Sunday, March 31, 2013


This last Easter Sunday morning at St. Paul's is bitter-sweet, as have been the services of Holy Week. This day begins as a little death for me, an almost farewell (April 14th is my last Sunday.) Yet what a privilege to affirm the power of Christ's resurrection with this congregation, and to declare the hope in this life and the life to come which the empty tomb represents.

Christ Came Juggling: An Easter Sunday Poem

Christ came juggling from the tomb,
flipping and bouncing death's stone pages,
tossing those narrow letters high
against the roots of dawn spread in cloud.
This Jesus, clown, came dancing
in the dust of Judea, each slapping step
a new blossom spiked with joy.

Hey! Listen -- that chuckle in the dark,
that clean blast of laughter behind --
Christ comes juggling our tombs,
tossing them high and higher yet,
until they hit the sun and break open
and we fall out, dancing and juggling
our griefs like sizzling balls of light.

-- Eugene Warren, from The Risk of Birth

Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Ill Wind

Last year St. Paul's suggested to our neighbours at Trinity United that we come together for our Good Friday worship and they graciously  agreed. By the time the service happened the folk at St. Andrew's Presbyterian were on board too.. It went so well that we extended the invitation to St. John's Anglican congregation. They accepted, and after on open invitation to the local ministerial the Salvation Army corp asked to join us. In the end people from two of the Christian Reform congregations decided to come along as well.

The service this year was at St. Paul's and on a lovely morning more than two hundred Christians gathered to ponder the crucifixion and all it means for us as Christians. We had participants in the liturgy from all the congregations, we heard the powerful story of God's redeeming love on the cross, we sang hymns both old and new.

At the door many commented on how the service touched them. Probably half of those in attendance were from St. Paul's, which meant that Good Friday services in the other congregations would have been small  on their own. Many of the comments were about singing the grand old Good Friday hymns with that many voicees, and it was true. People sang with gusto.

There is an old expression "it's an ill wind that blows no good." We could apply that to Good Friday itself as an unfair execution becomes the power of forgiveness and sacrificial love. But it also could describe what has happened in the different expressions of our Christian faith realizing the importance of coming together as one. In another day we could live smugly in our own little camps. In our increasingly secularized society we need mutual support and a common witness.

Were you in attendance yesterday? What do you think about joining together in this way? Is it about time we smartened up?

Friday, March 29, 2013

What's So Good About Good Friday?

Graham Sutherland

Last week on Palm Sunday morning my wife Ruth taught Sunday School with a group of nine and ten year olds. The lesson plan called for a walk through Holy Week with the kids, which she did. She told me later that she felt honoured to have the discussion with them. They are bright and old enough to really start "connecting the dots" with the events of the week. At the same time they are still young enough that they are unsettled by the story which seems to end so tragically at Calvary. As the years go by we become conditioned to the unfolding events so that the drama diminishes. "Why do they call it Good Friday?" one of the boys wanted to know, because it sure didn't sound good to him.

Ruth talked about the possible origins as "God's Friday" and how this story of sadness becomes truly Good News on Easter morning. There is an article in today's Globe and Mail newspaper asking What's So Good About Good Friday? These kids are theologians!

Last night a group of ten teens attended the Maundy Thursday service and then slept overnight in the church. They prepared to take a part in today's ecumenical Good Friday service, gathering their thoughts about the crucifixion. All these children and young people are learning the Christian story and making it their own.

Again, I am so impressed by the commitment of our Sunday School teachers and youth leaders, with Laura's strong staff support and direction.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

On the Margins

I'm a CBC radio guy but I dabble in some commercial stations from time to time for music in the car. Yesterday I turned on the rock station to hear the gushy commercial for the One of a Kind artisan and craft show in Toronto this weekend. "Open Good Friday and Easter too!" the ad trumpeted. I understand that the majority of Canadians are not religious and not Christian but I still get a jolt with stuff like this. In the supposed very religious States Good Friday is just another day, open for business, so I shouldn't be surprised. Still, these few days are so profoundly important to me I am unsettled and saddened.

The weather report on the TV news this week has a hyperactive pink bunny bouncing up and down on Easter Sunday and this bugs me as well. Would any other religion be subjected to such a disrespectful image for its most holy day? I phoned the newsroom during the broadcast last night and told them I found the bunny offensive!

On Palm Sunday I spoke about the marginalization of Christianity in our culture and our need to follow a path of discipleship which may become lonelier with time. I suppose I should heed my own words. We choose to follow Christ even as the culture changes around us.

What are your thoughts about all this? Bothered or resigned? Okay with being in the minority?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holy Week!

As we worked with a realtor earlier this week to put an offer on a house I was totally useless as to the day of the month. Normally I'm good at knowing the day and the hour but Holy Week has a strange effect on a minister. Colleagues confess they too become disoriented with all the upcoming services, some of which don't fall on a Sunday.

This week we will make our way through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, then two services on Easter morning. The Thursday worship is rather mysterious with foot-washing and communion around a table. Good Friday brings us close to the cross, and this year we will be joined by St. John's Anglican, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, the Salvation Army, and our United Church neighbours from Trinity. I am delighted by this ecumenical turn of events.

A group of teens will be camping out in the church from Thursday evening until after our Good Friday worship, keeping their own energetic vigil. I don't know how staffer Laura and volunteers do this, but they tell me it is a meaningful and holy time.

As many of you know, I thank God that our early service on Sunday morning is not outdoors but in the warmth of our sanctuary. If God had intended for us to have outdoor services this far into the Northern Hemsiphere Easter would be in May. After early worship the men of St. Paul's will feed us pancakes, the only unleavened batter of the day, then we will join in the great feast of Easter.

As discombobulated I am by the calendar and home-buying and farewells I want this week to be God-blessed, for all of us to open our hearts to receive the living Christ.

Are you ready to participate in the drama of Holy Week and Easter, wherever you are?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


For the record, I think pandas are cute and cool. Two of them arrived yesterday at the Toronto Zoo and will reside there for the next five years. Who knows, they may be fruitful and multiply. The Prime Minister looks comfortable with this panda encounter from an earlier trip, but he should because he's been cuddling up to the Chinese government for a while now.

I think China is great as well, except for its lousy human rights record, and religious persecution, and internet espionage, and rapacious consumption of foreign fuels, and unfettered pollution of water and air. Some pundits have offered that something as seemingly benign as playing host to the pandas indicates a familiarity with this nation espousing very different values which should make Canadian citizens very uncomfortable.

As we move our way through Holy Week which contrasts imperial power with God's reign I wonder if we make the connections between empires of old and those which flex their muscles today. Pandas look cuddly, but they can be very dangerous because they are powerful.

What do you think? Should we be poking our government to ask why it is so cozy with China, given all the concerns listed above? Is resistance futile, including from the Christian community? Will you go see Er Shun and Da Mao?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Our Meals of Deliverance

This evening is the beginning of Pesach, or Passover, the eight-day commemoration and celebration of deliverance from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The Seder meal is probably the longest held event in human history. Not bad for a bunch of slaves who spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness and who worshipped a God they couldn't see. The "passover" in the Exodus story is by the angel of death who left the Israelite households unscathed while destroying the firstborn sons of Eyptian families. The meal the Israelites ate was hasty enough in its preparation that the bread was unleavened. There wasn't enough time for it to rise before the slaves left their oppression behind. Every year observant Jewish households observe the Passover, repeating the questions, retelling the story. It is intended for all ages and it is a child who asks the questions at the table.

Jesus was steeped in the Passover tradtion and his last meal with the disciples was the Pesach Seder. He took two of the elements of that meal and transformed them into the commemoration of his impending death and resurrection.

It is important for us as Christians to respect the Passover celebrated by Jews as part of their living, continuing relationship with God. Our sacrament which will we call Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Eucharist, does not supercede that Passover. It takes us in a different direction, opens us to a unique spiritual reality. But it never gives us the right to disparage or dismiss this cherished Jewish tradition.

Every year I hope that St. Paul's member Adam will offer his thoughts about Passover and he often has done so. He was born and raised a Jew, and while he is a Christian now I have encouraged him to cherish Pesach and his Jewish roots.

Any thoughts about Passover? Do you have Jewish friends who observe it. Do you "get" the connection between Pesach and Communion?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bullies, Bystanders and Holy Week

This morning Christians around the world will enter into Holy Week with Palm/Passion Sunday. At St. Paul's we will actually have our children enter into the sanctuary with palm branches, something we can do because our congregation still has kids! We also have an impressive array of balloons, the modern-day equivalent of the celebration palms represent.

The tone of our service will change from beginning to end, and we will depart in silence and darkness to acknowledge the passion of Christ. Then we will progress through this week with services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, considering the abandonment and betrayal Jesus experienced on his way toward execution by crucifixion.

I read an article in the newspaper yesterday about the mentality which allows us as humans to ignore the bullying and persecution of others, even when we know it is wrong. The writer used the example of sitting on the top of a London bus years ago and doing nothing while four teens verbally harrassed another young woman. No one else responded to her plight except for a German man who was then intimidated by the teens.

Mob mentality is such that those who are cheering on their sports team one moment can become an unruly and violent gang the next. As we make our way through Holy Week we will hear and see how one crowd shouts "Hosanna!" during the parade of palms while another yells "Crucify him!" a few days later. Many more are reluctant and fearful bystanders. Human nature.

How do you respond to the events of Holy Week? Does worship help you move more deeply into the meaning of these events? Do you see the connection between bullies and bystanders, then and now?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Righteous Gentiles


President Obama finished up his brief trip to Israel with a visit to Yad Vasham, the Holocaust Museum. Those of you who have been there know it is a sobering place, a grim testament to the depths of human cruelty in the destruction of six million Jews during World War II. Mr. Obama walked along the lane of trees commemorating the Righteous Gentiles, those who somehow found the courage to defy the Nazi regime to protect Jewish friends, neighbours, even strangers.

A number of those commemorated are Christians who demonstrated not only bravery but an ability to see Jews as human beings when every attempt was made to de-humanize them. We might assume that we would stand up for the truth and protect the vulnerable if we were faced with this sort of choice, but I wonder what I what I would do to protect myself or my family.

Have you been to Yad Vashem? Do you know about the Righteous Gentiles? Do you think you would have the courage to act according to your conscience and faith if your life was at risk?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hell You Say?

We were at the home of St. Paul's folk recently for a pleasant evening and while we were chatting the husband pulled out a ticket given to him by a neighbour. It was for a presentation at their church over the Easter weekend including Easter evening. As you can see, it is an invitation to avoid hell and attain heaven, presumably through the grace of Christ.

Just to be clear, I believe in the redeeming grace of Christ, and I believe in a resurrection life beyond this life. I can't say there is no hell, although I certainly don't dwell on the possibility of it's existence or live in fear.  I shake my head, though, at making a presentation on Easter Sunday that looks more like a horror flick with bad production values. The trailer which one can find online actually warns against allowing children to see it because of the frightening content. I find the ticket to be fascinating in that it is equally divided between heaven and hell and hell is bolder and easier to see!

Is this really the gospel of Jesus Christ? Of course the danger of liberal churches is to turn Christianity into a service club with a halo, but long ago I decided to give up on  "ooga booga"  religion that tried to literally scare the hell out of me. We can do better.

The Jesus of the gospels invites us into radical discipleship and abundant life. The gospels themselves all include the startling revelation of an empty tomb and a risen Christ. Sign me up for this message and hold the hell, at least as a scare tactic to get me to choose heaven.

Has anyone else been invited to this presentation? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

War's Folly

U.S. Army Pfc. Shane Bordonado patrols the streets of Al Asiriyah, Iraq, on Aug. 4, 2008

When Cowboy George, aka President George W. Bush attempted to bully the world into invading Iraq more than a decade ago Canada, under Prime Minister Chretien, politely declined. We received a great deal of criticism from the States and even from within. My mother's evangelical Christian boss spluttered away about our moral cowardice and my gym partner from those days, a congregation member, scolded me (mildly) for taking a pacifist stand. He has since apologised, which was gracious on his part. I have no idea whether mom's boss, who had two American sons-in-law who were conveniently safe in Canada, ever changed his tune.

Earlier this week the Globe and Mail newspaper had a front-section centrefold (they call it the folio) on the cost of the Iraq war.
 It gives the number of civilian deaths in Iraq at a staggering 110,000 while 800,000 more have been wounded. Some say these figures are low. More than 4,000 US soldiers died, and tens of thousands were injured. One million Americans served in Iraq, and don't try to tell me that any of them came back unscathed, even though they are not counted amongst the injured. Financial cost to the United States? A trillion dollars was spent by the military, although the total cost was more like three to four trillion.

God, what is wrong with us as human beings? We fight and kill and glorify it all. To what end? What was accomplished in Iraq.

Our scales of economy are different in Canada but many families lost their young loved ones and billions were spent on another war in Afghanistan, one  we just couldn't resist and with a murky outcome at best. Now the government which cheer-led for our troops is cutting back military spending drastically and our veterans are wondering why the country which sent them to war is so miserly in supporting them on their return.

Christians have long had a theory or philosophy of "just war" but it is hard to actually find a conflict which fits into the category.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Firm Farewells

A few weeks ago one of our octogenarians was in a fender bender. St. Paul's staffer Laura came upon the scene and kindly supported her until everything was cleared up. While the woman was not injured I popped over to her home just to check in that she was okay. We chatted and in her feisty fashion she mentioned that she figured I would preside at her funeral, but since I would be gone in a couple of months she had changed her plans!

I laughed of course, but this is no laughing matter for many when the minister announces that he or she is leaving. It may sound a bit strange because --hey-- the person will be dead, although who knows what they may be aware of as part of the cloud of witnesses mentioned in scripture.  A number of our members have expressed similar sentiments since I announced my departure, including a man whose memorial service I will conduct later this week.

Rick was a remarkably decent man who was death-defying when cancer struck him two and a half years ago. I prayed and prayed and prayed some more for him because he was an active and youthful 58 at the time. Still, he wasted away to nothing, and I have to admit that I was astonished that he fought his way back to health, although he was not cured. Rick and Barb made the best of those two years and three weeks ago he visited his oncologist where they laughed together about his remarkable stability. The next day he was in distress and we watched him decline with breath-taking speed.

He told me that he wasn't afraid of dying but he didn't want to go through prolonged suffering. Then he asked me the tough question. Would I come back to do his funeral if he died after I left? I was honest and told him that the expectation of clergy is that when we move on we move on. We take on a new role with a new family of faith and there are many reasons we shouldn't return in official roles, even for those with whom we have built strong relationships because of a shared journey through "the valley of the shadow of death." He listened with characteristic calm, but I sure didn't feel great about the conversation.

Yesterday at 6:30 AM I got the call that he was gone. The day before I went in to see him and read the Easter story from John's gospel, knowing he was not going to make it until then. We will mourn his loss and give thanks for his life later this week and affirm our resurrection hope. His wish has been fulfilled and I wish it wasn't. But that is the way of life and death and eternal life. Our prayers are with his wonderfully supportive family.

Any thoughts about this? Do you understand why clergy must say farewell firmly?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Many observers felt that the best documentary did not win in this category at the Academy Awards this year. This is always somewhat subjective but they felt that The Gatekeepers, a remarkable film by an Israeli director, should have won. It is essentially interviews with six of the former heads of the Israeli security agency known as Shin Bet. These men are all fiercely loyal to the state of Israel, they understood the threats posed by their enemies, and they were willing to do whatever was necessary to eliminate those threats, including torture and murder.

This should come as no surprise, but what makes this film stunning is that they all concede that the Israeli strategy is not working. One, an elderly man now looking kindly in a flannel shirt and suspenders was known for his ruthlessness. He offers that there really has been no political strategy with the Palestinians, only tactics. He muses as well on the lack of morality in the response to the Palestinians, as do others. They point out that many errors have been made in the relationship with the more than one million residents of the West Bank and Gaza and that talking, negotiating, making peace, establishing two states are necessary.

I found the film, which I saw in Toronto Sunday afternoon, to be stunning. Shin Bet is obviously a secretive organization gathering intelligence, rounding up terrorists, executing those who pose the greatest threat. Yet these men are so frank. One of the six admits that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, while another acknowledges the futility of responding to the enemy who is coming at you this moment instead of considering the bigger picture. At the end one says that it may be possible that Israel wins all the battles and loses the war.

As I watched and listened I pondered the more than forty-year attempt at tightrope walking by the United Church when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. On one hand we support the existence of the state of Israel and its need to defend its citizens. On the other we have called attention to the injustices which have been inflicted on the Palestinian people, including those who are Christians. We have been roundly criticized as recently as last August as our General Council met. But The Gatekeepers convinced me that we may not be right on every aspect of this issue, yet we are not far astray.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Revealing the Renaissance

I was not the worship leader at St. Paul,s yesterday because of a week of continuing education leave. It meant that we were on the road early (7:30) for a unique worship experience at the Art Gallery of Ontario. About 150 of us gathered in the spacious area beneath the massive spiral staircase for what is known as Artists Lauds. This was a joint effort of Regis College, a Roman Cathloic college of the Toronto School of Theology and the AGO. Lauds is one of the offices or services of the day in the monastic tradition. This lauds service was designed to coincide with the opening of the marvelous new AGO exhibit called Revealing the Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art. The exhibit, created in conjunction with the esteemed Getty Museum in California, brings together exqusite pieces from around the world which exemplify the flowering of art in fourteenth century Florence.

Why worship in the setting of this exhibit? By far the majority of the pieces were created as devotional art, whether altarpiece triptychs or illuminated (illustrated) prayer books. As Florence became a mercantile powerhouse the wealthy merchants became increasingly nervous about the state of their souls. Commissioning art from guilds of skilled craftsmen was a way of winning eternal favour with the church and ultimately with God. So much for the grace of Christ!

Yesterday we sang and prayed together for most of an hour  in a style that reminded me of stays in monastic communities through the years. There is a haunting quality to music written for an entirely different era, and the small choir leading us in this strange stuff was excellent. Then we were given free admission to the exhibit where we meandered about viewing artwork created nearly 700 years ago. It was wonderful.

Do you know much about the history of devotional art? Does the subject pique your curiosity or bore you to tears? Do you think you might visit the exhibit?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Begone and Begorrah!

Begone and Begorrah. I had no idea what that phrase meant until I beGoogled it, but I figured it was Irish because whenever anyone uses it they employ what is usually a lousy Irish accent. It is Irish, and lo and behold it is a mild, jocular oath. The "begorrah" part means "by God." This is interesting because a lot of silly stuff will happen today, St. Patrick's Day, which will be quasi-Irish and have nothing to do with St. Patrick nor the God he served. Now St. Paddy's Day is all about green beer and Kiss Me I'm Irish tee-shirts and other nonsensical revelry.

This is an excellent occasion to ponder the Celtic Christian tradition which has its roots with an escaped Welsh slave who returned to the land where he had been held in order to share the good news of Christ. As I have shared other years, Patrick and his earliest followers did a fine job of adapting the Christian message to be appealing to the pagan druids who already viewed the number three as sacred.  

While the Roman empire was collapsing and the church of the rest of Europe was becoming more hierarchical, Celtic Christianity took an egalitarian turn which included women. Some feel that Brigid was a bishop of the Celtic church, which as recent events in Rome have reminded us still hasn't got any traction in the Catholic tradition.

The Celts were more earth-honouring in worship and practice and there are many lovely prayers which celebrate the beauty of creation and the simple tasks of everyday farm life. There are many legends of the Celtic saints and their relationship with creatures of the wild; otters and herons and salmon. They have been described as Green Martyrs for their willingness to live austere lives as hermits in wilderness settings.

For a while in the early 90's we were in love with all things Celtic, and I led a number of study groups on Celtic faith. I have a Celtic cross tatooed on my forearm, with the traditional cross overlaid with the circle, symbolizing the Son and the sun, or earth. Then the trend seemed to pass, which is the way of our culture.

Begorrah, by God, we need to revive it, and all it stands for, it seems to me.

Any thoughts about this day? Have you explored the Celtic Christian tradition?

Saturday, March 16, 2013


A man is seen through a hole in the former Berlin Wall at the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Niederkirchner in Berlin March 4, 2013. REUTERS-Thomas Peter

Many of us remember the dark days when the Berlin Wall separated the east and west sides of the city and those attempting to escape over the barrier were regularly shot and killed. From 1961 until the wall was breached in 1989 the official death toll was 136, but there may have been many more unreported deaths. You may also recall the jubilant smashing of portions of the wall in '89, a global symbol of old divisions coming to an end.

It may surprise you to hear that there is now an effort in Germany to save a section of the wall which still stands but is scheduled for demolition. Those who want to keep it intact feel it is an important symbol of the Cold War era and what was overcome. They may be right.

Last weekend the book club talked about Guy Delisle's Jerusalem, a graphic memoir in which the artist/illustrator depicts the Separation Wall between Israel and the West Bank repeatedly. This barrier, a combination of concrete wall and high fence snakes 700 kilometres through the region with about 70 kilometres of actual wall. It has reduced the number of suicide and other attacks on Israel. It has also caused great hardship for ordinary Palestinians. Some have seen their farms cut in two by the wall and access denied to a portion of livlihoods. Others struggle to get to medical care or to visit family.
Walls aren't a long-term solution to hatred and division. And eventually they all fall, even those that seem impregnable. It seems to me that the metaphor for Christianity is bridge-building rather than wall-building, whether we are speaking of actual physical barriers or pscyhological barriers. The two seem interwoven.

What are your thoughts about walls as a means to segregatiion and protection? Do you think it is a good idea to preserve a portion of the Berlin Wall, or should it be demolished? Have you seen ancient barriers such as the Great Wall of China or the Separation Wall in Israel? Any Berlin Wall stories?

Friday, March 15, 2013


Francis, the namesake of the recently elected pope, lived in the thirteenth century and created a movement and a religious order which grew like wildfire. It called on its members to emulate its founder, living in radical simplicity, caring for the poor, respecting all creatures. The legends tell us that Francis would do yucky, saintly things like kissing lepers. He negotiated with a wolf to protect a village --it could happen! Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. In some respects Francis was anti-establishment, far from the hierarchical model of the Roman Catholic church. But he wasn't antagonistic, and after his death he was canonized with unprecedented speed.

Francis the pope, the first with this adopted name, is a cleric friom Argentina whose life of simplicity and concern for the poor is well documented. He is part of the establishment, but his election is unprecedented in that he is from the Americas and from the global south. Even after his election he chose to ride the bus back to the hotel and he paid his bill.

Francis certainly follows the doctrine of the church on women's ordination, abortion, and homosexuality, so there will be no revolutionary change under this pope. And he is an old man. At seventy six is is more than thirty years older than Saint Francis was at the time of his death. Surely those cardinals could have given consideration to the reasons Benedict resigned in the first place. Francis will also need to address the ongoing tragedy of sexual abuse in the church.

What is your reaction to the election of Francis. Same-old, same-old, or hopeful? Don't care?Pope Francis

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hitchhiking Hospitality

The CBC radio show The Current did a piece yesterday on the return of hitchhiking and invited listeners to call in with their own stories.One was from a helicopter pilot who many years ago was delivering a helicopter out West. On his way he spotted a young couple hitchhiking and on a whim put down and beckoned them. They were reluctant, thinking he was a police officer but he convinced them otherwise. It turned out they were on their honeymoon, heading for Banff. He was flying to Banff and offered them a lift, which they took.Very far out man.

I did a fair amount of hitchhiking in my teen years and could tell some strange and wonderful stories of those who picked me up. When I was first ordained and sent to Newfoundland I became the hitch-hikee rather than the hitch-hiker. You just didn't pass people by on some of those lonely roads. I gave up stopping when we started a family.

Wife Ruth and I hitchhiked once -- her only occasion -- at the end of a canoe trip in Lake Superior park. We had to get back to our vehicle at our put-in spot. She was surprised that so many cars passed us by, until a couple of young women in a beat up old sedan gave us a ride. I found that it was often the people just a step or two removed from needing to hitch who would extend mercy to someone with his thumb out.

There is a risk to hitchhiking, both for the thumber and the driver. That's probably what brought the considerable wave of hitchhikers in the sixties and seventies to an end. Picking someone up is an act of hospitality and most hospitality has a cost of some kind. But the New Testament book called Hebrews encourages hospitality because we may end up entertaining angels.

Did you ever hitch-hike? Would you pick someone up? Would you consider yourself hospitable?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Faithful Service

Yesterday I chatted with a congregation member who is much in demand as a home renovator and contractor. He and his partner are much in demand, entirely through word of mouth. He has done a fair amount of work on the manse, and it is all excellent. Our conversation came around to an elderly couple he has somehow got involvcd with in recent month due to a request from a physcial therapist, also in our congregation, who saw that they needed some work done in their home to keep them there.

Since that job this old pair has called him to help out with things not really related to his work. Recently they bought a treadmill because they just don't get out and need the exercise. Would he come over and assemble it? Not only did he put it together, he spent time teaching them about the attachable device which will automatically turn it off should one of them fall.

I know that he has helped other elderly people in our congregation, installing equipment to help them in their homes. One of our seniors who died recently was so grateful that at the end of the job he sat and just talked for a while.

While I am a minister in Christ's name, so is he. I commented on what a great guy he is, and he deflected the complement, but I am convinced that his practical kindness is as important --if not more- than anything I offer. He is one example among many in our congregation of people living out their faith.

Doesn't it lift your spirits to know folk like this are out there, quietly helping others? Have you found your niche of faithful service?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

If I Were a Rich Man

Forbes magazine has come up with a list of fictional billionaires, based on their estimates of wealth generated by the characters since their introduction. Yup, Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies is worth close to nine billion now. Forrest Gump is a billionaire as well. Remember how Forrest was convinced to invest his shrimp boat money in a fruit company called Apple?

There are plenty of real billionaires out there, about 1400 by some estimates. Think about that. An exclusive but growing club of those whose personal wealth exceeds a thousand million dollars. Among the women are Oprah, the talkshow host made good, along with the inventor of Spanx. Mark Zuckerberg came up with Facbook making him a multi-billionaire in his twenties. Carlos Slim is the richest man in the world at over seventy billion, while Bill Gates has slipped to a dismal sixty-seven billion from a high of ninety-plus at one time. How does he manage to get out of bed in the morning?

I have mentioned before that a number of billionaires have committed to divesting their wealth for charitable purposes before they die, an initiative fo Warren Buffett, at fifty-plus billion. Zuckerberg and Gates have signed on, but Gates is already underway. The Gates Foundation, which receives strong input from Bill's Roman Catholic wife Melinda, is doing impressive work in Africa combatting AIDS.

Is it morally wrong for any person to accumulate such wealth? Are we okay with individuals making the choices about their acts of compassion? What about Jesus' cautions about storing up treasures and the problems of the rich getting into heaven?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Escape From Hatred


One of the most disgusting religious groups in North America is the tiny Westboro Baptist church in Kansas run tyrannically by Fred Phelps.. Even though it is essentially a family cult not associated with any Baptist deonomination it has become well known for its hateful exhibitions at funerals and other events. They began with placards with inscriptions such as "God Hates Fags" and other homophobic statements. The congregation branched out to protests at the funerals of service men and women and the children who were murdered in Connecticut. How, how, how do these reprehenisble people consider themselves to be Christian?

Recently two young women, sisters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper,  from the Westboro cult managed to leave, although they are now totally cut off from their family. They somehow came to realize that what they were doing was contrary to the gospel and destructive. The man with whom they are standng is editor of, which of course is a Jewish organization destined for hell, according to the Westboro gang. The sisters entered into dialogue with editor Abitol and eventually made the difficult choice to leave everything familiar, although they are still Christians.

It is an encouraging note in an otherwise dark story of faith co-opted for hatred. There are other family members who have escaped as well, but at great personal cost.

Had you heard about the Westboro church? Are you encouraged by the story of the sisters?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Grace, Forgiveness, Reconciliation

A month before Christmas 2012, on the first Sunday of Advent I preached on the subject of forgiveness. I did so because I know how many people move toward the "happy, happy" of the season with sadness and even dread because of unresolved conflicts within their families.

After the service a man thanked me for my message and commented on how important the subject was. It was only the second Sunday at St. Paul's for this senior and his wife. He didn't tell me that he was going in for surgery later in the week. He came through the operation but the next day had a serious heart attack and fell into a coma. His family gathered, including his adult son, who had refused to speak to his father for the past couple of years despite repeated overtures. He sat grimly at the bedside but his dad never regained consciousness. At the funeral he looked stricken.

Today I will preach on the parable of the Prodigal Son, which invites us to consider God's grace, and the power of forgiveness, and the risky challenge of reconciliation. With only a few weeks left at St. Paul's I consider this passage a gift, because of the scores of conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation I have experienced with folk here during the decade of my ministry. I am praying that someone, anyone in the congregation will hear a word of hope for their tough situation. Maybe that person or persons will choose to "let it go" and reach out in their alienation.

How are you doing with forgiveness? Has God given you the gift of forgiveness. Can you forgive others?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Jewish Homecoming

 A boy during a ceremony in Palma de Mallorca's synagogue

Before the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Jews by the Roman Catholic church, Spain there were periods of religious tolerance with Jews, Christians and Moslems co-existing. Some of the great Jewish thinkers of an earlier era, including Maimonides,  were Spanish. Pre-inquisition there were about 300,000 Jews in Spain but five hundreds years after the majority fled there are forty to fifty thousand. That number could swell dramatically. According to BBC News:

In November, Spain's justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced a plan to give descendants of Spain's original Jewish community - known as Sephardic Jews - a fast-track to a Spanish passport and Spanish citizenship. "In the long journey Spain has undertaken to rediscover a part of itself, few occasions are as moving as today," he said. Anyone who could prove their Spanish Jewish origins, he said, would be given Spanish nationality.
What do you think of an initiative such as this one? Does it make sense centuries after the fact. What about apologies to groups of people such as the ones issued to those of Chinese and Japanese origin, or First Nations people in Canada?
Are church apologies worth anything?

Friday, March 08, 2013

International Women's Day


This is International Women's Day, a celebration or recognition I thought might be relatively recent, and a result of the feminist movement of the 1960's. What do I know? IWD began in 1911 and in 1913 it was set for March 8th -- a century ago today. It is also known as the United Nations (UN) Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. In several countries it is a national holiday, and in many others there are special events. While we were living in Sudbury Ruth, my wife, attended a number of Women's Day breakfasts which featured prominent female theme speakers.

Our culture has come a long way toward equality between women and men since the world portrayed in a drama such as Mad Men, and as a husband and father of two daughters I appreciate that within Canada they have tremendous opportunity. I am part of a Christian denomination which ordains and commissions women and in which laywomen can fulfill every role that men have traditionally taken on.

We aren't there yet when it comes to equality, even in this wonderful country.  A conclave of cardinals, including Canadians, is choosing a new pope in Rome and all of the participants are men. The Canadian in the running is happy with the status quo on the ordination of women.

Ruth works as an outreach counsellor for a women's shelter and I am relieved that she will soon leave that role after nine years because of the toll listening to stories of physical and mental abuse has taken on her. It is ugly stuff.

We see that girls and young women are still objectified in our society and often participate because of the social pressure.

Elsewhere in the world women are often treated as chattel or attacked or denied education.

This is a good day to remember stories from the gospels, including the Samaritan Woman, in which Jesus sees women as children of God, not as second class citizens.

Any comments on this day from your perspective? Will the readers who are teachers reminds your students? What about your hopes as parents of daughters? What do you teach your sons about women?


Thursday, March 07, 2013

Kaylie Deserves to be Full

Kaylie looks from a broken window 

God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
Luke 1:53 Mary's Song

We never hear anything about the Occupy Wall St. movement anymore. Occupy seemed to be one of those attention-grabbing events which swept around the world then disappeared. It began on Wall St. in New York as a protest against the "one percent" who controlled and pillaged the US financial system leaving millions reeling and even destitute. It wasn't well organized, in places confrontations got ugly, and then as fast as it started it was gone.  

Yesterday there was news that the Dow stock market index has reached record heights, a sign of an economic recovery in the United States. The trouble is, this doesn't do much for the millions who are still unemployed.

 The same day there was a report in the BBC News service about the 17 million US children who live in poverty. The focus of the piece is a family in Iowa, a mom and her two kids, Kaylie (above) and Tyler, ten and twelve, who have fallen on hard times. After the mother lost her job they couldn't keep up with mortgage payments and lost their home. They live on less than $1500 a month and $700 of that goes for rent of a motel room. They don't have a fridge, so fresh foods are no longer part of their diet. Both children help out, picking up bottles and mowing lawns. A two dollar shirt at the Salvation Army is too much for their limited resources and the kids are always hungry. According to the article:

Apple sauce is in, canned vegetables, tinned spaghetti, meatballs and ravioli might be. But when Kaylie asks for ground beef, she is overruled as their motel room does not have a fridge to keep things fresh - just a sink filled with crushed ice. There's nowhere to cook, either.

It's not the first time that the family has struggled to get hold of the food they would like - or enough of it."We don't get three meals a day like breakfast, lunch and then dinner," says Kaylie. "When I feel hungry I feel sad and droopy."

Maybe those disorganized, anarchic Occupy types had it right. It certainly isn't right that a nation which boasts about being the wealthiest and most powerful in the world has 17 million hungry kids. We have plenty of  hungry children in this country as well, with all our prosperity.

Some of the Occupiers were people of faith who saw the opportunity to uphold scriptural principles. The biblical prophets, including Jesus and his mother Mary, had harsh things to say about those who allowed neighbours to go hungry when they were living off the fat of the land. The economic recovery might not be so great after all, if it doesn't include everyone.


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Pope, eh?

An oddsmaker says Marc Cardinal Ouellet, pictured in 2008, has been popular in the last few days among its customers, who are based in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

One hundred and fifteen Roman Catholic cardinals have assembled in Rome to begin the work of electing a successor to Pope Benedict. The new pontiff will be elected from amongst them and speculation began weeks ago as to who it might be. Betting on who will be named the new pope goes back many centuries -- one pope issued an edict against it in 1591. But the oddsmakers are at it again, placing Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet at number four, or with about a 12% chance of gettting the RC's top job. In 2005 cardinal Ratzinger was in the top three, so the bookies are not bad at this.

I joked on Twitter a while back that if Ouellet was elected he would be called the poutine rather than the pontiff, but this is no laughing matter (okay, you weren't laughing anyway.) In an interview with the CBC's Peter Manbridge the other night Ouellet was less than impressive. He seemed ill at ease in the interview. He offered that the church now has better checks and balances for dealing with sexual abuse and they have learned how to respond to victims more effectively. That hardly seems like an adequate response to the horrible betrayal of trust in the church. Oullet has also been clear that while the church needs to "get with the times" in terms of the role of women, he is opposed to the ordination of women. He has made strong statements on homosexuality and abortion which suggest that he if very much in line with Benedict.

Of course many agree with him on these issues, but we can't expect much of a change if the Canadian becomes the pope. He is younger than his predecessor but at 68 he is hardly in the flower of his youth.

Are you following this election? Would you like to see a Canadian as pope? Does the Roman Catholic church need progressive leadership? Where should the pope come from?

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Demonologist

Latest Title

I am an avid and eclectic reader, so a couple of years ago my wife Ruth gave me Andrew Pyper's latest novel. didn't know much about Pyper or his books except that the reviews were favourable. Well, the novel was very good and very creepy. Pyper is a master of ominous suspense and I could barely get through the book because I may be the world's biggest scaredy cat when it comes to films and novels

Pyper has struck again with The Demonologist:

 Professor David Ullman’s expertise in the literature of the demonic—notably Milton’s Paradise Lost—has won him wide acclaim. But David is not a believer.
One afternoon he receives a visitor at his campus office, a strikingly thin woman who offers him an invitation: travel to Venice, Italy, witness a “phenomenon,” and offer his professional opinion, in return for an extravagant sum of money. Needing a fresh start, David accepts and heads to Italy with his beloved twelve year-old daughter Tess.
What happens in Venice will send David on an unimaginable journey from skeptic to true believer, as he opens himself up to the possibility that demons really do exist. In a terrifying quest guided by symbols and riddles from the pages of Paradise Lost, David attempts to rescue his daughter from the Unnamed—a demonic entity that has chosen him as its messenger.

Will I venture into The Demonologist? Maybe. Probably. Evil intrigues me, even though the subject is not very United Church. We don't speak much about evil, let alone the demonic or the devil. We always start Lent with Jesus' encounter with the devil in the wilderness, but we don't seem to take it too seriously. But we don't have much explanation for horrors such as the massacre in Rwanda, or systematic child abuse, or refusal to consider gun control. The last example may have your eyebrows on the rise, but I have described as demonic the steadfast refusal of a supposedly religious nation to address the destructive nature of the Fifth Amendment as it is applied in the U.S. This isn't hyperbole on my part. I was in the States with a bunch of fine Christians at the time of the Colorado theatre massacre last summer. Not one person mentioned gun control other than me, a Canuck.

Thirty years ago psychiatrist Scott Peck created a stir with his book, People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil. The original cover included a pitchfork. Admitting that he saw evil in his practice was a controversial step but it stirred  a conversation about evil that continued for a while. Maybe Andrew Pyper's novel will do the same.

What do you think about the existence of evil? Does psychology supplant ancient talk about evil, or can the two coexist? What is your experience with evil?

Monday, March 04, 2013

I was Moo-ved

Last week was a whirlwind of activity with two funerals, our board and committee meetings, a study group, a film showing, and conversations with families in crisis. At times it felt that I could hardly catch my breath, literally and figuratively.

One moment kept coming back to me and it was from Sunday worship. It made me smile every time. The gospel reading from Luke included Jesus describing himself as a hen, a momma chicken, gathering chicks protectively under her wings.

I decided to get the children to make the noises of barnyard animals including cows and sheep, then culminating with a hen. The tweens and teens were good sports and boosted the noise level. At the end I invited the adults to cluck up a storm as well. They did! And we all laughed about it.

Earlier in my ministry I would never have considered asking adults to participate that way, in part because I wouldn't want to deal with the huffing and puffings afterward. But it seems that we have come to realize how precious our children and youth are, and we are willing to step out of the old comfort zone to make them feel at home. I have always found the St. Paul's congregation willing and ready to respond to our young people and have them involved in every aspect of congregational life.

A few months ago we had a visiting grandchild in worship and before the service grandma told me that she had just explained that we sing in church, but not Old McDonald Had a Farm (hmm, recurring theme here.) They came to the front together and when I looked at her sweet little face I couldn't resist. I turned to our organist Doug Dewell, always a good sport, and asked if he would strike up Old McD. The congregation sang with great enthusiasm. I still did my Children's Time as planned but we threw in a little spontaneity.

On a slightly more serious note, a group of our tweens joined grandad-aged Jerry J. recently in Bowling for Big Brothers and Sisters. The kids swarmed us for sponsorships, and they had a great time. What a wonderful cross-generational activity.

Are you comfortable with the changing tone of what happens in worship?How do you think we do with including children and youth?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Tour of a Lifetime

I have a soft spot in my heart for composer and musician Ron Klusmeier. When I was ordained the United Church sent me from downtown Toronto to outport Newfoundland. I had five preaching points, and there wasn't much time for culture. Well, there wasn't much culture. We loved Newfoundland in many respects but we also pined for aspects of the city we had left behind. We watched reruns of King of Kensington to get a Toronto fix. How is that for desperate!

One snowy evening we drove the sixty kilometres to Gander for a concert with Ron and Kris Klusmeier (they are no longer together.) There were a handful of us at the event but it didn't seem to matter to them. We listened to them make excellent music as well as singing some of their new compositions which eventually made it into Voices United, the latest United Church hymnbook.

Fast forward eight years to Sudbury where I served a large downtown congregation. The Klusmeiers came to St. Andrew's as part of a Christian arts festival. More great music. Actually Ron's collaborations with a number of other composers total seventeen in Voices United, more than just about any other hymn writer. In More Voices, the music supplement there are another ten. Impressive.

Tomorrow and Tuesday Ron will be at St. Paul's for a workshop and concert as part of a farewell tour. He isn't ancient at 62 but touring takes its toll. I'm not so sure that our folk and others appreciate that this guy is a denominational treasure. We have been singing at least a hymn each week for a month, but today it is "all Ron, all the time" a total of four hymns. We have plenty to choose from.

Do you know Ron's music? Are your coming?

Saturday, March 02, 2013

O Death Where is Thy Sting?

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”[

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

During nearly a decade at St. Paul's I have presided at many funerals and memorial services. Some have been tiny. Several have packed the church or chapel. In certain instances the tension between family members has been palpable, while in others the same could be said for the love. Unfortunately some of the deceased have been despised by those left behind. Others left such an indelibly positive mark on loved ones that the survivors wonder how they will be able to carry on without them. Such is life.

This week I presided at two services, one for a woman who died at age 81 after years living with chronic illness of every kind, including Alzheimer's. Fortunately she continued to know her family and her sense of humour was intact. The service was in a funeral chapel with a modest group on hand.  I had met Gladys but didn't know her. Still, I was aware of how much she was loved and influenced her family and friends and the two tributes were lovely.

The second service is today and it will be a St. Paul's funeral because Bill, aged 80, was a church guy. I had many conversations with Bill and he was what used to be called a gentleman, a term which seems to have disappeared from our vocabulary. He looked dignified and he acted with dignity and integrity. Over the years he developed a strong sense of community responsibility, and a conviction that if you have been blessed you should bless others. He too loved his family immensely and was devoted to his wife, who has Alzheimer's,

Is conducting two services in a couple of days a strain? Oh ya, especially with everything else on my plate this hectic week. Yet in these two very different circumstances I feel invited onto holy ground. There are times when doing funerals can be frustrating because in our secular society those left behind don't seem to have a clue in the leave-taking from loved ones. Not so with these two. To read scripture and speak of our Christian hope in the face of death is a privilege in situations like these. To offer my thoughts about the departed, and to listen to others do the same is an important part of life, even though we are in the midst of death. To declare that God is present in the emptiness is vital. It doesn't remove the sting of death, but it can be part of the healing.

I'm not sure what comments to invite, but I would like to hear your thoughts about funerals and leave-taking and all that stuff.