Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When Prayer is a Crime

There is hardly ever a time when there is nothing to say through this blog, but often moments when it is hard to choose the subject. I can end up feeling paralyzed by the emerging realities of our world and the faith component of those circumstances. The Haj to Mecca came and went over the weekend with 3.5 million pilgrims making this extraordinary spiritual commitment. The aftermath of Sandy is a huge story.

So what do I choose for today? A praying police chief. There is a new police chief in Winnipeg, a city with lots of inner city crime, including gangs. The chief, Devon Clunis is a 25 year veteran of the force but he immediately put his foot in it, or maybe is was his knees. In an interview with Christian Week magazine he encouraged Winnipeggers of all faiths can pray for the reduction of crime and safety of the city. "What would happen if we all just truly -- I'm talking about all religious stripes here -- started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?"

There was an immediate reaction to this terrible thought-- imagine invoking the Creator's intervention in crime! An ethicist at the University of Manitoba weighed in, claiming that "no one chose him to be police of our souls." Pulleeze. A low-key, non-sectarian encouragement to pray for the wellbeing of the city creates a stir. Clunis could probably have advocated locking up all the Bad Guys and throwing away the key with less reaction.

Well, you know my feelings. What do you think? Should Clunis have kept his mouth shut on this one, or is okay to acknowledge one's personal convictions? Why have we become so militant about keeping any expression of faith and religion out of the public square?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gloria's Choice

A couple of months the United Church Observer published an article called Gloria's Choice. It was an interview with Gloria Taylor who was the cheerful, thoughtful, personal face of the assisted suicide court decision in British Columbia. Gloria was a member of a United Church congregation so it was certainly appropriate that she had the conversation with the Observer.

Earlier in October CBC's the fifth estate did a feature on Gloria. What a feisty, life-loving woman she way. Neither of these interviews could have anticipated Gloria's rather sudden death of natural causes. The right to die on her own terms which she won through the legal system wasn't exercised.

The majority of United Church members support that right to "die with dignity" for those who are terminally ill. which is not surprising in some respects. As many of you will know, I am a dissenting voice and always have been. It's not that I want to see anyone suffer, and I have prayed in many circumstances for a quick death for those who had no chance of returning to health. There are worse things than death, and I have a resurrection hope. I have counselled families not to go to extraordinary lengths to prolong the life of a loved one, and I have been well aware that physicians have brought about the earlier demise of some parishioners through medication without terminating life.

At the same time I figure that our current laws are flexible enough that we don't need to change them. And I have the feeling that the majority of physicians don't want to be put into the position of playing God it these emotionally fraught circumstances. I would like to think that I'm not just a stubborn adherent to a "sanctity of life" ethic that doesn't allow for compassion. I do feel that we have to be incredibly cautious in this regard for the protection of the vulnerable from the unscrupulous. I have seen first hand that not all families are compassionate or have their loved ones' best interests at heart.

Sometimes people will say that we euthanize pets when they are suffering, so why do we prolong the lives of humans who are in pain? Well, our loved ones are not pets, and the dynamics of our human relationships are different. I wish people would give the same energy and attention to effective palliative care in our health system that they do to assisted suicide. Here are a couple of other recent articles which might interest you.

Please feel free to disagree with me on this one! Have you thought this through thoroughly? Have you spoken with loved ones about your own wishes? Have you had the conversation with your doctor? Your pastor or priest?

Are you ready for the Frankenstorm? Take a look at my Groundling blog.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lord, Have Mercy

The gospel reading for today is about a blind beggar named Bartimaeus who implores Jesus to show him mercy and heal him. I'm not preaching because we have an anniversary speaker, David Armour, but we looked at the passage in bible study this past Wednesday.

In his book Speaking Christian Marcus Borg reminds us that we often imagine the word "mercy" in terms of someone cowering before another who is more powerful, or whom we have harmed, therefore seeking forgiveness. The image of a powerful and offended God often comes into the Christian equation of forgiveness, at least in some traditions.

Borg invites us to consider mercy in terms of compassion, which he considers a more accurate interpretation. The beggar Bartimaeus has not wronged Jesus. He seeks compassion, and Jesus extends it, and Bart joins the way, which is The Way.

I am also musing on mercy as something we actively offer, as well as what we receive. One of the pleasures of having adult children is that they share their likes and dislikes. It happens this week that our younger daughter, Emily, encouraged us to listen to the song Mercy by the Dave Matthew's Band. We liked it enough to download it. Here are the lyrics and a Youtube link.

 Don't give up
I know you can see
All the world and the mess that were making
Can't give up
And hope God will intercede
Come on back
Imagine that we could get it together
Stand up for what we need to be
Cause crime won't save our feet or hungry child
Can't lay down and hope no miracles change things
So lift up your eyes
Lift up your heart

Singing mercy will we overcome this
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I try to give you what you need

Me and you and you and you
Just want to be free yeah
But you see all the world is just as we've made it
And until we got a new world
Got to say that love is not a whisper or a weakness
No love is strong
So we got to get together yeah
Gotta get gotta get gotta get
Til there is no reason
To fight

Mercy will we overcome this
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I try to give you what you need

Mercy will we overcome this
Oh we come to far to turn it around
Oh and asked too much to be a little bit stronger
But I want to give you what you need

Mercy what will become of us
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I try to give you what you need.

This is another longer-than-usual blog! Any thoughts on mercy: mercy received, mercy offered, God's mercy?

Solar panels on St. Paul's? Check it out.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


As I drove home earlier this week I listened to CBC radio interview with a remarkable young man named John Franklin Stephens. Frank, as he likes to be called, has Down Syndrome and he had responded to a slur by the despicable American social commentator Ann Coulter, who had tweeted that President Obama is "retarded." How low can this woman go? Frank was  thoroughly delightful in the interview and demonstrated great dignity in his response. He read the letter he sent Ms. Coulter and it moved me.

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult? I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.
Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV. I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.

Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.
No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.

Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.
A friend you haven’t made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger
Special Olympics Virginia

As people of the Christ who was able to see everyone as worthy of God's love and treated them with dignity, we can applaud Frank Stephen's exceptional witness.

Had you heard about this incident? Read the letter?

Solar panels on St. Paul's? Check it out.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Everyday Saints

On Sunday my wife Ruth taught the Grades 4,5,6 Sunday School Class, a group of eight or nine kids. They spent time talking about the "everyday saints" of our St. Paul's congregation. There are a lot of worthy candidates but we chatted and Ruth settled on half a dozen, including another Ruth. Ruth Girardi worked in the kitchen forever and she was captain of the good ship St. Paul's in that regard. Under her direction thousands of meals were prepared for every imaginable occasion.

Ruth would get up in the wee hours of the morning to put turkeys in the oven at the church. She set another table at the Lunch Out for Seniors so that a gang from Clarington Connections could attend.

After her husband Dan died she kept going despite her deep loss. And even when she went down in the line of duty one day, a signal of health problems, she made a couple of comebacks. Eventually, though, she hung up her apron for a well-deserved rest. She has proved irreplaceable.

The inscription written on the card one girl made for Ruth says:

Thank you Mrs. Girardi
for the mouths you've fed,
the meals you've made,
and the many memories
smiles and kindness
you've shown.

from Sammy

That about sums it up, don't you think?

How about this everyday saints project? Something to which we can aspire, or does sainthood just happen?

Solar panels on St. Paul's? Check it out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thank You!

Yesterday the number of "pageviews" (a Blogger term) for this Lion Lamb blog exceeded 300, only the second time this has occurred. I have to think that the title of Louise Penny's novel The Beautiful Mystery embedded in the header helped my cause, but I'll take what I can get! I now get anywhere between 250 and 275 looks on weekdays. At my Groundling blog yesterday there were a modest 40+ views, but this is twice what I experienced during the first month.

The stats page tells me that there were approximately 7,200 views in the past month which startles me when I extrapolate through a year. Of course this is all thanks to you, both regular and casual readers. I want to let you know how much I appreciate your connection with these blogs, whether you are one of the thoughtful commenters or part of the silent majority. I love reading the comments and I know lots of others do as well.

The average attendance at a United Church congregation is now between 50 and 60, although, thankfully, St. Paul's is several times that. Just the same, the daily "congregation" for this blog exceeds our attendance on a Sunday morning. Obviously a blog does not replace gathering for worship, but I hope it does connect us.

I have mentioned that I spend about 20 minutes creating each entry, not counting the time I read, listen, ruminate, and muse in preparation. I am glad to have a forum to reflect Christianly (not a word) on what is going on around me in this fast-paced world. I do my best to be varied in content, everything from congregational stories, to trends, to world events. I am closing in on 1900 blog entries between the two since I began.

I am always interested in discovering what would be helpful for you in these blogs. I thank you for the emails I get with ideas for blogs, even if I don't get to them all -- it doesn't mean that they aren't blogworthy! Thank you for graciously overlooking spelling and grammatical mistakes along the way. I am often tapping away at weird hours and with haste. And keep those comments coming.

Your thoughts on this enterprise? Oh yes -- check out my regular entry on both blogs today!

Keeping Abreast of Climate Change

I'm going to apologize up front for the header on this blog entry. Some puns are irresistible. A few weeks ago there was a huge media kerfuffle about the publication of topless photos of Kate Middleton, Prince William's bride. Well, the photos weren't topless, but apparently Kate was and some intrusive toad of a photographer snapped some shots which were subsequently published.

During the height of the media storm Kate and Williams jetted off to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific where they were warmly greeted by residents, including some topless women. It shows where our priorities are that the breasts of a royal were far more important news than the fact that the Solomon Islands are disappearing because of climate change. As sea levels rise some low-lying islands are awash and the water table of others is being compromised by saltwater. You may recall that the Prime Minister of the Solomons made an appeal at the United Nations on behalf of his beleaguered nation.

Why is it that we obsessed with celebrity but can't muster concern for the fate of whole populations, and eventually our planet? Churches and religious groups that raise these issues are often branded as misleading believers about the real issue of salvation. A candidate for the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth mocked the current president for saying that climate change is a priority. Have you noticed that President Obama has been almost silent on this issue during the campaign?

I suppose we are boobs when it comes to getting our priorities straight.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery of Music

This past Sunday we not only honoured our church musician, Doug Dewell, we carried the theme of music throughout the service. I spoke of the central place of music in our worship life and how it unites us.

It happens that I was reading and have now completed the latest Louise Penny murder mystery The Beautiful Mystery, which is set in a monastery in the wilds of Quebec. The brothers of the Gilbertines (a ficticious order) make beautiful music together, singing Gregorian chant. They create an improbably bestselling CD which allows them to repair their 400-year-old monastery but leads to murder-inducing division amongst the brothers. Enter Chief Inspector Gamache to solve the case.

I found this to be Penny's most intriguing novel and unlike some other authors, her later books are better than her earlier ones. Having spent time in monasteries and convents as a retreatant I appreciate the chanting which some find mystifying and i could imagine the daily offices of Gilbertine worship.

On Sunday I quoted John Bell's observation that we can't all speak together, but we can sing together. Music does invites us into a common voice in the way the spoken word can never do. And music can help us express every emotion and open us to praise.

I have invited your comments before on the subject of music, but I would be glad to here from you again. What does music mean to you? Would worship be worship without music? What sort of music is the "right" music for praise?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


In 1985 I served a pastoral charge with two congregations. At the smaller of the two there was a great old guy who looked like Santa Claus might if he went on a successful weight-loss program. We enjoyed chatting and I visited him in his cottage-converted-to-home on the shore of Lake Simcoe. I mention 1985 because I stopped in one day and he picked up the front section of his newspaper. "What do you think of this?" he wanted to know. He showed me the photo of Lincoln Alexander who had just been appointed Lieutenant Governor in Ontario. I was a bit puzzled but I told him I thought it was great. I then realized he didn't share my view. He was careful with his wording, but I realized this man I admired was a racist, and it was a blow.

I suppose I was young and naiive enough not to appreciate how pervasive racism can be, and what a ground-breaking moment this was. Lincoln Alexander was a person of great integrity who modelled the ability to overcome racial prejudices. Since his appointment Canada has become more racially and ethnically diverse in terms of those who serve in these symbolic roles,which reflects our changing population. Alexander always deported himself with great dignity, even when eventually confined to a wheelchair. He was never diminished.

Last week the committee of presbytery I co-chair passed a motion asking the Canadian government to appoint a First Nations Governor General next time around, an oversight or injustice which needs to be rectified. I would like to believe that Lincoln Alexander paved the way.


Take a look at the latest Groundling blog entries.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Home-Grown Saint

When we lived in Northern Ontario I would go from time to time to the Anishnabe Spiritual Retreat Centre near Espanola. There were several small retreat cabins named after First Nations spiritual examplars, including Kateri Tekakwitha, who I discovered was a Mohawk woman who lived in the 17th century. I love the Robert Lenz icon above, which shows her holding turtle island, the aboriginal symbol of the earth.

Well, as of yesterday Kateri Tekakwitha is the first aboriginal saint from North America in the Roman Catholic church. While I have my issues with aspects of canonization, I appreciate that a First Nations person who was a devout Christian is being recognized by the Roman Catholic church. She was born in the United States but spent a good part of her life in Canada and was eventurally buried at Kahnawake in Quebec.

It seems a bit bizarre that both countries are squabbling over her as their saint. Let the poor woman rest in peace. It also seems incongruous that she was canonized in a big ceremony in St. Peter's square in Rome, but perhaps that could be said of the majority of the saints whose lives were humble. Many of the folk in attendance were aboriginal pilgrims from Canada.

I was surprised to encounter her again outside St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Have any of you been aware of, or followed this story? Does it matter to you that we now have an aboriginal saint?

Have you checked out Groundling lately? Owls!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Faithful and Playful

Today the St. Paul's congregation will acknowledge thirty five years of music ministry by Doug Dewell. Thirty five years! That makes Doug...old, really old! Actually, if you know Doug you will realize that he is perpetually young at heart, and he has the wardrobe to prove it.

The family graciously offered to provide a plaque which acknowledges Doug's time with us, but also honours all those who have gone before him. I have joked that it will go next to the most important plaque with the names of all the ministers through the years, but we know that music is essential to meaningful praise and worship.

In the event you can't make out the tribute on the plaque, it describes Doug as faithful and playful, and of course we know that his sense of humour is always at the ready.

Doug is an extremely talented musician and while I appreciate his skills on Sunday morning, I have also admired his ability to lead a congregation of mourners at funerals where perhaps few really want to sing. One of the most touching examples of Doug's leadership came at the wedding of an elderly couple who were entering into a second marriage. The groom was a choir member and so Doug rallied the choristers to take part in the ceremony. What did they sing?

You've got to give a little,take a little.
And let your poor heart to break a little.
That's the story of.
That's the glory of love.

You've got to laugh a little,cry a little.
Until the clouds roll by a little.
That's the story of.
That's the glory of love.

Bride and groom grinned from ear to ear.

I suppose there has been lots of give and take through these thirty five years.

Any kind words of tribute for Doug? Remember -- kind!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vatican II

There was an interesting hour of The Agenda on TVO recently during which a number of Roman Catholic clergy and commentators reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II.

Vatican what you might ask? In the early 1960's Pope John XXIII rattled the cage of the Roman Catholic institution by convening a council which eventually made significant changes. We Protestants and others might think that a changing Catholic church is an oxymoron, but this was a genuine effort to respond to significant challenges which developed in the post-war era. This Second Vatican Council was spread over three years and was concluded by the pope's successor because of John's untimely death. Over these years the church searched its collective soul over biblical literalism, the language of the mass, the historical antagonism toward Jews, and  the possibility of nuns living beyond the cloister, just to name a few of the important areas addressed.

Pope John XXIII was not a theologian but he was an insightful, open, and arguably a Spirit-led pontiff. Historians suggest that the documents of Vatican II can't really capture the significant change of tone for the church which emanated from the council.

I can't help but feel that the most recent popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taken the Roman Catholic church several steps back rather than forward. It is ironic that Benedict will be leading the 50th anniversary celebrations, since he is the pope who has made alienating statements about Protestants, clamped down on nuns, and reinforced the hierarchical structure based on the rule of old men.

 I know, spoken like a Protestant, but I have long admired the work of many RC theologians and appreciated working with priests in different communities. It grieves me to say that I have never felt more alienated from Roman Catholicism than today.

Any comments about Vatican II -- were you even aware of the anniversary? Do any of you have RC roots? Would you like to see stronger efforts of reconciliation between our two traditions?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Coloured Pastures, Running Waters

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.

After worship this past Sunday morning we blew town and drove north and east, beyond the teeming metropolis of Sharbot Lake to the back-of-beyond. We have friends on a farm up there and we haven't seen them in nearly a year. We drove from sprinkles and showers locally into the shrouding of mist and an eventual downpour. The rain let up as we got close to our friends' place so we drove a little farther to the remote house on another vacant farm  where I holed up for part of my leave four and a half years ago. We both love the tranquility of this spot and we walked through the canopy of trees arching over a tractor trail. Even in the mist the trees were beautiful.

The next morning we walked into another spot where the Mississippi River tumbles over a series of chutes. Over time the relentless flow of water has carved fascinating potholes in the limestone which fill with coloured leaves in Autumn. In the afternoon we walked with our friends back on their land and dug up a small pine tree for the backyard of the manse.

We both have demanding, people-related work and as you may have noticed I am employed on weekends. It means that we rarely have two days in succession, let alone the three days of a long weekend. So, we crave and relish the occasions when we can both be restored, enjoy beauty, reconnect with friends. In this instance we were away for a little more than twenty four hours, but it felt like longer.

Do you have a place or places where God and surroundings restore you soul? Do you need sabbath times, tranquil times, to get recharged?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Abiding Love

I met with someone yesterday who is still mourning the loss of her mother who died nearly ten months ago. She was a loving, caring daughter who helped her mom stay in her apartment well into her eighties even though she was blind, diabetic, and had a number of other health problems. I visited her mother and she had a wonderfully positive spirit despite her woes. Eventually the daughter and another caring sibling convinced their mother that a nursing home was the best option. Sadly, she didn't last long in the new environment, for a number of reasons.

The daughter is struggling with two Big G's, grief and guilt. Even though her mother could not have stayed in her place that long without her daughter, she wonders if her determination to move her led to her demise.

I responded by saying that she could just as easily be sitting with me wracked by guilt because her mother was found dead in her apartment when she knew that she should be in a nursing home. And it might have been that her mother flourished in a setting where there was an opportunity converse with others and where she was receiving regular meals and health care. I see that improvement all the time.

There is nothing straightforward about being a caregiver. My experience is that those who mourn the deepest are often those who have done the most. The decisions about care are not straightforward and there are no guarantees. I encouraged her to grieve as long as she needs to do so, and let God's grace wash away the guilt. She really deserves better than to feel badly about what happened.

If you are a caregiver, thank you. You are an unsung hero in my estimation. I hope that you aren't lonely in your role, or feeling guilty.

Have you found yourself making this sort of tough decision for a loved one? Are you wearied by the role of caregiving? Do you wonder sometimes why life isn't clearer and fairer?

Take a look at the latest Groundling blog entry -- there will be cartoons!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More Jesus?

I really don't know anything about Amanda Todd, the British Columbia teen who took her own life recently. Of course I am aware that she has led a tortured life in years which should be a time for friendships and fun. Instead they became a dark time of physical and psychological and cyber bullying. But I don't know much about who she actually was as a person and frankly I think Amanda's family deserves some privacy.

I am also aware that the nature of her death and the video which preceded it has resulted in more talk about developing a national anti-bullying strategy and expanded programs in schools and other suggestions which may or may not work. There has been a lot said and done about bullying in recent years yet the cruelty which is enhanced by the internet seems so pervasive and persistent.

Maybe we need more Jesus. From time to time I will say to my wife, Ruth, "we need more Jesus" and she know that this is my simplistic verbal shorthand for my conviction about the loss of Christian community. Call me crazy, but church is a place where we are regularly reminded to choose to be different than our sometimes selfish nature.  I know that I need to be with others who follow the Christ of compassion and generosity, the One who saw the lonely and lost when others didn't,  and honoured their existence. I appreciate that some will say we don't need Jesus to live these values, or that we could follow some other religion or spiritual path to promote these values. That may be true, to a degree, but my personal experience is of the transformative power of Christ who calls me out of sinful self-absorption to be a "new creation." Sometimes I would like to believe that I am doing okay on my own, but in my moments of clarity I appreciate that I need lots of Jesus and his followers.

I'm just riffing away here, because I know I don't have many answers, but I'm not so sure that anyone else does either.

God, be with all the the young and not-so-young who feel they have nowhere to turn. Teach us the way of compassion and may our faith communities be places of refuge and hope in Christ's name. Give peace to the family of Amanda Todd in the midst of their pain and grief.


Read about Blood Ivory on my Groundling blog:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dreaming Dreams

You call from tomorrow, You break ancient schemes,
From the bondage of sorrow The captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, Our men clear their eyes.
With bold new decisions Your people arise.

These are words from a lovely hymn called Spirit of Gentleness and they describe the call of God to live courageously as the Christian community.

This evening a group of ten will gather at St. Paul's for the first meeting of our Visioning and Strategic Planning group in three years. It isn't that we gave up on visioning during that hiatus. St. Paul's was very involved in the Oshawa Presbytery ReVisioning project and earlier this year we addressed the Viability and Vitality Assessment Tool which helps congregations take an honest look at their weaknesses, strengths, and overall mission.

It seems that the biggest challenge for United Church congregations, as with other mainline denominations, is entropy, the steady loss of energy without much evidence of the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. And because a congregation such as ours is multi-generational we engage in a balancing act trying to honour tradition without being stuck in past patterns which cannot address our present or our future.

I look forward to working with the group coming today. A few have actually been involved since I first arrived 9+ years ago. Others are quite new to St. Paul's and even recent returnees to church. We have included women and men, grandparents and a newlywed, parents of young children through to teens. We hope that this cross-section of people won't just be "United Church earnest" but a dynamic group for conversation and dreaming dreams as the people of Christ. There may not be a specific key to success, as the image above suggests, but there are ways in which we can be responsive to a changing culture.


Read about Blood Ivory on my Groundling blog

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading the Faith

I have come to realize that many of you are avid readers, and several are members of the St. Paul's Book Club. It is hard for me to imagine life without books, and lots of them.I read theology but I love fiction, biographies --books!
 I was impressed to see recently that a congregation in the United States has its own online and print Review of Books, a significant undertaking. Here is a description from their website
The Englewood Review of Books is a weekly book review published by Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis. We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.The books we review are not necessarily books from the “Christian market,” and most of the books that we review will not be stocked in your local Christian bookstore.

Our friend, Shane Claiborne, likes to say that “Another World is Possible,” and indeed we hope that the books we review point toward a new world that is characterized by the justice and shalom of God.
There is an interesting interview with the editor in The Christian Century
What are your thoughts about reading? Are you a bookworm and proud to say so? Do you still need paper in hand, or is your e-reader your new best friend?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sabbath Time

Today the St. Paul's Ministry and Personnel committee chairperson will inform the congregation that I I am taking sabbatical time during June, July, and August of 2013. The United Church has a policy that every covenanted minister can negotiate a sabbatical after every five years of service with a congregation. This will be my first with St. Paul's and will come after a decade with the congregation. As the name implies, this is sabbath time, an opportunity to pause and deepen a relationship with God and one's self.

Sabbaticals include the expectation of a plan for the time away with a combination of educational focus and personal restoration. Because of who we are, ministers go to work on Sunday rather than worship, so a sabbatical also provides the opportunity to "go to church" where someone else presides rather than provide leadership. We need to be fed as well.

I am looking forward to being more intentional in a couple of areas of my own faith formation and theological exploration. I expect that God will say "so how have you been?' and it will be good to reestablish that deeper desire for communion with Christ  which stirred in me forty years ago or more and eventually led to ministry.

I will also appreciate a few months to step away from what is both the privilege and the weight of being a spiritual companion to a great many people in pain. There are times in a long pastorate where it seems impossible to keep up. Sabbatical is an opportunity to lay those burdens down for a time with the hope of coming back with renewed vigour and compassion. Pastors can't give what they haven't got.

From the sabbatical I took while serving another congregation for eleven years I know that some people will appreciate why this is important, some will be puzzled, and some just won't get it. Sabbaticals are far more common in the academic world. While information will help, there are always folk who figure we should be willing to be constantly "on call" or assume we don't do much anyway!

Even though this is mandated by the United Church, I am grateful for the opportunity to recollect myself as a follower of Christ.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Hockey-ness is Next to Godly-ness

I will not be watching my Maple Leafs play an NHL hockey game tonight and neither will anyone else. Yes, I will acknowledge that some of you have strange and inexplicable loyalties to other teams, but you will be as much in the dark tonight as anyone. This is because of the standoff between National Hockey League owners and players, resulting in a stillborn season.

Of course each of the sides blames the other and fans who assume that this is about entertainment rather than business are bewildered. The owners have already publicly pouted that they lost 100 million dollars in the preseason. Well, why don't they figure this out? And why were a gang of players signed to obscenely large contracts just before his fiasco began? Meanwhile, the formerly highly paid players have hightailed it off to Europe to bump the poor schmos who toil over there and will now be out of jobs.

A recent episode of The Current on CBC radio featured a piece called Hockey-ness is Next to Godly-ness (why did they mispell godliness?) which just about says it all. Was it Tim Horton's which had the sappy ad last year about arenas as our shrines? And the Prime Minister happily described hockey as another religion during the Olympics. If so, it is a false religion which is letting us down once again. As someone has said, this a squabble between billionaires and millionaires and it difficult for the average person to care. I am be at the end of my tether as a fan (remember this is short for fanatic) but we'll see.

Any comments about the hockey dispute? Do you think you will rev it up as a fan once this is over. Any opinions about hockey as idolatry?

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Sickness and in Health

On Sunday this couple, Jewel and Dave, will celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary, a significant relationship milestone by any standards. This my not come as a huge shock but they have changed since this photo, as we all do over the decades.

Jewel and Dave's circumstances are unusual though, because a photograph today would show Dave in a wheelchair, as he has been for more than a decade. He went rather quickly from being a robust man, in a trade which required physical activity to learning how to negotiate life without the use of his legs.

Dave has admitted to me that he was not an easy guy to live with in those early years as a paraplegic, but over time he has changed, and I have certainly seen it. There have been a couple of occasions through the years when we wondered whether his serious health issues were leading him toward death's doorstep, so we had some deeply meaningful conversations about living with appreciation for each day, as well as our mortality.

Dave is open in expressing his deep gratitude for Jewel's support "in sickness and in health," along with her practical love and the love of other members of the family.

On Sunday say a prayer for this couple as they celebrate these years together. They deserve our admiration.


Thursday, October 11, 2012


I have written often about mental health as a spiritual and justice issue in our culture. How do we, as Christ's people, follow his example of not stigmatizing those who are mentally ill and work toward a compassionate society in which all are accepted. In 1938 Life Magazine did a photo essay about mental health using the work of one of the leading photographers of his day.

Even today, three-quarters of a century after they were shot, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photographs from the grounds of Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island are remarkable for the way they blend clear-eyed reporting with a genuine sense of compassion. But what is perhaps most unsettling about the images is how terribly familiar they look.

The treatment of mental illness — in all its confounding varieties and degrees — has come a long, long way since the 1930s, and in most countries is now immeasurably more humane, comprehensive and discerning than the brutal approaches of even a century ago. Advancements in psychiatric medications alone have helped countless people lead fuller lives than they might have without drugs. And yet … the grim, desolate tone of the pictures in this gallery will feel eerily contemporary to anyone familiar with psych wards in large hospitals today.

Read more:

What is your reaction to these photos? Have you been encouraged at all by recent changes to our mental health system? What about the stigma of mental illness -- are we doing any better?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Those of you who are regular readers know that I have a fascination with the subject of forgiveness. Part of this comes from the central message of forgiving love of Christ. And practically speaking it is one of the foremost presenting issues of pastoral care. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I have been part of hundreds of conversations about aspects of forgiveness through the years.  These include long-harboured family wounds, a sense that a person simply couldn't be forgiven by God or victims or themselves for the wrongs they have committed, not to mention the desire for good ol' revenge.

I went to my bookshelves and found 16 books on forgiveness, along with a couple of very good DVD series. Some are written by evangelicals in a folksy way, others are penned by serious scholars on the subject.  Several are by people who have no religious affiliation but see the value of reconciliation and forgiveness. All of them have something to offer.

I was intrigued by a radio interview with someone in Toronto involved with F-You: The Forgiveness Project. If this conjures up a nasty profane phrase it is meant to. The hope of those involved is that over time F-You would come to mean Forgive You rather get it. It seems that the idea is to bring people together for conversation and reconciliation.

In Britain F-You includes a photo project that I hope comes here:

The F Word: Images of Forgiveness exhibition is a thought provoking collection of arresting images and personal narratives exploring forgiveness in the face of atrocity. First launched in London in 2004, it has since been displayed in over 300 venues worldwide. Drawing together voices from South Africa, America, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and England, the exhibition examines forgiveness as a healing process, a journey out of victimhood and, ultimately, a journey of hope.

What do you think about this? Is it too rude or a worthwhile reframing of F-You? How are your personal forgiveness projects going?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

E.T. Phone Home

Isn't it interesting that for lots of you the header line for this blog is still familiar, one of those pop catchphrases of a generation. The E.T. is an ugly/cute Extra Terrestrial who lands in a suburban American neighbourhood and changes the lives of a group of kids. The film E.T. was a huge Steven Spielberg hit and part of a golden age of pre-CGI films which were sort of for children but also for adults who are still children at heart. Today is the 30th anniversary of E.T., which is sobering. Sweet little Drew Barrymore is now a mom pushing forty (okay, 37.) She says she can hardly wait to show the film to baby Olive.

At the time there was a fair amount written about all the Christian imagery in E.T., which was rather curious given Spielberg's Jewish roots.  I recall an article about the Christian background of screen writer and co-producer Melissa Mathison but I can't find it anywhere and who knows how accurate it was.

There is the alien-come-to-earth messiah figure of E.T. who is both an innocent and a healer. There are the  young"disciples" who try to figure out who E.T. is with a "Messianic Secret" kept from parents and other adults who just wouldn't understand. There is a death of the messiah, a miraculous resurrection, a tearful departure, and a promise that E.T. would remain with them, right in the heart. Why, there is even a Sistine Chapel touching of fingers.

Did any of you see that imagery at the time? I did, but I see Christian stuff everywhere. Have those of you who are parents with younger kids shared this movie with them? Should we be having a Theology of E.T. showing at St. Paul's?

Monday, October 08, 2012

Dogged Evangelism

I went ahead with our Blessing of the Animals service after worship yesterday, even though it was Thanksgiving Sunday and lots of pet owners were away or heading on to family gatherings. There were still ten dogs and lots more humans.

Last year we were inside because of weather, but yesterday we were back on the lawn. We blessed all these lovely creatures and were just winding up when a man walked by with his little dog. I walked out to him and asked if he wanted to have his dog blessed. He was somewhat quizzical but came over and asked what we were up to. I explained the service and he said sure, bless away.

Our gang happily included this man and his dog, and "dad" seemed quited pleased. He stuck around to talk to a couple of humans who had dogs of a similar breed. It was just a nice moment.

In Calgary there was an interdenominational service on Saturday with hundreds of creatures,  including a police horse walking down the aisle.

Have you ever had your pet blessed? Would you be comfortable to have the service in the sanctuary as we can see in the accompanying photos? What do you think of dogged evangelism?

Sunday, October 07, 2012

World Wide Christianity

This morning in worship we prayed for Christians around the world who are shunned or marginalized or subjected to violence because of their faith. This is World Wide Communion Sunday as well as Thanksgiving and we need to remember that while we are free to worship as we choose the body and blood of Christ take on different meaning for believers in other lands.

Recently we heard of a mentally challenged young person in Pakistan who was jailed for supposedly desecrating the Quran. The charge was absurd and eventually dismissed but what a terrifying experience. A grenade was tossed into a Kenyan Sunday School last week killing a boy and injuring others. Christians have been persecuted in Nigeria and China. Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq feel abandoned. It costs to be a Christian in far too many places around the world.

I don't want to feel guilty because of this but I do want to be in solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ, to pray for them and pay attention to their plight.

Are you aware of the difficulties for Christians in other parts of the world? Have you ever felt shunned or excluded because of your faith? Is it a little too easy to be a Christian in this country, leading to complacency? Are you grateful for freedom of religious expression?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Respect Your Elders!

Do you respect your elders? Rae is over 85 years of age and by his own admission he is getting rather creaky. A decade ago he was still scrambling up ladders to do the painting which was his life's work. He can't anymore -- he walks with a cane- but he will still grab a brush and touch up the spots he notices at the church and the manse. This has been his congregation forever and he loves it.

He still listens to sermons carefully and often comments. He has wrestled with issues such as same-gender marriage and come to conclusions which would have surprised him 50 years ago. I still recall him showing up in my backyard when our congregation was discussing what we would do. I thought he might be there to scold me for leading us into a controversial conversation. Instead he voiced his support. Rae was an elder at St. Paul's in the formal sense for decades, but now he is a spiritual elder who deserves our respect, even though many people wouldn't know him. Looking at Rae on his creaky old knees reminds me that there are different forms of prayer. Bye the way, he has a wry sense of humour.

Lots of people have excuses for not getting involved in their congregation or offering their gifts of time. Maybe I should suggest they watch Rae, elder extraordinaire.

Do you know Rae? Do you wish you were like him? Do we still need elders in our midst?

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Missing

On a couple of occasions I have mentioned  my cousin Pauline, adopted as a child, and a First Nations person. During her confused and anguished teens and twenties she lived on the streets of Vancouver and could easily have been one of Robert Pickton's victims, many of whom were aboriginal women. Instead she has reestablished her life and reported on the Pickton trial.

I thought of her when I saw that yesterday Sisters in Spirit vigils took place across the country to honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. So many have gone missing through the decades, some as escapees from Residential Schools, some migrating to cities from their rural communities, some like my cousin who never adjusted to white adoptive families. The violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls in Canada is a national tragedy and unfortunately we don't hear much about it.

Many of the vigils in Ontario took place in northern communities. A couple happened in Toronto and the closest was in Peterborough.  Honestly, this is the first I have heard about them.

I wish I had known beforehand because I could have encouraged recognition through the Mission Outreach and Advocacy Committee of our presbytery. If we have changed our United Church  crest to reflect the colours of the medicine wheel we need to find practical ways to be part of the healing.

Have any of you heard of the Sisters in Spirit vigils? Do you think our denomination should get involved?

How did I miss the Feast of St. Francis?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Craigslist Mea Culpa

Admitting personal wrongdoing and expressing remorse --saying sorry-- is an important part of healthy forgiveness. Of course our faith is based on the forgiving love of God in Christ and we are invited to respond with heartfelt repentance and the commitment to become new persons.

I never thought of Craigslist as a venue for expressing regret and seeking forgiveness, but it was recently. The mea culpa below explains it. A guy gives a cyclist what is known as the "door prize" and while he apologized at the time he uses Craigslist Missed Connections to go a step further.

In case you need any reminder, you were biking along College when I stepped out of a cab and doored you. The short end of it is that I had been struggling to both pay and get the door open for some time when finally the cab driver unlocked it and I jolted the door open. I was stupid, stupid, stupid and I should've looked out and checked that there wasn't anyone behind me. But I didn't do that and, as a result, I probably messed up your night, possibly your week and hopefully not your life...

Long story short, I'm sorry I made you fall. I'm sorry for the panic that having a cab door fly out and hit you caused you. You may've not been thrown to kingdom come but the shock of taking that sudden tumble couldn't have been great to experience. It sucks, I sucked. If there is any damage to your bike - something I neglected to double check at the time - please get in touch with me and I will gladly pay for it.

The last thing I want is for you to be freaked out while biking in this city so I thought I would throw you this missed connection to apologize more thoroughly. Hope this message finds you alright and I hope you're feeling better!!!!

How are you when it comes to apologizing? Is "I'm sorry" part of your vocabulary? What do you think of using the internet to apologize.

Apparently not everyone loves Marineland. Take a look.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Complicated Kadhr

I have to admit that I think that the Kadhr family are a despicable bunch whose terrorists ties are a given. They really shouldn't be in this country and I wouldn't mind a bit if they ended up on a slow boat to somewhere.

And yet...I'm somehow relieved that son Omar is now back in Canada after his imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay as a matter of justice.  He is a Canadian citizen by birth and was the only citizen of a Western nation in Gitmo who had not been repatriated. I don't know enough about the evidence from his trial to say whether he deserved the sentence he received although he was a 15-year-old at the time he allegedly killed a US soldier with a grenade and if memory serves me correctly he is the only soldier convicted of a combat killing in Afghanistan in a court of law.

If the Canadian government is satisfied with that conviction then he should serve his sentence, at least until his mandatory parole, but it should be in a Canadian prison. Guantanamo Bay is a hell-hole by all accounts and we have people convicted of far worse crimes incarcerated in better conditions and subject to Canadian law.

Church groups have advocated for Kadhr's return, even though he was a combatant and likely a terrorist, because he was an indoctrinated soldier and a Canadian citizen. We don't have to like him to believe in justice, something demonstrated with others in the courts of the land every day. And there is plenty of evidence that he has made strong efforts to become educated and has not been "radicalized" by his incarceration.

Complicated! How have you felt about his repatriation? Lock him up and throw away the key, or give him an eventual chance for a new life?

Sneak a peak at my latest Groundling offering:

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


I listened to an interview yesterday on the CBC Radio program The Current, about the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church. Officially there is no such thing in Catholicism and won't be soon. It hasn't stopped groups of woman gathering to discuss ordination. to lobby for ordination, and in some instances to conduct what are rogue ordinations, if I can use that term. These ordinations are a rather defiant and perhaps prophetic statement to the hierarchy of the church that change must come. In a denomination whose priesthood is aging and shrinking the inclusion of women would appear to make practical sense but the theological resistance is entrenched.

Both of the women were articulate and civil. One argued in favour, the other against. The one in opposition offered the old and perplexing argument that Jesus was male, and so were the twelve disciples, therefore demonstrating that God's will for eternity is that only men can be ordained. Of course, Jesus had women followers, although travelling with women would have been scandalous. Jesus' humanity rather than his gender is what is important to the incarnation, at least from my reading of the gospels. And no one in the New Testament is ordained anyway, that being a later development of the church.

These rebuttals come from a male in a denomination which has been ordaining women for just over 75 years, so I do have a bias. Now, women have not always been readily accepted in United Church ministry and it wasn't until the 1970's that the number of seminarians who were women really grew. Today the majority of students at our seminaries are women and most congregations are very accepting of women in ministry. Needless to say, they serve Christ's church well. I notice that more denominations of conservative theology are ordaining women, or its equivalent.

What are your thoughts, faithful readers? Do you think theological arguments can be made against women in ministry? Why is there such strong resistance? Will the Roman Catholic church ever change?

Take a look at my latest Groundling blog entry Frogs in Prison