Friday, October 30, 2015

Greenness of the Spirit

There aren't many mainline church congregations that aren't fretting about aging membership. We are trying to read the writing on the wall but the cataracts and glaucoma make it difficult. I hasten to add that I am no spring chicken myself, so I resemble these remarks!

Sunday was an occasion when the Bridge St congregation looked particularly elderly with many of our younger folk away. I was reminded though that beneath the snow-capped heads veriditas, a greenness of the spirit, flourishes.

During coffee time following worship a lovely senior said that she had been waiting to tell me that she read my Thanksgiving sermon on her phone while sitting in a bar in Venice, sipping a single malt whiskey. Then she laughed heartily and I joined in. She said she hoped I wasn't offended but I don't think she cared, and I'm delighted.

I went on to the hospital where another elderly soul is in the Intensive Care Unit with congestive heart failure. Her condition is serious but she is still feisty. We talked about the results of the election and she told me about the candidates meeting at her seniors' residence. The new candidate for the defeated government didn't measure up in her estimation when she asked questions about his party's health platform. She looked him in the eye and sniffed "you know that slogan, 'just not ready?'..." Again, I laughed out loud.

We finished up at the birthday party for a 90-year-old who nearly perished several years ago but was holding court for visitors at her daughter's home. Impressive.

We don't want to wither on Christ's vine, and the future does seem uncertain for us at times because we are getting so darn old. It shouldn't block our vision of those who still want to experience abundant life in every way.

Are there lots of seniors in your church? Too many? Can there be too many? Are they celebrated as a gift rather than a liability?

Here's to veriditas!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lost Gospels?

The "lead me not into temptation" issue of the Christian Century magazine, otherwise known as the Fall Books issue arrived earlier this week. I confess that I have ordered a book or four on the basis of reviews I read, and I lust after others. There are a number of helpful reviews of books I would like, but will not order because I have to be a realist about time. One has the lengthy title The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels by Philip Jenkins. Phew -- that's a mouthful.

Jenkins considers the so-called lost gospels, the ones which didn't make the cut in the fourth century. Opening up the New Testament reminds us that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the ones chosen as canonical, but originally there were many others.

I have always assumed that the 4th century decision-making was the end of the story. In fact, many of these gospels continued to play a part in the church for centuries, as prose, but also in art and poetry. It wasn't until 16th century reformations that they faded into the background of church life. Luther's sola scriptura and the invention of the printing press demanded precision which reduced the diversity of beliefs and practices.

The minimizing of some of these other gospels wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas has Jesus killing some village kids who won't obey him and blinding others. We can live without these images of boy Jesus.

Reviewer Margaret Miles quotes Jenkins to remind us that "at no point in Christian history have believers been united into one single united church." And as we explore what it means to be Christian in the 21st century we can make room for diversity.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Everyone's Right to Die

Sunday night The Good Wife television drama had several concurrent plots going, including a trial of doctors in Oregon being sued by a family for assisting their adult daughter in taking her own life because of an incurable condition. The lawyer acting on behalf of the family actually supported assisted suicide but was able to challenge aspects of what the physicians had done. There was evidence that a new treatment had been developed for the disease, and the motives of the boyfriend were called into question in supporting his partner to take her life. In the discussion behind the scenes it was noted that in Belgium individuals can use depression as a reason to terminate their lives, a slippery slope.

In other words, the courtroom drama looked at an number of aspects of a subject which is being addressed in many jurisdictions, as well as the practices in places where laws have already been passed. The term "the right to die" is often used to describe these initiatives which I find curious because not only do we all have the right to die, it is a certainty. The other questions include whether the right to die is solely an individual choice, whether society can do a better job of supporting those who are in distress or in seriously compromised health.

It shouldn't surprise any of us that this is an ethical challenge which has been taken up by religious groups across the theological spectrum. Some churches and other religions are categorically against assisted suicide, while others, including the United Church, are more sympathetic yet upholding the sanctity of life. There is nothing easy about this discussion, even though there are some who would suggest it is straightforward. I have mentioned before that I know physicians who have no interest in becoming the "angel of death" even though they are committed to palliative care and not blindly entering into extraordinary measures to prolong life.

The new Liberal government is well aware that the Supreme Court of Canada has given until February 6th 2016 to amend the current law on assisted suicide but may request a six-month extension. This strikes me as prudent and I hope that the extension is granted. We can pray for the wisdom of those in the decision-making process.

Did any of you catch The Good Wife episode? It is available "on demand." Has your mind changed over time? Is this an issue that we should be addressing as communities of faith? Do you know someone who wanted to end his or her own life but couldn't get help to do so?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Spiritual North

Yesterday I finished Sheila Watt-Cloutier's biography, The Right to be Cold. I wrote about hearing her interviewed about the book several months ago and being impressed by this Inuit activist who has effectively advocated on behalf of the people of the North. For decades she has cajoled the international community to recognize the devastating effect of the "dirty dozen" POPs, the Persistent Organic Pollutants which are a chemical time bomb. While they are produced in the south they migrate northward and affect the health of people who we might think are isolated from them. Watt Cloutier was very involved in the development of the Stockholm Convention of 2001 to address POPs.

The title The Right to be Cold comes from a comment by a reporter at an international meeting who reflected the human rights of indigenous peoples in the North as "the right to be cold." While Watt- Cloutier eventually realized that this comment was somewhat restricting, it became a good catch phrase for her work. She reminds us that what happens in the North may be "out of sight and out of mind" but it not only effects the traditional people of the land, it is a barometer for the health of the planet. Climate change is very evident in the North, and it is having a profound impact on the way of life of Inuit people. For people of this region "ice is life," but the disappearance of ice there

The Right to be Cold is also a spiritual book, something I did not expect. Watt-Cloutier describes how the "country food" of the traditional diet not only fuels those who live in a harsh climate, it is almost sacramental for her and her people. She notes as well that learning to hunt instills spiritual values of patience and perseverance, and respect for all living things.

I found that I was quite emotional at times, and I read a number of passages to my patient spouse, Ruth. I would love to converse with Sheila, and it is has stirred a hankering to visit the far North.

Does this book intrigue you? Have you spent time in the North? Do you understand why I would describe it as spiritual?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Power of Forgiveness

Today I will remind people of an upcoming study/discussion series at Bridge St. called The Power of Forgiveness based on an excellent book and DVD which explores the different facets of forgiveness. I have used it before and it provoked worthwhile discussion. Few if any of us get through life without dealing with issued of forgiveness, or "unforgiveness" as it is sometimes termed. Many faithful churchgoers come to worship with a ton of unresolved junk, and reconciliation seems next to impossible. Congregations often simmer with the heat of painful episodes from the past.

I was aware this week of two situations, half a world away from each other. In London Ontario a woman was convicted of dangerous driving when her vehicle smashed into a store, killing two little girls and injuring the mother. The 66-year-old woman apologized from the heart and expressed gratitude to the father of the children who acknowledged that his family had been torn apart but also spoke words of forgiveness. The convicted woman asked for their prayers.

In South Africa the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, shot and killed by Oscar Pistorius spoke to a group of school students. Despite her loss she said that “I didn’t want him to be thrown in jail and be suffering because I don’t wish suffering on anyone, and that’s not going to bring Reeva back,” . “But in my heart, I don’t want revenge towards him. I’m past that. Once you have told God that you forgive, you have to forgive. And I don’t want him to suffer .... I would certainly not want to hurt another human being.”

She added: “One has to forgive to move on, otherwise you become ill. For God expects you to forgive, and until you’ve done that, you can’t move forward in any way.”

Both of these responses touched me and obviously they are newsworthy in a world of "eye for an eye."  Often forgiveness just doesn't seem to make sense, yet revenge is so much more senseless. We follow the Christ of forgiveness and reconciliation through the cross, and finding our way into that forgiveness is both our lifelong challenge and our hope.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

God's Banquet

I cannot come to the banquet,
don't trouble me now.
I have married a wife; I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.

(chorus based on parable in Luke 14)

This past weekend our older daughter Jocelyn was married in a lovely ceremony before we went on to a fun reception. The food was great, our two-year-old grandson danced for hours, and not one of the speeches was cringe-worthy. 

 Jocelyn and Jeff met years ago while working as students for a caterer. Their reception was in the hall where they met as staff members, and the catering company was the one they worked for. In fact, the owners were guests at the wedding.

Everything went off without a hitch, but what if it hadn't? Sickness and accidents and breakups do happen, even though no one wants to entertain the thought. While J & J were wed a young man who was to be married the same day was languishing in jail after allegedly causing a fatal accident while under the influence of alcohol. He was returning home after his bachelor weekend.

A story about a failed wedding reception which became an act of generosity caught my attention on the weekend -- surprise, surprise! A California couple called off their wedding, and the MOTB (mother of the bride) decided that the $35,000 reception (yikes!) shouldn't go to waste. The family put out the word to homeless and poor people in the area that a free banquet was available for them. Grateful folk showed up for salmon and sirloin tip in what may have been the meal of a lifetime. It sounds wonderful, and the recipients were very grateful.

I love this story. Jesus liked a good meal, even when he was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowd. He figured that they were alright in God's sight, and he used stories of those who were willing to come to a banquet while others made excuses as a way of illustrating God's extravagant love.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


In recent weeks tensions in Israel and adjoining Palestinians areas have ramped up because of random acts of violence. Israelis have been attacked by mostly young Palestinian men, stabbed and sometimes killed. This is the simple reality, although it would be simplistic to stop there. The underlying realities of a generation of Palestinian youth without opportunity and hope don't show up in the tally of attacks. Of course there is retaliation by the Israel government and the Palestinians suffer their own casualties.

There is no justification for this violence, as there is no excuse for the repressive regime under Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, what may ensue is yet another "initfada" an Arabic word literally meaning "tremor", "shivering", "shuddering". There have been a number of these uprisings or intifadas in recent decades and they are always ugly, violent and ultimately pointless. They are an expression of frustration and outrage and this time around it is being fuelled by social media.

Masked Palestinians surround a bonfire in Shuafat, East Jerusalem (05/10/15)
Last evening we went to the Empire Theatre in Belleville to see the film Dancing Arabs, a curious title for a pretty good flick about a gifted young Arab, Eyad, who is given the opportunity for education and advancement in the Jewish world. Dancing Arabs is set in the early eighties to early nineties and explores relationships, prejudices, and the "two solitudes" of Israel where about 20% of the population is Arab. There is also a "Romeo and Juliet" aspect to the film. There is also reference to an intifada during that time period.

Our United Church and many others have walked the difficult path of support for Israeli sovereignty while championing the plight of the Palestinians. The UCC and other churches have been vilified at times, and the previous Harper government was heavy-handed in its support for Israel without much sympathy for the Palestinians. Who knows if this will change under the Liberals.

If you have a chance to see Dancing Arabs it will be worth your while, even though it is a good rather than exceptional film. The acting is strong, and the story is timely.

Please pray for calm in Israel and Palestine. Another uprising will only result in violence and hardship. There is no doubt though that change must happen.


Voting Against Fear

Canadians flocked to polling stations across the country to cast their ballots after a 78-day campaign.

Last night Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, spoke on CBC television during the Canadian federal election coverage. During the campaign Nenshi had been outspoken in his criticism of the niqab debate and what were essentially the politics of fear. He offered that the past three months have not been Canada's finest hour, and I would agree. There was too much veiled racism and Islamophobia, from my perspective, and the final blow was the announcement about a snitch line for "barbaric cultural practices." Someone suggested along the way that this sort of communist regime ratting out of neighbours would itself be a barbaric cultural practice.

Nenshi is a very popular mayor in a province that is still a Conservative stronghold. He is brown, South Asian in background, although his family emigrated from Tanzania. Oh yes, he is Muslim. I love listening to the guy, and figured many Torontonians had mayor envy when Rob Ford was marauding his way through office. To me Nenshi is the best of what can happen in this country when we are open and welcoming.  

On Thanksgiving Sunday the passage from the prophet Joel declared "do not fear!" and I said that fear-mongering in politics has become too common and is not what we should support as Christians. I also observed that all the parties engage in fear politics now, and Nenshi mentioned the same dismal trend.

I feel that the results of the election indicate that Canadians do not want a government which appeals to our worst instincts. Sure, there are plenty of us who get caught up in the "us and them" of class and race and religion, but surely this is not who we want to be as a democratic nation. Those of us who are the followers of Christ are also called to a higher way.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

When in our Music God is Glorified

1 When in our music God is glorified,
 and adoration leaves no room for pride,
 it is as though the whole creation cried

2 How often, making music, we have found
 a new dimension in the world of sound,
 as worship moved us to a more profound

3 So has the church in liturgy and song,
 in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
 borne witness to the truth in every tongue,

4 And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
 when utmost evil strove against the light?
 Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:

5 Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
 Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
 And may God give us faith to sing always

I will not be leading worship at Bridge St United Church today but Rev. Vicki Fulcher and Music Minister Terry Head will focus on the integral aspect of music in worship. Week in and week out music as praise to the living God graces our service and we have many gifted musicians who work alongside Terry. I know that the service will bless those present.

The hymn above, number 533 in Voices United,  says so much about what music means to the gathered Christian community, and it is one of my favourites.

I will still be celebrating the wedding of daughter Jocelyn and her fiancé Jeff, but I have no doubt it will be a wonderful service.

Comment away!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Christ Light in Marriage


We are pilgrims on a journey,
 fellow travellers on the road;
 we are here to help each other
 walk the mile and bear the load.

2 Sister, let me be your servant,
 let me be as Christ to you;
 pray that I may have the grace to
 let you be my servant too.

3 I will hold the Christ-light for you
 in the night-time of your fear;
 I will hold my hand out to you,
 speak the peace you long to hear.

4 I will weep when you are weeping,
 when you laugh I'll laugh with you;
 I will share your joy and sorrow,
 till we've seen this journey through.

5 When we sing to God in heaven,
 we shall find such harmony,
 born of all we've known together
 of Christ's love and agony.

Today Jocelyn, our second child and older daughter, marries her fiancé Jeff in Whitby. They have been together for eight years and already have a family, Ruby and Ronan. Well Ruby is feline, and Ronan is canine, but they are definitely kin to Joce and Jeff.

I am very impressed by them as a couple. They are both doing well in their chosen vocations, they are homeowners, and they voted in the advance polls. Of course what is such a relief to us as parents is that their love for each other is evident and they make each other happy.

Since our family is lousy with clergy I get to walk Jocelyn down the aisle with Ruth while her brother Isaac presides at the ceremony. Her cousin Michael could have been in that role as well, and there are two grandfathers and a great uncle who will be present as part of the ministerial cloud of witnesses.

We put no pressure on the couple to make this a 'ligious ceremony, but they have chosen to include God in the various elements of the service, which warms our hearts. So often that isn't the case today, and we are grateful, because Christ and the Christian community were important in our family through the years.

My brother Eric, and cousin-in-law John Abrams are accomplished musicians and they will play and sing The Servant Song, at Joce's behest. And the pipe organ of Trafalgar Castle will sound forth at the hands of Patrick Dewell, son of Doug Dewell, our music director at St. Paul's during the decade I was there.

Please pray for us all on this day of celebration!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Precariat

In sociology and economics the precariat is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability  or security,  affecting material or psychological welfare...

If there was a drinking game where voters were required to down a shot for every time one of our political party leaders used the phrase "hard-working Canadians" during this election campaign we would have all staggered through these past few weeks and collapsed before reaching a polling station.

The leaders of the three major parties love to use it, and it seems to be code for the middle class, whatever that is. The focus appears to be on those who are employed and looking for benefits rather than those who are without work, or whose employment is precarious. A Globe and Mail article addresses this reality , although it may fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The article uses the term "precariat," which may have been coined by Guy Standing, to describe those who live with constant economic uncertainty. Some are generationally poor, but others have grown up in middle class families and are spinning their tires when it comes to meaningful employment and financial security.

Christians are taxpayers and voters and often well ensconced in the middle class. It can be a challenge to remember that Jesus was a member of the precariat himself and whose audiences were often peasants and day-workers whose existence was precarious. It was the wealthy and secure who didn't like Jesus much. When he claimed that it would be easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven it was likely a humorous image which would tickle the fancy of his listeners.

I do hope that whatever party is elected will be more attentive to issues such as affordable housing and decent living wages, but I'm not holding my breath.

Do you know the term "precariat?"  Do you have family members struggling to get by, even though they are working?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Festival Churches?

If you are part of the United Church of Canada you are likely painfully aware that our membership is declining and aging. When I look in the mirror I'm well aware of the aging aspect! I began ministry at age 25 in outport Newfoundland in 1980. My five congregations had over 200 children in Sunday School. The largest of those Sunday Schools now has virtually no kids and the five preaching points are now a struggling three.

I was struck by a Guardian piece about the Church of England and the use of the term "festival churches" to describe buildings which may be opened only at Christmas and Easter and other special occasions because of shrinking congregations.

An increasing number of churches are likely to operate only at Christmas, Easter and on other holy days as the Church of England struggles with the financial burden of maintaining its properties in the face of declining congregations, a report says. More than three-quarters of the CofE’s 15,700 churches are listed, and in 2013 their upkeep cost £157m – or an average of £10,000 per parish. Yet one in four of all churches has a weekly attendance of fewer than 16 people – and for rural churches the figure sinks below 10.

Ironic that a CofE church might only be open at C&E, and that this would be described as a festival! While there might not be a lot to celebrate here, choosing a realistic path for the future makes sense. Ultimately many of these buildings will need to be decommissioned or deconsecrated. The euphemism "repurposed" comes to mind for what will eventually happen. Still this might be a necessary step in transition for those who can't imagine worshipping anywhere other than their traditional buildings.

The Bridge St UC trustees have been given the task of conducting a structural audit of our magnificent but leaky and creaky physical plant. I love standing in our silent sanctuary early on a Sunday morning, but recently, during a rainstorm I heard running water and realized that this wasn't a good thing. We are still an active congregation with a strong sense of ministry and mission in Christ's name, but we want to be realists about our future.

What do you think about the notion of Festival Churches? Is this inevitable in changing times? Is there any good news in this?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

For God's Sake

Siham refugees Syrian twins

We are faithful CBC radio listeners and we continue to listen to Metro Morning out of Toronto even though we have left the GTA. I'm so glad I heard Rev. Christopher White of Fairlawn United speak about their frustrated efforts to bring a Syrian mother and her three daughters to Canada. Two of them are pictured above. Fairlawn began in January, well before the recent media attention, yet this family languishes in bureaucratic limbo in Lebanon. The population of Lebanon is 4.5 million and there are a million Syrian refugees there, so it isn't surprising that the government is deporting some of them back to Syria, even though they are returning to grave danger.

For the first time, on air, Chris spoke to the Syrian mother who has been learning English. He was moved to tears, and it was very touching to hear their exchange. He encouraged her not to lose hope. Shortly after this interview and exchange MP Joe Oliver was interviewed and I was emotionally again, angered by the bureaucratic babble and deflection. For God's sake, why isn't our government demonstrating compassion and expediting these situations?  Is it seriously afraid that a mother and young daughters who desperately need asylum are terrorists? I'm glad that host Matt Galloway challenged the nonsense we were hearing from Oliver.

I thought of the family of five United Churches in Belleville are sponsoring. They too are in Lebanon. Will they and we face the same nightmare?

Please pray for all circumstances where Canadians are choosing compassion for those in peril. God, work in the hearts of bureaucrats. Surely they do have hearts, tiny as they might be.

Listen to the interview with Rev. White.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Solidarity Fridge

I will eat Thanksgiving leftovers for my lunch today, a happy consequence of a holiday feast. Our table groaned with abundant and delicious food on Sunday afternoon and the gathering of family members was a happy one. God is good.

How do we make sure that abundance is shared, rather than wasted? In a Spanish town the answer is the Solidarity Fridge. The fridge is in a public place and anyone can avail him/her self of the contents. Here is a description of the project:
For the past seven weeks, Galdakao, population 29,000, has been home to Spain’s first “solidarity fridge”, in which residents and restaurants can drop off leftover or unused food otherwise destined for the bin. Anything left in the fridge can be picked up by anyone who wants it. “I would guess we’ve saved between 200 and 300kg from the rubbish bin,” said organiser Álvaro Saiz. A typical day might see leftover lentils, a few sandwiches and unopened milk cartons left in the fridge.
The idea came about as Saiz and other members of the city’s volunteer association were reflecting on the sheer amount of food being thrown out by supermarkets. “We started to think that if even just one of their rubbish bins was replaced with a fridge, people could take advantage of these items.” After an online search revealed a network of shared fridges in Berlin, he said. “We realised we could do this – so we did.”

Of course there are fairly strict rules about the donation of food and it appears that contributors are adhering to them. A number of restaurants are on board, and one owner says that it helps to alleviate his guilt about wasting so much good food.

There an increasing number of initiatives to ensure that good food is eaten, rather than discarded. France has passed legislation for grocery chains, and in Britain Marks and Spencers has announced that it will step up efforts to contribute food normally discarded to food banks across the nation.  

Our TGIF and Inn from the Cold programs at Bridge St UC are recipients of generous contributions of produce, but the food prep team can't always keep up with what is available.

Surely we can get better at this, as good stewards of the world's resources. This is both a practical and spiritual imperative, it seems to me. To be in solidarity with those who don't have their "daily bread" is an essential aspect of what it means to be Christian.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Do Not Fear, God is Near

This is the 36th Thanksgiving Sunday of my ministry and I confess that as I come nearer the conclusion of my life as a worship leader I approach these special occasions with some trepidation. What do I have left to offer after all these years? Of course, the biblical texts always have something to offer and again this year I found inspiration to speak of our gratitude to God as the people of Christ. I may be getting old, but fortunately the texts never do!

The passage from Joel for this day has God saying "do not fear!" to human beings, but also to other creatures, and the trees, and even the soil. We live in anxious times about the state of the planet, yet we are encouraged to trust that the God who is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" will show us our way through this challenge, if we are willing to pay attention.

The reading from Matthew 6 contains Jesus' powerful words about worry and anxiety, which are pervasive in our culture, even though we are more prosperous than at any time in human history, at least those of us in Western culture. Abundance is a state of mind, a spiritual as well as physical reality. If we are convinced of scarcity then it doesn't really matter how prosperous we actually are.

Today we will remember that gratitude and generosity are antidotes to fear and worry. As perplexing as "losing our lives to find them" may sound, Jesus wants us to experience the fullness of life through thanks-giving and generous love.

I will use the Berenstain Bears book, Do Not Fear, God is Near with the children this morning, but the message applies to all of us.

I hope and pray this will be a wonderful weekend for all of you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Courage in the Face of Evil

Many years ago I read the Booker prize-winning Schindler's Ark, by Thomas Keanally. Later it was made into the powerful film called  Schindler's List. They tell the story of Oskar Schindler, an enterpeneur and Nazi party member who saved at least 1.200 Jews from certain death during the Second World War.

Schindler's Ark cover.png

I have also read about Raoul Wallenberg, a lesser known Swedish diplomat who saved many more Jews than Schindler while serving as Sweden's special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944. He is sued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory Wallenberg disappeared at the end of the war, either dead at 34 or incarcerated in a Soviet prison.

We have to admire the courage of these people, and all those "righteous Gentiles" whose names we don't know. The most recent person to come to my attention was a Japanese diplomat named Chiune Sugihara, who is the subject of a book

TOKYO — As world attention is focused on the plight of migrants fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, a Japanese diplomat who risked everything to save thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II is finally getting his due.

Chiune Sugihara was Japan’s vice consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, when he defied government orders and issued travel visas allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to escape Nazi persecution in 1940. He later resigned under pressure from the Foreign Ministry and spent years in self-imposed exile.

Sugihara issued more than 2,000 visas and saved more than 6,000 lives. He wrote many of the documents by hand during a feverish five-week period, passing the last out of the window of his train after his consulate was closed and he was ordered to leave the country.

“Sugihara is proof that one person’s choice to take action in the face of evil — whatever the consequences — can make a difference,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Have you ever wondered if you would be able to summon the courage to risk your life in the way these people did. I hope my answer would be "yes," in part because I am a Christian, but I can't be sure. What does motivate people to resist evil with such bravery?

Friday, October 09, 2015


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the Earth...

Jesus of Nazareth

Never, “for the sake of peace and quiet,” deny your own experience or convictions. The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others.

Dag Hammarskjold

Tunisian quartet in file photo from 2013

This morning I listened to the editor of Peace Magazine (who knew!) speak about this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners announced early today. She wondered whether this coalition of Tunisian civil activists qualified for the award under the criteria set by Alfred Nobel. Her suggestion of a worthy recipient is the Japanese group which has actively opposed the re-militarization of a country which hasn't had armed forces since the end of World War Two.

You may have read that Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was in the mix for her leadership on behalf of refugees, while Pope Francis got a nod for his advocacy of the poor and the environment. I just don't know enough about how the decision is made to comment.

I was surprised to hear that there is a legal challenge to some recent winners, because they don't really qualify. All I know is that the committee should be red-faced about awarding the prize to President Barack Obama -- what was that about?

In the end Jesus calls us all to be peacemakers, in our relationships, our workplaces, in our communities. It is good that there is a global award, but true peace resides in every human heart.

Here is a timeline of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Homelessness NIMBY?

This is the spot in Leaside where Raising the Roof told people a homeless shelter would open. It was a stunt created by an ad agency Leo Burnett.

Recently an organization called Raising the Roof posted a sign on a storefront in Toronto's toney Leaside neighbourhood announcing the future site of a homeless shelter. They did it to draw attention to homelessness and how we perceive and react to it when we are comfortably middle class. They installed a secret camera to capture what was on peoples' faces when they read the sign.  There was a strongly NIMBY response and some area residents were offended that they were duped. Get over yourselves people!

As I have mentioned, poverty hasn't been a debate issue at all during this election and locally neither the Conservative or Green candidates bothered to show for the debate on poverty. During that debate one candidate made reference to the homeless shelter which has been discussed ad nauseum in Belleville but never realized.

There are homeless persons in this town although we tend not to see them. One couch surfer was in this morning looking for assistance and she said she slept on Front St. last night. I have noticed people sleeping along the water on my morning cycle to Bridge St and I've wondered what I should do.

Saturday is World Homeless Day and I hope we all ask what can be different in our communities and what our congregations are doing to address homelessness.


World Homeless Day

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Thank God for Science

Yesterday a Canadian physicist was awarded a Nobel Prize, or at least half of one, for his work on the sub-atomic particles known as neutrinos. Arthur McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen's University also takes home a nice chunk of change at $650,000, even in sharing the prize with Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo.

This award make me think of heading down a mineshaft on a frigid January day years ago while living in Sudbury. The logistics project manager for SNO, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, was in my congregation and  arranged for me to go underground during construction of the orb in the image above before it was filled with heavy water and then flooded on the exterior. Not many people had the opportunity to see it under construction and after the chamber was flooded it was no longer visible. I have mentioned before that I climbed into the elevator cage with a gang of miners heading to the nickel ore at other levels as I travelled 6,000 feet down to the observatory. Even though it was -30 degrees Celsius at the surface it was hot deep into the bedrock.

This excursion was certainly one of my life's highlights. It always saddens me when religion in its fundamentalist forms is suspicious of science, as though it is an affront to "true faith." Whether it is creationism, or resistance to modern medicine, or general antipathy to the developments of science, it is really an affront to God who gave us the capacity to explore and develop these capacities.

Congratulations to Dr. McDonald, and thank God for all of the positive frontiers of scientific exploration.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Our Daily Bread & Butter

Today the Bridge St. UC kitchen is filled to the brim with hard-working food preparers. They are cooking up hundreds of nutritious meals for our Thank God It's Friday meal ministry. TGIF distributes frozen meals every Friday, some weeks more than a hundred, and it augments the Inn from the Cold meal ministry which serves hot meals for 42 consecutive days during the heart of winter.

It's interesting that today's "cook off" is right after last evening's Bread and Butter debate on poverty, leading up to the federal election. It was sponsored by a number of community groups which support those living on low incomes, including the Belleville Roundtable on Poverty. Kente Presbytery of the United Church was involved in planning and it was held at St Matthew's United Church with over one hundred people in attendance. It was curious that the two candidate no-shows were from the Green and Conservative parties. Well, one of those was not so surprising.

It was worthwhile, although a little flat because there was no actual debate and the candidates stuck to talking points rigorously. At the same time, issues of affordable housing, guaranteed income, senior's poverty, and a national pharmacare program were all raised. In that respect it was worthwhile.

In the hand-outs offered at the debate a list of half a dozen local sources for food support was included. Five of those were church programs, the sixth an excellent organization which has a number of Christians in leadership. I counted sixteen Bridge St, folk amongst the audience, and as well as people from other churches. It is obvious that this is a faith imperative for many, yet we know that having a cohesive strategy for reducing poverty is elusive. We really must do better as a society.

We have received some flack here for promoting this "debate" with some asking why we are "getting political." It baffles me that anyone would not understand that this is about being faithful, which sometimes includes being political, as least nominally. How could folk pray "give us this day our daily bread" in worship, then say a Bread and Butter debate is too political.

On Sunday I encouraged the congregation again and commented that poverty hasn't really shown up in any of the debates from any of the parties. I wondered why the leaders were more willing to talk about what goes across someone's face than what goes into his or her mouth.

What do you think? Is holding a debate on poverty issues too political? Do we need to have a wider strategy than meal and food programs, as important as they are?

Perhaps we all need to Chew on This.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Reluctant Religious Freedom

Zunera Ishaq sued the Canadian government, arguing, in part, that the ban against her wearing the niqab during the ceremony was an infringement of her charter rights.

I don't like the niqab. In fact, it gives me the creeps. To me it represents the oppression of women, and it goes against everything I believe about equality between men and women. In one congregation I supported a woman who married a Muslim man and was required to wear the niqab. The experience of her marriage was unhappy, violent, and resulted in divorce. I would be appalled if either of our daughters announced that she was going to wear one.

All that said, I can't claim to know a lot about the niqab, although I have listened to articulate Muslim women argue that this is a cultural practice rather than religious, and that they oppose it. Some women are convinced that this is an aspect of their religious life, just the same.

And I am uncomfortable that wearing the niqab for citizenship ceremonies has become a political issue in this Canadian federal election and may sway voters. I wonder whether this is a "veiled" anti-Islamic debate rather than a serious concern about what happens in the ceremonies. I mean, really, would there be more than a handful of instances in the course of the year? Why has this taken on such significance? And it seems that every nasty racist internet troll is gleefully using this as an opportunity to vilify Muslims.

A recent 31-page ruling by a federal judge says that any effort to ban the niqab is a non-starter under the rule of law. Here is the way the CBC reports the ruling:

Justice Keith M. Boswell crisply summarizes the complaint by Zunera Ishaq, the Pakistani-born woman who challenged the prohibition, and the counter-arguments of federal lawyers (who at one point rather haplessly tried to argue the ministerial directive wasn't really a ban, just a suggestion.) Boswell then ruled that wearing a niqab does not interfere in any substantive way with taking the oath, and that the minister of immigration does not, in any event, have the authority to summarily forbid wearing one.

As you would expect from a judge at Boswell's level, his ruling was antiseptic, almost surgical. He is uninterested in why Ishaq interprets her religion as an obligation to keep her face covered in public; it is enough that she does, in the same way that ultra-Orthodox Jews feel obliged to wear black hats and side curls, or some Roman Catholics feel compelled to walk around with crosses daubed on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

Religious freedom is protected by law in Canada. I might not like aspects of  that protection, and have fundamental disagreements with the practices of other religions and cultures, but as a Canadian Christian I sure want my religious practices to be respected and upheld. Enough already. The party leaders need to address more substantive issues. Wouldn't it have been meaningful if they had declared together that they would not debate this, despite their differences, because of the potential for racist and anti-religious rhetoric?


Friday, October 02, 2015

Wake Up America!

So many political leaders in the United States, along with presidential wannabes, toss out "God bless America" declarations at every opportunity, like sanctified party favours.

What does that mean in a country where many of those same leaders vigorously defend the reckless availability of lethal weapons? Since the beginning of the year there have been 40 school shootings in the United States. Forty! The president has spoken to the public fifteen times decrying mass killings. There has been a mass shooting (four or more victims) in every week of President Obama's second term. The map below is of mass shootings.

It's time that church leaders, every single one, deny rather than defend the right to bear arms. It's time for leaders to repent of the sin of wanton violence. The distortion of that hideous constitutional "right" has led to a bloodbath of unparalleled proportions. President Obama is correct in asserting that no other civilized nation in the world is experiencing these repeated atrocities.

I think this New York Times opinion piece by Garry Wills is brilliant

A civilized nation which takes to heart the teaching of Jesus and the tenets of other faiths does not defend the right to slaughter innocent people. Wake up America!

Thursday, October 01, 2015

God in the Forest

Last Sunday we heard a passage of scripture from the book of Amos the Hebrew prophet who lived centuries before Jesus. We don't get biographies of these biblical prophets but Amos tells us that he was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees. Both are rather lowly tasks, the role of "dresser" being the piercing of the small figs of these trees.

Sometimes though it is in the solitude that insight and profound thoughts are born. In the midst of the trees God is alive, and strength is given for daunting tasks. The "garden" of Gethsemane was and still is an olive grove of ancient trees. When we visit it today some of the trees we see were likely present as Jesus agonized over his fate.

I didn't realize when I chose the Amos passage for Creation Time that it was the end of Forest Week, although the week seems to be more an industry opportunity for fire prevention awareness than a celebration of trees. No matter. Every week should be Forest Appreciation Week. Even though we are an atrocious species for slaughtering trees a recent satellite "census" suggests there are far more trees on Planet Earth than previously thought -- 3.04 trillion, in fact. By my rudimentary math that is about 45 trees for every human. Perhaps they should rise up like an army of testy Ents and fight back.

We have flowering and fruiting trees in our yard, which are a delight. This summer though our paddling led us past some true giants of various species. We kayaked up the Salmon River from just north of Shannonville one evening. Just before reaching the 401 we saw massive willows, beeches, pines, and a magnificent oak. The folk in the vehicles hurtling along the highway have no idea that they are so close at hand.

Of course we are beginning to enjoy the beauty of changing colours, and where better to see this than in Ontario?

Trees are a gift of God, and beneath them we can ponder what really matters, wherever that may lead us.