Saturday, August 31, 2013


Are you enjoying a gentle holiday weekend Saturday in this great land of ours. Be grateful that we aren't as inclined to send in the SWAT teams to deal with every situation, although our police seem to be more militarized all the time.

These incidents were part of quite a list, but because they both have religious content I thought I would share them with you.

Peaceful monks arrested in SWAT team action.
According to KETV TV, Tibetan monks on a peace mission were apprehended by a SWAT team of immigration officials, in Iowa. The monks had come to the U.S. on a church-sponsored mission to spread the word about the plight of the Tibetan people. However, when they refused to recognize their sponsoring leader as the reincarnation of Jesus Chris and Buddha, they were abandoned.
The monks then traveled to Iowa not realizing that their immigration visas had been terminated, before immigration officials showed up at the door with a SWAT team to arrest them. The monks were able to stay out of jail thanks to an immigration officer who arranged for them to stay in Carter Lake pending an immigration hearing.

Feds raid Amish dairy farm—twice—for selling unpasteurized milk.
SWAT agents stormed a Pennsylvania Amish dairy farm wrongfully accusing the owner of selling raw milk interstate. The agents arrived at 4.30am while the owner Dan Allgyer’s family was still asleep and he was preparing to milk the cows. A warrant was served upon him claiming the police had “credible evidence” he was involved in interstate commerce.
When Allgyer questioned the warrant which stated it was valid only at “reasonable times during ordinary business hours,” one of the officers replied that “ordinary business hours for agriculture start at 5am,” according to NaturalNews.

I hope you can still sleep tonight.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Lucky me, Blessed me

Over the years I have become convinced of the importance of moving on spiritually and psychologically when I answer a call to a new congregation. It's not easy, particularly when close bonds of trust are established through the joys of sorrows of living together within a Christian community. Before I left the St. Paul's congregation I had to gently let a couple of people know I couldn't come back to preside at their funerals and as I have been informed of their deaths I feel pangs of loss and regret.  We shared deeply together. But part of all this is appreciating that God calls me to service and leadership for a time and place, and it is unhealthy for everyone concerned, including the arriving minister, to hang on, and on, and on.

All this said, there have always been opportunities for contact and even friendship with former parishioners and staff members. Some of those friendships have come to flower after departure because of the importance of balance and professionalism while actually in the congregation. We have a strong friendship with a couple from our first pastoral charge in Newfoundland. They were parents of teens then, but just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. One of those teens is now a colleague in ministry.

Now with email and social media there are ongoing contacts which were just not possible in earlier decades. In the past week there has been a flurry of quick exchanges with folk. The cyber-conversations touched on an impending retirement, the death of a father-in-law, the successful stage debut of a talented tween, a daughter heading off to university, a joyful remarriage, sharing a resource. All were brief, all were satisfying. And yes, being just an hour down the road from my former congregation for the first time in over thirty years of ministry there have been some actual human contacts, complete with hugs.

I will continue to be mindful of boundaries, especially as a new minister has been called.  It's only fair and I want the best for Michelle. Yet, I don't find anything in scripture about being required to develop pastoral amnesia when moving on to a new congregation.

The great thing is, I am really enjoying the folk at Bridge St with all their gifts and humour and spiritual insight. Lucky me. Okay, blessed rather than lucky.

What are your thoughts about all this?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

One of the Good Guys

Two marquee players from an iconic baseball franchise were in Toronto the past few days, one was booed and the other cheered. The Yankees were around for a three-game series and it was Alex Rodriguez, the alleged repeat drug offender who was the subject of fan disapproval. He is grossly overpaid to play a game at which he cheats. Little wonder he isn't admired.

The other player, Mariano Rivera, is one of the best loved players and arguably the best "closer" in the history of the game. Last year Rivera suffered a major injury while essentially messing around in the outfield during a practice doing something totally unrelated to pitching. At age 42 and having accomplished just about everything possible, including World Series wins, it must have been tempting to retire. He decided to come back for one final season and he has done extremely well, albeit with a few uncharacteristic speed wobbles. He is still near the top of the "saves" stats for 2013. In every ball park Rivera visits he is cheered by admiring fans.

Rivera is a devout Pentecostal Christian and when he retires he will support his wife who pastors a start-up, multi-racial congregation in an area where there are many social needs. Last year he gave over $600,000 to charitable outreach causes, mostly church sponsored.

I appreciate that lots of people really couldn't care less about the activities of pro athletes, but I find Rivera's story heartening. Spoiled, entitled and lawless athletes end up in the news regularly and its good to get another perspective. Hey, Rivera is still ridiculously wealthy, but it's a good wealthy!

Do you agree?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Faith March

This past weekend thousands gathered in Washington DC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963. This has also been called the Emancipation March, because 1963 marked the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Today is the actual anniversary of that momentous gathering of roughly a quarter million people protesting the inequalities of race in America. It culminated in a planned speech which became famous for the extemporaneous conclusion spurred by singing great Mahalia Jackson calling out "tell them about the dream Martin!" Is there any more memorable speech in history than the I Have a Dream oration by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior?  The biblical allusions in this speech, particularly Psalm 30 and Isaiah 40, are stirring.

We now know that the Kennedy administration was very anxious about this assembly at the Lincoln Memorial. In the four months before the march more than 1300 protests had occurred in 200 cities and the anger of black Americans was rising as they were subjected to police brutality and four little girls died in a deliberately set fire. The prospect of a riot led the administration to put pressure on black leaders to change their plans. Kennedy figured he might lose the opportunity to pass civil rights legislation if violence erupted.

Despite these undercurrents the march and assembly took place and became an iconic event of the Civil Rights movement. The commitment to non-violent protest, inspired both by the gospel and Gandhi, held, and no doubt many gathered for prayer beforehand, which was the practice before protests.

Do any of you want to admit to recalling the events of that year? Any thoughts from those of you who are US  history buffs? What about the centrality of faith in this movement?

Take a look at this from Religion & Ethics Weekly

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Cultural Legacy

The Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole is lifted and pushed into a hole before being raised in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday.

When we were at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend, after viewing the exhibit for which we had made the trip,  we went upstairs to the Canadian collection. I sought out the few paintings at the AGO by Emily Carr, which depict totem poles. Carr was fascinated by and deeply respectful of First Nations culture. While she never gave up her Christian faith she was drawn to the Native spirituality which honoured the earth. Her totem pole paintings from Haida Gwaii are a truly unique expression within the Canadian art scene, even though she wasn't given much credence when she was alive. Many of the paintings depict poles which have long since crumbled into oblivion. The missionary church discouraged the creation of the poles because they were mistakenly seen as paganism and idol worship rather than honouring ancestors, tribal identity, and connecton to earth, sky, and sea.

I'm sure Carr would have been delighted by the historical moment early in August when a pole was erected for the first time in 130 years on Lyell Island, part of Haida Gwaii. It commemorates the 20th anniversary of the stand-off between Native elders and the RCMP over logging on the island. This pole includes the faces of the "five good people" who were instrumental in stopping the logging, as well as the grizzly bear, the raven, and the sea wolf.

At the raising more than four hundred people surrounded the pole, including RCMP officers, all who came in various boats from kayaks to whalers. At thirteen metres it is an imposing tribute to the resurgence of Haida culture.

Were you aware this took place? Do you know much about the history of totem poles?

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Art of Dissidence

Ai Wei Wei Toronto

On Saturday morning we left Belleville at 7:00 am to make the ten o'clock opening of the Art Gallery of Ontario. We had tickets for the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the gallery. He is a remarkable, contemporary artist who uses his creativity to make powerful counter-cultural statements in the oppressive state which is China. It is fair to say that Ai Weiwei is China's most prominent and recognizable dissident, but despite his international profile he has paid a price for being outspoken. He has been imprisoned, his family has been harassed, one of his studios was destroyed. Although the According to What exhibit/installation is touring major galleries in North America he cannot leave China and lives under virtual house arrest.

One installation in the exhibit is tons of rebar pulled from the wreckage of an earthquake. Afterward it was apparent that corruption had resulted in shoddy construction so that buildings collapsed and many lives were lost. The twisted rebar was painstakingly straightened and transformed into a wave-like structure. It is adjacent to a wall which lists the names of 5,000 children who died in the earthquake. There is also a huge snake created of children's backpacks to commemorate the lost children.

Many of the pieces are arresting because Ai Weiwei uses traditional Chinese objects and artisanal techniques and transforms them with his contemporary imagination. We both loved the exhibit, and it reminded us of the price which is paid by those who do not accept the status quo.

During the sleepy days of summer the lectionary has invited us to hear from the biblical prophets whose voices still stir us to action thousands of years after they lived and challenged the religious and political mores of their time. Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, have spoken to us powerfully during these weeks. We know that some of them were reluctant to put on the mantle of prophecy.

 I wonder if Ai Weiwei can be considered  a modern-day prophet, whatever his religious sensibilities might be.

Will you go to see this exhibit, or have you already? Is art an appropriate medium for dissidence? What about the prophetic role? Does Ai Weiwei fit the bill?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Swords into Ploughshares

God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; 
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more
                                                                               Isaiah 2:4

Some of you will remember the organization Project Ploughshares, a peace movement in which many United Church of Canada members were very involved through the years.
Recently we came across a photo from years ago of a peace rally in Barrie, Ontario. I was involved and very young son Isaac too, riding on my shoulders. Isaac is now 31 and the shoulder ride is no longer an option. Ploughshares is still doing effective work but I just don't hear about the organization in the same way

I invite you to take a look at this video link which shows us a remarkable swords-into-plowshares project in the United States, initiated by The Simple Way and Shane Claiborne. Modern-day weapons are transformed into tools and musical instruments and sculpture. It is remarkable.

Were you ever involved or aware of Project Ploughshares through the years? What do you think of the video?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Truth Will Land You in Prison

Well, Bradley Manning did worse than some had hoped and better than others expected. The US army private was sentenced to 35 years in prison this week for releasing sensitive military documents through Wikileaks. Some see him as a hero who actually acted as a catalyst for the Arab Spring while others view him as a traitor who should have been executed rather than put in prison.

No doubt Edward Snowden is aware of this verdict even though he is in virtual exile in Russia. Snowden spilled the beans on the surveillance of ordinary citizens by the United States and Great Britain through telephone and internet. He wanted the world to know that Big Government is watching, without court orders to do so or any real justification. Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a traitor and a patriot.

I find it interesting that Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame considers these guys to be patriots and heroes. Ellsberg leaked Viet Nam War documents through the quaint ancient method of making photocopies. According to Wikipedia, always an unimpeachable source:

In late 1969 Ellsberg secretly made several sets of photocopies of the classified documents to which he had access; these later became known as the Pentagon Papers. They revealed that the government had knowledge, early on, that the war could most likely not be won, and that continuing the war would lead to many times more casualties  than was ever admitted publicly. Further, as an editor of the New York Times  was to write much later, these documents "demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance."

Ellsberg was tried for what he did in collusion with others but charges were eventually dropped because the government had violated his rights in so many ways.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus said "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" but apparently that doesn't always apply. And the advice of your parents to "just tell the truth and it will go well for you?" --maybe not so much.

When do we expect that an individual's moral compass must align with that of his or her government, regardless of the perceived legality or morality of that government's activity? Am I a traitor for swimming upstream no matter what the government is doing? Are these guys martyrs or mugs?

There is a worthwhile article in the Atlantic magazine calling both Manning and Snowdon foolish 

That said, the once vilified Ellsberg is the recipient of the Inaugural Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize a prize established by The Nation Institute and The Fertel Foundation. In 1978 he accepted the Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace. On September 28, 2006 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.

When I say guys I should note that Bradley Manning now wants to be known as Chelsea Manning and begin gender re-identification.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Everywhere Fun Fair

Yesterday I joked with our custodian Rob, kitchen coordinator Judy, and program coordinator Cheryl: "one more sleep!" I was referring to the fact that today, Friday is the last day of the kid's Summer Camp for 2013. In the end, roughly 80 children passed through the doors of the historic Bridge St. United Church building. They injected the stately stones with plenty of energy as they explored what it means to be neighbours as Christ's people.

I like the solid, biblical Cokesbury curriculum which is a lot of fun and Christian at the same time. It is the same curriculum used by my former congregation, St. Paul's. Each day the children learned more about being neighbours with a different bible story. The bird puppet Godwin holds the attention of little ones and the DVD is well done.

There is flexibility in the planning, so our music director Terry worked with groups of children each day on music. The rhythm instruments have been a' ringin'! There is an outreach component which gets the kids out of the building to serve others, an aspect of being a good neighbour. This year they made bag lunches for Gleaner's Food Bank and delivered them. Today folk from the Conservation Authority are here to help the gang consider what it means to be a good neighbour to other creatures.

Meanwhile a strong team has kept the children stoked with nutritious snacks all through this day-long program. I'm glad that the Bridge St. Foundation assists in underwriting the costs for this Summer Camp, but it is the many volunteers in all aspects which make it go. In a time when these kid's programs are on the wane I am delighted they flourish in congregations I have served.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Thoughts and observations anyone?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Banning Religious Freedom

Over the years church members and others who know me have approached me with real concern when I was wearing a clerical collar. "Who died?"  they want to know. I rarely wear the distinctive white-tabbed collar, and it is usually for funerals, so it is a tip-off. At this time of year I wear a short-sleeved clerical shirt and my forearm with the Celtic cross tattoo is plainly visible. Well, what if the time came when it was illegal to wear a symbol of  my role or to display the religious symbol which is my tattoo in public?

It will never happen? I wonder. In Quebec the move is afoot to ban the wearing of any religious symbols by government employees in the workplace. Why is this ban necessary? If they are discreet and appropriate, what is the problem? If these symbols are deemed offensive to the public, why not a universal ban in public places? It  is rather bizarre that crosses and crucifixes are still common in public buildings in Quebec,  they just can't be on a human being. I wonder if this is more about prohibiting the symbols of other religions such as Islam than it is about  symbols in general, but Christianity comes under the legislation.

In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms we find:

 Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

I listened to a startled and unnerved woman who emigrated to Quebec from Egypt. She said she came here in part for freedom of religion and now wonders if she can stay in the province.

What are your thoughts, good readers? Does this make much sense to you? Will a day come when religious symbols are banned in all places? Would you be willing to stand up for the right to wear your religious symbol?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Mark of Zoroastrianism!

This past Sunday was the new year for one of the world's oldest religions,  a religion you may not know. It is called Zoroastrianism and it may be more than 3,000 years old, vastly predating Christianity and perhaps older than Judaism. I think I wrote some years ago about my encounter with the Zed religion. While in Halifax a documentary film-maker in the congregation decided to do a doc on the religion and pitch it to Vision TV. I was to be the project's spiritual advisor even though I knew only slightly more than zip about the religion. Vision was keen, but he quickly ran into some hurdles. He wanted to visit Iran and Iraq, where Zoroastrianism has its roots. Apart from the danger, neither country is partial to Westerners. And where do you find a Zoroastrian in Canada? There was a time when Z... (you know) had millions of followers around the world. Today's estimates are 200,000, the majority in the Middle East.

Richard, the film-maker, tracked down a lovely and open family living in Bedford, just outside Halifax. He zeroed in on the twenty-something daughter because she was born here and faced the challenges of finding someone within her religion despite being quite North American in her sensibilities. Oh yes, she was also pretty. There was and probably still is a yearly Zoroastrian cruise for young adults, a sort of Love Boat for adherents of a disappearing religion.

The film eventually got made although I was long gone from Halifax by the time it was done and broadcast.

Why should we care about the Zed religion? Well, scholars generally believe that the Magi or Wise Men were Zoroastrian astrologers/astronomers from Iran -- journeying from the East and all that. And some suggest that the contrasts between good and evil, as well as light and darkness in Christianity found their way into our faith from Zoroastrianism. I'm not so sure, but it is an interesting concept.

Do you know anything about Zoroastrianism? Do you care? Have I enlightened or totally confused you?

My Groundling blog is back

Monday, August 19, 2013

Humanity Fully Alive

Roy Bonisteel, seen in this image from a 1972 episode of Man Alive, the CBC show he hosted from 1967 to 1989, has died at the age of 83.

Roy Bonisteel. For younger blog readers that name will mean nothing, for many others Bonisteel's deep and measured tones were a perfect fit for the religious and spiritual affairs program known as Man Alive. It is now a rather exclusive sounding name for a TV program but for decades Man Alive was an often fascinating and unique exploration of spiritual themes. The title came from the statement of second century bishop Iraneus "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God."

Host Bonisteel died last week at the age of 83 at his home not far from here in Belleville, somewhere north of Trenton. He grew up in the tiny Prince Edward County village of Ameliasburg, which was also the childhood home of the great Canadian poet, Al  Purdy. What's in the water there?

When Bonisteel's death was announced on the CBC he was described as the host of a current affairs program, which is interesting. It's as though we can no longer admit that religion and spirituality shape our lives for bad and good. I really enjoyed the wide-ranging topics and Bonisteel, who was an agnostic himself, interviewed some fascinating guests. He wasn't the only host, with several others succeeding him briefly in latter years. But Bonisteel really was Man Alive.

The program actually inspired me to go on a Wild Hermit Hunt. An episode featured Father Charles Brandt, a Roman Catholic priest ordained as a hermit who became an environmental activist along the coast of Vancouver Island. I was in Victoria many years ago as part of a national committee, so I searched out Father Brandt who graciously welcomed me to his hermitage and fed me smoked salmon and wine. Much to my surprise is still alive at age 90 and still living in his lovely little hermitage repairing rare manuscripts and books for universities. But I digress!

Do you remember Roy Bonisteel and Man Alive? What do you think about a program exploring spiritual topics?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Peace, Peace, When There is No Peace

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
   saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
   when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 6:14

The chaos and terrible loss of life in Egypt this past week moved the peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders out of the spotlight. That and the cynicism that these talks will be non-starters, one more example of the futile record of discussions and accords. The last significant negotiations were in 2007-08 and didn't accomplish much. This time around the Israeli governments committed to releasing about a hundred Palestinian prisoners but also announced the building of 2,000 homes in disputed territories. There are now half a million Israelis living in settlements in those territories and this is a key issue for the Palestinians. The word "intractable" comes to mind in both directions.

The prophet Jeremiah warned against the false prophets who make noises about peace when it doesn't exist. They are cogent words for a peace process in which no one is committed to reconciliation. Yet we have to grab onto whatever hopeful scraps are tossed our way, it seems to me. Some talk, however flawed, is better than no talk.

The United Church took it pretty hard on the chin last year for its criticisms of the Israeli government and its unrelenting policy of settlement. Without discussion, where will change begin?

The talks came to an end without any statements of any kind. Who knows what happened or whether they will resume.

Should they bother, given the history? Should we concern ourselves? Is this a faith matter as well as a political matter?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Eugene Allen's The Butler

In the beginning there was Driving Miss Daisy, And it begat The Help. It was fruitful and money-making, and so brought forth The Butler. From the chauffeur, to the maid, to the manservant, twenty-five years in the making.

None of us has seen Lee Daniels The Butler yet, I assume, but critics have and they say it is well done, even though there are certain inevitable overstated moments and some emotional button-pushing. Word is that Oprah is good as Eugene Allen/Forest Whitaker's wife.I must admit that I am intrigued about this cinematic telling of the true story of the butler to the presidents, eight in total. His name was Eugene Allen and his story was first told in an article in the Washington Post back in November of 2008  The film is actually called Lee Daniel's The Butler because of a legal feud over the title. It's unfortunate that they didn't call it Eugene Allen's The Butler. He is the humble hero of the movie.

Apparently the film does give us intimations of Allen's Christian faith which was expressed in practical terms in his role as an usher in his Baptist Church, as well as other opportunities for service. Hundreds came to his funeral at the church in 2010, obviously several years before the fame this film has brought. Daniels included the faith element because he couldn't imagine telling a story with an underlying theme of civil rights without the gospel: "the first shall be last."

The three films I mention all focus on finding dignity and courage in circumstances and occupations which could be demeaning and soul-destroying. In all three stories personal faith is part of "keeping the faith."

Will you go to see The Butler? What do you think about these stories? Are they noble or patronizing? How about that element of faith?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Divorced in the Church

 Article image

The cover article from the July 24th issue of the Christian Century certainly caught my eye. It is called Spiritual Cul-de-Sac: How the Church Fails the Divorced  and the date of the issue wa smack-dab between the two family weddings at which I officiated this summer. My brother remarried, and this was the first time I had ever presided at a second wedding for the same person. One of my wife's step-sisters, her close friend for more than forty years, remarried as well. Ruth was the witness for both of this sister's marriages. In both instances our family members had been married for about twenty years, a bit longer for one. Both had raised children with the first partners within conservative Christian congregations which emphasized family. When they separated from their first spouses they had a tough time because the break-down of marriages was frowned upon. People encouraged them to reconcile (preferable in some cases, but not always possible or safe) and prayed for them. Somehow though, they felt judged by many and in the end both left their congregations with disappointment.

I wish I could say that we do a lot better in mainline churches but there is a fair amount of side-taking or, worse, total silence in too many instances. Divorce is painful for people, even when they are convinced that the marriage needs to end, and seldom is that pain acknowledged skillfully or compassionately. A befuddled "oh well" is hardly much better than a sanctimonious "I'll pray for you" but too often there isn't much in between. Pastors struggle as well. There is next to no seminary training for responding to divorce even though our congregations have many divorced people. While these folk founder, seek direction, heroically rebuild lives, we are often mute, or at least muffled as to how God can be present in the tough transition.

I am convinced that just about everybody who is a Christian takes their marriage vows seriously as they make them, but where is God and the faith community when things come unraveled? It is that much worse when there is betrayal or abuse or the divorce becomes adversarial. Too often individuals leave a relationship determined to be civil and fair because of his or her faith, only to become embroiled in the divorce equivalent of thermo-nuclear war.

In the article author Carolyn Call, a pastor who never expected to be divorced from her pastor husband offers that "God wants those who are divorced to flourish, to be forgiven and to be loved." I believe this is true and I will endeavor to demonstrate this conviction in practical ways, even though I figure I will never get it right because divorce is messy and unpredictable.

I am happy for both the couples I married this summer. They have found someone with whom they can share love and companionship and trust. Whatever has occurred in the past, they have taken the courageous step to start over and we asked God to bless them on their journey.

How do you feel about the way you have supported family members and friends who have gone through divorce.? If you have been separated or divorced, how did your congregation do? Should divorce support be a higher priority in congregations, along with offering opportunities to strengthen marriages?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Trouble with Normal...

Yesterday many media outlets were inviting memories of the massive power black-out which affected 50 million people in the US and Canadian northeast, including ten million in Ontario. We were about to move back to Ontario but fortunately the black-out didn't affect Nova Scotia, our home at the time. We began our trek back to this province a couple of days after resumption of power.

One of the first seniors I visited in my new congregation was a real character, a dear old soul who was known for the volume and dramatic vigour of her side of conversations. She told me with great animation about going out to the summer porch that fateful day to retrieve an old lantern, only to stumble backward into her blue box. She claimed she was stuck there for hours until her daughter came to check on her. She was like an upside-down turtle she told me. It was all I could do not to laugh. As unlikely as this sounds, she was tiny, and when she died several years later the daughter assured me it was true.

A family friend was recovering from serious surgery and barely mobile. He had one of those big padded armchairs which lift up with the push of a button. Unfortunately that motor required electricity and he was imprisoned in the chair for several hours until his wife returned home.

Another significant memory was the information released some weeks later about the significant reduction in airborne pollutants and smog as a result of hundreds of factories shutting down. It was very noticeable down wind of the steel-making zone in Pennsylvania. No coal-fired smelters, no pollution. Visibility for pilots increased significantly and air quality improved. Then we got back to "normal."

We know that simply shutting down everything we depend upon for daily living is not a solution, but it is good to be reminded that the atmosphere gets healthier in a hurry when we give it a fighting chance. It speaks to the issues around climate change which become more pronounced each year. As a denomination which encourages creation care I wonder what we should take to heart on this tenth anniversary of the black-out.

What are your memories from ten years ago? What should we learn from that event, if anything?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Enforced Silence

A view inside of one of the segregation cells at Kingston Penitentiary. (The Canadian Press)

During my time away this summer I did a considerable amount of reading about the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of silence. Silence and it's companion solitude have been considered essential for communion with God through the centuries. The opposite of silence is noise, unwanted sound, and we know that we are an increasingly noisy species. Even though creativity often emerges from the two S's, we bombard ourselves with noise as entertainment, a tool for selling products, as an aspect of the devices of all shapes and sizes we just must have.

Silence has a shadow side as well. Too much of it can drive people bonkers, and even those who have chosen it in the religious life can suffer from side effects such as hallucinations and paranoia.

I was interested in the concern expressed in the media last week that segregation is being used much more frequently in our Canadian jails and prisons as a form of punishment. 

During my seminary training I did a chaplaincy internship at Kingston Penitentiary and one of my assigned areas was the solitary confinement unit lovingly known as "The Hole." Prisoners who ended up there spent twenty-three and a half hours a day apart from other humans and were afforded half an hour for exercise in a small yard without other inmates present. The cells were bleak and narrow. The window was high on the wall and there was no view. Other than brief contact from guards and medical staff my visits as a chaplain were the only interaction inmates had. I quickly realized that a number of the men entered the Hole with mental health issues and they just became worse in isolation. Silence was an enemy rather than a consolation.

There are some remarkable figures such as Nelson Mandela who managed to endure and actually become stronger in this sort of environment but few others have his fortitude. It is intended to crush people and it is effective in a perverse way.

What do you think of a justice system which uses isolation as a form of punishment? I wonder if we learned anything from Ashley Smith's death. Have silence and solitude been friend or foe in your experience?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What's in a Name?

Name Change Messiah

A Tennessee judge has ruled that a baby boy cannot have the name Messiah, even though the cute little guy has been living with it for several months now. His separated parents went to court to settle a dispute over his last name and got this surprise. According to the New York Times "The magistrate judge, Lu Ann Ballew, justified her decision by telling a WBIR reporter that the name Messiah was inappropriate. Ms. Ballew, who wore earrings in the shape of a crucifix during the interview, said: “The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Ms. Ballew is obviously not a trained theologian because the designation "messiah" is part of the Jewish tradition and the belief amongst Jews is that Messiah, the promised deliverer of Israel has yet to come. Christians use that term for Jesus and "Christ" is the latinized version of messiah. Of course the word "messiah" is used in popular parlance for anyone who can or thinks he/she can lead under extraordinary circumstances. I've heard Donald Trump has it on his letterhead.

What's in a name? How can a kid be called Moon Unit (Frank Zappa's lad) or Apple or any one of a thousand goofball or cutesy names people foist on their offspring these days. I'm sure Judge Ballew is an earnest Christian, and, truth be told,  I would have my own problems with calling anyone Messiah with a straight face. What would the short form be anyway -- Mess?

Does the use of this name offend you? After all, there have been lots of pro ball players who are Jesus (Hey-Zeus.) Many jurisdictions have laws against giving frivolous or offensive names to unsuspecting children. Is there power in a designation such as Messiah?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Apocalypse Always


I really enjoyed Neil Blonkamp's breakthrough film District 9 even though it was wild and wooly. It offered a dystopian view of a world in which aliens are contained in a scary encampment, a form of inter-planetary apartheid.

Blonkamp is back with Elysium a film with much more money and a big star in Matt Damon. It was the film with the biggest box office this past weekend but critics haven't been that kind. The film is set in a dismal future where a select few have a literally "out of this world" gated community while the rest of humanity experiences hell on earth. The elite can be healed from diseases instantaneously and Damon's character is on a quest to access that least that's what I can gather. It's interesting that this year big stars such as Will Smith,  Brad Pitt and Damon have been involved in big projects with gloomy pictures of the future.

Apparently we like our gloom and doom, whether it is in religion or entertainment. Preachers have dined out on the Revelation of John and other apocalyptical literature for centuries, literally trying to scare the hell out of people. TV evangelists are keen to throw a scare into us as well, although guys such as Jack Van Impe and his wife Roxella are more humour than terror. Still, people send the money to keep their ministries and lifestyles going. There is a danger that environmental concerns are becoming the new signs of the apocalypse, the end of the world, and folk stop listening.

Why do you think we are drawn to the gloomier possibilities of our earthly future? Why is it "apocalypse always?" Are you hopeful for a better day, or is yours a heavenly hope, first and foremost?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Beyond the House of Horrors

Earlier this week Ariel Castro's house of horrors in Cleveland was demolished. For years this man kept three abducted women in captivity, sexually abusing them and robbing them of any semblance of a real life. One escaped, leading to the rescue of the other two and they are reconnecting with family. One of the women and family members of the others were on hand to watch her prison be demolished.

When Castro was sentenced to life in prison, plus a thousand years (um, how does that work/) he rambled on about not being a monster, claiming that he is sick. While he is obviously trying to abdicate responsibility, he is correct in saying that he is not a monster. He is a human being who choose a terrible evil, for which he must pay the price. Labelling him a monster undermines the gravity of his crime, and also the possibility that he might accept responsibility and turn in a different direction. I think we call it repentance in the Christian faith.

The destruction of his house was the right thing to do, practically and symbolically. Authorities made sure no pieces were taken away by ghoulish profiteers who try to make money from the travails of others.  Would that evil could be addressed in this way, the dismantling of what has caused harm to others.  

The three women and one child will continue to deconstruct the dark power Castro claimed over them during those years and become whole persons again. Twenty two thousand dollars were found in the house but the women refused to accept it so it went to charity. What a powerful statement on their part.

Today we hear from the prophet Isaiah who proclaims justice for the vulnerable and oppressed. We can pray they are on their way.

Did you see the photos or film footage? What were your thoughts? Do you believe in evil?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Following Jesus

David Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been doing "town hall" or "PM Direct" question and answer sessions in different communities and this week he was asked an intriguing question. What does he think of Jesus' directive to sell our possessions and give them to the poor. He first identified himself as a Christian and an active member of the Church of England. He proceeded to name the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Great Commandment as key passages from his standpoint. The verses to which the inquirer referred are from Matthew 19 and are Jesus' response to a young man who wants to know about eternal life: "Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Cameron admitted to struggling with this story and got the fellow asking to admit that he found it tough as well. I do too! I said to wife Ruth recently that in the all the spending to set up a new home I feel incredibly selfish and self-absorbed. It's all about us, it seems.  I look forward to settling down in the days ahead and looking outward rather than inward. I am regularly aware of the astoundingly privileged life I lead as a middle-class Canadian and I need the compass of verses such as these, not to be wracked by guilt but to see where I want to go in fulfilling my true humanity.  Cameron's passages remind us not to covet, to seek first the reign of God and not to store up treasures, to love our neighbours as ourselves. The Matthew passage supports these themes.

I suppose that's why it's good for me to be back in the fold of my Christian community. It is here I am called to faithfulness, simplicity, and generosity.

Take a look at the video clip. What do you think? Are we listening to Jesus and following him?

Friday, August 09, 2013


Do you remember Mike Huckabee? He is the Baptist minister who became the governor of Arkansas. When Rick Mercer did Talking To Americans he got Governor Huckabee to do a shout-out for the preservation of "Canada's National Igloo."  Obviously a well-informed politician, his international statesmanship led him to run for leadership of the Republican party. Imagine Huckabee as president. Now shudder. He has moved on to a higher calling as a Fox News host. A few days ago Huckabee marked the end of Ramadan by referring to Muslims as "uncorked animals," among other things. What a lovely attempt at interfaith dialogue. Later he back-tracked, sort of, saying that his comments weren't meant to characterize all Muslims.

An American Muslim named Qasim Rashid responded to Huckabee's diatribe:
What would Huckabee think of a nation in which a person is murdered every 17 minutes? A nation with cities that have higher murder rates than war torn Iraq? Or a nation in which a rape occurs every 6 minutes? A nation in which 1 in 4 women will be raped before graduating college and 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail? A nation in which a violent crime occurs every 26.2 seconds and a property crime occurs every 3.5 seconds? A nation that comprises 5% of the world’s population but a world-leading 25% of the world’s prison population?
That nation is the United States, which is majority Christian, Rashid noted, arguing that under Huckabee's reasoning, he should blame Christianity for those statistics. Rashid also pointed to a recent study showing Christmas to be the deadliest day of the year. Rashid wasn't arguing that Christian teachings are to blame for any of these statistics, however, he was simply urging people not to learn about Islam from Huckabee.

Well played! As I have offered before, if we take the worst of any religion and pit it against the best of another we know what the useless outcome will be. This does not bring about peace, compassion, mutual understanding, a better world. Ever.

Any comments, or are you speechless?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Pope and Putin

On the way home from his visit to Brazil Pope Francis surprised reporters and the Roman Catholic communion with an off-the-cuff comment that he didn't want to judge those priests who are homosexual in orientation. It wasn't a recantation of the Catholic church's official positions on celibacy or homosexual practice as a sin, but it certainly caused a stir. It sounds as though it rattled the collective cages of those in the conservative wing of the church.

Does this comment matter? A number of you have rightly noted that we need to move on when it comes to tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community (should we really use the term "community?") but consider what is happening in Russia. It is now essentially illegal to be gay, or to even talk publicly about the issues. Many are concerned about what this will mean for the Sochi Olympics. Some are calling for a boycott and moving the venue to Vancouver. Russia is supposedly still a world power and a nation which participates in major economic forums. How could this legislation have developed?

We hear reports from Jamaica and Uganda and Kenya and other countries about persecution, not to mention the persistence of bullying and shaming in Canada and the US. We have hardly arrived at acceptance. To have the leader of the largest Christian denomination extend an olive branch, or at least a twig, does matter.

Did you notice that a conservative Christian women's group here in Canada has criticized John Baird for speaking out against the Russian legislation? It is one of the few statements he has made that I actually support!


Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Before I left Bowmanville and St Paul's a wise colleague with a sense of humour gave me a little book called Jesus' Day Off. Here is the description:

Jesus worked hard to make the world beautiful. He performed miracles, told fabulous stories - all for free - and generally spent his time spreading joy and light around the world. A tiring business, as Jesus had to admit when, one day, he had trouble getting out of bed. And worse - the miracles start to go wrong! But help is at hand. 'Take the day off, Jesus,' said the doctor. 'Relax. Have some fun!' So Jesus had some fun - but was it worth it? Dad, as usual, has the answer!

This may sound a little irreverent and I suppose it is, although I would say that it is "playfully profound." Those of us in ministry aren't Jesus, but as his posse we can lose our perspective about our indispensability. Sometimes we end up on the scrap heap, temporarily or permanently. In a very turbulent climate for organized religion it can be difficult to know what are the priorities of ministry and this can lead to what we sometimes call burn-out. What can also happen is the loss of joy and fulfillment for pastors, even though we are supposedly in the abundant life business, as I am inclined to say. It is startling how quietly resentful many ministers become about demands and expectations.

In the book Jesus is renewed and recovers his sense of playfulness, and God,"Dad," is pleased. My wise friend was reminding me that if it good enough for Jesus...As I return to work officially today after a number of weeks off I know I need to be committed to balance. That balance will include both a prayerful and mission-oriented ministry, as well as a meaningful life away from my daily labours. "Dad" wouldn't want it any other way.

What are your thoughts about this?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Dog Wags the Human

I have written several times about the importance of treating animals other than humans with respect, whether they are in the wild, the ones we eventually consume or the ones we decide are companions or pets. But is it possible to lose our perspective about those pets, creatures such as dogs who were originally brought into our encampments to serve and who don't have a sense of their own mortality?

There was an excellent article in the weekend Globe and Mail about this. It reminded us that we spend billions on our pets in North America, for everything from goofy little outfits to expensive medical treatment. A woman from Newfoundland has spent $30,000 on chemotherapy for her pooch, flying to Ontario for the best treatment. Some of the fawning (pun intended) over our pets is just silly in the form of pet accessories and treats. The medical treatment may seem to be compassionate, but what are the limits to intervention in a world where tens of thousands of humans suffer and die from malnutrition and lack of adequate healthcare?

When I was at the Taize Christian community in France some years ago I had a phone conversation with Ruth, my wife, about treatment for our cat. She had already spent hundreds of dollars and was uncertain about spending more on a very sick animal. I encouraged her to use her best judgement and she went one step further in kitty care. I returned to a recovering cat who lived for another seven years. But I would have understood if she had him euthanized and we were grateful when his time finally came that our veterinarian was compassionate but frank about further treatment for an aged animal with cancer.

Is it unethical for us to act as though our companion animals are human and spend like crazy on their pampering and care? Is it unfaithful to do so? Are they our pets, or we theirs?

Monday, August 05, 2013

Living Water

I read recently that in a ranking of 75 sounds from worst to best a baby's laughter and running water ranked at the top of the list. I would concur with both, with the best sound lately being our six-month-old grandson's chortling. We have enjoyed the latter this summer as well. Last week we were in the Perth area and stayed with friends whose farm is on the Mississippi River. We walked in to another spot aptly named The Chutes, most of a kilometre of unnavigable rapids on the river which are still roiling thanks to relatively high water levels this year. On the walk in we crossed a burbling stream which never seems to dry up. At our friends' place the rapids upstream have a different, but always audible hum.

This morning we drove with our kayaks north of Belleville a short distance and accessed the Moira River from highway 37. We had a lovely paddle upstream during which we stirred up a blue heron and a couple of kingfishers. Our meander was cut short by rapids which we approached as closely as possible. By some hydraulic mystery our boats were held in the current and we enjoyed the sight and the sound. Dragonflies and butterflies landed on the hull of my kayak as we savoured the moment. As I write I can hear the gentle bubbling of our neighbour's pond.

I have mentioned before that while the psalmist speaks of still waters, Jesus describes himself as living water, which I imagine as something which wells up with energy. This imagery of renewing water is ideal for God's gift to us in the life of faith.

Do you have favourite spots for living, energizing water? The bathroom doesn't count! Any other thoughts on water imagery?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Heart to Heart

I have been aware for several years of a camp in New Mexico which brings together Israeli Muslim and Jewish teens to provide a climate for recreation and peaceful co-existence. I was pleasantly surprised to read in the Globe and Mail yesterday that there is a similar program in Canada at Camp Shomria near Perth, Ontario called Heart to Heart.The ten boys and ten girls write about why they would benefit from the program and are chosen on the basis of their thoughts on co-existence and peaceful relations. While the participants have to pay their own way to Canada all other costs are covered.

Muslims are currently fasting in the month of Ramadan and the article tells of how the young people are showing respect for each other in this observance. They know that not everything will magically change when they return home but they feel their attitudes have changed as a result of the camp. And they have enjoyed the peace and beauty of the Canadian wilds. Camp Shomria is a Jewish camp, so kudos to those who have developed this Heart to Heart program. We can pray that it pays dividends in a region which has been marred by suspicion and angry and violence.

My one minor criticism of the article is that it didn't acknowledge that a significant number of Israeli Arabs are Christian. The Christians have suffered by association, even though there has been no history of violence out of that community.

Did anyone else see the article? What are your thoughts about this initiative? Is this the way to change, or wishful thinking.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Faithful Work-out?

Bless me father, it has been more than three months since my last gym work-out...That would have been my confession yesterday but this morning I finally, finally, finally got back to the gym and toiled away for an hour. Living for two months in an apartment on the other side of town and the demands of moving meant that I offered up a lot of "tomorrow I'll go" procrastinations. We were actually fairly active during this period. Lots of bike rides, including cycling to work often. A few paddles and exploratory walks and hikes. Ruth has returned to her love of rowing, developed in Halifax. And packing up and moving requires a fair amount of expended energy.

It is important to establish a regimen of overall fitness just the same, and I found that the longer I put off the gym, the harder the prospect of getting back to it. Part of it was the unknown: this isn't "my" gym. Who wants to stumble around looking for the weights and machines like a novice? And I knew I would have to lower my expectations after a lay-off. It's probably what deters a lot of folk from getting started.

I have written before about clergy being a notoriously sedentary lot. We sit to work and we are invited to eat prodigiously. The result is broadening girths and heavy demands on our benefits program. With more than eighty percent of United Church clergy over fifty we are prime candidates for health problems.

More than this, we invite our people into abundant life in Christ, a life in which we respect our bodies as a gift from God. Surely we should do our best to provide an example of reasonable and attainable health rather than the body obsession/ obesity crisis pendulum of the culture.

Well, I have no excuse now. It is a three-minute bicycle ride to the Y and it is on my route to the church.

Do you think your clergy should try to model good health and fitness? How are you doing with your fitness regime. Is it good theology to take care of our earthly bodies along with our heavenly hope?