Thursday, January 31, 2013

Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Recently a bible study member asked whether the Old Testament story we were reading was literally true or an "urban myth." I responded, as I often have, that the United Church is not literalist in its approach to scripture. That doesn't mean we dismiss the narrative of scripture as not true, or a collection of urban myths. I suggested that the canon or collective books of The Book were gathered because they speak deep truths to us, despite the truly puzzling and disturbing parts, and our struggles at times to comprehend context. We are to neither dismember scripture as liberals tend to do, or embalm it as the conservatives are inclined. This is the observation of Gilbert Highet, and I agree.

Instead we receive the story of God's steadfast love and deliverance. We wrestle with it and embrace it, as we can. We allow it to be our Christian narrative, rather than a rule book or an architectural outline for "God's wonderful plan for your life" and we enter into the story of transformation. I choose to accept the arch of this story, even if don't read it all literally. Actually I do see the bible as mythological, but not in the sense of a "tall tail" or a false story. In the deeper sense myths are the cultural narratives which shape our perception of the world, and my life would not make sense without the bible.

All this as a preamble to an interesting article in the New York Times called Has Fiction Lost It's Faith? about how faith is or isn't represented in fiction these days. I love fiction as a way to ponder the meaning of my existence, but I do notice that faith is nearly always dismissed, or demeaned in the societal narrative these days. There are some wonderful fiction writers, including Marilynne Robinson, who write of faith in their characters lives in a profound and honest way, but they are fewer and farther between.

Are you a fiction reader? Is your reading simply entertainment, or a window on deeper truths? Do you appreciate the narrative aspect of scripture -- Leviticus and a few other books aside? Can you accept the tension between an non-literal reading of the bible and the life-changing value of its message?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Liar, Liar, Cycling Pants on Fire?

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51

You may have noticed that after disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong went into the small-screen confessional with high priestess Oprah I was conspicuously silent. I felt that he didn't deserve my attention, either in watching the interviews or offering second-hand analysis of his sincerity. I did hear that he admitted to systematic cheating and lying, but he didn't offer that he was sorry, justifying his actions by claiming that he wasn't really an egregious sinner because his cheating was simply ensuring a level playing field with all the other miscreants.

Well, after last Sunday's interview on Sixty Minutes with the person most responsible for finally exposing Armstrong I decided to bluster away. Travis Tygart, the director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says  that rather than "coming clean" Armstrong lied to Winfrey. I had tuned in to Sixty Minutes for President Obama and Hilary Clinton but I stayed for Tygart and he was impressive. Point by point he demonstrated that Armstrong was self-serving and dishonest in his answers to Winfrey. According to Tygart, some of his lies were intended to protect him from prosecution.

Tygart also detailed how the calculating Armstrong destroyed the careers of those on his team who testified against him, as well as other riders. And that he made efforts to both bribe and discredit the USADA along with attempting to intimidate Tygart. Watching with wife Ruth, we agreed that if all this is true Armstrong is an exceptional cruel man, and a pathological liar, despite the crocodile tears of his interview.

We are only a couple of weeks away from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. We will probably use Psalm 51 once again, in which the powerful but deeply penitent King David cries out for God to create a clean heart within him. David had no press conferences, spin teams, Oprah to rejig his image. He admitted his wrongdoing and started over, through the grace of God.

Anyone else see the Sixty Minutes piece? What about the Oprah interview? Have we become numbed to the dishonesty of those who are supposedly heroes, leaders, and role models? What about our personal honesty?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hopes and Fears of Parenting

I promise this is not the beginning of an inundation of  parent/grandparent blog entries. It is coincidental or serendipitous (maybe even providential) that I read a review of a book on Christian parenting recently and I had saved it my drafts. Here it is, a couple of days after our firstborn and his wife became parents.

I'm inclined to think that is important to be good parents who are Christian rather than Christian parents, as though there is some template for how to do this correctly.We live in a rapidly changing and secular world and our kids will live in this milieu, whatever our concerns may be. We have lovely Christian friends who have home-schooled to insulate their young 'uns, with mixed success. And the evidence is in that a fairly high percentage of children and young people who attend Christian schools are also church and faith drop-outs when they get to college and university. It is hard not to be anxious about whether we are doing a good job of parenting.

We all want our children to have a moral compass and for many of us there is the conviction that Christian faith matters. Values of compassion, generosity, justice for "the least of these" are learned.  I like the reviewers description of the book:

Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses have written a book about being not-perfect parents in a not-perfect world. The result, Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People, is a joyous celebration of child-rearing in which any parent—no matter how perfect—can share.
"I want to have a happy and healthy marriage, and I want to have happy, faithful kids," proclaims co-author McCleneghan in the introduction to the book. "But I reject the pervasive cultural lie that a happy marriage and the faithful kids are somehow the byproducts of some rigorous and largely unattainable personal or moral perfection."
Thus, Hopes and Fears is neither a "how-to" book nor a mere meditation. Rather, the authors seek to find the beautiful and the spiritual in the sometimes mundane activities that parents have performed since the beginning of history, while at the same time allowing beautiful and spiritual insights of the past to inform and shape the activities of modern parenting. Thus, the words of a hymn can trigger an idea about how to deal with bedtime, and an exercise in baby-naming can lead to a better understanding of a passage in Isaiah. The intertwining of the spiritual and familial in this book constantly surprises and delights: a quote from Paul Tillich can stand next to one from Tina Fey or What to Expect When You’re Expecting. 

Lots of readers are parents of children still at home, and many more are hoping that the family environment "took" as their adult kids venture through life.

Any comments about how you are faring as parents? What about the faith aspect?

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Blessing of Nicholas

We spent yesterday in a glow of relief and celebration on news that our first grandchild, Nicholas, has arrived safely in this world. Son Isaac called 90 minutes after the lil' gomer was born and we could hear him crying in the background. So new to this life and already testing out his lungs. Since Nicholas was eleven days overdue Rebekah must be thinking "finally!"

This generational stuff is remarkable really. I remember so well the night of Isaac's birth and the mixture of terror and elation. He was our first child and what did we know about parenthood? We blinked and suddenly we are grandparents! We hope that we go through this many times more as each of our three adult children eventually enters into parenthood. No pressure though!

It is interesting that as I have been preaching a series on blessing I began with God's blessing on Abraham and Sarah, who assumed they would never have children. God's promise is an abundance of generations. Then the blessing of Isaac, their son, on the wrong twin boy, Jacob. We know that each generation has the potential for boths blessings and curses, but we choose to take the risk of birth, as God took the risk of birth.

We have no crystal ball for the health and welfare of our children or grandchildren. Instead we delight in the moment and thank God for the gracious gift of a helpless child. How blessed we are!


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Worry Worts Anonymous

 I have been invited via email to participate in an online course offered by Spirituality & Health magazine which will unfold over three weeks. It is on the subject of worry. What a good idea! Worry and anxiety plague many of us and we hear the stories of so many people who are doing okay trying to balance everything in their lives, then worry seems to get the upper hand. Others concede that they have been chronic worriers for as long as they can remember, often stemming from difficult childhoods. The leaders introduce the course, which begins this Sunday with these thoughts:
We smiled when we saw that Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls herself a "recovering worrier." She admits that she is one of those people who make up negative stories about what might happen, but then she tries not to believe them. Perhaps you, like us, can identify with that. We all too quickly forget Mark Twain's sage comment that most of the things we worry about will never happen.

Rather than just wish worries away, we can actually work with our worries to see what they have to teach us. Then we'll be better prepared to face them when they return or to get beyond new ones that emerge. Worry is such a common experience that it's not surprising that the spiritual traditions offer practices for worriers and recovering worriers.
It all sounds sensible to me. I would sign up, but then I might worry about having time to follow through each day. Worriers will get this humour.
What do you think? Are you are worrier or a "what, me worry" type?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

An Artful Lord's Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer, by Chris Taylor

Friday, January 25, 2013

Death of a Garment Worker

Recently designer Sujeet Sennik wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper in which he confessed complicity in the deaths of garment workers in a factory fire in Bangladesh. In the article he says that he lit the fire and that he is guilty of murder.

It is a very dramatic attempt at connecting our desire for cheap fashion items and consumer goods with the pathetic and dangerous conditions in which many of those who prduce them labour. He was not physically present when this fire took place, and he is not an arsonist. Sennik does speak from experience. He was actually in an Asian garment factory when a fire broke out. And as a designer he knows the pressure of producing clothing that can be sold at competitive prices in a market where people can afford more.

I have to confess that while I say I believe in justice for all, I don't check the labels of my clothing to see where it is produced. I think my biggest sin is that the availibility of cheap goods means that I buy more whether I need it or not. I could buy less and choose companies which pay workers a fair wage and create reasonable working environments. Maybe the labourers who produce my stuff are treated fairly, but I honestly don't know.

Sennik may overstate the case, but I appreciated getting the jolt to make me think about simplicity, and fairness and justice. Isn't that the call to Christians?

Do you take the time to discover the source of the stuff you are buying? What about the article? Too much guilt or a wake-up call?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Stories We Tell

I listened to an interview with Sarah Polley this week in which she spoke about her award-winning documentary, Stories We Tell. Polley managed to be fairly secretive about her subject matter prior to the release of the film but it is certainly revealing. It is about the discovery that the man who raised her and is her beloved parent is not her biological father. Her mother, who died when she was young, had an affair which resulted in a pregnancy. Through the years there were jokes about Sarah not looking like Michael Polley, and some family members wondered about an affair. In the end sleuthing and a DNA test revealed her biological father's identity.

This isn't information most families want to go public but Michael taught his daughter that a good story is a gift, even one which is close to home. The title, , is as much about the stories we all carry with us as Sarah Polley's own family tale.
On Sunday I spoke about blessings for the second week and we heard the rather sordid story of Jacob's deception of his brother Esau and father Isaac.I like the fact that so many Older Testament stories share the good, the bad, and the ugly. They convey that somehow God is with the main figures in all of life, including their failing and selfishness. Jacob ends up fleeing his brother Esau after he steals his blessing, but God is always with him and eventually he returns. We are invited to see our relationships with God in the stories of grace which transcend our shortcomings.

Have you seen Polley's film? I haven't, but I will. What about our unvarnished biblical family stories? How about our personal honesty?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Techy Thingies

Last week member Adam spent nearly three full days finishing up the installing of  five wi-fi "spiders" in our old, traditional church structure. In addition he brought our network up to speed, told our server to "make nice" and updated all our software and gremlin protection. Well, that is the way I describe it. It was generous of Adam to do this in his hiatus before his new job began Monday, and his skills as a network engineer mean we have one of the most sophisticated computer set-ups of any congregation in Bay of Quinte conference.

Why do this? We spent several thousand dollars running cable through the building last year in preparation for this wi-fi setup,and having a server is unusual in a church. What this means is that all our records including your financial contributions are protected, staff all have excellent computer connections with one another, and we can now invite Sunday School treachers and other leaders to use the internet in what they do. We have an excellent Sunday School curriculum which offers suggestions for video clips teachers can use, and they are good. Now they can use their tablets and computers to do so.

I am grateful to Adam for all this work and leadership. I commend our board for understanding that this capability is an aspect of church life in the 21st century and helpful in communicating the gospel, including our use of projection in worship. And I appreciate the patience of our older members who may not really comprehend all of this. A few years ago an elderly member who is still with us reminisced in worship about his early days at St. Paul's, the congregation where he was baptized 87 years ago. He could recall when there was a dirt floor in the basement and the drive shed shared by several congregations on Church St. where horses were sheltered during worship. In the same address he expressed his gratitude for the newcomers who have constantly brought vitality to the congregation through the years. Amen!

Are you okay with spending money on techythingys? Does this add to or detract from congregational life? Are you directly involved in using this technology at St. Paul's?

What are our energy alternatives, and why bother? Take a look at Groundling.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

So Help Me God

What was the big issue with President Barak Obama's inauguration this time around? Four words --So help me God.  These words and a shout-out to the deity are not required as part of the presidential oath, but Obama chose to include them. Critics argue that the inauguration has become increasingly religious, although when we read Lincoln's second inaugural address he uses profoundly religious language even though he was not a devout man by most measures.The criticism is that in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society prayers and other invocations of God have no place.

I get this, but if a president is a person of faith and believes that seeking God's guidance in the most powerful leadership role in the world, should he or she be prohibited from saying so in a public forum? I have been asked to say a prayer at the swearing-in of judges who have this option, but are not required to do so. It is hard to imagine in the current U.S. political climate that a president wouldn't feel compelled to do so, but as a matter of choice and conscience, why not?

I think a far bigger cause for outrage should be the $120 million spent on the inauguration, but spending money they don't have seems to be part of the American ethos these days. Or maybe the real controversy was the First Lady"s bangs.

Bye the way, the crazies out there were insisting that Obama was sworn in on a Quran.

Are you okay with "So help me God" and a prayer or two in the inauguration? Should this be a matter of personal choice for public officials?

Will the president's eight sentences on climate change in the augural address make a difference?

Monday, January 21, 2013


Gotta. Every year I wonder if I should revisit Martin Luther King Jr. on the American federal holiday in his honour. And every year I come back to this Baptist preacher who took on the uneasy mantle of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the turbulent sixties. Of course we often discover that "larger than life" individuals  are "real life" human beings with the proverbial feet of clay, and this was the case with King. But this is so for every iconic figure, in every age. This is more the case in the 21st century when intense scrutiny of the lives of public figures reveals every foible.

One of MLK's most famous documents was the letter from Birmingham Jail, written, then smuggled out while he was incarcerated in 1963. King's letter was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen  The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They criticized Martin Luther King, calling him an “outsider” who causes trouble in the streets of Birmingham.

Some have suggested that if another testament was compiled to follow what we call the New Testament this letter should be included. It includes the famous statement "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

This is an important phrase to ponder in a nation which prides itself on equality yet practically lives a different standard with our First Nations. Not long ago Glen Babb, the South African ambassador to Canada during the terrible apartheid regime offered that his nation has made greater strides toward equality in the years since he left this country than we have with aboriginal peoples. While this is subject to debate, that it could even be suggested is an indictment.

Any musing about MLK on your part? What about the civil rights parallels?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Christian Unity

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013: What Does God Require of Us?

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. John 17:20-21

After I announced my departure from St. Paul's last Sunday it opened the opportunity to share the news with colleagues, including those I work with in Oshawa/Lakeridge presbytery and from other denominations.

In the past week I have chaired the presbytery Mission, Outreach and Advocacy committee and attended presbytery. I spent time with our weekly peer group made up of United Church clergy and the next day attended the monthly meeting of our local ministerial with ten pastors and priests from different traditions. There I let them know that I will be relinquishing my involvement with the pastoral and religious care group for Bowmanville hospital, as well as The Gathering Place community meal. On Thursday I chaired The Gathering Place steering group where one member exclaimed "but you have been here forever!" Well, ten years isn't quite forever, but I am the longest serving member of the ministerial.

All these involvements have brought both meaning and a fair amount of time and effort to my role as minister at St. Paul's. I strongly believe though that we are meant as Christians to support one another beyond our own congregation and across denominational lines.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I am aware that one of the reasons some folk don't have much use for organized religion is we are lousy at getting along with others who say they follow Christ. "That all may be one" is the motto of the United Church and from my standpoint we are called to live this out, even when it can be frustrating or time-consuming. It is Jesus' prayer for his disciples during their last meal together.

There are so many priorities in ministry. Do you feel working toward common goals and unity is amongst them?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Church of Hockey

Canada's Church of Hockey Ready for Mass Again. The headline on the front page of the national newspaper last week made me cringe. It was about the resumption of the season after months of wrangling by the greedy owners and the greedy players.  I have to say I hate it when a game of any kind is compared to religion, and in this country it is hockey. I heard a radio interview with an official from a national organization for children's hockey in which the interviewer began with "now hockey is a religion in this country..." Not it is akin to a religion, or is treated like a religion. Now, apparently it is a religion.

Hey, maybe they are right. If they are, I am ready and willing to label it idolatry of a false god. I am totally baffled as to why some parents want their children to aspire to the miserable spectacle of the past few months. In their selfishness players and owners revealed that the sheer joy of playing this sport at a professional level has all but disappeared. From my perspective this is a cold-hearted business, and this has seeped down through the various levels of Canada's game.

Respondents to the "mass" article picked up on the metaphor: "I have become agnostic when it comes to the church of the NHL. Please don't pass me the collection plate." "Someone else will have to say a prayer for me because I will not be attending."

Am I a tad bitter because this has siphoned families away from the Christian community and the opportunity for Sunday worship. In the words of Sarah Palin "you betcha." There was a time when I wouldn't miss the Buds and the Habs on a Saturday evening, even if I knew I would be yelling "bums!" at the Leafs before the end of the first period. Not tonight.

Any thoughts?

Friday, January 18, 2013


Earlier this week I mentioned that the reaction of one teen to the announcement that I am leaving St. Paul's was that I am a Dumbledore figure, a reference to the head wizard in the Harry Potter series. I took it as a compliment.

Well, enter my graphic designer daughter who sent me "Dumbledad" in a text last night. Hearty laughter ensued. Listen, the look works for me. You can always trim hair, but you can't make it grow! Mind you, I'm nervously waiting for the American Navy Seals to show up, on rumours that Osama Bin Laden is still alive. 

The Lion and the Lamb

  (Brian Gable /The Globe and Mail)

Another great Brian Gable cartoon in yesterday's Globe and Mail. The guy is brilliant.

As many of you are aware, my business card, email, Twitter account and blog are all Lion Lamb, which is a "kinda" reference to the vision of Isaiah for a day when the lion and lamb shall lie down together in peace and harmony. It is actually the wolf and the lion, but lion and lamb work better.  I have joked through the years that it really depends on the day and caffeine intake as to which beast I am.

As is often the case, a cartoon can say a great deal in one image. President Obama has unveiled his program for gun control, and as limited as it is the attack from the NRA came almost immediately. It crassly involved his children, claiming that their protection made the president a hypocrite. Of course every presidential family is under tight security, even after the president leaves office. But we need to realize that the NRA doesn't need to work from logic or facts. Theirs is what I feel is a demonic commitment to fear and violence.

I'm glad vice-president Biden included faith groups in the discussion about gun control in the States. And I do hope that there was a call for that new way of peace and harmony, although I always think of Woody Allen's quip that the lion and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb won't get any sleep.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Living With Respect in Creation -- Solar Style

Over the past two days a team of guys who look as though they want to be in where it is warm have been installing the brackets for our array of solar panels. St. Paul's is participating in the Ontario Microfit program, which means we install the panels at our expense and the province buys back the electricity which we generate. Our outlay of just over $50,000 comes in the form of a loan from Oshawa/Lakeridge Presbytery. The contract commitment from the government will realize in the neighbourhood of $115,000.

While we are pleased to make some money, we also feel that generating a clean and alternative form of energy is an expression of our desire to "live with respect in Creation," as our United Church statement of faith invites us to do.

We also hope passersby will notice, and realize that while we have a historic building we are not old in our thinking and acting. Over the next few days media outlets of various kinds will visit, film, photograph and spread this aspect of our good news -- part of the Good News of Christ.

I wrote about this before, to announce that we were entering into this project. But we are excited now it is tangibly taking shape. Make sure you take a look as you drive or walk by.

Any comments about all this? Do you support our thinking?

Does fracking just sound rude to you? Take a look at the latest Groundling blog entry.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty -- Zero Accuracy?

We considered going to see Kathryn Bigelow's latest film Zero Dark Thirty this past weekend but were deterred by reports of graphic scenes of violence in the form of torture. I like the line from the Golden Globes that Bigelow should know about torture after being married to James Cameron for three years, but this is no laughing matter.

The United States went through the public embarrassment of Abu Ghraib in Iraq and there are many other grim examples of torture, including Guantanamo. In addition, Zero Dark Thirty is being criticized as inaccurate in suggesting that torture helped find Osama Bin Laden.

Canada has its own controversies about torture in the Mahar Arar case and others, although we seem to prefer having others inflict the violence for us.

Christian groups have been protesting at various openings for the film:

"Hundreds of thousands of people will see Zero Dark Thirty, and many of them will walk out of the theater believing they saw the truth," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director of  the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. "But the film is not based on the facts about torture. It is a work of fiction that depicts graphic acts of torture; it is neither investigative journalism nor congressional oversight. The movie’s inappropriate -– and dangerous –- implication that the use of torture by U.S. authorities produced critical intelligence, including finding Osama bin Laden, is inaccurate."

What do you think about the depiction of torture in films as a dramatic device not based in fact? What about governments using torture as a tactic, ostensibly to save lives? Is is ever acceptable?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dumbledore Lives!

I have been touched by the many kind comments and good wishes from members of the St. Paul's Christian family in the past couple of days about our departure. I appreciate that we have gone through months of deliberations over several months and still we are coming to grips with the decision to move on. For most this is a rather startling and unexpected revelation.

There is something about the stuff from kids and teens which hits home in a unique way. Nine-year-old Olivia's comment about getting a shorter minister the next time around to make it easier for children's times made me laugh out loud. Delightful!

The thoughtful comments on Sunday's blog from teens Amy and Kathryn mean a great deal to me. I remember when both of them were children. Now they are lovely, talented young women who make us all proud.

I received an email from a dad whose teen son expressed his regret by saying "David is our Dumbledore." I am honoured to be anyone's Dumbledore, and I am contemplating getting going on my wizard beard. Move over Movember!

In recent weeks every moment with this wonderful gang of children and youth, from the very young to the mature teens has been poignant. They are developing as people, moving toward maturity, including in their Christian lives. And I am honoured that while Cathy Russell, Laura McLelland, parents, teachers, a youth-honouring congregation deserve so much credit for their development, I too have had a role. How fortunate I have been.

Any thoughts or comments about our great young people? Suggestions about the beard? Dumbledore out.

Monday, January 14, 2013


The French film Amour is about an elderly couple who live a lovely life which is marked by mutual affection and culture. Then one day at the breakfast table she suffers what seems to be a minor stroke. Even though her recovery seems immediate it is the beginning of profound changes to their lives which become increasingly complicated and exhausting. The acting is remarkable and somehow the story is affecting without becoming maudlin. We slipped into Toronto yesterday afternoon after my emotional announcement during worship and while Amour certainly wasn't "up" it drew us in.

This story resonates with so many I have experienced in ministry. A partner desparately trying to keep a loved one at home even though they may be exhausted or in poor health. Tough decisions which become clouded by the love which has sustained them through the decades. The concern of other family members who are not the caregivers and may live elsewhere.

In Amour we don't see friends, and there is certainly no community of faith to provide support. They are on their own. We can certainly offer practical kindness and compassion within our congregations, and honour the love so many elderly couples demonstrate.

Any plans to see Amour? Do you know people who have gone through this?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Setting Sail

I feel the winds of God today
Today my sail I lift
Though heavy oft with drenching spray
And torn with many a rift
If hope but light the water’s crest
And Christ my bark will use
’ll sail the seas at His behest
And brave another cruise
It is the wind of God that dries
My vain regretful tears
Until with braver thoughts shall rise
The purer, brighter years
If cast on shores of selfish ease
Or pleasure I should be
Lord, let me fell thy freshening breeze
And I’ll put back to sea

This morning I announced that I am leaving St. Paul's and accepting a call to Bridge St. UC in Belleville. During the week I met with key laypeople in the congregation (board chair, ministry and personnel chair) as well as staff to let them know of my decision.

By the time I leave at the end of April it will be nearly ten years that I have been pastor of this active, hard-working, vital congregation. Leave-taking will be very difficult, as I have already discovered in sharing this news.

Are we sad? Of course. We have shared so much with individuals within this faith community, the joys and the sorrows. We have worked hard together as a congregation, and while we have felt the effects of a changing culture which just doesn't value the church, we have been remarkably resilient. This is largely due to the people of St. Paul's because without the cooperation and commitment of the folk in the pews, clergy and staff can't accomplish much.

At the same time we had to consider the shape of ministry in these last years before retirement (I am 58) and what I would like to accomplish. There is also the practical reality of where we live. We have lived in the manse -- the congregation's house-- for all these years, and we need to be in our own home, from an investment standpoint but also as a place we can call our own.

Am I excited about Bridge St.? I wouldn't have accepted the call without a sense of God's possibilities within that community.  I'm nervous about a change at this stage of my career, but don't we all experience the flutter of the unknown when we set out on a new venture. I like the people I have met so far, and what they hope for in the time ahead.

There is the old saying, attributed by some to Thomas Aquinas, that ships are safest in the harbour, but ships are meant for sailing. I'm trusting that Christ will be our pilot as we leave, and will continue to be at the helm at St. Paul's.

Thanks for everything folks. And yes, I will continue with my blogs and hope you will read and comment for years to come.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Myth of the Muslim Tide

Recently a number of women in Pakistan were shot and killed by gunmen who are part of the Taliban movement. Their crime? They were doctors and volunteers involved in innoculating children against polio. You read that correctly. They were helping children who might otherwise have contracted a crippling disease.

I have to admit to you that my anger boils when I hear about these situations and my mind goes to "Muslims!" The terrible extremism of Islamicists leads me toward the irrational and unChristian condemnation of all Muslims, including those in our midst, rather than focussing on the the perpetrators of these acts. And I figure I am a tolerant and even welcoming guy, having reached out to Muslim congregations in several communities in which I have lived.

I have found it really helpful to read Doug Saunders' book The Myth of the Muslim Tide. Saunders lived in an area of London, Great Britain that was "taken over" by Muslims. Except that he didn't see it that way. He decided to do his research about the wave of immigrants and it is fascinating. Saunders is not religious at all, and has no opinions about Islam as a religion. He is deeply concerned about Islamic extremism and views it as a real threat.

Still, he wanted to explore whether our concerns and fears are grounded. He discovered that in most Western countries Muslims quickly adapt to the cultural norms, usually within a couple of generations. The size of families decreases, children avail themselves of education, attitudes toward women change. While there are extreme religious leaders, in the majority of cases tolerance and compassion are expressed values within Muslim congregations.

Saunders discovered that much of the overheated rhetoric of anti-Islamic writers is just that. Rarely is the fear-mongering supported by statistics or sociological studies. Claims that Europe will be more than half Muslim in twenty five or thirty years is not supported in any way by population growth projections. It will be more like six to eight percent, depending on the country. He points out that much of the concern over "breeding like rabbits" and threats to values is eerily like a similar movement in America in the 1950's. Then it was directed toward Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Europe.

Am I still shocked by attitudes toward women in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries? Yup. But I realize that many of the worst atrocities are committed by those whose hatred of the West is motivated by ideology rather than religious tenets, even though they claim to be devoutly Muslim.

Do any of you struggle with the dark side of responding to these extreme acts? Have any of you read Saunders' book?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Unholy Trinity

No one from this year's slate of candidates for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown made it this time around and I must admit I'm pleased. Actually, I would have been happy if pitcher Jack Morris got in, because he made a key contribution to the Blue Jays in the glory years, andseveral others will have their day. I was just relieved that the steroid-tainted stars Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa were denied entry. By the number all three deserve to be there after long and stellar careers. But all three were "juiced" and all have lied about it.

I love excellence in sport. A nifty passing play leading to a goal in a hockey or soccer game, a stretched-out circus catch in football, robbing a home run with a climb-the-ladder jump at the wall in baseball -- feats of athletic beauty. But the cheating and the lying sicken me.

Lance Armstrong lied for years about his cheating as a cyclist and actually won defamation law suits. Now he is disgraced. And yes, the greed bugs me as well. The incessant blathering about the hockey lock-out poisoned me, I must say, and I wondered how these owners and players lost sight of the game which is meant to entertain.

Basketball player Charles Barkley once famously intoned that he was not a role model, as if saying so made it true. Well, anyone in the public eye is called to accountability, whether he or she wants to be or not. Often we promote these sports figures to a god-like status that leads them to believe that they are above the law, or even the estimation of their own importance.

I have said before that I have increasing misgivings about watching pro sports. Why do I keep tuning in when there is so much about the lifestyle and sense of entitlement which bothers me? I am not a crazy fan(atic) but I do wonder whether I am participating in a form of idolatry, which the bible strongly discourages. Ah well -- no says that the minister will be consistent!

What do you think folks?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Idle No More 2

At bible study yesterday we talked about the Idle No More movement before delving into scripture because I know how confusing this is for folk. The fast by Theresa Spence, the rather confused expression of goals by this loose coalition, the release of an audit suggesting that there wasn't clear accountability in Spence's community of Attawapiskat all make the situation difficult to untangle.

Despite the "snakes and ladders" feel to all of this we need to pay attention and realize how important this expression of protest is. One writer has suggested that the rest of us wake up to the impact of the Conservative government's omnibus bill, C-45, which will result in a number of signficant changes which the First Nations recognize. They include:

Navigation Protection Act: Under the act, major pipeline and power line project advocates aren't required to prove their project won't damage or destroy a navigable waterway it crosses, unless the waterway is on a list prepared by the transportation minister. Idle No More claims the amendments remove that protection for 99.9 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada.

Environmental Assessment Act: The first omnibus budget bill had already overhauled the assessment process and the second one reduces further the number of projects that would require assessment under the old provisions. Idle No More objects to the faster approval process.

In addition, there will be changes to the Indian Act which will affect all First Nations peoples.

When the United Church of Canada apologized to First Nations in 1986 and again in 1998, and as we were more willing to acknowledge the impact of Native Schools, we realized that this was more than a "my bad." Our society, which includes United Church members, needs to listen and respond in practical ways to what I view as a national shame. Perhaps the goals of Idle No More are not clear. We know that along the way there has been misappropriation of band funds in certain situations. This doesn't mean that the issues can be dismissed or discounted.

Do you find all of this confusing? Does anyone else find the expressions of racism in the midst of this unsettling? Do you appreciate that the United Church continues to express solidarity with First Nations peoples?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Christians Come Home

Lassie Come Home Poster
During Advent two young people (twenties) came to worship at St. Paul's with friends. Afterward both had conversations with the ones who brung 'um and conceded with some surprise that it wasn't nearly as bad as they thought it would be. Actually, one was taken aback that people laughed in church and seemed to be fairly decent folk. The other was surprised that the sermon actually addressed a subject (forgiveness) which was on his mind, and the examples he heard were contemporary. Go figure...we are actually attempting to live out our Christian faith in the 21st century.

Hey, I appreciate that the experience of worship many people remember is like that one experience with bad crab dip. Crab dip might be tasty, but you're not going to risk a return to that bowl on the snack table.  The Roman Catholic church in Vancouver  has a television ad campaign at the moment called Catholics Come Home which invites the quarter million lapsed members in the diocese to return. Traditionally denominations, including the United Church,  are hurting and they are willing to try some unconventional things to get their folk back. At the risk of seeming unkind, the ad campaign sounds a little like Lassie Come Home.

I don't know what to think these days. I do attempt to be relevant (whatever that means) and I couldn't care less if people show up in jeans rather than a suit jacket. I am ready and willing to address current social issues, and for me a committed couple is a committed couple, regardless of gender. I like a lot of contemporary worship music, although some of it just stinks (lots of traditional hymns stink as well.)

I am convinced that it is up to us to explore what works best in conveying the gospel of Jesus Chrsit. But that's the thing. This is about the Good News of Christ, who transforms lives and makes us whole. An aspect of that message is that we are not who we are meant to be (that's the sin part) but we can always start again. That's something to celebrate, and even to laugh about. The Jesus Thing is the main thing, and no amount of tinkering can take that away.

What are your thoughts about all this? Does it make sense to spend half a million like the RC's in Lotus Land to try to lure people back. I suppose our United Church version is Wonder Cafe. Do you have any keys to unlocking the mystery?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Abolitionists

The Abolitionists
A new three-part series begins on PBS this evening called The Abolitionists.

This was the movement in the United States prior to the Civil War which worked toward the end of slavery, and also helped smuggle escaped and sometimes freed slaves out of the South, either to free states or Canada. I plan to watch, at least tonight.

The Quakers or Society of Friends was the Christian denomination passionately involved in this effort. Members often took huge personal risks to protect slaves. James Michener touches on this in his sprawling historical novel, Chesapeake. There are also two recently published novels which focus on Quakers, one by a Canadian author and the other by an American.

Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl With the Pearl Earring offers us The Last Runaway. Linda Spalding has written the praised The Purchase:

 In 1798, Daniel Dickinson, a young Quaker father and widower, leaves his home in Pennsylvania to establish a new life. He sets out with two horses, a wagonful of belongings, his five children, a 15-year-old orphan wife, and a few land warrants for his future homestead. When Daniel suddenly trades a horse for a young slave, Onesimus, it sets in motion a struggle in his conscience that will taint his life forever, and sets in motion a chain of events that lead to two murders and the family’s strange relationship with a runaway slave named Bett.

The twist in Spalding's novel is that a Quaker might purchase a slave despite his conscience. The name for the slave, Onesimus, is actually the name of the runaway slave in the tiny New Testament book Philemon.

I received The Purchase for Christmas, and I have The Last Runaway on order. Are you aware of the Abolitionist movement? Curious?

Do you believe in sea monsters?

Monday, January 07, 2013

God Does Not Need More Angels!

We heard last week that the elementary school children of  Sandy Hook Connecticut returned to the classroom in a building well removed from their old school. On the bus route someone erected placards with an angel for each person who was massacred by the gunman who entered their former school and killed indiscriminately.

Does anyone else find these placards and others like them obscene? That may sound like too strong a term, but honestly good readers, what message does this send survivors? I wonder if the children will be terrified by these images, given what they have gone through.

 I have heard people say after a death that God must have needed another angel, along with other theologically suspect comments which are meant to give comfort or meaning to the loss. They don't. Nowhere in scripture do I find that God is manufacturing angels by having humans murdered. Nowhere in the bible is there any suggestion that we become angels when we die. In truth, the life to come is a profound mystery, even though it is a hope and a promise.

Those children and adults in Newtown died senselessly at the hands of a disturbed young man whose mother left powerful weapons where he had access to them. They were evidence of her own mistaken conviction that being armed is the equivalent of being safe. She was tragically wrong.

I have faith that God has welcomed those who died home, but none that this was God's intention for their precious lives. If people really care about the surviving children they will make their world safer by getting rid of weapons, not making angel stencils.

Am I just having a bad day? Did anyone else find these placards a tad ghoulish? Why do we do stuff like this?

Sunday, January 06, 2013


The Jeopardy answer is "this magnificent Christian Cathedral in Europe is dedicated to Zoroastrian priests" The question is "what is Cologne Cathedral?" Alex. These Zoroastrian priests are the Magi or Wise Men to those of who are Christians, and we have claimed them as our own. But 2000+ years ago they didn't set out from ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) to become part of a religion which didn't yet exist. They were reading the signs and portents as astrologers/astronomers, and the story which is found only in Matthew's gospel says that they eventually found their way to a toddler who might be the Messiah, the Promised One of scripture.

Cologne Cathedral is a marvel of architecture which has survived eight hundred years even though it nearly bit the onion during the Allied bombing during WWII. Visiting the cathedral was the highlight of my visit to this historic city, and I was taken by the devotional objects dedicated to the magi, including the shrine which is purported to hold the remains of the Wise Guys.

Um, I wouldn't bank on that one, but it is fascinating that they captured the imagination in this way --hey "magi" is right there in the word imagination. Definition of imagination:

The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: "a vivid imagination"
The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.

I really love the exotic and mystical nature of the quest of the magi. I figure that part of the reason for the decline of our Christian religion in North America is that it has become so safe, so conventional. Often we are more like club members than a band of adventurers. Even though I have been doing this ministry vocation for a long time I fret that I am more like an activity director at that club than the one who says "let's press on toward the horizon!" We might think "better safe than sorry"in the ways we go about being part of Christ's church,  but we become rather sorry when we just play it safe.

Today is Magi Day, in that January 6th is the Day of the Epiphany. We won't use the magi reading in worship today, but I will be imagining those intrepid sojourners.


Saturday, January 05, 2013


I was touched, as was my wife Ruth, by the generosity of St. Paul's folk to Bethesda House, the local shelter for women and children who have left abusive relationships during the Christmas season.  Ruth used to work at the shelter site, but for the last seven years has been an outreach crisis counsellor for the shelter, responding to the needs of women and teens who may not enter the shelter but need transition support.

Along with the mountain of gifts contributed on White Gift Sunday, the congregation gave $500 to supplement Christmas hampers to clients, and a number of individuals gave gift cards which can be redeemed at grocery and drug stores. Well done folks! This is faith in action.

Of course all this points out a grim reality. Domestic abuse continues to be prevalent in our society, even though it stays off the radar for most of us until we hear about a death. Yes, men can be abused as well, and are. But overwhelming it is violence in some form directed toward women.

You may have aware of the report released just before Christmas which estimates the annual cost to the Canadian economy for domestic violence at 7.4 billion dollars. This takes into account lost wages, institutional support, the costs of relocation and household dissolution. This really is a staggering amount. In addition the report says that more than 300,00 Canadians are affected by domestic violence every year.

I encourage you to continue your awareness, and your generosity. It is important for all of us to be aware of the signs of domestic abuse and encourage those we know to seek support. This isn't a "those people" situation. Ruth has counselled many women who are members of congregations, some of which encourage  them to stay in abusive relationships because it is supposedly the Chrstian thing to do. And as Christians we need to do everything possible to address this scourge on societal health.


Friday, January 04, 2013

Canada -- A Good Place to be Born

We are still in the Christmas Season, the twelve days from Christmas Day on December 25th to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. This is the Christ-child season, the time when we celebrate Jesus' birth. Conditions were hardly ideal for the nativity of the Messiah, what with the barn and the manger and all.

We are on "baby watch" in our family, as we await the birth of our first grandchild. We keep Isaac and Rebekah in our prayers, and wonder if this is the moment every time the call display comes up "I. Mundy." We know that the hospital where our grandchild will come into this world is just down the street from where they live, and it has one of the best maternity units in the province of Quebec.

I'm glad to read that The Economist magazine considers Canada to be one of the best countries in the world to be born, and last time I checked Quebec is still part of the dominion. The rankings are calculated through a mix of wealth, crime rate, trust in public institutions and the health of family life. Canada comes in at number nine, with Switzerland at the top of the list:

The top ten best places to be born in 2013:
1. Switzerland
2. Australia
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Denmark
6. Singapore
7. New Zealand
8. Netherlands
9. Canada
10. Hong Kong

Our American neighbours are tied at sixteenth with Germany, and France and Britain are 25th and 26th. Russia was 72nd.  So ninth ain't too shabby. We know Canada isn't perfect, but I for one am very grateful to be a resident of this wonderful nation and that our grandchild will be born here.

I hope that my Christian response will be two-fold. One, that I will do my best to be a responsible citizen who will support our social institutions for the wellbeing of future generations. Two, that I will be generous in supporting efforts to bring health and stability to other places in the world. Nigeria finished last on the list.

What is your reaction to the list and our Canadian ranking? What do you think we can do as the Christian community to ensure our ongoing wellbeing and the health of others?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Jerusalem: Chronicles of the Holy City

I appreciate that my three "kids" aged 25 to 30 do their best to keep me "up to speed" on some of the changing social trends. Thanks to my daughters, Em and Joc, I now text and tweet, and it wasn't that painful to learn how to do so. Joc and Ike have more recently introduced me to the notion that graphic novels are not comic books, and can actually be quite sophisticated in the subjects they explore.

While visiting Isaac and daughter-in-law Rebekah we had a conversation about the graphic book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle. This is more of a memoir than a novel by Delisle who lived for a time in East Jerusalem while his wife served with Doctors Without Borders. I managed to read through most of it while I was there, and it offers an interesting and personal perspective into living in the Occupied Territories. This is the same area in which the Israeli government plans to build new settlements, a move which has received the reprimand of most western countries, including Canada.

Delisle doesn't really get political. He muses from the perspective of a stay-at-home dad who becomes all too aware of the poverty of East Jerusalem, of the frustrations of passing through check-points of the Wall, and is subject to the suspicion of Israeli officials when he presents at a graphics conference which also features a Palestinian artist. He doesn't pass judgement, but he shares his experience.

Isaac's comment was that this book should be required reading for United Church ministers to help raise their awareness of the issues. I would agree, and I think that many of our members would benefit as well, given the controversial decisions of the last General Council.

Does this book sound interesting to you? Do you wish you had greater clarity on the complex issues of Israel/Palestine? Do you think a "comic book" could be helpful? Bye the way, Jerusalem is published by a successful Montreal publisher called Drawn and Quarterly   What a clever name for a graphic books outfit!

Could you live with a "car by the hour?" Take a look at today's Groundling blog.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Silver Linings

Yesterday we saw the film Silver Linings Playbook starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, a romantic comedy about two people who are dealing with issues of mental illness and grief who manage to overcome their pain and obsessions and develop a meaningful and healing relationship. The critics have, for the most part, loved this film and we enjoyed it as well. There is also a strong supporting cast.

Over the years Ruth and I have both addressed mental illness in our work, with clients and parishioners who are struggling to survive, let alone find "silver linings" in their lives. Many of the issues these two deal with were very familiar to us. The reckless behaviour which can erupt for those in pain. The denial which has a huge impact on the individual and the family members attempting to provide support. The strange dance with medication, which can both make mental illness more manageable but tends to flatten emotions, thereby making life seem less vibrant.

The film also explores the obsessive habits and emotional turmoil of those who are "normal' but somehow have managed to hold life together, after a fashion. Those sub-stories of the friends and family of the two main characters are intriguing.

I won't spoil the ending, but there are silver linings in this story. Is this a terrific film? Nah. Is it worth seeing? Definitely.

Have you heard about this film? Does it intrigue you, or does the notion of a movie which explores mental illness turn you off?

Can there be an "artful" way of pondering climate change?