Friday, December 30, 2011

Rebel Jesus

We get enough Sweet Baby Jesus at this time of year to send us into a diabetic coma so I was taken off guard recently when I heard a song which was new to me. Where have I been? It was written by a favorite singer/songwriter of another era, Jackson Browne, but I was listening to a version by members of the Wainright/McGarrigle clan. It's called Rebel Jesus.

The streets are filled with laughter and light

And the music of the season

And the merchants' windows are all bright

With the faces of the children

And the families hurrying to their homes

As the sky darkens and freezes

Will be gathering around the hearths and tables

Giving thanks for all God's graces

And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the "Prince of Peace"

And they call him by "The Saviour"

And they pray to him upon the sea

And in every bold endeavor

As they fill his churches with their pride and gold

And their faith in him increases

But they've turned the nature that I worshipped in

From a temple to a robber's den

In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns

And we guard our fine possessions

And once a year when Christmas comes

We give to our relations

And perhaps we give a little to the poor

If the generosity should seize us

But if any one of us should interfere

In the business of why there are poor

They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed

To take the tone of judgement

For I've no wish to come between

This day and your enjoyment

In this life of hardship and of earthly toil

We have need for anything that frees us

So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer

From a heathen and a pagan

On the side of the rebel Jesus.

Here are a couple of versions, one by Martha Wainright and the other by Jackson Browne.

This song has some kick to it. Have you heard it before? Do you all know it and wonder how I missed it?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Antidote to Hatred

On Christmas morning I got up to prepare for worship and heard on the radio that explosions in churches in Nigeria had killed a number of those gathered to celebrate the birth of Christ. Muslim extremists were suspected in these cowardly acts and honestly the news made me feel sick. I was angry -- this is just evil in God's name. Then I read a piece written by Tahir Gara, a Canadian Muslim, and I was encouraged.

I cannot understand why people shy away from saying Merry Christmas to each other these days. It was not like that a couple of years ago. It seems as if people in the malls and public places are avoiding Christmas greetings out of fear that someone may be offended.In our environment of fast-growing immigrant communities, people look into each others' eyes and try to judge whether it's appropriate to say Merry Christmas. This boggles my mind. Why is it ever inappropriate to share Christmas greetings? This beautiful phrase should not be offensive to anyone since it only carries a message of love, hope, peace and celebration...

Preventing children in some schools from singing Christmas songs for the sake of others' beliefs is an unnecessary measure in building relationships with people of other cultures.Unfortunately, some champions of our hypersensitive, feel-good culture, and our own typical polite behaviour towards Christmas and other celebrations, are actually alarming immigrants.Most immigrants are quite comfortable with Christmas. They take it first as an event of culture and celebration. They are not offended by it even in religious terms. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others consider Jesus a messenger of love and peace. Muslims share Jesus as a part of their belief.

It was an important antidote to the cruelty and hatred of a few. What are your thoughts about religious extemism?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Naming the Joys

My last visit this past week was to a guy named Dave I have mentioned before. I have been visiting Dave for years now because he is a paraplegic, going from a big, strong and, by his own admission, rather brash man to being wheelchair bound. I have watched the transition with Dave from someone who had an edge, still wondering why this had transpired and whether a solution might be found, to a much more accepting and tender-hearted person who is grateful for the gifts of each day and for the people who provide him support and care.

Do you recall that I wrote about visiting Dave in hospital two Christmas mornings ago? I went early that day and read him the Christmas story and prayed with him. He had experienced weeks and weeks of problems which seemed to get worse with treatment rather than better. That day we didn't say what we were both thinking, that this might be his last Christmas.

On Friday I read the Lukan birth of Christ passage again, but I commented that this time we could concentrated on the joy, rather than the angel's assurance "don't be afraid." He agreed whole-heartedly. Two thousand eleven was a good year for him and we prayed 2012 would also hold promise as well. He didn't mind admitting that all this made him emotional.

Hey, this is the good stuff of ministry. There is plenty of disappointment and sadness in the lives of the folk we get to know and care for. But it's important to name the joys.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Descendants

If you get a chance, take in the movie called The Descendants starring George Clooney. It is set in Hawaii and is the story of a hapless husband and father (Clooney) who is dealing with the consequences of an accident which has left his wife in a coma. Dad doesn't know how to connect with his daughters, one a surly teen and the other a precocious tween but they muddle their way through the prospect of mom's impending death.

The film isn't perfect -- why is it a "given" that movie kids are lippy? Why does the annoying boyfriend tag along everywhere? And sometimes it feels as though The Descendants it is trying to do too much, but it does get to some of the deeper stuff around families including unspoken resentments, helplessness in the face of tragedy, forgiveness, listening to one's conscience. Even though it is emotional at times it isn't morose or overwhelming. We saw it a month ago and I'm still thinking about it.

Anyone else see it? What did you think?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Still Wonder-ing

So, are we all wondering why we ate so much yesterday? The party's over...well, let's hope not, if we had our priorites in order.

The New York Times newspaper published a photographic "year in review" at the end of last week. These photos were powerful, as one might expect, but so many of them portrayed violence, death, sorrow, struggle. In the midst of them all was a picture of a baby born in India on the day earlier in the Fall when the Earth's population was predicted to reach seven billion people. Of course the birth of a child involves struggle, and we could even argue violence. Yet birth can be so hopeful, filled with possibility and joy.

I love the story of Christ's birth, a story I read many times through the weeks leading up to Christmas with individuals, small groups, the congregation. It is ordinary, extraordinary, implausible, believable. It's strange, but being Christmasy means less to me each year, yet the birth of Christ still fills me with wonder.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Party Like It's 4 BC!

Merry Christmas everyone! It's off to church this morning for our 10:30 worship and who knows who will be there. It's just important to come together as Christ's people, whatever the numbers.

Every year Ruth and I hem and haw about giving each other gifts, as we attempt to keep the commercialization of Christmas at bay. We feel so blessed and there really isn't much that we can't just go and get for ourselves if we consider it a priority. We tend to have a year where we give to charitable causes instead, then return to gift-giving for each other.

There was a good editorial in the Christmas-ish issue of the Christian Century reminding us about the origins of Christmas based in the Roman blow-out soltice party called Saturnalia. Christians celebrated the birth of Christ under the cover of these celebrations so they wouldn't be noticed, not because this was the actual time of year when Jesus was born. The editorial writer draws on the work of Donald Heinz.

Nobody was as hard on Christmas as the Puritans, notes Heinz. "They argued that December 25 was not biblical but heathen, that Jesus would have disapproved of his birthday celebrations, and that Christmas was just an excuse for . . . gross behavior, social upheaval, and drunkenness, no doubt aided by the lull in agricultural life." The Puritans ordered shops to stay open, insisted that work go on as usual and banned holiday cakes and candles. They also managed to have Christmas declared illegal by the Massachusetts legislature from 1659 to 1681. Heinz reports that the U.S. Congress even remained in session on Christmas Day from 1789 to 1851.
The Puritans did a lot of good things, but banning Christmas because of eating, drinking and celebrating, not to mention pagan customs like kissing under the mistletoe, was not one of their more admirable ideas.
After all, incarnation means that this world is God's creation and that God loved it so much that God came here to be with us. The story could not be more this-worldly: pregnant, unwed teenager, perplexed fiancé, arduous journey, inn full of raucous guests, barn full of animals, labor, pain, blood, birth and shepherds.
It could not be more human or more earthy, and that is the point. Incarnation means that God is with us in this world, the sacred in the secular, the holy in the profane. It is this world that God entered on that first Christmas and enters again and again.

So folks, party like it's 4 BC (estimated year of Jesus' birth) and lovingly embrace the contradictions of this season and this day.

Thank you for reading so faithfully.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The I-lights of the Season

I am always pleasantly surprised at the cards and messages of Christmas, not to mention a little guilty at times. We have received notes from folk on every pastoral charge served through the years, including one from a friend who is now in midlife, has a family, and is a United Church minister. She was in our youth group in our early days in Newfoundland --actually a tween! The years do fly by.

Another was from a woman I met at the beginning of my ministry in Sudbury. When I first saw her she tearfully told me she had just received a bleak medical diagnosis and the estimate of two to five years to live. That was twenty three years ago.

I also heard from a couple of seminary classmates from days of yore, including long-time friend, photographer, poet, Norm Edson. He wrote this poem earlier this month. It is I-catching, and he has given me permission to share it with you.


if, tomorrow the Man from Nazareth

were to come a Second Time

would I even notice?

would my iPod, iPhone, iPad lights

reflecting my I back to me

blind me to his I-giving light?

would my I's be so dazzled

as to not recognize

his We-- his Us--

his One for the Good of All?

A Merry, Christ-filled Christmas to you all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Poinsettia Alert

Saints preserve us! Oh, wait a minute, too religious. This from Sojourners Magazine:

Forget about that creche on the town green or the menorah outside the public library that the nice folks from Lubavitch Chabad will light for the first time tonight. Now the Special Ops Humbug Unit of the War on Christmas has come for ... our flowers. Well, our shrubbery, technically.Earlier this month, the principal of a grade school in Stockton, Calif., notified his faculty by memo that, in light of multicultural, pluralistic makeup of the community, they were not allowed to decorate their classrooms with any items that might be too religious-specific — including poinsettias.

It used to be that we were concerned that our pets would get sick chewing on poinsettia leaves. Now we have to be concerned that children will be converted to Christianity just by looking at them.
The same memo banned images of Santa Claus as well, also for religious reasons. I have to laugh because some fundamentalist churches are down on Santa, convinced that the jolly old soul has hijacked the real meaning of Christmas. Can we get our story straight here!

This is getting goofy. I don't know whether you noticed that President Obama gave a shout-out to the Christian aspect of Christmas this year while carefully noting the importance of religious freedom and recognition of other traditions.

So whatever you do, keep those poinsettias carefully hidden.

Is anyone else out there getting exasperated?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Touch Hands

A couple of days ago I got a brief email from son Isaac who is planning his first Christmas Eve service as an ordained minister. His congregation is in Quebec's picture postcard Eastern Townships, not far from the Vermont border. The message read "Hi Dad, Do you have a copy of the touch hands blessing that I could use?"

It refers to a reading I have used throughout my ministry as an inheritance from my father, also a United Church minister. My dad was a singularly unsentimental guy except for Christmas Eve. He had a collection of readings he used every year but it was this one which stuck with me, and I have incorporated it in services for lo these three decades. It sounds as though Ike plans to use it as well. Perhaps he will translate all or part of it into French for his francophone members.

In every congregation I have served folk have asked me for copies and come to expect that I will use it. It is both corny and meaningful, at least from my perspective.

TOUCH HANDS -- anonymous
Ah friends, dear friends
as years grow on
and heads get grey
how fast the guests do go.
Touch hands.
Touch hands with those that stay.
strong hands to weak
old hands to young
around the Christmas board.
Touch hands.
The false forget
the foe forgive.
for every guest will go
and every fire burn low
and empty cabin stand.
for who may say that Christmas Day
may never come
to host or guest again.
Touch hands.

Thoughts about Christmas worship traditions?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

This past week young Stuart caught my attention as he was leaving for Sunday School: "boy, you sure have a lot of candles!" he offered. True. We lighted four Advent Candles along with our weekly Christ candle.

I'm big on candles and on Christmas Eve we will fire up the two candelabra and the Christ candle and hand out a candle to everyone who comes to our second service as well. There is something warm and alive about an open flame. At this time of the year so close to the winter solstice we need all the reminders of Christ's light with us we can muster.

And even though we are not Jewish and Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, bring on the menorah. We have one in our house to acknowledge the miracle of the tiny amount of oil which somehow lasted for eight days when the temple of Jerusalem was recaptured and the menorah rekindled. As with most of them today our menorah has candles rather than oil but the meaning is the same.

As you can see above, some folk get really creative with their menorahs, and who can forget Adam Sandler's infamous Hanukkah Song.
Happy Hanukkah to all of you and prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Will any of you give a nod to Hanukkah this season? Any other holy pyromaniacs out there?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Not So Silent Night

On Sunday evening our youth worker Laura and pastoral care worker Beth were a dynamic duo, taking a gang of fourteen tweens and teens to Wilmot Creek, the seniors' community, to sing carols. Beth contacts some of our members who live there and then the Carol Squad zips around to serenade them with songs of the season. Laura's dad, Bill, lives there and hosts the kids for food, glorious food. Parents are great at providing transportation.

The residents love the caroling and are very welcoming. Well, they did end up at one wrong address and watched as the concerned resident stood inside pressing her key fob to lock her car!

The young people love it as well, and see it as a gift to their elders. One of the teens attends St. Paul's but lives out of the community. Her wonderfully committed grandparents drove her home afterward and she commented that her church friends are her best friends and that they are more like family. The grandmother commented to me that it makes the chauffeuring worthwhile to hear her enthusiasm about her faith family.

Any thoughts about this event from participants? Are you glad this is happening out of St. Paul's? What a question!

Many thanks to Laura and Beth for making this happen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Brightest Hour

We watched the television promo for the latest blood, gore and mayhem movie coming our way, a film called The Darkest Hour. It looks awful, as so many of these action pictures do, but we both felt queasy when the ad finished with "Opening Christmas Day!" What the... may the peace of Armegeddon be with you!

I get it that there are other religions than Christianity in this country and that a growing number of people are post-Christian whatever their religious heritage might be, so Christmas ain't what it used to be. But for the love of God --literally -- is this what we have come to? And this year Christmas is on a Sunday to boot.

We deep-sixed the sabbath years ago so we could grab a few groceries and extend the possibilities for acquiring stuff, stuff, stuff. Now we are desecrating a day when folk could actually connect with loved ones and maybe even worship the Baby Jesus.

Yesterday someone kindly expressed his concern that I will be required to work on Christmas morning. Actually, many years I have been at the hospital early on Christmas day to visit parishoners because it felt like the right thing to do, not because it was required of me. This year I will consider our Christmas morning worship experience to be "the brightest hour' because the Christian community has chosen December 25th as the day to celebrate God-with-us.

Have we made a religion out of consumer choice? Anyone else unsettled by the bizarre drift of our culture?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Song of Mary

"Magnificat" by Sister Mary Grace Thul, a Dominican nun in New Castle, Delaware.

And Mary said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

This is the last Sunday of Advent and we have two choices for a gospel passage, both from the first chapter of Luke. I decided on the Annunciation reading, the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she was pregnant. It could have been the Magnificat or Song of Mary, shown above. This is such a powerful declaration of a new world order, the promise of God's reign for the meek and lowly rather than the rich and powerful.

I thought of this reading when I heard that Time Magazine's Person of the Year is in fact all the "lowly" people who took to the streets in various and sundry ways in 2011 to declare that true might comes through the passion of the common folk. In most cases these protests and calls for change were non-violent on the part of the participants.

Let's pray that in 2012 the often courageous commitment of these people will be brought to fruition.


Saturday, December 17, 2011


We woke up yesterday to the news that renowned writer and celebrity atheist, Christopher Hitchens, died overnight having succumbed to cancer. Hitchens was the intellectual leading light of the so-called new atheists, a rather belligerent and vocal bunch who certainly have no qualms about declaring religion in all its forms a menace to the planet.

Some of you will recall that Hitchens and former British PM Tony Blair debated in Toronto and by all accounts Hitchens won handily. At one point in that exchange Hitchens acknowledged the importance of the numinous and transcendent, the best of experiences when moved by music and art. Of course he contrasts this with the superstition of religions, assuming for some reason that transcendence cannot occur in religion.

I read a reflection by an evangelical theologian who debated Hitchens on several occasions. As you might imagine Hitchens showed no quarter in battle. However, the theologian says that Hitchens was a delightful dinner companion and never said a critical or unkind word to him outside the public exchange.

There are folk who are no doubt sure that Hitchens is now in hell. Wouldn't it be lovely if he is actually trying to comprehend being in heaven?


Friday, December 16, 2011

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

I won't go "Trudeau" on you, but I will issue a grumpy alert. Call me crazy, but I don't appreciate being lied to. I really get annoyed when it is my government with their pants on fire. At the risk of appearing partisan, I'm tired of the lies of our federal government. It began, for me, with our local member of parliament, Bev Oda, who did not tell the truth about cutting funding to a highly respected inter-church agency called Kairos.

Then there was Peter McKay and the Newfoundland fishing trip where he told a whopper about a chopper called in for his convenience. The first pastoral charge I served was right there and I can tell you he didn't need a helicopter at his beck and call, but it was the big fib about what was going on which bugs me.

Now we hear that the Conservatives were deliberately spreading lies about liberal MP Irwin Cotler's retirement. While this has been described as "reprehensible" by the Speaker of the House, there have been no consequences. But of course why would there be? The previous incidents went unpunished as well.

I can remember when politicians who lied were required to fall on their swords for their sins. They weren't exactly forthcoming, but in the end the public reminded them that there is a difference between right and wrong, even for those in the political realm.
I don't care whether it is Green's, the Liberals, NDP, Conservatives. Tell the truth or accept the outcome!
Anyone else share my disgust? Are you wondering how I could be so naive? Just a grim sign of the times?

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I have been pondering dementia of late, that spectrum of illnesses including Alzheimer's which robs people of memory and eventually the fundamental skills to stay alive. To describe someone as "demented" seems harsh, even cruel, along the lines of "addled" yet we use the term dementia regularly. This is the season for me to visit many of our elders and a considerable number of them have been diagnosed with dementia.

The other afternoon I saw a woman who is in decline. I asked her about reading because everytime I visit she has a book in hand. She admitted that she just doesn't read the same way she did. When I commented that she had been in this particular nursing home for several years now she told me quite firmly that it was only a year and she likes if very much. There was no point in arguing about the time line.

Several other persons I have seen recently were having a good day, clear of the anxiety and intense confusion which often plagues them. Sometimes this is the most we can hope for. I take my bible with me and read the Christmas story from Luke, which is so familiar to most of them. Then I pray. I am often struck by their attentiveness, as though the storm clouds have scudded away for a holy moment and the sun has emerged. I suppose it is the Son. On occasion someone will speak in the midst of the reading offering a commentary or a recollection, as though they are entering into the narrative or reliving their past. I find I am often quite tired after a number of these visits because I am subtlely required to work harder than in other visits.

I suppose a lot of us are at least mildly fearful of becoming demented. We can't find our keys or blank on a familiar name and we wonder if this is the beginning of the end when in fact we just need a decent night's sleep. Surely we hope and pray that those in our circle will continue to love us no matter what road our complex brains take us down.

Do you support someone with dementia? Does it scare you enough that you shie away from those who are suffering from it? I wonder whether we will ever develop a mature practical theology of dementia rather than muddling along as best we can. All I know for sure is that God loves them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hot Air

The Durban meeting on Climate Change has come to a rather discouraging but predictable conclusion. Canada chose to make encouraging noises while failing to offer anything of substance. In yesterday's Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente offers her assessment that these conferences are more about politics and power than commitment to addressing the problems. It's hard to argue otherwise. All that seems to be concrete is Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord. Kyoto never had much teeth in this country but now we have nothing but hot air, so to speak. I notice that while international news websites carry very little about Canada, opting out of Kyoto has garnered a lot of attention. Great --notoriety.

Here is the United Church press release on Moderator Tindal's involvement:

As the United Nations climate change conference (COP17) draws to a close in Durban, South Africa, The United Church of Canada's Moderator, Mardi Tindal, writes in her daily blog that "the longing to see more leadership than politics runs deep here..."
Tindal is attending the COP17 conference as part of an international delegation of church leaders representing the World Council of Churches.

She writes, "At a religious leaders' press conference this morning a journalist asked me about what is standing in the way of moral leadership from Canada. I said that we as Canadians must convince our minister and our other political leaders that we will follow them when they do the right things; that the political cost of giving climate change leadership is not as great as they might fear."
Tindal and fellow Canadian church leader the Rev. Willard Metzger, General Secretary of the Mennonite Church Canada, met with Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent yesterday to discuss their views on Canada's role in addressing the problem of global climate change.
She writes that there was some reassurance in yesterday's meeting. "The minister understands and accepts the science of climate change and the magnitude of the problem. He spoke of 'real urgency' and 'a disaster in the making.'" She adds, however, that she left yesterday's meeting feeling no more assured about Canada's willingness to give leadership.

"When asked about the moral and social justice frame within which Canada's position can be understood, the minister's answers were political: 'We're proud of our resources, our regulations, and our shared prosperity.' He spoke of how Canada is 'fulfilling our obligations.' There are many who have good reason to take issue with him on this point," writes Tindal.
Tindal concludes her blog by saying that there is still reason for hope and need for prayer.

"This [South Africa] is the land of miracles where leaders have risen in the confidence that when they do the right things the people will follow. South Africa did not achieve what it has with leaders who fearfully calculated political costs. It is up to us as citizens to make it clear that we will support the moral leadership for which we long." To read the full text of Tindal's blog, go to

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Peace Warriors

In the weekend the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three remarkable women. This awarding of the prize to three people whose names we don't recognize may be unusual but when we hear their stories it makes a lot more sense that giving it to President Obama for reasons which escaped me at the time and even more so since he has played up his "kill the bad guys" image.

One of the three is a Liberian woman, Leymah Gbowee. Her story is remarkable. Raised in a Christian family she was traumatized by the civil war in her country, seeing loved ones murdered. During a decade as a refugee her faith evaporated.

She eventually went back to the church but had little respect for the male leaders who degraded women. She was inspired by peace activists including Martin Luther King and Gandhi, whose works she read. In 2002 she had a dream in which she was commanded "gather the women to pray for peace." She did, bringing together twenty women to pray once a week. This was the beginning of what came to be called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Now there are thousands of women, Muslims and Christians, rural and urban, educated and uneducated.

The civil war continued to grip the country but Gbowee and her followers pressed for peace with great courage. At one point security officers moved in to arrest Gbowee and others and they responed by stripping off their clothes, which confounded the men who grew up in a culture where it is a curse to see a naked married woman. The story is told in what is apparently a moving documentary called Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

This was the beginning of a fragile peace and the eventual election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia -- the first woman president of an African country. Sirleaf, Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen were awarded the Peace Prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".

Were you aware of the story of these women? Did you notice that this peace award has not received the attention of those in previous years? Inspiring?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Islam and White Ribbons

Over the weekend many GTA mosques promoted a White Ribbon campaign, speaking out against domestic violence. This initiative seems to be tied to the horrific situation of the alleged highly dishonourable "honour killings" by a father and mother and brother perpetrated against three daughters and a second wife.

I listened twice to an articulate young imam in Toronto who decries domestic violence for any reason. When asked about the Quran's mention of wife-beating for insubordination he pointed out that the bible has disturbing passages as well. He argued that religions can and should change to apply their broader principles as times change. I couldn't agree more.

Sunday morning I listened to an interview with two women working for Interval House, the first shelter for women and children in Canada. Although it was the first, it is less than forty years old. And when it opened one newspaper article described it as an effort by radical feminists to support "runaway wives." So our supposedly progressive society isn't exactly light years ahead of other cultural backgrounds.

Did you hear about the White Ribbon initiative? What are your thoughts?

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I was in the back row of the sanctuary for most of worship this morning and it was a great vantage point on a full church. It was the annual White Gift service, the one where folks bring gifts that aren't white. In another day gifts were wrapped in white tissue. Now we don't bother. This year the recipient agencies were Bethesda House and the Salvation Army.

Our young people and those who prepared them did a great job again this year. The service was based on what is billed as Canada's first Christmas carol, the Huron Carol. It was informative and lovely and timely given that our attention has been drawn to First Nations communities in the North.

Our children and youth are confident, gifted young people who flourish in our multi-generational setting. We had the youngest kids who are pre-schoolers right through to the older teens in grade twelve taking part. I could tell that the entire congregation was proud of them. Mind you, Joseph seemed a little perturbed that his mother was snapping photos of him.

When I was finally was given a chance to get a word in near the conclusion of worship I praised the children, the leaders and the congregation. I'm glad that we are a four-generation church family and I hope everyone else is as well.

Comments on the service?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saint Tim

Along with this whole Christmas thingy there is the other American religion, NFL football. Even if you avoid watching football for the most part, the devotion and reverence of fans is something to behold. The television production values for the NFL are arguably the most sophisticated of any program. It's only a matter of time before we see a football in a manger.

Now, football is permitted as a quasi-religion, but football players may be criticized for being too religious. Take Tim Tebow, the rookie quarterback for the resurgent Denver Broncos. Tebow is the best worst QB this year, a guy who just doesn't throw like a big-leaguer, and just has an ugly style. But he has scrambled and scratched and inspired his team to the top of the division after assuming the pivot role.

Tebow is also an evangelical Christian -- well, a fundamentalist Christian. He has publicly spoken for Focus on the Family, an organization I have no time for, and is generally extremely conservative in his religious expression. He has probably undergone more analysis for his religious convictions than for his style of play, although he has been scorned for both. Why, there is Tim charicatured as Jesus in the image above.

Tebow has also received some unlikely support. Comedian Bill Cosby, of all people, has spoken in his defense. I do wonder why some feel Tebow should keep his trap shut. I don't agree with his perspective on Christianity, but does that mean he should be silenced or mocked? And I see that many mainline churches, such as ours, are disappearing like the Cheshire Cat. We decided a few decades ago that we would eliminate dirty words such as evangelism from our vocabulary and now we are reaping what we sowed. We aren't exactly shining examples of "keeping the faith."

Are celebrities free to share their ideas and convictions, or should they "shut up and play?" What is reasonable witness on the part of any individual in a pluralistic society? Do you wonder how a guy who passes for about a hundred yards per game manages to keep on winning?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Simple Goodness

This evening we will begin our second year with The Gathering Place meal at St. Paul's. This is a Bowmanville ministerial initiative and it wouldn't happen without the hard work of volunteers from a number of congregations, including ours, who make the meal and set tables and run the dishwasher.

Just the same, I will be a "homer" and express my appreciation of a number of our folk this week. A St. Paul's couple approached me recently about providing a Christmas gift for every person who attends today. They showed up with three big crates of chocolates, one hundred and forty gifts for our guests. I had a chat with Santa Claus yesterday (the Bowmanville Santa Claus Parade Santa worships with us) and he will be here to hand out the gifts. And yesterday someone came to my study door saying that her extended family makes a gift to a worthy cause each Christmas so The Gathering Place would be the recipient this year.

Good hearted people who don't ask for recognition -- it's downright Christian.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Two or Three, Gathered Together

Yesterday we finished our study series based on the DVD The Power of Forgiveness. I obviously have trouble with math because the three-week series took four weeks to complete. This was actually a reflection of the need to stretch out our viewing and discussion because of the depth of the material and the subject itself.

We had two sessions each week, one in the morning and one in the evening. A total of 31 people came to at least one session, although there were never more than 25 on any week. Some folk came to a morning session one week and evening the next. This is a reminder of the complexity of our schedules in this era and I'm grateful that people come as part of the juggling act. I do find that planning becomes more of a challenge -- even knowing whether to go ahead with groups some times. There is a lot of preparation involved even when using a video resource.

In the end it is gratitude I feel once again. There is a dynamic to group discussion which transcends musing on one's own. I watched portions of the DVD several times before our sessions and still saw more and learned more as a result of our discussions. I also experienced a depth of emotion in watching the fascinating stories of forgiveness by doing so with others.

Here is plenty of advance notice: we decided that we would continue our forgiveness discussion during Lent 2012 using another worthwhile DVD Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate Join us!

Any thoughts about being in discussion about issues of faith with others? Are you reluctant to go to a study group because of the unknown? Any comments about The Power of Forgiveness specifically?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Faith in Durban

I mentioned last week that our United Church moderator Mardi Tindal is in Durban, South Africa, as part of the religious contingent at COP17, the international conference on climate change. As many of you well know, Canada is the country which seems to come under the greatest fire for its lousy record on creating greenhouse gases. The Alberta oil sands have given us a tarry black eye internationally and the current federal government is at least honest in saying that it has no intention in changing its policies soon. Environment minister Peter Kent is a master of evasion but we get the picture that Canada will not be a leader in this regard.

Check out Moderator Tindal's latest blog entry. Click on this link, then on the header for her blog entry. She points out that African nations are calling on Canadians to be courageous for the sake of their continent which is experiencing disastrous effects from climate change. Protesters took to the streets, as seen above.

I find that my blogs on environmental issues get limited response (maybe we feel a bit overwhelmed), but I really would like to hear from you. What do you think folks?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

An End to Domestic Violence

As the years go by I wonder whether I should acknowledge the Montreal Massacre, the senseless murder of fourteen bright young women at the Ecole Polytechnique by a young man who had no provocation for his crime. After all, this terrible act occurred twenty two years ago.

I wrestle with whether I should revisit this anniversary, then I listen to my wife, Ruth, tell me the dark stories of domestic abuse which come out of her work as an outreach counsellor for the Bethesda House shelter in Bowmanville. She is careful not to reveal identities but some of the details are deeply disturbing.

Not long ago columnist Margaret Wente wrote a newspaper piece pointing out that the number of violent acts against women and rapes in this country have declined steadily over the past couple of decades, which is true. Training for police, different laws, and the option of shelters as a safe place have all worked to a degree. But Wente wrote from the position of a privileged, upper middle class person who just doesn't get it that this is so much more than statistics. Many of the clients of shelter counsellors have been psychologically abused and threatened with violence without a hand being raised to them. The scars are not visible, and these situations don't show up in violence statistics, but they are violent and destructive just the same.

To be fair, it isn't just women who are the subject of violence. I have talked with two men recently who are struggling with the relentless verbal abuse heaped on them by partners who become different people under the influence of alcohol. But the preponderance of reported incidents are abuse by men against women and children.

I should add that in these tough economic times governments at the provincial and federal levels are reluctant to fund shelters and provide adequate staff. The expectation for direct client service hours has more than doubled in the past four years in work that takes a huge emotional toll.

This Sunday some of our White Gifts will go to Bethesda House and I know the shelter is very grateful. I hope our children have some understanding of why Bethesda House is important in our community?

Thoughts and comments?

Monday, December 05, 2011

A Christmas Carol

Yesterday three choirs totalling eighty members, as well as two actors/readers, presented Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at St. Paul's. TThey were from the Westben theatre and the readers did an excellent job, while the choirs accented the text with traditional carols and music written for this classic. The childrens' choirs were impressive -- actually everyone was. We were wondering whether is was going to be a meagre audience but in the end somewhere between 160 and 170 people blew in from a dark and stormy night to enjoy the presentation.

As I listened for the umpteenth time to a variation of A Christmas Carol I was struck once more by the strong message of social justice in the story, the concern for the poor and sick in Victorian England. Of course there are multiple references to the spirit of Christmas and even a quote from one of the gospels about Jesus tenderness toward children. There is an invitation to generosity and an attitude of abundance which are quite heartwarming.

Some of you were present. Any thoughts about the presentation and the message? What about those of you who know the story from other presentations?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Christ Be Our Light

The magificent Salisbury Cathedral in Britain begins the season of Advent with an evening service which begins in total darkness. The choirs process in with candles and eventually 1300 candles are lighted as the source of illumination for worship. I don't know that I would put attending this service on my Bucket List, but I would love to experience it.

A group of colleagues chatted about Advent recently, the challenge of moving toward Christmas with patience rather than being goosed along by the commercialization of the season. There is also the pastoral responsibility of supporting those who are struggling with this time of year because of the physical darkness of our Northern Hemisphere home and the emotional darkness of events which rob them of "good cheer." Brightly lit malls and "all Christmas music, all the time" just don't do it for a lot of people.

The refrain of Bernadette Farrell's song Christ Be Our Light is meaningful at this time of year.

Christ, be our light!

Shine in our hearts.

Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light!

Shine in your church gathered today.

Do you look forward to the passing of the solstice and the lengthening of days? Does forced jollity get you down? What and who lights your way through Advent toward Christmas?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Our Elders

Our Pastoral Care worker and general "force of nature," Beth, created a list of all the people who we might consider shut-ins recently. The list included those who live in seniors' residences and nursing homes, as well as those who are seldom able to get out and about. It was so long I did a count and there were over fifty names. So we have a small congregation of people who don't actually come to worship for the most part but still feel very connected to St. Paul's and to their faith.

We do our best to provide spiritual support for this gang but it is a growing challenge as the congregation ages. I often do battle with the guilt of not keeping up. Thank God for Beth! Not only is she a caring visitor, she has done an exceptional job of connecting pastoral visitors with these individuals so they aren't "out of sight, out of mind."

I had lunch this week with one of my evangelical colleagues who has started a new congregation in Bowmanville in the past five years. He is a very likable guy and we chatted about the similarities and differences in our ministries. I mentioned this group of seniors and he replied that he doesn't have one person in this category. No one.

I believe that we must honour this group of people who are, after all, more than a tenth of our congregation, even though we don't see them. I feel that as a society we should respect our elders and even more so in the church. Once again I have used the image created by artist Gary Crawford for the New Creed booklet and the phrase "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone."

What are your thoughts?

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Final Frontier

Recently an Oshawa Presbytery committee I chair completed its business earlier than usual so the assemble clergy and laypeople chatted for a few minutes after adjournment. Somehow we got on to "end of life" issues and I mentioned the seminars we held in October on End of Life Issues and Funeral Planning. I have now shared the outline and information we used with several colleagues. One of those colleagues asked if we addressed assisted suicide and euthanasia, which we didn't. While I am confident that Dr. Debra Jefferson could have spoken about this thoughtfully we realized that this was an aspect of the discussion which could easily be an evening or two in itself.

This past week the Globe and Mail newspaper has offered a worthwhile series of articles on end of life issues, including assisted suicide.

Have any of you followed these articles? Have you given much thought to euthanasia -- being a frustrated parent doesn't count! Should this be the next frontier for discussion at St. Paul's?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Keep the Promise

This is World Aids Day and I can't help but reflect on my experience with individuals living with HIV and AIDS. It occurs to me that I haven't actually been in conversation with someone living with AIDS in more than a dozen years, since my time in Sudbury. In the late eighties, early on during my time there, I was invited to a meeting of the AIDS Committee of Sudbury and ended up as a member. As clueless as I was, I found myself visiting HIV/AIDS patients in hospital and conducting funerals and memorial services for young men who succumbed to the disease.

At that time there were no drug cocktails to prolong life and contracting AIDS was a death sentence carried out fairly quickly. I met family members who were in total denial in some cases, angry in other. Some, usually mothers, continued to love and provide parental support and care, even when they didn't understand and accept. I admired them and learned alongside them.

Today there is much better AIDS education and while it is still a terrible disease, in North America many live well for years thanks to medication. One of the high profile individuals living with HIV is Magic Johnston, former NBA star, who announced his diagnosis and retirement twenty years ago in November.

In other parts of the world AIDS is still a killer because of poverty and the lack of drugs. We aren't "there yet" by any stretch.

Any thoughts about your own journey of understanding through the years? Have you known people who died of AIDS or live with HIV now? Parents, have you talked with your children about AIDS?