Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nativity Through Canadian Eyes

Trisha Elliot of the United Church Observer has made some excellent choices of contemporary depictions of the nativity by Canadian artists for the December issue. Here is the url for you to check out the article and other images. All of them are intriguing but I've chosen these three to share.

Nativity Jackson Beardy

A Quiet Moment Timothy Schmalz

Arctic Holy Night Nathalie Parenteau

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bedside Christmas

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This Christmas morning I'll share three stories about individuals I've seen in hospital on Christmas Day. Often I have gone early, before the rest of the family was up and about. Most of these intimate encounters have been meaningful, and I have almost always ready the Christmas gospel story from Luke, as well as praying. Here is one of the stories I'll tell:

Perhaps the most meaningful Christmas morning hospital visit was to a man named Dave who had been injured in an industrial accident and was paralysed from the waist down. He went from being a physically powerful guy in his 40s,  in a high-paying job, to being confined in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He was living at home but he had regular hospitalizations for a host of problems related to his paralysis. I visited him at home and when he was in hospital, and while he was always civil there was an underlying anger that could make our conversations awkward.

This was his longest and most difficult time in hospital. The medical team just couldn’t figure out an infection which weakened him, and he developed miserable sores because he couldn’t move and he was such a big man for the nursing staff to turn, even with a special lift.

One day when I was in I told him that a friend had an expression “lower than a snake’s bunion” to describe being really low, and he just nodded his head. He admitted that this time he was preparing to die, because nothing was working, but he just wasn’t ready to go.
On Christmas Day I went to see him. His family was coming but his grandchildren were young so they weren’t there yet. I asked him how he was doing and he responded quietly “snake’s bunion.” I read him the story of the Christ-child born to die and whose resurrection is the promise of new life for us all. Then we held hands and prayed and he squeezed tightly with his big paw.

Dave recovered and went home as well. I stopped in one summer day and he told me that he was back on his scooter and keeping score at his grandson’s ball games. He was an enthusiastic player as a younger man and doing this gave him hope. He had so much to say that day I could hardly get a word in edgewise.

I commented that he seemed to be a different guy, wondering how he might take this observation. He agreed that he was, that somehow the reprieve allowed him to put the indignities and challenges into perspective. Our strangely intimate “man hug” sort of moment on Christmas morning had meant a lot to him. He was glad to be alive and it really was as though he had experienced a rebirth.

Merry Christmas to all of us, good readers!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Manger Tourism?

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This evening, Christmas Eve,  I'll have one of our nativity scenes in church, a crocheted version given to us in Newfoundland nearly 40 years ago. Through the years we've invited people to bring their nativities for display and perusal following worship. Folk do so with pride and love, and in every size and style imaginable.

We're told that the first living nativity was created by Francis of Assisi in the early 12th century and the scene complete with animals inspired the sculptural versions we have. The earliest carved figures we know of are the ones in the grotto of a church in Rome (below), created in the late 13th century.
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Apparently there are so many in the city of Rome that there are dedicated Manger Hoppers, people who visit a number of locations each year. There is even an Italian Friends of the Nativity Scene Association. The association’s museum has more than 3,000 scenes from around the world. Some of the nativities in Rome are very elaborate, such as the one at the top of this blog. St. Peter's basilica square has its own depiction each year.

Really, it's just lovely that the story of Christ's birth is told in this way in so many locations through countless generations.

Do you have a nativity you've set up through the years? We're about to pass on the crocheted version to our grandchildren. Do you have a set shared from one generation to the next?

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Friday, December 23, 2016


I was testy yesterday because of an exchange with our bank after we had been bilked. It had cleared a cheque from our Benevolent Fund which was altered from $50 to $150 by a fellow we had assisted, with some reservation. We felt that his story was suspect, but it is often difficult to verify need, so we often choose generosity over suspicion. Amazingly, he was back seeking more help after he had defrauded us and was probably aware that we wouldn't have received the altered cheque back. He is "at large" at the moment, as police have already charged his wife for stealing from churches on a recent Sunday morning and plan to charge him as well.

I visited the bank and the cheque cashing store, aptly named Cash and Dash. The cheque-casher knows the guy and mentioned that it was a larger cheque than many she sees from Bridge St. Interesting. Of course people often tell us they don't have bank accounts, and they want the money immediately anyway. We agreed that in future if they have any questions about the amount they'll give us a call. The bank was very apologetic, citing the busyness of this time of year.

The temptation is to just get angry about this and cynical about requests for assistance in general. Yet I realize that I should reserve my indignation to those who can defraud others in semi-legal ways, including the president-elect of the United States. Why get wrapped around the axle about someone who is after twenty bucks?

The day before this incident a woman stopped by and paid back $180 we figured we would never see. This was actually the sum of several requests for help by this person, who always promises to repay us. She has in the past, but the total was climbing and we'd assured her that we didn't expect her to do so. The "mixed blessing" of her repayment was that she had won $500 on a scratch ticket, so wanted to settle up. Our administrator Carol asked if she just wanted to give us a portion, so she wouldn't be left without money, but she insisted.

In the end I'm surprised that people don't try to bilk us more often. We have hundreds of people who join us for meals in one of our three ministries. Ruth and I sit with them and share conversation. Not once has anyone asked for money, even though we discover many could use it.

This is what we need to keep in mind and heart, not just in this season of generosity but all through the year. Christ invites us not to harden our hearts, to listen with compassion, to share with humility because we are blessed.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Good News for the Arctic

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Santa will not be giving a lump of coal or any other form of fossil fuel to Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama this year. In fact, Santa, elves, and all the critters of the North must be celebrating because of an important agreement signed by both Canada and the United States this week that you might have missed. It will prohibit drilling for oil in sensitive Arctic waters for at least five years, which will take us through the Age of Doom, otherwise known as the first and hopefully only Trump term.

A response to the news by the Natural Resources Defense Council includes these thoughts:

The joint U.S. and Canadian announcement recognizes the benefit of both countries acting together to protect the shared Arctic region. The U.S. announcement indefinitely puts off limits from offshore oil and gas the vast majority of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. And Canada agreed to “designate all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing”, with a review every five years.
The Arctic Ocean is remote and icy, hypersensitive, and an impossible place to clean up oil. So this decision recognizes that “the only safe Arctic Ocean drilling is no drilling at all” since there is a high chance of a spill.  NRDC analysis of spills in the U.S. Arctic found that they would have devastating impacts on both the U.S. and Canadian Arctic region.

Officials in Alaska and some American lawmakers are already grumpy about this agreement, saying it favours Canada. Well, when don't they make this claim? No doubt oil companies are annoyed.

Many of you are aware of how passionate I am about our responsibility as Christians to care for Creation and reverse the destructive post-WWII patterns of rapacious resource consumption which are choking the life out of the planet. This is a glimmer of good news in the midst of so much that is grim. The agreement is a meaningful gift to the planet.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Walking toward the Dawn

On my drive to Bridge St church this morning I detoured to the Bay of Quinte so I could enjoy the glory of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice, the day of the shortest sunlight hours in the Northern Hemisphere. Last year on a balmy Christmas Day we paddled from this spot on the open bay. Not this year! Here is a prayer/poem from Jan Richardson. Check out her artistic work.

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;

a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

—Jan Richardson

Christ be with all of you as you walk toward the dawn.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Room in the Inn

Bayan was eager to embrace the regular pastimes of Canadian youth, like ice-skating. Within her first hour, Bayan was gliding on her own, “arms outstretched and a smile as wide to match,” said one of her sponsors, Yolanda Mak. Credit Cole Burston for The New York Times  
Early this morning I listened to a CBC radio interview with a reporter working on a series of articles about Canada's Syrian refugee project in the New York Times. I had read the latest of the pieces on Friday which is about a Syrian family in Toronto with a ten-year-old daughter named Bayan who may be embracing her new home with a much greater enthusiasm than her parents desire.

Bayan is learning English quickly, making friends readily, and absorbing the culture with aplomb. She and her parents are testing the changes in societal norms with bumps in the road we might not imagine. Halloween was fun for Bayan but for her mother it seemed to be a disturbing celebration of a horror they wanted to leave behind. Three-day, grade 5 school trip to Toronto Island and a science school? Who wouldn't want this opportunity for a child?  Bayan's father was uncomfortable with letting his daughter go for this extended period outside their supervision. In Syria Bayan would soon be at the age where she would wear a headscarf-- grade 7 her mother suggests. Grade 9, Bayan counters.

Bayan is not disrespectful and there are aspects of Canadian culture that unsettle her, She has friends whose parents live in different houses and she is convinced her parents wouldn't do this. She is a determined negotiator just the same. She did go out on Halloween and on the class trip. She takes off her sparkly sneakers before entering the mosque and covering her head.

One of the great benefits the Times piece sees in what Canada has done with refugee sponsorship is the private sponsorships which create an atmosphere of personal care and intimacy. Yet this can also inadvertently push into the societal norms which displaced families value and need.

These are important reminders for those of us involved in sponsorship. We have as yet unconfirmed word that our next Syrian family will arrive before the end of the year. Our wonderful interfaith group is already kicking into action, furnishing and equipping an apartment to welcome this family which is related to the one we welcomed last December, as well as the grandparents and another family this Fall.

We are motivated by compassion and a scriptural mandate to show hospitality to the refugee and the dispossessed. As we "make room in the inn" of our culture we do need to be respectful and honour their independence, even as they are vulnerable and depend upon us in so many ways.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Two or Three Gathered

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"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Matthew 18:20 (NRSV)

Not gonna lie. When we woke up to freezing rain this morning I told my wife Ruth that one of the great appeals of my impending retirement is that this will be the last season where I must tell myself that it doesn't matter how many people show up for church, as long as we worship.

Don't get me wrong, this is true. But it can be discouraging living in Canada where Mother Nature can be more of a bully than a benign presence. The first forecasts for this weekend called for the precipitation to come and go by Saturday evening. I am looking out my window at gently falling "sun and cloud." With an aging congregation many of our folk are understandable reluctant to venture out when the footing is treacherous.

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Sigh. Just the same, we will celebrate the baptisms of three beautiful children and affirm the "messy" love of God made known to us in Christ. In 37 years of ministry I've never cancelled a service because of weather, although there have been occasions when that might have been a good call. We have always sung our praise, prayed from the heart, and listened to the Word proclaimed. That is the Good Forecast.

Friday, December 16, 2016


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This week an investigative report was released alleging that nearly 400 children and youth  in gymnastics programs in the United States were sexually assaulted by coaches and others in positions of authority. While some complaints were registered by the young people and their families many were ignored or concealed. This is shocking, and we'll wait to see the full extent of the abuse.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain there is a widening investigation into hundreds of sexual assaults of young people in youth soccer programs, again going back decades. In some cases the victims were paid off by the organizations to keep the abuse quiet. With both the gymnastics and soccer situations some coaches were simply moved to other programs rather than reported to police. We are aware of similar horrors in youth hockey programs here in Canada.

Whenever I see these terrible accounts I think of what has happened in the church through the years. While our minds might go first to the realities of the Roman Catholic church and high profile films such as Spotlight, we know that abuse occurred in Native Residential Schools run by Protestant denominations as well. From time to time youth pastors are charged with sexual assault, another betrayal of trust. So are police officers and scout leaders.

It seems that the temptation to abuse trust and power exists in every sphere of life, including within families. It is ugly and wrong and must be punished. It really is cold comfort that leaders in faith communities aren't alone in their abuses. I am deeply discouraged and sickened when yet another story breaks

What we hope and pray is that this evil -- and it really is evil -- will be punished. We're also reminded that despite this wrongdoing we still see the value of organized sports and organized religion. And in all facets of life we look for trustworthy leaders.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Mother and Child Reunion

Alabaster Virgin and Child, 14th Century, England, acquired with the support of the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Regular readers must roll their eyes when I write about some of the rather esoteric artifacts of the artistic world through the ages. You might recall me commenting on an experience with a Madonna and Child in the National Gallery in Ottawa. We were passing through a gallery on our way to an exhibit when I saw the sculpture and had to stop. I had an overpowering urge to touch it (I didn't) and I had what I have to describe as a mystical moment in the presence of this object of devotion, centuries old. It could well have been touched hundreds or thousands of times. Often sculptures of marble or alabaster were painted but time and touch slowly wore the paint and gilding away.

Needless to say, I was intrigued by a 600-year-old Madonna and Child which has been returned to Britain and whose survival through the centuries borders on the miraculous. Here is a description from The Guardian:

The statue, which stands 75cm high, is thought to have been made around 1350 in the Midlands by an unknown and highly skilled hand. It is regarded as the best surviving example of its kind on show in Britain.
“This is evidence of the deep artistic heritage of that part of England,” said [curator Lloyd]  De Beer. “We know alabaster was being quarried near Derby and Stafford as early as 1330. It was particularly popular in the 14th century because of its translucent whiteness and the way it takes paint and gilding, rather like ivory.”
Somehow the statue escaped the wholesale wrecking of religious artefacts in churches and cathedrals during the Protestant Reformation of the mid-1500s to travel across the Channel. De Beer and his colleagues speculated that it might have been bought by a wealthy foreigner long before the threat of destruction to religious icons that came with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Alternatively it could have been smuggled out later, as the danger to religious works became clear.
Much of its early life was spent in seclusion at a monastery in St-Truiden, Belgium. There it avoided the violence of the French Revolution, when many religious icons were also destroyed.

Pieces such as this one may not turn your crank, and it's hardly an accurate depiction of the peasant girl Mary and the infant Jesus. Yet it invites us into a form of contemplation which does reflect the expectant waiting of Advent. And if you can't appreciate a Madonna and Child at this time of year, when can you?

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, says the statue is ‘a poignant acquisition as we approach the festive season’. Photograph: Alamy
“When you look at an object like this and think what it has endured, it is so moving,”

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Risky Incarnation

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I was grumpy at the breakfast table this morning, which is not a unique experience. I was reacting to the news that two skiers out west had deliberately entered a restricted area and ended up dangerously stuck. Rescuers did their best as night fell but had to wait until morning to bring them to safety. While the stranded men were safe in a snow cave even in the light of day the rescue was tricky. One of the skiers acknowledged that what they had done was foolish and put rescuers at risk. I got really heated though when he said he was looking forward to getting home to his wife and baby. Selfish jerk!

I also reacted to another report about deaths related to the deadly fentanyl and carfentanil drugs which are resulting in many overdose deaths. Recently we saw dramatic film footage of a nurse and RCMP officer keeping an overdose victim alive in the back of a pickup truck speeding to a hospital. Again, the  brave responders lives were put at risk.

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On the bus to work I mused about this and thought about the season we're in. Although we focus on the birth of a child, the advent of Jesus always leads from manger to cross. God took the "risk of birth" in Jesus, the Christ, and we are grateful not only for his teaching and example but his self-giving love. The incarnation was and is risky, and while we humans have this tendency to selfishness and look for other gods, the God we see in Jesus doesn't give up on us.

Thank God for rescuers and the Rescuer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Gift of Monasticism

Volunteers excavating the area that included the monastic graves in Somerset.

I have spent a fair amount of time in monasteries and convents, perhaps surprising given that I'm a happily married Protestant minister. I have been a guest at an Anglican convent in Toronto and a Cistercian monastery in New Brunswick. I enjoyed the mountains of Colorado at the convent of the Sisters of Walburga in Colorado and the French countryside at the Taize Christian community. The sisters in Colorado run a profitable ranch!
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Sisters of Walburga ranch

The monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico has what may be the most spectacular view from the chapel. I've always appreciated the dedication to the life in prayer and the worship rhythm of each day. As I settle into the solitude and the routine of these Christian communities I become more aware of God's presence.

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Christ in the Desert Colorado

I was interested to see that a monastery, and the remains of its monks, have been unearthed in Somerset, Britain. The medieval Beckery chapel is said to have been visited by legendary figures such as King Arthur and St Bridget. The cemetery dating back to the fifth or early sixth centuries AD, before Somerset was conquered by the Saxon kings of Wessex in the seventh century.

That's another aspect of the monastic life I appreciate. Even though some of the chapels in the places I've visited are quite modern and Taize worship has a contemporary feel, we are always standing in a tradition that goes back to the early days of Christianity. And we know that advances in medicine, music, art and literacy can be traced to these communities of faith.

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Taize France

Monastic orders struggle to attract newcomers to what is really an ascetic life out of tune with the spirit of our age, but I am grateful for their existence. And I will always be intrigued by these archeological discoveries as part of a living tradition.

Have you ever spent time in a convent or monastery? Does the prospect seem daunting? Are you grateful that they exist?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Christian Courage

An organization called Doctors of the World (not the same as Doctors Without Borders) has produced a set of Christmas cards with the Nativity we tend to idealize set in violent war-torn situations. They are a sobering reminder that Jesus was born into a world of "might makes right" occupation, and that again this year Christmas will be celebrated in the midst of strife.

This morning the news broke of a church bombing in Cairo, Egypt. The blast killed at least 25 worshippers on what is the Sunday of Joy in the Advent season. Instead there will be sorrow for these Coptic Christians who have come under increasing persecution in Egypt. As helpless as we may feel, it is important to continue to pray for brothers and sisters in Christ who find the courage to worship despite the danger.

Friday, December 09, 2016

A Plan to Address Climate Change

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall at the First Ministers' Meeting in Ottawa on Friday. Clark and Wall are opposed to parts of the national climate deal.

BC Premier Christy Clark & Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall

I have been watching during the day to get an idea of how the proposals of Canada's federal government for a climate change strategy to meet our Paris COP21 commitments would be received. I'm still not sure, other than hearing that Saskatchewan is emphatic in its opposition while British Columbia have voiced reservations about the particular approach. BC fears that the province will be disadvantaged as other provinces with a cap-and-trade policy fail to meet their targets .Under the federal plan, Canada would start pricing carbon pollution at 10 Canadian dollars a metric ton in 2018, and that would rise steadily to C$50 a ton in 2022.

It is all rather befuddling, to me at least, but what I do know is that any effort to comply with the goals set last year in Paris are better than no action.We are certainly being watched in this effort. Both the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times carried pieces about today's gathering.

We do understand that this is an issue for faith communities to address as well. Here is what I offered last year on the first Sunday of Advent, as the international conference was about to begin:

The good news is that while the awareness of the travail of the planet may seem dark and overwhelming, out of the bleakness we become aware of a shift in focus and desire for change around the world. There are times when we must become enveloped in the darkness before we experience the dawning of something which may have seemed impossible. Jesus tells us that when we are tempted to cower and quake we are to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

In Paris there will be representatives from all our provinces and territories, along with the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and leaders of other parties. Last week the premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley stood with aboriginal leaders and representatives of the oil and gas companies mining the Tar Sands to announce a strategy to address climate change which may alter the way other countries perceive us.

China and the United States—two nations that account for more than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions— have announced an aggressive joint agreement on limiting emissions. We have absolutely no guarantee of a binding agreement out of Paris yet the sense of urgency is probably the greatest it has ever been. Along with governments, various faiths are responding to climate change as a spiritual issue and many will be represented at COP21 the Paris conference.

The Christian justice organization, Citizens for Public Justice, has created a prayer chain for every hour, beginning today until the conclusion of the conference on December 11th.  We can find comfort that we are part of a nationwide and planetary “cloud of witnesses” who will be praying for the outcome of this conference.

Our United Church of Canada has sent a delegation of three to be part of COP21, including our former Moderator, Mardi Tindal, who has a longstanding passion for caring for God’s Creation. 

We can continue to pray, to encourage our governments at every level to respond, and to have a sense of measured urgency for this challenge.


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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Christmas Gift

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Yesterday I visited my elderly mother, soon to be 91 years of age. I took along a Christmas wreath for her door in the assisted-living residence which is currently her home. Over the past couple of years Mom's health has failed, and a series of minor strokes have left her befuddled. She will do reasonably well in conversation, then develop a surprising "speed wobble" that reminds us that the MRI spots on her brain that indicate transient ischemic attacks have taken a toll.

Our conversation faltered as we began. While she was cheerful, she couldn't put a sentence together on any subject. What had she just eaten for lunch, I wondered. She couldn't remember, nor could she recall a recent phone conversation with a relative.

So, I asked her about the occasions when she, as a travel agent, had taken groups to Israel over the Christmas holidays. She did this several times after her marriage to my father ended, in part, I suspect, to escape the family politics and pain.

Suddenly she was back on her game. When I asked about Bethlehem she reminded me that they never stayed in the West Bank but would drive the few kilometres from Jerusalem in the late afternoon as it was getting dark. Rather than going to the Church of the Nativity the coach would go to a spot in the countryside, the "shepherds fields" where they would climb out and hold a brief service. "Would you sing?", I asked, knowing the answer. My mother had a lovely, strong voice and she was fearless in leading in song or offering a solo without accompaniment. With her Salvation Army upbringing making music was akin to breathing.

"What did you sing?" O Little Town of Bethlehem. Silent Night. Once in Royal David's City. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. "Washed their socks?" I asked, and she laughed. Mother's tend to laugh at corny quips.

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Our conversation continued, moving to other subjects, with personal information shared from her youth which I'd never heard before. I knew she had been unlucky in love as a beautiful twenty year old, but for the first time she spoke to me about it from the heart. We realized that I wouldn't exist if that relationship had come to fruition. As I left she hoped aloud that I didn't mind that she was so honest. Of course I didn't.

I arrived with a Christmas gift and we spoke about Christmases past and she gave me a Christmas present. What more could I hope for?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Violence Against Women

Dr Elana Fric-Shamji was a 40-year-old physician who was a rising star in Ontario's and Canada's medical scene. She was smart and motivated and managed to balance work and home with enthusiasm. I listened to a physician friend, also a woman, speak of her with admiration this morning, impressed by her energy and commitment.

Tragically, Dr. Fric-Shamji is dead, and her husband is accused of her murder. He too is a physician, a neuro-surgeon considered exceptional in his field. Elana had filed for divorce recently and it may be that her husband killed her in anger, then dumping her body in a suitcase in a highway underpass.

This is a horrific story but one many are noting on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. While this day acknowledges what is now called the Montreal Massacre of young women at the Ecole Polytechnique 27 years ago it also serves as a reminder that violence against women every day. It also points out that it has nothing to do with social status or intelligence, or material wealth.

As many of you are aware, Ruth, my wife, worked for nearly a decade as an outreach counsellor at a shelter for women and children at risk. Often she was involved in creating exit plans for women who wanted to leave abusive relationships but were afraid of confrontation with their controlling partners. Ruth would work the individual, the police, and sometimes schools to ensure that a woman and her children could leave without incident. She was grateful that none of her clients were killed through the years she did this work. Many women who came to her were traumatized by the dire threats made by partners should they leave, and some were convinced that eventually they would die at the hands of their exes.

I have also mentioned that members of communities of faith are not immune from domestic violence. Ruth met with a number of women in my previous congregation who knew her role, and has spoken with some here in Belleville seeking advice and insight, even though she is no longer working in this field.

Today we can pray for all those who live in fear, who are struggling as they make difficult decisions, and who want the best for their children.


Sunday, December 04, 2016

All Creation Waits in Advent

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This is my 37th Advent Season as a worship leader and yesterday I admitted to our son Isaac, also a United Church minister, that "the thrill is gone." Actually, Advent has never been that exciting a time in the church year for me. For all the talk of anticipation of the coming of the Christ there is a certain pensiveness to this season.  And I don't like this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is just too dark and gloomy and I can hardly wait for the Solstice so that the daylight will begin lengthening, inching their way toward summer fullness.

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Each year I look around for resources that are fresh and offer a different perspective and the book All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings does just that. Boss created her own Advent Calendar for her children years ago, with each day a reflection on a creature. Now she has penned a book with beautiful illustrations by David Klein. Her introduction to Advent is excellent, and the descriptions of the various creatures in winter are informative. Here Boss describes the one of the first creatures from twenty years ago:

I drew a turtle behind the door of December 1 because, days before, my son’s godmother had sent me her meditation on turtle as a symbol of the soul in its dark season. And because I knew my son, like all children, liked pictures of animals.

Thanks to Boss and Klein for this lovely Advent gift. Next Sunday which is Advent III we'll hear from Isaiah about the blooming of the desert, so this book may become a sermon illustration!

"Book Notes: Advent with the Animals" by Gayle Boss (

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Jesus and the Opioid Crisis

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

What do I know about illegal and addictive drugs? From personal experience, next to nothing. I can hardly convince myself to take prescription drugs, let alone anything society has deemed illicit. While ministry might have driven me to drink at times, I don't consume much alcohol either. Two beers is a bender for me.

In an earlier day I listened to a fair number of inmates whose lives were messed up by drugs and ended up in prison. All through my ministry there have been members of congregations who had substance abuse problems, past or present. I've always felt inadequate in responding.

In the end it isn't about whether our drugs of choice are legal or not, it is about what they do to our bodies and souls, our relationships and whether we are able to live fully, the way God intends.
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There has been a lot in the media about drugs lately, specifically opioids such as relative  newcomer Fentanyl. In some cities first responders are overwhelmed by the number of calls related to opioids and they are often too late to make a difference. There were 200 Fentanyl related deaths in British Columbia in the first three months of 2016, so this really is a medical crisis.

The Christian Century had a cover article recently which interviews pastors who have ministries with addicts. One, Mike Clark, realized that the people coming to a recovery meeting in his church far outnumbered his congregants on a Sunday. They were in the basement while his congregation was upstairs. Slowly but surely he connected with the downstairs congregation and some of them began to migrate. There was no plan, so Mike figures it was God's idea.

In another church that ministers to addicts the emphasis is on honesty, and they have a weekly prayer: God show us the way to spread your holy word, and give us the means, courage and stamina to follow it."

I wonder how welcoming many congregations which love to sing Amazing Grace are ready and willing to welcome addicted wretches? How many of us are able to be honest about our own wretchedness and need for Christ's saving love. Maybe that's where we begin. We won't arrest our way out of this crisis as a society. Perhaps communities of faith can play a role.


Friday, December 02, 2016


Yesterday morning, on World AIDS Day, I tweeted my mindfulness of those I have known through the years with HIV/AIDS, including, sadly, those whose funerals and memorial services I conducted.

I was recruited for the AIDS committee of Sudbury in the late 1980s when there was still a fair amount of uncertainty about the disease and widespread stigma. I was uncertain about my involvement on the committee, particularly when I was asked to visit men in the hospital and eventually to preside at the services.

Looking back I'm grateful for what I learned about grace and acceptance, despite my discomfort. As is so often the reality in ministry I have grown as a person and a Christian when I am pushed beyond my places of safety and security. I am required to ask what the Good News means, and for whom Christ is Good News.

There have been a number of these occasions for reflection since I announced my retirement, thanks be to God. What I know in my heart is that I don't own the gospel. It is my sacred responsibility to share it, to live it.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Fidel and the Jesuits

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Prime Minister Trudeau took heat at the beginning of the week when he praised the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. He seemed to let his father's affection for Castro get in the way of an honest perspective on Castro. Fidel was a revolutionary who had a socialist vision for his country, and the overthrow of the government of Cuba in the late 1950s was an opportunity for change. There were impressive advances in health care and education which might have been an impressive legacy. But in the end Fidel was a repressive dictator whose policies hindered rather than helped his people.

I was interested to see that Castro, head of an officially atheistic country, was educated by the Jesuits. Apparently he was a rebellious child, so his father sent him to schools run by this Roman Catholic order of legendary discipline and intellectual rigour. The revolutionary who closed religious schools and jailed priests conceded that the Sermon on the Mount was compatible with Marxist principles. Castro maintained a relationship with one of the Jesuits until that priest's death, even though he had expelled the order from the island decades before.

There were even rumours that Castro had developed a renewed a personal  interest in Christian faith in his waning years. His  daughter Alina commented “Fidel has come closer to religion: he has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life. It doesn’t surprise me because dad was raised by Jesuits.”

Castro did restore Christmas as a holiday in Cuba, and permitted religious rites such as baptism without reprisal. He welcomed popes to the country, and allowed the church to become a significant agent for social change once again.

There is no escaping his miserable human rights record for most of his regime but he may have "met his maker" in the end.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prescription for Wholeness

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Years ago a United Church moderator spoke at my church and I drove him back to Toronto following the service. He was very pastoral during his term, trying to figure out how to be supportive of beleaguered clergy in turbulent times. He sought my suggestions and I offered that the denomination might work out an arrangement with a gym chain for discounted memberships, something which now exists.

He was diplomatically dubious when I went on to suggest that we be able to use continuing education funds for physical fitness, or access a fund set up for that purpose. His reaction was much the same as that of other church officials with whom I've broached this. Even though we have an aging clergy base in the United Church and do lots of handwringing about the health costs of our benefit plan we are still reactive rather than proactive.

I thought about this yesterday when I heard and read of a new report saying that physical activity is a greater indicator of health than cholesterol levels and hypertension. Doctors in some jurisdictions are now using prescription pads for exercise instead of depending largely on medication. Only about 20 percent of Canadians get the 150 minutes per week suggested as a minimum. Think about it -- 168 hours in a week and we can't manage 2/12 for physical activity?

I figure that activity is also a contributor to spiritual health and wholeness. I go to the gym for weight training, but this is my least favourite form of exercise. Ruth and I both cycle to work regularly (5 km each way) and I'll continue to do so as long as the roads are safe. I cycled to Bridge St this morning.

We love riding along the water here in Belleville. We are also walker/hikers and we love being on the water. We have kayaks and canoes and we've paddled a couple of dozen times through this season. When we're outside we are attuned to Creator and Creation. The other day I scuffled through the leaves of an oak woods and described it as a playful spiritual practice. It evoked the sound and fragrance of childhood.

Jesus was an outdoor guy, so I figure we should follow his example. He got out on the water, and even walked on it!

Image result for physical fitness prescription pad

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving all Through the Year

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I'm not sure where Giving Tuesday sprouted from but it's probably meant as an antidote to the sometimes toxic effects of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumerism at its ugliest. Buy Nothing Friday never got much traction, but Giving Tuesday has received a fair amount of attention this year.

When I arrived at Bridge St. UC, 8:30ish, the preparation team organizers for today's End of the Month meal were already at work. Soon the kitchen was filled with volunteers, including a group of students and teachers from Queen Elizabeth School.

Only 20 to 25 percent of  roughly 170 volunteers for our three meal ministries are Bridge St. members. Of today's team of 15 people, two are from the congregation,  which is unusually low. We do know that a number of our newer members have chosen Bridge St. because we have strong outreach programs in which they can be involved. I feel enriched by the many other participants who are remarkably faithful and generous with their time. Some are involved in other congregations and some just want to give back to the community in  tangible way.

Last Friday we place the order for a new walk-in freezer which would have been well beyond our reach without the generous contribution of a couple who never work in the kitchen but contribute thousands of dollars to our meal ministries every year.

I'm just grateful that so many people do give, in so many ways. It's happening on this Giving Tuesday and all through the year. Thank God for generous hearts.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness

The longer I've been in ministry the more I'm convinced that forgiveness is essential for human health and the more I understand that forgiveness cannot be mandated, only bestowed by those who have been aggrieved or wronged.

I'm fascinated that the state of South Carolina has chosen to seek the death penalty for church murderer Dylan Roof, even though the families of the victims are asking for leniency and have been open about their forgiveness for Roof

Here is a portion of an article from the New York Times:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Rev. Sharon Risher often thinks these days about what she calls her “humanness”: the passing impulse to crave the execution of the white supremacist accused of killing her mother and eight other black churchgoers last year.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
But after delays, the Federal District Court here will begin on Monday the long process of individually questioning prospective jurors for the capital trial of Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17, 2015, killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mr. Roof, whom a judge on Friday declared competent to stand trial, has offered, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, to plead guilty. The government has refused to make such a plea agreement.
The 17-month path to Mr. Roof’s first death penalty trial — the state of South Carolina is also seeking his execution — has been marked by public demonstrations of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials. Even South Carolina’s acrimonious debate about the display of the Confederate battle flag outside the State House was less divisive in this state, polling shows.

It seems to me that the state's choice is actually creating greater sadness and loss for these families who are attempting to live by their Christian precepts. What a world.

What are your thoughts about this?