Friday, January 21, 2022

March for Life & the Sanctity of Life for All


In the past week I have been unsubscribing from a number of email sources to which I had never subscribed in the first place. I receive regular missives, sometimes a deluge, from evangelical and fundamentalist enterprises in the United States which rally the faithful to various Christian causes. I find most of them unsettling, more rooted in tribalism, patriotism and even white supremacy than the gospel of Jesus Christ. I decided that they were annoying enough and toxic enough that I needed to rid my inbox of their messages, although I'm discovering that they'll a challenge to vanquish.

I have not eliminated a couple of sources which are revealing about the right-wing Christian obsession with abortion in the States. You may be aware that the historic Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision which made abortion legal in the US nearly 50 years ago is being challenged by restrictive abortion legislation in a number of States and there are growing calls for it to be struck down by the current Court, which is very conservative in its membership.

Tellingly, states where the laws are prohibitive in order to supposedly protect the sanctity of life often have the highest rates of infant mortality, the poorest public health care, and lousy education systems and social services. It's often white, male legislators who pass these laws and it seems that the US is creeping back toward a darker, misogynistic time. Some Roman Catholic bishops have called for President Biden, a practicing Catholic, to be prohibited from receiving the eucharist because he supports Roe v Wade.   

Journalist and now Anglican priest, Michael Coren, has pointed out often, including in his new book, The Rebel Christ,  that Jesus said nothing about abortion, nor did the apostle Paul. And that into the 1960's evangelicals had a far more measured outlook on abortion. In a The Walrus article last Fall Coren quoted a United Methodist pastor in the States who came under attack for these observations:

He said that the “unborn” are a very convenient group to organize around because they don’t make any demands of you and they’re not morally complicated—unlike those in prison, those with addictions, or those trapped in poverty. “You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.”

To give you a Canadian context, the Supreme Court has never declared abortion a constitutional right but in 1988 offered a decision which essentially legalized it. Abortion was decriminalized a couple of decades before that decision but the parameters were unclear. 

There are groups which are largely religiously motivated in Canada which attempt to resurrect the abortion debate and a small number of Conservative MP's won't let this go. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was particularly mealy-mouthed on the subject and it was a factor in his losing an election and his job. 

Why am I writing about this today? There will be a March for Life rally in Washington DC in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington DC. The emails have been flowing, calling on people to gather from across the nation.

I'll say again that I don't "believe" in abortion as a tenet of my Christian faith.  We've had many discussions in our household about this through the years and attempted to be nuanced and thoughtful. I do believe in the right of women to make reproductive choices and that the sanctity of life includes the health and wellbeing of women, so abortion must be a legal option. Let people choose according to their conscience and convictions. 

They are requests for prayer for the outcome of today's rally and I would invite the same, but with a different outcome than organizers are hoping for. 

The other day I wrote in my Groundling blog about the dearth of hymns celebrating the Creator's gift of Winter. Well, seek and you shall find, knock and the keyboard cover shall be opened! Take a look at today's Groundling offering:

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Legacy of Truth to Power in 2022


                                                                            Nikole Hannah-Jones

Today's blog is a follow-up to Monday's entry about the misuse and sanitization of the radical message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was steadfast in choosing a non-violent response to racism but he was not passive in word or deed when it came to challenging systemic racism. 

On Monday Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at an exclusive club in Chicago even though some members had protested her presence because of her work on the 1619 Project. This journalistic enterprise developed by the New York Times  "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."

Hannah-Jones rewrote her speech using Dr. King's words for the first half without telling her audience of mostly white members. Wherever King had used the word "negro" she substituted "black" so that her clever ploy would not be readily evident. It became clear as she progressed that those who were listening were increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric which had come from the mouth and pen of the man they were there to honour. Only after she had created this discomfort did she reveal what she had done. 

Hannah-Jones went on to say that King, who was killed in 1968, wasn’t widely revered as the leader people know today, but was depicted as a “charlatan,” “demagogue” and “traitor.” As I said on Monday, polls from shortly before Dr. King's assassination indicated that he was the most hated person in America, and if he were around today many of the right-wingers who cherry-pick some of his phrases to dismiss Black Lives Matter and discussions of Critical Race Theory would despise him as well.

King, the Baptist pastor, was a follower of Jesus and as such he was non-violent, but he spoke truth to power. There were reasons that both were assassinated in the prime of their lives, and we can't forget this. 

In today's Groundling blog I delight in the Songs of the Stars -- take a look, please!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Pig Hearts and the Greater Good


Did you see the news last week of a "successful" medical first, a pig heart transplanted into a human? Pig hearts are roughly the same size as ours and humans have been receiving replacement pig valves for more than 30 years. They are removed from pigs at the time of slaughter under stringent guidelines and then used to replace diseased and damaged valves in people. 

When we lived in Halifax a couple of decades ago I served a congregation on the edge of the Dalhousie University campus. I audited a History of Science and Religion course, which was very stimulating.  The prof knew I was a United Church minister and at one point asked if I would do some research and presentation on the religious implications of xenotransplantation -- huh? This is essentially the transplantation of animal organs into humans to prolong their lives. Falling into the "fools stumble in" rather than the angels category I agreed to do so. 

One of the ethical and religious concerns then, and still, is that animals would be bred and genetically modified for this specific purpose. I spoke with someone in the United Church head office whose role was considering ethical issues, a position which has likely been eliminated in our incredibly shrinking denomination. There wasn't a lot he could offer and it turned out that the Roman Catholic church had recently published an official document (2001) which was a thoughtful and theological exploration. It noted that there had already been a pig heart transplant but the recipient didn't survive 24 hours. Once section had the heading: 

The Use of Animals for the Good of Man

8. For a theological reflection that will help to formulate an ethical assessment on the practice of xenotransplantation, we do well to consider what the intention of the Creator was in bringing animals into existence. Since they are creatures, animals have their own specific value which man must recognize and respect. However, God placed them, together with the other nonhuman creatures, at the service of man, so that man could achieve his overall development also through them.

I rather tentatively made my presentation to the class, not realizing that I could have called upon one of Canada's foremost bioethicist. Dr. Francoise Baylis for advice, because she was a member of my congregation. I had no idea of her expertise and wisdom until shortly before my departure from St. Andrew's.

If you saw any of the articles from last week, some of them noted that the transplanted pig heart was genetically modified, which means that it was changed so that it would be more readily accepted by the human recipient. This is a significant ethical issue, the developing technology to create animal organs which won't be rejected by human immune systems. This was part of my presentation, way back when. Do we have the right to make Frankencritters to serve our purposes. As the RC study suggests, if this God's intention for other living beings? In the end it concludes that it could be acceptable, but only if there is adequate respect for the creatures. There are thousands of people waiting for transplants and this could make a huge difference 

If this makes your brain hurt (or bores you) it's understandable, and most of us would feel this discussion is way above our ethical and theological pay grade. It's important, though, and raises so many issues. Was last week's recipient a guinea pig (pun intended)? The 57-year-old guy was someone with a sketchy criminal record, so was he morally worthy of this expensive medical procedure? 

I do hope that ethicists and theologians will keep the discussion going, even though this will be a lonely enterprise. 


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity


Because of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus many congregations in Canada have chosen to be responsible and are worshipping online rather than gathering physically, possibly compromising the health of those who might attend.

If we can't get together as our individual flocks, what is the point of considering the global church of Christ during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? This week of reflection on unity has been a tough sell for decades now, and being forced to hunker down during a pandemic makes this even more challenging.

Yet here we are at the beginning of the week which this year begins on a Tuesday. Perhaps it is even important in 2022 than ever. Certainly we see the divisions in the Christian community widen for our neighbours to the south. Brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted in many nations and others live in places where vaccine inequity threatens their health and safety far more than in wealthier countries And with the rise of toxic populism and strongman leaders around the globe we need reminders of the light of the Christ of humilty and the witness of those who follow his Way.

This year the churches of the Middle East have developed worship materials for the week which focus on the story of the Magi who may well have been Zoroastrian astronomers and astrologers who were intrigued by a heavenly body called a star in Matthew's gospel.

Christians are called to be a sign to the world of God bringing about this unity that he desires. Drawn from different cultures, races and languages, Christians share in a common search for Christ and a common desire to worship him. The mission of the Christian people, therefore, is to be a sign like the star, to guide humanity in its hunger for God, to lead all to Christ, and to be the means by which God is bringing about the unity of all peoples.

The material for the week goes on to acknowledge the ongoing strife and turmoil in the Middle East which seems to defy politcal resolution or calls for common respect and peaceful coexistence. To join together in prayer during these days lifts our heads from the preoccupations of this moment to consider a greater good in Christ's name. Here is a prayer which is included, and a link to the website if you're curious to explore further:

 God, our only refuge and strength, we glorify you for you are a just and righteous God. We confess before you that we often covet worldly models of leadership. Help us to seek our Lord Jesus Christ not in the palaces of the powerful but in the humble manger and to emulate him in his meekness. Encourage us to empty ourselves as we serve each other in obedience to you. We pray in the name of Christ who with you and with the Holy Spirit reigns forever in glory. Amen.

A carving on a column in Saint-Lazare Cathedral, France depicts the Magi being visited by an angel. Three crowned figures are shown together under a large, round cover. Two of them are still asleep, but the third has been woken by the gentle touch of the angel who is pointing the star out to him.

It was carved by a man named Gislebertus, the greatest sculptor of his period. His name is known because on one of his carvings he put the words ‘Gislebertus hoc fecit’ [Gislebertus made this]. The work was carried out between 1125 and 1135.

Monday, January 17, 2022



At times it is a challenge to look at the fiery highway crash of American political discourse and it's also had to look away. How did this toxic mess happen, and how is it that the States seems to have learned so little about how to address the serious issues which divide, including race?

In the past 18 months the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has galvanized people to the political left and right. One of the more perserve aspects of all this is the use of the example of Martin Luther King Jr. by those who are on the political right, including by those who are white supremacists in outlook, if not overt affiliation. There are plenty of conservative Christian pastors and commentators who have done so as well. 

Dr. King's children have denounced this misrepresentation and last year on Martin Luther King Day daughter Dr. Bernice King, a lawyer and minister tweeted "Dear politicians/political influencers: When you tweet about my father's birthday, remember that he was resolute about eradicating racism, poverty and militarism." 

In another tweet she said:

Please don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King

In an interview the same day there was this observation:

I was listening to a commentator a few years ago who said that Dr. King has been turned into Santa Claus kind of this jovial happy person who said, 'I have a dream,'" said Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society. "But I was a freshman in college when he was assassinated and remember that he was not well loved. His whole history has been revised and sanitized."

 In his ”I Have a Dream” speech, MLK spoke of “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,” and reminded the nation that Black people could “never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

On this Martin Luther King Day we can pray and act for justice and reciprocity for all with the reminder that racism exists here in Canada and must be addressed systemically and personally. The United Church has recognized its sin in this regard and you might read the statement of our General Council from two years ago:

Bless God frost and snows! Seriously!? Click here for my Groundling blog today

Sunday, January 16, 2022

When God Was a Pigeon

                                                         Baptism of Jesus mosaic Ravenna 

 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:21-22 NRSV

Last Sunday was  Baptism of Jesus in the Christian year and I'll admit that while in congregational ministry I only occasionally picked up on this event which marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry with an act of humility. Often in January I would offer a series of sermons on a topic or theme as a break from the ecumenical lectionary. 

In Luke's gospel, as with the others, the adult Jesus is baptized in the Jordan river by his cousin, John, and the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a dove. 

I've been thinking about this gospel story after hearing a CBC Radio The Current piece about pigeons before Christmas. It was an interview with science writer Rosemary Mosco about the pigeon,  a bird which is often dismssed as a "rat with wings", and her book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird. During the conversation she mentions that pigeons are doves and that religions, including Christianity, have a place of honour for doves. They are an important part of the Genesis story of the ark and in the story of Jesus' baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.

Pigeon takes flight -- Paul Hayes

This took me on to an intriguing book by Mark Wallace called When God Was a Bird: Christianity and the Re-Enchantment of the World. At the beginning of his introduction there is a woodcut of a pigeon/dove in flight. There is something powerful in the image of the Creator, Redeemer God who animates us and all that lives in the form of a bird so many of us hold in disdain, although Rosemary Mosco points out that pigeons have fallen from a rather exalted place over time. I figure have developed a contempt for the birds which have adapted to us, such as gulls and crows and pigeons. 

One of the earliest hymns of the Christian community found in Philippians speaks of how the Christ who emptied himself on the cross for our sakes was exalted, so perhaps the dove-pigeon imagery is more powerful than we can imagine. 

We affirm our belief in the God of Creation who is still creating. What does that mean when destructive volcanoes erupt? My Groundling blog today?

The Baptism of Jesus Christ -- Pheoris West 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Jesus, Christ and Rebel?

 I'm well on my way reading through the recent slim but worthwhile volume called The Rebel Christ by Michael Coren. You may be aware that Coren is a journalist and author of a number of books. In years past he also had a television talk show with several guests on each episode to discuss a wide range of topics, some of them controversial. It was obvious that Coren was a theological conservative and at the time of his show a champion for Roman Catholicism. 

I tuned in regularly because he was articulate and invited guests from a variety of perspectives and didn't fit the dreary but deserved stereotypes of  some conservative Christians. I stopped watching because he was something of a pitbull regarding Catholicism at times, and he was contemptuous of the United Church, the denomination in which I was a minister. That Michael Coren came to Bowmanville when I served there to speak at a rally opposing the legalization of same-gender or equal marriage in Canada. Needless to say, I didn't attend. 

The Rebel Christ and Coren's previous book, Epiphany, reflect his personal "road to Damascus" experience eight years ago which resulted in radical shifts in outlook about the scope of the gospel of love. Coren is still an unabashedly orthodox Christian but he has repented of what he describes as a judgmental outlook to embrace an inclusive theology and practice. As he says in the introduction to The Rebel Christ he now has "a belief system based on peace justice equality forgiveness inclusion humanity care for the marginalized poor  and weak a rejection of materialism and a commitment to a new fundamentally new and different society..."

I am convinced that Coren's conversion is genuine and he writes well about his own journey and the Christ he follows as a result. We had him as a guest speaker at Bridge St Church before my retirement and his passion and conviction were evident. There has been a cost for Coren, financially and otherwise, because rather than listening to his reasons for change he was rejected outright by many of the media venues which formerly availed themselves of his opinions. I see the attacks on social media by those of the "they'll know we are Christians by our hate" ilk who are furious that he has become more inclusive. 

What do I think of the Rebel Christ? I've smiled a number of times while reading as he espouses viewpoints which fit very well with a United Church ethos, given his consistent negativity in the past toward our denomination. After years of study Michael is now an ordained Anglican priest but it seems to me he would not be uncomfortable in the UCC. 

Coren has courageously and succinctly addressed three hot-button topics in the realm of the religious right: socialism, LGBTQ2 acceptance, and abortion. As I've read it occurs to me that this would be a good book to share with someone who is conservative in outlook but open to new possibilities. Or someone who is newer to the faith and would benefit to a clear exploration of the topics. 

To circle back around, I appreciate that while Michael Coren's conclusions about the expression of the gospel have changed significantly, his devotion to Christ hasn't. Was Jesus intentionally a rebel? He was radically faithful, whatever the consequences would be, so in that respect, yes. Would I call him the rebel Christ? Perhaps not, but I would enjoy having that conversation with Michael. 

It's been a while since I posted a Groundling blog entry. Here's the link about the "birds of the air" on a -23C morning.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Joan Didion, Death, & Magical Thinking


Nearly a decade ago one of my brothers-in-law died suddenly at his desk while at work. He'd just had a routine medical examination which declared him in good health for a guy in his later 50's and he was active. But his father had died young due to heart issues and seemingly heredity caught up with him. 

Needless to say, my sister-in-law was stunned, as were their two teen children. His death made no sense and there was no actual goodbye, even though there was a meaningful farewell service with lots of people in attendance. As people of deep Christian faith the family affirmed their shared resurrection hope but he was gone, and where was the consolation? 

After a time I gave my sister-in-law a copy of Joan Didion's grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. It is about this exceptional writer's experience of losing Dominic Dunne, her husband of many years, when he collapsed and died at the dinner table. They had been to see their adult daughter who was inexplicably gravely ill in hospital and in a coma. Didion introduces her book by saying:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends. 

The title of The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful statement in itself about the myriad ways life changes because of grief. She wrote that despite the kindness and company of others she wanted to be alone, so he would come back. 

Joan Didion died of Parkinson's disease just before Christmas at the age of 87. I've yet to  rummage around and find my copy of the book but I will.

 I wish I could express confidence that because of regular exposure to loss as a minister as well as  the deaths of parents and other family members that I am prepared for the losses yet to come. I don't think I am. I will continue to do my best to affirm that:

In life, in death, in life beyond death

God is with us. We are not alone. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Pope Francis Steps In It About Pets

 If you've read my blog over time you'll know that I have mixed feelings about the current pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis. In many respects Francis is a marked improvement over his predecessor, Benedict, but the bar was very low. The encyclical called Laudato Si: Care for Our Common Home was an exceptional document regarding our Christian response to the environmental emergency and care for Creation. Francis has often been extremely compassionate regarding the poor and marginalized and then tone-deaf when it comes to issues such as the cancer of clergy sexual abuse and apologizing to Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in the world. 

A few days ago Francis seemed to voluntarily climb into the doghouse when he riffed on people selfishly putting their pets ahead of having children. This from a 85-year-old guy who has never had children, doesn't have a pet, and even though he lives modestly by papal standards, has all his daily need addressed. Popes don't seem to realize that sometimes silence is golden. And, oh yes, why are supposedly celibate clerics so obsessed about human reproduction? 

It turns out that what was more of an off-handed comment by Francis in a conversation on another theme had more to do with a shift in societal attitudes in wealthier societies than condemnation of valuing our companion animals. He also included the caveat "in some cases" to his observation, although this was rarely reported. Dare I say it, fair enough. 

Our beloved Labrador Retriever, Pratie, was our gateway drug to parenthood forty years ago and what a wonderful companion she was for more than a dozen years. By the time she died we had three wonderful human childrenm so she obviously wasn't a deterrent to parenthood. I cried as I walked away from the vet the day she was euthanized because of a host of ailments. Through the years we've faced some significant medical crises with pets which cost what seemed like a small fortune. We decided it was worth the cost even though with cats there is always the sense that their humans are just staff. 

                                            from Petsmart "I'd do anything for you" commercial 

I do find it disturbing that society has shifted so that people regard their pets as though they are human beings, spoiled ones at that, complete with elaborate wardrobes. Anyone else wonder why when Canadian winters have become so mild every other dog wears a coat and boots?  And what's with the strollers for dogs? We were at a beach this past summer where an obnoxious couple frolicked with their three very vocal pooches with disregard for anyone else. At the parking lot I picked out their vehicle as the one with the bumper sticker "Our Kids Have Paws." 

Then there is the matter of justice in a world of need. It is a biblical imperative to treat all creatures with respect, but do we lavish our companion animals with care when so many humans suffer. Someone named Sam Rocha tweeted about the Latin American context: “When you come from a place where people live like dogs, it is scandalous to see dogs live like people.”

So, in the bigger context Pope Francis may have a point, but in the meantime he may have to stoop and scoop the poop he's created. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

God in the Shadows During Alzheimer's Month

January is Alzheimer's Awareness Month in Canada, which is more accurately dementia awareness month in that Alzheimer's disease is the best known of a number of forms of cognitive impairment and decline. There are approximately half a million Canadians directly living with dementia, while millions more are affected because they are their loved ones and caregivers. 

It's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't have a personal story about the effects of dementia on those they know. In my case there were many parishioners through the years who had dementia and I'm so old that we vaguely termed it senility when I began ministry. While Dr. Alois Alzheimer has been dead for more than a century the descriptive term Alzheimer's disease has become much more common in the past thirty years, it seems to me. 

The reality of dementia came even closer to home when my late mother began her cognitive decline related to Parkinson's disease. The progression of Parkinson's was slow, as was her dementia, and it was hard to witness in this intelligent, resourceful, faithful person. She continued to be gracious to the end which, sadly, is not the case for many. As a pastor it was hard to see caring, decent people become angry and paranoid and even violent as a result of their disease. 

I lead study groups on dementia in two congregations with the title God in the Shadows: Dementia and the Spiritual Life. We involved the Alzheimer's Society, as well as a palliative care doctor, and I interviewed family caregivers about their experience with loved ones. We explored scripture as a foundation for our approach for support. In one setting a participant asked about establishing a congregational support ministry. I found both these groups meaningful as stories were shared and they were among the best attended of any I offered through the years. 

It's important to stay aware of the challenges of dementia in congregational life in these unsettled and isolating times. I've heard from people in ministry that the restrictions on gathering for worship, congregational activities, and in-person visits have affected many with cognitve issues. 

As always we can pray, call, provide support in whatever ways possible. We do this in Christ's name and as our collective ministry of compassion and love. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Rediscovering Rembrandt, Unexpectedly

 On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” 

Mark 4:35-39 NRSV

In some respects old-fashioned TV channel surfing has become a curiosity of the past in this day of streaming services and binge-watching of highly touted series' and films. Somehow I came upon the first of three segments of a series on TVO called Looking for Rembrandt even though looking for the Dutch painter was furthest from my mind. I have been an admirer of Rembrandt Van Rijn since childhood because of a series of books my parents purchased on great painters in history. Rembrandt flourished in the early 17th century, making lots of money painting portraits and biblical scenes only to spend it like mad. He was famous and popular and he married the love of his life and had a child. Sadly, the child and then others died young, and so did his beloved Saskia. 

I searched out episodes two and three online and they tell a rather dark tale of decline. Before he was forty Rembrandt seemed unable to produce enough work to keep his deserved reputation, perhaps crushed by grief, and he had trouble keeping ahead of his creditors.There was scandal and humiliation, and while he was also an exceptional printmaker that work didn't pay the bills in the same way as his early paintings. 

When Rembrandt died in his early sixties he was virtually a pauper, having been forced to give up his home and auction off his possessions. He was buried in an unmarked grave. 

Rembrandt painted numerous self-portraits through the decades beginning with a jaunty image from his early twenties to the weary old man near the end. It's been suggested that he originated the selfie!

Rembrandt had a religious upbringing and knew scripture. He painted many biblical subjects including some images which I didn't know. The dramatic depiction of the Storm on the Sea of Galilee is his only known seascape, and it was a revelation for me even though I've seen a number of his works, in person, and studied many others.This painting was stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and never recovered. 

Many of us know one of his final works, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a huge piece which is in the Hermitage in Moscow. There is a book by the last theologian Henri Nouwen, also from the Netherlands, which reflects on this painting and the themes of homecoming. If I recall correctly,  Nouwen was on his way to see it when he died, suddenly.

Was coming across this documentary series providential? I found the episodes quite moving, so I'd like to think so. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Legacy of Sidney Poitier

Amen. Amen. Amen, amen, amen.

Sing it over!

Amen. Amen. Amen, amen, amen.

See the little baby., wrapped ina manger

On Christmas morning!...

                from a Spiritual sung by Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (1963)

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

                       Luke 12:27 King James Version 

 Wow. Doesn't it seem as though that in recent days a number of the greats of an era in a variety of fields have been "promoted to glory," as they say in the Salvation Army? The good news is that they lived long and meaningful lives. The latest is Sidney Poitier, one of the finest actors of the 1960's, who died at the venerable age of 94. Poitier, a Bahamian American was also an activist, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. who attended the March on Washington where MLK delivers the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.  

                    Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, & Charlton Heston at the March on Washington 1963

Poitier is often cited for his roles in To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. We watched A Raisin in the Sun last year, which was excellent,  as well as the lesser known Lilies of the Field, the only role in a picture for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. He played an itinerant handyman who first reluctantly, then with greater zeal, helps a small group of nuns build a chapel. He gives these German emigres English lessons and in one scene he teaches the sisters to sing the African American spiritual, Amen (his voice was actually dubbed).

Initially Poitier was lauded for breaking through the race barrier as a movie star, but he was also criticized for being overly accommodating of white culture in his roles. Race and racial prejudice is certainly addressed in a number of these films. We were impressed by his screen presence and the quiet, yet physical intensity he brought to the various roles. 

RIP Sidney.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Building Up Clergy in Challenging Times


                                                             Illustration by Neil Webb

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

                                          Ephesians 4: 29-32

The headline from a December Broadview magazine article by Rev. Christopher White certainly caught my eye:

United Church ministers are burning out: Clergy were already facing a mental health crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made it worse.

This may appear to be dire, but I suspect that while pastors in our denomination are all along the spectrum of stress during the pandemic, it has taken its toll on virtually everyone. I know that some clergy went into a verson of the witness protection program at the outset, deeply concerned about their personal health, the wellbeing of their loved ones, and of the health and safety on their flocks.

Lots of others were trying to figure out when to open for in-person worship, how to navigate virtual worship and meetings, how to provide pastoral care when actual visits were not allowed. The United Church emphasizes the Word but it is also a sacramental denomination. How does that happen when the elements of life could transmit sickness? And what about funerals? 

White's article notes that the issues of mental health for UCC clergy preceded the pandemic:

 In 2018, a University of Notre Dame study asked 520 of the denomination’s ministers how they were feeling. Almost all of them said they enjoy their work and find it deeply meaningful, but 86 percent said they experience work-related stress, only 62 percent were optimistic about their future in ministry, and 41 percent said they feel little or no support from their denomination.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic started two years later, things got worse. “There is a lot of grief in congregations right now as they are aging and feeling real anxiety about the future, and so clergy are becoming the lightning rods,” says Rev. Adam Hanley, the program co-ordinator for ministry personnel vitality at the United Church’s General Council Office. He adds that COVID has magnified these trends. “Pandemic-related stress has been huge….Clergy are spending a lot of time putting out fires.”

Our son Isaac is our minister and before the pandemic the number of younger families and children in the congregation was growing but they haven't been inclined to attend in-person worship because there hasn't been program for kids with COVID protocols, except when we gathered outdoors. The same is true for our nephew, who is also a UCC minister. Both are younger, by United Church standards, and have their own primary school-age children. 

The Council and Ministry and Personnel committee at Trenton UC have done their best to be practically supportive, and I commend them. But the demands for them have been exhausting as well. More than once I have offered words of encouragement and gratitude to the Council chair as the pandemic flings monkey wrenches into the delicate machinery of congregational life. 

Still, I have been impressed that Trenton UC has worshipped in-person about half of the past 21 months, has installed a lift to connect floors, opened a community warming centre, and secured funding to renovate the kitchen for its meal program. 

Currently, clergy who are young enough to have families are onced again trying to figure out how to do ministry, often from home, while also connecting their children with on-line learning because they aren't heading off to school. 

As we worship virtually today (a skill church staffs have learned on the fly)  we can all ask how we are supporting our pastors and other congregational staff members in these challenging times. Do we include them in our prayers, offer words of encouragement, refrain from expressing impatience when we are frustrated about circumstances beyond their control? 

We are realizing that COVID-19 is persistent and so we can build one another up in kindness and the forgiving love of Christ. 

Here is the link to the Broadview article: 

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Hymns and Songs in the Digital Age


2 O tell of God's might, O sing of God's grace,

whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,

whose chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,

and broad is God's path on the wings of the storm.

Our home congregation, Trenton UC, has worshipped, in-person, during the pandemic, usually when officially allowed, although there have been periods when we haven't gathered simply because it didn't seem prudent. That's the current situation, but when we did gather congregational leaders took lots of precautions including removing hymnbooks from the pews and projecting only. It meant that we couldn't read the music, but that is a relatively small number of congregants anyway. 

I began using projection in worship in the early 1990's for music, sermon illustrations, and announcments. Lots of us are visual learners but I had to convince every congregation thereafter to do so. Some of the strongest resisters became begrudging and even enthusiast supporters. I still use my computer version of Voices United to search hymns and it's handy to cut and paste verses. 

 I just read an article in Broadview magazine about the new music resource which is being created by the United Church in collaboration with other denominations with the name Then Let Us Sing. It sounds as though it will be versatile and contemporary and, hey, the "new" More Voices supplement is now 15 years old! It will be primarily digital, it would seem, although there will be provision of a print version: 

“Having an online resource provides tremendous flexibility for congrega­tions in worship, including the ability to update it with new music,” says [Alydia] Smith, who is the national co­ordinator for the Church in Mission Unit.

I certainly support this approach although I like having the option of a physical hymnbook for a number of reasons. I noticed that the image accompanying the article was of a hymnbook page and for an oldy-goldy, O Worship the King, which I recognized from visible phrases. I grabbed my copy of Voices United and discovered that it was in the Praise and Thanksgiving section, between Let Us With a Gladsome Mind and Now Thank We All our God, two more wonderful hymns from centuries past. 

I roll my eyes when folk grumble about newer hymns and songs because we don't need to be stuck in the past. We don't want to become a tired old version of the Classic Rock radio stations. Still, I do enjoy some of those traditional pieces (others have wretched theology) and with a hymnbook I can rummage around in a way I don't with my computer resource. 

I look forward to seeing and hearing what Then Let Us Sing has to offer when it's released in 2024. I support the digital format. And if a print version is created I'll probably purchase one. 

Here are links to the TLUS website and the Broadview article:

3 The earth with its store of wonders untold,

Almighty, your power has founded of old;

has stablished it fast by a changeless decree,

and round it has cast, like a mantle, the sea.

Friday, January 07, 2022

E. O. Wilson and our Transcendent Moral Obligation

                                                   E. O. Wilson, the Original Antman

I never have a shortage of subjects on which to blog because the world constantly presents new and fascinating (at least to me) subjects which so often have a spiritual or religious aspect. The challenge is summoning the energy to write succinctly about what are often complex stories and subjects. I deeply regret that I don't seem to have the wherewithal to write both my Lion Lamb and Groundling blogs. In 2021 I wrote about 365 blog entries in both.  

Last week I wanted to reflect on the Boxing Day death of one of the great biologists of the 20th and 21th centuries - arguably of human history -- 92-year-old E. O Wilson. I just got bumped elsewhere by other stories. Wilson was the world's leading authority on ants but the scope of his research and writing meant that he was broadly revered in the scientific community. His books won two Pulitzer Prizes and I've read his autobiography and his novel.

Wilson wrote a book entitled Biophilia (1984), which proposed that the tendency of humans to focus on and to affiliate with nature and other life-forms has, in part, a genetic basis. This intrigued me because as a religious person and a Christian I'm convinced that our Judeo/Christian faith encourages us to love and honour both Creator and Creation -- biophilia. I see this as innately God-given. 

Wilson grew up in a religous milieu in the American South but it's clear from his novel Anthill that he didn't have much use for the way some people practiced their religion. Fair enough. According to a New York Times piece: 

As his parents’ marriage disintegrated, the boy found solace in forests and tidal pools. “Animal and plants I could count on,” Dr. Wilson wrote in his 1994 memoir “Naturalist.” “Human relationships were more difficult.” 

At the time, he was also undergoing a spiritual transformation. Raised as a Baptist, he struggled with prayer. During his baptism, he became keenly aware that he felt no transcendence. “And something small somewhere cracked,” Dr. Wilson wrote. He drifted away from the church. 

“I had discovered that what I most loved on the planet, which was life on the planet, made sense only in terms of evolution and the idea of natural selection,” Dr. Wilson later told the historian Ullica Segerstrale, “and that this was a far more interesting, richer and more powerful explanation than the teachings of the New Testament." 

Wilson was vitally involved in the Half Earth Project which with science at its core recognizes that humanity has a "transcendent moral obligation" to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard biodiversity

Wilson was never an atheist, militant or otherwise, and would describe himself as a "provisional deist...willing to accept the possibility that there is some kind of intelligent force beyond our current understanding”. 

He was a marvelous contributor to our understanding of the natural world and by all accounts a gracious and generous human being. For this we can be grateful. 

ore  and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart, the Half-Earth Project® is working to conserve half the land and sea to saeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.