Monday, December 31, 2012

The Way

"Not all who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien

This morning I listened to a re-broadcast of a CBC Q interview with Cheryl Strayed. Her biography Wild is about a specific backpacking journey on a demanding West Coast trail which helped Strayed recalibrate her life after the death of her mother. I have "strayed"  away from reading this book because I felt that the author's choice to rename herself Strayed was a bit precious, and in my mind there were overtones of Eat, Pray, Love another memoir which the women in my life felt was very self indulgent. I will say that the interview intrigued me. There was a degree of self-reflection in her responses that invited me in, and there was a rigour to her journey which demands respect.

As you well know, I have reflected on the nature of pilgrimage a number of times, whether it be El Camino (The Way) which several people I know have undertaken, or the Islamic Haj, or the literary quests created by Tolkien including The Hobbit. Of course, Christianity grew out of the movement which was originally called The Way, which spawned a New Testament paraphrase back in the seventies.

On the eve of a new year I wonder whether this is the opportunity for all of us to ask about our way, our purpose. Are we wandering, or straying, or do we have a focus for our journey? Can we  look back over 2012 and see signs of  personal growth? Do we hope that 2013 will be a year of new spiritual beginnings, or the "same old, same old" of conventions which are safe but not particularly stimulating?

These questions are not rhetorical, dear readers! I would love to read your thoughts about all this. Take the risk.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shoot the Messenger

Fourteen years ago I was asked in an interview what I thought  about the gun registry. It goes down as one of the oddest questions ever in an interview for a minstry position, but I responded saying that it didn`t make a lot of sense to me I lived in Northern Ontario at the time where lots of people owned firearms for hunting, and I began ministry in Newfoundland where just about every home had a rifle or a shotgun or multiples of both. Ì.m not against owning weapons for legitimate reasons, altough I can`t imagine ever owning one. Maybe the committee thought this was the social issue de jour, and I must say it was original. The committee didn`t ask my opinion about automatice weapons or handguns which I very strongly oppose.Insanity is the way I would characterize the indiscriminate sale of these instruments of death.

It`s a good thing I live in Canada because expressing these views south of the border might result in a petition to have me deported Ask Piers Morgan. the CNN commentator who is a Brit Thousands have signed a petition to kick him out of the country for saying that arming everyone with an arsenal meant for war can led to know no good.The concern is that Morgan is somehow violating their Second Amendment rights. I believe the right to freedom of expression still exist in America, but apparently there are lots of xenophobic types who don`t want strangers calling on intelligent people to use common sense.

When the spokesperson for the NRA calls a press conference to say that the way to deal with bad guys with guns is to give guns to the good guys you know something has gone terribly wrong. Armed guards in every school I suppose that now they will encourage militia members riding shotgun on every firetruck. Guns do kill people, ,just as cigarrettes kill people

 I wonder about returning to the States even though I have family there and enjoy so many people at courses and on vacation. But maybe they would want me out anyway because of what might be percieved as anti-American views. I just want people to live without fear, for children to go to school safely.

Are you still trying to figure this one out?

Idle No More

As we move through this busy season a movement amongst First Nations peoples has been growing, although with scant media coverage. It is called Idle No More and it seems to be gaining impetus amongst young, dissatisfied aboriginal people who are angry that several years after the Canadian government apologized to First Nations for the residential schools and other wrongs so little has changed. The protest is also aimed at the omnibus budget Bill C-45 that eliminates federally protected waterways and facilitates the sale of reserve lands without consultation. Bill C-45 is, to my mind, anti-democratic, lumping all manner of legislation into one bill so that it is easier for the government to push through

A chief is on a hunger strike, protests are springing up across the country, and some are wondering if this will be the winter of First Nations discontent.

As a denomination which has also issued a couple of apologies to First Nations through the years  I hope we will encourage our members to pay attention to what is unfolding. Our attention has been diverted over Christmas, but it is time to "listen up."

Are you aware of what is happening with Idle No More? Should the United Church express its solidarity?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Notre Dame

When I was a nineteen year old backpacker I stayed in a hostel for Asian and African students in Paris -- it's a long story, ask me sometime! One evening I walked to Notre Dame Cathedral with a thoroughly disagreeable Brit -- it's a long story, ask me sometime!-- where we took in a organ recital.

I have been back to the cathedral a couple of times, including about thirty years after my first visit as  I was on my way back to Canada from the Taize Christian community. I stayed in a truly grotty little hotel called the Esmeralda, just across the Seine River from the magnificent church. The only charming aspect of this abode was the name. You may remember that Esmeralda was the beauty to the Hunchback's beast in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The cathedral is awe-inspiring, one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture, although like many cathedrals it's construction began long before the true flowering of that style.

PARIS -- Dignitaries, tourists and Parisians gathered in the thousands Wednesday for a ceremony and Mass marking the beginning of year-long commemoration of Notre Dame Cathedral's 850th anniversary.
The 12th-century Gothic cathedral looming over the heart of the French capital will get a set of new bells in February, one of the highlights of a year's worth of planned events including seminars, concerts of sacred music and the issuance of commemorative stamps.
Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe are among the civil and religious dignitaries taking part in Wednesday evening events marking the beginning of the cathedral's construction in 1163.
Notre Dame's new bells will go on display in February and are scheduled to be rung for the first time on March 23, 2013.

Have you been to Notre Dame? Have you experienced other cathedrals? Awe-inspiring, or leave you cold?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Butler Did It

You might have missed this story on the weekend, what with the mad dash to prepare for Christmas. The pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, a confident and companion for years was convicted of theft not long ago, for stealing a huge number of sensitive documents from the Vatican. Gabriele said he did it because of his perception of corruption in high Vatican places, although not necessarily the pope himself.  It was his version of Vatileaks, I suppose.

Read this report of what happened on the weekend:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI granted his former butler a Christmas pardon Saturday, forgiving him in person during a jailhouse meeting for stealing and leaking his private papers in one of the gravest Vatican security breaches in recent times.

After the 15-minute meeting, Paolo Gabriele was freed and returned to his Vatican City apartment where he lives with his wife and three children. The Vatican said he couldn’t continue living or working in the Vatican, but said it would find him housing and a job elsewhere soon.

“This is a paternal gesture toward someone with whom the pope for many years shared daily life,” according to a statement from the Vatican secretariat of state.
It's good to know that Pope Benedict was willing to exercise practical forgiveness. Now we might ask what he will do about the cardinals and others Gabriele felt were corrupt.
Did you hear about this? What do you think about it all?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Moose in a Maple Tree

We are now officially into the Christmas Season which doesn't begin in the church year until Christmas Day. This is the shortest of our liturgical seasons (12 days) and takes us through until the Day of Epiphany which is January sixth. We all know the Twelve Days of Christmas song, even if we can't remember it all.  The Christian tradition has been a shameless "borrower" from other religious traditions when it comes to the liturgical calendar and our twelve days are likely rooted in the pagan Yule celebrations.

Here is a Canadian version of the Twelve Days which is just great.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


There was a lengthy article on forgiveness by Ian Brown in the Globe and Mail this past Saturday. In part it was a response to the massacre in Connecticut two weeks ago. What is expected of us when we faced with such horrendous wrongdoing? What are the limits of forgiveness?

Brown mentions in passing that this is a season when forgiveness comes to the fore, which I believe is true even though he carefully avoids mentioning religion of any kind. Christianity is not about worshipping an infant. It is about receiving the forgiving love of Christ and extending it as a gift to others. Christmas can only be Christmas because of Good Friday and Easter. In a way it is Forgivemass.

At the beginning of Advent I chose to speak about forgiveness and invited the congregation to pray for forgiving hearts each day of the season. I did so knowing that the time leading to Christmas is painful for many because of unresolved junk which accentuates sadness rather than opening to joy. I haven't a clue whether anyone followed through on this invitation, but then I never really know the outcome of sermons.

My desire for any who may read today is that the sadness of broken relationship will be mended and that joy will return to your hearts and households. Wherever possible, let Christ in and begin again.

Thank you for reading through the year, and please savour this feast day in our Christian calendar.  Christ loves you, and I think you are swell too!

Monday, December 24, 2012


Last week I visited a woman with dementia which has progressed steadily during the nine-plus years I have been at St. Paul's. She is now in a lovely private nursing home and is quite content there. Each time I go she is a little more unfocussed and confused about even the simplest of things. I had to explain that the colourful squares on her table were birthday and Christmas cards. The concept of cards seems to have escaped her. Yet when I read the names of people signed within them she brightened and could often speak the surname just by hearing the first name.

I read the Christmas story from Luke's gospel to her and it was an interesting experience. She kept interjecting as though I was sharing news about the birth of a child to a friend or acquaintance. In a way that is just what I was doing. She has been a life-long Christian, so she knows Jesus' family intimately. "Oh how nice" she offered when Jesus was born, and "oh dear" when the angels got a scare. I have read this passage to people hundreds of times but it made it fresh for me because her dementia made it new to her.

As I write I realize that this was the unexpected gift of a visit to someone suffering from dementia. I have admitted before that I have to do the "self talk" to go and see these folk because I wonder what good can come from it, and I always have other things I could be doing. I'm glad for Dorothy though, and what she offered me.

Recently I read to our bible study a marvellous note from one of pastoral volunteers who wrote the family of one of the persons she visits in a nursing home who has dementia. It was so beautiful I fought back tears as I read it -- and lost the fight! Even though this visitor goes to see Joan on her way home from a busy work day she wrote about the gift she receives from her elderly friend with Alzheimers.

Giving and receiving gifts is an important part of Christmas, wouldn't you agree?


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Were Ya Born in a Barn?

At the 10:30 service tomorrow, on Christmas Eve I will reflect on the notion of a Canadian Christmas. I will be using the verses of No Crowded Eastern Street, a lovely Canadian carol no one knows, and the nativity paintings of William Kurelek. Kurelek was something of a folk artist, but his images convey a devotional depth rooted in his Roman Catholic faith. He depicts Jesus as the Christ Child born in a barn in several paintings, but he also moves to the seaside where it is fisher folk who come in adoration rather than shepherds and magi.

They make me think outside the conventions of my images of the season, as does the carol.

Do you know Kurelek's work? Does it speak to you? Do you need to be nudged out of the conventional scenes of the season?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christians in the Land of Baby Jesus

 O little town of  Bethlehem,
  how still we see thee lie!
 Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
  the silent stars go by;
 yet in thy dark streets shineth
  the everlasting light;
 the hopes and fears of all the years
  are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary;
  and gathered all above,
 while mortals sleep, the angels keep
  their watch of wondering love.
 O morning stars, together
  proclaim the holy birth,
 and praises sing to God the King,
  and peace to all on earth.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the carol tells us, and who among us wasn't aware of this? His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, were from Nazareth but they headed off to fulfill census requirements. The apostle Paul regained his physical sight in the city of Damascus, and he was converted to Christianity on his way there. Bethlehem is in the West Bank today, Nazareth is in northern Israel, and Damascus in Syria.

Christianity has it origins in the Middle East, but there aren't many Christians left there. One hundred years ago about 20% of citizens in Middle Eastern countries were Christians. Now it is about five percent. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, strong Christian populations have dwindled because of diminished opportunity and persecution. Egypt's Christians wonder what is in store for them because of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Bethlehem Christians are leaving because they are Arabs, and while they are peaceable people they are viewed with suspicion by the Israeli government because of their Muslim neighbours.

Many Christians in the Middle East are well educated in schools established by various mission groups in another time. But not all are affluent, so where can they go?

I was glad when the United Church decided to stand in solidarity with beleaguered Palestinian Christians this past summer, but most of the critics missed that aspect of why General Council took a stand on settlements in the occupied territories. For years I have been woofing about the way we liberal Christians inexplicably ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. When we did we were roundly criticised, even from within our denomination.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, remember those who live in the region where Christ was born.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of the World as We Know It

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

This was the rather jaunty chorus to R.E.M's song The End of the World as we Know It, a fitting anthem for this day. There has been a hullabaloo (such a great word) about this day, December 21st, 2012, being the last day for the planet, according to predictions by Mayan astrologers. Except that Mayan experts (how did these folk become experts on Mayan culture?) assure us that these predictions are entirely unfounded.

It hasn't stopped people from speculating endlessly and actually preparing for the eventuality:
MOSCOW—A Cold War-era bunker designed to save Soviet leaders from a nuclear attack will host a 24-hour party for Russians willing to pay $1,000 for a ticket to escape the apocalypse... Bunker No. 42, now a tourist attraction full of red alarm lights, is located 56 metres underground in central Moscow, near the Kremlin, and can accommodate up to 300 people.

Any excuse for a party! Even the American Red Cross has taken this opportunity to remind people to be prepared for disasters.

Lots of religious types like to scare their followers into believing that the end is nigh, sometimes with dire outcomes for their followers who decide to take their own lives pre-emptively, or give away all their possessions. The guy who gets to me is Pastor Hagee, the tele-preacher from the States who talks incessantly about the end to a big congregation and audience. He lives in a mansion in a gated community and has a salary of about a million dollars a year. Do you wonder if he is sincere?

Jesus told his followers not to speculate about the end, that we won't know the day or the hour. He does invite us to live faithfully,  as though every day matters, which makes alot of sense. I asked our bible study group what they would choose to do with their day if they know Christ was showing up at 7:00 PM. One of our octogenerians, as fine a Christian as you're going to meet, said she didn't want to seem arrogant, but she wouldn't change much. I can see why. She is a kind, generous, loving person. Why would she mess with a good thing?

Any End Times thoughts folks? Are you glad you're still here, or you a little disappointed? What would you do if the end was at hand?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good News

Do you want a good new story to start your day? Bethesda House the shelter for women and children who have left abusive relationships prepares Christmas food and toy hampers for clients each year. This can be a tough time for the households Bethesda House serves and even though many decline the offer, this year they will distribute between 85 and 90. The trouble is that this year less food has come in, in part because the unsettled situation in the education system has meant that the school Food Drives have been less effective or non-existent. The hampers, to be distributed today, were looking bare and the organizers weren't sure what to do.

I sleep with one of the Bethesda House staff members (my wife Ruth!) and heard about this as we lay in bed thinking about getting going on the day Tuesday. So I spoke with acting St. Paul's treasurer Cyndy who quickly cut a cheque for $500 from our Benevolent Fund. I mentioned all this to a group of colleagues over lunch, and got a call later from St. Mark's in Whitby offering $500 more. The folk at Bethesda House are pleasantly stunned by this speedy response.

There is so much criticism of organized religion these days, much of it misinformed and mean-spirited. I'm here to tell you that so many Christians are generous and good-hearted and care for those who may be going through difficult circumstances. At the joint Trinity/ St. Paul's choir concert on Sunday afternoon the folk on hand gave $1000 for the work of The Gathering Place community meal. Good people!

More than this though, so many of these same people are generous with their time as well, and compassionate in many facets of community life. It makes me proud of what we accomplish together, but also humbled by the way Christ calls us into self-giving love.

Thank you to everyone who supports our various ministries.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
( Listen to what I say)
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
(Listen to what I Say)

The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

The seasonal song Do You Hear What I Hear is now officially in the realm of my "I did not know that!" list. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of this song, written by an American couple in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis had the United States on the brink of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, which had missiles in Cuba, pointed at the United States. This madness was narrowly averted and was one of the key events of President John Kennedy's term in office. Since the song was written it has been covered by hundreds of artists, everyone from Der Bingle to Carrie Underwood.

It is a reminder that not only is music written in the midst of real-world circumstances, Christ came as the Prince of Peace in the midst of the hostilties of his time, and he was eventually put to death by the powerful Roman Empire. In that respect religion, art, and politics do mix.

Were you aware of the origins of this song? Do you find it interesting?

Read my latest Groundling Blog about a new bio of Rachel Carson.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Xmas 3

Give me strength. The city of Brussels in Belgium has chosen to dispense with the traditional Christmas tree in favour of a weird construction of steel boxes called the Xmas 3. What is this thing? Some sort of bizarre homage to the commercialization of the so-called Holiday Season? No one seems to know and there are as many reasons given for the shift as there are city officials.

The legend tells us that Martin Luther saw stars twinkling through the boughs of an evergreen tree and sought to replicate its beauty with candles. It is also suggested that the Christmas tree is a Christian appropriation of the sacred trees of the pagan tradition in Europe. Who knows.

There has been plenty of angry reaction to Xmas 3 and it will be interesting to see if it reappears next year, despite the assurances that this quasi-Lego construct is not meant to demean or usurp Christmas.

What do you think of this? Do you associate Christmas trees with the Christian tradition? Are you okay with them in public places even if they are "Christian?"

Take a look at my Groundling blog about an impressive new bio on Rachel Carson.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Enough is Enough

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage?

President Barack Obama in Newtown Connecticut

Some of you will recall that I wrote about my experience in Wyoming this summer while on a course at Ring Lake Ranch. Even though we were in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" we received news of the senseless murders of movie-goers in relatively nearby Aurora, Colorado within hours of the incident. At chapel in the morning we dispensed with the usual format for worship so that we might pray and reflect on what had happened. I walked away angry, surprisingly, because no one suggested that the madness of the gun culture in the States has to change. As the lone Canadian I felt as though I was from another planet, even though this was a fine group of thoughtful Christians.

Last night President Obama offered what has already been described as his "enough is enough" speech in Newtown, Connecticut, where innocent school children and teachers were massacred. The young man who killed them had a history of mental health issues, yet his mother was armed to the teeth with weapons which included an assault rifle. This is obscene, and the president seems to finally realize that sombre condolences are not enough. There has to be a national strategy which changes the culture of violence.

 The mayor of Newtown commented that evil had visited his town. Sadly, the evil lived there, and does in countless other communities in the form of the reckless endangerment of its citizens because of lax gun laws which allows legal procurement of weapons used for domestic terrorism. Isn't it ironic that the United States has spent hundreds of billions fighting terrorism overseas, and billions more on homeland security, yet some of the worst terrorist acts have been perpetrated by young white males who are the "boys next door."

I hope the pastors of America had the courage to call for gun control in worship services yesterday. I hope President Obama has the fortitude to make a difference.

Do you have any hope that there will be change? What is your gut reaction to all of this?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Leap of Faith, Leap for Joy

I have been conversing -well emailing-- with reader Lynn who is working her way through the Lay Worship Leaders program offered through the United Church. Lynn is already an accomplished motivational speaker and decided to take the plunge into preachin' and churchin'.

Our exchanges have been around this day which is the Sunday of Joy in the Advent season. While I am at St. Paul's, Lynn which will be preaching twice at a nearby pastoral charge. On Friday afternoon, when both of us were finished our messages (we are so virtuous) she emailed to address the tragic murders at a Connecticut school. How do we speak about joy when there is such suffering?

There is no real answer, but in my response I said:

This is always a pastoral challenge for sermons which are meant to bring hope and light. Unfortunately there are always people in a congregation who are heavy-hearted and feeling hopeless as we speak about hope and peace and joy and love, the Advent themes.  We still need to affirm all of these, perhaps especially so given the bleakness of the world around us.
We both made adjustments to what we would say, but this does remind us that tragedy and sadness and violence are never-ending. Still we ask God to lead us through the darkness which could smother everything meaningful in our lives. Affirming joy is a leap of faith.
Is there room for joy in the midst of sadness all around us? Does Christ bring joy in your life?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's a Shame

The prank call was juvenile and invasive and got much farther than the two DJ's from Australia ever anticipated. Somehow they got past one nurse to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton's caregiver, where they were given information about her condition they should never have received. The DJ's exulted in their improbable triumph until they were told that the first nurse was dead, probably by her own hand. I have no doubt that their remorse is real and they are devastated by this outcome.

Many people have speculated as to why Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two would take her own life over something which was an embarrassment to be sure, but an unwitting gaffe. Was she mentally ill or fragile?  Her family loved her, her co-workers admired her, and she had not been admonished by her bosses.  I wonder if it was shame that caused her to spiral downward, as undeserved as it was.

As I thought about shame I rummaged around for an article I read by Carol Zaleski back in 2009. It explores, quite thoughtfully, the connection between shame and guilt:

Shame, however, is an even more elusive and mercurial word than guilt. It serves as an exclamation, as a substantive, as a transitive verb. It describes a phenomenon that is at once physiological, affective and cognitive: a burning and reddening of the face (hence the Latin erubesco) triggered by the awareness of being caught out or appearing wrong in the sight of real or imagined others. The phenomenon is a social one too: we are never ashamed alone, but only before the eyes of a teacher, parent, friend, rival or alter ego. The sense of shame proves that we are social animals whose blood and nerves unavoidably betray our connection to other people.

On one level, shame is a mechanism for internalizing social codes, suitable for deterring undesirable behavior but subject to misuse. On another level, shame signals the dignity of the human person, telling of our freedom to embrace or reject our relationship to God...

Perhaps I have said or done something embarrassing. I wish it could be undone. I pray, in effect: Lord, don’t you have a time machine I could borrow? It would take but a moment to undo that small thing and no one need be the wiser. But the prayer is refused. Eventually the shame fades away on its own, and something else takes its place: the awareness of a deeper guilt, so far below the surface that no reproach attaches to it; no one knows about it, and no one would think less of me for it, for it is the human condition.

Shame feels like a sharp pang or sting, but guilt feels like a heavy weight.

Shame can be deeply rooted in our upbringing, our secrets, our sense of self. Sometimes religion can create unreasonable shame in our innermost being. All I know is that my heart sank when I heard of  Jacninta's death. What a waste of a life in our increasingly boorish, celebrity-obssessed society. Pray for her family.

What are your thoughts on shame? Is it part of your own struggle? Does your faith deepen or free you from shame?

Friday, December 14, 2012


The movie version of the Tolkien classic The Hobbit will be released in North America today, and if the Lord of the Rings series is any indication it will be hugely popular. I think Martin Freeman is well cast as Bilbo, and Andy Serkis is back as the creepy Gollum. In an interview Serkis said that he patterned Gollum's voice after a cat coughing up a hair ball! It is long at nearly three hours and one critic described it as "bladder testing."

We decided to reread the novel, which is actually entitled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. We were struck by how much time is spent at the beginning letting the reader know that hobbits love security and  familiarity before Bilbo Baggins ventures off on his insecure and risk-taking adventure. Why would he ever leave his "creature comforts" for the unknown? Because he feels compelled to do so, and off he goes for a quest which brings about personal growth and unexpected heroism.

Even though I will never be mistaken for a hobbit it occurs to me that as life progresses I am less inclined to leave the comfort of the hearth, figuratively speaking, to head off on new adventures. And I am aware that I serve in an institution whose participants love the familiar and are often wary of the unexpected and unpredictable, even though Jesus the Christ embodied these attributes.

Only days from Christmas we are well aware that many will attend worship services for what they know as "comfort food" for the soul, rather than to begin something new. Bilbo discovered that the journey is fraught with danger and filled with reward. Perhaps Christianity in our North American setting can flourish again if we are willing to go on the road with Jesus the way the first disciples were willing to venture forth.

Are you looking forward to The Hobbit movie? Are you adventurous, or do you crave security? Is there any heroic discipleship in your faith journey? Are what were once Hobbits now vices? Sorry...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The War on Christmas

Fox News has been trying to get as much mileage as possible from the alleged "War on Christmas." You know, the concerted effort to expunge any Christian imagery from this season. No matter that Fox features a number of mean-spirited commentators who make Ebeneezer Scrooge look good. Jesus is the reason for the season, don't you know, so let's grumble -- alot.

I do believe that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I have noticed that many of the email "forwards" I receive lamenting his absence get around to blaming "those people," and "those people" are invariably representatives from other religions. My experience is that Muslims and Hindus and Jews have no problem with Christians celebrating Christmas, but lets not confuse the sentiments with the facts.

Fox interviewed Father Jonathan Morris, a Roman Catholic priest, whom I'm sure they figured would jump on the bandwagon or Santa's sleigh or whatever mode of conveyance would transport us toward an angry denunciation of The War. Instead he offered this:

"The reason I’m not angry is that, yes I think it’s silly, it’s out of place for people to dedicate so much energy to try to get rid of Christmas scenes like this. The good news is when Christianity has been persecuted, when it has been outlawed, when people have died for this faith, it hasn’t gone away. And everybody has an opportunity to make sure that their faith does not go away in this Christmas season and to live that faith as a family, as a community.”

Nice going Father Morris. For several hundred years there was no official acknowledgment of Christmas and the reason it is celebrated in late December is that early Christians sneaked it in around Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival, so no one would notice.

This past Sunday I said to our flock that if they want Christ in Christmas they should include Christ in their own preparations and celebrations.

What do you think about Father Morris' observations? What about the War on Christmas? Are you willing to be part of a minority, maybe even one that is persecuted?

Should Canada have allowed the sale of Nexen?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stand Up for Justice

The Conservative government of Canada is squirming under public scrutiny of the total boondoggle of the cost of F-35 fighter jets. Originally insisting that the cost to taxpayers would be nine billion dollars, some estimates now stand at forty-five billion, including maintenance over the life of the planes.

It is a couple of years since I presented a letter to the court of Oshawa Presbytery about the Canadian purchase of fighter jets. I co-chair the Mission, Outreach, and Advocacy Committee and part of our mandate is to be a burr under the saddle of governments about issues of social justice. The discussion was lively, and at least one member of the court suggested this was partisan politics, which it was not. In the end we agreed to send the letter to Defence Minister MacKay. Some weeks later we got a "blah, blah, blah, thank you but go away" response. Here is a portion of what we said:

Dear Mr. MacKay

We write as Canadians who have a deep and abiding appreciation of those who  serve in the Canadian military.  We also believe that our military personnel must be well equipped in order to be effective in the  realities of modern warfare and protecting sovereignty.

Nonetheless, we want to express our strong concern about the current  proposal to purchase  F-35 fighter jets.  Our concerns include the lack of a proper tendering process,  the necessity and effectiveness  of these jets in the current realities of NORAD and the prohibitive cost.  Recent reports suggest that the actual price tag for this purchase exceeds the original estimates by billions of dollars

Most of all, we are aware that there are unfulfilled commitments  in other areas of Canadian life which have not yet been addressed by the Canadian government. These include the resolution of land claims and treaty rights with our Aboriginal peoples and the need to provide a reasonable standard of health care,  education, and housing  in Native communities. 

When I am labouring over these letters I do wonder at times why we bother. I never thought that we would get a "by golly, you have a point there -- the purchase is off!" reply. But from my perspecitve there are occasions when we just need to stand up and go on the record, to be faithful, even if our efforts seem amusingly quixotic at best, and hopelessly naive at the worst.
What do you think?  Is this Mission, Advocacy, and Outreach stuff a waste of my and our time?  Where you even aware that this is an aspect of my ministry, which you support? Is social justice an important aspect of the United Church of Canada "brand?" Is justice "gospel" or should we stick to bringing people to Christ, to use a phrase more popular in conservative Christian circles? Are political cartoonists the new prophets?

Can there be a decent novel about climate change? 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Faith of Dave Brubeck

Jazz musician Dave Brubeck died not long ago, at the ripe old age of 92. His ensemble offered a smooth jazz style that was my introduction to the genre, and I always enjoyed it. Listen to Take Five, courtesy of Youtube

As is so often the case with prominent figures, I learned more about Brubeck after his death than I ever knew while he was alive, including the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. These religious convictions were expressed through his sacred compositions. Read this from Sojourners Magazine:

Brubeck said his service in World War II convinced him "something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God." That experience gave him the idea of an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, particularly the "Thou shalt not kill" part.
But he did not act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, when he wrote a short piece, "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.That piece was incorporated into 1968’s "A Light in the Wilderness," his first full-scale sacred composition.
That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s "The Gates of Justice," a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; "Truth is Fallen," in 1971; "La Fiesta de la Posada" in 1975; and "Beloved Son," in 1978.
"When I write a piece, a sacred piece, I’m looking hard and trying to discover what I’m about, and what my parents were about and the world is about," he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Brubeck also wrote a Roman Catholic mass called To Hope: A Celebration.  A great title for Advent, don't you think?

Do you know Brubeck's music? Were you aware of his Christian faith?

Take a look at my latest Groundling blog entry

Monday, December 10, 2012


I feel that I should issue a "gush alert" because I'm about to wax rhapsodic about the film Lincoln. We never know whether Steven Spielberg will use his considerable talents to create something mawkish or a masterpiece -- he has done both. Lincoln is an epic Hollywood story, even though it offers an intimate portrait of the Civil War president and his family.

Daniel Day Lewis is remarkable as Lincoln, and there is a formidable cast of seasoned actors around him. Sally Field begged Spielberg to let her screen-test for the part of Lincoln's wife Mary, even though she is twenty years older than her character was at the time the story is told.

The opening scene in Lincoln is riveting as several young soldiers, two of them men of colour, speak with the president in the military field, under the cover of night. Even though they are not of any signiificant rank or station they have Lincoln's ear and recite portions of the Gettysburg address "by heart."

The story explores the weight of the mantle of leadership, including the compromises made to achieve goals. In another scene Lincoln comments that in his younger days as a surveyor is wasn't enough to look to the compass and establish true north. One also has to take into account the swamps and thickets which might  impede progress.It b ecomes apparent that the moniker of Honest Abe earned in his youth was compromised in the crucible of a war that killed three quarters of a million people. We are given a portrait of Lincoln the flawed man with a calling, not just the Mount Rushmore icon.

Lincoln is timely given the ridiculous deadlock in the current American political arena. But is also speaks to what we expect in the way of leadership in turbulent times within virtually every established institution, including the church. Do noble and worthwhile ends justify the means? How do we establish our true north, and how do we get there?  Are any and all methods, ncluding cultural kitsch in worship and promises of wealth and glory permissible to aid in sharing the Gospel?

Have you seen Lincoln? Can films point us greater truths? Do we need modern-day parables to help us examine what we value?

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Today an impressive gang of children and youth will lead our White Gift service at St. Paul's. Last week about 50 kids and leaders vacated the sanctuary to get ready, which was almost a quarter of the congregation! Again this year the gifts will go to the Salvation Army, the organization which distributes food on behalf of our local ministerial, and Bethesda House, the shelter and outreach centre which supports women and children in crisis.

People are generous at this time of year and often enquire about supporting a household in need. A couple of reminders. First, that teens tend to get short-changed in the outpouring of Christmas generosity. Literally tons of toys and clothing are given for young children through various agencies. Little ones are cute and cuddly and Christmasy, the puppies of our generous impulses. Teens not so much, but they often feel displacement from home and familiar surroundings very deeply, and are keenly aware of what they have lost. 

One of our members is collaborating with co-workers to team up with teens through The Refuge in Oshawa. Clarence, the director there, recently became our second Gathering Place chef, and he seems like a great guy. The "about us" link on the website says:

The Refuge is a Christian charitable organization dedicated to showing Christ's unconditional love, kindness, and offer grace to homeless and street youth in the Regional Municipality of Durham regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, life situation, or creed.

Whatever you choose to do, act on your generous impulses, whether it is Christmas or any other time of the year.


Saturday, December 08, 2012

Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas!

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights begins today but there is only one person in our St. Paul's congregation for whom this has personal meaning. Adam grew up in an observant Jewish household and eventually embraced Jesus the Jew as Jesus the Christ as well. Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday in terms of religious significance but in North America it has become a lovely time for family and a way of being Jewish in a predominantly Christian culture.
"I remember one year, when I was very young…  My uncle Howard wanted to try and make the celebration more exciting for my sister and I, and his kids…  So, he invented Chanukkah Harry…  And with his *BIG* booming voice, he gave out all the gifts to the kids…  And of course, made a big deal with the adults as well…  That was interesting…

 I remember going to Shul (synagogue)  the evening of Chanukkah, and davening (reciting prayers) in the sanctuary, then going into the basement and having all the wonderful Jewish pastries and foods, surrounded by all the other Jewish kids from Oshawa… 

 I remember sitting around our dining room table, lots of family around, and having wonderful meals and family time…  It’s all very similar to Christmas family time….  I do miss spending time with my family, now that most of them are gone… "
Doesn't this sound a lot like the way families celebrate Christmas? Thanks for this Adam. We're glad that you are part of our Christian family, even as you remember your Jewish roots. Read more about Hanukkah. Mix up some latkes while yo're at it.
Thoughts anyone?

Friday, December 07, 2012


Finally, finally, finally, the Canadian government has acknowledged that the state of Israel makes some choices which violate international law and impede the progress of a healthy peace and a two state solution in that region. Prime Minister Harper has criticized Israel's announcement that it will build settlements in disputed territory which would effectively bisect an area that is predominantly Palestinian.

To be clear, I do not condone or support the violent actions of any Palestinian group. They too undermine peaceful co-existence. I despise terrorism and groups such as Hamas which promote it. But in recent years Canada has scrutinized and criticized every action by the Palestinians and threatened to withdraw financial aid for having the temerity of asking for even modest recognition of a Palestinian entity. For some reason which most of us cannot comprehend hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has our blind support.

When the vote was taken last week in the United Nations only nine nations opposed recognition while others chose to abstain as a sign that neither a yes or a no was a suitable response to the request. Canada was one of those nine, and John Baird scolded the U.N. for its decision. I was embarrassed by our "blunt force" diplomacy, totally out of keeping with our Canadian tradition. Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail observed this week that we no longer have a Middle East policy. It is now an Israel policy.

Folks, the United Church of Canada was vilified for suggesting what the Canadian government and many others are now conceding during the August meeting of General Council. These settlements are illegal and punitive and are the source of injustice. We are not anti-Israel and we are certainly not anti-Jewish. We are pro-justice. Not long ago a coalition of 15 American church groups made an even stronger statement than the United Church. That diverse coalition has also been criticized relentlessly.

The Israel government and Jewish groups in Canada and the United States remind us regularly that Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. I applaud this and we all should. And we should expect that it act like one, including abiding by international law.

Was anyone else relieved to hear Mr. Harper's statement? Are you any clearer now on your own stand? Should the United Church keep yapping?

The meek and the mighty of climate change

Thursday, December 06, 2012


I was angry on Sunday afternoon when football commentators pussy-footed around the grim fact that a player for the Kansas City Chiefs murdered his partner the day before.
The only one who stepped up was Bob Costas, who called for greater gun control.

Jovan Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, then drove to Arrowhead Stadium where he killed himself in front of his coach. This was a terrible act of domestic violence , so simply speaking about a team in shock and reporting that his team-mates were playing the game for Belcher (yes, they went ahead with the game) was not good enough. There was a moment of silence before the game to honour victims of domestic violence, but this was a real situation which resulted in the deaths of two human beings. Why weren't they playing the game for Perkins, who was the victim?

We now know that the Chiefs had provided counselling for Belcher, 25, and Perkins, 22, the mother of his child, because of their financial and relationship issues. We can make men rich for playing a game. When will we teach men in our culture that intimidation and violence is not acceptable? We do not own our partners --that's why we call them partners. We don't own our children --they are gifts within our relationships. We just don't want to acknowledge the relentless litany of violence against women in our society.

In our household we talk about this all the time because of Ruth's work as a crisis counsellor for Bethesda House, our local shelter. The situations she describes stun me and cause me shame as a man.  I keep wondering how we as the church can do more. I continue to raise the issue in our presbytery through our Mission, Outreach, and Advocacy committee. It's not enough.

I appreciated the article in the Toronto Star by Cathal Kelly. It was honest and well written. We need more of this.

Any thoughts about what transpired? What about the broader issues of domestic violence in our culture. What can the church do?

Read about the Green Patriarch on Groundling

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Pregnant Pause

Congratulations to Kate and William who are now "in the family way." The Queen and Prince Philip must be pleased at the prospect of being great-grandparents. Kate is apparently suffering from extreme morning sickness and has been hospitalized for a few days. I wonder if she would have been admitted to hospital if she wasn't a member of the royal family, but that is quibbling. 

You may recall that I wrote about my wife Ruth being in hospital to give birth to our son Isaac while Diana was in a British hospital givng birth to William thirty years ago. Now Ike and our daughter-in-law Rebekah are expecting a child mid-January. Rebekah experienced prolonged sickness through two trimesters which was more like "day" than "morning." No hospital stay though.

Family pregnancies are wonderful times of expectation and anticipation for most of us and of course we always hope and pray for the best. The "pregnancy" of Advent is meant to be a time of thoughtful and expectant waiting rather than the mad consumer rush that the season has become in our culture. Healthy pregnancies are meant to go "full term" no matter whether we would like to rush toward fruition or not. We are excited as a family, but we have six weeks to go, and we can't do anything but pray, get excited, and celebrate in the baby's and God's good time. Just so you know, our grandchild will be royalty!

Are you more or less willing to let Advent be Advent than you once were? Are you impatient for Christmas, or okay with going full term?

Read about the Green Patriarch on Groundling

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


Chris Stedman was an evangelical Christian who came to a place of understanding about his gay sexual orientation, and also concluded that he was an atheist. But unlike some atheists who were raised in conservative Christian environments, or the so-called New Atheists who seem intent on caricaturing and trashing anything to do with religon and faith and God, Stedman encourages a respective dialogue.

Stedman, a humanist college chaplain (no, I didn't realize they existed either!) has written a book called Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. In a Washington Post interview Stedman responds to a question about his defintion of a faitheist.

Q: What does the term “faitheist” mean? Is it a positive label or a derisive one?

A: It’s one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.

I am a Christian and I alway want to bear witness to the faith within me, to paraphrase scripture, but I am convinced that in our increasingly secular world dialogue is essential. I cringe at those who want to impose faith of any kind, just as I have little time for those who seem to want to gleefully criticize faith in any expression. I may buy Stedman's book, and it might be a good focus for a discussion group.

Have you heard the term faitheist before? Does it make you suspicious, or give you hope? A good subject for a discussion group or a little "beyond the pale?"

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

Monday, December 03, 2012

An Officer and a Gentleman

Wow. I thought the headline said New York police officer gives the boot to homeless man. Instead it was about an NY cop who gave socks and boots to a street guy one night recently, not knowing he was being watched. Read this:

NEW YORK — A tourist's photo of a New York City police officer giving new boots to a barefoot homeless man in Times Square has created an online sensation.
Jennifer was visiting the city with her boyfriend on Nov. 14 when she came across the shoeless man asking for change. As she was about to approach, she said the officer — identified as Larry DePrimo — came up to the man with a pair of all-weather boots and thermal socks on the frigid night.
She recorded his generosity on her cellphone. The photo shows the officer kneeling beside the man with the boots at his feet.
The photo was posted Tuesday night to the NYPD's official Facebook page and became an instant hit. More than 325,000 users ``liked'' it as of Thursday morning, and more than 79,000 shared it.
Thousands of people commented, including one person who praised him as ``An officer AND a Gentleman.''
The NYPD Facebook page on Thursday posted a comment from DePrimo saying, ``I didn't think anything of it.''
The homeless man has not been identified.
``'I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let's put them on and take care of you,''' Foster quoted DePrimo as saying. ``The officer squatted down on the ground and proceeded to put socks and the new boots on this man. The officer expected NOTHING in return and did not know I was watching.''
Foster said she's worked in law enforcement for 17 years and has never been more impressed.
``His presentation of human kindness has not been lost on myself or any of the Arizona law enforcement officials with whom this story has been shared'' Foster wrote on Facebook.

I immediately thought of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an example of humble, servant love. And I bet their feet smelled better.