alberta oil produced through the excavation of these oil sands in Alberta, to say the least. The landscape is devastated, water is tainted, the air is fouled. The ads on TV and in newspapers and magazines tell us that the oil companies are doing a great job of mitigating harm to the environment. But environmentalists and aboriginal people living down stream tell us otherwise. The tar sands are one of the principle reasons are international reputation is mud when it comes to greenhouse gases.

Here's the thing though. Some Americans don't want our gunk going through their real estate. Yet they are happy to buy gasoline and other oil products from Canada, as their most secure and largest foreign supplier.

Many church groups and parachurch agencies in the U.S. are among the protesters. I wrote to the director of one of them, a great guy named Peter Sawtell whose Eco-Justice Ministries has been doing an exceptional job of upholding creation care issues for years. I reminded him that while we may be the drug pushers, Americans are the middle class kids nervously buying the product on street corners in the shady part of town. Until they address their addiction to what we have, protests will seem a little hollow.

Have you been following this story over the weekend? What are your thoughts? Are the oil sands a necessary evil, or just plain evil?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Flogging Christian Community

The life of every congregation requires money, just as every household depends on a certain amount of income and cash flow. Those of you with kids at home (and not at home!) realize that if you're not careful the pressure is for the outflow to exceed the income, especially if they have anything to say about it. It's the same for churches.For congregations there are three key sources of income: congregational offering, fundraising, and bequests. St. Paul's balances it books with a combination of all three. The fundraising is also a way to raise our congregational profile and have some fun.

Well, member Rich and his excellent team recently put the fun in fundraising with what is now our fourth annual golf tournament. A small army of golfers headed out onto the links on Wednesday to thrash their way through eighteen holes at the Newcastle Golf Club. That is part of the gang pictured above.

Fortunately we are children of a gracious and forgiving God, so golf course lies and evil thoughts were forgotten by the time the excellent dinner was completed at the church that evening.

Rich has been very good at emphasizing fellowship at the tournament, but i the four year it has raised roughly $50,000. Well done. It's always important to keep in mind that fundraising in a congregation supports ministry in Christ's name.

Any comments about this year's tournament?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Last Hurrah?

Yesterday about a hundred protestors made noise at the official ground-breaking for the massive incinerator which will be burning our garbage before long. It has been dubbed an Energy From Waste project, giving the impression that it is a "win-win" development -- we get rid of our trash and burning it produces energy. Of course it will take energy to make energy and a nuclear power plant is right next door.

In some respects this is a last hurrah for those who object to the project. A number of those who have worked diligently in opposition are members of area churches, convinced, as I am, that an incinerator is not a solution to our waste disposal and will actually degrade the environment rather than improving it. Care for creation was not high on the agenda during the process and even some local politicians, including our mayor, who were elected because of their opposition have been overwhelmed by the juggernaut.

The Toronto Star article yesterday noted that the company chosen to build and run the incinerator has just been fined $400,000 in the States for emmission and air quality violations. When its poor track record was pointed out during hearings the information was discounted or ignored.

I wrote about all this as the process unfolded and as I attended public meetings. What are your thoughts now? Some of you live directly down wind!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Which War and When?

Let's declare war on Syria, shall we? Of course I am being facetious. Even though the Syrian government (essentially a dictatorship), is through its military engaged in a brutal and deadly crackdown on citizens who dare to question the authority of that government, we don't just start bombing sovereign nations.

Or do we? Not that far from Syria, in the North African nation of Libya, bombs from Nato planes, including those from Canada, are blasting government and military targets. We're told that the decades old regime of the miserable despot, Muammar Ghaddafi is hanging by a thread, in part because our nation and others entered the fray to support rebels or freedom fighters or whatever term we want to use.

I certainly feel that the cause of these freedom fighters in Libya is legitimate. What I don't understand is how our government makes the decision to go to war in Libya or anywhere else, a choice I feel as a Christian should always be a last resort. While it might appear unpatriotic to say so, I still am not sure why Canadians fought and died in Afghanistan. Even though we all admire and support our troops, I wonder how many Canadians could articulate our mission there over the last decade, or say with confidence "mission accomplished." And how did Libya take precedence over other situations in the world, including Syria? Why isn't an international military team making sure that food aid gets to the starving people of the Horn of Africa where humanitarian efforts are being blocked by Islamic extremists?

Help me out here folks. Any thoughts or observations on this one?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Last Monday a school bus driver in New York state named George Daw was fired for recklessly endangering his passengers. Well, good, you might think. Actually Daw was driving in a rain and hail storm and picked up a distress call from a police cruiser on his route. Three officers in the car were stranded at the side of the road on his route, so he stopped to pick them up. He went off route to deliver them to their precinct then dropped off his two passengers. When he returned to the school bus depot he was fired for his actions.

Our world seems to be getting weirder by the day. The article I saw described George as a Good Samaritan, a reference to the parable found only in Luke's gospel about an outsider who helps someone in distress when the "real" religious folk pass him by. That term, Good Samaritan, has become almost universal even though many people may not know its origins.

The same week some Bad Samaritans in London feigned helping a young man who had already been beaten up by the mob rampaging through the streets. As they helped him to his feet they calmly robbed him and left. The poor guy ended up being hospitalized. Some of the reports actually used the term Bad Samaritans.

Perhaps we need some remedial reading of this story Jesus used to teach about true compassion and the deeper meaning of religion.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Fly Away Home

Ruth was canoeing and camping with a group of women from our Sudbury days two weekends ago. When we were living there the group numbered about 14 and they called themselves the Goddesses. I encouraged them to keep the name to themselves, lest heresy invade our congregation. They canoed, skiied, ate, and generally seemed to have an inordinate amount of fun together. They were nearly all very involved in church life and decided that they just wanted some opportunity for playfulness. Mission accomplished.

On this recent weekend one of the members told Ruth the happy ending to a story from years ago. One day Ruth and I were launching our canoe in a Sudbury area lake when a kayak came around the corner with a dozen or so young trumpeter swans trailing behind. The woman in the kayak was a sort of "swan whisperer" urging them on with "here swans, c'mon swans."

It turned out this was a swan project along the lines of Fly Away Home. A research team was in Sudbury to raise and train the swans which as a species once migrated to Northern Ontario. Their goal was to teach the swans to fly south to Indiana in the Fall in the hope they would return the following Spring. The team leader flew an ultralight craft with pontoons and we would go to watch the flight training of the swans. His wife was pregnant and would spend hours in the water, not eating enough, Ruth decided. So they came to our house for a couple of meals and then to the church for a big potluck where interested folk could learn about their project.

The photo above is evidence that the project was a success. The first trip to Indiana was harrowing and some swans were lost. But others returned and the breeding population is growing.

How cool is that!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can't Live Without Them

Last Sunday we had a dozen children if church if infants and teens are included. Hardly a cast of thousands, but I have been thinking about their presence all week. I realize that for me the experience of worship is lessened by the absence of children. I say this aware that many congregations no longer have children and I don't want to sound as though I am demeaning who they are on Sundays. It just feels as though God's fullest intention is a worship experience which includes people of all ages.

There is some intangible yet real energy which comes from children. On Sunday a family with three kids was there (come to think of it, two families provided half the children!) They brought their two-month-old for the first time and he let out a few squawks to say hello to his new extended family. It was a joyful noise.

I appreciate all the folk who have "personed" the nursery and run the low-key program for the older children this summer. It has meant that there have been children in worship every week, a rough total of two dozen different kids, by my count.

I've said before that St. Paul's people are impressive in their acceptance and welcome of children. Thoughts?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rendez-Vous with Faith

Our child and youth worker, Laura, and three of our teens, Tim, Christopher and Jonathan, are in Toronto this weekend for a national youth event sponsored by the United Church called Rendez-vous. The event has drawn 500 participants from across the country, including one strange refugee from Saskatchewan. Jeff worked with our Sunday School and youth as a volunteer until he and his family moved west at the time of wife Deb's settlement as a United Church minister. Jeff visited family in Oshawa and serendipitously or providentially rendezvoused with our gang at the GO station. Apparently he had only a vague notion of where he was going!

I am encouraged that this event is happening and so many will be attending. Youth ministry has declined dramatically in United Churches in recent years. At St. Paul's we are doing our best to maintain our commitment in a time when work with children and youth has all but evaporated in many congregations. Our young people need events such as this one, as well as at the conference and presbytery level as encouragement that there are other Christians their age. When they come together they have a lot of fun, but they also address deep issues of faith.

We'll pray that good things emerge from this event, and that the leaders get some sleep!

Comments? I hope that our participants will let us know how it unfolded.

Friday, August 12, 2011

I Shall Not Hate

In September I will be leading our St. Paul's book club discussion on a book of my choosing I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey. I first brought the book to your attention a year ago. It is a remarkable first person story of Dr, Izzeldin Abuelaish who grew up in a crowded refugee camp but through his own determination and the gracious support of others became a doctor whose obstetric and paediatric work led him into unprecedented partnerships with Israeli physicians.

Even as a respected doctor he faced great hardship and frustration as a resident of Gaza. He maintained his commitment to peace and reconciliation with his Muslim faith at the core. In 2009 an Israeli tank bombarded his home and three of his daughters and a niece were killed. His principles remain intact despite this tragic loss.

Dr. Abuelaish is now living in Canada with the rest of his family, invited on a fellowship at the University of Toronto. I tracked him down there and he graciously gave me a half hour of his time on the phone to ask questions that might help our book club group fill in the span since the conclusion of his book.

My last question was about anger. Did he struggle with anger in light of his loss? Of course, he responded, but he works to "master his anger so that it does not master him." And he believes that in every passing, every tragedy, something good can emerge. I was deeply impressed by him once again.

There is a foundation in memory of his daughters which awards educational scholarships and you might look at the website

Have you read this book? Can you imagine living so positively in light of such profound loss? Are you going to join us on September 17th? You are welcome to come just for this discussion, or to join the club.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Greed and Fear

The other day CBC radio had a midday phone-in with an investment analyst as the guest. Folk were asked to call to name their concerns in light of the latest stock market swoon. One woman commented that the market seemed to be predicated on the extremes of greed and fear. The analyst agreed somewhat to my surprise, and the woman responded by saying that perhaps we need a Fear Index to help people calm themselves when they were inclined to panic.

Many of us are affected by the fluctations in the stock market, to be sure. I am enrolled in a pension plan which means I am indirectly involved. Even those of us who aren't in the market or a pension realize that an uncertain economy means less secure and scarcer jobs.

It occurred to me that greed and fear were both central to Jesus' teaching. He warned people against greed, and invited them to live beyond fear. He told them and us that perfect love casts out fear and that the love of money is the root of evil. Sure, but did Jesus ever dabble in the stock market?

Where are you on the fear index these days? Are you fretting about the latest down turn? Does your faith help you keep calm?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A couple of Sundays ago the Hebrew Scripture reading was the story of Jacob working for seven years to win the hand of his beloved Rachel, only to discover that he had been tricked into marrying her sister Leah. Divorce? Law suit? Nope. Jacob calmly works for another seven years for his father-in-law and eventually marries Rachel.

I chickened out and preached on the gospel passage. I admitted to the congregation that I didn't have it in me to say anything positive about polygamy, especially if I planned on going home for lunch. Polygamy was common in ancient biblical times but largely gone by Jesus' day. In some cultures it is still acceptable but it is has been illegal in Canada and the United States since the 19th century.

What are the odds that a polygamist would be in the news this week? You may recall me writing about the despicable Warren Jeffs, a paedophile masquerading as a religious leader. His breakaway Mormon sect has encouraged multiple marriage and in most of these communities it is a select and powerful group of dirty old men who prey upon girls barely into teenhood. Often young men have no opportunity for anything like a normal marriage and are regularly tossed out of these communities.

If you think my assessment is harsh, a US judge agrees with me. Jeffs has been convicted of aggravated sexual assault and yesterday was sentenced to life. If there is justice in this world Jeffs will die in prison.

This abuse of girls and young women also exists here in Canada, in Bountiful BC. I hope this conviction gives the waffling authorities in British Columbia the courage to act on behalf of the young women who are treated like chattel in Bountiful.

Have you followed this story? Should BC take action in Bountiful?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Birth of Religion

There is an article in the June issue of National Geographic magazine about the excavation of a temple complex in southern Turkey. Known as Gobekli Tepe is has a Stonehenge feel to it, except that it is thousands of years older than the British standing stones site and is probably the oldest temple site in the world. Built 11,600 years ago, it is elaborately carved with creatures and strangely the oldest rings are more sophisticated than the more recent. This link includes a video

This temple was built when there were no beasts of burden and the nomadic people of the area lived in huts. There was no form of writing, no metalwork, no pottery. Yet they moved 16-ton stones, some 18 feet tall, to a place where no one lived for the purpose of worship. The writer of the article offers "discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Goblekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-acto knife.

I find stuff like this fascinating. From the most ancient times humans have felt compelled to create holy places and sacred structures. Even though survival and subsistance were much more demanding than today, the desire for sacred gathering places was powerful. A more modest but still impressive parallel is the choice of our forebearers to build churches in the communities all around us. Look at St. Paul's and consider the commitment and vision on the part of a much smaller community and relatively poorer folk.

What are your thoughts about this? Are we "hard-wired" for the holy, and for sacred places?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Repentance and Recovery

When we stayed in the old "salt box" house on Change Islands, Newfoundland, last summer the neighbour across the little bay gave us a feed of codfish. They may be ugly, but they taste wonderful pan-fried straight out of the ocean.

When we lived in Newfoundland thirty years ago cod was still common enough that when people used the word "fish" it was understood that they meant cod, and other species were named. Still, the cod fishery was on the brink of a catastrophic collapse and within a decade the fishery was closed in a desparate attempt to salvage a species which had been incredibly abundant. Nearly twenty years later the stocks are still a shadow of their former selves, but a recent report claims that they are recovering, both off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The personal fishery which allows individuals to catch a few cod each year may eventually become a commercial fishery.

There is so much bad environmental news it is important to hear that when we change our foolish ways there is hope for recovery. Not always of course, but it is remarkable how resilient ecosystems are when humans stop bombarding and pillaging them. Our Christian faith is rooted in hope and the promise that "God so loved the world" and still does. It is important to "repent" of our environmental sins and broaden the scope of salvation.

Are you still hopeful for the world we live in, despite so much bad news? Is using the language of repentance and salvation actually a misuse when applied to the environment?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Help

We have seen the trailer for the film The Help which will be released next weekend while we waited to watch the last two movies we took in. It looks promising, and it is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett which was very entertaining, if one can be entertained by a story of banal, everyday, disturbing injustice.

Set in the 1960's, in Jackson Mississippi, The Help invites us into the awakening of a young white woman, Skeeter Phelan, who sets out to write the story of the women of colour who are the poorly paid and disrespected housekeepers in white households. Even though they are good enough to raise the children of their employers these women aren't allowed to use the same bathrooms. Without the courageous assistance of two of these women, Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter's book couldn't become a reality.

There aren't strong religious themes in this novel but religion is present. For the white folk the church justifies the status quo. For the blacks the church is a place of comfort and community and courage in the face of injustice.

Have any of you read the novel? What were your impressions? Are you looking forward to the film?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

All God's Creatures?

With the high heat and humidity the past two Sundays attendance at worship has been a little thin, to put it diplomatically. Just the same our members have opened their hearts and wallets, giving more than $2,000 in response to famine victims in the countries of the Horn of Africa. I'm sure more will be donated and it can't come fast enough. Today's news tells us that so far 29,000 children under the age of five have died.

So, should we focus on response to humans rather than other animals, a sort of compassion triage where we set priorities? Because of the dire situation in Africa I thought about this as I read what is really a lovely story of caring out of Florida. A badly injured sea turtle weighing 80 kilograms was found on a beach with gaping wounds in its shell caused by boat strikes. Andre, as he was named, was one sick turtle, the gashes so deep that his spinal chord was visible. Veterinarians, human doctors, and even an orthodonist (for the shell) brought their skills together to bring Andre back to health. This week he was released back into the sea with hundreds cheering him on. We have heard other stories in the past few days of a "wrong way" penguin named Happy Feet rehabilitated and returned to the wild in New Zealand, as well as Ralph the pelican in Nova Scotia. Notice how we like to "humanize" the creatures we help?

Should all these resources have been committed to creatures other than humans? Do we agree that this doesn't need to be an "either/or" situation, or is that unrealistic? What are your thoughts?

Friday, August 05, 2011

52 percent

It used to be that a fair number of people worried whether God approved of them. A lot of wrath and judgement issued from pulpits and the preachers who took it upon themselves to convince the flock that God found them wanting.

So now it appears that the tables have turned. Pollsters recently asked whether God is doing an effective job of, well, being God. A member of the congregation sent me that news piece showing that it was a squeaker. God received a 52% approval rating although it appears that folk were hedging their bets and choosing not to disapprove.

By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – If you think voters are in cranky mood over politics, a new poll suggests that some of the dissatisfaction may run deeper.
God’s job performance has trouble measuring up to many Americans' expectations, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in North Carolina.
Only 52 percent of Americans approve of God’s job performance, the
survey found, though just 9 percent disapprove.
The polling question that prompted this curious response was, "If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?"
"When asked to evaluate God on some of the issues it is responsible for, voters give God its best rating on creating the universe, 71-5," the polling report said. "They also approve of its handling of the animal kingdom 56-11, and even its handling of natural disasters 50-13."

I regularly talk to people who disapprove of God's job performance. They are upset about natural disasters, or mourning the loss of loved ones, or angry that life seems to have been unfair to them. Some of them have essentially fired God, deciding that a personal and loving deity can't exist and the alternatives aren't worth considering. I used to try really hard to reason with them but I now appreciate that this isn't just a matter of the intellect. There are lots of situations which foster disappointment.

There are times when God doesn't thrill me either, truth be told. I just keep going and eventually I come back to an appreciation of the fact that I am not god and that I have to admit that the overall performance of the Creator is fairly impressive.

Where are you in your approval rating of God these days? I'm trusting that there won't be any lightning bolts if you express reservations, but then again you might be bubbling with praise.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Customs of Compassion

During my growing-up years in culturally Christian and very white Ontario I had absolutely no awareness of the religious customs of others religions, not even Judaism. We now live in a pluralistic society with many different religious expressions and while I can't claim to know the practices of these other traditions well, they intrigue me.

Muslims around the world entered into Ramadan on Monday and this observance extends through the entire month of August. It is a time of fasting, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is an opportunity for reflection and self-examination, as well as giving up food during daylight hours. It sounds a little like the traditional Christian Lent to me.

I heard a Muslim leader interviewed on Toronto radio a couple of days ago and he mentioned that Ramadan also encourages concern and suport for the less fortunate as part of self-denial. This year his community, which usually raises $100,000 to $150,000 for others during the month will focus on those affected by the famine in Africa. Of course many of those suffering are Muslims.

I appreciate that this current humanitarian concern is incorporated into a traditional observance. Seldom am I really required to "give 'til in hurts" but when I make a choice for compassion it moves me away from self-absorption into empathy for others. I am motivated by my Christian faith and the call to follow Jesus. Whether it is Lent for Christians or a conscious choice to respond to situations in the moment, a degree of self-denial is important and necessary for spiritual health.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


There was a news report yesterday morning about the deaths of two people at a Markham address, one of which was a shooting by police officers. By evening the grim report of the events was on television. A recently divorced husband returned to the family home where he stabbed his former wife to death in front of their two children. He committed "suicide by cop" attacking the officers who responded using the same knife and then being shot and killed.

A distraught friend was interviewed from the driver's seat of her car. She tearfully told the reporter that the dead woman was convinced that her ex was going to come to the house and kill her. And he did.

I realize how attuned I have become to these stories because of the work of my wife, Ruth. As a outreach counsellor for a woman's shelter not a week goes by in which a client doesn't tell Ruth that her partner has threatened to kill her. Often they have already experienced physical violence but the threat of death is the ultimate weapon. To date none of Ruth's clients have been murdered, but she has helped a number of them essentially escape to safety.

I saw last week that reported crime in Canada continues to decline, including a ten percent drop in the number of murders from 2009 to 2010. This is good news except for one category -- domestic violence. It is on the rise. Perhaps instead of spending billions on new prisons the Harper government could underwrite the work of preventative education in the schools (Ruth does this now) and ensuring that there is adequate support for women and children in peril.

Addressing domestic violence can be a "tough sell" in churches because we support the picture of the happy nuclear family. While we obviously want to promote healthy relationships, we need to acknowledge the shadow side as well.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What in God's Name?

The Republicans and the Democrats in the United States have been playing economic Russian Roulette over the debt ceiling for the past few weeks. I'm no expert on this, needless to say, but I am less than impressed by the partisan politics which seem to take precedent over the best interests of the nation.

Some religious leaders have spoken out and gathered for prayer in various communities, concerned that the poor and marginalized will bear the brunt of cutbacks, as is so often the case. It's a good thing someone is acting as a voice for the voiceless.

Meanwhile it seems that the proverbial elephant in the room is being ignored. Military spending represents about 20% of government expenditures. It's estimated that about four trillion dollars has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, making these wars more expensive than WWII for the Americans. That amount is triple what was approved, and most of it is borrowed money.

Where in God's name is the morality in all this? How can a nation which insists that its leaders profess faith of some kind, with Christians getting the inside track, reconcile what is happening?

Have you been following this drama? What is your reaction?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Hallowed be Potter's Name

We went to see the Deathly Hallows Part 2 film, the final installment of the Harry Potter series, and I have to say that it was very entertaining. We haven't kept up with either the books or the movies but this felt like a significant cultural punctuation point. Even if you haven't the slightest interest in this phenomenon you probably heard that Deathly Hallows 2 took in just under half a billion dollars in box office on the first weekend. The first weekend! As of yesterday the film topped a billion dollars.

There were the parties and articles and commentaries on it all. During a CBC radio phone-in callers waxed nostalgic about the ways in which the HP series of books and movies have formed the narrative of their lives through the past decade or more. It sounded like a religious experience for many of them and that might not be far off the truth. The Potter books have sold 450 million copies and represent seven of the top ten selling books of all time. The bible is still solidly in first place but the total of the Potter books points out that this story has shaped a generation.

Speaking of the bible, the final movie pits evil against good and includes a hero who dies to save others in a grove that has a Garden of Gethsemane feel, yet rises again. The satanic Voldemort is ultimately vanquished by love. There is even a resurrection stone and a nasty serpent. Hey, if it worked for the number one book of all time, why not stick with success. Little wonder some conservative churches have criticized and even banned Harry -- competition with a similar storyline.

It says to me that we need the powerful myths and narratives to shape us. Its too bad that we have resconstructed our Christian story and tamed Jesus the way we have.

Have you followed the Potter series? Have you notices the Christian themes emerging? Do we need powerful narratives?