Friday, April 28, 2017

Killing Spree

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The state of Arkansas has been on a killing spree, executing a number of death-row inmates beginning on Easter Monday. The plan is put eight men to death in a matter of a couple of weeks. It is the macabre reality that companies which produce drugs for lethal injections are no longer willing to do so. Arkansas is therefore hurrying up the process despite legal challenges and a remarkable letter from a murder victim's family. 

Kayla Greenwood wrote on behalf of her family to the governor of Arkansas asking that Kenneth Williams, the man who killed her father, have his execution stayed. She believes that in the eighteen years since her father's murder Williams has changed, by the grace of God, and that it is the new Williams they wish to save. The Greenwood family actually paid to fly Williams' daughter and granddaughter to see him in prison, and drove them to the institution to do so.

The Greenwoods wanted the opportunity to meet with Williams to offer their forgiveness, and would have spoken at his clemency hearing if they had known it was happening. Sadly, their request went unheeded and Williams was executed. As is so often the case with lethal injections he died a slow and gruesome death. It is a barbaric practice, which is why the drug companies no longer wish to be complicit.

I am grateful to the Greenwoods for their powerful witness, even as they continue to mourn the loss of their loved one.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Even the Pope!

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During Holy Week Michael Higgins wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail paper about the growing criticism aimed at Pope Francis. For some of us Francis is moving excruciatingly slowly toward reform of the Roman Catholic church and a more open interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many in the hierarchy of the church who have become more vocal in their opposition, as well as parish priests. Here is how Higgins describes what the pontiff is facing:

As Pope Francis begins the holiest cycle in the Catholic liturgical year – the Triduum – the sufferings of humanity will not be lost on him. There are many walking their own way of sorrows, and Francis has diligently taken up their cause: the nameless migrants stranded at points of entry, the victims of violence in the Middle East, those directly affected by famine and drought in South Sudan. He has been their companion in sympathy from the onset of his pontificate.

[Francis] has washed the feet of Muslim women prisoners; he has personally housed refugees; he has travelled to dangerous regions to stand in solidarity with the persecuted.
But this year’s Passiontide also has a strong personal connection. The Roman pontiff is a bridge-builder and a symbol of unity. It is part of the job description. Dissension, disagreement, threats of division constitute the mother of papal headaches and Francis is not the first pope to face down internal threats to doctrinal and institutional unity.
But he is the first pope in centuries to have to do so in the face of increasingly aggressive displays of criticism coming from his own collaborators in ministry, from anonymous staff emboldened by a new climate of attack and by laity alarmed by the consequences of mature discipleship.

Resistance to his prophetic synodal document Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has not diminished, disdain for his general indifference to the priorities of canon law has not abated, and defiance – dressed up as fidelity to tradition – by ecclesiastics, fearful of the decline of their authority and prestige, is growing in intensity if not in transparency.
Unflattering caricatures of the Pope have appeared in graffiti and posters on Roman streets, traditionalist Catholic scholars and clerics have publicly called for some kind of intervention because the church, as they see it, is “drifting perilously like a ship without a rudder, and indeed, shows symptoms of incipient disintegration.”

Yikes. Even the spiritual leader of the world's largest Christian body takes major heat, which is some comfort for those of us who are the clergy foot soldiers in congregations of every stripe. There are always people who are grumpy, angry, and even vile in churches. They want their own way, even when they're not sure what their way is. My experience is that some individuals have no desire to consider other points of view, and in some cases they don't really care about being Christian. And some people hate change, even though they want churches to be full like the 50's.

I got a message from a United Church colleague, ironically a former Roman Catholic priest, who is enjoying a positive ministry but is dealing with a very difficult parishioner. He is exasperated by what to do, and I certainly understand his dilemma. Apparently the pope does as well. We can pray for him and all those who are under fire in the communities where love should abound.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For God So Loves Us All

The funeral of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was held on Monday in his hometown of Bristol, Conn. Hernandez's body arrived at a funeral home in Bristol on Saturday and the private burial will be at an undisclosed location.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 (NRSV)

I have written in the past about John 3:16, the verse found in an exchange between Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus who sought Jesus out in the quiet of the evening for what became a baffling and profound conversation about birth and rebirth, the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, and the nature of God's love.

This verse has been stuck onto bumpers, banned from sports venues, quoted and misquoted. It may be the best known verse of the New Testament. Recently it showed up in an sad and unsettling manner, on the forehead of a dead man.

Former National Football League star Aaron Hernandez died in his prison cell in Massachusetts recently, where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of a former friend. He had been acquitted of two other murders days before his death because of lack of evidence. Hernandez was an exceptional tight end who seemed quiet off the field, but a rough and violent early life appears to have continued into adulthood.  

When Hernandez's body was found there were suicide notes and a bible near his body. On his forehead he had written the bible reference, no doubt aware that many would be familiar with it.

At the time Hernandez was convicted I shook my head at the callous nature of his violent act. I felt sadness, though, when I heard that he had died in this way. It is a reminder that beneath the horrendous acts which some people perpetrate there is a human being created by God and loved by God, who became present to us, in Jesus, our Saviour and Friend.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Resurrection Promise

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Last weekend we went to see my elderly mother to wish her a happy Easter. We took her chocolate eggs and flowers so she would have a sense of occasion, but she is moving into the twilight of awareness of the seasons of the Christian year, even though her faith has always been important to her. Usually we can find at least one fruitful thread for conversation, but not during this visit.

Mom did brighten and smile at photos and a little video of her great-grandsons. She always does. And she listened attentively as I read her the story of resurrection morning from the gospel of John. My mother had a beautiful singing voice so I told her that we had sung familiar Easter hymns in worship. Ruth and I fumbled our way through the first verse of Welcome Happy Morning, and she joined in. Then we turned to Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We were good on the tune, but not the lyrics. Fortunately Mom remembered where we forgot, which was a poignant moment.

This past week has been tough for her, with lots of confusion. Twice staff found her waiting to be picked up, once to be taken to the airport. She was a travel agent for many years, wending her way around the planet with groups in tow. She loved her work, so perhaps hope springs eternal for one more adventure.  

At 91 it seems unfair that life for her has come to this. Yet we realize life is rarely fair, and despite many difficult challenges through the years Mom has always carried on with grace. Our hope is that she will soon enter her resurrection promise, but in the meantime we will do our best to be a loving and supportive family.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Worthy Earthy Worship

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When we chatted after work this past Thursday I announced to Ruth, my wife, that I was ready for Sunday worship, including a completed sermon. She know that my goal each week is Friday, noon, so she asked how and why I was done so quickly. Today is Earth Sunday, and I derive great pleasure, even joy from the preparation for this service, as with the Creation Time services in the Fall. Everything seems to come together more readily because of my passion for the subject. Creation Time requires more planning, because it is a series of services in a mini-season, but Earth Sunday is an occasion to celebrate Creator and Creation as Spring emerges in southern Ontario. Easter Sunday roams all over the map, so there are no guarantees that the March and early April dates won't include snow. But Earth Sunday tends to be safe as the closest Sunday to Earth Day, which is always April 22nd (this year, yesterday.) 

Earth Sunday isn't really part of the liturgical calendar, although it shows up as Earth/Camping Sunday on the Canadian Church Calendar. More than ever though, we need to connect our hearts, our heads, and our actions with an appreciation that we are called to be responsible creatures on God's good Earth. We also affirm that "God so loved the world" that God entered into the created order in the person of Jesus. In my sermon today I'll quote a portion of the observation below by Wendell Berry, a writer and "geologian" who is so wise about our relationships with the soil and the water and the sky.

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a “hypaethral book,” such as Thoreau talked about—a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbably or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of the water into wine—which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
                                           Wendell Berry,  Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Root of Environmental Responsibility

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Radical U.S. environmentalist calls Trudeau ‘stunning hypocrite,’
targets museum’s links to oil.

This headline in an article from the National Post by John Ivison made me chuckle aloud when I discovered who this "radical" is. Bill McKibben has been writing thoughtfully about environmental issues for decades. I corresponded with him years ago because I discovered he was a Sunday School teacher in his Vermont congregation and was intrigued to find out a little more about his Christian faith.

McKibben has certainly become a more vocal and, well, active activist through the years. He heads up the organization which fights climate change and he got himself arrested along with some celebs when protesting the Keystone pipeline in Washington D.C. But c'mon, the guy wears a suit to get thrown in the hoosegow!
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Last week he wrote an article in Britain's The Guardian newspaper criticizing Prime Minister Trudeau and the Canadian government for speaking out of both sides of their mouths on climate change. Here is how Ivison begins his Post piece:

Bill McKibben, a radical U.S. environmentalist who would prefer to keep all carbon in the ground, has upset the Trudeau government by calling the prime minister “the brother” of Donald Trump on climate change. Now, McKibben is lobbying the Canadian Museum of History to cut ties with its sponsor, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an organization he calls “sleazy oil lobbyists.” The Liberals are apparently concerned about the criticism denting support for their twin-track policy of approving pipelines and imposing a national carbon tax. They are encouraging more moderate environmental voices to disassociate themselves from the what one called McKibben’s “stratospheric hyperbole.”

Hey, I have considerable misgivings about the mixed messages we're getting from the Liberal government. Sign on to the Paris Climate Change agreement? Well done. Carbon tax? Hopefully a step in the right direction. Approve pipelines? Hmm. Tell Texas oil types we have a sea of tarsands just waiting to ooze their way?  Justin, please help me understand. I want more than gleamy grinned  platitudes.

Is Bill McKibben a radical? Maybe, but not in the blow-up-a-pipeline, live-in-a-treehouse notion of the term. He is pushing us to get "to the root" of the challenges we face, which is what "radical" means. He rattles all our cages, the way the prophets and Jesus did. Isn't that what we're supposed to learn about in Sunday School? Perhaps we all need to be radicals as faithfully concerned citizens of Planet Earth.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shall We Gather at the River?

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Through the years I have worked with evangelical pastors who have a deep concern for the wellbeing of the environment, believing that Creation Care is biblically mandated. The ministerial in the community where I lived before coming to Belleville was mostly evangelical clergy and we sponsored a day-long workshop on faith and the environment which was well attended.

There have been other conservative Christians and leaders who are deeply suspicious of any efforts to include care for the Earth in their God-talk. We know that in the United States evangelicals have enthusiastically supported a president who denies climate change and is dismantling environmental regulations. This is deeply discouraging.

News that evangelical pastors along the Colorado River are preaching and teaching environmental awareness and care for ecosystems in encouraging. An article in the New York Times a few days ago began this way:

YUMA, Ariz. — The Rev. Victor Venalonzo opened his New Testament to the Book of Revelation on a recent Sunday and offered the men and women assembled at Iglesia Betania for a weekly Bible study a fresh look at its apocalyptic message.
“We’re failing as stewards of God’s creation, but these changes we’re seeing, that’s not God punishing us — we’re destroying ourselves,” Mr. Venalonzo told them. He alternated between English and Spanish, as he does all day in his Pentecostal church, which sits across from a trailer park and a half-mile from the Mexican border, serving Latinos who have recently arrived in the country and those born in the United States.
Until recently, the environment was never a topic that Mr. Venalonzo included in sermons to his congregants, who are mostly concerned about how they will pay their bills, find work, and keep their children on course in school and away from drugs.
But that has changed as development, drought, overuse and a drier, warming climate threaten the Colorado River, the source of the water they drink and use to irrigate the fields where they work. “Our lifeblood,” Mr. Venalonzo calls it.

The once mighty Colorado has become a trickle in it's lower reaches and no longer flows to the sea. There just isn't enough water to meet all the demand, so everyone suffers.  Some of the pastors would baptize converts in the river, but is now so shallow that this isn't possible in some places.

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We all come to an understanding of our human effect on climate and our need to protect the world around us in different ways and at different stages. I'm just glad to hear that God is opening the eyes and ears of these Christians. Let's hope that more will pay attention.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Violence in the Desert

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I have no "bucket list" and don't really like the term, but I hoped that one day I would get to St Catherine's monastery in Egypt's south Sinai desert. The monastery is at the base of the mountain associated with God's numinous revelation to Moses, and the giving of the commandments which would become foundational for Judeo/Christian ethics and morality. It is a Unesco world heritage site and one of the oldest monasteries in the world.  From all accounts St. Catherine's is in a remarkable, holy location and climbing to the summit to greet the sunrise sounds like an extraordinary experience. I actually planned to take a flight from Israel during a trip that was cancelled.

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Sadly, it is not immune from violence. Earlier this week Islamic State fighters opened fire at a nearby checkpoint. Again we need to be aware of the persecution of Christians and desecration of Christian sites in many places. We know that recent attacks on two Coptic Christian churches left 45 people dead.

Will I get to St. Catherine's now? Probably not, but that it of minor concern. I can't complain given that I've been to Israel several times.  What really matters is the security of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Doubt and Creation Care

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Most clergy struggle out of the gate after the demands of Holy Week and Easter, finding it a challenge to get motivated following such an intense liturgical period. We have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter for which to prepare. As I mentioned, I also went to a private school early one morning last week to preside at a communion service and then conducted the funeral of an elderly member.

I do like this coming Sunday, often referred to as Low Sunday, because folk tend to stay away in droves following Easter -- go figure. The reading each year reminds us that the disciple Thomas wasn't buying the bizarre tale that Jesus had risen from the dead, until the resurrected Christ appeared to him as well. It is essentially Doubt Sunday, which is always important to address honestly, but perhaps more so in an era of such skepticism about religion and faith in general.

This coincides with another of my favourite Sundays, which is Earth Sunday. Earth Day is always April 22nd, and the closest Sunday is an opportunity for Christians to ponder the Creator and our responsibility to care for Creation. I've been preaching Earth Sunday sermons for nearly a quarter century now, and I love this challenge.

Perhaps doubt and creation care go together much more readily than we might imagine at first blush. There are deniers and doubters about our changing climate and the impact humans are having on the web of creation. One of them is the leader of the  powerful nation to the south which signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement and vowed to be at the forefront of addressing climate change. As with Voldemort, this leader's name is better not spoken. I'm coming to the conclusion that while our Canadian federal government says the right things about addressing climate change, there isn't strong evidence that it's much different than its predecessor, sad to say.

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So I will struggle past my Holy Week/Easter hangover to ponder my message for what might be my last Earth Sunday sermon.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Friday, April 14, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Reason for the Season in Holy Week

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This morning people were coming and going from the church office on all manner of business they felt important. Impressive as always, Carol and Martha addressed their needs, including the elderly person who was rather demanding, even though she is not a member of our flock.

It's the way it goes during Holy Week. We're running like mad to prepare for all the services of the season, in all their complexity. Meanwhile other stuff happens. As I mentioned earlier in the week, this year I was at a private school for a communion service early Wednesday, and this afternoon we will say farewell to a beloved member of the congregation, including making a trip to the cemetery. Then we get underway with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and our celebration of Easter.

I do attempt to stay focussed on the solemn drama of the week, but it is a challenge in a society which now considers Easter to be another commercial holiday, as Christmas has become. And I heard this morning that CBC radio will have a two hour "Good Friday" program which won't have much if anything to do with the crucifixion, or Jesus, if I heard the promo correctly. Hey, the feds even chose today to announce the new cannabis reforestation program!

I suppose it's always up to the faithful to ponder the "reason for the season, whatever that Christian season might be. For centuries the earliest Christians managed to celebrate the birth, death, and resurrection of the Christ without any support from the state, and often under persecution.

We will as well.

Note: The CBC Good Friday program was excellent. Thoughtful and moving. I was wrong on that one!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


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The bad guys of the Holy Week story fascinate me. Some of them are unnamed, including some religious leaders and the soldiers who scourged Jesus. Then there is Caiaphas, the high priest, Pilate, the Roman prefect, and Judas, the disciple turned betrayer.

This is the day of Holy Week when the Christian church has traditionally acknowledged Judas' plotting against Jesus, which resulted in the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane after a kiss of betrayal.
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I just finished Amos Oz's novel entitled Judas which is set in the 1950's. It is about a young Jewish scholar who ends up living with an elderly rabbi and his widowed daughter-in-law.  The son of the rabbi was killed during the war to establish Israel, leaving father and wife embittered. This woman is also the daughter of a political figure who went from prominence to pariah because he questioned a cause which pitted Jews against Arabs.

The young man is no longer a student but explores the notion that Judas is the founder of Christianity before Paul because his actions lead to Jesus' crucifixion. Judas infiltrates Jesus' circle of followers, becomes a fervent believer, but orchestrates Jesus' arrest, convinced that he will save himself from destruction and rise up as the liberator of his people. When this doesn't transpire Judas is desolate and takes his own life. Yet he has inadvertently initiated the religion in which the cross is central.

It is an interesting story told by one of the great novelists of Israel, who has been vilified by some as a traitor, a Judas, because over the course of a lifetime moved from being an ardent nationalist to a deep awareness of the humanity of those who are sometimes demonized in Israeli society.

Today we can remember that at times all of us are guilty of betraying what we assume are our core values and our faith in Christ.  We are the "bad guys" and gals as well as those who survey the wondrous cross with admiration and devotion.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

But for Now, I Prepare

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Stained Glass Ray Downing Crucifixion

Tomorrow morning I will lead a brief  communion worship at a local private school, Albert College. The school was once a seminary, preparing candidates for Protestant church leadership. Today it is a multi-cultural, multi-faith (and no faith) school with some vestiges of its past. It will be interesting!

Of course, this is just the beginning of my worship leadership this week. On Thursday I will preside at the funeral of a beloved member who was in worship recently when we heard the Lazarus story in John's gospel which includes the words "I am the resurrection and the life," These words will now begin Betty's service. We will also listen to the Maundy Thursday passage in John in which Jesus conveys a promise of new life to his confused disciples.

Later in the day we will gather in our chapel for our Maundy Thursday service with it's solemnity, celebrating communion and washing feet.

And then, Good Friday, Black Friday, with it's solemn hymns which always find their way to the core of my being.

As all of these worship experiences swirl around in my head and my heart I am also preparing for Easter with a different spirit and the deep conviction that God's love cannot be contained and that the empty tomb is our resurrection promise.

I wonder why I feel a little overwhelmed! This has been my experience in Holy Week for decades and honestly I look forward to being a worshipper, entering into these days with a different perspective. But for now, I prepare.

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Kevin Casto The Empty Tomb

Saturday, April 08, 2017

A Grace of Swans

This has been a hectic few days, coming just before the most demanding week of the Christian year. We finished up our study series, I was at a seniors' residence for a service, and there has been plenty of pastoral care.

On Thursday I visited one of our beloved members in the hospital. Even though she was quite frail I reminded her that she had "taken a licking and kept on ticking" many time before. She smiled and said that she planned on continuing to tick. In the early hours of Friday morning her wonky ticker gave out and this intelligent, generous, faith-full woman was gone from our midst. We are saddened by her loss, even though she lived long and well.

This morning I was awake early so I drove to Sawgwin Creek, which is in the midst of a huge marsh at the edge of the Bay of Quinte. Ruth is away, so it was just "me and my shadow."

The sun was rising, the dawn chorus was in full voice, and the brisk air was the "perfection of the morning." There was evidence that other creatures have been around, as you can see below.

As I stood in the stillness I could hear the approaching whistling of wings. It was a flight of swans, twenty in total, flying low over the marsh, and my head. It was a wonder, and a deeply spiritual moment for me. I felt God's grace and the invitation into the next chapter of my life. I am often deeply aware of the presence of the Christ who walked this earth when I am in the natural world. This morning was profound.

Friday, April 07, 2017

And Where Will This End?

Last evening Twitter was suddenly swamped with the news that the United States had attacked a Syrian military airbase, launching 50-plus Tomahawk cruise missiles. This was a reprisal for a heinous attack by Syrian forces which used deadly Sarin gas to kill a hundred civilians, including small children. Informed Syria watchers agree that this gas attack was not a military action in any real sense. It was a warning, a statement of deadly force and domestic terror by the dictator Assad.

We were all outraged and stricken by the images of those who choked to death. I admit that I felt an initial jolt of satisfaction when I heard of the American strike. Then I asked myself what this will solve. Canada has supported this action, as have other nations, but we have plenty of evidence that military retaliation brings about little in the way of change. Bashar Assad should be removed from power, but it is the families of those killed at the airbase who are mourning today.

In the Twitter responses a number of Americans asked why a president who assured voters that he wouldn't get embroiled in military action in Syria did so. More importantly, many wondered why an administration which won't allow Syrian children into the States as refugees chose to take this action, seemingly because Assad had killed "beautiful babies." The estimate is that 55,000 Syrian children have died during the six-year civil war. Thousands more have been injured, hundreds of thousands traumatized.

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When we had the potluck to welcome our latest Syrian arrivals at Bridge St. UC recently all twelve of the children from the four families were present, running around, playing in the gym. They shouldn't have to be here in Canada, but at least they are out of immediate danger and have the possibility of a meaningful life.

As we make our way through Palm Sunday and Holy Week we will be reminded of God's alternative to military might and retributive violence in the person of Jesus. Somehow we must ask how this counter-story to "might makes right" has currency in the world we live in.


Thursday, April 06, 2017

Mosquitoes as Winged Wonders?

Please God, no! I have seen the magnificent Peregrine falcon in flight, and the remarkable diving of gannets. Hummingbirds never cease to amaze me, nor puffins to amuse me. I'm very fond of the disappearing bumble bee and dragonflies are mesmerizing.  But am I expected to come to an appreciation of the...MOSQUITO?! While Nature magazine appears to be saying yes, I will be a "hard sell." I've slogged along too many portages where it was impossible to smack the lil buggers feasting on me to ever marvel at their abilities in flight, or anything else about them. Although...

The swirling lines in the cover image reveal the instantaneous direction of air flow induced by a mosquito’s flapping wings. Richard Bomphrey and his colleagues show that the remarkably high wingbeat frequencies and shallow stroke amplitudes used by mosquitoes lead to novel aerodynamic mechanisms. Like most insects, the mosquito generates lift from leading-edge vortices, but this is augmented by trailing-edge vortices, which capture energy left over from previous wingbeats. This exquisitely timed rotational mechanism may explain the unusually high aspect ratio of mosquito wings, as it allows the insect to maximize the aerodynamic force along their wingspan.

This is pretty cool, and I can begrudgingly concede that this is yet another creature which is "fearfully and wonderfully made" to quote the psalmist, although a lot heavier on the fearful. When we sing "all God's critters have a place in the choir, some sing lower, come sing higher" I never think of the whine of a mosquito as I'm attempting to fall asleep in a tent. Never.

God, I'm going to need a lot more convincing.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Rain on the Borders

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It seems that as we are in a golden age for documentaries, with so many good films nudging and jolting us toward greater awareness in our world. Some of them are wonderful explorations of nature or inspirational recollections of those who changed the societies in which they lived or live.

Others are punches to the solar plexus, reminding us that there is chaos and hardship in so many places. There is a doc called Fantassut, or Rain on the Borders, filmed at the Greece’s Idomeni refugee camp, the largest informal refugee camp in Europe. It is described as an unflinching look at the refugee crisis through the eyes of those impacted the most.

The camp is home to 11,000 thousands refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries have journeyed to Europe in hopes of a better life in one of the EU countries. These people are captives in the camp, which is surrounded by a double barbed wire fence and life is hard.

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The refugees get a rude awakening when they discover that the borders of many countries have been closed and that they must survive in the limbo of a tent city with little medical assistance.  As Breivan, a mother of five young children points out, the small tents must serve as their bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms. If living in such cramped and unsanitary conditions were not tough enough, there is also the fact that the majority of the individuals are dealing with the trauma of the war back home. The stench of dead bodies and the sounds of bombs going off are not things one easily forgets; this is especially true for the children.

Perhaps I'll have the opportunity to see this film, if I can muster up the courage. What I know is that a wonderful group of concerned individuals, most from churches and other communities of faith, have brought 23 Syrian refugees, 12 of them children and youth, to the city of Belleville. Knowing what they have lived through it is the right choice, and the Godly choice.


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Anyone here seen my old friend Martin?


Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he's gone

Didn't you love the things that they stood for?
Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?
And we'll be free
Some day soon, it's gonna be one day

Do any of you remember the song Abraham, Martin and John? Well, to be fair, you might not because it was released in 1968 and became a big hit for the artist Dion, even though it was a folkie digression from his rock persona.

It gave tribute to four respected American leaders who were assassinated; Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Three of the four were struck down in that supposed love decade of the sixties.

Today is the anniversary of King's assassination in 1968, the same year as Dion's lament. MLK  was the American clergyman and civil rights leader who had already received the Nobel Peace Prize for his courageous commitment to nonviolent change. But he was never safe and after JFK was killed he predicted to his wife Coretta that he would likely experience a similar fate.

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The evening before King was shot he gave a speech in Memphis Tennessee even though he was quite sick and exhausted. He mentions Lincoln and he reflects on a previous assassination attempt in which he was stabbed in the chest by a deranged woman who missed his heart by millimetres. His final words in his address that night were:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Prophetic. What a remarkable man.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Jesus and Special Needs Lazarus?

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I will preach on the John 11 passage about the grief of Jesus' friends, Mary and Martha, over the death of their brother Lazarus. Of course Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but telling that part of the story is only two verses of the 45 we will hear together.

I discovered near the end of the week that Jean Vanier, Canadian founder of the L'Arche movement has speculated that Lazarus was disabled or challenged in some way. I have never considered this, yet I find the possibility quite moving. The sisters remind Jesus that he loves Lazarus, so he better get to Bethany before their brother dies. Could it have been that Jesus had a special love for him because of his with physical or cognitive challenges?

We have several people with cognitive challenges at Bridge St. most Sundays, so perhaps this is why the notion hits home for me. Have a read.

Lazarus, loved by Jesus

This is one of the simplest and most beautiful
chapters in the Gospel of John.
It reveals how profoundly human and totally divine Jesus is.
It is about Jesus loving people and raising from the dead
a man who had already been in a tomb for four days,
whose body was starting to decompose.
It is about Lazarus, who was sickly (asthenes).
In the language of today, we would probably say
"who was disabled."
The Greek word
asthenes can be translated as
"sick," "without strength," "feeble" or "insignificant."
Lazaurs is deeply loved by his two sisters
and Jesus has a special relationship with him.
At one moment his life is in danger,
so the two sisters send word to Jesus:
"Lord, the one you love is sick." v. 3
And the evangelist tells us:Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. v. 5
Later Jesus says:"Our friend Lasarus," v. 11
and further on in the chapter,
when people see how Jesus is deeply moved
by the death of Lazarus, they say:
"See how he loved him." v. 36
This is the first time in the Gospel of John
that we hear of Jesus' love
for individual people,
the first time that John, speaking of Jesus,
uses the Greek words agape and philia.
(from Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, 2004, p. 195).

Saturday, April 01, 2017

The School of Prayer

I've mentioned that when I was a 19-year-old backpacker I ended up staying in a hostel for Asian and African students in Paris, France. I am neither Asian, nor African, but I was not the only pasty white guy in the place. I grew up in Anglo-Saxon, Christian Southern Ontario, so this was my first experience of being in the conspicuous minority. This was also my first exposure to Islam, with a number of the lodgers rolling out prayer mats at the appropriate times for prayer, facing east toward Mecca as they prostrated themselves between the bunk beds.

As an earnest young evangelical Christian at the time I wasn't sure what to make of this, although I appreciated their devotion. Christians are inclined to talk about prayer, and not actually engage in it. These guys "assumed the position" five times a day.

Through the years I've encountered other Muslims at prayer, in mosques in Jerusalem, and in prayer rooms at universities. When in ministry in Bowmanville, Ontario, a group of Muslims who worked for Ontario Power Generation bought a nearby Baptist church so they could slip away for prayer on their breaks. The purchase created a stir in Courtice, but I pointed out that if they were Christians  the critics would be impressed by their devotion.

You may have heard that some people in Peel region have been protesting the permission granted to Muslim high school students for prayer in Peel region. At a recent school board meeting a protestor tore up a Quran, a deeply offensive act. The Muslim students are not asking to have special exemptions from the classroom for prayer, and it is specifically for those students who choose to gather, not for the entire student body. Instead of appreciating that students of any faith should have the right to assemble for prayer in a school the argument is made that no one should pray in a secular institution.

A copy of the Qur'an was destroyed at a Peel district school board meeting last week.

I support this freedom of Muslim religious expression, as I do for any religious group. I understand why prayers of any group should not be foisted on others in a secular institution. But our society has not banned religion -- it is a constitutionally protected freedom -- and it is slippery slope when any particular group is silenced. The Peel situation is not the only one, and I have to wonder whether the protests will become more aggressive.

Do you object to these prayers taking place? Do you think there would be a protest if the group was Christian? I wonder if Christian groups do gather for prayer in Peel schools.