Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Miracle of Feeding Others

41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand... men.    Mark 6

Today is the last for our Inn from the Cold meal ministry in 2015. Hot, nutritious meals are served every evening for six weeks, forty-two days in all. Several thousand meals are offered and gratefully received during this period.

Our guests can come in at four for coffee and tea, with the meal served at five. There is usually both soup and salad, along with the main course and dessert. A local dairy, Reid's, donates milk which is a big hit because it is expensive. We receive donations from a number of generous sponsors and through Gleaner's Food Bank.

This week I interviewed guests who were more than willing to answer questions. It occurred to me later that these are folk who don't get asked their opinion very often, and as I asked the questions others would wander up and offer to participate.

I discovered that the majority walk to the church from rooming houses and apartments in the downtown. Some take the bus and a very few drive, but those on foot often struggle to get here on snowy streets and in frigid cold. This is the second year of intense winter.

Almost universally they love the food, some downright rhapsodic about their favourite meals. It was touching to hear some of their stories. A young couple has come back to Ontario from British Columbia and have yet to find work. These meals have made a big difference and they were both very articulate in describing their experience. Grandparents come with a grandson whose mother works from 2:00 until 8:30. Because of IftC he gets a hearty and healthy meal every day. One guy who looks like Gandalf after a bender cheerfully told me that he began training decades ago for the United Church ministry and named the two-point charge he served. Some of the older women come to be with others rather than stuck inside during the bleak days of winter. One younger woman was glad that I was writing her answers because she doesn't read and write all that well.

Nearly all of them wished that the program ran longer, and while our Thank God It's Friday frozen meal ministry is a big help, it's not the same as coming into a warm and friendly room for a well-prepared supper. The overwhelming tone of the responses was gratitude. Along with the Salvation Army. St. Matthew's, Eastminster, and Gleaner's we are providing an essential service in the community. While we don't proselytize, we do this in Christ's name.

I am so grateful for the chefs and the administrators and the 170 volunteers who make this meal ministry happen each year. They develop a strong sense of camaraderie within their teams. Thousands of dollars in cash and thousands more in food is donated every year, which is essential to the viability of both ministries.

I do feel that these ministries are a miracle of generosity and that through them Christ is present in the heart of Belleville.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Ugly Truth of War

You may have noticed that the film which has grossed as much money as the other seven in the top film category at the Oscars was virtually shut out from awards. Phew. Some pundits thought that American Sniper might pull off upsets as best picture and best actor, but it didn't happen.

I have seen six of the eight nominees for best film and I want to see Whiplash as well. I will not watch American Sniper because it glorifies and remakes the image of Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle. Critics argue that Clint Eastwood's film portrays Kyle as a more complex and conflicted individual than he does himself in his biography. Not only that, the film creates situations which did not occur in real life for the sake of drama.

What I find so disturbing is America's addiction to war, and the desire to create heroes out of the grim and questionable realities of combat. Kyle was credited with more than 160 sniper kills, but was sure that he had success on more than 200 occasions. I have read pieces written by folk who glorify Kyle and claim they would like their children to grow up with his values. Really? Those who have called into question the morality of Kyle and what he represents have experienced threats and vilification.

I find it unsettling as well that Chris Kyle saw himself as a Christian and didn't experience any conflict between his role as a killer and the gospel of Christ, who chose the way of peace:

“I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one — not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins.”

Well, he may have been in for a surprise. Sadly, Chris Kyle was shot and killed by another US veteran, but not until they were supposedly safely home. Kyle was attempting to help his murderer who was suffering from mental health issues. The shooter was convicted of murder this past week.

Will you see the film, or have you? Do any of you have a clearer picture than I do of why a nation that prides itself on being religious seems to glorify war?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Freedoms and Bill C-51

When two Canadians, both associated with the military, were killed in separate attacks the immediate thought was that terrorists were at work and there may be more. Both deaths were senseless but they touched us deeply. The following Sunday we included roses at the front of our worship space to commemorate these men and at the conclusion of the service we sang our national anthem, O Canada.

All of us did wonder whether the two killers were associated with terrorist groups and if more could have been done to stop them. If they had been identified by police and security agencies, why weren't they apprehended before they created havoc. We know it could have been much worse.

Now there is legislation before parliament which will grant greater powers to authorities to respond to threats to national security. Bill C-51 is being debated now, and while that debate will be limited most Canadians don't care. Over 80% of us are in favour, although virtually no one really knows what the bill contains.

There are informed and thoughtful and non-partisan voices suggesting that this bill is actually not necessary because of current provisions under the law, and others asking for revisions to safeguard constitutional rights. Four former Prime Ministers and five former Supreme Court justices have raised concerns. But our federal government is not open to revisions and the government ministers who are the point men for this legislation bristle when any concerns are raised.

Among the questions is whether this legislation might be so broad that it would be used to squelch legitimate dissent. As Christians we should pay attention to this because there have been many occasions through the years where people of faith have been active in controversial protests, often treated as though they were terrorists. I still shake my head at the outrageous actions of police during the G-20 Conference in Toronto in 2010. Did any of us believe that orderly protesters and even innocent passers-by could or should be legally be kettled and even assaulted? And while many of us think "I have nothing to hide" in terms of surveillance, I'm not so sure we want the state to have the sort of access to our personal lives the legislation could allow.

Have you paid much attention to this bill and its implications? Is anyone else concerned?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Flash Philanthropy?

The man who found the body of three-year-old Elijah Marsh was interviewed on radio the other morning and his struggle to even describe the discovery was heart-wrenching. He was on a picket line not far from where the child had wandered from his grandmother's home in the early morning hours. Several of the strikers joined the search and he was the one to find Elijah who had perished in the frigid temperatures.

So many people were touched by this tragic death and a father of another three-year-old set up a crowd-funding site to raise twenty thousand dollars to pay for the funeral. The outpouring of support was amazing and the fund was capped at $170,000. As remarkable as this generosity was, it has raised questions about the nature of what is now being described as "flash philanthropy." This large sum can't bring Elijah back, and did the family really need this huge amount. We have heard about situations where large sums are giving to stricken families through crowd-funding only to have unscrupulous family members appear out of nowhere to use the money inappropriately.

We see this flash philanthropy in different forms, including these crowd-funding efforts. I wrote about another expression, which was the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS. While it raised millions for the cause, some participants actually diverted the money to other charities which may have suffered as a result of the popularity of this suddenly high-profile fundraiser.

In communities of faith we know that generosity is a combination of emotional response and measured stewardship. And in most congregations there are individuals who are remarkably generous yet chose not to be acknowledged in any way. Last year a member of the Bridge St. congregation gave $50,000 with clear instructions that the gift remain anonymous. He has been a strong supporter of the life and work of this Christian community for many years but wanted to address a looming deficit. Many others don't have the same means, but give conscientiously, to churches, synagogues, mosques, as well as to many other worthy causes. They are motivated by faith and a sense of justice and compassion which is more than a response of the moment.

The Toronto Star offered a good piece on this recently and offered:

What to do with such generosity is, perhaps, a unique question in the age of social media. “Crowdfunding,” before it got the name, was once a more personal, face-to-face process, carried out by churches or neighbours or community groups, and typically with a kind of discretion, sensitivity, trust — and perhaps proportionality — that online campaigns can lack.

It is helpful to support those who are in need "from the heart." I hope we still respond with measured contributions which come out of the life of communities.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

More than the Three R's

When I was in Sudbury the director of education of the school board was in my congregation and the chair of our Ministry and Personnel committee. We chatted after a meeting one day because he wondered what I thought about a proposal to have condom dispensers in the washrooms. I could tell he was uneasy about it, and knew there would likely be some unhappy people, including some who were religious. I told him it was probably a good idea, although I hadn't given it much thought. He seemed a bit surprised but I figured this wasn't about a moral judgment, it was a practical step which reflected the reality of our times. I had teens at the time and while I felt that our society had become over-sexualized I was also well aware that denying sexual activity didn't make it go away.

I have thought about this conversation as the new sex-ed program has been announced by the Ontario government. Already there has been plenty of response. This morning as I drove to work I listened to two mothers on the radio, both articulate, one in favour of the timelines for the introduction of topics, the other feeling that it was not age appropriate and usurped the role of parents. I really can't comment on that aspect because I haven't spent time studying the proposals and I am far removed from the daily realities of parenting.

What I do know is that during my growing up years there was virtual silence about sexuality, both in my home and in school. Outside in the schoolyard there was plenty of sex talk, a lot of it bizarre and in the category of "talking dirty." I understand the reservations of some parents for a number of reasons, including the variances in maturity with kids, even within families. But school is about education and it isn't restricted to the Three R's. With the internet as a source for a lot of disturbing stuff and the possibilities of online luring and shaming, we may need this education more than ever.

I also feel that there may be young people who are conflicted about their sexual orientation because they are subject to cultural and religious prohibitions. This may help them to have a fuller understanding of sexual expression.

What do you think? Are you comfortable with what you're hearing? Is school a place to learn about sexuality?

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Glory Yet to Come

I didn't watch the Oscars last night but Twitter kept me up to date as we moved through the evening. Patricia Arquette deserved the Best Supporting Actress award and apparently her speech about equality for women was excellent. Her film, Boyhood, was robbed of the Best Picture  prize even though Birdman was an interesting movie. The consensus is that Doogie Howser should stick to hosting the Tonys.

Just about everyone agreed that the highlight of the night was the performance of the Best Song, Glory, and the moving acceptance speech by rapper Common and lyricist John Legend. The song was written for the movie Selma, which is about the Civil Rights marches in that city in the 1960's. It has lots of religious imagery, speaking specifically of Jesus and alluding to his crucifixion in Jerusalem and the crowd gathered near the place of execution.

The title, Glory, is a promise of a better day and again alludes to a hymn, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, or the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The song has taken on an even more powerful meaning in light of increased racial turmoil in the United States during the past few months. But it really speaks to all forms of inequality and the hope that one day it will come to an end.

Did you hear Glory sung at the Oscars? What about the speeches? I'll find them on the internet I'm sure.

Selma's now for every man, woman and child
Even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd
They marched with the torch, we gon' run with it now
Never look back, we done gone hundreds of miles
From dark roads he rose, to become a hero
Facin' the league of justice, his power was the people
Enemy is lethal, a king became regal
Saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle
The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin' of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is one

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In Plain Sight

The owner of a café near Bridge St has a remarkable heart for the poor and semi-homeless in the downtown of the city. She regularly feeds them, gratis, and leaves blankets and coats at the back door of her establishment. She knows them by name and treats them with respect. She really is a local hero.

Recently a patron scolded the café proprietor for the "air of poverty" the presence of these marginal folk create in her establishment. The owner responded that she is willing to lose business rather than treat people with disrespect.

It was unsettling that the critical woman was a member of a group of church people gathered at the café to plan an event. Later the woman returned with hats and mitts as a form of apology but the words were said. I know the owner has misgivings about organized religion, having once been very involved in a congregation. This incident sure wasn't going to allay those concerns. I was saddened to hear that it happened.

I find that chatting with the folk who come to our Inn from the Cold meal ministry reminds me that being poor isn't a sin. Most are friendly, willing to engage in conversation, and lots of them have a sense of humour. They are people, God's people, who for various reasons are poor. Some of those circumstances are of their own making, but often they are beyond their control. Whatever the reasons, they don't take away from their personhood.

Jesus always seemed to be able to see people for who they were and love them. I want to be more like Jesus, plains and simple.

God help us all in our prejudices and stereotypes.

Friday, February 20, 2015

All the Things that Really Matter

Come and find the quiet centre
  in the crowded life we lead,
 find the room for hope to enter,
  find the frame where we are freed:
 clear the chaos and the clutter,
  clear our eyes, that we can see
 all the things that really matter,
  be at peace, and simply be.

This is a verse from one of my favourite hymns, as simple as it is. It speaks to me about the importance of setting our priorities in the midst of the demands of life. If we are prayerful and open -- a focus of this Lenten season -- God will inform our decision-making and purpose.

I thought of this hymn when I read Oliver Sacks piece in the New York Times yesterday. Sacks is the award-winning physician, a neurologist, who has chronicled his fascinating work in a number of books. The film Awakenings which starred Robin Williams is about Sacks.

Sacks, a robust and creative 81-year-old, has learned that he has terminal cancer and his time may be short. In the piece he offers

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends...I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return...
Reflections such as this one are a poignant invitation to all of us to realize our mortality and to "get real" about the days we have been given. The traditional words for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday are "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I don't use these words, and they are hardly cheery, yet they are so honest, even for those of us who believe in a resurrection promise.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

For God's Sake, Keep it Down!

Monday, which was Family Day, none of our adult kids and their partners could be with us, so we drove north of Sharbot Lake to pay a last visit to the farm of a couple who have been friends for so long we consider them family. We have been going there for the better part of twenty years and I have mused about our experiences there many times. We love these hospitable folk and we have loved the silence and solitude of the fields and the bush and the river of their property. Of course "silence" does not refer to an absence of sound, because a barnyard is never soundless, nor for that matter are the forest and water. We did soak in the relative absence of noise, the sonic clutter of our culture.

We are happy for our friends that they will enter into a phase of life with less responsibility but we will miss these oasis moments. I have often found this a place of creativity and spiritual renewal. They assure us that their new home was chosen for the quiet.

As we drove home we listened to a podcast of the NPR program called On Being by Krista Tippett which was an interview with Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an acoustical engineer who has quixotically searched for the last places in the United States without human-made noise. He claims, rightly I think, that noiseless places are an endangered species and the number remaining can literally be counted on the fingers of his two hands. He describes the world as a "solar-powered jukebox" with lots of sounds, but he makes the distinction between the sounds of the natural world and the cacophony of noise we often struggle to filter.

Yesterday I came across a Guardian Online article about the increasingly adverse effects of noise on Brits:

People are becoming increasingly intolerant of loud music, barking dogs, noisy neighbours, road traffic and aircraft noise, a major government survey has found.According to a government survey of attitudes conducted once a decade, noise has risen from ninth to fourth since 2000 in the league table of perceived local environmental problems and is now on a level with air pollution and only behind dog fouling, litter and the loss of green belt land.
Research by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that 48% of the 2,750 people surveyed in England and Wales felt that their home life was being spoilt by noise, with one in five saying it kept them awake at night. But while the survey found little change in the proportion of people saying they are affected of unwelcome noise, 11-17% more people said they were significantly upset by it. “There has been a strongly statistically significant increase in the proportion of respondents who report being bothered, annoyed or disturbed to some extent by road traffic, neighbours , aircraft and building ... despite no material increase in the proportion of the population hearing noise from these four sources,” said the report.

Many of the important biblical figures, including Jesus, heard God in places away from the distractions and noise of daily life, and they lived in eras long before the incessant mechanical sounds of our time. How do we let God get a word in edge-wise if there is never any silence?

Do you need silence in order to creative or to have a sense of inner peace? If so, how do you find it? Does God speak to you in the silence?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I wish I had the courage the streets with a bowl of ashes today. And why, you might ask. This is Ash Wednesday -- rather early this year -- and we will have a service this evening in the quiet and comfortable safety of our chapel at Bridge St. Even though Ash Wednesday is "new" to the United Church it isn't really, because I have been doing this for more than 30 years in various congregations. It is more accurate to describe it as unfamiliar to a lot of Protestants, a liturgical tune a lot of us just don't feel comfortable humming. Yet I always find preparing for Ash Wednesday with its message of repentance and a renewed heart quite meaningful.

Still, Ashes-to-Go? In her recent book City of God: Faith in the Streets, Sara Miles tells of heading out in her San Francisco neighbourhood with the traditional Episcopalian (Anglican) Ash Wednesday liturgy, and ashes mixed with oil for imposition, or anointing. They wore albs as well, so they looked rather churchy.

There are a growing number of congregations in cities around the world which have decided that instead of waiting for people to show up they better get out where the people are. This really isn't so strange, if you think about it. Lots of the prophets did street minister, and that Jesus guy. The birthday of the church on the day of Pentecost involved the followers of Jesus getting kicked out of an upper room by the Holy Spirit and a spirited sermon being delivered by Peter. The apostle Paul did a lot of preaching and teaching in public squares because, well, there were no churches. There is even an Ashes to Go website and Facebook page

Ruth, my wife, heard about a church in Toronto which will take Ash Wednesday to the streets tomorrow and, sure enough, Holy Trinity Anglican has two services. One is in the evening in the church and the noontime service is on what will surely be the chilly streets of T.O.

Ashes to go...maybe next year.

What do you think of this? Just a fad, or something which really makes sense in a time when a growing number of people wouldn't darken the door of a church? Will you attend an Ash Wednesday service today?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jesus Help Us

Horror: Released last night, a new video by ISIS showed the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya

The level of barbarity on the part of ISIS or ISIL or whatever this murderous band of thugs is called apparently knows no bounds. The Syrian government attempted to negotiate the release of a pilot only to see him burned alive. Aid workers doing their best to help the sick and hungry have been brutally murdered. While Christians are aware of Jesus' caution about "eye for an eye" retaliation, turning the other cheek, even emotionally, is difficult to do.

Most recently a group of twenty one Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded on a beach in Libya by a new manifestation of ISIL. How is it that so many people, the majority young it would appear, can be recruited to commit such heinous crimes? Pope Francis is amongst those horrified by this cruelty and he interjected comments in a meeting about the death of these men. As he named his sadness he also noted the reported last words of a number of them which were "Jesus help me." Francis also offered that their martyrs blood confessed Christ.

We don't think of martyrs all that much any more, assuming that those who died for their faith lived in centuries long in the past. The word martyr means witness, and in some respects these slain men do bear witness to Christ because they were killed for their faith, as other Christians have been. But the madness of ISIS/ISIL is that they have murdered many Muslims as well because they somehow do not adhere to the beliefs of these terrorists. We know too that in Nigeria the majority victims of the Boko Haram militant Muslim group are Muslims.

The men slaughtered on the beach were Christians but they were in Libya simply to make a living. They weren't proselytizing or giving offense. Of course with rare exceptions none of the murdered were combatants or militant about their faith. This is madness.

Christ help us all.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Senseless Deaths in Chapel Hill

Last week three young adults, a married couple and a sister of one of them were senselessly shot and killed in Chapel Hill North Carolina. The man who killed them was belligerent with neighbours and regularly started conflicts over parking. The police described the shootings as a parking dispute gone terribly wrong. This assessment has already been challenged because the three who died were Muslims and the dress of the women made it obvious that they were. The suggestion is that this was a hate crime and while parking may have been a trigger, no other people were shot and killed by the man. Word is that while the killer had angry exchanges with a number of the condo residents in his development he had also harassed members of this family for their dress.

Who knows what motivates some nut-bars, but Chapel Hill has been dealing with tension over the past few weeks at the University of North Carolina campus, where plans to allow the daily Muslim call to prayer from the chapel tower were quashed. There was a great outcry from some Christians including Franklin Graham, who encouraged people to stop donating to UNC unless the plan was dropped.

To the credit of the people of Chapel Hill, interfaith vigils have been held in support of the bereaved family and thousands of dollars have been raised for the funerals. But no amount of money brings back loved ones. By all accounts these three were bright young people, active in the community, and involved in charitable works. This is a huge loss.

Did you hear about this incident? What would the police and media response have been if it had been three white Christians shot by a brown-skinned Muslim? Any comments about this sad story?

Saturday, February 14, 2015


At the Golden Globe awards this year the TV program Transparent won for best comedy or musical and best actor. Jeffrey Tambor was the award-winner for his portrayal of a father of three, a patriarch named Mort, who becomes a matriarch named Maura. Tambor is a funny guy but he is not just playing this role for laughs, and while I haven't seen any episodes he is apparently brilliant in this role.

If you saw Dallas Buyer's Club you know that Jared Leto was powerful in his portrayal of a transgendered person, and won an Academy Award. It's interesting that neither Tambor nor Leto are transgender but both these roles have been breakthroughs of understanding and acceptance.

In my last two congregations there have been transgendered persons. I have written about the girl who went to Sunday School in the church and returned as a young man twenty years later, unbeknownst to anyone. He was quite patient with me as we talked together about his journey and I was glad to be of support. I became aware of his desire to be true to himself, even if it meant misunderstanding and rejection. I was also rather befuddled, I must admit. I really don't get transgender, but here's the thing -- that's my problem.

Over the years I have come to realize that just because I don't get something it doesn't mean that it is wrong or abnormal or immoral. Unfortunately censure has been far too common in communities of faith. I have been part of that in the past, as many of us have. I'm not suggesting that I don't have a responsibility to exercise discernment. I just want to live the love of Christ for others as openly as I can and be careful about judgment and rejection. The United Church has been at the forefront of inviting understanding and acceptance for the T (transgender) in LGBTQ.

Has anyone seen Transparent? Would you be interested in watching the show?(I am) Have you altered outlooks and attitudes over time, even in circumstances you don't really understand?

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Good Life and a Compassionate Death

Some wonder if the task of ending patients lives would be left to “euthanologists,” or whether doctors need be directly involved in any assisted-death regimen.

I came back from vacation to discover that the Supreme Court had ruled that it is not criminal to assist someone in taking his or her own life. This is probably a reasonably decision, but it sounds as though the ruling is rather short on detail, and that is a challenge. Just because assisted suicide in no longer strictly illegal there will need to be parameters. Who will decide what they are? And who will offer the assistance? While 85% of Canadians want freedom to choose, 75% of doctors don't want to be in that role.

I feel that we are still clueless about death in our society. We don't prepare for it with honesty, and we haven't equipped physicians to be part of that conversation. Even though we think we want choice at the end, how well equipped are we to make decisions in the midst of physical and emotional stress?

As a pastor I regularly speak with folk about the end of life, as does my partner in ministry, Vicki. She does so both as our minister of pastoral care and as the local hospital chaplain. She is very good at what she does.  But even when people want to address their impending death family members are often reluctant to do so. A friend does palliative work in a hospital as a physician but is often frustrated by the unwillingness of families to address what is happening and making the end of life better for their loved ones.

In a recent article Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente reflected on the experience of her mother as she came to the end of her life. She didn't have an easy departure because of a lack of adequate palliative care, including pain control. Wente contends -- and I agree with her -- that this Supreme Court ruling and any laws that are enacted cannot ensure that we will be compassionate:

My point is that the vast majority of the frail, the elderly and dying – people like my mother – don’t need assisted death to ease their passing. What they really need is a vast culture change in the way we care for them. What they and their families need is the assurance that simple compassion and humanity will not be smothered by complex systems and bureaucracy. Unfortunately, no law can guarantee that.

We have a long way to go and I hope that communities of faith will be able to respond in ways that help rather than hinder the conversation?

What are your thoughts, O wise readers?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Marcus Borg RIP

Front Cover
In the 1980's a group of theologians calling themselves The Jesus Seminar gained notoriety by voting on the authenticity of sayings of Jesus in the gospels with coloured beads signifying yes, no, or maybe. It seemed sensational and attention-seeking to me, not very scholarly, and I was annoyed.

There were Jesus Seminar theologians whose work intrigued me, specifically John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. I have heard both of them speak, Crossan in Nova Scotia and Borg in B.C. While I don't agree with their perception of Jesus. I have appreciated their scholarship, insight, and willingness to engage in respectful conversation with theologians who are more orthodox in their theology such as N.T Wright. Both have engaging and humorous styles of presentation, which helps with material which may be rather heavy sledding. When I heard Borg in a series of lectures in Victoria he began each session with a joke, and they were good.

Marcus Borg died recently at the age of 72. It says something about my advancing years that I now consider this to be young. The books by Borg which I have appreciated include: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The First Christmas, The Last Week, and Speaking Christian. The"First" and "Last" were co-authored with Crossan. He also participated in a published debate on key Christological concepts with Wright, the book called The Meaning of Jesus.

Marcus Borg's death is certainly a loss to the theological community, and I would encourage taking a look at some of his work.

Do any of you have experience with Borg, either through his books or DVD resources or in person? Did you find his work intriguing, troubling, heretical?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.
Colossians 3:9

Remember the good ol' days when people lied. I mean that there was a time when a lie was called a lie and it was considered a bad thing, even a sinful thing for which the liar was expected to express regret or even sorrow. Maybe they would repent and take responsibility. When I was a kid we used to shame others or be shamed with "liar, liar, pants on fire!" It was mean, but sometimes accurate.

No one lies anymore, or at least not that they want to admit. The top television anchor in the United States, Brian Williams, lied recently. He told what has been dubbed the "chopper whopper," saying that in 2003 while in Iraq doing coverage of the war he had been in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He has described the experience in some detail in different settings, except that it wasn't true. Another helicopter in the convoy was hit, but Williams wasn't in immediate danger. For some reason he publicly embellished the experience and military personnel who were there called him on it.

Now Williams has been suspended for six months from a job that pays him $10 million a year. Some are saying though that his credibility is severely compromised and his career may be in jeopardy. Williams has apologized for "conflating the two aircraft" and misrepresenting his situation.

I think of a Canadian MP, Brad Butt, who a year ago in parliament claimed that he had seen people stealing voter cards in apartment buildings. Later he retracted that contention, saying that he "misspoke." No, Mr. Butt lied, although he is still a member of parliament and was not suspended or punished in any way. Perhaps the ethical bar is lower because we expect politicians to lie.

Who knows, maybe lying will make a comeback someday. I won't hold my breath.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Underwater Silence and Solitude

Okay, don't hate me, but I am back at work after a week in Cuba. We haven't had a winter vacation in several years and really looked forward to it. We couldn't have known that it would be the perfect week to get away. Judging from the excavation of our vehicle at the Park-N-Fly and the volume of snow in our yard this was a memorable week in Southern Ontario for all the wrong reasons, at least when it comes to shoveling and driving!

We stayed in a resort near Holguin in the west of the island, on the north shore. We chose this spot because of the snorkeling right off the beach. Cuba's reefs are healthier than most in the Caribbean because it is not a developed nation and the pollution levels which affect coral are lower.

The promise of excellent snorkeling were fulfilled and we explored the warm waters several times. One morning we got out early, so the visibility was excellent and we were virtually alone. We figured that there were fifteen to twenty species of fish and a variety of corals including staghorn, elkhorn, fan, and brain varieties. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and complex ecosystem.

After this experience Ruth commented on the deep silence we experienced while we were out there. It is true that there is virtually no sound other than one's own breathing. It goes beyond the absence of sound though, to the silence of spirit in what feels like another world, one which is vast and intricate.

During the week I mused about this week's scripture readings which feature the prophet Elijah. I read through the portion of 1 Kings which tell his story and it includes his wilderness experience where he encounters "the sound of sheer silence" (New Revised Standard Version) or the "still small voice" of God (King James Version.) We entered into that sound of sheer silence in the watery wilderness, and it was holy.

Are there any snorkelers out there? What about your experiences of profound silence? Are these holy moments when you know God is present?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Lion Lamb Sabbath

Often when I'm going to be away for a time I create scheduled blog entries for those of you who read faithfully. Well, I will be gone for a few days and have decided that rather than spending the hours feverishly writing in advance I would give us all a rest.

As always I am grateful that you do read, and that some of you offer comments. Those comments really do matter!

Shabbat Shalom.

Please check in again in a week!

Sunday, February 01, 2015

A Remarkable Man

Last Sunday I announced to the Bridge St congregation that Dr. Bruce Cronk had died the night before. Bruce was approaching his 92nd birthday and while he died in hospital he had been at home until just a few days before. When I first met him this retired cardiologist estimated that his own ticker would fail him within a year. Fortunately he was off by nine months, but the end was inevitable.

As what I have said might suggest, Bruce had a long and worthwhile life. He was surrounded by loving family and friends in the last months and his three children were there in the final hours. I was able to go the hospital to read a psalm (139) and pray shortly before he died.

Still, it was an emotional moment as I shared the news with the congregation, and this past week has been a struggle for me. I have known so many wonderful people through the years and had the privilege of walking with them to the end of this life. Bruce was exceptional in every way. We had many visits and talked about so much. He was a person of deep faith and continued to read my sermons even after he was confined to his home. He wanted to talk about them and about the meaning of life.

I have joked with others that Bruce was "Forest Gump with brains" because his life seemed to be one extraordinary experience and phase after another. He began studying neurology and worked at Johns Hopkins medical centre in Baltimore where he treated boxing legend Jack Dempsey. He was deeply respected in this community as a cardiologist and was the recipient of a number of awards.

Our conversations regularly moved to other passions though. Bruce was an avid canoeist and I was in awe of his exploits on the rivers of the Far North which didn't begin until he was in his sixties. And in retirement he served for ten years in remote United Church hospitals in both Newfoundland and British Columbia. We shared stories about The Rock (my settlement charge) and the challenge of deciphering heavy Newfie accents!

Just before Christmas I visited Bruce and he told me that he would be phoning an aged friend in Switzerland. They had shared an igloo in the North one winter doing research for their respective governments. I laughed out loud because there was an endless well of remarkable stories from this modest man. He got his care-giver to bring a photo of the two young men standing in front of the igloo with their dog-team nearby.

Bruce told me that Bridge St church had been a rock for him in those times when the weight of his work threatened to overwhelm him. He was a volunteer with our Inn from the Cold meal program for many years and had a heart for those on the margins of our society.

I thank God for Bruce. I thank God for his kindness, his amazing mind, his sense of adventure, his generosity. I pray for Sylvia, his beloved wife of more than sixty years, and for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.