Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Farewell to Ken

Local veteran Ken Bough to travel to Juno Beach for D-Day anniversary– Image 1

Before Christmas one of our elderly members landed in hospital after experiencing a stroke. At the time of the stroke Ken was well into his 90th year and still living independently, although with a "power assist" from family. When I saw him in hospital he was quite focused, he had recovered his speech, and he was determined not to have a long stay.

Well, he was true to his resolution. Much to my surprise, he walked into church on Christmas Eve and had the pleasure of seeing two of his precious great-grandchildren take part in the Nativity Tableau we put together at that early service.

I was taken aback to discover that on Christmas Day he suffered a heart attack and ended up in hospital again. He was recovering the family was assured, but on Sunday his organs began to shut down and within hours he had died.

I was saddened by the news and relieved at the same time. Ken didn't want to move from his apartment to a nursing home, but that was in the cards. He was surrounded by loving family at the time of his death and speaking with them until close to the end.

Of course he had enjoyed Christmas Eve and Christmas with the family, and 2014 was a good year for an old guy. In June he traveled to France as part of the Canadian contingent of veterans which commemorated D-Day. I met him on the street not long before the trip and he was excited and honoured.  He found the experience very meaningful and shared his experience with others. On Remembrance Sunday he was the veteran to carry the wreath, accompanied by the same two granddaughters he watched on Christmas Eve.

I wish everyone had a full and feisty life like Ken, but that just doesn't happen. We will certainly miss him and we commend him to God's care and keeping.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Jesus the Refugee

We are nearly half-way through the season of Christmas, the twelve days between Christmas Day and the Day of Epiphany, which is January 6th. For so many people and congregations Christmas is over and gone rather than a time to reflect on other aspects of Jesus' early life, including his presentation in the temple and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. We make a big deal of the disruption for Jesus' parents which forced a pregnant Mary to make her way to Bethlehem. We tend to forget the story of the family fleeing persecution by Herod when Jesus was two or three --it's difficult to establish an actual timeline.

It seems that 21st century stories of those who are fleeing persecution, or violence, or economic ruin don't grab our attention either. This year between three and four thousand refugees or asylum seekers have died in attempts to cross from Africa to Europe in the Mediterranean. God knows how many thousands more made it, only to be placed in camps that are wretched. These refugees include Syrians and Gazans who have been displaced by violence, as well as the thousands from African nations, some because of climate-change created drought.

This isn't the only part of the world affected. Remember the hundreds of desperate children coming from Central American countries to the United States, only to be greeted by angry, fist-waving adults? In North America we just aren't aware that hundreds, if not thousands, die attempting to make a perilous crossing to Australia as well.

Today, as a follower of Jesus I want to remember the story of flight from danger in Matthew 2 and ask what it means for my time. I also want to ask what we can do as a church and as a country to exercise the spiritual gift and obligation of hospitality. The photo above of Mediterranean asylum seekers should unsettle us all.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Based on a True Story

We were in Kingston yesterday to celebrate my mother's 89th birthday, so we took the opportunity to see a movie, given that the Belleville multiplex refuses to show anything that isn't aimed at persons under the age of sixteen. We chose to see The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly. The many positive reviews are well deserved. Cumberbatch and Knightly are excellent in their roles as rather odd individuals recruited during World War II to solve the Enigma coding machine developed by the Nazis. With it the German military machine could send orders to carry out destructive missions without fear of interception. Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) was a young mathematician with a love for crossword puzzles and it doesn't spoil the story to say that he decoded Enigma and undoubtedly shortened the war and saved millions of lives.

Of course the rub to this entertaining film is the "based on a true story" caveat at the beginning. There are aspects which are fiction, but they are enjoyable fiction. What is heartbreaking is the grim reality that Turing died by his own hand in 1954 at the age of forty-one. He had been arrested and convicted of the "gross indecency" of homosexuality and while he escaped a prison sentence by submitting to chemical castration he tragically died by suicide.

I was at the point of tears when I saw this scroll across the screen. In part it was the waste of the fine mind, but also the humiliation suffered by a man who should have been celebrated as a hero. He was pardoned forty years after his death, but what a hollow gesture.

I was also moved because the Christian church has been so actively involved in harassing and humiliating gays and lesbians through the years. We know that there is a high suicide rate amongst LGBT youth, and faith communities often contribute to the shame and rejection. Recently we reluctantly told a youth organization that they could no longer use our Bridge St. facility because of their strongly anti-gay stance. I was grateful that our governance board understood why I felt this was important, even though we want our facility to be used and to collaborate with other organizations. I assured them that we would be open to discussion should their stance change.

Has anyone else seen The Imitation Game? Have you been aware of folk who were persecuted because of sexual orientation, or were your own attitudes judgmental? Mine certainly were.

Friday, December 26, 2014


For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon His shoulder:
and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,

the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace

The other day I mused about a corporation picking up on the theme of forgiveness without anything explicitly Christian. I am bookending Christmas Day with a comment or two about Messiah, which was presented both by the Toronto Symphony and Tafelmusik through the season. The reviews I read claimed that both were excellent, for different reasons.

It's good to know that the musicians in both settings did justice to this marvelous staple of both the Christmas and Easter seasons.

I snooped around to remind myself that Handel's Messiah has been performed for more than 250 years, although it had a modest reception initially. I didn't realize that it was Charles Jennens who created the scriptural text from the King James Bible and the Psalms of the Book of Common Prayer.

Messiah is so breathtakingly Christian, and the music is so moving, than many have spoken of the divine inspiration which surely brought it into being. When I included the lyrics above I immediately began whistling the tune and I had one of those tingly moments of memory.

Again, it is probably a sign of the times that Messiah is marketed as a declaration of the triumph of the human spirit in spite of suffering and sorrow. I heard one of the soloists interviewed on CBC radio and he took that tack. I understand the challenge of presenting this work in a secular culture. Still, while there is that element, and the oratorio can be appreciated by anyone, this was not its original intent. The TSO poster for Messiah seen above looks a little like "Singin' in the Snow!"

How do we find our way around the term Messiah, after all? In both Judaism and Christianity, the promised “anointed one” or Christ; the Saviour. Christians affirm that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise, the Messiah, the Christ, God-With-Us.

All this said, I am glad that folk heard the Good News through Messiah, really I am!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holy Imperfection

Article image

Through the years I have spoken with plenty of people who rolled their eyes when asked about  Christmas family gatherings. It was the quiet resignation to the far-from-perfect realities of Christmas. Others have essentially sought counseling for the strained family relationships which threatened to, Grinch-like, steal Christmas once again.

We probably all have a story of a Christmas nightmare because of travel challenges or meals that went terribly wrong. Many years ago Ruth, my wife, won a CBC radio contest for her story about our labrador retriever eating the Christmas Eve tourtiere. It was replaced by the ever-popular Christmas Eve pizza.

Who promised that families would be perfect, or anywhere close to it?. It would be nice if Christian families were magically ideal, or that Christmas would heal every wound. It's not quite the way it works. If anything, the unrealistic expectations goosed along by faith can leave us feeling defeated.

There is a reflection in the latest Christian Century magazine called God among the imperfect by Matt Fitzgerald in which he maintains that the holy family didn’t meet the ideal either:
It’s no coincidence that Christ was born into a shaky, uncertain family. God goes where he’s needed. Joseph and Mary find themselves trembling on December 24, not thumping their sweater-clad chests in a family photo. Joseph and Mary are confused, baffled, needy—and then they find God right in their laps. Right in the middle of their imperfection, as if their imperfection called out to him, “Come, we need you, come be born among us.

This sounds real to me. It is important to forgive and forget and to demonstrate grace in this season, as we able. Then again, when aren't these qualities important?

Enjoy the day. Have a real and holy and Christ-blessed Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas, Christ and Forgiving Love

There is a fair amount of grumbling each year about Christmas being "stolen" by crass commercialism, and I do admit to being disheartened at times by our societal drift away from the "reason for the season." For a time clergy were cynical about the C & E Christians (Christmas and Easter), those who just showed up for the high holy days. Now grizzled pulpit veterans are almost nostalgic for those days. A growing number of Canadians don't see much point in going to church in these seasons when Christian faith has faded into the background of their lives. Fair enough. Why just go through the motions.

It's interesting that Belairdirect has given people the opportunity to "connect the dots" between Christ's birth and his forgiving love, although I'm confident that this wasn't their intention. Through folk could submit a message of forgiveness which would be posted on electronic billboards. It seems there was a very strong response and as you can see, the messages have been displayed to the world -- well, at least Toronto.

I have to say, they got it right, whatever they're motivation. "The reason for the season" is not just the wonder of birth. It is the power of forgiving love and the new life in Christ. As we look to the manger we always "survey the wondrous cross" and Easter.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Endings in the Season of Good Cheer

In the past couple of days I have listened to sad stories of plant closures in Ontario towns. It seems rather heartless, just before Christmas, although many manufacturing plants have holiday shut-downs and the companies have probably planned to close the facilities before the new year.

The end of the Resolute paper plant in Iroquois Falls takes away the largest employer, with 180 workers.  We know from living in the North for over a decade that these closures often sound a death knell for communities which are so dependent on single industries. The pulp and paper market is shrinking rapidly and these well-paid manufacturing jobs are disappearing.

In London it is the Kellogg's Cereal plant which just closed after existing in the city for nearly a century and employing 500 workers. This wasn't sudden -- there was a year's notice -- but it is still tough on the employees.

This morning I listened to a fellow who has worked there for thirty years and was one of the last two to walk out of the plant yesterday after the turkey dinner laid on by the company. He and a number of others hung their work boots on the fence and sign of the plant as a farewell.

I was a little surprised when he answered the CBC interviewer's question about what will be next in his life. It turns out that he has entered into discernment for United Church ministry and he spoke briefly about his sustaining faith and a sense of call. It was lovely to hear, but then I thought about our plant closures! With United Church congregations shutting down at the rate of one a week I hope he isn't walking into more disappointment.

We can pray for all those who are experiencing loss in these days, whether the natural death of loved ones, or tragic losses, or the end of employment. We know that the cheery emphasis of the season can be so difficult for many when they are struggling.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Waning Days and Christ's Light

Today is the Winter Solstice and in this neck of the woods the daylight hours are particularly fleeting. Some of us who love this country hate the wan light of this time of year and would gladly change citizenship during the month leading to this solstice and the month following. We have defiantly hosted Solstice parties on a couple of occasions but it does feel like whistling in the dark.

I realize that over time I have become much more grateful for the Advent candles --four today-- the Hanukkah menorah, the Christmas lights on homes. They remind me that darkness doesn't last forever, and that the light of Christ still shines in the darkness. Phew.
Many churches have services during this season for those who suffer from SAD, or in my case GAD  (Grumpy Affective Disorder) or who find this time hard to bear because of the combination of personal loss and powerful memories. Some funeral homes have taken on providing memorial gatherings which are usually well attended. t like the name Blue Christmas, but I have used Service for Healing and Hope. Here is a meaningful pastoral prayer written by Teri Peterson and posted by Liturgy Link.

Pastoral Prayer for The Longest Night

And yet we stumble, O Lord. The night is long, morning seems far off. Though you can see, we cannot. And yet into our uncertainty, into our longing, into our apathy, into our desperation, you come again, taking on flesh to share our life, raising us to oneness with you.
As the light slowly returns to our part of the earth, we pray too for your light to shine gently, bringing us into the glory of your day. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me 
will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 
We yearn for this light, for life abundant and for joy to come in the morning.

Even as we await the lengthening of days, we remember those for whom the days begin to shorten. For those celebrating your incarnation at the height of summer, soon to slide toward winter’s chill. For those whose joy will be short-lived, as loneliness returns after the parties and presents are cleared away. For those whose gaze has turned toward light eternal, and for those who will walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

… (silence)
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; all for your love’s sake.
We pray in the name of the One whose cries in the manger echo our own, even Jesus Christ our Lord. amen.

Submitted by Rev. Teri Peterson, the Presbyterian Church of Palatine, IL. Last paragraph (“keep watch…”) from the Book of Common Prayer.

Tomorrow the daylight will be a glimmer longer!


Saturday, December 20, 2014


Tomorrow we will hear the story in Luke of an angel visiting a young woman to deliver momentous news. Gabriel's unsettling, life-changing announcement to Mary about her pregnancy is called the Annunciation. It does mean announcement, but I think of the encouragement I gave our kids when they were young to annunciate when they did any public speaking, including scripture reading in church.

It seems as though we are a bit mumbly these days when it comes to our message of Good News in Christ. We can complain all we want about how our society has become more secular, but who ever said that proclaiming Emmanuel, God-With-Us, would be easy. Perhaps we got a little spoiled for a those few decades after World War II. Church-going was easy and Christian discipleship was casual. And now so many of those Boomers --I are one!--  and their children and grandchildren have drifted off somewhere. Churches are less sure of themselves, and have become less articulate about the hope and peace and joy and love embodied in Christ.

I don't usually include long poems as part of a blog -- a few paragraphs and then shut up is my usual modus operandi. But Annunciation by the late Denise Levertov is a good one, maybe a great one.

Remember friends, annunciate!
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,


She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba, the United States, and Diplomacy

What a remarkable Christmas present the cautious steps toward renewed diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has proved to be. For more than fifty years the States has maintained an embargo on Cuba that made little sense and wasn't very effective. It actually threatened world stability because the Cuban communists got into bed with the Russians, to the peril of us all.  The irony is that the Castro brothers hold on to power in Cuba after all these decades while ten presidents have come and gone.

Cuba does have a questionable and even brutal human rights record, but so does China, and that hasn't stopped trade or diplomatic relations with the US. In fact, a number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are applauding this initiative:

 President Barack Obama’s historic decision to overhaul US policy toward Cuba is a crucial step toward removing a major obstacle to progress on human rights on the island, Human Rights Watch said today.

Obama announced that the US would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease restrictions on travel and commerce with the island. The president called on Congress to consider lifting the economic embargo that has been in place for more than 50 years.

“It’s been clear for years that US efforts to promote change in Cuba through bans on trade and travel have been a costly and misguided failure,” said José Miguel Vivanco Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than isolating Cuba, the embargo has isolated the United States, alienating governments that might otherwise speak out about the human rights situation on the island.”

Of course Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba through all these years, much to the annoyance of the Americans, although Fidel Castro and former President Jimmy Carter were in the same pew at PM Pierre Trudeau's funeral in 2000. 

 It's important to note the United Church of Canada has been a partner with Christian denominations in Cuba for decades. Restrictions on religious expression have been eased in recent years, but this partnership required restraint and diplomacy along the way. There is a seminary in the city of Matanzas that we have visited as a couple, as has our son Isaac, also a United Church minister. A couple of the congregations I have served have hosted Cuban pastors for speaking engagements.!i=1212976166&k=mwfpjTb

I will be interested to hear how the churches of Cuba respond to this news. It may open up a considerable source of support for Cuban Christian denominations from the churches of the United States. We're told that the Vatican was instrumental in supporting the talks which led to the announcement this week, and there is a strong Cuban ex-pat population in America which is probably predominately Roman Catholic.

What do you know about Cuba, other than it's so-so resort food and wonderful beaches? Does this initiative sound worthwhile to you? Do you know much about the churches of Cuba?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pigskin and Payback


17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil.j Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.k 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.l 19 Do not take revenge,m my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”d n says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”e o
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Andrew Luck is an excellent NFL quarterback, elite in a crop of fine players at the position. He followed Payton Manning, a legend in Indianapolis and throughout the National Football League, and has managed to slip out from under Manning's shadow to lead a really good team.
Sometimes Luck can't elude the other teams' defensive stars who come at every quarterback like a pack of ravenous wolves. When they find him it isn't pretty, but Luck chooses to respond with praise when they bring him down, rather than curses. Needless to say, this is both unconventional and disconcerting for linebackers and defensive backs:
That’s why opponents find Andrew Luck’s reaction to being sacked so perplexing. Rather than appealing to the refs or sulking in silence, the third-year Indianapolis Colts quarterback has made a habit of complimenting his assailants, the Wall Street Journal reports.“Great job” or “what a hit!” Luck will say, as he peels himself off the field. “In all the years I’ve played football I have never heard anything like it,” Washington Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan told the paper. “Nothing even close.” Some defenders say it denies them the satisfaction of a big play. “You know if you hear a quarterback get mad, you are in his head,” defensive back Nolan Carroll told the paper. “With Luck, you thought you hurt the guy, you hear ‘good job’ and you just say ‘aw, man.’ ” It started in high school, says his father Oliver Luck, when he was playing against friends. Now his professional opponents, trained to see him as an enemy, find the tendency confounding and amusing in equal measure. “You love it but at the same time, you really, really hate it,” said Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin.

Who knew that a pro QB could be so biblical? Of course, rather than heaping coals on his opponents heads he has them rattling 'round in their helmets, but that could be even worse. What I find interesting is that this is newsworthy, covered by a number of media outlets. Next thing you know teams will be engaging in group hugs...or maybe not.





Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holy Doodle!

A couple of Sunday's ago some folk had a puzzled look on their faces when I mentioned the St. John's Bible during my sermon, the first illuminated and hand-calligraphed bible to be created in more than five hundred years. 

Before the development of movable type to produce books every bible was written by hand, usually by monks working in monasteries. After Johannes Gutenberg printed his bible this painstaking and creative art came to an end relatively quickly.The St. John's Bible was commissioned by a monastery in the United States and involved a marvelous team of artists and calligraphers.

Describing the process of hand-writing a bible as "painstaking" could be reframed as tedious and boring and laborious. While the creation of a bible today is an honour, it shouldn't come as a surprise then that some of the scribes of the past chose to doodle as they worked, often creating rude and hilarious marginal cartoons and images. Some were even inserted into the text itself.

Recently Professor Erik Kwakkel, a book historian at Leiden University in Holland, was interviewed by CBC radios As It Happens about some of the drawings he has found as he works his way through manuscripts. He notes that sometimes the scribes were getting the ink going in their quill pens and imaginations took over.

I find this delightful, even though it would have been a sacrilege if discovered. I imagine some lowly monk sitting in a cold, dimly lit room, having a bit of secretive fun. Or maybe furtively showing off his risqué work to another trusted brother.

What about you? Humorous, or blasphemous?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Living in the Light


 A light is gleaming,
spreading its arms
throughout the night,
living in the light.
Come share its gladness,
God's radient love is burning bright,
living in the light.

A Light Is Gleaming Linnea Good

On Sunday evening we had a pleasant home invasion as choir members, some of their partners, and Bridge St staff -- nearly forty in total -- came together for the Christmas potluck supper and social. Ruth, my wife, reminded those gathered that as we draw close to the winter solstice we light the candles of Advent and Hanukah was at hand. We sang two verses of the hymn A Light Is Gleaming as our grace because, well, this is a singin' crowd.

Today is the beginning of Hanukah, a moveable festival in Judaism, and it will conclude on Christmas Eve this year. I have written about Hanukah many times through the years, but I'll remind you that it is considered a minor celebration in some respects, yet it is rich in the imagery of light and has lots of fun traditions. The dreidels are a nice distraction, but I'm more partial to the potato latkes.

Any traditions of light are welcome at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere when the daylight hours are so miserly. And during the past few weeks it has seemed that every forecast for sunshine has been a lie, with far too many overcast days.

It has also been grim in terms of the world scene. ISIL or ISIS rampages, Ebola is still a scourge, and violence prevails in many places. This morning we began to hear of the cowardly Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan with scores of children killed. This is human evil and darkness at its worst.

We need to affirm the light in every way, so Happy Hanukah to our Jewish friends. As Christians we prepare to welcome Jesus as the light of the world.  The beginning of the gospel of John affirms God-with-us: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Thoughts about "living in the light?"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Birth Announcement

The Annunciation Henry Tanner

In these weeks leading up to Christmas preachers are once again mulling over the experience of a young woman, perhaps a teen, who finds herself in the bewildering and frightening situation of being unmarried and pregnant. Miriam, or Mary as she is called in our Christian New Testament, struggles to find meaning in the news from a heavenly messenger that she will be the "God-bearer," chosen for the birth of the Promised One, the Messiah.

At the risk of seeming flippant about such a world-changing pregnancy, I imagine Mary saying "no, but really..." as she is told that nothing will be the same for her from that day on. That's what happens in pregnancies, in everything from physical changes, to the perceptions of others during those nine months, to the uncertainty of birth itself.

I thought about all this the other morning as I listened to interviews with experts and a cabinet minister offering thoughts and opinions on new guidelines for IVF "in vitro fertilization" for Quebec women. In some respects Quebec has been a leader in funding IVF but the province has now decided the cut-off age will be forty-two. As arbitrary as that age may sound, it has to do with the diminishing possibility for successful pregnancies as women age, as well as the risks to health for both mother and child. There were strong differences of opinion about this amongst those interviewed, but I was struck by the fact that it seemed that a lot of men were doing the talking.

In the end, who will be telling these women "no" to the possibility of nurturing a life within them?

Over the years a number of women in congregations have attempted to become pregnant and had a powerful mixture of emotions when they were unsuccessful. I have talked with women who were pondering an abortion or dealing with the choice after the fact. There have been a few teen pregnancies which have led to all manner of intense family dynamics, and there have been joyful adoptions.

Yes, men have been affected as well, particularly when there are infertility issues, or they have kept vigil beside a hospital incubator following a premature or medically challenging birth.

It does seem though that the majority of heart-to-heart conversations naming fears and hopes have been with women.

What is my point here? I have no idea! I suppose it is the reminder that Jesus' birth is not some fairy story we trot out every year to warm the cockles of our hearts. Pregnancy and birth have always been risky, and demanding, and uncertain, but what a wondrous reality.

Thank you God for such originality. Thank you for Mary. Thank you for coming to us in the infant Jesus.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Toys of War

The Flight Into Egypt -- Jean Francois Millet

 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt,
and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
and remained there until the death of Herod...
Matthew 2:13-15a

Christmas is coming and many parents and grandparents will be buying dolls, sets of Lego "people," action figures. They are gifts which will be enjoyed through the season, and if we're lucky beyond. In our peaceable society it doesn't matter how violent the world any of these figures represent.

What if the action figures were created by the children themselves, and they depicted the grim realities of the war they were living through? What if they told the story of being refugees, fleeing from harm?

 Andrew Berends is a filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He is now in production on a film called Madina’s Dream which is about girls he met in a refugee camp in South Sudan who occupy their time making clay figures telling their story of flight from danger. They have seen family members murdered and other children die of hunger:

To reach Nuba, I passed through Yida Refugee Camp across the border in South Sudan. In the camp, I met the three girls...the 11-year-olds Madina, Howa and Aziza. The girls had fled the war with their families, winding up with 70,000 other Sudanese refugees in the sprawling camp. Days in Yida are long and offer limited opportunities for schooling, so the children have found creative ways to entertain themselves. When I met them, they were making open-air dollhouses filled with intricate figures they had sculpted from clay. They filled the houses with beds, pots and stoves, all remnants of their former lives.

Take a look at this video:

When we hear the story of the flight of Jesus' family from Bethlehem to Egypt  during this time of year we might consider the situation of so many children in our world who live in the midst of turmoil which displaces them from home and takes them across borders. The story of Jesus' birth can be gritty and real, if we allow it.

We can all pray this Christmas for refugees, especially children. Who knows our Canadian government might get into the spirit of generosity and welcome some of them to our shores.


Friday, December 12, 2014

The Good Funeral

I attended a funeral service two days ago that was about as good as it gets, given that a lovely and respected person had died. Well, I didn't just attend the service. I presided, which makes it sounds like the cook who praises his or her meal. I better explain.

The person we came to honour had taken the brave step to have me come to visit her for the purpose of planning her service. She also had Terry, our music minister, come to see her as well. We wrote everything down, then the negotiations began in a number of areas with the input of her three supportive daughters.

The service was in the Bridge St. sanctuary and there were somewhere between 150 and 175 people in attendance, all of whom had great admiration for Jean. We sang hymns and we listened to scripture and both were just right for this time of worship. A friend read a passage, while our pastoral care minister, Rev. Vicki, read and prayed. Both did so with meaning. The choir sang an anthem which by coincidence or providence was On Eagles Wings, the 91st psalm. That was the last passage of scripture I read to Jean before her death in her own home, and her daughters told me that was her last moment of coherence.

Rather than a raft of speakers one daughter spoke on behalf of the family and her remarks were funny and poignant and exuded love. There were tears and laughter in the service, and in the end we commended Jean to God's care and affirmed the goodness of her life and the promise of resurrection life.

What happened was worship. For me it was deeply satisfying, the very heart of ministry and Christian community. There seem to be too many "let's get 'er done" funerals and memorials these days and most clergy I know just don't want to be involved in these. But the other day I was thankful for my calling as Christ's servant, and yet so much of what happened had nothing to do with me.  

Have you planned your funeral? Do you experience the difference in services when thought has been given to what will happen?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Darkness of Torture

Do you remember the TV drama 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland as counter-espionage agent Jack Bauer? It was well acted and the real-time premise created lots of riveting moments. It was critically acclaimed but I gave up on it rather quickly. To me it seemed to justify the use of excessive violence in a supposedly greater cause. The show was running as we became aware of the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian who was given up to the Americans and eventually shipped to Syria where he was brutally tortured. In the end it was established that Arar had done nothing wrong, was repatriated and exonerated. It was a shameful moment for this country.

Yesterday a grim report was released about the ongoing role of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in the torture of political prisoners. This brutality was in violation of international law, was kept from the White House, and ultimately provided little information to ensure the safety of Americans. One would assume that in a nation which prides itself on the rule of law and providing a strong moral compass for the world this clandestine activity is a blot on its fundamental values.

It is truly scary that so much that is dark and immoral is perpetrated in the name of patriotism and religion. The bizarre contradiction is that in protecting what are supposed to be high values and principles such as democracy and religious expression human beings will crawl into the gutter.

There is an article in the New York Times entitled I Can't be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib by Eric Fair in which he admits once again to his unjustifiable role as a "contract interrogator" in Iraq. This appears to be a euphemism for paid torturer on behalf of the United States military. There are some who are saying that the rise of ISIS can be attributed, at least in part, to the use of torture in the prisons of Iraq and elsewhere. Fair has documented his personal failure as a torturer and spoken to groups such as Amnesty International but he is haunted by what he did.

As Christians we need to realize that while there is evil in the world which sometimes requires force to address, we are held to higher values as followers of the Prince of Peace. When we speak up on these issues we are often characterized as naïve and there are some Christians who readily support any means for national security. Perhaps this is an aspect of the lonely road of discipleship.

Any thoughts on this?
Anti-torture protester in Washington, file pic

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Science of Moses and the Red Sea

This weekend the biblical blockbuster film Exodus: Gods and Kings opens, and, well, meh. You might think that clergy types would be enthused about movies telling biblical stories but they are usually schlocky, at best.

This film is directed by Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame, so there should be plenty of swash and buckle of the highest order. This is the story of Moses and stars Christian Bale because everyone knows that the liberator of enslaved Israelites was a white Welshman. Move over Charlton Heston.

Of course there will be a parting of the Red Sea, because how much more dramatic an event can you get. Moses raises his hand and the sea parts. Enter Carl Drew, a software engineer, who argues that the parting of the sea is neither a myth, nor a miracle, at least not in the traditional depictions of the story. He maintains this was a weather event at the Sea of Reeds in which the water of a marshy area is pushed back by exceptional winds.

While this hypothesis may surprise you, Drews' research was conducted for his atmospheric and ocean sciences master's thesis at the University of Colorado, Boulder, published in a peer reviewed journal (PLOS One), and then promoted by his employer, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a top U.S. research center. In other words, the guy isn't just a crackpot. He is a Christian, but the sort that is okay with evolution and likes to consider scientific possibilities for biblical stories.

Hey, this makes more sense to me than the Welshman as Moses. What do you think? Should we bother speculating on biblical stories thousands of years old? Does this intrigue you? If you want to read more, check out the link above.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Drawers of Oil?

Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen,
and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. Joshua 9:23

Through the decades I have listened to a fair amount of verbal hand-wringing (does that make sense?) about Canada's economy. While we are an advanced society in the global picture, constantly showing up in the top ten in virtually every category of prosperity, health, and security, economists sound the alarm that we are "hewers of wood and drawers of water." This is a phrase from the bible and as you can see that it suggests that it is isn't a good thing, that it is a form of servitude. In reference to the Canadian economy it is the reminder that while we are wealthy in natural resources it may not be wise to put too many resource eggs in the economic basket. Yes, we have lots of oil, minerals, wood, and water, but these are finite resources and a diversified economy is essential to maintaining our well-being.

We're back in hand-wringing mode as the price of oil continues to decline. The "wisemen" (and women) of the economic prognosticators are saying "my bad" when it comes to predictions about the value of a barrel of crude. Rather than $200 a barrel, as some were suggesting, we're heading toward $60, and the nearly $40 drop is an eight billion dollar hit to the Canadian economy over the course of a year.

There was also an article in the Globe and Mail on the weekend charting the decline of the pulp and paper and lumber industries.

What I find interesting is that so many of the environmental groups, along with the Green Party, have argued that an earth-care agenda can actually make economic sense. When we become overly dependent on one sector -- any sector -- in the economy it leaves the Canadian economy vulnerable.

Our current federal government has been determined to go "all in" on oil, putting pressure on the United States government to approve the Keystone pipeline. Even though the US and China made a recent announcement about reducing greenhouse emissions and addressing climate change Canada refuses to set targets or take any kind of a lead in this regard. We can be sure that the Lima Climate Change Conference in Peru will be pressing Canada to make changes as one of the wealthier nations of the world and our leaders will have their earplugs in.

I appreciate the wealth which can and will be generated through the resource sectors for this country, I certainly haven't complained as I pay less than a buck a litre for gas, although I probably shouldn't see this as a good thing. I do hope and pray we will wake up and decide that being "hewers of wood and drawers of water" --and oil --can be a curse as well as a blessing. We must use our ingenuity to look elsewhere for prosperity.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Still Alice

Still Alice - Movie Poster.jpg

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about the novel Still Alice, which explored early onset Alzheimers for an esteemed university psychologist. It is a thoughtful novel and deserved to be a bestseller. Now it is a motion picture starring Julianne Moore as the professor. Every review praises Moores performance even though some feel the rest of the film is uneven. The New York Times review offers these comments: of the tragedies of Alzheimer’s for the friends and family of the afflicted person is that the sufferer seems present and absent at the same time. “Still Alice” examines both the philosophical and emotional aspects of this paradoxical situation, and the principal vehicle for the inquiry is Ms. Moore’s exquisitely nuanced performance. From the early scenes, when brief memory lapses signal that something is wrong, through the subsequent deterioration of her cognitive ability, she conveys both the collapse of Alice’s inner world and the panic it causes.

Will I go to see Still Alice? I'm not sure. Dementia is such a prevalent aspect of ministry as congregations age and it has been for me. The way we address this miserable reality is a sign of our Christian compassion and love. Now a beloved aunt is descending deeper into Alzheimer's and her sunny personality is disappearing. I'm not sure that I want to see the film,although Moore's performance pique's my curiosity.

How about you? Will you go see it? Do you have loved ones living with dementia? What about the role of the church

Sunday, December 07, 2014

White Roses and Violence Against Women

This morning in worship we will acknowledge a white rose on the communion table, a reminder of the 25th anniversary of the senseless murders of fourteen young woman at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. These women would have become engineers, no doubt successful in their field. They would have found partners in life and established families. Instead they were killed by a man who was angry at women, something which happens far too often in our culture.

Yesterday was the actual anniversary and since 1991 it has been the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. White ribbons and white roses are symbols for this day.

Earlier this week we heard of a woman in Toronto who returned to her abusive husband, only to be murdered, along with her two children. The husband then took his own life. We talked about this at home because Ruth, my wife, worked for a women's shelter as a crisis counselor for nine years. When she left that work she was so grateful that none of her clients or their children had been killed by partners. Many had been threatened with death by their abusers, often in graphic detail. There were many occasions when women left their situations of abuse only to return, which was disheartening for Ruth. While people are often puzzled by that choice to return, there are many reasons. They include economic hardship, a desire to have a home for children, shame. At times their convictions of faith, or of their pastors and priests, leads them back into danger.

We can all pray for all women who live with domestic violence and ask how Christian congregations can make their communities safe.