Thursday, February 28, 2013

Christian Graffiti?

The ceiling of the dome at the Santa Eulalia church in l'Hospitalet, painted by graffiti artists

Many of us have toured European cathedrals, craning our necks to see the depictions of biblical scenes high above. Stained glass windows were also artistic expressions which told the stories of scripture to illiterate people. We usually assume that this artwork is hundreds of years old.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear of a priest in Spain who commissioned a  couple of graffiti artists to create a colourful mural in his otherwise austere church. Some of their other work is depicted below. We know that graffiti artists such as Banksy have established international reputations for their creativity, a far cry from the hasty scrawls on the sides of rail cars.

Father Ramon Borr decided to make the main dome a little different. "Even though the press is scandalised by graffiti artists, for me graffiti is just another artistic technique," he says. There were practical considerations behind his choice too - quote after quote from traditional artists had come in well over budget. He was a little tentative to start with. "I said we need to have sober colouring," begins Father Borr. "But they said, 'Look, let us try with brights and if you don't like it, we'll take it off.'" It took his two graffiti artists 10 days and one frantic all-nighter, as they rushed to finish it for a wedding.

I admire the priest for thinking outside conventions and maybe it should be inspiration for the rest of us. Prostestants have a nearly 500-year-old suspicion of artistic expression in churches, thanks to the reformers and its time to get over it. If God is the Creator then surely creative expression isn't over, whether it is through music or painting or other arts.

What do you think of this initiative? In these days of austerity would it be foolhardy or bold to venture into new forms of artistic expression?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Raising a Child with Albinism Book Cover

On my way home from Kingston on Monday I listened to a strangely fascinating piece on CBC radio. The researcher and narrator was an albino, one of a tiny percentage of the population without what we might think of as normal skin, hair, and eye pigmentation. He explored what it is like to be in such a small minority in a number of ways including the reaction of his own parents upon his birth. He is much loved but they saw his albinism as a handicap, compounded by compromised eyesight, and chose not to have other children.

The narrator discovered that in parts of Africa albinos fear for their lives because they are coveted by shamans who want their blood and body parts to use in rituals. He interviewed a photographer who did a shoot with a young woman whose sense of worth was nearly destroyed by feeling that she was a social outcast. He convinced her that she is beautiful and watched her transformation as he photographed her like any other model.

He also floated the speculation which goes back decades that Noah of the bible was an albino, because of a verse in the apocryphal book of Enoch describing the patriarch as having "a body white as snow, hair white as wool and eyes that are like the rays of the sun." The organization for those who live with albinism is called NOAH --The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. There is a mouthful!

Folks, I'm old enough to remember well the musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter, both albinos who were required to attend "special ed" classes in school because they were different. Free Ride is a classic and Frankenstein, and...but I digress.

Different. We don't do well with those who are different, and religion has done its fair share of ostracizing those who don't fit into norms. But we are followers of the Christ who seemed to be able to see and hear those who were not "normal" and to help them accept themselves as children of God.I suppose we spend a lifetime learning to see others through Jesus' eyes.



Tuesday, February 26, 2013


It is unusual for me to write this late in the day, but this has been an unusually sad few hours. I knew that I would be meeting with a family whose mother and grandmother will be laid to rest on Thursday.

Then I got the call that one of our members had died suddenly. I went immediately to the hospital where we talked through the shock of his passing. I had hoped that I would not be called upon to preside at this memorial because I thought the world of him, and I will be gone soon. Ministers feel loss too and I did wish for him recovery and good years to come.  Of course we agreed that while his death is a huge loss, he went mercifully, and it is only right that someone who knew him would lead the service.

At the hospital I met a couple whose adult daughter is dying of cancer. I didn't know her, but the family had gathered so I went to them. Reading the twenty third psalm and praying with a room full of strangers, with the two exceptions, is a challenging and intimate experience.

A day in the life of a minister! I had two meetings before the first call this morning, and I have a lot to cram in still. Please pray for these families.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Vocation of Prayer

Pope Benedict XVI offered his blessing and said farewell on Sunday to a crowd of one hundred thousand. In his message he spoke of his retirement from the papacy, a choice which is unprecedented in the modern history of the Roman Catholic church. He told the crowd he is moving on to a different calling, a life of prayer on behalf of the church. Benedict will live a very simple life in an austere monastery not far from St. Peter's Bascilica.

I have been critical of  Pope Benedict on a number of occasions, but I admire what he is choosing to do as he retires. I have no doubt that he is person of faith and prayer. He may be able to serve his church as effectively in that role as any. I have often encouraged those who feel that they don't have much to offer in old age to pray for others consistently. It is an important ministry and as valuable as any other form of service.

Any thoughts about Pope Benedict's departure later this week?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Flicks and the Spirit

The word these days is that the Oscars are (is?) passe, that this long-time Hollywood extravaganza is old-time and can't compete with the Golden Globes and other upstart award shows. I think the stars will still be there tonight, and it really does matter to receive one of those Academy Award statuettes.

I just haven't seen as many films as I would like to feel informed for this year's awards but a number of thenominated movies we did see have been really worthwhile from my perspective. Amour, the story of an elderly couple dealing with failing health, was very moving and certainly resonated with what I see regularly. Lincoln brought home the tensions of a political world where unethical choices may be made to serve a higher good. Life of Pi did a more than reasonable job of exploring the interrelatedness of religions. Silver Linings Playbook was really a romcom elevated by addressing the serious issues of mental health. And Beasts of the Southern Wild was this dark, apocalyptic tale of life in a flooded world.

What are your thoughts about the nominated movies this year? I didn't see The Master or Les Miserable, but I know they delved into important themes as well. Are you a movie-goer, and why? Are films a unique way to explore spritual themes?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Goodness and Mercy

There is isn't much on television that really gets to me emotionally anymore, which probably puts me in the category of a crusty old cynic. An episode of Sixty Minutes caught me off guard on Sunday, with its piece on the organization called Mercy Ships International.

 A hospital ship called Africa Mercy travels along a thousand mile stretch of African coast, putting in at various ports. There are ninety nurses and fifteen doctors aboard , none of whom are paid by the Mercy Ships organization. They work out sponsorship with various groups at home, wherever that might be. Those sponsoring groups include churches, and it turns out that many of the medical staff are Christians, although this isn't emphasized in the Sixty Minutes piece. Some of them come with the notion of offering their skills for weeks or months, and have stayed for years.

This group really is merciful, performing hundreds of surgeries on destitute and shunned patients who have been afflicted with everything from cleft palates to disfiguring facial tumours. Even though these tumours are benign they have a huge impact on those who live with them. Not only can they block sight and affect breathing and eating, they are seen as signs of evil spirits.

The medical team removes the tumours and does reconstructive surgery. Sometimes several surgeries are required over a period of years. The compassion of the doctors and nurses, the relationships built, the lives changed all got to me. I was moved to tears and it spoke to me of religion at its best. The goal is not to proselytize but to heal, and while prayer is offered for those who desire it, there is no expectation. It made me think of stories in the gospels of Jesus' healing ministry and his deep compassion.

In a world where it is easy to be cyncial about religion and when we hear so much bad news this was such a good story.

Did anyone else see this piece? Isn't it encouraging to know that people choose to make this commitment motivated by the gospel?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lead Us Not Into (Yummy) Temptation

On Sunday, the first in Lent, we heard about Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. I did address temptations in my message trying to look at the big picture of what draws us into compromised spiritual health.

What about the temptations for our bodies, including what we have all learned to call junk food? I don't think that the term "junk food" existed when I was a young 'un. Oh sure, there were potato chips and Wonder bread (although only whole grains in our household.) Pizza places were virtually non-existent, Macdonalds and its spawn didn't start sprouting up until I was almost a teen, and we just didn't purchase soft drinks except on special occasions. It meant that if we were going to supersize ourselves we would have to do it the old fashioned way.

Jesus was offered three temptations, and so are we according to a New York Times article: salt, sugar, and fat. The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food by Michael Moss looks at the craving industry, which has become a finely tuned "eat me, eat me" enterprise. In the article Moss recounts listening to a vice-president of Kraft foods:

Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco."

We now have high levels of the three temptations in virtually everything, including "good" foods. General Mills' Yoplait yoghurt has more sugar than its Lucky Charms cereal.  When I succumb to a fast food craving I'm thirsty forever and ever. Amen. Saaallllttt! Yuummmyyy!

Speaking of the Lord's Prayer, I don't really consider that when I pray "lead us not into temptation" I might be referring to what I put in my mouth. When we had a parish nurse we made more of an effort to emphasize healthy living and eating as an aspect of our faith. Maybe we should find a way to revive that focus.

Or not. Should we just leave this one be? Should we all have been encouraged to give up the Big Three food temptations for Lent?  Or is this each individual's business?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Droning On

File:MQ-9 Reaper in flight (2007).jpg

Clergy are particularly sensitive to the phrase "droning on." It is what we hope not to do when we are speaking and it is the stereotype of preachers: " I don't need a sermon on the subject" or "don't preach to me."

Just the same I am going to climb into my pulpit on a developing human rights and justice issue. It is the use of drones to kill people. Someone sits in a room and makes like an adolescent video game addict. Except that he or she is controlling a lethal weapon in the form of a  vehicle or plane carrying a payload of missiles which will be launched at human targets deemed the enemy. Some of the drones are essentially the size of conventional aircraft or military vehicles, but the US military is apparently developing some that are insect-sized. The larger flying drones have ranges of up to 6,000 kilometres and can cruise at altitudes of 10 kilometres.

The ethics of this form of warfare is being called into question. Ironically the technology and use has advanced rapidly during the term of President Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Drones have been employed to take out the leaders of terrorist groups, which may sound okay to some, but this has happened with incursions into countries with whom the States are not at war, and without guarantee that the targets are accurate. Essentially a remote controlled devise becomes judge and jury, often without a declaration of war or any accountability for the decision to strike.

As I pondered writing about this, former archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote a pointed letter to the New York Times:

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it. I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.

It bugs me when Desmond upstages me like that! I am glad he and others are raising the ethical questions about the use of drones. War stinks already. This takes it a step further into dark territory. When President Obama accepted his peace prize he spoke of "just war," an ethical principle debated through the centuries by theologians and philosophers, but there is a great danger of injustice attached to these unmanned weapons.

Have you paid much attention to this development? Do you understand why a spiritual leader such as Desmond Tutu would sound the alarm?Are we too quick to suggest the benefits outway the problems?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Arockalypse Now

A meteorite flashes across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, taken from a dashboard camera.

Last week a meteorite streaked low over Russia, creating a sonic boom that blew out windows and convinced many that the end of the world was at hand. Hundreds were injured by flying glass and millions of dollars in damage was done. It was a startling and unpredicted close shave reminding all of us that life can change in a heartbeat. The same day an asteroid streaked by Earth a mere 27,000 kilometres out, or about a tenth of the distance to the moon. By astronomical standards this was also a close one. If it had smashed into our planetary home the impact could have obliterated a city the size of Toronto in a moment. Yikes.

Fortunately neither of these events was catastrophic, but they did get our attention. We are reminded that life is uncertain. A boy sitting in his Toronto living room is shot dead by a random bullet. A trailer on a transport truck becomes unhitched on the 401 highway and careens across the median into the path of an oncoming car. May I say yikes again?

We can't live in constant anxiety about disaster and the prophets and Jesus call us to live beyond fear. At the same time we need to be aware that each moment is precious and not to squander the gift of each day. In the United Church we don't go in much for "prepare to meet your Maker" theology because it feels so negative. That doesn't stop us from living with gratitude, purpose, and awareness that Christ is present here and now, not just as a future hope.

What goes through your mind when those rocks go flying by? Are you anxious about what may happen, or can you live with gratitude in the moment? Are we so caught up in are daily activity that we don't really ponder the brevity of life?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Babel on Mumford and Sons

Did you notice that Mumford and Sons copped the Grammy for Best Album recently?  The band's popularity was already growing but this should be a major boost. I heard them interviewed right around the time reader Anne nudged me toward their album Babel. She pointed out that a number of their songs have religous imagery and the title is obviously from a story in Genesis. Songs with titles such as Awake My Soul and Roll Away Your Stone are also overtly 'ligious, at least in the language.

It turns out that Marcus Mumford is a PK (Preacher's Kid) so why would we be surprised that the metaphors and stories of his childhood find it's way into his creative expression as an adult. While Mumford assures listeners that the music is meant to be spiritual without being particularly Christian it's there. It's interesting to me that a band can begin with "indie" buzz, then progress to popular acclaim, and do so with spiritual themes. Perhaps listeners and fans don't know that this language is related to Christian themes, or just don't care.

I find that a lot of contemporary Christian music is mediocre, with saccharine lyrics and not much originality. It is frustrating because we can't thrive on a diet of 19th century music, no matter how beautiful the tunes or the lyrics. Maybe that contemporary Christian fare has opened the door for music with a little more bite and nuance.

Are you aware of Mumford and Sons? Are you open to Christian themes in music outside the church? Can it be a form of witness?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Than the "Oh Yes."

We have a new premier in Ontario, chosen as the best candidate in that exercise in attrition called a leadership convention. Lots of experience, dynamic, strong but conciliatory, willing to work collaboratively. Oh yes, Kathleen Wynne is the first woman premier of this province, and the first openly lesbian leader.

I'm interested that as soon as she was chosen to lead the Liberal party the "oh yes" part of my opening became the most important part for the media. They like women and gay people if they are "ground-breaking," whatever that means these days because while Wynne has been very gracious about this, she must grow weary of the emphasis.

Apparently Ms. Wynne is a United Church member. Speaking of the United Church we elected a new moderator last summer at our leadership convention called General Council. Well, GC does do a lot of other stuff. The person elected has lots of church experience, is strong but conciliatory, and definitely works collaboratively. And Gary Paterson is the first openly gay moderator, which --you guessed it -- immediately became the most important thing to the media.

Commissioners to GC, people I trust, told me that Gary Paterson's sexual orientation was not an issue in his election. They chose the best candidate after lots of listening, discernment and prayer. But our culture still thrives on the "differentness" (not a real word.)

Recently a group of our young people and leaders drove to Peterborough to hear Moderator Paterson and were really impressed, as is just about everyone who comes in contact with him. I hope Paterson and Wynne have the opportunity to be regarded as persons with gifts and skills first, and that the "oh yes" part will be just that.

What are your thoughts about this?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

More Nickels, More Dimes

File:Nickel and Dimed cover.jpg

Back in 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed about the difficulty of "making ends meet" at the low end of the wage scale. Highly educated herself, Ehrenreich worked at several jobs which were essentially minimum wage and concluded that it is myth that they are low-skill just because they are low-pay.

This book came to mind after the State of the Union address by President Obama earlier this week. He voiced a commitment to getting the minimum wage in the United States to the lofty level of nine bucks an hour from its current level of $7:25. Strike up the band!

Who could live on this? That's why we have the term, "the working poor." In Canada minimum wage is a provincial jurisdiction and the lowest is $9.50 in Saskatchewan and the highest is $11.00 in Nunavut. In Ontario it is $10.25 but I didn't just have these figures at my fingertips. I had to go online and check because in my blissfully privileged world minimum wage is not an issue. It is for some of the folk who join us for The Gathering Place community dinner. They are there because they can have a nutritious meal and as much as they want both for themselves and their families, all without cost. It makes a difference, as do foodbanks but it isn't a long-term solution.

There are groups in this province such as ISARC:Faith Communities in Action Against Poverty which keep pushing the issues of poverty into the public eye. I'm glad they exist and that Christians are involved. I don't know how they keep from despair at times.

Did anyone else notice this rather low-profile inclusion in the State of the Union address? I pay attention to the weirdest things! Do you every stop to consider those who are doing their best to get by on minimum wage?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Wash Away Those Sins

Earlier this week we were informed that several dozen Hindu pilgrims were trampled to death in India as they took part in a religious festival which occurs at the confluence of several rivers, including the Ganges. These deaths were tragic and overshadowed the extraordinary nature of the festival. This year's Kumbh Mela gathering, during which participants plunge into the water for ritual cleansing, drew roughly 30 million, the largest ever. This is almost the population of Canada! The logistics of bringing this many people together are staggering and for some it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to immerse in a river which is sadly horribly polluted.

During Kumbh Mela pilgrims enter the river to wash away their sins, which is interesting in this week of Ash Wednesday. Although we don't emphasize the connection between the cleansing power of baptism and the imposition of ashes it is there. In some prayers we are invited to remember our baptism into Christ: "we gather surrounded by the light of Christ, and the waters of baptism: we have nothing to fear from the truth which sets us free. Let us turn with confidence to the God of grace."

Of course Judaism had its form of ritual washing or baptism before Christianity came into being, and John the Jew baptized Jesus the Jew in the River Jordan. Islam also requires ritual washing before prayer and handling the Quran.

All of these rituals are powerful, if we allow them to be. I have expressed my dismay in the past about parents who make promises in baptism which they immediately ignore. It is one of the most discouraging aspects of ministry for me. Yet I feel the power of the Holy Spirit in those occasions when baptism seems authentic and we honour those commitments as a community.

Did you know about Kumbh Mela? Any thoughts on why so many religions include rituals around water? What about the power of Christian baptism?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Environmental State of the Union

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Bill McKibben, Michael Brune, Among Others Will Risk Arrest Today at White House to Stop Tar Sands, Keystone XL Pipeline

On the front page of the Globe and Mail today there was a photo of protesters in Washington, there to visually and vocally express opposition to the Keystone pipeline whose route is from the Alberta oilsands to refineries in Texas. It would wend its way through some sensitive environmental zones and across the Ogallala aquifer, an essential source of water in the west. I noticed that environmental writer, activist, and Christian, Bill McKibben, was front and centre, although he wasn't identified. A number of celebrities and activists were amongst those arrested for failing to disperse.

The hope is that the commitment President Obama made to addressing climate change in the State of the Union address earlier this week will result in cancellation of this pipeline project, one which has been the source of considerable controversy south of the border.

I'm trying to sort through this one, to be honest. While a vocal group of Americans have brought attention to this cause it doesn't change fossil fuel dependency in the U.S. And do people seriously think that producing natural gas through fracking is a viable alternative? I have noticed as well that even though some of us Canucks have written to American Christian groups concerned about Keystone, pointing out that Northern Gateway is an issue here, it just doesn't register.  Is this a case of NIMBY?

Then there is the aquifer. That non-renewable underground source of water is being "strip-mined" to support agriculture in regions not suited for it. Why isn't there the same level of urgency about that precious resource?

On this side of the border the federal and western provincial governments support Keystone. Alberta's economy has become a one-trick pony and is suffering because of falling fossil fuel revenue. From my standpoint it demonstrates a foolish short-term economic strategy, but it is the prime minister who is an economist, right?

Oh yes, the U.S. ambassador, David Jacobsen,  made noises yesterday that seem to imply that whichever way the president goes, so must go Canada. So much for being a sovereign nation.

This is a fine mess we have got ourselves into Ollie. Maybe we aren't Laurel and Hardy though. It sounds more like Keystone Cops. It does show how complicated these issues are, although complexity is no reason to lose interest or heart.

Are you following the Keystone debate? Once again, should we care as Christians, and what should our denomination be doing?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Return of Lent

File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Fight between Carnival and Lent detail 3.jpg
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent Pieter Brueghel the Elder

There are times that I am very thankful for more than thirty years of experience in ministry. There isn't much that catches me off guard anymore, and while I still humbly strive to do my best by the grace of God,  I have experience which helps me feel at home in what I do.

That's the good part. The other side is that there are times when I'm saying, "not again!" Lent is here again? What could I possibly say or do that I haven't said or done before? A season of 40 days, blah, blah, blah. A time of introspection and preparation for Holy Week and Easter, blah, blah, blah. Sorry, but it's reality. And Lent can seem like a negative time in the church, the "giving up" season.

Thank God for those who nudge me toward a fresh perspective. Ruth Haley Barton offers this:

As we prepare for Lent, we are called to be as honest as we are able about the ways we have “left” God and slipped into spiritual mediocrity. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51 points out. “Therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold.
This idea of returning to God made me think about what it means to be "heartfelt" and how we define true love.  This year the beginning of Lent and Valentine's Day virtually coincide. Lent gives us the opportunity to return and reestablish our love for God.  It can give us a positive "cup half full" image rather than a negative "cup half empty" outlook.
Does Lent matter to you? Do you see it as a negative church season? Will you do anything differently in your spiritual life during Lent?

Lent: A Season of Returning

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Let's Talk and Let's Keep Talking

This is the Let's Talk day sponsored by Bell with former Olympic champion Clara Hughes as one of the spokespersons. The goal is to raise money for mental health support in Canada and while it is a relatively new program it has a high profile and has been quite successful.

I laud this initiative because there are so many situations in pastoral ministry related to mental health. It is troubling to me that so many young people struggle with everything from depression to schizophrenia to bipolar illness, yet they and their families have difficulty accessing support and end up feeling even more desparate and alone. Often those of us in ministry feel a combination of helplessness and anger at the lack of available resources. And there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. Often people aren't sure who they can trust, even within their faith families. So they don't talk.

There are also the broader societal issues such as incarcerating mentally ill young people as criminals, with tragic consequences. As the Ashley Smith inquiry continues, we have been made aware of similar situations in other prisons and jails. The mentally ill need to be treated, not imprisoned.

Will you do your part to support the Let's Talk program? Has mental illness affected you or those you love? Let's talk and let's keep talking.

Take a gander at my latest Groundling blog entry.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Is The Pope Catholic?

Stop the presses! I was slow to write a blog entry for today but knew my subject. Well, that has changed with the surprise announcement by Pope Benedict that he is retiring. I suppose this is the reality of healthcare and longevity in our time. In the past popes died in office, but at a younger age. The pontiff is approaching his 86th birthday and despite what we might imagine about an easy life,  the role is very demanding.

Pope Benedict is a man of superior intellect and skills. He is an accomplished musician, as well as a rigorous and published theologian. I happen to think he has been a lousy pope for the twenty-first century. A United Church colleague, a former Roman Catholic priest, admitted that he was devastated when Benedict was elected in 2005 because he felt that this was a major step backward for the Roman Catholic church. During Pope John Paul II's papacy Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, and known as "God's Rottweiler" for his zealous and aggressive defense of Roman Catholic doctrine. as well as discipline of those in the church who stepped out of line.

I'm not sure what God had to do with his approach to be honest. I feel that Benedict did considerable harm to ecumenical relationships, characterizing Christians from other traditions as inferior. It was a colossal arrogance on his part that he didn't seem to recognize until the firestorm of reaction. He was steadfast in his resistance to an increasing role for women in the church, clamping down on "uppity" nuns in the United States who had the temerity to think they could speak for themselves. Imagine!

His greatest failure was the slow and ineffectual response to rampant sexual abuse by priests and the systemic cover-up through the decades. Yes, he eventually acknowledged the "shame" but his response never seemed enough. There appeared to be greater concern with protecting the church than the plight of victims. Bye the way, my own experience is of many priests as individuals who were devoted Christian servants.

I  could go on with my criticisms but instead will say that Benedict had an environmental consciousness not evident with his predecessors and he offered statements reconciling belief in a Creator God and evolution. He supported an interfaith forum, which was a step in the right direction.

Any reaction to the news that Benedict is the first pope to step down in nearly six hundred years? Your thoughts about relationships between Protestants and Catholics, as well as other traditions?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Blog About Blogs About...

Does it count when I blog about my two blogs, Lion Lamb and Groundling? I did the math yesterday and, lo and behold,  this marks my two thousandth blog entry, if the seventy or so from Groundling are counted in.

As most of you know, a member of St. Paul's encouraged me back in 2006 to give this strange, relatively new world of weblogging a whirl. Who knew?

After a modest 36 entries that Fall the number of entries has grown from year to year and in 2012 I began Groundling to address issues of faith and the environment. Lion Lamb averages between two and three hundred page views per day, while Groundling is a tenth of that number. Every once in a while Groundling tops out at fifty and I am quite pleased, but normally far less.

Because of the blogs I reluctantly ventured into Twitter as well. The sobering reality is that the number of page views per day exceeds the number of people who attend worship at St. Paul's each week. I am pleased, though, that there are folk from all over who read these two blogs and can do so even though they can't (or won't) join us on a Sunday morning.

As you know, I try to address a wide range of topics, and always I connect the dots to God in some way.

Thank you for reading, but remember that your comments always enrich the blog. I love it when we actually get a conversation going.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Amazing Grace

Left: Margaret Kachadoorian and her only surviving child, Nora, in Glendale, California. Margaret

A Christian Century nugget led me to a New Yorker piece from last October. That's the internet fer ya!

The article was about an American marine named Lu Lobello who returned from Iraq haunted by an incident in which he and other soldiers shot up a suspicious car. It turned out that the occupants were innocent but all the men died. Only a mother and daughter survived.

Lobello had no peace and slept with weapons as though they were a girlfriend, as he puts it. He eventually researched what happened to the Kachadoorin family and discovered that mother and daughter had emigrated to his state of California and lived nearby.

As painful as it was to do so he arranged to meet them. The two are Arminian Christians and they forgave him and welcomed him as a son and brother. Amazing Christian grace.

As powerful as this story is, I wonder if I could find it in my heart to do what they did. What about you? Are there limits on your forgiveness? Should there be?

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Upside of Boredom

You never know what treasures you will find in a Mickey Dee's. It certainly won't be a new culinary delight, but during a recent pit stop I saw a New York Times (yes, in a MacDonalds) and picked it up to soften the blow of what I was about to eat.

There was an article entitled Be Aware of the Upside of Boredom which maintained that we need a certain amount of dull downtime to stimulate creativity and self awareness. Our lives have become so stuffed with stimulation and activity, much of it electronic, that we can't function without it. We have become less able to dwell in the quiet, unstimulated times which are often the oasis at which we drink up and think up new ideas and outlooks.

The article talks about how Lego used to be blocks for random creativity (and for parents to step on I might add) but now they come with specific instructions to put together the toy related to the latest big movie.

I would suggest that adults are as unable as children to waste time in a worthwhile way. While that may sound like a contradiction in terms, I know that periods spent in monasteries and convents with no agenda other than the worship opportunities have been amongst the most meaningful and insightful for me. I usually begin by feeling that I am going through busyness withdrawal, antsy beyond belief. But then in the walking, and praying, and reading, and drawing I begin to reconnect with what I think is my true self, as well as the God who created me and loves me. In recent years I have taken to holy noodling on the guitar and mandolin.

We are just about at Lent (Ash Wednesday next week) a traditional time of reflection and recollection. Do you think you might waste some time or get bored with God during those 40 days? Are you any good at dull downtime, or do you need to be perpetually occupied? Do you feel guilty choosing to be bored, or at least quiet? Are you thinking of pulling out that bucket of Lego?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Ending the Violence

 A couple of weeks ago we were told of the supreme court ruling in reference to the earlier dismissal of charges against a woman who tried to hire a hitman to kill her abusive husband. The court determined that the dismissal was an error in law, but further chose to stay charges against Nicole Ryan for the attempted murder of Michael Ryan.

This seemed right to me. Essentially the supreme court concluded that premeditated murder is wrong under even these circumstances, but took into account the abuse she had suffered.

A short time later I heard an interview with Ryan and it was chilling. The abuse by her husband was described as a "reign of terror" in court. Michael Ryan had a history of anger issues that went beyond his marriage relationship. Nicole feared for her life and despite repeated attempts to get help from police she felt that she was ignored and in danger.

I have heard about similar terror tactics on the part of abusive husbands through my wife, Ruth, who works as an outreach worker out of a shelter for women and children, right down to showing the wife where he will bury her body when he kills her. Nicole Ryan admitted that it is hard for her to understand why she stayed, as is so often the case. The psychological manipulation and control can be so thorough that the woman comes to believe that there is no way out, nowhere to hide.

Why do I mention this again? Just as a reminder that abuse doesn't go away, just because we don't hear about it all that often. When we were in Quebec to meet our new grandson, Nicholas, our son, Isaac, also a United Church minister, asked if women came to her encouraged by pastors or priests. He hoped that clergy were a help rather than a hindrance for women seeking help. She said yes, and realized on our drive home that I am one of them.The church always needs to be part of the solution rather than the problem for those at risk.

Comments or thoughts?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Poop on Diapers

We had a short but wonderful trip to Quebec to see our first grandchild, Nicholas, who was only a week old when we arrived. It goes without saying that he is the most marvelous, beautiful grandchild ever born -- no bias here. We held him and cooed sweet nothings in his tiny perfect ears.

At a week old he is fairly focussed in his life tasks. He sleeps a lot (yay yells his mom from the Eastern Townships) and he eats well and he eliminates what he eats with gusto. The tendency is to keep poopy diaper photos out of the albums, but clean-up is a major aspect of a newborn's life.

What to choose in this day of disposables? In Isaac and Rebekah's case they decided on fairly high-tech washables. The absorbent part looks a lot like the diapers of yesteryear but the outer part is a marvel of design. We offered to pay for these environmentally friendly diapers and they researched them with all the earnestness of buying a new car -- more maybe.

We found it interesting that their municipality refunds half the cost of the diapers if they are reusable. Why? It keeps all that non-biodegradable disposable stuff out of the landfill. They showed up at the town hall with a proof of purchase and the $300 price tag magically became $150. It worked for us!

We were pleased that Becky and Ike made a choice which they see as consistent with their environmental and religious convictions, even though there is more work involved. We were impressed that the municipality gave an incentive to do the right thing.

I have no idea whether Clarington also does this, but do you think it is a good idea?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Giving God Ten Percent

You may have heard about the pastor in the States who decided to stiff her restaurant server on the tip, claiming that she gives God ten percent, or a tithe, so why should she be expected to give the waitress eighteen percent. It was pathetic really, not logical and not a Christian attitude. The waitress joked about it online, the pastor heard and complained, and the restaurant fired the server. Unfair from start to finish.

While shaking my head in disbelief it occurred to me that the missed story is that the pastor tithes. That doesn't happen much anymore, nor does percentage giving of any kind. Whether it is three or five or ten percent, we don't talk about this in mainline churches. for fear of alienating folk. Yet the same congregations are often cash-starved, struggling to do the minimum, let alone venture into creative ministry. I find that people are often at their most creative when they are giving "reasons" (they often sound suspiciously like excuses) for not giving more.

I will offer accolades to the St. Paul's congregation for contributing just over six percent more in 2012 than 2011. Well done!

In our household we give because we feel that it is our response to a generous God. We want to support the St. Paul's congregation, but much of what we contribute supports the wider mission of the United Church. And since our two daughters worked as waitresses through the years we try to be generous when we tip.

Are you comfortable with your level of giving to various causes, including the church? Are you inclined to make excuses? Have you become more generous with the passage of time, or less?

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Christian Family

"Can I come to bible study and bring Ben?" This was the question from a young mom in our congregation who wanted to attend the daytime bible study. She is on maternity leave and her little guy is usually sleepy in the morning. Perfect fit.

Without hesitation I said yes, and the two showed up. What a hit! The study group is made up of people of various ages, but mother and son were quickly surrounded by doting grandparent types. It bordered on idolatry.

The test came on a morning when Ben was uncharacteristically fussy, and the two came and went from the room where we meet. I sent an email later to commend her for coming and encouraged her to keep on doing so. She admitted that she wondered whether it was such a good idea to attend, but so many people assured her after the study she felt much better. Nice going gang!

At our evening study a grandmother let me know she wouldn't be able to come because her five-year-old was staying overnight. I reminded her that Alex knew my toybox like the back of his hand from visits with his grandfather, so why not bring him? I carried  the box into the study room and he played away happily. Except when I used the word "stupid" at one point. His ears perked up and he came right to me: "quarter!" he exclaimed. In their household the use of the word "stupid" results in a fine of twenty-five cents. I paid up on the spot. Folks were absolutely charmed by this exchange, even though it had nothing to do with the subject of prayer.

There was a time when it was next to unthinkable to bring a baby or a young child to a study group or other "serious" event. Why, I wonder? Yes, it requires a little patience and adjustment, not to mention sensitivity on the part of the parent or grandparent to the flow of events. But this is not rocket science.

In a day when we lament the absence of young families and children if we're going to have a prayer it is important to be flexible and open. And honestly, we oldies are the beneficiaries.


Sunday, February 03, 2013

It's a Gamble

Three former Toronto mayors David Crombie, John Sewell and Art Eggleton have penned an open letter to city council arguing against a proposed casino for the city. This comes in the midst of pitches by major "gaming" conglomerates who arrive in TO, gush over what a beautiful city it is, and explain how the riches will pour into the city and province from a casino which will have no negative impact on society. No matter that the millions of dollars in revenue seem too good to be true or that experts assure us that they are over-inflated. No matter that these are for-profit corporations who have no real interest in the community other than making money. Gold, gold, gold!

In the letter the mayors offer: “Toronto is not about to become another Las Vegas, a tourist gambling destination. And we wouldn’t want it to. Much of the casino revenues are likely to be generated locally by taking away from other games of chance and lotteries. There are already enough gambling opportunities. We say enough is enough. Governments shouldn’t be expanding gambling opportunities as a means of balancing their budgets. A commercial casino operation is not in Toronto’s best interest.”

Can I get an "Amen" brothers and sisters? I put "gaming" in quotes above because this is not about fun and games. This is what we used to call gambling, and it is already pervasive in our society. I know that a fair number of you buy lottery tickets or spend a few bucks at casinos on trips. So what is the fuss?

 I can tell you from firsthand experience as a pastor that gambling destroys lives and families, and it is the big lie to characterize it as just another leisure activity which is a win-win, providing social services and community centres. Yes, the majority of people can handle a little recreational gambling. But that minority can be devastated by its consequences, and our United Church has always been agin it. It is also a lousy way to tax people.


Saturday, February 02, 2013

Saying Grace, Living Grace

Janet is one of our St. Paul's treasures, a talented pianist who came to The Gathering Place community meal recently. She played before and during the meal, although the murmur of the gathered rose to a dull roar. Janet played while fourteen or fifteen St. Paul's folk served and worked in the kitchen. Several are teens who hardly ever miss.

I thanked Janet a few days later and she offered her observations. She had also played for the first Gathering Place meal, just over two years ago. That initial dinner was just before Christmas, but it wasn't a festive occasion. Guests arrived just in time for the food, they were quiet as they ate, and gone in a flash. Not so this time, and Janet was taken by the contrast.

Even though it was a stormy night and we braced for a small crowd there were close to a hundred guests, along with table hosts and servers. As I did the opening announcements people spoke out, comfortable that they belonged. After the blessing they tucked into an excellent meal, but they managed to talk up a storm as they ate.

Three sweet little girls called out to me; "Dave! Dave!" I chuckle when I think about it. How do they remember I'm "Dave?" How disarmingly familiar. They wanted to show me their games and to tell me about all thirteen pets they have ever had.

A young teen named Diego was there with his family for the meal. This was his first time, but he quickly got up from his table and started serving with a couple of St. Paul's teens who were present as volunteers. We chatted for a while and he is eager to get involved. Another teen who was new to me came over to talk about our new solar panels. He saw the article in the paper. Two men asked if they could tinkle a tune on the piano once Janet was finished. One of them had quite a repertoire of hymns.

I came away from Friday evening with the most powerful sense of the grace of Christ. It washed over me in a way that is difficult to describe. Christ was present in our church hall. In some respects many of our guests are "the least of these" as Jesus described those we often ignore, and yet they are a gift to us --at least to me.

Where you there that Friday evening? Have you taken part in one of the meals? Are you glad St. Paul's hosts this ministerial initiative?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Glimmers of Light

I have been regularly grumpy about the disturbing immorality of far too many pro athletes and the perplexing choice our culture makes to virtually idolize many of them. Just the other day we heard more revelations of some of baseball's stars cheating with performance enhancing drugs.

Still, there are glimmers of light, a reminder that rich guys playing games can be decent human beings and actually make a difference in the world.

One of those individuals is R.A. Dickey, one of the newest Toronto Blue Jays. Last year's NL Cy Young Award winner Dickey will make an obscene amount of money, but not an obscene, obscene amount -- did you realize there is a difference?

Dickey is interesting because he is educated and thoughtful and pleasantly self-deprecating. He has overcome  childhood abuse as well as other adversity and he has written a book about it.

Recently he went to India as part of his support for a project to help young women caught in the sex trade. According to the Toronto Star:

After witnessing first hand the plight of women and girls forced into India’s sex trade in the slums of Mumbai, Dickey says he found desperation and darkness, but also hope.
“The hope really lies in that paradigm where you walk among them,” he said. “You walk among them and build relationships.” The Blue Jays' 38-year-old knuckleballer spoke Tuesday from Mumbai, where he has spent the last week working with Bombay Teen Challenge, a Christian charity that fights child sex trafficking in India.“There are the lives that just don’t have a voice,” he said. “. . . What we’re trying to do here is give them a voice and a hope.”

Last year Dickey raised more than $100,000 for the project, money which was used to finance a new medical clinic.

My thought is that even if he is a bust as a Jays pitcher (let's pray he won't be!) he is an impressive human being, attempting to live out his Christian faith with justice. Now here is a role model.

Any thoughts?

Read about dogs as pastors on today's Groundling blog. It's only a click away!