Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Mooving Problem

The unemployment rate for Ontario youth is 16.4 per cent. In Toronto it’s even higher, at 18.2 per cent.

I am grateful that all three of our wonderful adult children and their partners are gainfully employed. Two of our kids are working in the fields in which they were trained and in jobs which bring fulfillment. The third has full-time work but is "mal-employed" in that she is not working in the field or setting she would choose.

As longer term readers will know, this is an important issue to me. I can't help but feel that those of us who are Baby Boomers don't appreciate the challenges of the current crop of college and university grads who often end up deeply in debt and may never have anything close to the lifestyle many of us enjoy. Hey, who will pay for our pensions! There is some research showing that post-sec graduates may end up worse off in the long-run than those who start working after high school. We are even told that one in six medical specialist grads can't find work.

In Ontario youth unemployment is between sixteen and eighteen percent, far above the average. In Europe it soars above 20% in many countries and yet one commentator points out that it doesn't create much of a stir:

Yet and this is my favourite European cow factoid of the day the EU spends more money caring for a cow than an unemployed youth. Spanish journalist Jorge Valero points out a cow gets about 12.7 euros while a jobless youth gets 1.26 euros per year, says the council's Jose Ignacio Torreblanca.

This is a spiritual issue, both in terms of the pastoral concerns for youth and young adults who come to the place of despair over bleak prospects, and our conviction that meaningful work is part of a healthy and whole life. I'm so glad that I'm not seeking work as a young person today. It never occurred to me as a teen that I might be chronically unemployed and I have actually worked steadily through my lifetime. I have sat too often with bright, motivated young people who are overwhelmed by the combination of debt and poor job prospects.

I don't know what I'm inviting you to add, but I hope you add it just the same!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Very, Very Scary!

We are going to ask our neighbours how many kids might show up for Halloween tomorrow. At our previous home the busy street meant that hardly anyone showed at our door, with the exception of a few children from the congregation and a handful of others. Halloween is one of those pagan festivals that was "borrowed" by Christians and apparently has been given back in its entirety. Christmas and Easter are also coopted pagan hooplas, probably because it allowed the people of The Way to celebrate Christ's birth and resurrection without anyone noticing because they were too busy partying. But we still understand the Christian connection for C&E, whereas it would probably surprise most people to discover that Halloween was ever Christian. I find it funny that Halloween has been turfed from so many schools these days, but not because of the religious issue.

Halloween is a "thin time" when the membrane between this world and the next is very permeable. Our scary pumpkins were originally scary turnips employed to ward off dark spirits. But it was also the opportunity to remember those who have left this life and entered another.

I find it odd that a fair number of conservative Christians won't celebrate Halloween because of its pagan origins. The faulty logic has been pointed out by insightful commentators. Does that mean we shouldn't celebrate Christmas or Easter then? And the same is true of the connection with evil, the evil of spirits roaming the Earth. But don't we Christians speak of the biblical "cloud of witnesses" surrounding us at all times? I feel badly for those disappointed Christian children who aren't allowed to trick-or-treat because their parents are spooked by the occasion. Surely their God has a little more traction than the odd grumpy spirit or two?

I do wish we could find a way to celebrate All Hallows Eve and the Saints and Souls days more with some verve in the church. I think the imagery is beautiful and holy and uplifting. In the meantime I'll hope that not too many kids show so I can snack on those awesome mini-treats. Did you know that when their that small they have no calories. No really.

Any comments about Halloween from a faith perspective, or are you just hoping that you don't get your windows egged?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Choosing to drive in New York City is a form of mental instability best left to cab drivers, so we didn't while in the Big Apple this past weekend. Instead we walked, took taxis, and used the subway system. The subway lines can get you just about anywhere and they are the arteries in the heart of the transportation and economic engine of this city of 8.3 million people.

Today marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the massive storm which literally washed over New York. There are still portions of the subway which have not been repaired and returned to even partial function. Other lines were saved by the ingenuity of the army of people who keep the system running from day to day. One major line was saved by a last minute plywood wall built as a dike at the entrance to the tunnel. Engineers estimated that with the tidal and storm surge it needed to be eight and a half feet tall. They were correct with three inches to spare.

This storm was unprecedented, as so many have been in the past couple of years. While our weather in New York was perfect, in Europe a massive storm, the biggest in more than a decade, has created havoc in several countries.

Isn't it astonishing that so many are unconvinced of the realities of climate change? What amazes me is that a substantial number of conservative Christians feel that it is impossible for humans to be agents in climate change because God is in charge. They often cite the story of Noah to support their conviction that the world will never be devastated again. I have pointed out more than once that this story says that God will not punish the planet, when what is happening in our time is self-inflicted. It is also disturbing that this is taken literally rather than as an important myth about human arrogance and denial. Aren't we being a tad arrogant when we will not see the "signs of the times?"

In New York there are regular reminders about the two great calamities of recent times, 911 and Sandy. Let's pray that there aren't more to come.


Monday, October 28, 2013

I Love to Tell the Story

New York City, United Methodist Church, Park Avenue / East 86th Street

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

I am just back at Bridge St UC from a few days in New York City with my wife Ruth, brother Eric, and his wife Shelley. NYC is a remarkable place and very walkable, if you don't mind your dogs barkin' by the end of the day.

I warned the others that my invisible bumper sticker said I Brake for Churches because I was fascinated by the continued existence of downtown churches in this centre for commerce and tourism. Even the biggest of churches such as St. Patrick's Cathedral are now dwarfed by the sea of  glittering "mine is bigger than yours" office towers. What I discovered is that many of them are using exterior banners and signs with thought-provoking slogans to let the endless stream of passers-by know that they are living Christian communities, not anomalies from the historical past. Park Ave. United Church, seen above, has another banner saying: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.

Even ministries for those such as the venerable evangelist Billy Graham make their presence felt in the midst of the glitz of Times Square.

Not long ago I walked around the exterior  of the Bridge St. building with graphic designer daughter Jocelyn. She works for the Toronto International Film Festival which now rivals Cannes as the largest in the world. Rather than resting on their laurels they are constantly asking how they can get their message out to the public, including through their signage. She had lots of great ideas about Bridge St. but said that first we needed to consider what story we wanted to tell. She called it "branding" and while I baulk a little at the commercial term,  surely we have to be willing to tell our present-day, time-and-place story of the Good News of Christ effectively. Just assuming that people will flock to us because of our history is a death wish. We might as well say we are a dinosaur exhibit at a museum rather than a living, breathing organism, the body of Christ.

Are you comfortable with using creative ways to let others know who we are? Should this be a strategy for every congregation with dollars attached to do the work?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Whole Counsel of God

  The Year D Project
For more than 30 years I have been using the Ecumenical Lectionary, the outline of scripture passages for the Sundays and seasons of the Church Year. Beginning in Advent, a few weeks before Christmas, we have the options a Psalm, Old Testament passage, an epistle reading, and a gospel lection each week. Okay, that pattern varies in some seasons, but it is the general idea. We have a three year cycle, poetically named A,B, and C, and we cover a lot of scriptural territory over the course of those three years.

Not enough though. I have always used the lectionary but the longer I have been in ministry, the more I have digressed at times. I do theme preaching series now, and the lectionary gets put aside for a while. In addition, there is the feeling I share with many colleagues that the lectionary is good, but not complete. And sometimes we feel a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, repeating the cycle over and over.

Now there is an initiative to introduce a fourth year --yup, Year D -- to the cycle. I am intrigued. Here is a description:

Although one often hears of the need to preach "the whole counsel of God," few resources have seriously and specifically attempted to assist the preacher and planner of worship to do just that--until now. 'Year D' makes the case for the need and promise of supplementing the Revised Common Lectionary with a fourth year of lections and arranges many previously excluded biblical texts in an orderly, one-year preaching plan. It fills a need widely voiced by preachers that the lectionary effectively limits and censors the functional canon of Scripture. Destined to serve as a staple source of significant revitalization in mainline preaching and worship, 'Year D' banks on the agency of Word and Spirit to renew the church as few practical proposals have done in the last twenty years, lending new focus and impetus for exploring the Bible's forgotten riches. A timely and urgently needed "return to the sources," Year D represents a fresh appropriation of neglected and marginalized texts for preaching, worship, education, and devotion, and thus constitutes a substantive, scriptural attempt to address what Walter Brueggemann has called "the current preaching emergency."

Ding, Ding, Ding --preaching emergency, preaching emergency! I love the phrase. I will pay attention to the resources now being made available and I have a feeling I will participate. Even though I see the finish line of active ordained ministry I'm still up for a challenge, if it enhances worship and encourages spiritual growth.

Is this lectionary stuff all new to you? Were you just getting accustomed to three years and now...? Do you not really care as long as scripture is read and your spirit is fed?


Friday, October 25, 2013


The latest United Church Observer contains an interview with Kevin Flatt, the author of a new book called After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada. He argues that the UCC became a different denomination in the 60's, choosing liberal theology over the evangelical character of the church formed in 1925.

While I'm not entirely persuaded by his premise, I would agree that one of the most successful initiatives  of the United Church has been the quiet but persistent choice not to form our young people as faithful Christians. At some point we seemed to lose our general conviction that persuasively teaching and preaching the gospel of Christ, crucified and risen, really mattered. Whether we are speaking of what we do internally with our own flock, or in our invitation to those outside our community of faith, we have become woefully inept at making Christians. It's what Malcolm Muggeridge described as the liberal death wish. That's part of why we are hearing the grim news of so many United Church closures.

So often we sniff at our evangelical brothers and sisters and point out the various ways we don't want to be like them. Yet we have no real strategy for sharing our Good News in Christ, which is, after all, what evangelical means.

Of course, it could be argued that this is an outrageous generalization on my part. Over the last six years in my previous congregation two child and youth workers did an excellent job creating a spiritual environment in which kids were encouraged to grow in faith. They managed to be evangelical alongside being fairly liberal in their theological perspective. They "kept their eyes on the prize" of faith in Jesus Christ. The same commitment can be found in other congregations across the country. But it is probably the exception rather than the rule.

What Flatt doesn't acknowledge is that many evangelical churches are now fretting about the disappearance of their young people once they leave the shelter of their protective congregations. How do I know this? Evangelical pastors and school principals have told me so. There is no magic Christian formula for deepening the faith of our young folk in an increasingly secular society. Many of those conservative young people balk at the "don'ts" of their faith upbringing.

My hope is that we can renew our evangelical commitment because we love Jesus and want others to hear the Good News of new life and justice for all. I think we can be liberal in our outlook, as long as we realize that Christ is at the core. At the least we can be "evangelical-ish."

What are your thoughts folks? Can an evangelical heart and a liberal brain go together?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Remarriage Blueprint?

This summer I had my version of a "busman's holiday" presiding at two family weddings. Both were happy events held outside with cooperative weather on back-to-back weekends. Both were remarriages and as I wrote at the time, I actually conducted the first wedding of the one family member as well, while my wife Ruth was the matron of honour at both weddings of the other.

Of course these weddings were different. They were scaled down, with a smaller guest list. I found ways to make diplomatic reference to what had passed on the way to a promising future. And the young adult children of two of the four people being married were present at the ceremonies, along with the two teens of one of the brides. I know that some guests were struggling with memories of the former families. I am aware that to begin with one of the adult children wasn't sure whether he wanted to participate, even by being present.

Maybe all these complications explain why The Christian Century magazine included an article on remarriage recently, focusing on the decline of remarriage as an option for many people. The social stigma of "living in sin" has largely disappeared, so many couples are choosing to cohabitate without marrying a second time (or third or fourth.) The article mention Maggie Scarf and her new book The Remarriage Blueprint based on interviews with 80 remarried individuals. She found that while the first time around couples get to establish their own culture, the way they will be together and do things. The second marriage often involves at least one partner who has been living alone with his or her children and developed a culture. The newcomer or newcomers don't always know how to navigate this reality. One interviewee offers that they realized they were also dating the children during the courtship and accepted this.

I think churches are rather clueless about all this. Even in "accepting" denominations such as the United Church we are more benignly neglectful than proactive about supporting divorced couples and those entering into new marriages. It can be an important aspect of pastoral care for which clergy are generally ill-equipped.

What are your thoughts, and experiences? Can there be a blueprint for remarriage or is it always a minefield? Should congregations shut up and keep their heads down, or do we need to be actively supporting those who are finding their way into new committed relationships?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jesuscare and a Sick System

Here in godless Canada (okay, far more secular Canada) we watched with a combination of bewilderment and horror as political conservatives in the United States shut down the government in large part to protest a modest public healthcare plan known as Obamacare. Many of these obstructionists claim to be Christians of the highest order, although they wouldn't call themselves this. The sanctimonious nonsense invoking Jesus angers me, and as many astute Americans have pointed out repeatedly, these so-called leaders seem to have actually forgotten to read their bibles about the poor and those who are sick. Jesuscare is far more radical than Obamacare, but why let Jesus' actual teachings confuse the issue.

Below is a blog item from Ezra Klein which was republished in the Christian Century magazine:

SICK SYSTEM : The United States spends more on health care than any other country, with too little in the way of results to show for it. The U.S. ranks 25th in maternal mortality, 26th in life expectancy, 28th in low birth weight for infants and 31st in infant mortality. Compared to countries with better health outcomes, the U.S. spends far less on social services. This results in more ill health and requires the health-care system to provide social services that should be available elsewhere. Five percent of Americans account for 50 percent of all health-care spending. These are often poor people who are locked into bad habits in bad environments (Ezra Klein's Washington Post blog, September 19).

I know the faults of the Canadian health care system, and God knows I have provided pastoral care to those anxiously waiting the opportunities for essential tests, or therapy, or surgery. At the same time I am so grateful that my elderly mother has been attended to almost immediately when rushed to emerg, and my sister-in-law is not going bankrupt as she undergoes chemotherapy.

Where are you these days in your opinion of our healthcare system? What is your reaction to what has happened south of the border? Is healthcare a right and an expression of faith values?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

12 Years a Slave

File:Solomon Northup 001.jpg

Are you hoping to see the acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave? It was a favourites of the Toronto International Film Festival with both critics and viewers and it has received positive reviews everywhere. As the title suggests, it tells the story a 19th century American slave, Solomon Northrup, and is based on the autobiographical account of a free black man who is essentially kidnapped and forced into slavery. While the film is violent at times, apparently that aspect is actually played down from Northrup's book.

I saw a piece on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly which explores the themes of this film, including the place of religion in perpetuating slavery and giving strength to those enduring and opposing it. It has been noted that having a person of colour as the director (Steve McQueen)  and another as the star (Chiweti Eliofor)  brings a different perspective to the dark stain of American slavery. 12 Years a Slave has also been contrasted with Django Unchained, last year's uber-violent story of revenge which is built around slavery. I didn't see it, and I won't.

I mentioned a few years ago the sobering experience of visiting the Old Slave Mart museum in Charleston South Carolina situated in a building which was once a slave floor, where human beings were bought and sold. We should also keep in mind that there are an estimated 30 million slaves in the world today, half of them in India.

Any thoughts about this film? Any reflections about the nature of slavery and religion's part in supporting it?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Life is Short, so make it Sweet

On Friday morning the weather cooperated splendidly for a graveside service for one of our oldest members. I met Alexandria just once and when I asked her age she was off by more than a decade. It may have been intentional because it turned out she was adamant that her age not be mentioned in the death notice, nor at the service. I will tell you that the century mark wasn't far off.

Although Alex had dementia she was wonderfully welcoming when I went to see her. In fact, during the course of our visit she enthusiastically welcomed me at least four times. She really was sweet and at the end of our time together she positively beamed when I prayed with her. Alex was a person of great faith who loved God and the Bridge St. congregation, where she a member for sixty years.

In preparation for the service I went through a very old lined book with a crumbling binding. It was filled with sayings, aphorisms, prayers, "thoughts for the day" which she had written out in a clear long-hand. One that delighted me was written on the flip side of a flyer for the grand opening of a Goodwill store. Actually, on the side with the ad she had written "life is short, and it's up to us to make it sweet." On the blank side are with a series of "call and response sayings such as "You say 'I feel all alone.' God says: 'I will never leave you or forsake you.'" Hebrews 13:5. The whole book is infused with gratitude, joy of living, spiritual comfort. It was a gift to read through it.

At the cemetery there were only fourteen people present. Alex never married so her attentive cousin and her family members were there. A silver-haired lawyer from town showed up at the last minute and told us that Alex had been his teacher in grade school and he had stayed in touch through the years. Half a dozen souls from the congregation, including her pastoral visitor and UCW members were on hand as well.

We didn't have a long service, because that is what Alex specified, but it was very meaningful from my standpoint. God bless those who honour the lives of those who have slipped out of the public eye for a variety of reasons. God bless Alexandria for her faithful witness.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gotta Sing!

By the time many of you read this the Bridge St. United Church congregation will have concluded it's "celebration of music" worship. Of course every Sunday is an opportunity for praise, but today we covenanted with our dedicated choir and music director Terry Head. We also thanked former choir members for their years of service. But we focused on how music shapes us and our worship, and we heard two anthems, and the bells, along with including the children in making music. Terry also used our Casavant organ to its fullest, the largest pipe organ between Toronto and Montreal I'm told.

In over thirty years of ministry there have always been choirs in the congregations I served, but we have ventured into other possibilities for leading the community in song, including different musical instruments. While in Halifax a choir member who considered herself the arbiter of musical taste tearfully stormed out of the sanctuary one Christmas Eve when she saw two guitars on stands at the front of the sanctuary. The two accomplished young players accompanied the carol Silent Night --which was written for guitar!

Through the years I have served in congregations using the old blue Hymnary (Newfoundland) to the red hymn book, to Voices United and More Voices. Nothing stays the same musically, even though some wish it would, and we are the better for it.

In our time is there still a place for a pipe organ, knowing that many very active congregations have gone to praise bands exclusively? Does it make sense to have traditional choirs (and choir gowns) or use hymn books? Here we seem to be charting a course between the traditional music of our faith and the fresh possibilities for praise.

Whatever we choose, we gotta sing! What are your thoughts? What are your feelings, because music evokes strong feelings?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jesus Tattoo

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Some of the residents of Lubbock, Texas have their shorts in a knot over sixty billboards (they don't do things small in Texas) which depict a tattooed Jesus covered in bold words such as addicted, hated, outcast, faithless and jealous. They are the work of an non-denominational organization called --you guessed it -- Jesus Tattoo.

Media relations coordinator for Jesus Tattoo, Ashleigh Sawyer, said the organization’s campaign has no hidden agenda and means no harm. She said the billboards are not about tattoos as many may think. The group is only trying to convey a message of love and acceptance. Sawyer says the message is simple, “The love of Jesus is transformative and he loves people unconditionally. It doesn’t matter what you have been marked with; love for others and faith in him can transform us all.”

Well, there is a suspicious sounding message if ever I heard one! Of course some find the billboards sacrilegious and offensive. Um, have people forgotten how offensive the crucifixion is? As someone with a couple of religious tattoos I find this ad campaign intriguing.

Years ago I borrowed a life-size crucifix from a minister/artist acquaintance. The cross beams were two steel construction girders, the crown of thorns was barbed wire, and the body was papier mache with headlines of painful circumstances from around the globe: "behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." I used it during Lent and Holy Week in two congregations. Some people were deeply moved. Others were unsettled to the point that they just couldn't look at it. I'm sure there were a few who were offended. It seems like a very similar visual message, wouldn't you say?

Is this just too much, too "in your face?" Is it a sacrilege or an invitation to see the crucifixion in a different light?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Abundance and Scarcity


On Thanksgiving Sunday I invited prayer requests and expressions of gratitude from the congregation. One visitor expressed thanks for living in a country in which she never had to consider where her next meal would come from. I agreed whole-heartedly and I'm sure everyone present felt the same way as I prayed.

Yesterday on World Food Day I thought of her comment, knowing that this isn't true for approximately a billion people on the planet who are hungry or undernourished. We are told regularly that there is enough food for everyone, but scarcity in some regions and the challenges of distribution mean that one out of seven humans doesn't get enough to eat each day.

I am also aware that we don't have to go to developing nations to find examples of malnutrition or hunger. At Bridge St. we have an active meal program which includes Inn From the Cold sit-down meals during January and February. The dedicated team also provides frozen TGIF meals one day a week, and there are many grateful recipients.

We heard as well this week that a United Nations team visited First Nations communities across the country and admonished our wealthy nation for the disparity which is evident in the poverty in so many places. The availability of nutritious food at reasonable prices is a huge issue in most northern communities, including First Nations.

The bible has a lot to say about the fair distribution of food as a spiritual and practical issue. God doesn't seem to have much patience with those who are well fed when others go hungry. The apostle Paul admonished  some of the wealthier first Christians who joined with others for common meals but kept the best for themselves.

As I sit here almost within sight of the abundance of the local farmers' market there is so much to ponder. What are your thoughts about all this?


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Necessary Nuisance

Chaplain Barry Black

Most Canadians and the majority of Americans are shaking their heads in bemusement at the shut-down of government in the US. How unfortunate that a mighty nation becomes a laughingstock because of partisan, selfish politicians. I was going to say "childish" but most four-year-olds are more effective at "playing well with others."

Into the midst of the fray comes Senate chaplain Barry Black who normally is fairly low profile in Washington. These days he is getting in some non-partisan prayer zingers to call politicians to account . "Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable," Black said during a recent morning prayer in the Senate. Other prayers have asked that lawmakers be “removed from their stubborn pride,” and to be forgiven for their wrongdoings.

It has been suggested that Black is a "necessary nuisance" in a time of absurdity. I think this is true, the way the biblical prophets and Jesus himself were necessary nuisances.
I know that some of you may wonder about having a chaplain at all for the Senate, but what are your thoughts about Chaplain Black's pointed prayers? Is the American government beyond prayer? Does God hold us to account?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


 Erich Priebke funeral

First it was the news that Erich Priebke, a convicted Nazi war criminal had died at the age of 100. Then we were told that neither the Italian government nor the Roman Catholic church would allow a public funeral for Priebke because of his crimes and his lack of acknowledgement and repentance for these heinous acts. The Toronto Star fills us in on the story:

Priebke spent nearly 50 years as a fugitive before being extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to stand trial for the 1944 massacre at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, in which 335 civilians were killed. He died Friday at age 100 in the Rome home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini, where he had been serving his life term under house arrest.
His death has raised a torrent of emotions over how best to lay to rest someone who perpetrated war crimes and denied the Holocaust. It has tested the church’s capacity for mercy and forgiveness and its need to prevent public scandal.

I understand that the church is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. There is canon law prohibiting burial of unrepentant sinners. How would it appear if a Roman Catholic priest presided at the funeral of a war criminal? But is Priebke damned as well?

And how do we decide who receives a Christian burial? When I began my ministry in Newfoundland decades ago a baby died immediately after birth and before baptism. Was I willing to preside at an interment inside the cemetery? To my shock there were graves outside the fences of the various cemeteries for those who were deemed unacceptable for regular burial. I let people know that no one should be buried outside the cemetery boundaries.

Not long ago we heard of the controversy over finding a burial place for the Boston bomber who was killed in a shoot-out with police not long after his cowardly crime. Eventually a Muslim cemetery was found as his resting place, in part because of an interfaith initiative which included Christians to give him a decent burial, despite his indecency.

What do you think? Are their sins too great to warrant Christian burial? Why would Priebke want a Christian service anyway?

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Orenda & Christianity

I am about 200 pages into Joseph Boyden's latest novel The Orenda and enjoying it, although I'm reading by dribs and drabs. Today might afford some serious page-turning. The book explores the complex relationship between first contact peoples, namely the French, and the Huron First Nation. A Jesuit priest known as the Crow by the Hurons for his black robe lives with them as a barely tolerated shamanic presence.

Boyden, an Aboriginal writer of great skill, does  well not to descend into stereotypes of either group. He does open up the strengths and flaws of both. One area he explores is the "Orenda" the life spirit which the priest wants to confine to a Christ of  heaven and hell. The Hurons see the life force in all things, animate and inanimate and don't take to this presentation of Christianity readily.

I will be thinking of this story when we sing the romanticized Huron Carol, supposedly written by Jesuits, this Christmas. It is one of the few Canadian carols we sing.

Anyone else planning to read The Orenda? Have you already? Does our Christian history with First Nations matter much to you?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gratitude for Understanding & Tolerance

I'm not altogether sure why this was offered as a Thanksgiving story, given that it happened in the heat of summer. T. Sher Singh lives in the heart of Ontario's Mennonite country but while they are in proximity, as a Sikh his path doesn't cross directly with these Christians who tend to keep to themselves.

One day he was driving past a barn-like building and noticed many buggies and horses surrounding it, the conveyances of Old Order Mennonites. His curiosity got the better of him and he turned in and entered the building. In the gloom he realized that he had walked into a worship service, even though it was a Thursday. There he was with his uncut facial hair, a turban, shorts and short-sleeved shirt in the midst of a sea of black. He was virtually paralyzed in his shock, but one of the participants showed him a seat. The sermon was in another language, and a monotone. In some respects he couldn't have been more uncomfortable, and yet in his own words:

There was a magic to the smallness and the simplicity.
I raise my head and look around me.Is this the devotion experienced by Man before places of worship turned into palaces? Each one around me is in a kind of bana -- religious garb -- and yet it's not paraded as a badge of honour, or lays claim to a status which otherwise has to be earned. It's neither a costume nor a weapon.
What each one is wearing here is no more than an expression of pure humility and surrender.
There is much that I know about Mennonites that I do not agree with and would never want to emulate.Yet, I feel at home with them. Sitting amongst them, I feel connected with my Sikh Faith as I seldom am elsewhere.
Walking into that congregation that day, I felt like I had shed my shoes outside, washed my feet, covered my head in humility, and had checked my bag of pretensions and ostentations, language and intelligence, outside. And walked in, a naked soul.

Lovely observations by Singh. Perhaps the Thanksgiving aspect of this story is that it could happen in this country. For all the nonsense in Quebec around "values" which restrict religious expression, we live in a land where a Sikh could be welcomed to worship by Mennonite Christians.

It works for me.


Friday, October 11, 2013

B-52's & the Prince of Peace

Okay here is the movie scenario. It is the height of the Cold War, the stand-off between the USA and the Soviet Union. An American  B-52 bomber is flying over North Carolina when it goes into an uncontrolled spin and begins to break up. The plane releases two nuclear bombs, 250 times more powerful than those dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima,  which detonate on an unsuspecting populace. There is a chain-reaction of events in the midst of the horror and confusion which changes the course of history.
Too far-fetched to make a good film? Well, this actually happened in 1961, except for the detonation. One of the two bombs didn't enter into the arming sequence, but the other went through all the arming mechanisms, save one. If that last low-voltage switch had triggered the state would have been obliterated.
Every once in a while we are reminded that the human race borders on insanity. God blesses us with intelligence, ingenuity, and a beautiful planetary home to boot. So what do we do? We develop weapons of mass destruction which we stockpile in huge amounts to make sure the other guy doesn't have more. We nearly wipe ourselves out but keep it our little secret for decades.
We decide that other nations are evil enemies, fight them to the death, then we say "just kidding" and decide they are allies and that we're willing to purchase all their stuff. If you don't believe that part, consider all the German and Japanese cars on the roads. We have the capability to kill all the Bad Guys fifty time over with our weapons, but we are morally indignant about their weapons which are somehow worse than ours, because we say so.
Some would argue that we have grown beyond archaic notions of sin, and we don't need to be delivered, or to follow a Saviour. I'm not convinced that we have evolved the way we think we have, or become as enlightened as we like to think we are. I'm sticking with the Prince of Peace for the time being.
Had you heard about the incident in 1961? 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Righting Wrongs with First Nations

Long-time friends came through Belleville yesterday so we had lunch together. Actually, she is the long-timer and he is the new partner. Even though we were meeting him for the first time we struck up a good conversation immediately.

They both work for the Ontario government, in mines and energy, and his work involves negotiations between First Nations, government, and mining concerns. He freely admitted that the government of this province is behind a number of others in terms of establishing respectful conversations and protocols regarding resource development. We act as though First Nations are defeated peoples who ceded the rights to land rather than treaty partners who must be regarded with respect. It was good to hear his perspective and his hope that this is changing.

It was also good to discover that he was aware of the United Church attempts in recent years to develop "right relations" with First Nations and he has read the first General Council apology made in 1986. He has even searched out the cairn at Laurentian University in his community of Sudbury which marks the place where the apology was made.

I only had an hour over lunch to chat, but I came away feeling that whatever our shortcomings have been as a denomination, there are people who are aware that we have attempted to right some wrongs and appreciate our willingness to do so. And, unfortunately,  that we have something in common with society as a whole, in terms of our shabby treatment of Aboriginal peoples.

All of us can be diligent in establishing new relationships of mutual respect.


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Family Ties That Bind

File:Family Ties cast.jpg

Do you remember Family Ties, the wildly popular eighties sitcom which focused on the Keating family?Mom and Dad were former hippies and committed liberals. The three (eventually four) kids grew up before our eyes and son Alex provided much of the comic juxtaposition with his Type-A capitalist commitment. They were a white, middle-class, American Dream family. They weren't perfect, but their flaws were cosmetic -- you just had to love them.

There have been two stories involving Family Ties cast members recently. Mom Elyse -- Meredith Baxter Birney -- has shared that she is in a same-gender relationship after a lifetime of relationships with men. It is a sign of changed times that the announcement didn't create much of a stir, and rightly so.

The other is Alex, Canadian Michael J. Fox, who is now 52, and a leading spokesperson for Parkinson's, the disease which he has lived with for more than twenty years. He has a new family sitcom where he is the dad, living with Parkinson's.

What strikes me is that the template of the happy family we took for granted just thirty years ago has changed both in real life and on TV. Some lament this, including many Christians. Others are relieved that issues of orientation and illness are being addressed openly and honestly, rather than shoved into the background, into doctor's offices and closets.

I want to be in a Christian community which continues to uphold the values of fidelity, commitment and mutual support. I do believe that can happen powerfully in households with a mom and dad with a couple of kids. Hey, I have lived it. But I have also come to realize that God in so many other relationships where what are termed "family values" are demonstrated. Blest Be The Ties That Bind is still a wonderful hymn, but perhaps it has taken on a different meaning.

What do you think about all this?

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Desperation & Hope

Coffins of children are seen alongside coffins of other victims from a shipwreck off Sicily, in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport on Oct. 5, 2013.

I fully intended to blog yesterday, but in the end I took a Sabbath from this discipline I really enjoy.

I knew my subject, although since then the grim death toll rose from the sinking of an illegal migrant ship on its way from North Africa to an Italian island. The distance is relatively short, so it is an attractive route for a dangerous crossing. But the boat was packed with people and when many panicked and rushed to one side the vessel capsized and sank quickly. The ones orchestrating this clandestine voyage didn't even have a cellphone to call for assistance. More that 200 bodies have been recovered, many of women and children. These people would have been poor but they mustered at least a thousand dollars, perhaps two, for the privilege of ending up in a refugee camp in a foreign country. We can't imagine the desperation that drives them, although the estimable Swedish author Henning Mankell has written about an African women who escapes drowning on her way to Spain in his novel The Shadow Girls. Spain is another common destination for these asylum seekers.

We know that ships are a regular form of conveyance for those seeking a new land, whether legally or illegally. Pier 21 in Halifax was the official processing centre for hundreds of thousands of new Canadians, including my war bride mother-in-law. Canada welcomed thousands of Vietnamese boat people who risked life and limb to flee an oppressive regime. Canada has also turned away Jewish refugees during World War II and more recently ships filled with "illegals." Our history is chequered, to say the least.

I am always saddened to hear of the tragedies for those seeking some vague notion of freedom. Surely as the population of the world increases, and millions are displaced by conflict and climate these occurrences will be on the rise?

At Pier 21 churches of various stripes worked diligently to provide a welcome for newcomers. In many communities congregations banded together to offer a new beginning for the Vietnamese. Where are we today for those who need sanctuary? We began discussions about sponsorship in the ministerial in Bowmanville but we were slow to act.

We can all pray for those who experienced loss in Italy, and we can also pray for wisdom, compassion, and action for those who are seeking a way out of the darkness of their lives.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Horsing and Blessing Around

So, my kid showed me up today. We are both in new congregations,  and we both conducted our first pet blessings in them. But Isaac blessed a horse, and I never have. I could dismiss his blessing as a "dog and pony show" but it is wonderful that someone showed up with an equine companion. I didn't know what to expect at Bridge St. but we had a total of fifteen dogs for the first ever pet blessing here. Oh yes, I also blessed a bear. Granted, it was the stuffed bear which one of our seniors has on her walker, but we blessed it.

I love blessing critters and they seem to be okay with it too. Their owner/friends tend to beam and everyone has a good visit. There is a warmth to the event which reminds us that God is the  Creator of all creatures, not just humans. When I was in the Bowmanville Ministerial I appreciated my ecumenical colleagues for the most part, but we had our moments. One was when I proposed that we have a joint blessing service. Bless animals, some wondered? I'm not sure of the theology of doing that, a couple of them said. Theology? What theology says that we can't love the very creatures God has made? It was one of the few occasions I had to control my liberal United Church temper.

I was pleased to here that Reverend Dan kept up the tradition at St. Paul's and delighted that Reverend Cathy and her family from St Matthew's joined us at Bridge St. to bless the dogs. Yes, Ruby was there.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Doing Time

The tickets for tours of Kingston Penitentiary were gone in a flash.  The Correctional Service of Canada offered a three-week window of opportunity for visitors between the departure of the last of the prisoners and the official closure of the one hundred and seventy-eight year-old institution.. The United Way sold the tickets immediately and when more tickets were made available they were gobbled up as well. We were disappointed because Ruth has never been in, even though for four months she saw me head off for KP five days a week as a chaplain intern. It was an imposing, scary, life-altering place to do ministry training and I too wanted the opportunity to get back in there.

Little wonder that Alcatraz of the North has piqued such interest. Opened in 1835 Kingston Pen still had a Dicksenian quality about it in certain areas. In fact, Charles Dickens visited KP while in North America and deemed it a fine institution. This was in the time when children as young as eight were inmates and received the lash for minor infractions. In the earliest days prisoners were not allowed to speak with one another or look at others. Even during my time there in 1979 solitary confinement deserved to be called The Hole.

What will happen with Kingston Penitentiary? Will it become a sort of theme park? It could be very successful because so many high profile Bad Guys spent time there.

As all the news and interviews floated around this week I spent time with a guy who has spent most of his life from his early teens to his mid-forties in reform schools, jails and prisons across the country He has been on the street for nearly two years but needed someone to talk to because re-entry, including finding work, has been really tough. He admits that the regimented life of prison is what he knows, and he really doesn't know where life will lead him next.

As I spoke with him I was struck by his intelligence, his honesty, and his vulnerability. He reminded me of many of the men I met during my summer at KP. After that experience I often thought "there but for the grace of God..." The correctional system in Canada isn't really set up to correct anything. It long ago gave up on rehabilitation. There was a time when you could get a trade in prison. Not anymore. The federal government announced recently that it was going to take more of the meagre money inmates earn inside for "room and board." Our system is being remade for "tough on crime" punishment, not developing different patterns for life.

What are your thoughts about KP? Have you given much thought about what happens in our jails and prisons? Does God hang out in prisons?

Friday, October 04, 2013

Righteous Gentiles

Earlier this week the countries of Denmark and Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of a remarkable collective act of courage, justice and generosity. During the Second World War Danish citizens refused to betray their neighbours and friends who happened to be Jewish. First they hid Jewish countrymen and women. Often it was in plain sight, with Christian households bringing Jewish children to live with their families as their own.

Then, in September and early October 1943, Danes helped their Jewish compatriots escape the country to neutral Sweden as the Nazis began to search them out in earnest. This three-week operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. I remember reading the children's book Number The Stars with one of our kids, a book which tells the story.

Number the Stars book cover.jpeg

This week Danish Ambassador Jesper Vahr spoke at a ceremony at the Denmark School in Israel:

“What is unique about this story is that it was not the act of one or two or three people – it was an act by all the people of Denmark who came together to rescue the Jewish community because Jews were an integral part of their society. No Jew was forced to wear a Star of David in Denmark because the Danes thought it would be an assault on the cohesion and values of their society. The people of Denmark said: ‘No! We will not accept any measures that infringe on the rights of any group – be they Jews or any other.’”

On October 1, 1943 7,000 Jews were ferried to safety, while 400 were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Shortly following Kristallnacht in November of 1938 in Germany, Denmark responded by enacting an anti-racism law supporting the civil liberties of Jews and all other minorities in the country.

As always we need to remember theses stories of courage and compassion. As Christians we need to be aware that people were motivated by their faith to act humanely and took personal risks in doing so.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Church and Money

The Roman Catholic church has its own financial institution, the Vatican Bank which earlier this week gave the world an unprecedented look at what it earns and what assets it holds, part of an ongoing effort to increase transparency in the wake of scandal. As one report says:

Instituto per le Opere di Religione, or the Institute for Works of Religion, released the first annual report in its long history, which dates back to 1887.Commonly known as the Vatican Bank, the institution had a solid 2012, though 2013 looks to be a more difficult year. The institution chalked up an enviable profit of €86.6-million, or more than $115-million U.S.), a sharp jump from 2011’s €20.3-million.
The increase in net profit was mainly due to favourable trading results and higher bond values, resulting from the general decrease of interest rates in the financial markets through the year,” the institution said. Net trading income was €51.1-million last year, a turnaround from a loss in 2011 of €38.2-million.On the asset side of its balance sheet, the bank cited cash and equivalents of €1.2-billion, and securities of €3.6-billion.

Critics have pointed out that despite Pope Francis' emphasis on simplicity in his personal life and urging the broader Roman Catholic church to care for the poor and marginalized it is still an institution with considerable wealth. In addition to what the bank holds, there are billions in art and property around the world. 

The thing is, most denominations and congregations have material assets of some kind. Some congregations, including this one, have millions of dollars invested. Many groups within congregations such as the UCW have bank accounts, often well padded. It doesn't mean that this is nefarious or wrong, but it poses the challenge of responsible stewardship.

Strangely, congregations can be asset rich and cash poor. In some cases there is a lot of money in the bank, and not enough to pay the bills. Often the invested monies are designated, often for good purposes. The Bridge St, Foundation has 2.6 million dollars invested and has given away five million over the past 40 years to very worthy causes around the world, using the interest to do so. This Fall another 90 thousand in interest is available to be distributed and there is a pile of applications from organizations. When I look at the work of the Foundation I am very impressed.

So even though Jesus and his disciples wandered around Galilee as near penniless peasants, the institutional Christian community must contend with how to use its assets wisely and for Christ's purposes. Even Jesus and the gang had a purse and a treasurer -- Judas!

What are your thoughts about this? Does it bother you that churches have moolah? Should we give it all away in order to be faithful? WWJD? What would Jesus do?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

From Grief to Forgiveness to Grace

Today marks the  seventh anniversary of a dark day in the quiet community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Early in the morning of October 2nd 2007, in the heart of peaceable Amish country, a local husband and father of two entered a one-room schoolhouse and murdered five innocent little girls before killing himself. The reasons for his act of terrorism were a mystery, although he left a letter for his widow which named his anger at God for the death of a child as part of what motivated him.

The story was well known because of the tragic nature of what unfolded, but it took on another dimension when the Amish community chose to forgive the murderer. Some even attended his funeral. There is an excellent book called Amish Grace which examines the Amish commitment to forgiveness, and thee is a DVD study which includes what happened as an example of one approach to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Now Marie Monville, the widow of the murderer,  has written a book about living in the aftermath of such an unspeakable crime. Her personal faith and the support of many, including Amish neighbours has allowed her to build a new life, one with filled with hope and meaning despite her loss and the shame of association with a mass murderer. The book is called One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting.

Do you remember this crime and your reaction? Did you wonder about the Amish community extending forgiveness to the murderer? Would you read Marie Monville's book?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


Shame, shame, shame. The government of the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States of America, has ground to a halt because the two major political parties are at loggerheads. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees have been told not to do their jobs and are without income. Of course the military will continue to function because priorities are priorities.

The Republicans and Democrats  have been warring to a stalemate through both of President Obama's administrations but this is particularly sickening. The Republicans are fundamentally opposed to the president's modest universal health care program even though they are the ones who claim to uphold Christian values. Do they read the bibles they claim are so precious to them? Do they listen to the teaching of Jesus about care for the poor, the sick, the marginalized?And what about the fruits of the Spirit described in the apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians? They are "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."

It's time for repentance, it seems to me, but I'm not holding my breath. There appears to be a total loss of perspective and an arrogance on the part of some which is frightening.

Does this development make the slightest bit of sense to you?