Saturday, July 28, 2018

Gone Fishing?

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I've been doing my best to keep up with both my Lion Lamb and Groundling blogs these past few months, which is a bit of a challenge, despite the lavish freedom of retirement. Where do the days go?

As we make our way into the heart of summer readership fades and that's a good thing. Folk are traveling and spending more time outside, which is certainly good for our spiritual health.

I am going on a brief hiatus, which sounds more painful than it is.  I haven't fished since I was a kid, but it worked for Jesus and his disciples.Actually, the blogging sabbatical will likely be a tonic for my creativity, but I shall return, probably in a week or so. 
Christ be with you! 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Praise for the Milky Way

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Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker
Here's a song in your praise…

O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning
Lord of the starfields
Sower of life
Heaven and earth are
Full of your light…


Lord of the Starfields -- Bruce CockburnIn the Falling Dark

Someone has taken this nighttime photo at the Lake of Two Rivers campground in Algonquin Park. What you're viewing is the Milky Way, the marvelous swath of stars which is our galaxy. Our sun around which the planets, including Earth, orbit is one of those stars. The Milky Way has been part of the night sky humans have viewed for millennia, and it has been studied and revered. It is becoming a rarity for most on the planet due to light pollution. It's estimated that more than 80 percent of children born today will never see the Milky Way. If you've had the experience you'll know how remarkable it is to see, a spiritual experience for many.

We'll be at Lake of Two Rivers for the next few days and on Sunday I'll lead worship there. The United Church has a ministry at Algonquin and clergy can sign up for a service, which I have chosen to do in retirement.
I'll focus on the gift of the night sky and remind worshipers that there are plenty of passages of scripture praising "the heavens," which are different from "heaven."  I'll read from the book of Job where God speaks of the constellations "when the morning stars sang together." It's tempting to think of the bible as "dark bad, light good" and Jesus does describe himself as the light of the world. We also read in Mark that Jesus went out to pray "early in the morning, while it was still very dark." Did he want the experience of the heavens as he communed with "Our Father, who art in heaven"?

Wherever you are, please say a prayer for our worship gathering.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Don't Be Afraid

Danforth Vigil

Don't be afraid, my love is stronger,
My love is stronger than your fear.
Don't be afraid, my love is stronger,
And I have promised to be always near

Don't be Afraid John Bell

Our younger daughter is in her early 30's, a perfect age to live and work in Toronto, one of the largest cities in North America. Her apartment is small but her social life occurs in the cafe's and bars where her friends congregate. It's a good life, but it's become unsettling recently because of a number of shootings in public places. It has certainly come home for us in light of the rampage in Greek Town, on the Danforth, earlier this week. This is a bustling strip in the summer with lots of outdoor patios. A mentally ill gunman opened fire, killing a young girl and a teen, injuring many more. We're not accustomed to this in Canada and neighbourhoods such as the Danforth have always been considered safe.

You may have noticed, as I have, that there have been a couple of memorial gatherings, one of which took place in a church and the other which began at one. We know that there were prayers and opportunities for somber reflection. Mayor John Tory was interviewed outside one of the churches and I noticed that those departing the building included a number of Muslims, so it was interfaith even though it was a Christian sanctuary. It may have been Eastminster United and last night's candlelight vigil stopped there.

I've noticed that when these inexplicable events occur (think of the van attack in April) people need to gather and attempt to make sense of random violence. Invariably clerics of different traditions are included and while Toronto is a secular city for the most part, there is room for the sacred in these moments. Often a hymn such as the overworked Amazing Grace is sung or, as in the case of last night's vigil, Leonard Cohen's quasi-sacred Hallelujah.

I think its important to note that in a time when churches are closing with alarming rapidity and even entire denominations such as the United Church are pondering their futures, there is still room for the sacred and --dare I say it -- God. Many of the people who attend these events are younger even though this demographic tends not to be involved in organized religion. While we may be keenly aware of this "when bad things happen to good people" God is always present and patient in the rough and tumble, sorrow and excitement of city life.

I'm glad that last night the powerful and fitting John Bell chorus Don't be Afraid was part of the vigil.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Faithful Witness in Nicaragua

Our daughter-in-law is a biologist by training and during her undergrad years spent time in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Central America. She had a number of adventures, some of them scary, but she continues to have great affection for both the country and the people. She also has friends she made there  years ago, as well as colleagues who now reside there with their families.

She has been quite concerned about the increasingly volatile circumstances in Nicaragua which has resulted in clashes between government forces and citizens who are insisting that President Ortega and his government must go. There is a paramilitary group which seems to be acting as a strong-arm extension of the government and is partially responsible for violence and at least 300 killings. If Ortega's name is familiar, It's because his Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship 40 years ago, but they are now verging on being as toxic as that regime.

The church in Nicaragua has been a key factor in what is unfolding now. In the first days of the upheaval, Ortega appealed to the bishops to act as mediators in talks with the eclectic opposition coalition. But as the government intensified its crackdown on the opposition, Mr. Ortega has ordered attacks by his followers on priests and on churches.

In a recent incident at the basilica in Managua someone slashed the auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Silvio José Báez, in the arm and ripped the insignia from his cassock. The bishop was protecting a group which had sought sanctuary in the church.

I am impressed by the courage of these clerics who are standing with the marginalized and threatened people of this impoverished country. It is important that we stay away of the crisis in Nicaragua and pray for the safety and wellbeing of the priests.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Rescuing the Rescuers

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The Netflix film called The White Helmets won an Academy Award for best short documentary a couple of years ago and it was well deserved. It tells the moving story of a group of selfless Syrians who put their own lives in peril in order to rescue those who have been injured and inundated during attacks by Syrian military forces.

I've written about the comments of some of these rescuers who have placed their trust in God as they go about dangerous work, often using their bare hands to haul children out of the rubble. According to their own count they have saved more than 100,000 people during this horrific conflict. The White Helmets, officially the Syria Civil Defense, were also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and I wish that they'd won. They have been people of peace and hope despite efforts by the Syrian and Russian governments to discredit them.

Yesterday a group of about 400 White Helmets and their families were evacuated from the south of Syria by Israeli forces. As the Syrian army recaptures territory their lives have been increasingly in danger. They were taken to the Golan Heights, then to a secure camp in Jordan. We need to applaud Israel for this dangerous but important evacuation.

We can also thank the Canadian government and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland for starting this initiative and offering to bring a couple of hundred of these refugees to Canada. I hope we do offer the White Helmets and their loved ones a gracious welcome and we can be grateful for all they accomplished.

Learn more about them and the movie here.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Abilities and the Gospel

When I was in the home stretch toward ordination as a United Church minister in 1980 I was anxious, as were most of my classmates. There was a final interview and then there was a medical. In retrospect it was foolish for me to be worried. I was a white, heterosexual male, married and ready to go where the church wanted to send me. My LGTBQ classmates were either still unwilling to identify themselves to decision-makers, or wondering if they would be rejected because they had "come out."

And the medical? I was 25-years-old mobile and healthy. Ruth and I had hiked a section of the Bruce Trail the previous summer, so my physical fitness wasn't in question, but I was still nervous. There were seminarians who were not approved for ordination because they were obese and told to lose weight before they would be reconsidered -- the next year. I didn't have a single classmate who walked with a cane, let alone a wheelchair, and everyone had good enough vision to drive a vehicle.

What a difference a generation makes. The Rev. Miriam Spies is a United Church minister and was our denominational representative in Geneva, Switzerland earlier in June for a meeting of the Central Committee, the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in-between assemblies. She had a lovely encounter with Pope Francis who asked Miriam to pray for him. As you can see, she is in a wheelchair because she lives with cerebral palsy.While there are obvious challenges for Rev. Spies they do not define her or her ministry. Forty years ago her gifts for ministry would have been muted or lost.

Learning about Miriam I have thought about the worship spaces of most United Church congregations and how the pulpits are seldom accessible for those with physical disabilities and challenges. How many persons have experienced Christ's call through the years but felt that the church is indifferent to their needs?

Today Miriam Spies will preach at the opening worship for General Council 43 to a congregation of a thousand, or more. Impressive. Thank you, Miriam, for all you bring to ministry.
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Saturday, July 21, 2018

KP and the Gospel

                                                   Photo: Ruth Mundy

I finally returned after 39 years to a place which had a profound effect on me as I prepared for ministry. Yesterday Ruth and I went on a tour of Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security prison which was the first in Canada and closed in 2013 after 180 years of housing inmates. In the latter years it was a prison for men but in earlier days it also held women and even children.

The youngest inmate to be incarcerated in KP was an eight-year-old pickpocket who spent three years behind bars. Ah, justice. If that sounds Dickensian, Charles Dickens visited KP in 1842, only a few years after it opened, and observed: "There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect."

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Walking through the imposing North Gate of the prison yesterday was "a trip" as we were wont to say in another time. I entered that gate five days a week for four months as part of a chaplain internship program along with three others. I was 24 and as green as could be, while the others were all a few years older.. Our chaplain supervisor was a tough little Baptist bulldog of a man, and willing to push us toward greater insight. Sadly, my final reflection paper and evaluation of those months of internship may have perished in the "great purge" of files when I retired last year.

There were two disappointments during what was generally a very worthwhile tour. We didn't visit the chapel, which was admittedly a nondescript room. Yet in that chapel area significant interactions took place between chaplains and inmates which went to the heart of Christ's gospel of acceptance and love.

We didn't go to the isolation range either, at least not the pre-90's area which was my daily visitation assignment. This was also known as "The Hole" and it was a bleak place with narrow cells and opaque windows high on the wall. The more modern isolation cells were much larger and had an actual window to the main courtyard.

The Hole was hell and everyone knew it. The inmates were isolated for their own protection, but there was nothing humane about the setting. In the main hub of the spoke-like prison a retired deputy warden gave us some history of the institution, including the 1971 riot. As we left that spot I pointed to the stairs leading down to The Hole and told him of my role. He shook his head and said he wouldn't have wanted that job. Later Ruth commented that I rarely spoke of my experiences at the end of each day and we were expected to observe confidentiality. I was young, and at a stage of life when I wanted to fulfill expectations without questioning what I was asked to do.

It was important for me to return to Kingston Pen and it may be that before long the tours will end and the valuable property on Lake Ontario will be redeveloped. I'm appreciative of the internship nearly four decades ago and the way it shaped my outlook on "the least of these."
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Friday, July 20, 2018

Google, The Big Bang, and a Jesuit

I saw the Google doodle on Tuesday and wondered who the figure was, and why he was wearing a clerical collar. It turns out that this is a pleasant caricature of a Belgian Jesuit priest named Georges Lemaitre, and the occasion was his 124th birthday. Actually Lamaitre has been dead for half a century but in the 1920's this priest and professor of physics and  astronomer proposed what is often called the Big Bang -- the theory, not the sitcom.  

The term Big Bang was offered by an astrophysicist as a derisive dismissal of the notion of a constantly expanding universe. Lamaitre originated the theory and it was supported soon afterward by Edwin Hubble. Lemaitre was also the first to derive what is now known as 'Hubble's law' and also derived the first estimation of what is now called the 'Hubble constant'. It was published in 1927, two years before Hubble's article.

So often fundamentalist Christians have squared off against scientists, some of whom are fundamentalists in their own right, and the result isn't pretty. The assumption of many people who aren't part of faith communities is that all Christians are anti-science. Even though the church of another era persecuted scientists at times, there was also support for scientific developments and endeavours.

Belgique - Louvain-la-Neuve - Place des Sciences - Georges Lemaître - 04.jpg

In case you're wondering how Lamaitre was regarded by church officials, he was elected a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, and took an active role there, serving as its president from March 1960 until his death. In 1951, Pope Pius XII declared that Lemaître's theory provided a scientific validation for Catholicism. Lemaître resented the Pope's proclamation, stating that the theory was neutral and there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between his religion and his theory.  Lemaître and Daniel O'Connell, the Pope's scientific advisor, persuaded the Pope not to mention Creationism publicly, and to stop making proclamations about cosmology. While a devout Roman Catholic, he opposed mixing science with religion, although he held that the two fields were not in conflict.

I'm grateful to Google for introducing me to this Christian scientist whose work changed our understanding of the universe. Now I'll go turn on my television and watch The Big Bang Theory in reruns on any one of a dozen channels.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dear Premier Ford

Recently a group of about 270 United Church clergy in Ontario signed an open letter to the newly elected premier of the province, Doug Ford. I know many of them and a couple are actually serving pastoral charges I served along the way. I suspect that many more would have signed it as well, had they known about it. I'm glad that they have raised a number of important concerns, all of which I share. While I doubt the signees are holding their collective breath in anticipation of an earnest and fruitful meeting, they've spoken up "for the people" and the environment. Have a read and tell me what you think.

Congratulations on being given a mandate to form government and assume the role of Premier of Ontario. The people have given you the responsibility to lead the province with integrity, wisdom, and compassion.

As ministry leaders in The United Church of Canada who live and serve in Ontario, we are encouraged by your promise to listen to faith communities such as ours. We are asking the members of our congregations to be conscious of working with our government for the greater good of all Ontarians.

The communities we serve and lead may write to you on their own accord, but we write to you today as ministry colleagues who collectively wish to highlight a number of important issues. We ask that you and your colleagues keep them in mind throughout your term in elected office.
We recognize that much of your platform was centred on economic issues, planned economic reforms, and the pursuit of prosperity for the people of Ontario. We trust that the reforms your government introduces will take into consideration the poor and marginalized of society and will work towards advancing their prosperity. It is our experience that the weakest of our society are the most vulnerable to any change, even change that is warranted.
Although there are many issues that are of concern to us as United Church ministry leaders, these are the specific points we ask you to keep in mind as you assume office:

1. The vulnerable and marginalized must not pay the cost of budget cuts. The poorest members of our society cannot break free of the cycles of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and poor medical care without programs that enable them to become healthy members of our communities. It is far too easy to fall between the cracks of our currently broken systems.

2. Safe, affordable housing for all Ontarians needs to be a priority so that all people can benefit from the physical and emotional safety and stability a good home provides. We are particularly concerned about the lack of quality housing options for people who live with disabilities, seniors with low incomes, and Indigenous people living on reserves.

3. It is a moral obligation to help those in need, particularly those fleeing for their lives from other countries. We ask you to do your utmost to welcome and support refugees and to embody a leadership style that is open and compassionate.

4. You have promised to make improvements to our health care system, notably doing away with hallway medicine. We encourage you to keep your promise in this regard and to deliver better access to healthcare for all Ontarians. We are particularly concerned for those struggling with addiction and ask that you give weight to the evidence that supports a variety of approaches to harm reduction.

5. We value teaching comprehensive sexual education in our schools and believe strongly that knowledge leads to better choices and better health outcomes.

6. Climate care is an expression of our call to be good stewards of God’s creation. We encourage your government to find and implement strategies that will reduce Ontario’s carbon emissions while contributing to a robust “green” economy. We are concerned that lower gas taxes and a move away from both solar technology and light rail transit will have an adverse impact on the environment in Ontario and beyond.

7. As the gap between rich and poor widens, access to higher education is becoming increasingly difficult for a growing number of people. Education in general needs to be a priority. As you have stated, Ontario can be one of the most competitive economies in the world. A well-educated workforce is key to that goal.

We appreciate your desire to unify all Ontarians in a vision of prosperity. We respectfully ask that this vision include the points we have raised, namely care of the vulnerable, affordable housing, support for refugees, quality healthcare, comprehensive sexual education in our schools, climate care, and access to higher education for all.

We would be pleased to meet you and with MPPs in our local areas to begin a dialogue about these matters. Lastly, we wish you well as you fulfill your mandate to serve all citizens of Ontario.

The Earth's sacred giants are dying and we should all be majorly bummed! Today's Groundling blog

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Power of Baptism

Christian baptisms are a curious sacrament. Baptism is one of two "outward signs of an inner reality" for Protestants, and one of seven for Roman Catholics. The Orthodox communion also recognizes seven, bye the way.

Baptism is intended to be a profound mystery, as those who receive the grace of Christ are "drowned" to their old life and rise up into a new and eternal promise of salvation. Often though it is a convention, a fading ritual, and it some traditions it is predominantly infants who are baptized with an almost hydrophobic sprinkling of water rather than immersion.

Baptism of Jesus

Through the decades of ministry I was frustrated by the unwillingness of parents and congregations to engage with the implications of baptism and the discipleship it represents. It's not an exaggeration to say that I hated being the agent of cheap grace where the sacrament became a pleasant reason for a family gathering rather than a powerful expression of faith.

I wonder what the British royal family brought to the font, by way of faith, for the baptism of Prince Louis recently. There are now photos which are supposedly from the occasion, although not a one depicts the church, the baptismal font, nor a congregation which is welcoming the baby. It all feels rather stagey, from my perspective. To be fair, there may be a deep Christian commitment behind this, even though there is the rather weighty role of "defender of the faith" for William as once and future monarch.

I attended a baptism ceremony recently by the waters of the Bay of Quinte. Our five-year-old grandson and a young girl from the congregation were baptized by son, Isaac, during their outdoor service. The mostly elderly congregation trundled down to water's edge for what was a lovely moment. As parents they responded to our grandson's curiosity and request for the sacrament. When it was over he asked if he might go for a swim, a request which was gently denied!

God bless Louis and all who go down into the waters of baptism, symbolically or literally.


Enjoy Alison Krause singing I Went Down to the River to Pray.

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