Sunday, August 31, 2014

Does the Fire Still Burn?

Have you had an experience of the living, life-changing God in your life? Does that question sound out of place United Church?

I have been thinking about both of these questions this week as I prepared for today's sermon on the story from Exodus 3 about Moses and the burning bush. We tend to read this passage as a call to justice and freedom from oppression because that is a strong focus in mainline churches. It certainly has been in the United Church since our inception, so hear the call folks and fix the world!

Heeding the call to justice is important, but isn't it important to encounter God first?  And that's not simply saying we believe in a deity in some vague and distant way. The prophets, the apostle Paul, Jesus, all had transformative experiences of the holy which were difficult to describe but went beyond intellectual assent to a concept. They all preached compassion and equality, but they were fired up by experiences which were transformative.

I figure we should talk about our experiences more, because I know that many United Church folk have had them, in a variety of settings. God speaks through nature and art and music and worship in ways that have touched folk at the core of their being. They have felt Christ's presence in real, if undefinable ways.

What do you think? Is it time to come out of the God-experience closet? What have we got to lose in our rapidly fading UCC? Does the burning bush of our denominational crest need some fuel added to the fire?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vital Decisions

From her cubicle at Vital Decisions in Cherry Hill, N.J., Kate Schleicher counsels people who are seriously ill.

Twice during my decade-long tenure at St. Paul's UC we offered end-of-life and funeral planning seminars. They were really good, if I do say so. In the first of two sessions I involved a palliative care physician from the congregation in dialogue about family attitudes and approaches, as well as creating end-of-life directives. The second was a panel with three funeral directors who were given questions I had developed. At the end of both evenings the participants (30 or more) were encouraged to ask their own questions.

Many of the participants were there to think through realities which were not necessarily close at hand for them, although in several cases either someone present or a loved one was terminally ill. Others were trying to figure out what needed to happen for elderly parents.

Of course our pastoral care team, pastoral care minister, and myself were all involved in ongoing support for members who were dealing with healthcare issues, as we are here at Bridge St UC. I imagine most of us hope that this is what congregations will do as part of their ministry.

I was interested to read that in the States there is a program called Vital Decisions which involves phone contact and counseling to those who are seriously or terminally ill. Trained counselors and social workers contact clients of insurance companies to talk through their health issues, provide emotional support, and help them plan. Needless to say, some of the people contacted are wary. What is the motive? The insurers admit that these conversations save thousands of dollars because clients are less inclined to visit their doctors if they have someone to talk with about their loneliness or frustration, as well as the practical stuff. The NPR piece about Vital Decisions interviewed a palliative care physician:

Dr. Robert Arnold, who heads the palliative care division at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says he thinks that insurers may be well-situated to address the communication disconnect, at least while some doctors and others who deliver care work through their own discomfort and improve their skills. He sees companies like Vital Decisions as part of a larger trend.

"Would I prefer that we live in a health care system where doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and social workers who knew the patient were having these conversations? Yes," he says, but adds, "This is better than what patients have currently been getting."

This may be true, and I can see value in this program, but I'm glad that congregations can still offer the spiritual care and emotional support for their members. We can build relationships, share tears, hold hands, say prayers. We are involved in "vital decisions" which include God, and I think this is irreplaceable.


Friday, August 29, 2014


Okay, there is no denying that Sofia Vergara, the highest paid actress on television is, um, statuesque, but what was going on at the Emmys the other night? While some dude from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (oh give me a break) flapped his gums Vergara stood on a rotating pedestal, a Lazy Sofia if you will, and twirled. I didn't watch the show but apparently he said "blah, blah, blah." Who actually paid attention to what he was saying?
After the show a lot of people wondered what was going on here, although others thought it was great. Vergara told critics to relax, it was all in good fun. Ya, well, did I mention she is the highest paid woman on TV? This seemed to be the height of cynicism: "tonight, ladies and gentlemen we will shamelessly objectify an obviously beautiful woman and we don't expect you to take the academy seriously in any way."
While this moment was ridiculous,  the MTV awards the previous evening were arguably far more sexist and revealing when it came to the anatomy of the women musicians on stage and in the audience. I hasten to say that while I didn't watch this one either,  I do watch the news and it is supposedly newsworthy to see how much the women stars will put on display while the men continue to wear tuxedos the way they have for decades. 
How did this happen? I feel weird asking the question because I have to admit I really enjoy looking at beautiful women, but what has been happening in recent years seems demeaning rather than empowering for women. I think it's crazy that young women are heading off to college and university with dire warnings about the "rape culture" of campuses. This is 2014! It angers me that this week college publications in Canada have been pulled because of the crass objectification of women. It saddens me that musicians who were the young teen stars of a couple of years ago seem to have cheerfully moved into a new hyper-sexualized phase of their careers. It breaks my heart that young women are harassed to death online because of the double standard of sexual pressure and shame.
I don't think it's just because I'm old, but maybe it is. I can remember when "feminist" referred to someone, female or male, whose desire was equality between genders. A fair number of Christians chose to be feminists in those earlier days of the movement rather than accept patriarchal notions of male and female. They were often scorned for their convictions.  Feminist wasn't just an image projected on a screen behind scantily clad women.
Ah well. Anyone else perplexed?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Preacher Painter

I wrote recently about visiting the Canadian War Museum and the National Gallery in Ottawa for art and photography exhibits about World War One. The happy bonus to this trip was another exceptional exhibit of the work of 19th century illustrator, painter, and sculptor, Gustave Dore.

Dore struggled with being taken seriously in his own time because illustrators weren't considered true artists. And his work simply didn't fit the revolution in European painting that was Impressionism. Yet his work has been regularly copied in movies and publications for more than a century. Tell me that Puss in Boots from Shrek isn't a total rip-off!

I have been aware of Dore's creativity for years because he produced so many religious paintings, as well as an 1866 illustrated bible. The National Gallery uses the title Preacher Painter: Dore and the Revival of Religious Art for a room with these images. Dore had a prodigious output and worked quickly. His Resurrection was completed overnight, which was a couple of days faster than the original! Many of the illustrations were very dramatic, as seen below with his version of Moses with the Ten Commandments.

Dore also had great compassion for the poor and painted their plight in a number of works, including this injured child from a circus. Seeing the breadth and creativity of his work it is difficult to imagine he was dead at age fifty one.
I certainly recommend visiting this exhibition. Are you aware of Gustave Dore's legacy? Would you like to see more?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Our God-given Essence

On Monday I presided at the funeral of a man who had slipped into the unfair netherworld of Alzheimer's a number of years ago and was barely aware in the past two years of those closest to him. I didn't know him at all, but the substantial congregation did, and it was obvious that he was loved by family and friends.

There is a first for everything, and one of the speakers in the service was a woman who became friends with the widow as they visited their husbands in the nursing home. Her reflection was on the elements of the deceased man's generous, gracious character, even in the throes of dementia. Her words were very thoughtful and a reminder that even when a person is "gone" he or she is often still present.

I have experienced this many times with those who have various forms of dementia. They may not know a single name, or truly recognize even their closest loved ones, yet they still exhibit those unmistakable elements of their essential selves. I was glad for the speaker's reminder yesterday, not just for the man to whom we said farewell, but for so many.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014


In the seventeenth chapter of Acts we're told that the apostle Paul went into the public square of Athens, called both the Areopagus and Mars Hill, where he persuasively preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When I read that passage I hear someone who is respectful but fearless, willing to uphold Christ but without arrogance or dismissal of the traditions of the Athenians.

In the late twentieth century that name, Mars Hill, was appropriated -- or misappropriated --  by a brash young pastor named Mark Driscoll. Driscoll took more of a "men are from Mars" approach, a bellicose, misogynistic, homophobic, guys-lets-be-60's-guys view of life that sure doesn't seem like anything I see in Jesus' ministry, nor in the teachings of Paul.

Wouldn't you know that Driscoll has become hugely popular with thousands flocking to a number of  Mars Hill congregations after starting with a handful of followers While this ministry has grown substantially and Driscoll became a popular speaker and author it hasn't been without controversy. He burned through associate pastors so that twenty-one of them have lodged formal complaints about his domineering and abusive behavior. It was also been revealed that he had paid to push one of his books onto the bestseller list, he plagiarized, and he wrote inexcusable things online under a pseudonym. He has finally stepped away from his ministry on the insistence of his elders although he ain't gone. He has also fallen from "rock star" to pariah, with his books taken off shelves and cancellation of speaking engagements.

Part of me says "it couldn't happen to a nicer guy." Another part of me wonders how he ever get to this place of megalomaniacal power without checks and balances.  And why did so many people swoon over what seems to be the legitimization of male bullying?

Do you notice the words on Driscoll's pulpit? It does need to be about Jesus, not religious stars who head off on their own tangents. And I have to concede that Driscoll is loved and forgiven by Jesus whether I want him to be or not, even as Christ forgives me in my times of arrogance and misdirection. I do hope that Driscoll is genuinely repentant, and never returns to the influence he once had.

Ever heard of Mark Driscoll? Glad you hadn't? What about the phenomenon of spiritual superstars?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Justice for Aboriginal Women

Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. Officers are investigating the slaying of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl from rural Manitoba whose body was found wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River after she ran away from her foster home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO, Winnipeg Police Service

                                                                                                Tina Fontaine

Tomorrow the premiers of the provinces of Canada will begin their summer meeting in Charlottetown, PEI. I have the feeling that there will be a renewed call for a national inquiry on the disappearance and deaths of aboriginal women. The federal government dismissed the last, unanimous request of the premiers but the issue has not gone away. Recently the body of  15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the Red River and other aboriginal women have been killed as well.

According to the RCMP aboriginals constitute sixteen percent of the women murdered in Canada while only 4.3 % of Canadians are aboriginal and they have identified more than 1,100 missing women. Yet after Fontaine's death Prime Minister Harper responded to questions about an inquiry by saying that this death and others are crimes not a sociological phenomenon. He said this while visiting the North which has a high percentage of aboriginal persons, and without anything to back up this observation. It seemed like such a callous and unsubstantiated claim.

An inquiry would establish whether this is a systemic and sociological problem. But from what I have seen in recent years on several fronts, Mr. Harper feels that if he says something loudly enough and often enough it must be true. He likes the phrase "let me be perfectly clear" which seems to mean, "I have spoken, and that's sufficient."

It's not good enough for me Mr. Harper. It's not good enough for a lot of Canadians. It's not good enough for the United Church of Canada. In June of 2013 the Executive Secretary of the United Church wrote the prime minister and here is part of what she said:

Clearly our justice and social systems are not offering adequate protection against violence for Indigenous women in this country. We take very seriously the deadly violence to which these women and girls have been subjected, and believe that Indigenous women and girls deserve to be safe, as do all Canadians. This tragedy must be addressed as a step towards returning to healthy and thriving Aboriginal families, communities and nations in Canada.

Let's hope and pray that the premiers do pressure the federal government to act. It makes so much sense, but I'm not holding my breath.


Loretta Saunders, seen in this undated police handout photo, has been missing since Feb. 13. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

                                                                               Loretta Saunders

Saturday, August 23, 2014


For the longest time we listened to our young 'uns and others enthusing about Netflix but we assumed we didn't have the technology to "imbibe." You are probably aware that the Netflix streaming service give subscribers access to TV series', movies, even programming such as House of Cards developed by Netflix. Of course the days of the DVD rental store have come and gone, and even "on-demand" options are archaic, but we were on the outside looking in. Then during a visit our son showed us how we could access Netflix through our laptop and we haven't looked back.

The other day I got a call at the church from a nice young guy with a Texas drawl name Jeffrey. He was representing Rightnowmedia, which he described as a Christian Netflix. I checked out the website and discovered hundreds, likely thousands of online resources such as bible and book studies, video material for Sunday School, and Christian cartoons. Jeffrey told me that churches use this resource, and so do families for devotional time and personal viewing.

Most of this material is out of the evangelical stream of North American Christianity and of limited interest from my standpoint. I give them credit, though, for finding a way of reaching out using current technology. As is so often the case, evangelicals are light-years ahead of the mainline/oldline in this regard.

Now, I still think it's important to bring people of faith together in one place for discussion, discernment, and growth. But I wish there was more material available from the left-of-centre expression of Christianity. There are a lot of busy people out there who might join a group where participants watched when they could and then joined a discussion, either real or virtual.

Would this appeal to you, if the subject matter was a fit? Do you benefit from being in a group where other participants are physically present?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?

Those of you who read this Lion Lamb blog regularly, or irregularly for that matter, will be aware that I have addressed the persecution of Christians in China, the Middle East, in regions of India, in several African. I have pointed out that Christians in Israel and Palestine are beleaguered and are leaving.

I care about freedom of religion for anyone, anywhere, and I have written about the plight of Jews and Muslims in various situations. Yet I feel strongly that as Christians we must have particular care for our brothers and sisters, both in prayer and practice. I have expressed my concern that in liberal churches there is just not enough said and done on behalf of persecuted Christians and it's hard to understand why. I'm baffled as to why we aren't as thorough about our understanding and support of Christians in crisis as we are of other groups.

Apparently I'm not alone in this regard. There was an op/ed piece in the New York Times recently by Ronald Lauder who is the president of the World Jewish Congress entitled Who Will Stand Up for the Christians? He begins by asking "Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?"

While there is a sense that he is frustrated by the support offered to Palestinians when Christians suffer, and he argues that Christians are free to express their faith within Israel, which many Israeli Christians would challenge, it is a bold and honest article. Lauder goes on to say:

This bond between Jews and Christians makes complete sense. We share much more than most religions. We read the same Bible, and share a moral and ethical core. Now, sadly, we share a kind of suffering: Christians are dying because of their beliefs, because they are defenseless and because the world is indifferent to their suffering. Good people must join together and stop this revolting wave of violence. It’s not as if we are powerless. I write this as a citizen of the strongest military power on earth. I write this as a Jewish leader who cares about my Christian brothers and sisters.

I encourage you to pray for Christians around the world and to pay attention to what is happening to them in other parts of the world. We have heard of how the Christian minority in Iraq is under brutal attack but there are so many more situations like this, often just as dire.

Thank you Mr. Lauder by saying what we should be saying within our Christian communities.

Does anyone have an explanation for our silence? Do we not believe that these sisters and brothers are suffering?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cold Water on a Good Cause?

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,   so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
                                                                                                         Jesus of Nazareth Matthew 6

ALS or Lou Gehrig's is a horrible disease which slowly and relentlessly robs the sufferer of strength and motor control until death. The Lou Gehrig name comes from the baseball great who in 1939 announced to a crowd at Yankee Stadium that he had been diagnoses with ALS yet still considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" because of his full life and the tremendous support he had received. That was seventy five years ago and despite Gehrig's profile there is no cure for the disease.

In the past few weeks the profile of ALS and fundraising for research has skyrocketed, thanks to what is called the Ice Bucket Challenge. The two young men who originated this phenomenon of pouring ice-cold water over one's head did so to bring awareness to the paralyzing effect of the disease and did so because of a friend who has ALS. The premise is that a person will douse themselves in icy water and challenge others to do the same. Along the way folk are also invited to make donations to ALS research and some do so in lieu of undergoing the frigid baptism. It has worked. The donations have increased ten-fold during the past few weeks with more than twenty million dollars raised in the States and big increases in Canada as well.

Some "newscasts" are dominated by the challenge and the "who's who of" participants. Among the celebs are folk as diverse as golfer Michelle Wie, Montreal Canadiens star P.K.Subban, Bill Gates, and former U.S. president George W. Bush. Why couldn't Bush have done this before going to war with Iraq? I digress.

Now, I'm all for giving generously to meaningful causes, and this is an important one. At the same time I've felt a bit uneasy about the focus directed to this stunt, and what this says about how we choose to be generous in the 21st century. In our celebrity culture we seem to thunder from one cause or another, because they have caught the public eye or because some famous persons have chosen to participate. But what about the millions of people who give anonymously and conscientiously to worthwhile initiatives and causes, including the work of faith communities?

I have discovered that I am not alone. Yesterday's edition of CBC radio's The Current addressed the effects of high-profile fundraising, as did National Public Radio. Neither discouraged supporting such efforts, but they did ask how long this will last and whether dollars have been diverted from other important work. We have heard in the past the concern of researchers that some forms of cancer such as breast cancer receive a disproportionately high amount of funding while other less "glamorous" forms of cancer struggle for dollars.

I don't want to seem to be throwing cold water on an inventive and heartfelt initiative. ALS research gets a boost, people have fun, giving is encouraged. All good! There is a bigger picture, just the same.

Have you participated in the challenge or made a donation? Do you think this is an inventive way to raise funds? Do you have any concerns?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Romero, Unblocked

Some religious news items simply slide by without much attention, especially if they are positive. It would appear that the media have concluded that we would much rather hear about sectarian violence and abuses rather than anything uplifting.

I did find it uplifting that Pope Francis has "unblocked" the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop who was dramatically gunned down while celebrating the mass in El Salvador in 1980. Romero's theology and ministry had shifted over the years from a comfortable relationship with the ruling repressive powers of that nation to outspoken critic and advocate for the poor. Romero became fearless in this regard and paid for his commitment with his life.

Why would a martyr for the poor be blocked in the first place and why for so many years? Cardinal Ratzinger, who eventually became Pope Benedict,  launched a crackdown on liberation theology because of the supposed Marxist excesses. The liberation theology movement holds the view that Jesus' teachings compel Christians to work for social and economic justice. Apparently Jesus was a Marxist, and so was Romero.

I can't help but wonder whether this decision came about because Francis is a South American pope who advocated for the poor and dispossessed in his native Argentina. He gets liberation theology in a way that Benedict never could. Whatever the reason, I receive this as good news. If you are interested in a broader picture of Oscar Romero's life the 1989 film Romero is excellent.

Do you remember Romero's assassination? Did you see the film? Are you encouraged by Pope Francis' decision?

You have to look at the inspiring story of India's Forest Man at my Groundling blog!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brothers and Sisters

On Saturday evening my wife Ruth and I attended an event sponsored by the Interfaith group of Belleville at the Islamic Society building on Moira St. We were told that we would be fed --always an incentive-- and there would be a brief presentation and tour of the building. That's exactly what happened, although saying so does not come close to capturing the spirit of the evening. We were welcomed by the imam who spoke of being brothers and sisters as God's people, and that we gathered in a spirit of peace and mutual respect. He let us know that several doctors and eight pharmacists in the city are members of this mosque and the desire of all from their faith community is to contribute to the health and wellbeing of the wider community. We did watch a short slide show which was more information than propaganda.

Now, the food! The majority of the members of this community are originally from Pakistan, and the spread of Pakistani cuisine was delicious. I really can't say exactly what was in the various dishes, although I do know what wasn't there --pork. While we were in line several members of the community engaged us in conversation. They couldn't have been warmer or more welcoming.

When we sat down a teen, maybe fourteen, asked if he could join us. He was a very bright, very open young man who patiently responded to our questions. His family emigrated to Canada when he was six months old, and his two younger brothers were born here. His father was a doctor in Pakistan and is a pharmacist in Belleville. His hope is to be a physician one day.

I commented that I'd heard Ramadan, the month of fasting was tough this year because it was so close to the Summer Solstice. Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown, and the days without food or drink were long. He told us that this was his first year observing the adult fast -- children are exempt or do a partial fast -- and it was a challenge. He seemed pleased he had been able to make it through the thirty days. I wonder how many teens from a Christian background would do with a month of fasting, not to mention the regimen of daily prayer?

We left this event quite moved by what we had experienced. There were probably close to one hundred guests, so it was a worthwhile effort toward mutual understanding and respect. Ruth was expected to wear a dress and a headscarf, but she didn't really mind that expectation. Yes, the Muslim women and men seemed to be somewhat apart from one another, although two women addressed us during the evening. We do need to keep in mind that there are Christian groups which still separate men and women and their clergy are all men. And they don't invited us to dinner!

So, are you sorry you missed this gathering? Would you feel comfortable attending? Do we need more of this to foster understanding rather than suspicion?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Honesty and Acceptance

I don't listen to the music which comes out of evangelical circles nor do we use that music in our worship. We are trying to include more contemporary Christian music but the praise genre from the evangelical world isn't a good fit for us. I do realize that it can be quite powerful and attracts a younger demographic. The composers and performers often become very popular. One of those artists, Vicky Beeching, came out as gayWednesday in an interview with the U.K. newspaper The Independent. This is a big deal in evangelical circles because it often means condemnation by congregations which employ the music of these artists and the end of royalties. There was swift response to Beeching's announcement with some megachurches announcing she was now a musical persona non grata.

Beeching described the sense of being outside even when she was on the inside, feeling shame for years. She explained her decision to be public about her orientation this way:
“What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people.I am not angry with the Church, even though it has been very difficult. The Church is still my family. Family do not always agree or see eye to eye. But family stick together, and I am committed to being part of the Church, working for change."

I commend Christianity Today, an evangelical publication, for simply reporting this as news, without any negativity or judgment. The article mentioned a number of other contemporary music artists who have opened up about their orientation in recent years.

When more liberal denominations such as the United Church first addressed issues of sexuality, including acceptance of gays and lesbians, they were roundly scorned. We paid a high price for seeing this as consistent with a gospel message of acceptance and inclusion. Twenty five years later we see a shift in perception in virtually every aspect of our society.

My hope is that more and more LGBTQ Christians, including evangelicals, will have the sense that they are loved by God, and by their faith communities. In several of the congregations I have served there have been individuals who left the congregations they loved in many respects because they knew they would be rejected for being honest.


Voicing her opinion: Vicky Beeching on Sky News

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Story of Joseph and Climate Change

Today the ecumenical lectionary invites us to consider the story of Joseph and his brothers for a second week, and we move from toxic jealousy to healing forgiveness and reconciliation. Unfortunately we have leap-frogged over some great story-telling, including Joseph's rise from slavery to responsible power in the courts of Egypt. You may recall that Joseph had a dream (were dreams genetic in this family?) which motivated him to make provision for catastrophic drought. He prudently stores grain over a number of productive years, which serves as bridge during the lean years. Providentially, this decision also results in the reconciliation with his brothers we read about today.

There is a creative and thoughtful reflection on the dream of Joseph in the online version of Tikkun magazine which offers a Jewish perspective. The authors liken Joseph's prophetic foresight to the effort of those who will not

Pharaoh’s dreams speak to our own day, a day during which droughts, typhoons, and hurricanes of increasing severity are more and more frequent. These are the equivalents of Pharaoh’s dreams: disturbing, anomalous manifestations of something that calls out for interpretation. But what is our equivalent of Joseph? We have but to think for a moment to realize that among us are men and women who interpret the overall shape of the novel climate events we have been witnessing – climate scientists. With respect to these phenomena, they are the best interpreters of what is occurring.And the consensus is in. Peer-reviewed science journals report that there is no longer the slightest quibble about the reality of climate change.

These Josephs of ours have recognized that we are on the verge of a human-made crisis. No one particular drought, hurricane, or typhoon can be said to be the consequence of climate change, but the overall increasing severity and frequency of these events line up precisely with the law of probability that the theory of climate change embraces.

I would never have made this leap, but I'm glad they did. It reminds us that our faith story can blossom from the roots of faith stories of old. This is also an invitation to "wise up" and make the choices now which will affect us and so many others in the days ahead.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Missouri Burning?

In June of this year there was a great deal of reflection going on the United States to mark the 50th anniversary of what has been called Mississippi Freedom Summer. The film Mississippi Burning was shown on some stations. It is a pretty good film loosely based on the disappearance of young civil rights activists in 1964, killed by police and extremists opposed to racial integration.

How unsettling that last week we saw unrest and confrontations in the town of Ferguson, population 21,000,  in the state of Missouri rather than Mississippi. A young black man named Michael Brown was shot repeatedly by a policeman and killed. Witnesses insist Brown was unarmed and non-confrontational, with his hands in the air pleading "don't shoot."  

People are angry that it took so long for the name of the police officer to be released and that a huge tactical police presence moved into the community. Demonstrators were dispersed using teargas, while journalists were intimidated, had equipment confiscated, and were even thrown into jail without charges. So much for freedom of the press. There have also been photo comparisons between activists in 1964 with demonstrators in 2014 in Ferguson and they are chilling.
How does this happen in 21st century America? The issues around race appear to be raising their ugly heads once again.

We have been hearing how leaders of faith communities in Ferguson are responding to this terrible turn of events. One local pastor, Renita Lamkin, (below) was shot with a rubber bullet as she called for calm and invoked the name of Jesus. Her injury sure looked ugly, but she has been determined to carry on.
Embedded image permalink

Brown's parents have asked for peaceful protest, insisting that their son would not have wanted violence. Let's pray that Ferguson Missouri does not burn and that there can be both resolution and reconciliation. In the past couple of days the calm Pastor Lamkin sought seems to be restored.

View image on Twitter


Friday, August 15, 2014

It's About Time

I am a strong believer in religious freedom, even when I disagree with the tenets and practices of expressions of faith other than my own. That said, I can't tell you how pleased I was that the RCMP British Columbia has been instructed to lay charges against members of the quasi-Mormon community in the remote community of Bountiful.

Here is the CBC news description of the charges:

Winston Kaye Blackmore and his brother-in-law James Marion Oler are facing polygamy charges. Oler is alleged to have had four wives between 1993 and 2009, while Winston Blackmore is accused of marrying 24 women between 1990 and 2014.
Oler and two others, Blackmore's son Brandon James Blackmore and his wife Emily Ruth Crossfield, are also alleged to have unlawfully removed a child under 16 from Canada "with the intention that an act be committed outside Canada that would be an offence against Section 151 (sexual interference) or 152 (invitation to sexual touching)"

For some reason BC has been reluctant to press charges against Blackmore and the others even though they have known about what this alleged child sexual abuse for years. In the United States Warren Jeffs, the leader of this Mormon splinter group, is in jail, convicted of a number of crimes. I think it is hideous that these men were allowed to hide behind religion to justify their criminal and abusive activity for so long. It is puzzling that authorities began prosecuting abusers in the Roman Catholic church and other denominations a couple of decades ago but have allowed this to continue with impunity. It is particularly creepy that the women are required to dress as though they are chaste characters from some 19th century drama even as they are being abused.

Blackmore always comes across as so reasonable and cheerful, but that doesn't mean he isn't evil. I hope all of them are sent to prison, if convicted, and that there are concerted efforts to support the women and children as they reintegrate with broader society.They have certainly deserved better from our judicial system.


Thursday, August 14, 2014


Transformations – A. Y. Jackson and Otto Dix

This past Saturday we were in Ottawa to visit the Canadian War Museum and the National Art Gallery. Both institutions have exhibits of images from World War One and we felt it was worth the trip for this specific reason.

The one Canadian War Museum exhibit is Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War  offering works by a number of artists including four members of the Group of Seven, David Milne, and Maurice Cullen. There is another exhibit called Transformations juxtaposing paintings by German artist Otto Dix and A.Y. Jackson. Both were thought-provoking and both included religious imagery.

The National Gallery exhibit is called The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography. one is much more graphic in its content. The painters were less willing to portray the carnage of the battlefields out of deference to the families of the fallen. The photographs tell the miserable story of destruction in a stark manner. A number of these photos include religious imagery as well.

We were glad we went but sobered by what we saw. All war is terrible and that conflict which resulted in the deaths of nine million combatants was particularly brutal and senseless. We do need to remember just the same, and ponder why we are so hell-bent on destruction of others.

The Christian cross figures in both photographs and paintings, actually in the form of a crucifix,  and it is a powerful symbol of human suffering and God's identification with us in the suffering Christ. If only we could learn.

Have you heard about these exhibits? Are you intrigued, or would it be too much?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hope for an Aging Church

On Sunday the Child & Youth Worker from my previous congregation came to worship with two of her daughters. It was a delight to see the three of them and have a chin-wag afterward. Laura and Amy were soon on their way to Rendezvous, the national youth event in Winnipeg, along with others from that congregation.

The next day I heard from another colleague in ministry who was on the Pilgrimage Bus to the same event and had been in conversation with a teen whose family was active in a congregation I served. This colleague was a 12-year-old in the youth group of my first pastoral charge in Newfoundland back in the early 80's. We have been friends with her family ever since. and we see Andrea and her husband and son at least once a year.

Yesterday I touched base with another colleague, a former co-worker, who is a leader at the Bridge St. Kid's Camp. Cathy was also a Child and Youth Worker in a congregation I served -- there is a theme here! Our son Isaac is a United Church minister whose role is Children, Youth, and Families in his London congregation.

Not only was it good to spend time with all four in recent days, they are a reminder that there is still youth ministry happening in our aging denomination. It is also evidence that not all United Church ministers are over fifty, or sixty, or...Three of these four are in their forties, so well under the average age of creaky clergy like me. Isaac is thirty-two and amongst the younger ministers of the UCC. It's encouraging that younger women and men are pursuing vocations for ministry in the United Church.

Wait, there's more! Our nephew Michael has recently completed his academic studies for ministry and will begin his placement leading to ordination, and he too is in his thirties. Today I have two meetings with Bridge St. members who are exploring ministry in the United Church, one in his thirties and the other teetering on the brink of forty. We have no guarantees about our denominational future, but there is still some life in these aging bones!

God's world does need leaders of all ages.

Do you find this hopeful? Are you surprised?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Healing Our Wounds

May the Christ who walks on wounded feet, walk with you on the road;
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, stretch out your hands to serve;
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart, open your hearts to love;
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet,

and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you.

Our world has certainly changed when it comes to conveying breaking news. Last night Twitter suddenly exploded with word that one of the truly brilliant comics of the past forty years, Robin Williams, had died at sixty-three. All indications are that he took his own life, which we would probably all agree makes his death at a relatively early age even sadder. Immediately we heard that he has been suffering from severe depression after coming out of rehab for issues with both drugs and alcohol.

Williams was hilarious. For example, he was so funny in Mrs. Doubtfire, a somewhat trite film otherwise, but it was even more of a pleasure to watch him manically adlibbing in interviews and other situations.

He also did some star turns in dramatic roles, although someone quipped that if Robin Williams put on a cardigan he was aiming for an Oscar (he got one, in a cardigan, for his role in Good Will Hunting.)

When I heard of the cause of his death I thought of The Fisher King, a film that got generally strong reviews but perhaps not as much acclaim as some other Williams vehicles. The Fisher King is based on a fantastical yet realistic story of the same name. It is a mythic tale which explores brokenness, mental illness, redemption. Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Parry, a fragile homeless man who snapped years before, when his wife was the victim of a brutal crime. Williams managed to be exceptionally expressive in scenes where he said next to nothing.

The death of Robin Williams pushed aside a report saying that one in six Canadian soldiers suffer from mental issues. I see the two news stories as related. We expected Williams to be funny, no matter what, and we expect our military personnel to be stoic and strong. Yet, we simply do not know who will be affected by depression and other mental health issues, and we can't just move from one celebrity death to another without creating a climate of acceptance and change. Not long ago the world mourned the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, now Williams.

As always, I hope and pray that faith communities will be part of the solution rather than deepening the problem. When we act as though there is some sort of easy victory over the darkness we are misguided. When as Christ's people we walk with those who struggle, without judgment, it can make a difference.