Friday, February 28, 2014

The Cost of Marriage

I was interested in the recent  Globe and Mail article about a study on marriage which found that if you are married you are more likely more prosperous:

A new study released today by the Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and Family has crunched the Canadian numbers using Statistics Canada data, and found a pattern similar to the United States. The marriage gap has widened by income. In Canada, couples in the highest income bracket are the most likely to be married, or living common-law – and have pretty much the same marriage rates as their counterparts in 1976. Middle and low-income Canadians have seen their marriage rates fall in all age groups, with low-income Canadians the least likely to be married in 2011. Canadians are “split into haves and have-nots by marriage lines,” the report concludes.

It makes sense, doesn't it? When we are married we share costs and, hopefully, goals. When we get un-married it costs us, big time, as many of you have learned. This isn't a moral judgment that not being married or getting divorced is bad. Nor does it point to singlehood being an unfortunate or inferior state of being. You just won't be as well-off.

It got me thinking (doesn't everything?) that mainline churches such as the United Church are lousy at supporting marriage. We're so worried that we will seem judgmental of those who are divorced or single that we keep our traps shut about marriage to the extreme. It's weird. We do marry people, and married folk make up the majority of most congregations. Hey we are open to marrying two guys or two gals as well. But we act as though the institution doesn't exist except when we announce a significant anniversary or upcoming nuptials.

 Yet in many conservative churches they gush enthusiastically about the covenant of marriage and even encourage couples to have lots of sex as long as it with each other. They say goofy things about men being the heads of households, but is that worse than saying nothing at all? Surely we could see marriage as being a justice issue in that healthy (not endured!) marriages have positive outcomes.

While we do speak of marriage being covenantal and sacramental in nature, history shows us that until less than a hundred years ago marriages were about practical partnerships which could include romantic love, not the other way around. I visited a couple last year about to celebrate their seventieth wedding anniversary. She told me that marriage means a lot of sacrifice. I smiled and said "to you mean compromises?" She looked me in the eye and said "no, I mean sacrifices!" I laughed. She didn't.

Should we offer more honest and practical talk on marriage? What about seminars and events to support marriages? Wife Ruth is trained as a marriage and family counselor so we have done marriage seminars in congregations a couple of times, but not for a while.Should we subsidize marriage counseling the way some churches do?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Arizona's Shame

When then state of Arizona passed a stringent and unfair immigration law in 2010 Eugene Robinson  of the Washington Post described it this way:"Arizona's draconian new immigration law is an abomination -- racist, arbitrary, oppressive, mean-spirited, unjust."

Well, Arizona's legislators are at it again, this time with a law allowing any business to refuse service to gays and lesbians. If that seems impossible, sadly it isn't. What makes it worse, people are allowed to do so if they state they are doing so based on their religious convictions.

What immediately came to mind are the laws which existed in many US states which allowed businesses including lunch counters to refuse service to people of colour. We were reminded in the film The Butler what it was like for those who ignored those laws. The governor has finally decided to veto this bill, after considerable pressure, but what would have happened in Arizona if this law is ratified by the governor. Would police have been called to arrest and haul away gays and lesbians who refuse to be refused? Surely this is unconstitutional?

What sickens me is that religion is being used as a shield for this travesty. We're not talking about what happens within a religious community with its stated expectations and rules for members. We might not agree with these rules, but we don't have to belong to that church or synagogue or mosque. But if the guy at the corner store makes a judgment call about someone's sexual orientation does he now have a right to refuse service and hide behind his interpretation of the bible? It feels as though the state is determined to crawl back into the dark ages of racism and discrimination. I shudder to think that some pastors will be delighting in this decision and supporting it from their pulpits.

I love that some stores have being stating clearly that they find this new law offensive and discriminatory. It's just hard to believe that it has come to this point.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

John Brown's Jeopardy Question

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.             


Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.

The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
His soul goes marching on.

My "guilty pleasures" tend to be rather tame, and I'll confess that one of them is the television quiz show Jeopardy! Earlier this week the Final Jeopardy answer was:

Frederick Douglass said this man’s “zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine.”

The "question" that came to my mind was "who is Abraham Lincoln?" Actually I don't think in terms of questions, but Jeopardy! does. Two of the contestants agreed with me, but we were all wrong. The correct question was "who is John Brown?" I immediately muttered a self-reproach because I recently read the National Book Award winning novel The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. It features the zealous, quixotic quest of John Brown to free slaves in America. It was based on his deep religious convictions and in the novel Brown enlists the support of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became an eloquent leader of the abolitionist movement. Brown launched an assault on the armory at Harper's Ferry to procure arms for a slave uprising but it went awry, he was captured, and eventually executed.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Some feel that Brown's ill-considered efforts nonetheless heightened the abolitionist cause and the eventual eradication of slavery.

A fair number of great reformers have been as being nutty as they come. Even the saner ones can seem crazy to their peers. including the biblical prophets.

One hundred and fifty years later John Brown's truth and legacy go marching on. Go figure.

Did you know the John Brown story? Do you know any nutty prophets? Do we need more of them?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Trouble with Trolls

Yesterday I listened to an interesting CBC radio The Current piece on internet "trolls." are the people who "comment" on articles in the online versions of newspapers and blogs and are often vicious and racist in their responses. They are also cowards for the most part, unwilling to reveal their actual identities. It sours the value of the legitimate conversation which comment sections afford and unfortunately some media outlets and bloggers and disabling the comments feature because it takes too much time and energy to moderate out the nasties. And who needs the grief? I can't believe the horrible racism of comments after virtually any article on First Nations peoples.

Churches have their trolls as well, the cruel snipers living under the bridges of congregational life who take potshots at those in leadership, including clergy. I am grateful that in all my years of ministry I have never received a derogatory letter or email. although that doesn't mean I haven't been criticized behind my back. Unfortunately this isn't the case for many colleagues. Sadly, it seems that women in ministry are more likely to receive these sorts of unfair and unkind missives.

Recently a woman in ministry in the Kingston area found an anonymous letter on the pulpit on a Sunday morning which demeaned her sexual orientation. Another minister I know well,  who has served her congregation for fifteen years, got an anonymous letter last year from a " concerned mother" who criticized her bare arms during the summer and her fat ankles. Huh? She doesn't have fat ankles, but that's not the point. What level of cowardice and pettiness do certain "Christians" possess that they can do these sorts of things? And why do the few --very few-- feel at liberty to bully women, even when they themselves are women? The male on our friend's ministry team wore short-sleeved shirts but got no such criticism.

Have any of you noticed the disturbing level of discourse in the comments sections online? What about churches? Are you surprised that supposed Christians can be so petty and hateful? What do we do about it?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Phone Home

When I first saw this photo I thought it was a staged image for something akin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind or ET. It is actually an award winning shot by John Stanmeyer called Signals. It was named the 2013 World Press Photo of the Year and it depicts asylum seekers in Djiboutii trying to capture phone signals to connect with loved ones in other countries

Stanmeyer describes it:

Immediately I was astonished by what we were witnessing — the innate desire we all have as humans to reconnect home. Over the following few days I would revisit this stretch of beach where each night there would be a new gathering of men and women waiting for that moment when all the natural layers would combine.

Speaking to many of them, the stories were always the same: the desire to reconnect to family, asking for remittance or updates on emigration papers from family living in Europe. Not all attempts to catch the signal were fulfilled. Some would stand in one place for 20 to 30 minutes, waiting for their phone to grab the faint signal that never appeared, only to return another evening to try once more.

When we hear as Christians the statistics on the refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers of the world it is hard to grasp the magnitude, let alone the human stories attached to the figures. What can we do as people of faith to make a difference for those unnamed millions? This image is both other-worldly and very down to earth. It has a spiritual quality which can speak to us and encourage us to respond.



Sunday, February 23, 2014

God Keep Our Land

Embedded image permalink

Canada wins gold! Was it ever in doubt? Okay, we were all nervous beforehand, but the Canadian team was exceptional from start to finish.

Earlier in the morning CBC television went across the country to show us how people were preparing for the game. They went to a mosque in Toronto where several hundred Canadians were enjoying breakfast in anticipation, chanting "Go Canada Go" and waving flags.

What a wonderful reminder that this country is made up of diverse backgrounds and many religions. The suspicious nonsense which labels all adherents of certain religions and those who are immigrants as aliens just doesn't hold.

God keep our land!


Friday, February 21, 2014

The Age of Anxiety

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6

 Scott Stossel is  editor of The Atlantic magazine,which means he has a responsible job, functions at a high level and contributes to society in a meaningful way. He has also suffered from often paralysing fear, phobias, and anxiety since he was a child. He decided to write what proved to be an excellent article in The Atlantic in which he "outed" himself. His willingness to do so has proved  to be a gift in its honesty. Many people who know Stossel well, including those who work at the magazine had no idea how severe his anxiety can be. He has also written a book called My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind.

I saw an excellent interview with Stossel by Charlie Rose in which Scott speaks eloquently about anxiety in personal and general terms. He points out that while he grew up in a home where his mother was loving and overprotective, there is plenty of evidence that anxiety is in the genes.

There was a recent Maclean's magazine article on the "worry epidemic" which addresses the increasing incidence of anxiety in our society.

I have lived with anxiety all through my adult life and I have found ways to manage it for the most part. I have usually worked in very active pastorates with lots going on all the time. I like that, and my wife Ruth knows that my notion of the "kiss of death" is a quiet little congregation with not much in the way of challenge. But stress and anxiety can be exhausting and six years ago I took several months away from work to "restore my soul." My physician wisely decided that I didn't need to be medicated but I did need to step away and by God's grace and the help of friends I found a truly quiet farmhouse in the back-of-beyond where I roamed, read, and renewed. I found that the majority of my congregation was incredibly supportive and a handful were idiots. Not kind I know, but true. Some Christians aren't, and perhaps that's why so many are anxious about being outed as anxious!

I find that when I exercise, pray/meditate, and practice the Sabbath I am able to be present in the moment and live hopefully. When I fail to do so I feel myself drifting back into bad patterns which are unhealthy and soul-destroying.

Of course over the years I have spent lots of time with folk who are affected and even incapacitated by anxiety. Lots of them are young and are juggling a multitude of responsibilities and feel the anxiety rising like flood waters. Some of them are in later middle age and find they just can't cope the way they once did. Others have always been anxious, and maybe it is in the genes.

What are your thoughts about anxiety? Have you been able to find your way toward health, if you are anxious? Does your faith help? Remember folks, there is always hope, and God loves you.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Trampling the Needy

Hear this you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practise deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’
  Amos 8:4-6

I have been asked to return a graciously loaned book, so I better blog about it while it is still in my possession. I've only had it for six or seven months, so I don't understand the hurry!

It is by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco with the title Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Sacco, the godfather of graphic artists, illustrates this feisty volume which decries the indifference in America to the plight of the underclass. The blurb on the back of the book refers to the expanded biblical concept of the neighbour and the failure to recognize the neighbour as anything or anyone other than a person to be exploited in their vulnerability.

The authors address the circumstances in West Virginia where entire mountains are being destroyed for coal, while the folk who live around them are being evicted from their traditional homes, literally bulldozed into compliance. They feature old-timers who refuse to go, although in some cases properties are now bizarre islands in the midst of a devastated landscape.

Joe Sacco on the Story of Rudy, a West Virginia Miner (Illustrations)

This relentless appetite for coal obviously also affects community life, including the congregations of the various villages and towns which are being de-populated. The churches are trying to speak out and to help those who are left destitute, but it is a losing enterprise.

Hedges and Sacco contend that the coal companies essentially write the laws because of their power, and even then regularly violate them. While this may seem like an extreme contention just recently hundreds of thousands of West Virginians had their drinking water polluted by a mining spill which was not immediately reported. It has since been discovered that other spills have occurred without supposedly obligatory reporting to authorities.

While this is a rather bleak book, filled with outrage, I'm grateful that someone cares. The biblical prophets often reminded God's people that they weren't going to like what they were about to hear, and they didn't!

Would I recommend the book? Yes, even though it certainly isn't cheerful.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Snake 1, Snake Handler no Score

Jamie Coots

I did not know that there was a reality show on TV called Snake Salvation. I'm thinking it may be cancelled. The pastor of the Kentucky congregation where live snake-handling takes place is Jamie Coots. Was. Jamie was bitten by a venomous rattlesnake at his church and sensible souls called for an ambulance. The pastor refused the anti-venom as a matter of faith and then, well, he died. Why of why would he have this sort of death wish? Because the bible told him too of course. In Mark 16 it says "17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

If you haven't heard this brief reference before, little wonder. It just doesn't come up as a text in mainline churches, and I wouldn't preach on it anyway, except as a cautionary tale. This snake-handling craziness has been around as long as I can remember. It's tempting to just shake our heads and mutter something about Coots' foolishness. But the man is dead and he probably had a family which is now bereft. What a reminder about biblical literalism and the ways in which the "faithful" can get side-tracked from the core of the gospel. This is a freak show, not worship which leads us toward a meaningful relationship with Christ, in service of others.

Through the years I've had my fair share of conversations with those who insist they are biblical literalists but when I challenge them they admit have no intention of poking out their eyes or cutting off their hands because they lust or covet, nor should they.

The scriptures are essential to who I am as a Christian and I can't imagine worship or my own devotional life without them. Whenever possible I share scripture with those I visit because it is a source of solace and strength. But I gave up on the notion of literal reading of the bible a long time ago. After all, the supposedly literal reading always requires someone's brain, addled or otherwise to interpret it.

Had you heard about this situation? Are you a recovering biblical literalist? Do we take the bible seriously enough in our liberal United Church?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Flexible Worship?

I like it when the response to blogs prompt thoughts for yet another blog entry. I have been thinking about the Family Day blog on Sunday, and comments from two individuals in different congregations who weren't in church that day. I know them both, and they are both rock solid when it comes to church attendance and involvement beyond Sunday morning. Any congregation would benefit from having them as members, and I'm glad that they had "time off for good behavior."

One of the two wondered about alternative days and times for worship in our busy culture, which happens to be a conversation I had following worship two weeks ago with a couple who have teens. Obviously they are church-goers as well. This is a conversation I've had often through the years but it seems more common in the last few.

I think having alternative worship opportunities in an excellent idea. There are questions though. When would these services occur? Who would be the target congregation? What would the format be? The Roman Catholics have been doing Saturday evening mass forever and it is often well attended, but it is their tradition. Lots of Protestant congregations have tried without success. I know I'm not at all enamoured of leading worship on a Friday or Saturday evening for seven people. I do have a life apart from my vocation and worship takers a lot of preparation and energy.

Our son Isaac is the minister of children, youth, and families in the ministry team of his congregation in London, Ontario. Part of his mandate is to create worship and gathering alternatives to Sunday morning, and they have started. It was a big step for that congregation to call a second full-time ordained minister for this role, and I have no doubt that the cost - $60,000? -- caused a lot of people to gulp.

It's a worthwhile conversation to have. We need to be flexible and innovative. I will point out that lots of evangelical and a few mainline churches are full on Sunday mornings, so there is something more than alternative worship times.

Thoughts folks?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Consider the Birds...and Count 'Em!


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? Matthew 6:26

This -20 degree Celsius morning I opened the door to our home and heard birds. First of all a blue jay, followed by a cardinal, then a supporting chorus of others including the hardy chickadees. Chickadees are tiny miracles of nature, able to survive the coldest temperatures and whose brains grow during the harsher months to help cope with the demanding work of staying fed. I am certain my brain shrinks during the colder, darker days of winter.

I may make a report today of the feathered friends who have appeared at our feeders over the weekend. This is the GBBC weekend, don't you know? We are all invited to submit our backyard sightings, and we are fortunate to have eight or so species who comes to our feeders through the winter. The count is an attempt to identify species in a time of troubling declines of virtually all the species which were once common. The loss of habitat, north and south, the expansion of human populations, and the use of chemicals in agriculture and on lawns all contribute to the decline.

I am reading a book at the moment (by fits and starts) called Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue. In these ten essays she ponders different birds of the bible and offers a theological reflection. I like what she has to say about watching birds:

"I'm convinced that there is something about the sort of consciousness necessary for birding that is very much like the practice of faith. It comes and it goes. It requires waiting. You must use both your body and mind. Attention is paramount."

Are you encouraged to get in touch with your inner "bird nerd" and do an inventory of your neighbourhood? Do any of you have feeders? Have you ever thought about the number of birds named in scripture?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday of Family Day Weekend

Ontario now has a Family Day in February, following the lead of other provinces across the country. For several of those provinces it was last Monday, but the three-day-weekend is this one in Ontario. Since its institution I've notice that this means a drop in church attendance with the young family demographic! Long weekends are like that in many congregations still fortunate enough to have growing families. With all the pressures of daily life it is good to get away, sometimes to visit with extended family.

This weekend one of my wife Ruth's sisters is with us. Ruth has ten siblings: four from her biological family, five from the blended family, and her half-sister Mary. One of the step-sisters was her best friend before they became siblings. We also have the youngest of our three children, Emily, with us, along with her partner Patty. They will soon be moving to Toronto from Kingston where he will begin a job with Toronto Hydro.

They will be in worship with our relatively new extended family of the Bridge St. congregation. And I received an email this weekend from a family in my former St. Paul's congregation wondering if I would be leading the service here. I may see them this morning.

More and more we are aware that families take different shapes and sizes and we can't assume that the template of another era will be imposed on family life. That applies to congregations as well, which once anticipated that a family would be mom and dad and a couple of kids. It seems that that the churches which are doing well figure out a way to uphold and encourage life together with God at the core, but with enough flexibility and Christian grace to make it all work.

I hope that this is a restorative and enjoyable Family Day weekend for all of you. And remember that our "family" extends to all of creation. This is the Backyard Bird Count weekend, so keep an eye out for your avian relatives!

Any thoughts about the changing face of the family, including in the Christian community?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Yes to Christ

In the past twenty or so years, a tone frankly contemptuous of faith has emerged.

                                                                                                                     John Cuneo

There is a long and thoughtful piece by Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine about the rise of the atheist and the decline in belief in God.  It begins:

In Tom Stoppard’s 1970 play “Jumpers,” the philosopher hero broods unhappily on the inexorable rise of the atheist: “The tide is running his way, and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. . . . There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.”

I had never really thought about whether there was a time when Christians were on the defensive, feeling that they had to answer for their belief in God. Gopnik rightly points out that in large parts of the world this is not an issue, but it certainly is in Western nations. I suppose I named this in a recent sermon where I picked up on the epistle reading from 1st Corinthians where Paul speaks of the "foolishness" of the incarnation and the cross. If anything Christians have an added challenge because we hold the belief that God became human, although a fair number of Western Christians would prefer Jesus to be a sage rather than one aspect of the Trinity.

Gopnik uses the term "contemptuous tone" to describe the so-called New Atheists, including their champions including Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, as well as others. They are so aggressive and polemical there isn't much room for dialogue.

Atheism is hardly new. As an undergrad nearly 40 years ago I had conversations with other students who were keen to challenge my Christian faith. Since then I have been sneered at, dismissed, pitied, and vilified more times than I care to recall, because clergy are a lightning rod for contempt. I should say that this all happens in a rather Canadian way, without any wild stuff.

For all this I carry on as a person of faith, with my doubts and disappointments, stubbornly persistent in my convictions and -dare I say it?-- experience of God-with-us. I'm with Paul. I like Christianity best because it is so wildly improbable from Bethlehem stable start to Jerusalem cemetery finish. I stand with Mary at the tomb and weep, only to be surprised once more by the resurrected Jesus the gardener of our soul.

How are you doing when it comes to your faith?  Has it strengthened or waned over the years? Does it actually make a difference?


Friday, February 14, 2014

Choosing Life

As regular readers will know, I lamented the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman last week. He was marvelous in so many roles and his loss was huge on so many levels, including as a parent. I didn't say what I was thinking at the time, that I found it unsettling that he died of a heroin overdose at the time he was to be meeting those children in a nearby park. Had he intended to be with them under the influence of drugs?

Enter journalist Margaret Wente, a Globe and Mail newspaper writer who makes a living from being a contrarian. While she too was saddened by the news, her husband exclaimed "sphincter!" Actually he used another, cruder compound word, but you get the picture.

Wente goes on to describe Hoffman's drug problem as a habit rather than an addiction, and to explore whether we essentially let these folk in our society off the hook when it comes to responsibility for their actions. We have decided that they have diseases, although we know that addictions are not like pancreatic cancer or heart disease. In her words:

Treatment programs are important, and we need more. But stigma has its uses, too. It helps to curb behaviours that are destructive to families and society. We’re happy to stigmatize littering, smoking and failure to recycle. And it works. We expect cigarette smokers to kick their disgusting, unhealthy, anti-social habit, and think less of them if they don’t. So why are we so forgiving when it comes to heroin, which, according to some experts is no more addictive than tobacco?

Mr. Hoffman’s death was no freak accident. He worked hard to kill himself. By the end, he was ingesting stunning quantities of drugs. Yet he was an unusually privileged addict, with resources, people who loved him and access to the best help money could buy. But he decided he needed the drugs more than he needed to save himself. And sometimes no intervention and no amount of tolerance and understanding can save someone like that.

Predictably the responses to her column were in the hundreds and most I read criticized her for a lack of compassion and living in another much darker era. I hasten to say that her approach does seem cruel and ultimately helpful to me. At the same time I have always wondered what to do and say as I have walked with those living with addictions of varying kinds. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction from the punitive, shunning attitudes of another day, often driven by judgmental religious types? The old approach sure didn't seem to produce positive outcomes, but honestly, the disease model can seem like a hiding place rather than a solution. How do we encourage people into taking active responsibility for their lives?

One of the readings for this week is from Deuteronomy, chapter 30: "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. t I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live..."       Deuteronomy 30

I have been so impressed through the years by those who have chosen the way of life despite seemingly insurmountable odds, and by the grace of God.

I am thinking out loud on this one, not offering an opinion or alternative. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Self-Giving at the Olympics

The current incarnation of the Olympics, all Olympics, whether summer or winter make me queasy. Even in the recent past they were a celebration of excellence in sport; higher, faster, stronger. Now they are a gross nationalist spectacle, often a showpiece for the bloated egos of leaders in the host nation. The world turned a blind eye to the history of human rights violations in Beijing, and in Sochi the controversy over Russia's oppressive homophobic laws has tainted the games, not to mention the 50 billion dollar price tag. Already there are stories out of Brazil about poor neighbourhoods being razed for venues and the high costs in a country where so many struggle to get by.

I won't go too far because I'm married to an enthusiastic Olympic Games fan, and as always its exciting to see our athletes, so young and committed, striving to achieve what may seem impossible for virtually all of us. After watching our slopestyle skiers I have decided to give up the sport.

And then there are the stories which almost transcend the athletic accomplishments. A Canadian coach, Justin Wadsworth, who is actually an American, charges down a hill with a spare cross-country ski for a Russian competitor whose own ski is in tatters. It allows the Russkie to finish the race with dignity. Heart-warming.

Again we saw Alex Bilodeau winning gold and sharing the moment with his developmentally challenged brother Frederic.

What about Canadian speed-skater Gilmore Junio who gives up the grand public stage of the 10,000 metre race so that a teammate who had a chance to medal could compete -- and did in fact win a silver?

All high-level athletes are different from the rest of us in terms of endless hours of repetitive training, of deferring other goals, and relinquishing a regular social life. But they have the prospect of glory, even if it just to compete on the world's biggest stage. These stories of generosity and self-sacrifice touch us in a different way, it seems to me. There is a gospel feel to them, at least from my perspective as a "gospel guy." Whoever wants to find his life must lose it, Jesus said, and we get glimpses of this in these moments.

Have your hearts been warmed by these stories? Do you find them to be just as important as medal counts? Do you wish you were related to these individuals?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The David Strategy

I saw Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants at the library recently and decided to give it a go. Gladwell is a Canadian who has developed global popularity with books such as Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point.

David and Goliath follows in a similar vein as Gladwell looks at the biblical story of the shepherd lad David, who manages to defeat the over-sized Philistine champion Goliath. Gladwell offers that “[Goliath’s] size was also the source of his greatest weakness…the powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.”  David was able to use the apparent inferiority of his size and weaponry to his advantage. Gladwell's "take" on Goliath is that despite his size he was a sick man, afflicted with an illness which compromised his sight and mobility.

Gladwell suggests that there are many examples of the David's of this world prevailing, and then he offers them. As I read the book it struck me that mainline denominations such as the United Church and many of its congregations are at the “tipping point” of their life cycles. We are trying to figure out whether we are able to shift from being the ponderous, myopic Goliaths of our Canadian society to becoming more nimble, more able to respond to the challenges of today’s culture wars in which religion is far less prominent. 
Recently we have been  invited to look at a couple of documents which have issued from the Comprehensive Review of the United Church, a process which invited congregations and individuals to comment on the changing nature of our denomination and offer thoughts on where we might go next. Will this review make a difference? Just having the conversation is an important starting point to move beyond both denial and despair.
We are people of faith after all, and the story of David and Goliath is a metaphor of faith, not just a tale of military strategy.
Do you have hope that our denomination will become more responsive, more nimble in the days before us? Is it possible for a church Goliath to become David-like, or will we simply have to die on the battlefield and give way to some other expression of Christ, who is "of the house and lineage of David?"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Her and the Nature of Love

Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
 Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13

We went to see the film Her on Saturday evening. Two movies in one week is definitely "when it rains it pours" for us. I really liked it, Ruth didn't. Daughter Emily saw it not long ago and loved it, friends didn't enjoy it. In other words, mixed reviews.

I was fascinated by this story of a regular guy living in the not-too-distant-future which looks a lot like today but with technological advancements which are currently just beyond our reach. Theodore Twombly (how is that for a nerdy name) has gone through a painful separation and is reluctant to finalize the divorce his wife wants. His friends are concerned that he has moved into a place of sadness which is changing his character and he wonders whether he can ever be happy again. Dating doesn't work, but then he purchases a new and innovative OS (operating system) which is essentially an online, intuitive personal assistant. This virtual assistant, Samantha, is so intuitive that Theodore develops a relationship with "her", and eventually falls in love, and she with him. It's interesting that the invisible Samantha is the voice of the lovely Scarlett Johansen. Does that make a difference to the way we imagine this computer-generated "person?"

This relationship becomes the perfect, joyous antidote to disappointing human relationships, and Theodore is eventually able to share the news of his love with others, who take it rather well, except for his ex! I will be careful about blabbing too much about the outcome here, but in the end we are invited to ask how loving relationships are created, and whether we can ever "program" the ideal union.

When I help couples prepare for weddings I yearn for alternatives to the scripture passage above, as powerful as it is. The apostle Paul didn't write it as some lofty template for the ideal marriage, but that is the way it is often perceived. We all must develop and nurture relationships in the real rather than the virtual world with that the risks and disappointments and joys that entails. And God will be with us as we do.

Have you seen Her? Are you intrigued? As Valentine Day approaches, how are your perfect human relationships going?

Saturday, February 08, 2014

A Love Story

Wednesday was a miserable enough day to have an early evening meeting cancelled but by seven the snow had stopped and we drove downtown in Belleville to see the Quebec film, Gabrielle. It touched both of us for a number of reasons. It is a story of love between two developmentally challenged young adults, Gabrielle and Martin, who sing in the same choir. It is also about how the love of singing has a transformative power. And it is about the fierce love between siblings, Gabrielle and her sister Sophie. When Gabrielle and Martin are separated because of an overprotective mother then pine for one another, the way any love-struck couple might.

While we lived in Halifax my wife Ruth worked in a group home for developmentally challenged adults for several years, as did our son Isaac. They enjoyed the residents, as quirky and demanding as they could be at times. They were persons, with likes and dislikes, and yes they wanted to be loved and to be in love.

I connected with these folk as well, going on one occasion to inform them of the death of one co-residents who died of a heart attack. This was very emotional.  Two of them, Ian and George, attended the church I served. Ian looked and dressed like a dignified university professor, which was the former profession of his aged father. Ian had the mind of a six-year-old though, and it was painful for him not to be able to go to Sunday School or associate with "kids his age." George had a girlfriend and he came to me to talk about getting married. As with the young adults in the film, George wanted to be like other people, and while group homes support relationships, including sexual relationships, issues such as marriage are much more complex. In the end she spurned him for another and he was heartbroken.

Gabrielle was such a good reminder that developmentally challenged adults have spiritual needs, relational hopes, sexual desires. We need to be aware of this as a culture and respectful at the same time. As Christians we say that God loves everyone, and so we can be specific about what that means in terms of welcome and support. Tom is an example at Bridge St. UC. He is part of the family and he knows it!


Friday, February 07, 2014

The Great Creation Debate

Evolution Debate

Bill Nye the Science Guy is well known to many because of his bow-tied explanations of science from a number of different platforms including television series' and books for children. Ya gotta like Bill for his work popularizing science.

Nye was involved in a much ballyhooed debate recently with Ken Ham whose name may not be so familiar, but is a big cheese when it comes to "young earth" creationism and has developed a Creation Museum in Kentucky.
 Ham believes that our planet is only a few thousand years old and evolution can't be true because the bible tells him so, and because God made it. Nye was, not surprisingly, the science guy in this debate and from all accounts made an omelette of Ham's arguments. Sorry, I just can't stop myself.

Now, I am a creation guy myself, as many of you know. I worship God the Creator, without reservation. But along with the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, and much of Protestantism, I don't see evolution as a scientific theory and creation as a conviction of faith to be  contradictory. Nye was actually quite respectful of religions in the debate, he's just convinced that the bible isn't, nor was ever intended to be a science text book:

"I just want to remind us all there are billions of people in the world who are deeply religious, who get enriched by the wonderful sense of community by their religion," said Nye, who wore his trademark bow tie. "But these same people do not embrace the extraordinary view that the Earth is somehow only 6,000 years old."

To that I say "Amen."

You might think that this matters to a handful of religious right-wingers in the States. Some have suggested that Nye lost the debate whatever he actually said by dignifying the event with his presence. Yet polls show that an incredible percentage of people in the US don't subscribe to the evolutionary theory because of their religious convictions. I know that in my former ministerial I was outnumbered amongst colleagues in terms of reconciling evolution and creation.

Were you aware of this debate? Are you intrigued by it? How have you worked through the challenges of creation and evolution as a person of faith? Have you ever worn a bowtie?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Whose Authority?

A United Nations review of the Roman Catholic church's response to the abuse of children by priests and other clerics has been scathing. It essentially says that the church has failed miserably in its moral and ethical duty to protect children, and who could argue. The Vatican agrees that it has a dark past in this regard, although it also makes the case that both policy and practice have changed significantly in recent years. I was not impressed to hear this morning that the Vatican kept no record or registry of child abuses until 2001. This has to be considered blatant ignorance of an evident cancer in the body of Christ. It remains to be seen how the RC hierarchy responds under the leadership of Pope Francis.

We should also pay attention to the fact that the UN team veered off topic in this report and called on the Roman Catholic church to change its doctrine on abortion and homosexuality and other issues. I happen to agree with their outlook, but we should ask why the United Nations feels that it has carte blanche to call on religious communities to change doctrine. Sexual abuse has never been doctrinally supported by the church, and it is recognized as an evil despite the woeful history of tacitly condoning it. But there are theological rationales for the other issues named, even if denominations such as ours may not support them.

I get a little uneasy when secular bodies make blanket statements about the doctrine and practices of religious bodies. Where does that end? What does freedom of religion mean? Those secular organizations are made up of human beings themselves. Why does their supposed wisdom trump the wisdom of the religious group? "Who died and made you pope?" as the sarcastic expression goes.

 It's odd, because Protestants balk at what we perceive as the authoritarian and hierarchical approach of the papacy. But do we simply turn to some other body as the authority without knowing what orients its moral compass?

Is this a little heavy for a Thursday morning? What do you think? C'mon, weigh in!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

R.I.P the Consummate Actor

We were driving back from Oshawa late Sunday afternoon, when I heard the news about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. It really stunned me in every regard, his age, the overdose, that he had planned to meet his kids for some time together. Of course there was also the loss of one of the great actors of his time. He didn't have movie star looks but no one could enter a role the way Hoffman could.

Playing Truman Capote in Capote was a remarkable, almost magical slight of hand, given that Hoffman was so much bigger a man. I don't think I ever saw him in a movie where I didn't think he was great, including Mission Impossible 77, or whatever number it was. He was great in A Late Quartet as well, a little film with a lot of fine acting.

There were two juicy, although very different roles as religious types as well. As the priest, Father Flynn, in Doubt he embodied ambiguity not only for this particular cleric but as a symbol of the priesthood in a changing culture. I remember a spirited conversation with wife Ruth as we drove home about what actually happened with Father Dodd

Then there was Lancaster Dodd, the thinly disguised L. Ron Hubbard in The Master. He managed to create a wonderfully overblown and yet insecure messiah figure. Even though it wasn't a biography it gave us a sense of what can go wrong with a charismatic and mesmerizing personality.

Movies can serve as parables for all that really matters in life, including spirituality and religion. Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed to be the consummate guide into life's complexity and he will be missed.

Have you enjoyed Hoffman's work through the years? Do you have favourite films? Did you see Doubt and The Master, and what did you think?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Cancer Day. Hope Day?


I have noted before that I couldn't possibly keep up with all the national and international "Day of" and Day for" occasions in this blog. There may be an International Day of No Subject in Particular, although its likely that all 365 in the year are taken, and then some.

This is World Cancer Day, a day that I obviously prefer did not have to exist. The theme this year is the myths of cancer, some of which are illustrated above. I fervently wish that this disease in all its forms had long ago been eradicated, and that all the wonderful people in my various pastorates hadn't had to contend with cancer's awful toll on their lives and of those around them. This year the theme is "debunking myths" which makes sense.

Everyone in pastoral ministry has been a companion alongside those with cancer. Some of our folk have lived far longer than their prognoses, while others have gone quickly. More importantly from my standpoint is that many have been treated and recovered. Some have gone into remission for years, while others have been given the "all clear." During 30-plus years of ministry some cancers which were automatic death sentences have become treatable. Both chemotherapy and radiation have become more sophisticated, so they provide a viable treatment option that doesn't always seem worse than the disease itself. Detection seems to have become much better as well, which makes a difference to longevity. This is the hopeful aspect of this day.

But I do think of so many individuals I have respected and loved who died because of cancer, and it is sobering. We have also been told this week that the incidence of cancer is about to increase rather than diminish, which is an ominous prospect.

Today I pray for members of this congregation who are contending with cancer. There a number of them. I pray for a sister-in-law who will soon begin another round of treatment after hoping that she would be given a respite of a few more months, or even years, before that possibility. I pray for all the family members and friends of those living with cancer, because they live with it too. I pray for researchers and fund-raisers and lab technicians and palliative care staff.

God give them courage and stamina and a sense of your abiding presence.

Comments? What are your prayers today? Have you dealt with cancer on a personal level?

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Devil in the Details

And the report of Jesus went forth into all Syria:
and they brought to him all that were sick,
with various diseases, those suffering severe pain,
possessed with demons,
epileptics, and paralytics, and Jesus cured them Matthew 4:24.

Stories like this one always pique my curiosity, even though I consider myself a rational, 21st century person. It's about a woman in the States who claims she is possessed by demons and the people in authority who aren't sure what to make of what they have witnessed.

A US police captain says he believed a story about a woman who claimed her children were possessed by demons. Latoya Ammons, from Indiana, said her three children walked up walls, levitated and spoke in voices. Official reports filed in 2012 backed up her claims, with psychologists stating that they saw the nine-year-old child speak in "different deep voices" and walk "up the wall backwards". "He flipped over and landed on his feet," they added.

Gary Police Captain Charles Austin, who has more than 35 years of experience, said he had been convinced by the story. According to a local newspaper he described himself as a "believer" after visiting the house and interviewing Ms Ammons and her family. Official Indiana state documents detail more events, apparently witnessed by medical experts and those outside the family. Medical staff reported they observed the children and heard the seven-year-old making growling noises and his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

It is interesting that in our scientific era, highly skeptical of strange notions such as demon possession, there is a steady stream of scare-the-bejabbers-out-of-you films which feature just this sort of possession. I remember as a teen my father passing on the best-selling novel The Exorcist, before it had become a movie. I was 17 at the time and it terrified me! The novel and film are based on a real-life incident, complete with Roman Catholic exorcist. There are still RC exorcists, bye the way.

In liberal churches we interpret the healing stories of Jesus where folk are cured of demons as actually being accounts where he addresses mental illness, but is this what is going on?

All total nonsense? Strange, yes, but explainable? Is there such a thing as possession and evil personified?