Friday, November 30, 2012

Life of Pi

We saw Life of Pi on the weekend, the film based on Yan Martel's award-winning novel. We donned the 3D glasses (why must everything be in 3D these days?) and sat back to enjoy. We thought the acting was excellent and that Ang Lee managed to create a fine film out of what we imagined would be an unfilmable story.

The action scenes were impressive --the tiger named Robert Parker was consistently scary-- but I liked the way the boy Pi earnestly explored several religions, claiming to be a convert to all of them. Actually, I don't feel that can happen, but we can have an openness, respect, even a sense of wonder, to religions other than our own.

In the end, the adult Pi invites the young author who will write his tale to "choose the best story." Isn't that the invitation when it comes to our faith? I happen to believe that Christianity is the best story, but I can hear other narratives.

Our older youth group kids went to see it on Sunday evening. I am curious to know what they thought.

Have any of you seen Life of Pi or read the book? What did you think about the exploration of religion and faith?

What on earth, or in sea, is Oyster-tecture?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beware! Cancellation is Nigh.

The gospel lesson for this first Sunday in Advent has some End Times, Second Coming overtones. In our United Church we aren't always sure how to address these readings because of the long history of preachers, prophets, and predicters who have claimed that the end is near and Jesus is returning. Well, enter Angus.

For a decade Angus T. Jones has grown up publicly as the rather dim kid, Jake, on the sitcom Two and a Half Men. The half-man is now full grown and recently joined up with a strange expression of the Seventh-Day-Adventists. In a recent video Angus dissed the show as corrupt and said that he wanted off, even though he is paid $350,000 an episode. Not bad for a nineteen year old. Now he has issued one of those formal apologies obviously created by his publicist and lawyer. Hey, many of us would be inclined to grovel for a third of a million dollars a week. Here is a portion of one media report:

In the original video Jones refers to the comedy, which is the third-highest rated in the U.S., as “filth” that is “contributing to the enemy’s plan.” While sitting next to pastor Christopher Hudson from Seventh-Day-Adventist outfit, The Forerunner Chronicles, Angus said, “I’m on Two and a Half Men. I don't want to be on it. Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth.”

The pastor tells The Mail Online that Angus isn’t having a break-down, he is simply preparing for the second coming. “Angus accepts that we are living in the last days of the world as we know it. Jesus is coming soon and God will judge what is in the heart of each of us.” Hudson has compared President Obama to Hitler, warned against mothers having to eat their own babies due to rising gas prices and ranted against Freemasons, specifically Jay-Z.

I hope Angus slips out from under the influence of pastor Hudson. At the same time, I have wondered what it was like for this boy/youth to be part of the cast of a show which is filled with sexual innuendo we call it filth?

What do you think about Angus' media meltdown? Are you ready for The End? Are you choosing not to hold your breath?

Are you following the UN Climate Conference in Qatar? Learn more on my Groundling blog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Sally Anne

Newscasters like using the term Sally Anne to describe the Christian organization called the Salvation Army, even though when they do so it is inadvertently demeaning. Salvation refers to new life in Christ, and Sally is hardly a helpful substitution. When Methodist William Booth founded the Salvation Army in 19th century Britain the noble goal was to give people who were "down and out" a way up. Yes, these folk were encouraged to accept salvation through Christ, but they were also given food and shelter and dignity. The dignity came in the form of a uniform, as they were inducted into Christ's "army." With the uniform they belonged, they were of worth.

These days the Army is in the news for two reasons. One is the terrible theft in Toronto of a couple of million dollars worth of toys, goods, and cash, meant for those who needed it most. Thanks to a Whistle Blower the organization discovered that this theft had gone on for two years and the executive director of that aspect of the work has been charged.

The Salvation Army is also under scrutiny because of a campaign to challenge its conservative stance when it comes to gays and lesbians.

Reader Stacey sent me a link to a Huffington Post article describing the campaign, which asks people to support other charities this Christmas because of its outlook on the LGBT community. This is my response:

I happened to see this yesterday evening. This is interesting and problematic. The Army’s position reflects that of so many evangelical organizations. In fact, within our ministerial in Bowmanville with participation of a dozen congregations, St. Paul’s is probably the only one with stated support of the LGBT community in terms of leadership and marriage policy. Nearly all would be vocally opposed to viewing homosexuality as anything but a sinful aberration. It is one of those subjects we just don’t broach together.

 Tough, but true.
For all these other congregations and denominations this is a matter of Christian principle which they feel is based on scripture. While I may disagree, I don't refuse to work with them. And I believe that the Salvation Army is still one of the most trustworthy organizations around in terms of support for the poor and marginalized. At St. Paul's we take our donated food to the S.A.'s local foodbank and we support them through our White Gift service.
What do you think? Should we distance ourselves from other churches because we differ in outlook? What about our relationship with the Salvation Army?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Technical Difficulties

Reader Ian is having difficulties posting his comments lately. We aren't sure if this is the peculiarity of his computer or a broader problem.  If anyone else is experiencing this challenge please contact me at

We look forward to hearing from you eventually Ian.  Thanks!

Beyond Anger and Blame

The other day someone came to see me, a truly decent person I like alot. He was trying to get a handle on a conflict with another person I know well, a truly decent individual I like alot. I have spoken to both, could see both "sides" of the situation, and didn't want to pass judgement or take sides. Both conversations were worthwhile and I prayed for resolution and reconciliation. It has occurred, which is an immense relief to me. I am convinced that their Christian faith was a significant factor in "burying the hatchet, " a phrase we use which is actually connected to an Iroquois Confederacy ritual of peace-making. 

Hardly a week goes by that I don't have a conversation with someone who is in conflict, usually with a family member. Why do they come to me? Well, we sense that issues of anger, alienation, forgiveness and reconciliation are deeply spiritual, and inviting God into the situation matters. And I am the God Guy for a certain group of people.

The same day I chatted with the person mentioned above I saw the cover article for the Christian Century. The title is Beyond Anger and Blame: How to achieve constructive conflict. Notice that it doesn't say "how to avoid conflict?" We can't live without experiencing conflict. To try to avoid it creates inner conflict which can be just as destructive. You might recall me writing about a family member who never argued with her husband in 25 years of marriage. But she ended up resenting him so deeply she eventually left the relationship without attempted resolution.

The article tells us about NVC or non-violent communication, an approach with four steps:
1: naming the behaviour that is a problem
2: naming the emotion you feel when the behavioiur takes place
3:naming the need you have that is not being met because of the other person's behaviour
4:stating in very concrete terms what you would like the other person to do

I won't go further because this is already a longer blog -- aka sermonette! I am curious to know whether these steps make sense to you. Are you good at resolving conflict, or do you avoid it? Does your faith make a difference in how you handle conflict?

Monday, November 26, 2012


On another occasion I asked WWJD? --What Would Jesus Drive? if he were living today. Of course the modern Jesus might well choose an urban environment and he and the disciples would roam around looking like a gang of bicycle couriers.

But if he did drive a car...would it be a hybrid, or an EV (electric vehicle.) Obviously we don't have a clue even if we want to portray Jesus as a "low carbon footprint," environmentally friendly kinda guy. I imagine he would give a Prius a try, which would make reader Ian happy. Not only do Priuses have proven hybrid technology, they have a fantastic record for reliability, which is why taxi drivers swear by them. If the newer station wagon version had been available when we bought a new vehicle we might have been convinced to spend the extra money, because they are costly.

Other manufacturers are working on the technology as well, despite the glut of cheap oil out there right now. They seem to want to get ahead of the market for a change and there are probably lots of folk, including environmentally conscious Christians who want to do the right thing, not just the least expensive thing. Reducing emissions matters even when gasoline is relatively inexpensive.

General Motors, which is a big part of our local economy, created the electric VOLT which has a niche market. They have another EV called the Spark in the works which looks interesting and perhaps more accessible to the average driver, at least as a "grocery getter" since range is still limited. GM is also developing a hybrid Cadillac.

Is the development of alternative vehicles a tail-pipe dream? Does is matter to you? Is it a matter of faith?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

PC -- Pastoral Care

These days when someone says "it was so PC" they are usually referring to an annoying level of "political correctness." The United Church has its share of PC --at Bay of Quinte Conference this year someone asked that we not use the terms "bullets" on an itemized Powerpoint slide because it was violent -- but today PC is Pastoral Care.

Our dedicated Pastoral Care Committee is leading this morning's worship service, upholding the importance of pastoral care in the life of our congregation. I have commented regularly on the exceptional level of pastoral care at St. Paul's thanks to our Pastoral Care team and many others who visit and support one another. Included are our young people who have visited seniors to sing carols and bring treats.

Yes, we have a paid pastoral care staff member, Beth Lettner, and yes, I visit our members and adherents. In large part thanks to Beth, we have a well organized and committed group of visitors who visit shut-ins and those who are in nursing homes and residences.

Recently our administrator, Helen, handed me a list of all those in residences (ten locations) and the layperson who visits in each one. This is a powerful expression of Christ's love and compassion through these individuals. Would they describe what they do as a ministry? I doubt it -- that's what Beth and I do they would insist. But I am convinced that they are ministers of the gospel in a powerful way.

Any thoughts about this work in our congregation? Are you involved? Would you like to be?

Please read my latest Groundling blog on incineration

Saturday, November 24, 2012


"I have the right of education. I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk."  Malala Yousafza

From time to time we get an update on the condition of the extraordinary Pakistani teen, Malala Yousafza. She was shot in the head by Islamist extremists because she dared to be public about the importance of education for girls as well as boys.

Now she is in Britain in order to get the best possible medical care and to protect her from those who might be inclined to finish their cowardly attempt at assassination. I hope no one tells her about the vote in the Church of England to keep women from becoming bishops. It might slow her recovery.

Lest we are inclined to portray all religious people in Pakistan in a negative ight, the immediate response to her shooting was outrage, including amongst those who are devout. Teen women took to the streets and so did many others, including men. The government was swift in making arrests.

It was and is a reminder of the disparities which still exist in this world. Someone has floated the idea that Malala be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I would choose her over the European Union, or President Obama for that matter.

Well, I really wanted you to see this brilliant cartoon. Check out Cagle Cartoons to see many more clever "takes" on our world


Please read my latest Groundling blog on incineration

Friday, November 23, 2012

Stop Shopping Friday


By this evening we will have been treated to news footage of Americans and a smattering of Canadians virtually stampeding one another in the rush for the big bargains of Black Friday.  It's a tradition. After all, nothing says Thanksgiving like shopping.

Not everyone is seduced by this consumer model. Brennan Cavanaugh is the “Reverend” Billy Talen, who with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir speaks out against the buy, buy, buy mentality. He is a bit of a kook, but an interesting one. He essentially argues that simplicity is an antidote to a consumer madness which contributes to many woes, including climate change. This year there is the particular irony that the effects of Superstorm Sandy are still being felt, but people will hit the stores as usual.

Do we think we get the connection between lifestyle and climate? What do you think of Reverend Billy's "gospel?" What about Jesus' gospel message of simplicity? Would you like to answer but are heading to the store?

Please read my latest Groundling blog on incineration

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stained-Glass Ceiling

Wow, what are they thinking in the jolly old Church of England? Yesterday the British synod of Henry the Eighth's ecclesiastical end-run around the pope and the whole divorce thing voted against women bishops. It's odd, but the Anglicans in Britain were extremely slow to allow women to be ordained as priests, even though that door had been opened in many other countries including Canada. And now it is bishops. The Daily Telegraph reports:

In a knife-edge decision at a special sitting of the Synod in London, bishops and clergy voted through the change by large majorities. But the measure failed to secure the required two thirds support among representatives of the laity by just 6 votes. Although 324 members of the Synod voted in favour of the change, 124 voted against and 11 abstained.

I listened to an Anglican priest who was considered a leading candidate to be the first C of E woman to become a bishop. She was obviously gobsmacked by the decision, especially since all kinds of compromises were made in order to make the proposal palatable. Now the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury who favoured the proposal faces a crisis in the church.

I truly thought we were past this nonsense in supposedly civilized and enlightened nations, at least in mainline denominations. This is about power and control, not the bible. To my mind this is the work of a bunch of fusty old men in a church which is already suffering from near-terminal irrelevance in Britain. What message does this send?

The woman interviewed was asked about what she will do next. She is tempted to resign her ordination yet she said that she was converted out of atheism into Christianity and soon felt a strong call from God to priesthood. The decision doesn't shake her Christian faith, nor her sense of call. I hope she stays. The Church of England needs her, even if it doesn't deserve her.

Did you hear about this? What is your reaction?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Second Chance for Thanksgiving

Canadians get a second chance to give thanks because our American neighbours celebrate Thanksgiving six or seven weeks later than we do. One of the pastors in our ministerial is back stateside as we speak because he is an American and joins his family at this time of the year. He did comment a few weeks ago that he likes US Thanksgiving better because it feels like more than a long weekend and people fill churches to express their gratitude. After getting over him dissing Canada (he wasn't really) I realized that he had a point. I have seen the shift over time, both in church attendance at Thanksgiving and the general tone of gratitude.
An article in the New York Times this week offered suggestions about gratitude from a number of researchers. I have excerpted a few ideas:
“Gratitude is more than just feeling good,” says Nathan DeWall, who led the study at Kentucky. “It helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy. “It’s an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
Share the feeling. Why does gratitude do so much good? “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Dr. McCullough says. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did.”
Try a gratitude visit. This exercise, recommended by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, begins with writing a 300-word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person, preferably without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole thing slowly to your benefactor. “You will be happier and less depressed one month from now,” Dr. Seligman guarantees in his book “Flourish.”
Contemplate a higher power. Religious individuals don’t necessarily act with more gratitude in a specific situation, but thinking about religion can cause people to feel and act more gratefully, as demonstrated in experiments by Jo-Ann Tsang and colleagues at Baylor University. Other research shows that praying can increase gratitude.
Go for deep gratitude. Once you’ve learned to count your blessings, Dr. Emmons says, you can think bigger. “As a culture, we have lost a deep sense of gratefulness about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have,” he says. “The focus of Thanksgiving should be a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us.”
Does any of this ring true? Are you still feeling grateful a couple of months after Canadian Thanksgiving? Do you wish we had Black Friday?
Happy Thanksgiving to American readers tomorrow.

Hey, a good news environmental story for a change!


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sleeping Rough

Last week a number of Canadian celebrities in Toronto including Brian Burke and Arlene Dickinson  took part in a sleep-out on behalf of the shelter for street people called Covenant House. Each of these individuals was issued a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag, then bunked down on the street for the night. Now, they were monitored and they were near Covenant House, and in the morning they headed home, bleary-eyed and ready for a shower.

None of the participants claimed to know what it is like to be homeless or "sleeping rough" to use the British term. But it was a way to give visibility to the invisible, those we tend to avoid when walking downtown in Toronto and whose story we don't really want to know.

I have mentioned before a New York ad exec who started a campaign asking "how can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and walk past them the rest of the week." It is a probing, worthwhile question.

The celebrities raised $500,000 for Covenant House, which is good, and I admire them. Even one night would be uncomfortable and a little scary.

Are these stunts worthwhile, do you think? Do they raise awareness? Are we missing the bigger issues of how people get to the place of "sleeping rough?" What do think of the involvement of the United Church in inner city shelters? Look at the Observer article Cold Comfort.

Take a look at Groundling

Monday, November 19, 2012


I have listened to Brett Wilson on a couple of occasions lately, and reader Larry sent me an email with an interesting article in which Wilson addresses the subject of his new book Redefining Success.

Some of you will remember Wilson as a business "dragon" on the CBC show Dragon's Den. All of the dragons are successful entrepeneurs in a variety of money-making ventures. Wilson, who has moved on from the show is smart and wealthy and is now encouraging people to consider what gives life meaning. In the radio interview he admits that he makes an easy target as someone who has made a lot of money and is now redefining personal success while inviting others to do so as well. But he sounds very sincere, and points out that our usual ways of "keeping score" didn't bring him a great deal of happiness. In the phone-in which followed many people called to say that they had changed their life paths to place greater emphasis on healthy relationships, and community service, and personal growth.

It helps to be reminded that money doesn't buy happiness and that it is possible to be a person of modest means but wealthy and successful in other ways.

Jesus encouraged his disciples and others to redefine success and they choose to leave security and familiarity to be part of his new way. Jesus himself was hardly successful by most standards and yet we have decided to follow him, even though our steps may falter at times.

Has your model for success changed with time, or are you still chasing goals that leave you uncomfortable about your life path? Are you more or less generous than you used to be? Are you learning the Jesus way of simplicity and faithfulness?

Dust  Bowl is my latest Groundling blog

Sunday, November 18, 2012

An Eye for an Eye

During the summer the United Church took a lot of heat for condemning Israel settlements in the occupied territories and calling for a boycott of goods produced by those settlements. I haven't mentioned that since the UCC took that controversial stand at General Council a group of fifteen US Christian organizations condemned Israel even more harshly, and received the same angry response.

It has been good that Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, has largely restrained itself from committing violent acts against Israel in recent months despite ongoing tensions, although not entirely. Then this week past Hamas began to fire Iranian-made rockets into Israel, killing several people and injuring more. Predictably, Israel responded to those attacks with a more powerful barrage and now it looks as though there will be a ground war. Other nations are calling for restraint, but we can see what is coming.

The United Church and most of us who are concerned about human rights violations against Palestinians have conceded Israel's right to defend itself, and that is happening now. But if this escalates and troops enter the territories we know that innocent blood will be shed alongside those targetted as the perpetrators of the attacks. It is terribly sad and problematic for Christian organizations attempting to speak out on behalf of the vast majority who want to live peaceably. This will only provide justification for Israel's position.

In the photos and footage I see terrified people on both sides as well as death and destruction. As Martin Luther King offered, taking an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

Are you watching and wondering? Has this most recent flare-up of violence changed your outlook? Should the United Church keep its own counsel at the moment, or offer some statement?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Pulpit

Bono, the musician from the band U2 spoke recently at Georgetown University. While waiting for the lecture to begin one reporter overheard a student in attendance tell a friend that his dad loved U2 and played the Joshua Tree album over and over again when he was a kid. Back in the old days of U2. Actually, the band has staying power even if Bono is 52.

When he took to the stage he mused "I don't know if this is a lectern or a pulpit, but I feel oddly comfortable. It's a bit of a worry, isn't it? So ... welcome to Pop Culture Studies 101. Please take out your notebooks. Today we are going to discuss why rock stars should never, ever be given access to microphones at institutes of higher learning."

According to the reporter Bono preached, which is what happens from pulpits, and with power -- for an hour. His audience/congregation was with him.

Bono made reference to Georgetown's Catholic and Jesuit roots:

"St. Ignatius, he was a soldier. He was lying on a bed recovering from his wounds when he had what they call a conversion of the heart. He saw God's work and the call to do God's work. Not just in the church, in everything, everywhere. The arts, universities, the Orient, the New World. And once he knew about that, he couldn't unknow it.  It changed him. It forced him out of bed and into the world. And that's what I'm hoping happens here in Georgetown with you. Because when you truly accept that those children in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you -- in God's eyes or even just in your eyes -- then your life is forever changed. You see something that you can't unsee."

These days when people say someone is preachy you know it is a bad thing. And the pulpit is the place from which one bullies people. Some preachers don't stand in the pulpit anymore -- imagine that! But there is still a place literally and figuratively for proclamation of justice and the Good News of the kingdom -- even coming from a rock star.

What do you think of "preachers" such as Bono? Do they have credibility as the rich and famous? Does preaching have a negative connotation for you, or positive? What makes for effective preaching? Careful now!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Bathsheba Syndrome

Former US general David Petraeus, then director of the CIA, has landed himself in a major mess by having an affair with Paula Blackwell, his biographer. It appears that another chapter will be added to the bio, given that Petraeus resigned from his position and his once sterling reputation is in tatters. You will have noticed that everyone has an opinion on this story.

A phrase that is making the rounds in relationship to this story is The Bathsheba Syndrome, the tendency for power to act as an aphrodisiac for men, and as some sort of irresistable pheremone for certain women. I find the use of this phrase fascinating because it refers to the biblical story of King David's fatal attraction to the beautiful Bathsheba. It isn't enough that David has an affair with Bathsheba. He arranges to have her husband fight at the front of a battle so he will be killed, therefore having her as his own. Eventually David is outed by the prophet Nathan, and a contrite David bemoans his sinfulness before God. Psalm 51 is David's lament and plea for forgiveness. We read it every year on Ash Wednesday.

As the sad tale of former military superstar Petraeus unfolds some have wondered why he had to resign, since it isn't illegal to have an affair. One writer blamed the president for being a prude by accepting the resignation, a weird accusation to say the least. It doesn't seem to occur to commentators that Petraeus has a conscience, although one that kicked in too late. We human beings are incredibly adept at self-deception and we probably all have episodes we don't want flashed up on the Big Screen of our lives. But Petraeus may be genuinely sorry -- he broke off the relationship several months ago -- and feels he needs to pay some price for his wrongdoing. There are still some people who know that an affair is morally wrong, even if they engage in one. In his terse resignation letter he says: "After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours."

What do you think? Genuine contrition on Petraeus' part, or after-the-fact "my bad?" Should he have resigned? Should Ms Blackwell change her first name?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fit for Ministry

Huff, puff, enough already! I feel that way some mornings when I head to the gym, and this Fall it has been harder to stay motivated. I still go, but I whine more, and I haven't gone as often. Even though we have been outdoorsy forever -- we cycle and hike and kayak -- I didn't start going to the gym until about a year before I left Halifax, so at age 47. I'm glad that I'm still going a decade later, especially since the big 60 isn't too far over the horizon. When I'm done my workout I usually feel energized and ready to roll. The prospect of going on these dark mornings is far worse than the actual exercise.

There is an article in a recent Christian Century magazine called Fit for Ministry: Addressing the Crisis in Clergy Health which speaks of research showing that clergy are heavier and in worse shape than the population at large -- no pun intended. We sit a lot, and eating is part of the job, and there is no one who holds us accountable for our health.  Our rates of arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes are all higher than average.

When I was ordained in 1980 I had to pass a physical, and there were obese candidates who were told that they better shape up or they wouldn't be allowed to ship out as ministers. That is no longer allowed under human rights legislation, but we may not be doing candidates a favour by not nudging them toward a healthy physical regimen.  In the United Methodist denomination in the States there is a two-year program called Spirited Life with over 1,100 clergy enrolled, which helps ministers establish a balanced and healthy lifestyle. The participants are even given small grants for gym memberships.

I have to wonder why our United Church doesn't get on board with something like this. I once spoke to a moderator about a country-wide gym program as a way to address high levels of work-related stress and was met with polite indifference. A conference staff person responded to a similar conversation saying that congregations would balk at being asked for additional cash to get something like this going. Why, I wonder? As our ministers age, wouldn't programs for fitness be better than higher benefits premiums to pay for prescriptions and other health care? And wouldn't a minister who is balanced in body, mind, and spirit be a good example for congregants?

What do you think? Should clergy be encouraged to be physically fit? Should congregations take on a degree of responsibility? What about your own program of physical fitness?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Slippery as Heaven

I suppose that after a blog entry called Slippery as Hell one entitled Slippery as Heaven was bound to follow. In that blog, which didn't get much response, I pointed out that few of us believe in hell -- which may explain why Laura was the only person willing to offer her thoughts. But not many more of Canadians believe in heaven than they do in hell.

I noticed two books in a bookstore on heaven recently, right out front for everyone to see. They are both on the bestsellers lists. And both are written by physicians who were sceptical about the afterlife but died and went to heaven before coming back again. The titles are Proof of Heaven and To Heaven and Back. 

I wasn't really tempted to buy either of them. It's strange because I do feel that there is a life to come and that in Christ we can have confidence in eternity. I am reluctant to use the word "believe" because this isn't just an intellectual proposition, and my belief cannot be substantiated by empirical proof. It is more of a conviction, a trust. Even so, I'm not big on books about persons who have gone to heaven and come back.

It's even stranger that while many people might be intrigued that these are two scientifically trained individuals, therefore their story carries more weight, I just don't see it that way. Why not an artist, or a plumber, or a computer programmer? Just because they are doctors their stories are neither more or less credible from my standpoint.

We are invited to trust that we are both mortal and eternal beings, who are given a promise of new life in Christ. Maybe both these accounts are convincing and they will change lives. Great. I am willing to work through my fears, my questions, and even my doubt to "believe" without them.

What are your thoughts about eternity?  Do you find solace in the prospect? Are you content with your three score years and ten, or whatever gets served up?

Read Nutty  on Groundling

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Miserable Tale

Soon there will be a movie version of the classic Victor Hugo story, Les Miserables. Les Miz, the musical has launched thousands of school trips and tells a tragic tale of a man who is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed family members. Thank God this couldn't happen in real life.

What about a drama featuring a teen girl who is jailed for throwing crab apples at a postal worker?  Her undiagnosed mental illness leads her to act out in incarceration, so she has time added to her sentence, again and again. Eventually she is uncontrollable and is shunted from institution to institution, sometimes restrained and muted with duct tape. This is a tragedy which ends with the young woman dying in a prison cell while guards look on. Eighteenth-century Jean Valjean, meet twenty-first century Ashley Smith, Canadian citizen in a liberal democracy.

In recent weeks just about everyone has decried what happened to Ashley Smith from the Prime Minister, to corrections officials, to editorial writers. But Ashley is dead, and we have to wonder what has changed. On a number of occasions we have addressed mental health issues together on this blog. Some of you have first-hand knowledge of the impact of compromised mental health and you know that the institutions for the most seriously afflicted are akin to prisons from another era.

Yes, we are seeing changes through CAMH and the  societal stigmas are lifting. But Ashley's story reminds us how grim the reality can be for the mentally ill.

We have agreed that it is essential for Christian communities to respond compassionately to those with mental health issues and to lead the way. But let's be honest, we are still learning, still trying to understand.

What are your thoughts about the Ashley Smith situation? Comments about the way we address mental health issues generally, and within congregations?
Read Wake Up Call on Groundling

Monday, November 12, 2012


Are you prepared to meet your maker? This morning there is a personal outlook piece in the Globe and Mail called Getting in the Last Word by Ed Shannon.  It is written by a man who is one of the rare 150 or so males in this country who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. He has been living with the cancer for a while, having endured a mastectomy and treatment. He has thought through his funeral plans and also sat down to write his obituary to save his wife from having to do so.

What to include? Should his unsettled teen years be mentioned? What about the boring bits, or an explanation of the eleven year courtship of his partner? What matters?

Have you done any serious thinking about The End? It happens to all of us. In recent weeks I have had conversations with four people about their mortality, including sobering realities of resuscitation if heart failure occurs, and the location of funerals.

None of those conversations touched on obits, but what an intriguing thought. What and who would you include? Would your faith in God get a mention? Is this morbid or practical?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest We Forget

This week I went to see one of our members who lives in a nursing facility which has become home for many residents in the throes of dementia. Bob is one of them and slowly but surely he has drifted away from the shore of responsiveness to others. I don't see him as often as I should, but there just isn't much to say, and often he is sitting out where even a prayer or a scripture reading is awkward.

Normally I take the stairs to his floor but it is a hassle to use the code for the secure door so I punched the button for the elevator. The doors opened and there was Bob's photo with four others who are veterans. I did not know this, and had assumed that St. Paul's had two WW2 veterans still with us, Rae and Fred. Now I know there are three.

It hit me as I left him that the motto for Remembrance Day is "Lest we Forget." Has Bob forgotten his service to his country, along with so much that is precious in his memory? Or are his experiences surfacing in the jumble of stuff that rises for dementia patients? I read recently that many of the 200,000 Shoah or Holocaust survivors living in Israel are having horrifyingly real flashbacks as they are beset by dementia. How unfair on top of everything else.

I pray that Bob isn't forgotten because of his Alzheimers. Thank you, God, for the veterans who are left. Thank you for Bob, and Fred, and and Rae, and many more.

What are your thoughts today?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Slippery as Hell

From Honest Abe to vaginas to hell...all in one week? You never know what you'll find with this blog, do you? There was an article in the Globe and Mail recently with the title: Hell is a slippery concept in a secular age. It is the first in "an occasional series on dying, death, and the beyond" according to the author Kate Taylor.

Taylor does a pretty good job of addressing our fading belief in hell in any form, something which shouldn't surprise us since fewer people believe in any form of an afterlife, or are fairly vague about it all. Apparently a 2011 poll in Canada found that 29% of us believe in heaven and 19% believe in hell. I would have figured on a higher percentage for heaven.

None of us have been to heaven, and if we say we have been to hell and back it is only a figure of speech. More and more people view hell as a psychological state rather than an address, if they give hell any thought. The fire and brimstone take on hell always seemed to me to be an attempt to "scare people straight" to heaven and that never impressed me.

Still, there are biblical references to separation from God in the afterlife for those who choose to separate themselves from God in this life. While I don't buy into eternal torment, I have said to my wife, Ruth, that there must be a hell for child molesters and terrorist murderers. But I'm not sure whether this is just moral outrage or an actual conviction.There is evil in this world, even if it doesn't look like the devil in the cheese commercial pictured below who can't get the dozy couple to say "hot as hell."

In the near decade I have been here I have only preached on hell once I think, and I was pretty tepid on the subject. So, what do I know. I have often said my image of hell is eternity in a mall filled with crying babies in strollers holding melting ice cream cones. But given I will be a grandfather soon I may need to change up my imagery.

What do you know? Do you have any convictions about hell, one way or another? Should hell be retired or taken out of mothballs?

Friday, November 09, 2012


I do not have a vagina, nor will I ever have one. I have made my peace with the plumbing God gave me.  Phew. I'm glad that we got that cleared up right away.

Still, vaginas have been in the news lately --really -- in part because of the controversy over a new book by an evangelical Christian writer named Rachel Held Evans,  a committed evangelical Christian, who also identifies as a feminist and a liberated woman. The book is called A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

Evans became interested in the rise of "complementarian" ideas of gender, and the movement for a return to an ideal of "biblical womanhood." The best I can figure, this means guys should be guys and gals should be gals and none of this gender confusion -- ie, equality. Evans spent a year, trying to take the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible. That included covering her hair, obeying her husband and camping out on her front lawn during her period. She is a clever, funny writer and far from subservient, but she decided to give this a whirl. She ended up talking about the book with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC's Q.

The trouble is, she mentioned her vagina in the book, and now she wonders if it has been banned (the book, not her vagina)  from the lucrative shelves of many evangelical bookstores in the States. And here I thought evangelical women were allowed to have one! The bookstore chain in question claims this is not true, but who knows.

It all sounds rather goofy to me, and a sad example of the bizarre conservative Christian negativity about sexuality, particularly when it comes to women. That said, you have probably never heard the word vagina in your church, at any time, ever. And of course, this ambivalence isn't restricted to conservative Christians. Naomi Wolf's latest book is Vagina: A New Biography (I couldn't make this stuff up!) and she has been criticized for broaching the subject. Wolf, bye the bye, is Jewish.

I'm really not trying to be glib about this. Should the V word be left out of popular writing, religious or otherwise? Are we just terribly conflicted about our sexuality, especially women's sexuality? Are you still trying to deal with my admission that I don't have a vagina?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Jesus Christ, Courage Coach

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." Deuteronomy 31:6

I read an article about overcoming fear recently and was surprised that it included suggestions from a "courage coach. " I kid you not. This coach helps people develop strategies for addressing the fight or flight response with healthier alternatives. Hey, if it gets you through the night, or around the spiders, or past the boss, why not?

The article points out that First Responders, pilots, others in potentially high stress professions, practice or rehearse the situations they may find themselves in to overcome anxiety. Do you think that coming together for worship and seeking God's strength is our practice session? There are scores of biblical references to fear and the strength we receive from God to overcome it.

It also occurred to me that Jesus is my Courage Coach. He is the one who tells me that perfect love casts out fear. Jesus reached out to Peter when the disciple began to sink into the waters of Galilee. Jesus is the one who wrestled with his deepest fears in the darkness of Gethsemane and found the courage to be true to his mission.

Do you have fears, reasonable or irrational? How do you overcome them? Is God part of the equation for your courage?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

A House Divided

I will quickly toss in another blog entry this morning after the tight results of last night's U.S. presidential election. In his concession speech Mitt Romney called for an end to political gridlock, and President Obama reminded the electorate that they are the United States of America, not red or blue states.

What came to mind was a speech by arguably the greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln --soon to be coming to a theatre near you. Lincoln was a remarkable orator despite his rather high-pitched voice, and  amongst his many memorable addresses was the House Divided Speech, as it came to be called. Even though Lincoln was not overtly Christian, he was steeped in the words of scripture and the cadence of the prophets. This speech refers to a verse which in the King James Version of Matthew's gospel reads:  Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.

Far too much religious talk was tossed around during this election while there wasn't much evidence of compassion, truth-telling, or fairness. Here is the key paragraph in Lincoln"s speech:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Even though this was about slavery, it seems to apply to the circumstances of America today. What do you think? Where are the United States of America going?

Ikea God

There is a new book called Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine by Eric Weiner, Weiner is of Jewish background but by his own description is a "gastronomic Jew" -- more into the food than the religion -- and a spiritual seeker. The book is about a year-long spiritual quest in which he explores eight different spiritual and mystical traditions in search of God. Weiner delves into everything from major religious traditions to fringe groups such as the Raelians.

Weiner speaks of discovering an "Ikea God" with some assembly required:  "[The] idea is that you can cobble together your sort of own personal religion, a sort of mixed tape of God." A few years ago the Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby coined the term "cafeteria spirituality" to describe the pick-and-choose approach of the late twentieth century. The quest for the Ikea God seems like a progression from that concept.

Perhaps there has always been a "some assembly required" reality to the human perception of God/god/To Whom it May Concern. Some would offer that the tribal God of the early books of the bible is not the God of covenant love in Jeremiah, and certainly not the God revealed in the new covenant of Jesus, the Christ. And different religions have profoundly different approaches to the deity.

The phrase My Flirtations With the Divine in the title of Weiner's probably says a lot about our time. It is the flirting, the chronic dabbling of our age which enervates us, it seems to me. When do we become grounded in a life-giving relationship with God? I am open to explorations of faith and faiths, and to different ways of expressing how we comprehend God. But eventually it is important to "dance with the one who brung ya."

Are you intrigued by the Ikea God? Would this work as a description of your faith, or do you hope for something more? Have you just out-and-out given God the Pink Slip?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Prayers for America

By now many of us have seen the tearful video of the four-year-old girl from Colorado who is sick of the federal election in the US. Little Abigael is upset that all she ever hears about is Bronco Bamma (love it) and Mitt Romney.

 National Public Radio sent her a letter of apology and some gifts as consolation. Maybe they should send some gifts to Canadians as well. It's not our #*%*# election but it is inescapable as the kid who lives next door. Enough already!

That said, a few prayers are in order today. While American elections are drenched in religious talk they are bitter and acrimonious affairs. The issues seem to get lost in the mud-slinging, yet the leadership in the States has a profound impact on Canadians and the world.

We can pray for the election of the party which will best work toward peace for the planet, both in terms of international diplomacy and environmental care. We can pray that the rights of women will be protected. We can pray that health care will be a right, not a privilege, and that everyone will be treated equally under the law.

The United States of America is a great country, despite its flaws, and the world needs its leadership.


Monday, November 05, 2012

Stretching Perceptions

Two Saturdays ago we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario for the excellent exhibit of the work of artists Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They were married to each other -twice!- and had a complicated and often conflicted relationship.

While at the AGO we went to another exhibit by another artist we didn't know, Evan Penny. Penny was formerly a prosthetics wizard in the film industry and now creates large, three-dimensional images of humans which are mind-blowing. They are exceptionally "real" even though they are often stretched and distorted. To stand in front of one of the images is disorienting because of the scale and distortion. The "do no adjust your set" quality invites the viewer to consider what we are actually seeing when we look at others, or whether we actually truly see them.

In the gospels Jesus sees and hears persons who are no longer visible or audible in that culture because of physical and mental illness, or gender, or caste. He is radical in his willingess to touch them and share meals with them. The stories are there to stretch our perceptions of compassion and faith beyond conventions.

Have you heard of Evan Penny? Are you intrigued? What about Jesus as "artist" who calls us to new perceptions of those around us?