Friday, January 31, 2014

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

File:Taizé prayer.JPG

About a decade ago I visited the ecumenical Christian community called Taize in France. My stay was longer than many at two weeks, and one week of that time I was in the Silence House, for a deeper retreat. It was still nothing compared to son Isaac, who was living there at the time. He spent eight months at Taize and another four at Grandchamp in Switzerland.   Grandchamp follows the Rule of Taize but it is a very different experience because guests come by the thousands to Taize. while Granchamp is much quieter.

Ike was twenty-one and was seriously considering a monastic vocation. As some of you know, daughter Emily's 17-year-old's wry comment was "great: I'll have a father who is a father, and a brother who's a brother."

Isaac is now a United Church minister, married, and a dad. His family does live a relatively simple life, which is rooted in faith, commitment to a lighter ecological footprint, and with a "monk in the world" ethos.

In the video below Isaac offers thoughts for the Sunday School teachers of his congregation, as help in their preparation for this week when they will be "larnin'" the kids about the Beatitudes, Jesus' counter-cultural manifesto.

I think it's rather good, but I am his Pa after all. It is a reminder that we are called to a radically different life in Christ.

Are you comfortable with the simplicity of your life as a Christian? Often I'm not. Do our individual efforts really matter?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pope Francis, Rock Star

Okay, no matter what you think of the Roman Catholic church, or the papacy, Pope Francis has made a splash around the world. Somehow he has done so in a very humble yet powerful way, challenging the status quo of the church he leads. And he has been recognized in such a variety of venues.
The Advocate, a magazine which supports gay rights named him Person of the Year, as did Time. Apparently Rolling Stone thinks he is a rock star.

I do think the New Yorker snow angel is the most creative.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

One Word, Six Million Jews

 View through a magnifier at the book entitled 'And Every Single One Was Someone,' which contains only one word, 'Jew,' written six million times over 1,250 pages, which is on display at the Jerusalem office of Gefen Publishing House, in Jerusalem, Israel, 26 January 2014. The concept, more art than literature, began years ago by Phil Chernofsky, a teacher from Kew Gardens, New York, USA, who now lives in Israel. Greenfield imagines the book being displayed in every synagogue and church as a thought provoking symbol to remember the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II. On occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January 2014, Greenfield plans to distribute a copy of the book to US President Barack Obama as well as European leaders.  EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

Well, we managed to dig out the "1-3 centimetres" forecast for last night, which mysteriously became 28 cm by my measurement. I would love it if the meteorologists erred in the other direction for a change! I made it to work before 9:00 just the same and the Inn from the Cold team has miraculously appeared to prepare for this evening's meal.

I have some thoughts about the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was Monday in many countries, although observed on other dates in other countries, including Canada. I will mention this one because of a book which has just been published. It is unusual because it contains one single word, repeated six million times. The word is "Jew." The "author of the book, Phil Chernofsky was interviewed by the New York Times:

“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern, that’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.
“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew. That could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”

I'm not going to rush out and buy this book, but it is provocative. We do need to remember, even though the generation of the Second World War is gradually disappearing because and the survivors of the Nazi program of extermination are fewer and farther between.

 I think that it s important for denominations which have challenged Israel on its occupation of Palestinian lands, such as the United Church of Canada,  also take time to acknowledge why the establishment of this state became urgent following the horrors of the Holocaust or Shoah. It's possible for us to be people of justice in our memory of the past, as well as in the present.

What are your thoughts and reactions to this book?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's Continue to Talk

Not long ago I tweeted a link to an article by former Ontario premier and interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae calling for a national mental health strategy. It was good and heartfelt: Rae had recently attended a funeral for a young native man, the son of a friend, who died by suicide. It was also not long after three former members of the Canadian military had taken their lives. Chris Peloso, George Smitherman's husband had just died by his own hand.

I received a response from someone who has lived with depression, terming it melancholy,  and seemed to be saying that acceptance is key to wellbeing, and that this may be more important that government strategies. I say "seemed" because it is a challenge to say much in 140 characters or less.

I do differentiate between depression and melancholy. I agree, as do all who are involved in today's excellent Let's Talk initiative by Bell, that conversation and de-stigmatization of mental illness is essential. is terrible to suffer with mental illness but it is amplified when it is necessary to be in hiding because of the repercussions at work, or with friends, or even in a faith community. Sometimes Christians figure that prayer will be enough to heal those with mental health issues. I am a strong believer in the power of prayer, but it doesn't stop me from going to the doctor when I need to.

I am convinced that we do need a national strategy for mental health. I have presided at the funerals and memorials of several individuals who were loved and supported by family and friends in every way yet they chose to end their own lives. Yes, there was the stigma of mental illness around them in our culture, but honestly they were so deep into the effects of their illnesses I feel they simply weren't aware of much other than their pain, the pain they just wanted to end. Others have lived in psychotic states which make it next to impossible for them to function, yet there is just not enough support in the health care system. Often their families are desperate as they attempt to provide care, even when they are at personal risk.

We need to keep talking, keep praying as Christians, and keep advocating for a better system of support.

Monday, January 27, 2014

MLK & Birmingham Jail

 I was in Kingston on Friday afternoon and hoped to get to the Queen's library, but the inclement weather sent me scurrying home. I wanted to see the illustrated book pictured here, called Letter from Birmingham City Jail. The images were created by Faith Ringgold and this is a limited edition volume selling for about $5000 a pop. She generously gave one to the university during a recent visit and it is now on display on the main floor.

The letter she has illustrated with eight images was written by Martin Luther King Jr. while under arrest in Birmingham jail in 1963 and smuggled out. It was in response to criticism of the non-violent civil rights protests for not giving administrations sufficient time to respond to requests for change. Dr. King writes eloquently despite his circumstances. Some have offered that this letter is Spirit-inspired, to the degree that if there were ever a "newer" testament to supplement the two in our bible this letter should be included. Here is an example of King's thoughts:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

The image below is of reminds us of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963. It was an act of white supremacist terrorism and killed four young girls This cowardly attack marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I will get to Kingston to have a gander at the book, God willing. Does it pique your interest? Did you know about this letter by MLK? It is readily available online. Any other observations? 

Birmingham church bombing

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Christ on the Front Line

kiev priests

Sometimes the relationship between church and state seems more like a deal with the devil than a match made in heaven. Through the centuries religious institutions have cozied up to power and lost their integrity and prophetic power. During World War II it was the Lutheran church in Germany. Yet the Lutheran church in East Germany during the Soviet years kept the Christ-light shining during the dark and godless days of that regime.

In Russia the Orthodox church has become a close ally of President Putin which is why the punk group Pussy Riot protested in the sanctuary of an Orthodox church. Yet we see in Kiev, Ukraine, Orthodox priests putting themselves in harm's way during the public protests which have already resulted in deaths.

These photos are extraordinary, and speak for themselves. They do invite us to keep this volatile situation in our prayers. Comments?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Birds & the PM in Bible Land

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper take a tour of the future site of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Hula valley, Israel on Wednesday, January 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  
 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  
 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?   
                                                                                            Matthew 6                         

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been in the Middle East and during that time he went to the birds, and I'm glad he did. Harper and his wife Laureen did some touristy things on the trip, including visit the Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park in the north of Israel. The park  is on a migration route for birds between Europe and Asia and Africa with 500 million birds passing through yearly.

The Jewish National Fund of Canada is sponsoring a visitor centre at the site that will be named after Prime Minister Harper, which is a nice honour. After a ceremony to dedicate the cornerstone of the building, Harper and wife Laureen got to see thousands of cranes feeding in the fields. Migratory birds travel up the great Rift Valley of Africa toward Europe and then follow the extension of that rift which is the valley of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. I have been in Israel as storks have been making that journey and seen them in large flocks.

As I say, I'm pleased the Harpers had a chance to take in the historical sites as well as represent Canada during the trip. And it's good that they can learn more about the natural history of the region. Israel is not a biblical theme park representing a distant time. There are other aspects which are worth exploring. Jesus was a person of his time, so he was aware of the rhythms of agriculture, fauna and flora, the preciousness of water. He climbed hills and as he walked he noticed the flowers.

I am currently reading a book called Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue. It is about the birds of the bible and it is a clever, informative, and thought-provoking volume about the many avian characters of scripture.

Any comments about the Harpers "going to the birds?"

Friday, January 24, 2014

Unifaith: Solidarity...for Eternity!

Last week son Isaac, also a United Church minister, texted me. Had I heard that there is a new union for United Church clergy  called Unifath (no) and did I realize that a family friend is the first president (no.) I go back a long way with the Rev. Robin Wardlaw who is a smart, fun-loving guy. We were at seminary together, then settled on adjacent pastoral charges in outport Newfoundland. Often Robin would stay with us, depending on the schedule for the ferry out to Fogo Island where he served four congregations -- I had five! When Robin married Rita I had the privilege of presiding at their wedding. We don't see each other often, but Robin has sustained his passion for justice, including fair labour practices.

I heard Robin on CBC radio this week and he spoke well about the challenges of clergy in the time in which we live. There are processes in the United Church to ensure fair treatment of clergy, but they can be uneven. And in a time when many congregations are struggling for survival church life can become toxic in a hurry, with the minister as the casualty when folk are looking to attach blame.

My own experience in ministry has been very positive, by and large, and I have met many remarkable Christians through the Christian communities I have served, people who have shaped my own Christian walk. There have been difficult people as well, although mercifully few. Church-goers aren't always Christian in their thoughts, words, or deeds.  A handful have been "terrorists" making life miserable for me and the congregation. Because the good has outweighed the bad by such a large margin - only a handful of nasties in 34 years-- I have never been enthused by efforts to unionize. I'm not against it categorically -- yet my sense of calling as a Christian leader in a role of trust dampens my interest. I have found the same response in conversation with many colleagues.

We do need to feel that there is recourse for fair treatment in difficult and destructive circumstances. And honestly, even the best congregations generally aren't all that great at human resources stuff. I have now entered into what I assume is my last pastorate  before retirement --my sixth-- and I'm still waiting for someone to ask whether I have had the opportunity for three consecutive days off when there is a statutory holiday. Often congregants think this would be fair because others who are employed get them. It just doesn't happen for the majority of us.

What is your reaction to news of a clergy union? Yes, yes, I know that ministers can be trouble-makers too. Would you think less of your pastor if she or he was in a union? Do you think it might be healthier if we did all sign up?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Responsible Compassion

A protest against federal government cuts to refugee health services was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 17, 2013.

I have changed up my blog entry today to do a little venting. I listened to federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander this morning as he publicly chided Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews for the "irresponsible" decision to cover health care cost for refugees. The current federal government cut this health care provision two summers ago. Groups of physicians who work with refugees, refugee support groups, and several denominations criticized this decision for a number of reasons. Since then six provinces, including Ontario, have chosen to reinstate coverage because of the problems created by removing it. A child with pneumonia should be able to get a chest x-ray in this country, regardless of whether he or she is a refugee claimant, even one whose family application might be rejected.

The fact that Alexander would describe this decision as "irresponsible" and makes Ontario a "magnet" for bogus asylum claimants is such arrogant nonsense. It is the federal government's mandate to establish an asylum-seeker protocol which is fair and just and addresses false claims. We might not agree with it ultimately, but it is the responsibility of the feds. A system which effectively penalizes all claimants is, to my mind, irresponsible. This public criticism, laced with hyperbole seems to reflect an imperial approach by the current federal government which dismisses the practical realities provinces face with asylum-seekers. How dare the provinces question these decisions!

I'm glad that the United Church of Canada responded in 2012 and I hope Ontarians and residents of the other five provinces send notes of appreciation to their governments for acting with compassion and fairness.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cardinal Rule to Serve the Poor


There has been a lot written, including by me, about the signs of a different attitude and approach emanating from the Vatican since the election of Pope Francis. You may have seen last week that Francis appointed the first group of cardinals since he assumed the papacy and the demographics are interesting. About a quarter of the world's RC's are in Europe but more than half the cardinals are European. The church has looked more "Roman" than "Catholic" or global through the centuries. There was a shift in these appointments with more from what is called the "global south" or developing nations. Francis is from Latin America himself and has a life-long affinity with the poor. It looks as though he wants the church he leads to reflect the realities of Roman Catholic membership and a gospel imperative to respond to the marginalized. Take a look at this Pew Research piece on this shift.

Are you encouraged by this? Does our denominational leadership represent the poor of our society?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Moral Imperative(s)

Harper's address to the Israeli parliament

The Prime Minister of Canada is in Israel with a  fairly large delegation of staff and business leaders for several days of trade talks. The PM has also addressed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament and pledged unwavering support for the state of Israel, claiming it is the "moral imperative" of the Canadian people to do so for the sake of democracy. I agree, whole-heartedly, because I am convinced that the state of Israel should exist and that all democratic countries should be its staunch allies. Israel has the right to autonomy and to protect itself from enemies.

The speech didn't go far enough though. It is also the moral imperative of Canada to support the plight of the Palestinian people and uphold international law. The destruction of Palestinian communities, the establishment of settlements with roughly 350,000 residents, the reluctance to consider a two-state solution, are all reasons for great concern. These concerns have been identified by the United Nations, long-time ally the United States, along with the European Union. Prime Minister Harper's refusal to even allude to these issues might be considered a moral failure.

It is possible to admire Israel and pledge support without accepting its choice to occupy Palestinian lands or to violate international conventions. I have been reading Ari Shavit's exceptional book, My Promised Land and he invites us to develop a balanced and nuanced picture of the complex issues of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He writes as a Jew who grew up in Israel, served in the military, was once part of the peace movement, and continues to love his country. Perhaps Mr. Harper should get a copy of the book and consider it thoroughly. When he suggests that raising concerns about justice is anti-Semitism he is doing everyone a great disservice. The United Church of Canada, along with many other denominations, is not anti-Israel, nor anti-Semitic, but we have spoken out about these concerns.

Well, you know how I feel! What are your thoughts about this junket to Israel? Are you supportive, have reservations, angry?

Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK, 85-Year-Old?

I was jolted the other day on Martin Luther King Junior's actual birthday by the reminder that he would have celebrated his 85th this year. While that is an advanced age, we all know vital and active 85-year-olds. Nelson Mandela died recently at the age of  95 despite having spent decades in prison, Because of his untimely death MLK will forever be the 39-year-old martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. His achievements in a relatively short life were remarkable, having attained a doctorate in theology, acting as the eloquent spokesperson for racial equality and receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.

But what if Dr. King had lived? Would he have taken the movement in a new direction which reflected changes in society? Would he have eventually returned to the academic world, perhaps as the director of a centre for racial equality. Might he have eventually returned to the pastorate, given that he was an ordained minister with experience as a congregational leader? Could King have become the first black president of the United States, or a senator, or a diplomat? I wonder if he would eventually become a revered figure in a very different way? There is also the possibility that some of the more unfortunate choices of his personal life would come back to haunt him in an age where no secret of the famous remains hidden.

This is all speculation, of course. On this MLK Day I'm just glad God worked through him for the betterment of his society and the world. I do see him as both a flawed and faithful Christian who calls all of us to a higher standard of justice for all.

Any reflections or thoughts of your own?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Got Land? Thank an Indian!

1st Nation schoolgirl told not to wear 'Got Land?' shirt

Teenage kids have a tendency to be a bit provocative, often wearing clothing with logos and slogans meant to push the buttons of adults. Sometimes parents say "you're not wearing that!" and schools have been known to send students home or ban them from showing up with controversial tees or sweats.

That's what happened to 13-year-old grade 8 student Tenelle Star. She is from the Star Blanket First Nation near Regina, Saskatchewan and her the sweatshirt says "Got Land" on the front, and "Thank an Indian" on the back. When I first saw it I laughed, and then I found out that she was prohibited from wearing it at her school. When I think of the stuff I have seen through the years, I find this extraordinary. Some people are calling it racist and one person is threatening a lawsuit. A lawsuit?

The school has since relented but Tenelle's family has shut down her Facebook page because of the angry and hateful nonsense directed her way. From time to time I wonder if the United Church needs to step back from its investment of time and energy in establishing right relations with First Nations groups. God knows we have a lot on our plate with basic issues of survival and revival. But situations such as this one remind me that there is an underlying racism about the aboriginal peoples of this country which continues to rear its very ugly head.

I hope this makes Tenelle stronger rather than cynical, but I'm ashamed that it is happening in this country where equality and freedom of expression are supposed to be important.

What are your opinions about this? I would order one of the sweatshirts but pink isn't my colour.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Breaking Bread Together

Sara Miles, Take this Bread; A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine: 2007), 283pp.

“It doesn't promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God's.”
Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion

Bridge St. United Church is the fourth congregation in a row where I have served which offers meal ministries to the wider community. In two instances we began the ministry and while we moved with faltering steps it was gratifying to see the response of our members and the support of other congregations and those who had no church affiliation.

The two meal ministries of Bridge St UC, Inn from the Cold and Thank God It's Friday are the most ambitious in that the frozen meals of TGIF are given out every Friday, and Inn from the Cold is every day for six weeks in the heart of winter. Remarkably, the money comes in, food is donated in abundance, and about 170 volunteers from this congregation and everywhere make it happen. Last year 8,200 meals were served in one form or another, which obviously addresses a tremendous need. The demographics of downtown Belleville have changed significantly over the years, and there are many people on social assistance, the working poor, in treatment centres, who are close at hand. The response of what was once perceived as a rather elite congregation is, to me, a sign of Christ at work.

Those who are involved from the congregation freely offer that they are recipients of grace through these programs, something which Sara Miles alludes to in the quote above. I have turned to her moving  book often as inspiration for the establishment of compassionate meal ministries as a gospel imperative, not just charity.

Please pray for the work of both these initiatives in the weeks ahead, and for programs in other congregations, including The Gathering Place in Bowmanville.

Have you ever been involved in a meal ministry? Have you been the recipient? Is this gospel work?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The UN, the Roman Catholic Church, and Justice

CHANGE NEEDED. Vatican's UN Ambassador Monsignor Silvano Tomasi (L) speaks with Former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna prior to the start of a questioning over clerical sexual abuse of children. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

When I have blogged in recent months about the changing tone and focus of the Vatican under the servant leadership of Pope Francis a number of you have said, essentially, "what about sexual abuse?" or "I'm reserving judgment until I see a greater level of accountability." Fair enough.

This is a key point in Francis' papacy as the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child investigates the horrendous history of abuse by those in positions of trust within the Roman Catholic church around the world. We have all been angered and dismayed by how widespread the abuse, along with the efforts to cover it up.

The hearing came as Pope Francis said all Catholics should feel "shame," in an apparent reference to the scandals that have rocked the Church for more than a decade.Under the spotlight at the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, the Vatican delegation insisted it understood what it had to do to root out sexual crimes."The Holy See gets it, that certain things have to be done differently," said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former top prosecutor.

"It's not words, it has to be commitment on the ground, on the level of the local churches," he told the committee...The Roman Catholic Church has faced a cascade of scandals involving child sexual abuse by priests and Catholic lay officials, from Ireland to the United States and from Australia to Germany.Pope Francis, who has vowed zero tolerance of abuse since he was elected last March, said the scandals "are the shame of the Church.""Do we feel shame? There are so many scandals that I do not want to name them individually but everyone knows about them!" the pope said in a homily on Thursday.Like other signatories of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Vatican agrees to submit regular reports on its respect for the rules, and to be scrutinised by an 18-member watchdog panel.

We all need to pray for the outcome of this review, for the sake of the victims, for the cause of justice, and for the future of the Roman Catholic church.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Neil Young...Prophet?

I have to admire singer/songwriter Neil Young for his consistency. For the better part of 50 years he has maintained a look which suggests he just rolled out of bed after a late-night bender. I've had a love/hate relationship with his music. Some of it is just brilliant rock and roll, some great folk, along with a strong element of social commentary. He has managed to piss off a lot of people through the decades because he is so outspoken. That's a tad coarse, but it's probably the best way to describe it.

Well Young is at it again, with a cross-Canada Honour the Treaties concert tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewayan First Nation in Alberta and in opposition to indiscriminate development of the oil sands. All the money from his concerts will support the First Nation, but it is his star-power in this country which really matters here. It is a sad commentary that the aboriginal peoples who are most affected physically, psychologically, and spiritually by development struggle to be heard. Young's efforts were covered by virtually every media outlet and he was interviewed repeatedly.

He is still annoying people though. When folk were randomly polled on the streets of Ottawa one response was "he should shut his pie hole!" That's unequivocal! The same person said he should do a concert in Fort McMurray if he cares so much, and he uses fossil fuels like everyone else. In fact, Young did go to Fort McMurray, and he drove there in his electric car. He expressed his admiration for the hard-working employees of the oil extraction companies. I heard him in a CBC interview and would suggest he is better informed than 95% of Canadians. And the guy does have an activist pedigree:

Young is an outspoken advocate for environmental issues and the welfare of small farmers, having co-founded in 1985 the benefit concert Farm Aid. In 1986, Young helped found The Bridge School,an educational organization for children with severe verbal and physical disabilities, and its annual supporting Bridge School Benefit concerts, together with his wife Pegi Young... Although he has lived in northern California since the 1970s and sings as frequently about U.S. themes and subjects as he does about his native country, he has retained his Canadian citizenship. On July 14, 2006, Young was awarded the Order of Manitoba, and on December 30, 2009, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

What do you think about Neil Young's efforts? Should he mind his business, or is this the business of everyone? Personally I think he is "on-key" with this one. What about using his star status to address this issue? Can celebrities be prophets as well, in the biblical tradition? Most of them were told to "shut their pie holes" as well!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Spirit-led Ministry

This morning I chatted with the electricians who are finishing up the newly run feeds for the monitors which will be installed in the Bridge St. sanctuary next week. For several months now we have been using a temporary screen and projector for visual display in our worship space. We have met and mused and consulted and discerned about how we could implement modern technology in a very traditional and beautiful space. We projected on various walls and considered the effects of light on sunny days, as well as giving attention to aesthetics. We ended up with very different conclusions from our starting point. We will use two large monitors on each side of the sanctuary for a total of four, with a fifth for the choir. It has taken far longer than we anticipated, but here's hoping and praying this is the best choice for us.

I know I was called to Bridge St. United Church nine months ago with a mandate to be respectful of the traditions of this historic congregation (two hundredth anniversary in 2015) but not so respectful that we don't live in the 21st century. As a result it seems that a thousand conversations are going on simultaneously.

How do we make more effective use of our labyrinth-like building, including the chapel?
How can we become more visible in the community, sharing the good news of our ministries?
How do we invite others into involvement in our active meal ministries?
Is it possible to develop a more relational and missional approach to our life together?
Do we spend money here, when it could also be spent there?
Are we adequately staffed for vitality rather than decline?
                                            And on and on.

These conversations all need to happen, and to become more than conversations. The question always is, what does God want us to do in this place and time? Honestly, there are times when it seems overwhelming for all of us, but the willingness of the congregation to engage in this Godly enterprise sure beats meekly succumbing to the demographics and quietly making an exit from the heart of this community.

We have decided that God's living Spirit, Christ's living Spirit, can be at work and is at work. I like the image above because it is flowing and dynamic and sketch-like, as though there might be more to come.

This could apply to many congregations today. Any thoughts about this, as Bridge St. members and others involved in Christian communities elsewhere?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ariel Sharon...peacemaker?

Some hasty thoughts today on the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon has been in a coma for years and his body finally succumbed.  His stubbornness to the end shouldn't come as a surprise because he was an unrelenting and often brutal figure in the history of the nation he loved and defended. As with a number of other political leaders in Israel Sharon was first a military leader. Despite his first name he was no angel and will be remembered for the blunt force with which he acted as a general. The terrible massacre at the Shattila camp in Lebanon 30 years ago when hundreds, perhaps thousands of defenseless residents died while supposedly under Israeli protection will be the darkest stain on his legacy.

It should be noted though that Sharon the pragmatist eventually felt that some form of peace with Palestinians should be brokered and that establishing a Palestinian state rather than being burdened with perpetual occupation was inevitable. It was hardly what most of us would imagine as peace, but he saw that it was the best scenario.
Our denomination and many others would agree, although the way we interpret this is certainly different. It is important to remember as the world acknowledges Ariel Sharon's death.

Well, the best I can do in eleven minutes! What are your observations folks?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Religion & Equality in Canadian Culture

Those of you who have read this blog over time or been part of congregations I have served know that I have a strong commitment to interfaith conversation and freedom of religion. I have expressed my disdain and indignation about Quebec's Charter of Values on several occasions.

Just the same, I am glad that a York University professor would not accept religious grounds as a reason for a male student to opt out of a seminar which included women. I have listened to a number of articulate and devout Muslim women make the case against gender inequality which is perpetrated as an interpretation of the Quran. In Canada we have enshrined equality of women and men, and as far as I'm concerned that trumps aspects of Sharia Law or other supposed religious prohibitions based on gender. It's unfortunate that Professor Grayson has not been supported by the administration at York. This is political correctness at its worst, it seems to me, and I'm relieved that he took a stand. It's also interesting that the male student relented and attended the seminar.
Here are some thoughts from Sheema Khan, a Canadian Muslim woman who wears a head scarf as an expression of her faith, but supports Grayson's decision.

For Muslims, the foundation of belief resides in the Koran and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad. Some believe that they should not interact with members of the opposite gender to whom they are not related to by birth or marriage. Yet, the late Salafi scholar Abdul Haleem Abou Shaqqa found in a comprehensive study of gender relations during the time of the Prophet, that men and women were not segregated to the extent that we see today in some Muslim cultures. Their interaction was natural and mutually respectful. Both genders played a dynamic role in building a vibrant community. In the 7th century, Muslim women – such as the legendary Nusaybah bint Ka’ab – fought with men in combat.

The York student’s request is based on cultural preference rather than any solid religious foundation. Nonetheless, the prevailing societal norm should not be set aside to accommodate a view that repudiates the efforts of countless women and men to ensure equal opportunity. Gender equality is non-negotiable. Furthermore, segregation is based on the false premise of “separate but equal”. It is also offensive to be told (as a woman) that a man refuses to deal with you simply because of your gender. Even the Dean of the Sociology department knew this when he advised Prof. Grayson to conceal the exemption from the other students in the class.
In Muslim communities, gender segregation has led to the marginalization of women, as they are shut out of debate, discussion and decision-making. Under the pretext of “religious purity”, women are discouraged from full participation in community development.

I'm glad this situation came to public attention because we need to decide how we can be a pluralistic and accepting society without acquiescing to demands which violate our principles and laws. As a Christian I am committed to equality.

What are your thoughts about this?

Friday, January 10, 2014

The False Gospel of Guns

Some of you may recall me blogging about the mass shooting murder which took place in Aurora, Colorado in the summer of 2012 while I was on a course in nearby Wyoming. Several of the course participants were from Colorado and they along with the rest of us were shaken by the news. Morning chapel was turned over to prayers for the situation, but I was aware not one person prayed that the madness of weapons available so indiscriminately come to an end in the United States. As the lone Canadian present I was angry that this evil now seems inevitable there.

I think I used the word evil then, and I use it again in regard to a recent story about a columnist named Dick Metcalfe for a magazine called Guns and Ammo. Metcalfe has been a respected figure in his field and received lots of freebie hardware from weapons manufacturers to assess and  review. But he wrote what has been described as a nuanced piece called Let's Talk Limits and his journalistic world caved in fast. No more column, no more toys. How can someone I doubt I would want to hang out with because of his love of guns go from respected figure to leper so quickly? The New York Times article in which I read about this is entitled Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns and this just about says it all. This is a false religion, an idolatry, which punishes those who aren't mindless adherents. I admire Metcalfe for his courage, but what a sad comment on the supposed freedom of speech.

Does anyone else find this deeply disheartening?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

When is Enough Enough?

In this photo taken in September 2012, Hassan Rasouli is kissed by his daughter Mojgan after he succesfully followed her instruction to lift one finger. After three years in a hospital critical-care bed, at a cost of about $3.5 million, doctors say he has no chance of recovery.

You may not have heard of Hassan Rasouli who has been a patient in Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital for the past three and a half years, but his story is important. While his family insists he has been responsive and so can't be taken off life support his physicians don't agree. Their preference would be to remove him from support to allow his death. The Supreme Court has decided for the family, ruling that they must consent to this plan of action, so removal won't happen. It's a sad situation for a man who developed meningitis after surgery at the relatively young age of 58 -- I now consider the late fifties to be the prime of life -- and for his loving family. His relatives resist taking him off support for religious reasons as well. They are practicing Sunni Muslims.

I find it interesting that is often religious folk who believe that there is eternal life beyond this temporal existence who are adamant about maintaining extraordinary measures. We have a physician friend who does palliative care and has experienced something similar in his practice, contending with a conservative Christian family who wouldn't let Mom go. He is a active Christian himself, but they were so insistent that life support continue they wanted him off the case.

In the instance of Mr. Rasouli his care has cost our medical system about $3000 a day, or roughly three and a half million dollars. The plan is to move him to a nursing care facility which is less expensive, at about $1000 a day. The family has been asked to contribute $1700 a month, which they insist they can't afford.

Whose needs are being served here? As Christians we do believe in the sanctity of life, but at any cost? Whose lives are being compromised by the lack of dollars for care created by these situations?

What are thoughts on this? Can there be a time when "enough is enough" is keeping someone alive?

Please take a look at my latest Groundling blog entry.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Reminders of Racism

The Star published this photograph on Oct. 16, 1925, describing a KKK ceremony in London, Ont., where 1,000 robed members initiated 100 new recruits into their white supremacist organization.

1925 KKK gathering of a thousand in London, Ontario, with a hundred recruits

Did anyone else see the article in the Toronto Star yesterday about documents discovered in a home near Port Perry Ontario which describe the activity of the Ku Klux Klan in the area. It turns out that this racist organization which Canadians usually associate with the American South, was alive and well in this province 90 years ago, and Oshawa had a flourishing chapter.

Actually, after a group of Bridge St. UC folk discussed the film The Butler one of the participants told me that when she had cleared up some family papers she discovered a reference in her late grandmother's diary to her husband heading out to a Klan meeting in a matter-of-fact way. This was in Southwestern Ontario, hardly what we might imagine as a KKK hotbed.

Racism is the gift that keeps on giving, sadly often associated with religion. We wish we could take back our attitudes toward Jews or First Nations peoples, or other people of colour. I have mentioned before that the late Rev. Dr. Wilbur Howard, a former moderator of the United Church, could not find a congregation to call him after his ordination in 1941. It was because he was black, and while he served the UCC in various capacities his first congregational call came in 1965, nearly a quarter century after ordination, and as the third minister in a large church.

We do need the jolts from time to time, to remind us of the systemic racism of our culture and the pervasive attitudes which shaped and still shape society, including the church. If we have any doubt, look at the responses to media articles about First Nations issues or immigrants. And while I am committed to equality I am not beyond subtle racist thoughts which I might never express.

Did you know about the history of the KKK in Ontario? Does it surprise you? Are you aware of racism in your workplace or hear it expressed amongst friends? Do you have your own inner chatter about issues of race?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


142717 600 Polar vortex cartoons

I am extremely glad that Belleville, Ontario, Canada has not been wracked by the extreme weather of recent weeks in the disruptive ways plaguing another communities across North America. Just the same we have been giving careful attention to our extremities, bundling up every time we venture forth. Okay, I may be over-emphasizing my point that this weather has taken our breath away, literally and figuratively. Large areas of Toronto ground to a virtual halt during the ice storm and Toronto Hydro says it was the most challenging weather event of its one hundred year history. Now the "deep freeze" and blizzard-like conditions have done the same for much of the continent. A frost warning was issued for the Everglades in Florida, possibly the first ever, and southern cities such as Atlanta woke up to temps in the minus teens.

Of course, some are saying "so much for Global Warming" including great minds such as Donald Trump. If they explored a little further they would find that this weather may be a result of climate change. The smaller area of Arctic ice which is likely a result of global warming has changed atmospheric conditions so that the Jet Stream is pushed farther south resulting in "dun, dun" a Polar Vortex! I think these terms such as Weather Bomb and Polar Vortex are the result of the "weather-as-entertainment trend of recent years, but can we really argue that our weather and perhaps climate are not becoming more extreme?

I only say "perhaps" because weather is what we see out the window while climate is the long view. But we know that Australia recorded it's hottest year ever last year and the extremes continue. Britain is inundated at the moment and the severity of the storms has left a nation unprepared. Tornados in the States are more frequent and massive.

I don't like being an extremist (I just can't let go) but we may be creating our own "signs and portents" of biblical proportions. As a Christian I am called to live in the hope of Christ. At the same time it is my responsibility to care for Creation. Sometimes this may be an "inconvenient truth" as my wife Ruth reminded me recently.

What do you figure folks? Are we just having a throw-back winter, and we are shocked because we have become wussified? Do you believe that this is an issue of changing climate, but don't know what to do? Are you more motivated to make a difference because of your Christian faith?

Sunday, January 05, 2014


24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life

Over the holidays and particularly on Christmas Eve many mainline churches experienced a surge of worshippers who brought their kids and sang the carols. This is a fairly common phenomena across North America and Europe, although surveys and statistics tell us that the percentage of people engaging in even that level of worship attendance is declining. While we all hope that these occasions are opportunities for welcome and evangelism in a society hungering for spiritual meaning my own experience is that they don't translate into increased Sunday-to-Sunday attendance in the New Year. Actually the statistics show that many mainline/old-line members see themselves as part of congregations they frequent only occasionally. Part of the reason may be that we Sundays are no longer days of rest and spiritual renewal for many. Sports, shopping, employment are all accepted as Sunday activities now. Who has time for church or old-fashioned notions of Sabbath-keeping?

I am intrigued by a new book by a physician, Dr. Matthew Sleeth, called 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life. It is a play on the expression 24/7 which describes constant availability and attention to tasks. Sleeth is a good writer who cares deeply about his faith, and the environment, and the biblical injunction to "cease and desist" for a day each week. When we choose to gather for worship and humbly accept that we aren't as important as we think we are we are getting right with God and ourselves. One reviewer offers this assessment of Sleeth's book:

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was the unique perspective Dr. Sleeth brings to the topic from his experience as a former emergency room physician and hospital chief of staff. The book is filled with stories from his days in the ER—some heartwarming, many cringe-worthy—all of which function as modern-day parables about the value of rest.

 “Rest shows us who God is. He has restraint. Restraint is restraining from doing everything that one has the power to do. We must never mistake God’s restraint for weakness. The opposite is true. God shows restraint; therefore, restraint is holy.” (p. 33).

An admission here: I am writing this on Sunday morning, before I lead worship, so what do I know about Sabbath-keeping!

What are your thoughts about 24/6 rather than 24/7? How do you do in that regard? Is it still important to be Sabbath people in the 21st century?

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Dark Side of Memory

I'll tread softly with such a sensitive subject, but I found this article written by someone who has addressed the false memory of suppressed sexual abuse to be powerful.

I know that there are people who have lived through childhood abuse which in some circumstances has been pushed into the shadowy corners of their existence in order to survive. I have pastoral experience with individuals where I am convinced that abuse took place. I have a trusted colleague who wrote a book on her experience which is as much a story of forgiveness as abuse.

I also know that others have been coached to "remember" what isn't there, or are troubled enough that they become convinced of non-existent abuse.

In one congregation an elderly couple invited me to their home to share the devastating news that the husband had been accused of abuse by one of their three daughters. Everyone else in the family, including the other two daughters, were convinced that it couldn't have happened, in part because of the character of the father, but also because the circumstances of the abuse just didn't add up. The dad opened the door one evening to police officers who were there to arrest and take him away to be charged. He was released on bail but the humiliation and anguish were overwhelming. Several months later the daughter withdrew the accusations as suddenly as she had made them, but tremendous harm was done to the family.

In another instance a father of a teen received word of allegations which were being investigated by police. He came to me absolutely stunned and heart-broken. The daughter had been living with her mother after a divorce but he kept in daily contact and had what he thought was a warm and loving relationship. During the time of the investigation he could barely function because of his grief and the prospect that he would lose his job and even go to jail. In this case the accusations were found to be groundless, with some of them supposedly occurring when he was on the other side of the country and could give full account of his whereabouts. Despite being exonerated he knew that he could never have a normal relationship with her again.

I could actually give other examples.

It's scary that this became such a prevalent subject for a time and then seemed to virtually disappear. It's difficult to know if publicity was part of the reason but it would seem so. And anger and confusion can also create tremendous misplaced pain.

Have you heard of this, either the reality or the false memory of abuse?