Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Wisdom of Solomon

Debra Selkirk and her husband Mark Selkirk
It is agonizing for those who are waiting for organ transplants and those who love and support them. There can be no predictable supply of organs and many are leery to the point of being superstitious about having their names on the registry as possible donors. Far too regularly those on the list for organs die before they receive them. Sometimes there are opportunities which no one can anticipate. A colleague in ministry was gradually dying for need of a liver transplant and was well down the list. Then a liver became available from a large man which would not have been suitable for other candidates. His height and size pushed him to the top of the list as a recipient and ten years later he is still with us.

We have heard recently about a Toronto woman who is legally challenging the criteria for receiving an organ after her husband died while waiting for a liver.  By all accounts her husband was a fine man, and he was an alcoholic. He hadn't taken a drink in six weeks, but the requirement in Ontario is six months, so he wasn't eligible, even though his wife was a match and could offer a portion of her liver. Hers is a constitutional challenge to the "six months sober" rule, based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This is an important discussion because we know that many people receive costly health care even though they are chronic smokers or are obese. We don't differentiate in those circumstances. As a pastor I have provided spiritual support to individuals who were dying of lung cancer due to smoking and those whose lives were shortened by drug and alcohol abuse. I have also been involved in pastoral care for those dying of AIDS. Some challenged my involvement with those HIV/AIDS patients but I have always felt that this is about the grace of God, not some moral ranking system.

I do understand though that there must be tough decision-making when it comes to organ recipients. Many people experience marked improvements in health when they change diets or abstain from alcohol and drugs. Even if they still need a transplant there is a greater possibility of success when steps are taken to improve health before the operation. And choices must be made. While with my last congregation the brother of a man who needed a liver lost considerable weight and abstained from drinking to make himself a healthy donor for his sibling. Sadly, the potential recipient wouldn't change his lifestyle and because he was such a poor risk there was no operation and he died.

We do expect medical teams to have the wisdom of Solomon, to make decisions about extraordinary measures at the end of life, and about the possibilities of success for surgery for the elderly. It stands to reason that there will be criteria when it comes to organ transplants as well. There is always another person waiting for that organ and so another life is held in the balance. In all cases these are real persons, not hypothetical constructs.

What do you think about this? Are you conflicted, or does it seem clear to you? Have you registered as a donor? ( Yes, I have)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Pilgrim Way

On my birthday last October I blogged about Cheryl Strayed and the upcoming motion picture based on her autobiographical book, Wild. Twenty years ago when she was twenty-six Strayed was in personal turmoil. She had been grieving the death of her mother for a couple of years and during that time her marriage came apart and she engaged in one-night-stands and the use of heroin. Walking more than 1500 kilometres of the Pacific Crest Trail was ill-considered given her lack of hiking experience and traveling alone was dangerous. She carried a backpack nicknamed The Monster, which was as the name suggests was ridiculously heavy for a person her size.

In my 2014 blog entry I  reflected on the enduring importance of pilgrimage and suggested that Strayed was a modern, post-religious version of the medieval pilgrim. Still, I had no intention of reading the book because it sounded as though it was going to be Eat, Pray, Hike, a bit too self-absorbed. Well, I borrowed it from the library because I wouldn't pay meney for it! I finished it recently and I have to concede that it is well-written, a page-turner, and surprisingly meaningful.

And it is a pilgrimage book. Strayed ends up jettisoning a lot of what she assumed she couldn't journey without, she is blessed by the generous people she meets along the way, and she talks and walks herself beyond fear. She even engages in some medieval self-flagellation. Her hiking boots don't fit and by the end of the journey the trail has won, taking six of her ten toenails. The rest of her body is rubbed and scraped and bruised.

Well into her journey she comes to a community where she meets a Swiss woman named Susanna. who says "We call what you're doing the pilgrim way. If you'd like, I would rub your feet." While Strayed demurs the woman is persistent and using peppermint oil massages her battered, filthy feet. How bibilical!

Walking the trail is more than a physical accomplishment for Cheryl Strayed. It is liberation and awakening and healing.

A couple of days ago I sat with my 32-year-old son Isaac who walked The Camino pilgrimage when he was nineteen. He commented that he figures that 800 kilometre walk taking about a month helped set the course of his life in terms of simplicity, establishing values, and trust in God.

I wonder, is it possible to be a pilgrim without risk? Does it require physical movement, or is it enough to be spiritually on the move? Are we part of pilgrim communities of faith, are we stay-at-home, safe Christians?


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beauty & Social Responsibility

After worship on Sunday I left for London, Ontario and a whirlwind visit with the family of son Isaac. While I am always happy to see Ike and Becky it was grandson Nicholas' second birthday and he was the star of the show.

Early Tuesday I was on my way home but not before a visit to the chapel of the Sisters of St. Joseph. They have built a new centre which includes a palliative care hospice. The sisters of this order are actively involved in Creation Care so they have built with considerable concern for energy efficiency and have a LEAD Gold designation. They combine contemplation and systemic social action, and the latter has brought them under scrutiny by the Vatican. Several Roman Catholic orders of nuns in North America have been admonished by the Holy See for their progressive theology and "uppity" independence.

I couldn't take photos of the chapel except for the alcove above because a couple of sisters were in prayer ,but it is both modern and beautiful. The font at the entrance is a spiral, a symbol of the feminine. The windows at the front look out on woods. A sister who was in the chapel came out with us and was warm and welcoming as she described how one Good Friday the stark trees visible beyond the cross were so representative of the mood of the day.

I love that while many Roman Catholic orders are committed to justice and compassion, they understand that Christian faith is rooted in worship and beauty. The window above celebrates both the molecular and cosmic wonder of creation. They are aren't stuck in the past either, and are often bold and innovative in both art and architecture.

We can be so earnest about are approach to justice in the United Church that there is no room for creativity and beauty as a celebration of the holy. In these days when we are so fretful about our future we need the reminders that the places in which we gather are meant to lead us into a sense of worship and praise.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

We Must Remember

Oswiecim January 26, 2015 (Reuters / Laszlo Balogh)

A decade ago a Holocaust or Shoah survivor made the rounds of schools in Durham, including Bowmanville, where we were living. I can't recall where she was a prisoner of the Nazis. One of the teachers who organized her visit was in the St. Paul's congregation and invited us to her home to meet this remarkable woman over supper. We were impressed by her message that living with purpose is the way to overcome such unspeakable evil. If I recall correctly she was approaching 80, so there is a strong possibility she is no longer with us even though she was remarkable energetic. We bought a copy of her autobiographical book that evening, but I have no idea where it has gone.

On this day of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp a number of survivors returned to commemorate the end of that terror and those who died. They have also affirmed that despite what they experienced, including the loss of family members, they were not snuffed out, nor was the Jewish religion.

One of the returnees, Angela Orosz (above) is only 70. Somehow her mother's managed to hide her pregnancy and Angela was born shortly before the camp was liberated. She is one of only two babies born in Auschwitz. As the more elderly survivors reach their late eighties and into their nineties the question is being raised as to who will be left to gather a decade from now, and who will tell the stories. Ms. Orosz has no direct recollection of what happened there and the numbers of those who can recall diminishes. Will the world remember as effectively and respectfully once these remarkable survivors have died?

While this dark period in human history is so ugly we might be tempted to put it aside we can't. We can't forget the refusal of governments to take in Jewish refugees who often perished as a result. We can't forget that Christians in Germany and other countries ignored the plight of Jews or that some participated in their extermination.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Today in worship we will hear of how Jonah reluctantly preached repentance to the people of Nineveh. I will mention that our understanding of "wickedness" or sin goes beyond the traditional personal trangressions to include sexism, racism, inequality, and environmental degradation.

It happens that during this past week Oxfam issued the sobering contention that within two years one percent of the world's population will have as much wealth as the other ninety-nine percent. That is an extraordinary disparity between rich and poor, inequality on a mind-boggling scale.

Later in the week Archbishop Welby of the world Anglican communion spoke about  inequality during an interview with the New York Times.

Q. Why is income inequality a religious issue?
A. It tends to result in the development of overmighty areas within society, and at the same time of people who are excluded and forgotten. Therefore it becomes an issue about the nature of the value of the human being, the dignity of the human being, which is a religious issue. The human being for whom Christ died is of equal value, whoever they are.

Not everyone, including David Cameron  appreciated Welby's critique of wealth. Cameron likes to describe Britain as a Christian nation but apparently not if it involves following Jesus' teaching on wealth. Jesus doesn't say it is categorically bad. He does point to the perils of wealth including greed and disregard for the poor.

Of course most of us would prefer to view others as wealthy but not ourselves. Yet when I speak with folk at Inn from the Cold or respond to one of the individuals who comes seeking help in the church office I become very aware of my own prosperity and the struggles of so many.

I have written a reminder on the blotter in my study at the church:

I am wealthy
My wealth is not my own -- it is God's
If I horde my wealth, I am impoverished

Did you read the Oxfam statement?  Is it difficult to admit you're wealthy? Are we answering God's call to address inequality?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mental Health & Spiritual Health

I have downloaded the report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada called Informing the Future: Mental Health Indicators for Canada. It is a wide-ranging report whichemploys a number of mental health indicators and focus areas to address the multi-faceted realities of mental illness and mental health. These include the effect of care-giving on mental health, seniors and mental health, children and youth and mental health, and the effects of mental illness on economic prosperity. This last focus area notes that nearly 30% of Canadian workers report high work-related stress and about 100,000 of us receive CPP pensions for mental health reasons. A Canadian Press news release offers these highlights from the report:   
OTTAWA — Canadians who care for chronically ill family members are experiencing extreme stress at a time when an aging population means more people will need such care, says a mental health study.
The report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada also found that suicide rates are higher here than in some other G8 nations.
Among those 15 and over who provided care to an immediate family member with a long-term health condition, 16.5 per cent reported very high levels of stress, the report found.
The commission’s findings cover 13 indicators that provide a glimpse of how Canadians are faring mentally. By April, the commission will provide details on close to 60 indicators involving children, youth, adults and seniors in a variety of settings.

We know that mental health concerns are also pastoral concerns within congregations. So many members in every congregation I have served have struggled with mental illness, including depression and suicide. Either they are figuring out how to provide loving and practical support for family members or are dealing with these issues for themselves.

I see this report as one more step toward bringing mental illness and mental health out of the shadows of shame and misunderstanding. I hope that faith communities can be supportive of these initiatives and create safe places for those who are addressing mental health issues themselves.When I read the gospels I hear Jesus addressing mental health with many who approach him. Jesus is a beacon of hope and spiritual healing.

What are your thoughts about this report? Have you heard about it? Are you encouraged by its approach?


Friday, January 23, 2015

Thou Shalt Not Yik Yak

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
                                                  The Ten Commandments

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[ a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
                                                        Serm on on the Mount  -- Jesus of Nazareth

Some of you will remember that at the last General Council of the United Church in 2012 there was a resolution regarding gossip and its corrosive effects on individuals and Christian congregations. It got a lot of press coverage, although lots of people including members of my congregation at that time wondered if this was a serious discussion. It was, and I wrote a blog around that time in which I named how destructive gossip has been in churches.

I thought of this when I read about the concerns regarding a new phone app called Yik Yak. This is an anonymous (first flag) messaging venue in which unregulated information can be shared. That anonymity has had serious consequences. It has resulted in bomb scares at a number of schools and universities. It has also provided the opportunity for online character assassination. While we use terms such as cyber-bullying, this is gossip and bearing false witness and it is terribly destructive. Some school boards are now warning parents about Yik Yak and others are finding ways to block it on school property

The resolution from General Council was no joke. This is serious stuff, whatever labels we attach to it. Whether it is "old-school" or high-tech, gossip is wrong and painful and a sin. Here is an anonymous (wouldn't you know) reflection on gossip.

My Name Is Gossip. I have no respect for justice. I maim without killing. I break hearts and ruin lives. I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.
The more I am quoted the more I am believed. I flourish at every level of society. My victims are helpless. They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name and no face.
To track me down is impossible. The harder you try, the more elusive I become. I am nobody's friend. Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same. I topple governments and ruin marriages. I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartache and indigestion. I spawn suspicion and generate grief.
I make innocent people cry in their pillows. Even my name hisses.

Are you inclined to gossip? Have you been the subject of gossip, or have those you love been affected? Have you experienced it in your congregation?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unmasking a Gospel

Because most of us have grown up with something called the bible we forget that this biblios, or book hasn't always had this form. In fact is a compendium or collection of 66 books, probably more because certain books and letters might have been two or even three which were eventually combined. We can be almost certain that many began in an oral form, eventually written down. There are lengthy sections of books which appear almost verbatim in others.

Some Christians find this threatening, because they feel it undermines the authority of scripture. I find it fascinating because it reminds us that our scriptures were always living, breathing documents. Somehow they have stood the test of time and bear witness to a God of love and justice and salvation in Jesus Christ. Surely that is the work of the Holy Spirit rather than slavish commitment to a particular view of inerrancy.

I am intrigued by the recent efforts to unravel, almost literally, one of the earliest extant copies of the gospel of Mark, which is the gospel of this year in the lectionary cycle.  Many of the earliest New Testament documents date from the second and third centuries. This gospel, or fragments of it, is contained in a mask, a re-purposing of the original papyrus sheet. As you read this description you'll see the Canadian connection:

The Story: A text found on papyrus used on a mummy mask may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist—a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year AD 90. Until now, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years AD 101 to 200).
The Background: In 2012 Daniel Wallace, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, mentioned in a public debate that researchers had found a fragment of the earliest copy of the Gospel of Mark. This weekend, another scholar, Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, reconfirmed the existence of the fragment. This text was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, notes LiveScience, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint, and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.
Scientists have developed a technique that allows them to remove the text from the mask without harming the ink on the paper.
Why It Matters: Andreas J. K√∂stenberger and Justin Taylor have argued that the evidence suggests the exact date of Jesus crucifixion was April 3, AD 33. A fragment from before AD 80 would establish that the Gospel of Mark had not only been written within 50 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that it would have already begun to circulate widely.

Cool! I'm sure we'll here more about this fragment as the process unfolds.

What are your thoughts about this? Is it a yawner or of interest? Has your own perception of scripture changed over time?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity so I would like to describe for you all of the events taking place in Belleville...there, I'm done! To be fair, there may be activities or worship opportunities I don't know about, but I figure I would have been contacted if another pastor or group of clergy had organized them.

It is the challenge in many communities that while there is a designated week for "making nice" with one another, it just doesn't happen. I have served in communities where the effort is made for a year or two or even more, then the initiative falters. It is often because of changing leadership -- clergy come and go. In other places it is because of theological differences. In the past  I have been told point-blank by conservative colleagues that they have to be careful about the unity language they use because it might be perceived as too liberal. Apparently only liberal weirdos would suggest that "we'll know they are Christians by their love." Actually, in some communities it is the evangelicals who take the lead and the events they plan are ambitious.

I have disappointed to discover that there is no ministerial in Belleville and no will for one either. In my last community we didn't celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but a gang of us participated in a community worship service in June, shutting down our various churches to gather in a downtown park. The service was really well attended and sent a positive message about unity to the wider community. That ministerial also sponsored a community meal and worshipped together on Good Friday, along with other activities.

Since I have been here nearly two years I suppose that I don't have any excuse for taking the lead on this for 2016. It ain't easy for Christians to get along, sinful bunch that we are. But it's worth a try.

The theme this year "give me a drink" refers to the Samaritan woman who give the Jewish Jesus a drink of water. In turn he gives her "living water." We can be refreshed and renewed by reaching out to those who are not quite like us.

Do you figure it's important to find common ground and share worship experiences within communities? Is it more urgent now than in the past?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Safe in the Arms?

I have no doubt that 11-year-old Makayla Sault was loved by her parents and extended family, and that they wanted to do the best they could to combat her life-threatening leukemia. We know that their healthcare decisions were influenced by their First Nations heritage and their Christian faith. They also saw how negative the effects of chemotherapy can be.

In an interview with CBC News, her mother said, “This was not a frivolous decision I made. Before I took her off chemo, I made sure that I had a comprehensive health-care plan that I was very confident that was going to achieve ridding cancer of her body before I left the hospital. This is not something I think may work, this is something I know will work.”

At the same time, doctors who were treating Makayla were convinced that she had a 75% chance of recovery with chemo and next to none if she chose traditional aboriginal healing methods and so-called alternative treatment. Last October an Ontario judge ruled that the family could refuse chemotherapy in favour of these alternatives. Yesterday Makayla died, after suffering a stroke on Sunday.

I was heartsick when I heard the news this morning. The family suggests that it was the chemo she had already experienced which caused the stroke but there is nothing to suggest that this is the case. The clinic they were attending in Florida is not licenced as a medical institution and former staff members had raised concerns that they were practicing medicine without a licence.

Makayla had a vision of Jesus while in hospital, telling her to stop chemo. Her family issued a statement saying that she is now "safe in the arms of Jesus." I hope and pray that she is now within Christ's loving embrace for eternity, but I would rather she was still alive, experiencing the life God intended for her here on Earth. I'm not convinced that Makayla's best interests were served by Children's Aid or the judicial system. They exist to protect vulnerable children, even when they are loved by those whose judgment might be clouded by the stresses of illness and wishful thinking.

What are your thoughts on this? Did society fail Makayla? Was the decision last fall the correct one?

Certainly we offer condolences to her family.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Courage of MLK

On the weekend I saw two films which have been nominated for a Best Film Oscar. The second was Selma, which is focussed around the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama during the turbulent days of the Civil Rights movement. There have been so many depictions of events during that time yet I found Selma to be quite moving and thought-provoking. For some strange reason the Academy chose not to nominate David Oyelowo for Best Actor. He offers a portrait of Martin Luther King as a flawed leader who is not attentive to his family nor faithful to his wife, Coretta. At the same time he is a person of profound faith and determination who struggles with the burden of leadership.This King is constantly aware of the implications of his choices as leader for this movement. In the film the first attempt to march from Selma results in brutality and death, in part because King is spending much-needed time with his family.

An aspect of the story told in Selma which was emotional for me was the call by Dr.King to clergy as another march was planned. Ministers, pastors, and priests from across North America responded. Many of them were white, and the involvement of whites in the march -- up to a third-- probably affected the response of the racist local police and Governor George Wallace. Wallace was pressured by President Lyndon Johnson to allow the march even though he had misgivings privately.
A still from "Selma"

While the Selma march was eventually completed and was a triumph for the Civil Rights Movement it was not without cost. Not only does the film note the intimidation and brutality toward people of colour, it points out that whites were killed as well, including a Unitarian minister from the Northwest who came to march in solidarity.

I do hope that when the film Selma comes to Belleville we can have a discussion. On this holiday honouring MLK in the States we can be mindful of and grateful for his courage and the resolve of so many.

We should also note that racism has not been consigned to history. It is still an ugly reality in the United States and Canada to an extent. When racial tensions erupted in Ferguson, Missouri last year clergy from the community and across the country converged to bear witness and to do everything possible to avert violence.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The God of Everything

I saw the film The Theory of Everything yesterday and was totally surprised by how religious it was. Well, it is the story of Stephen Hawking, scientific theorist extraordinaire, and his wife Jane. It is a love story, and one of remarkable faithfulness, even though they did stay together as a couple. It is also a story of hope, because Hawking was given two years to live when diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease in the 1960's. He is still alive and still in the news, having commented on artificial intelligence this past week.

The religious part is intriguing. In the film Stephen and Jane meet at a university party and he introduces himself as a cosmologist. When she asks what that is, he quips that cosmology is a religion for atheists. She is a Christian though, or at least Church of England, which is still a Christian church last time I checked.

The sub-theme of the tension between his staunch atheism and her firm religious convictions continues throughout the film. I found it quite moving, and loved a scene where he speaks of black holes and she quotes from the opening verses of Genesis. Jane even joins the church choir to deal with the stresses of caring for three children and an increasingly disabled husband.

I really enjoyed this film, and the acting of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking is remarkable. Have any of you seen it yet? Is it on your list? Did any of you actually get through A Brief History of Time?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Like a Prayer

In the early 70's when I was well into my teen years the gospel singer Andrae Crouch was a big deal in evangelical circles and he continued to have a huge influence on the genre for decades. He was revered by so many in the Christian music scene until his recent death. He crossed over into the pop/rock/soul mainstream as well, and somehow collaborated with so-called secular musicians while maintaining his Christian faith and integrity.

He worked with the likes of Michael Jackson and Paul Simon, his back-up singers or choir giving texture and soul to songs. Perhaps the most controversial song was Madonna's Like a Prayer, which quickly drew the wrath of the Roman Catholic church. In some respects it is a lovely devotional song, but there are definite sexual overtones.

Somehow Crouch could sing at Billy Graham revivals and on Saturday Night Live. Crouch's music is on the soundtrack to The Color Purple (for which he earned an Oscar nomination) and the Broadway musical The Lion King.

Andrae Crouch went to meet his Saviour --that 's probably the way he thought of it-- on January 8th, at age 72. His music was a prayer.

Do any of you know Crouch's music, or of his influence?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Je Suis Charlie? Non.

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In the week after we read about the dove of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism this image by Rachelle Maynard appears.

Je suis Charlie? Non! Not now, not ever, even though the slogan is everywhere these days.  I found it stirring to see the huge crowds marching in Paris in the wake of the brutal killings at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. But that doesn't mean I identify with the often deeply offensive and sophomoric content of the magazine, aimed at Christians as well as Jews and Muslims.

I support free speech, even speech that I find offensive. Yet we really don't support unrestricted expression ,even though it is touted everywhere these days. We do have laws against hate speech and I'm glad. Remember the publisher Ernst Zundel, Holocaust denier? He went to jail in this country for spewing hatred.

I am not equating Charlie Hebdo with Zundel, at least I don't think I am. How many of us are really aware of what was behind the cartoons and articles in the magazine? I'm fairly sure that their intent is not peace-making. Maybe we should calm down on the "je suis" stuff, and stick to outrage and grief over senseless murders which are falsely justified in the name of God.

Your thoughts?

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Sin of Anti-Judaism

Family members of Yoav Hattab, killed in an attack on a Paris grocery, before his funeral.
Earlier this week the four people senselessly murdered in a Jewish supermarket in Paris were buried. Even though they were French citizens they were laid to rest in an Israeli cemetery. After having their lives snuffed out simply because they were Jewish their families accepted this invitation by Israel out of concerns that their graves might be desecrated in their homeland. What a tragic reality, although it is ironic that the state which came into being, at least in part, because of French persecution in the 19th century of the Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus, is in the 21st century the burial place of innocent French Jews. In the end the burial of the four proved to be a painful mess for the families.

We're also told that in 2014 more than 7,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel, the most since the state of Israel was established in 1949. Despite the threats to safety in Israel it is considered more secure that a democratic European county. More than half of British Jews feel that they may have no future in their own country, nor anywhere else in Europe.

This reminds us that anti-Semitism, or anti-Judaism is still a reality. This should be a concern to us all, not just in France but in many places in the world. While a fundamentalist Islamist was the murderer in France, anti-Judaism is a persistent cancer. In most countries it is a small minority who hold these views, but the threat is still frightening.

In some countries anti-Judaism is unfettered and unfortunately a number of those nations are predominantly Muslim. I'm reminding myself that the young supermarket employee who saved the lives of a number of Jewish patrons was Muslim. And that the co-worker he mourns because he considered him a brother was Jewish. His courage undoubtedly saved many lives. But thousands of French troops have been deployed to protect Jewish institutions and the Paris Grand Synagogue was closed last Saturday for the first time since World War II. The symbolism is chilling.

We all need to be on guard when it comes to stereotypes and suspicions of any religious group, and we must uphold religious freedom. The hatred of Jews in particular has been pernicious for thousands of years and often fomented rather than quelled by Christians. Pointing a finger at Muslims alone would be hypocritical on our part.

Any thoughts or observations about the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Haiti, Five Years On

When an earthquake devastated Haiti five years ago, killing a quarter of a million people, the United Church asked its folk to respond generously, and they did. We contributed through the congregation I served then, as did many of our members. We saw that this terribly impoverished country was hit hard because the buildings and infrastructure were already so shaky.

Of course we heard almost immediately that some aid wasn't reaching its intended targets, that there was general confusion amongst agencies and governments, and that movie stars were in Haiti doing their own thing. I sat next to a guy on a plane on a runway in New Mexico who was fretting about making his connecting flight in Dallas. A paramedic, he was on his way to work with the relief effort initiated by Sean Penn. This was his second trip because he found the camp Penn had set up was so well run. There you go!

All this said, without international support the circumstances would have been even more dire. And churches tend to have partners in various countries because of missionary connections from earlier times. In Haiti, Frontiers Foundation, started by the late United Church minister Charlie Catto back in the 60's, repaired a school they had originally constructed, but it fared not too badly because it had been built well.

I realize that when we contribute to disaster relief there is the possibility that the money may be misdirected or perhaps misappropriated. This is a risk I'm willing to take. It's too easy to be cynical or complain of  "compassion fatigue." As convenient as that expression may be, it is a concept, not an actual medical condition. Christ calls us to generosity and compassion, despite the risks. Where and how we give does require prudence and diligence, but that's why God gave us brains.

Haiti is rebuilding, and the response of Canadians in a big part of that effort. Below is a memorial service in a new Roman Catholic church in Port au Prince.


Haitians attend a mass on January 12, 2015 at a church adjacent to the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince January 12, 2015 on the 5th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Haiti, in 2010. Haiti marks the fifth anniversary of a catastrophic earthquake that killed 300,000 people.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An Artistic Prayer for the World

Okay, by now most of you have figured out that I am going to muse about art and faith almost as often as ecology and faith. I won't apologize -- it's my art history background and my awareness that through the ages artists of various kinds, including musical, have used their media to express the inexpressible.

An exhibit called Amen: A Prayer for the World is currently touring institutions in the States including two Christian cathedrals. It began with the works of 30 Egyptians artists and now represents 48 artists from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions. Each artist was given a life-size fiberglass human form in a prayer pose and asked to decorate it. The figures are varied and creative and do I ever wish I could see them somehow. The photo below is from the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

What do you think of exhibits such as this one? Are they frivolous in light of the pain and suffering in our world? After all, it takes money to mount this sort of display. Do we need them to awaken our senses to the possibilities of a better world, and God's reign?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Changing Our Mind

Dr. David Gushee is ordained in the Southern Baptist church and a leading ethicist in the evangelical church. As such he has made reasoned arguments against homosexuality, the LGBT community and same-gender marriage. In his own words “Homosexual conduct is one form of sexual expression that falls outside the will of God.”

David Gushee no longer holds this view and has been open in stating his new outlook despite the criticism of many in the evangelical fold. He has written about his change of heart and mind in a book called Changing Our Mind and in a number of publications including The Washington Post newspaper.

In the WP piece he expresses his conviction that God sent gay and lesbian persons into his life to help me develop a new perspective. One of them is his sister. At the same time he offers a different ethical focus which he relates to the persecution and marginalization of other minorities rather than fixating on sexual practice. Here is how he Gushee puts it:

For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors.

You may be thinking, surely this discussion is over! The United Church of Canada earnestly wrestled with all this in the 1980's and 1990's and many congregations now marry same-gender couples and have called LGBT clergy. This is true, but it is important to realize that many Christians still struggle with how to be faithful to scripture and traditionally approaches to morality while addressing what it means to be inclusive and loving. Gushee is one of many thoughtful evangelicals who have worked through these issues to come to new conclusions. A willingness to change our minds is not watering down the gospel or heresy. It can be an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit and a commitment to the broader message of the scriptural mandate to love as Christ loves.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lasting Forgiveness?

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Some of you who are as ancient as I am will remember the attempted assassination of  Pope John Paul II in 1981. The gunman Mehmet Ali Agca was Turkish, and he was almost successful, wounding the pontiff.  The reasons for the assault were unclear. Agca first claimed to have acted alone, then that he was part of a conspiracy. He later maintained that he was a messiah, a sign of mental health issues. After his recovery John Paul visited his assailant in prison, offering forgiveness and shaking his hand.

You may have heard that Mehmet Ali Agca visited Pope John Paul's grave recently, on the thirty-first anniversary of his meeting with the pople. He laid white flowers at the tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica, The visit surprised everyone but a Vatican spokesman said  there are no legal matters pending against Agca in the Vatican and he was free to visit.

We never know how forgiveness will be received and what the lasting affects might be.


Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish former extremist who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, holding a wreath of flowers on St. Peter's square in The Vatican on Saturday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Deadly Cold Snap

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For eleven years I ministered in the downtown of Sudbury, a city that was sunny and frigid in the heart of winter. One of the recognized characters of the city centre was a woman named Claire who would be on the streets in even the coldest weather. Claire had money and a supportive family but her mental issues meant that she was paranoid about virtually everyone. At that time authorities could pick her up and, get her on back on her meds, and give her a stay in "the Algoma" the psych hospital. But she would soon return to the streets, and we all wondered when we would get news of her death by exposure to the elements. That never happened, but it does occur far too often.

This past week two men died during the cold snap in Toronto. One perished on the bus shelter bench shown above. He was found in a tee-shirt and jeans and nothing else. The dedicated folk who are involved in advocacy for those without shelter decried these deaths and did their best to draw attention to the issues but it is tough. They pointed out once again that the "out of the cold" programs provided by a number of churches demonstrate that society as a whole takes on "out of sight, out of mind" view of the homeless and the marginalized.

There was a memorial service held by the Church of the Holy Trinity to commemorate these men and others who are vulnerable in this weather:

At 5pm today all are invited to gather at the SW corner of Yonge and Dundas to mourn the death of the man who died there last night of hypothermia and cardiac arrest. City warming shelters were not open and the regular shelters are full.

We may think that there aren't homeless and highly vulnerable people in Belleville and other cities but that isn't so. A downtown business person leaves blankets and coats and mittens behind her establishment which are picked up by those who need them. She feeds people in the morning who wouldn't eat otherwise.

Our Bridge St. congregation will soon resume our active and worthwhile Inn From the Cold meal ministry, but we don't provide shelter. The other day, perhaps the coldest of this winter, I stopped to say hello to Pam, who panhandles downtown and never comes for our meals. Lots don't because they aren't comfortable in settings with lots of people.

Jesus did say that the poor will always be with us, but he never suggested that this is an excuse for a lack of compassion and practical response. It is a gospel imperative to care and find the ways to live Christ's love.


Jesus the Homeless Timothy Schmalz

Friday, January 09, 2015

Tying the Knot

                                          Tamara Shopsin

Later this year our daughter Jocelyn will "tie the knot" with her partner Jeff. We're happy for them and look forward to the wedding, although you could argue that the knot has been tied for a while. They are in year six of home-ownership together, they have a cat and a dog, and now they will marry.

Our hope is that they will have a long and happy life together. We wish the same for the nephew from one side of the family who will get married this summer, and the niece from the other. Yup, 2015 is the Year of the Wedding in our clan.

There have been several articles on marriage in the New York Times recently which give different perspectives on the institution of marriage, although not necessarily conflicting outlooks. One reflects on research that finds a greater number of young Americans are marrying later or not at all, the highest percentage in modern history. I can't be sure, but I imagine this applies to Canada as well.

Another study finds that the conventional wisdom that one of two marriages will end up in divorce is no longer true, if it ever was. The trend is for those who do marry to stay married, which is what most couples I have wed say is their intention.

Now a study out of Vancouver and the National Bureau of Economic Research says that we are generally happier when we are married than when we are single. Marriage tends to help in getting through the tough times including the stresses of midlife. And today married couples are more likely to be equals and friends. In another time marriage was more utilitarian with hubby bringing home the bacon and wifey acting as homemaker. Apparently the more financially stable a couple is, the more likely they are to be mutual companions, confidantes, and friends.

It's encouraging to read that marriage is a knot that holds us together rather than a noose. None of these studies, at least in the way they are reported, say anything about the role of religion in marital longevity and happiness, which is interesting. I would say that our faith and the commitment of our marital vows has been a factor in our almost-39-year marriage. Yet we have siblings and I have parents whose faith was important to them and had Christian weddings who ended up divorced.

All of which reminds us to stay humble when it comes to the mystery of marriage, to be kind when it comes to divorce, and to thank God for the gift of each day in relationship.

Have you got the whole marriage thing figured out? Dare you comment?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Freedom to Speak & to Turn the Other Cheek

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“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.   Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12

I do not like it when people are disrespectful of my faith or any other. At times I am frustrated and even angry at those who take what seem to be cheap shots at organized religion or individual piety. For some reason it seems to be "open season" in this regard. Just the same, it never occurs to me that I might do violence to another persons or persons because of my hurt or anger. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says we better expect it, and bye the way, turn the other cheek.

Yesterday the world was shocked by the actions of Islamic extremists who murdered employees of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, along with two policemen who responded to the vicious and cowardly attack. These miserable murderers were offended by the portrayal of the prophet Mohamed in the magazine so in their warped logic the perpetrators must die. I know next to nothing about Charlie Hebdo but the cartoons I've seen suggest that Judaism and Christianity are also mocked on its covers and in its pages. I find that offensive but I'm not required to look at the cartoons. I am also a strong believer in freedom of speech, so I accept that this includes the liberty to make fun of my religion.

We need to note that Muslim leaders in France immediately condemned these senseless, extremist acts. The truth is that religious extremists of every kind have no commitment to love or to freedom. Nor do they seem to have any sense of humour. Their distortion of religion is about power and control, and definitely not about humbly serving a God of love. I have seen this with Christian fundamentalists as well. It would be pathetic if it weren't so dangerous.

Gary Varvel of the Indianapolis Star

This prayer was offered in the immediate aftermath of the murders by the Church of England:

Compassionate God and Father of all,
we are horrified at violence
in so many parts of the world.
It seems that none are safe, and some are terrified.

Hold back the hands that kill and maim;
turn around the hearts that hate.
Grant instead your strong Spirit of Peace -
peace that passes our understanding
but changes lives,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

How Do You Spell Encyclical?

encyclical noun:
an official letter from the Pope to the Roman Catholic bishops                                           
Most people would be baffled and perplexed by the word encyclical, but there is a fair amount of speculation and excitement about the possibility of an impending papal encyclical by Pope Francis. The subject will be environmental responsibility with a focus on climate change, and would be the first encyclical on the subject by a Roman Catholic pope. Now both his predecessors,  Benedict XVI and John Paul II, issued thoughtful and theologically nuanced statements on the environment, but an encyclical has greater heft in the church, so this would be a progression rather than a departure.

One of the reasons that Pope Francis would issue the encyclical at the beginning of 2015 is because of the climate change conference, COP21 scheduled for December of this year in Paris, France. This is seen as a pivotal conference in terms of forging an international agreement on climate change. These UN sponsored conferences tend to be "much ado about nothing" in terms of substantive agreements, but there seems to be a sense of urgency in this year. Time will tell.

Many faith organizations are already planning how they will support the conference and its initiatives, and a well-crafted statement from the Vatican will be important for the credibility of the broader church, along with other faiths.

A couple of days ago I was pondering what I might say about what is one of the defining issues, if not the defining issue of our time. I wanted to comment on the impending encyclical, and then I heard a piece on CBC radio's The Current during which ecological ethicist and theologian, Heather Eaton, evangelical leader Jim Wallis, and a Green Muslim spokesperson, Asma Mahdi, all reflected on climate change and the importance of the pope's leadership. There is a growing awareness that faith communities have something to say about the care of creation and that we can move from being "light green" to "deep green," to use Eaton's terms.

I am heartened by all this. For so many years I have expressed my conviction that a practical response to the environmental issues of our time is truly "gospel," because we declare our conviction that God is Creator and the incarnation of God in Christ is "earthy. What we say, and more importantly, what we do, is an expression of our faithfulness.

So, even if we have only a sketchy understanding of what an encyclical is, we can pray that this one makes a difference.


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Unwise Men!

Bulgarians dive into the icy waters of a lake to catch a cross in Sofia as part of Epiphany Day celebrations. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Okay, this is the craziest Epiphany tradition on the planet. In the cold of winter, young men all over Bulgaria jump into rivers and lakes, keeping an old tradition in celebrating the Christian Orthodox feast of Epiphany.

How does this go? A priest throws a cross into a river or a lake for young men to catch it. It is believed that the first person that gets to the cross will enjoy good health throughout the whole year.

Personally, I don't think there is a Wise Man in the bunch! I would love to know how this got started in the first place.

Lights Out for Spiritual Illumination

This is the Day of Epiphany which means that it many liturgical churches there will be services of worship using the story of the Magi, or Wise Men, found in Matthew's gospel. It is a story of enlightenment, of curious and committed seekers from one religion finding a Messiah from another. The themes of the spiritual quest, the light that guides us, openness to new possibilities, encountering and worshipping Christ, all emerge on this day.

I assume that worship will take place at the 13th century Cologne Cathedral in Germany today. The cathedral is dedicated to the Magi and contains a Shrine of the Three Kings containing a reliquary which supposedly houses the bones of the visitors from the east. I wouldn't hold my breath on the authenticity of these relics, but it does remind us of the focus of the cathedral.

A couple of evenings ago the lights went out on the normally brightly illuminated cathedral, as a statement about the recent disturbing trend in Germany. There have been protest marches in Dresden and Cologne of many thousands of people. These are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim protests and both political and religious leaders have spoken against them. It is rather chilling, thinking back eighty years to protests against Jews in Germany and the comparison hasn't been lost on leaders and commentators.

 Cologne Cathedral is a Christian place of worship, dedicated to Zoroastrian priests who came seeking a Jewish Messiah. The involvement in the counter-protest is heartening to me.  

Had you heard about these marches in Germany? What does it stir up for you? What do you think of the Cologne Cathedral response.

Monday, January 05, 2015

A Strong Message Against Misogyny

Dalhousie protest

In December we were stunned to discover that a group of male Dalhousie University dentistry students had been regaling themselves by speculating on a Facebook page about who amongst the female students they would enjoy raping. The misogyny and sexual violence of their "Gentlemen's Club"postings was disgusting and deeply disturbing to the female students named, as well as others in the program.

The university decried the Facebook conversation and postponed exams at end of term. Then there was an announcemet that the students, both perpetrators and victims, would enter into a restorative justice program to develop a plan of action and, presumably, punishment. Many have reacted to this proposal with outrage. Protests have taken place on the Dalhousie campus, demanding the expulsion of the offenders. They are convinced that this is not enough.

I agree, as does my wife Ruth, who is a trained mediator. While there is great merit in restorative justice processes, we feel that a clear message must be sent that this sort of behaviour is reprehensible and that the consequences will be consistently severe.

A group of Dal professors has now spoken out, demanding that the male students be suspended until the resolution of this situation, which might result in expulsion. One of them is Francoise Baylis, one of Canada's foremost bioethicists and a member of the St. Andrew's congregation I served in Halifax. They insist that other students on campus should not be required to attend classes with the accused and I would agree.

I have posted before about the underlying misogyny of our culture and my concern that somehow we have not got very far in changing attitudes about objectifying women. It is unacceptable that these men might begin practice as dentists in a year, working in situations with women staff member, and treating women in vulnerable situations. A strong message must be sent about this sort of behaviour.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

200 Years!

Today our Bridge St. United Church begins its celebration of 200 years of presence in the Belleville community. The roots of this congregation are in Methodism, the movement begun by John Wesley and his brother Charles in the 19th century. When the first Methodist gathering took place in a rough and tumble town on the Bay of Quinte John Wesley had been dead about 25 years but there was still considerable fervor within the movement and a powerful evangelical zeal. The building here is about 125 years old, built in the days before church union, and really a Methodist cathedral. There must have been a sense that the "Holy Ghost" was at work when the place was newly dedicated and full.

The challenge, it seems to me, is to be radical, in the sense of radix, or root, to ask how the first gathering of committed Christians can be the inspiration for us today. They didn't have a church building, and they were part of a revival movement within Anglicanism. It doesn't appear that they were daunted by the challenge, and fortunately they weren't encumbered by nostalgia, the "good old days." They were inventing the "good old days," by God's grace! They were evangelical in the best sense of that term.

We can consider how scripture, experience, reason, and tradition --what has been described as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can give life to our congregation today, and how Christ will light our way.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

A Christian Minyan?

…"Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst." Matthew 20:19-20

We are aware that many Christian congregations and denominations are in decline in North America, and unfortunately the United Church is one of them. In the pre-occupation with our plight we might miss that other faith communities are experiencing their own trials and tribulations resulting from changing demographics and an increasingly secular society.

I have spoken with members of Jewish congregations which have gone through steady decline to the point that they no longer have a minyan for public prayer. I read about such a congregation in the New York Times recently, housed in a creaky building where an elderly member pokes the plaster and dust cascades down.

And what is a minyan you ask? "In Judaism a minyan is the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. According to many Orthodox streams of Judaism, adult females do not count in the minyan."

While I'm not impressed by the "guys only" stipulation I have always been intrigued by the notion that a congregation gathered for prayer and worship requires a "critical mass," or a "spiritual mass" for an effective life together. As Christians we turn to the words of Jesus which suggest a lower minimum requirement to make a difference in the world. I don't want to sound heretical by suggesting that two or three doesn't cut it. Still, it wouldn't hurt to have a practical and realistic benchmark for what it means to be a community of worship and prayer with an effective mission in the world.

Perhaps a congregation can be vital with just a handful of people, and we know from the New Testament and the history of the church that a building isn't required to manifest God's living Spirit. Still, far too many congregations have moved into the self-preservation mode which is more about stubbornly staying in crumbling buildings than being alive in Christ. Many newly ordained ministers in our denomination are dismayed to find themselves in congregations where they are involved in palliative care for an aging social club that an active congregation. And no one, it seems, is willing to press for honest self-appraisal. Is this really faithful to Christ's call to mission?  So often the urgency of building repairs means that there are no resources for creative ministry.

Okay, I'll admit I have no idea what our Christian minyan might be. Do we need fifty people or a hundred to be a healthy congregation? I can't really say. Is some respects setting an arbitrary number isn't the solution. But we might have the spirit of the minyan where we bring together practicality and the commitment to worship, not just survival.

What do you think? I know, I know, I come up with the craziest stuff!