Friday, July 25, 2014

Book 11 of 2014 -- The Generosity Factor

This book was suggested by a member of my Ministry & Personnel committee, I think when we were talking about the need for the congregation to do some work around stewardship (because that is what the book is about).

The premise is that a rich, make money is what counts, stockbroker reads an article about a CEO who believes strongly in the value of giving.  At the same time the Broker is highly successful and yet wonders about significance.  So he goes and spends a weekend with the Executive to learn the secret of how giving and generosity brings happiness.

I am really tempted to get folks in the church to read this book and then have us discuss it.  It gives a good basis for a discussion of Christian Stewardship.

On the surface it is a novel, but the claim is that it is based on the attitudes and practices of one of the authors....

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Great Idea...BUT....

I am a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences.

Today I am wondering how that law will play out yet again.

In the mail today was our GST Credit statement.  As I might have expected had I thought about it.  But what caught my attention was a notice on it that all Government of Canada Cheques are being phased out by April 2016.

Not a problem for most people.  Indeed I haven't gotten a cheque from the government for almost 15 years.   All our tax refunds and credits come via Direct Deposit.

But will that work for everyone?

To get Direct Deposit you, obviously, need a bank account.  Generally to get a bank account you at least need a home address, some accounts may even require a minimum balance.  There are people who live without a bank account.  What happens to them when the government assumes everyone can do Direct Deposit?

As it happens there are many people who miss out on government payments to which they are entitled because they fall through the cracks.  They may not file a return because they have no income.  They may be so mobile that they forget to inform the office of a change in address (which will even cancel Direct Deposit payments--as we learned one year when someone at CRA mis-entered our Postal Code and then insisted we had moved without telling them and THAT was why they had the wrong address and mail was returned to them).  To require that one has a bank account to get money to which they are entitled is merely one more hurdle that will cut money away from some of the people who most need it.

I get it.  It is cheaper to not print and mail cheques.  It is more convenient for many of us to just have the money appear (which is why we do Direct Deposit).  But a cardinal (IMO) rule in public policy is to not create structure that harm the most at risk in the society.  Unless there is some other plan in place--this change will harm some of those who live on the least.

The law of unintended consequences at work....

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Book 10 of 2014 -- When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not Enough

When I was in Seattle a couple months ago I heard Lillian Daniel speak and was very impressed.  And I had looked at this book a couple of times and pondered buying it.  So I finally pulled the trigger and got it.

First I have to say that I miss the days when I could read and retain stuff.....I seem to be getting worse at that.  And it is really frustrating.  But I digress.

I liked this book.  There were pieces of it I want to use in preaching later (assuming I remember--see above).   I am thinking of suggesting it as a Book Study for next winter, as I think there could be some great discussions out of each section. 

I am never sure how best to use a book like this.  You can, as I did, read it like a "normal" book, in order.  But because it is a collection of stories and reflections you can pick and choose and jump around.

In a culture where we have too often lost the ability (in and out of the church) to talk about where we find God and why we feel God's presence and how we "know" God this book gives us a start for the discussion.  I think it is good reading for those in and out of religion.

And I am seriously tempted to just read the chapter on Valentine's Day the next time Feb 14 is a Sunday (which should be 2016).

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Towards Right Relations

Today is the Summer Solstice.  Which means that it is also (in Canada) National Aboriginal Day.  In many places across the country ceremonies have taken place today or will take place tomorrow to honour and celebrate Aboriginal culture (for example).

And that is great.  But it is not enough.

Like in many countries, the relationship between those of aboriginal ancestry and those of other ancestry is very complicated in Canada's history and Canada's present.  And it is my belief that there is a great need for that relationship to be developed.

And to develop that relationship there are areas that need to be named and addressed and accepted.  One of these is the history of Residential Schools.   A start has been made on that front, with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had its last public event in March.  Many stories have been told and much history has been revealed but only a start -- both in the discovery/sharing of truth and in the process of reconciliation.

Another area is in the lived experience of far too many Aboriginal folk in 2014.  There are First Nation communities that live in what are routinely described as "Third World" conditions.  Aboriginal people are highly over-represented in the prison system and in the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder (and under-represented in other areas of life).

Another is the very real fact of hidden, sometimes barely hidden, racism in Canadian society.  We may not longer see the "No Indians Need Apply" help wanted ads that once appeared but there is a racism problem in many parts of the country.  A racism problem that leads many to be put out by the "special treatment" (aka treaty rights) First Nations get, or shows up in the still common stereotype that Indians are predisposed to substance addiction, or appears when over and over Aboriginal folk are described as lazy or disrespectful of property or overly demanding, or is evident when it appears that the legal system puts a different emphasis on missing First Nations folk than on other ethnicities or....  And yet many people will deny that this racism exists, or that it is as widespread as it is...

Then there is the whole question of land.  Whose land is it?  Now. Today.  Not whose land was it 150 years ago, but whose is it now?  And who gets to decide how it will be used?   And if we agree that land "ownership" has passed on what are the terms of that transfer?  There are so many shades to this question of land that whole books can be written about just this one issue -- and court cases have already stretched for years in trying to figure it out.

And there are complicating factors.  Complicating factors like the fact that I truly believe some of the European folk involved in negotiating the treaties, particularly the later treaties, were agreeing to terms that they never expected would be actually lived out.  I believe it was a matter of saying/doing what was needed to get the land with the expectation that the "problem" (which was the existence of the Indians) would only last for a little while longer anyway.  Or complicating factors like the fact that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, sometimes because the good intentions of some get run over by the pavers.  I find that to a degree the Residential Schools fall in this category.  There were some who became involved because they honestly believed that this was a way to help the folk adapt to a changed world.  But the pavers were trying to extinguish and assimilate, not assist in adaptation and so overran the intentions.  What are the good intentions in 2014 that will be judged as insanely misguided in another generation?  Or complicating factors like the whole "history is over, we can't change it so lets just live in the present and prepare for the future" attitude -- which is really a (sort of) polite way of saying "stop whining about the past".

So we have started.  We have only started.  Some will say we should be farther along (and we likely should be but that is because we probably should have started a generation earlier).  But we have a long way to go in sorting out this relationship.  And until we do THAT needs to be a part of the discussion around National Aboriginal Day.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Newspaper Column

Twas my turn this week.  This was the third attempt.  I still don' really like it....

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Short answer....NO. There may be a cause, but that is different from a reason that gives it meaning.

I had a plan for this column. I was going to talk about how communities of faith have helped build Grande Prairie over the last 100 years, and muse about how communities of faith can help Grade Prairie develop into the future. But then 5 families in our city lost their homes to fire. Then 3 RCMP officers were gunned down in Moncton. And then there was a shooting at Seattle Pacific University. And I remembered the old saying of Karl Barth that we preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And I remembered a question I was asked to preach about last November.

There are certain phrases that probably should be stricken from our repetoire. And the irony is that many people use them in a desire/attempt to be comforting.

"God must have needed another angel"
"God never closes a door without opening a window"
"God never gives us more than we can handle"
"Time heals all wounds"
"It must be God's will"
Everything happens for a reason"

To be frank most people find these statements, when offered in the face of tragedy, generally unhelpful and sometimes downright infuriating.

One of the most perplexing questions in Christian theology is "Why do bad things happen?" [often with the add-on "to good people" and the corresponding "why do good things happen to bad people?"]

If God is in control then why do young children die of illness or accident or willful action? Why do people get cancer? Why does a person have to watch his/her life partner descend into dementia? Why do we see (over and over again) reports of "ethnic cleansing" and genocide? If God is in control, if God is all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful why do terrible things happen? Is it all part of a grand plan? Does everything happen for a reason?

To make it a more difficult discussion, it is fairly clear that much of the Scripture witness supports the idea that God is in control, that there is a plan, that things do happen for a reason. And the only appropriate response in the minds of some people of faith is to say "it is all a mystery". [Or as I have been known to say, “if there is a plan it is poorly communicated and the implementation needs some work”.]

But what if God is not in control? What if God is not in fact all-powerful? Then what?

That is where I have come to. I don't think everything happens for some deep philosophical reason. I think life is just like that. This I think is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is referring to in chapter 3 “To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven”. (As it happens, my Hebrew Scripture professor once suggested that this passage is a little bit depressing and fatalistic.)

So then what do we make of Romans 8:28 "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."?

That verse could easily support the idea that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan, that "it will all turn out for the best". OR. Or it could mean that the same God who turned the tragedy of the cross into the victory of Easter is willing to transform things. Not to take away the pain, or the tragedy, or the rampant unfairness of life. Just to, as the saying goes, make the best of a bad situation. So things don't happen according to the plan, they happen and we adjust the plan in light of new information.

Does God want houses to burn? Does God let random acts of violence shatter people's lives? Does God plan that girls are abducted from a school with promises to sell them into “marriage”?

No. These things happen because life is not perfect. These things happen because life is not fair. But even in the unfairness and imperfection God is there to help us live through the tragedy. God has a hope. God has a vision. God has a promise of what the world could be. And we will get there someday. As Dame Julian of Norwich (who lived in a violent, unjust, imperfect world) said “all will be well, all will be well, all will be well someday”.

Not a reason for all the stuff that happens, but instead a promise of support and presence. And a promise that some time we will get to a time when life will be better. God is good. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Books 8 & 9 of 2014 -- Volumes I & II of The Canadian Civil War

At the end of April, in preparation for my trip to Seattle, I was browsing through Kobo looking for something to read.  And as I looked through the free books section I came across this one.

As I have mentioned previously, history is a long-time interest of mine.  That has always included historical fiction.  This is an interesting book.  I started it on the bus and did not stop reading for most of the next 5 hours.  It is set in a world where the French did not lose their North American possessions in the Seven years War.  Nor did they sell the Louisiana Territory to the US (it also appears that the US had their independence from England at a much later date--logical since the English victory in 1763 was a big part of setting the stage for the American Revolution a decade later.  It appears that Canada remains as a French-speaking nation covering much of the North American continent.  The US is the original 13 colonies plus Florida (because apparently the US still eventually fought Spain and won).  I have yet to determine what happened West of the Rockies on either side of the 49th Parallel, though it seems I might get a bit of that picture in Volume 3.

The premise of the book is that an American historian (a fairly arrogant one I might say) is in Green Bay (the capital of Canada) doing research on the Joliet family.  The first volume alternates between what he is learning from the latest patriarch of the clan, a former President of Canada, about the discovery of the Mississippi in the 17th century and developments in Canada (and in the romantic life of the historian).  This Canada is split culturally between the Catholic North and the Huguenot South, with a focus for the latter on New Orleans.  I am thinking the 17th century history is fairly accurate, but have not enough background to be sure. 

Shortly after returning from Seattle, having read little to none of the book while there, I stayed up far too late and finished the book.  It seemed at the end of volume 1 we were headed directly into the Civil War named in the title.  The South is rising....

Having so enjoyed the first one I got home and went looking.....

Found Volume 2.  And promptly clicked to buy it (for little more than a $).

In this volume we continue to be looking at the history and at the present.  But the stakes are higher.  Is conflict between North and South inevitable?  Will the US be drawn in?  Will the US (who has warred with French Canada multiple times) use the Civil conflict as an opportunity to grab territory?

The historic focus this time is on the settlement of the South.  This history is not aimed at being accurate in the same way the first volume was, though it contains some very accurate pieces.

The twist is that this book builds and builds a sense of impending doom--but does not yet pull the trigger.  Will that happen in Volume 3?

This series is not what one would call great classic literature.  There are places that are inconsistent, where piecing together the alternate history, and how the alternate history links in with/changes actual history becomes really hard to figure out.  There are places where an editor might have needed a more careful eye.

The main character, the narrator, is at time and insufferable bigot.  I grow really tired of the potshots he makes at French/Canadian (though really French in this instance) culture, work ethic, expertise...  Mind you it sounds very much like a stereotypical USan attitude to French stereotypes in the actual present (emphasis on the stereotypes -- which is an interesting literary choice).  But for failrly mindless reading it is just up my alley.  I look forward to volume 3.

Worship Planning Pondering

For the last 25+ years my experience in worship has been centered on the Revised Common Lectionary.  First as a Sunday School teacher using the Whole People of God curriculum, then as a pew-sitter, through my seminary training and internships, and now 12 years in ordained ministry.

There are great reasons for using a lectionary.  It forces us to look at a variety of passages in Scripture -- including some we would rather not explore.  It gives a structure to worship planning, enabling more advanced planning by teams.  It gives a starting point each week.

But using the RCL has drawbacks.  More and more over the years I find myself ignoring it for blocks of time (espcially Lent and Advent when I have often created a thematic series) as well as for individual Sundays/special occassions.  ANd while the principle is that following the RCL has us hear all the "important" stories of Scripture that raises the key question "important according to whom????".  And even in that attempt I find it does not do a great job of actually allowing the stories, particularly the longer, multi-chapter stories of Scripture to fully be told and explored.  Then there is the whole matter of trying to make all the readings for a Sunday link to each other -- a task I gave up on long ago, and seldom do I have all the RCL passages read on a Sunday.

Lately I have been pondering a change.  More and more I read posts about the Narrative Lectionary.  THis is a four year cycle (so each Gospel gets its own year) that is intended to allow a better sense of the narrative flow of Scripture to develop.  I think it would be a good way to help develop more Biblical literacy/familiarity in people.  I think it would be a new challenge for preaching (having now been through the RCL cycle 4 times).

But I wonder.  Would I find the NL to be more of a straightjacket, not allowing easy variation for special occasions (after all to do justice to the concept one sort of needs to stick with the narrative).   Currently much of the worship resources available are for the RCL and that makes life easier for Licensed Lay Worship Leaders who are often providing coverage when I am away.  If we are following the NL do we ask those folk to do so as well?  (not likely, but does that then break the flow?)

The NL year starts in September.  And this September starts Year 1.  So this fall would be the logical time to start.  Which means i should likely make up my mind (and discuss it with the worship committee) soon...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book 7 of 2014 -- A Church with the Soul of a Nation

I have long been a history fan so when I first heard about this book I almost bought it immediately.  However, I had other things to do with my study allowance this year and was going to wait.  But I had heard a number of references to it in a couple of FB discussions that made it sound really worthwhile so I went looking for it...

It is rare I read a book and my response is to wish it was added to course syllabi.  This is one of those books.  I think it is essential reading for history of the United Church of Canada courses (and also that those courses are ESSENTIAL for anyone entering ministry in the UCCan).

Not that the picture drawn is always what we would like to see.  Airhart makes obvious the inherent racism/xenophobia that existed in the UCCan as they tried to face a Canada where Anglo-Saxon roots were becoming less and less a majority (note that this racism is also a reality in the history of public education in Canada and probably in many other parts of Canadian life).  She names the rampant anti-Catholicism that marked the Canadian reality for many decades.  This is part of who we were, part of where we came from.  And, just like we have forced ourselves (or been forced) to look clearly at our relationships with our First Nations brothers and sisters, we need to face some of those hard realities.

As we attempt to figure out where we are going, to try and guess where we will end up, it is helpful to look at where we have been.  In reading this it becomes obvious that the discussions we are having now about our identity have been happening and building not for the last few years but for longer than I have been alive.  Sure they have had different faces but they have been the same discussions.  For 50 years we have been trying to sort out what we are all about, because the founding vision at the time of Union is well and truly no longer viable.

I encourage all UCCan folk to read this book, all UCCan congregations should have a copy in the building.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


He is Risen Indeed!


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Newspaper Column

What Do You Mean Forgive?!?

....and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...

They are words heard in many churches every Sunday. Buried deep in the middle of the Prayer of Jesus (aka the Lord's Prayer) is this line about forgiveness. But is that really what we want?

Be honest with yourself. Do you really want to be forgiven just as well as you forgive others? Or do you want a whole lot more forgiveness than you often offer?

Forgiveness is hard. Several years ago I was leading a study on the Prayer of Jesus. The week we were talking about the chapter in our study book “Jesus' Prayer Calls Us to Forgiveness” more than one member of the group shared how much they struggled with forgiveness. I also have struggled with it. How do you forgive people who have harmed you or your loved ones, who have caused physical and emotional damage? Why should we?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Forgiveness is at the heart of living as a person of The Way. Forgiveness is at the heart of how we are able to form civil societies. If we, as individuals and as communities, are unable to forgive then life quickly begins to amount to grudge holding and revenge seeking. And that damages all of us.

But forgiveness is hard. It denies our need (or is it really only a want?) for payback, for “justice”. Telling each other, telling ourselves, to forgive makes it sound like we discount the damage done. And surely there are some things that are unforgivable. Right????

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge [NOTE see a review I wrote here] describes forgiveness as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer”. This, Volf argues, is what God does with God's people. God recognizes the wrong done but chooses to waive the punishment. And then Volf has the nerve to suggest that this is what God wants US to do with each other. Acknowledge that a wrong has been done, but don't try for payback, don't hold it against the other, erase the debt, live as though no wrong had been done.

That is hard. It doesn't seem to make sense. Why should we forgive? I don't mean the little things, I mean the big ones, the ones where forgiveness seems impossible. God wants us to forgive those too?

Yes. God wants us to forgive those too.

In the end we forgive because forgiveness leads to health. Sometimes that is the health of the other, sometime it is our own health and well being. After all, there is an old proverb which says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. When we are unable to forgive we are holding on to anger and hurt.

For many years I carried a grudge against classmates in my Junior High years. They had hurt me. I couldn't confront them (either at the time or later). But neither could I forgive them. Eventually I had to. Holding on to that hurt was still hurting me. Holding on to that hurt was keeping me from living. (Mind you it took several months of therapy to realize that and find a way to let go.) I will never forget, but I had to forgive. I had to stop letting those words and actions control my life.

As people of faith we proclaim that we are forgiven. As people who have been forgiven, we are challenged to go out and forgive others. We are, in the end, able to forgive for the same reason we are able to love. Because we are loved, because we have been forgiven, we can be people of love and forgiveness. We can make the choice.

It will not be easy. But anyone who promises that life can be easy is probably selling something. But if we are to be the people God created us to be we need to forgive each other, we need to forgive ourselves, and we need to accept forgiveness from others. We do it so that we can be healthy. We do it so that our neighbours can be healthy, we do it so our relationships can be healthy. And we do it because God is at work in us.

Maybe, if we are honest, we want to be forgiven better than we are able to forgive. But with practise we get better. The more we forgive the better we are at it. And our model is God, who has forgiven us already.

Now who do you need to forgive?