Friday, March 29, 2013

THe "King" is dead...

King Ralph some called him.  Citizen Ralph others called him.  Some found him overbearing, egotistical, arrogant, uncaring.  Others thought he was a man of the people, "one of us".  Some thought his Premiership was an utter disaster.  Others thought he was the greatest thing to happen to the province since Lougheed (and for some that assessment includes the 2 premiers who followed him).  Ralph Klein, from his first term as mayor of Calgary through to the end of his political career made a splash.  That much is certain.

I first heard about the man in that first term.  As the recession of the early 1980's hit in full force and jobs became scarcer there were a number of imports who had come to Alberta in search of the plentiful oil-patch jobs they had heard about for most of the 1970's [funny how things stay the same isn't it, people still come to Alberta looking for the plentiful oil-patch jobs -- just ask how many Easterners are working in Fort MacMurray].  Only problem was, the jobs had dried up with the crash of the oil industry and soaring interest rates so there were hordes (according to some) of unemployed Easterners in Calgary.  Mayor Klein went on the record as telling the Eastern bums and jerks to go home.  He did have a way of speaking his mind.  [Just to note, Ralph was hardly unique in Alberta to having a less than friendly disposition to the East at times--there have been many people in the province who have at one time said the Eastern bums could freeze in the dark, and during the 1980's there was a vocal group calling for Western separation]

Then later Ralph became a Cabinet Minister.  I remember in 3rd year University doing a parody of him as Environment minster.  If memory serves there were more than a few calling him Ralph Clown at that point.   What else can you say about an environment minister who flipped the bird to environmentalists asking why he was not working to protect the environment (peak issues during his tenure included effluent from pulp mills polluting the Athabasca river system).

Then he became premier, the role he is possibly best know for, especially outside of Calgary.  HE became premier when the province was in debt after never fully recovering from deficit budgets during the 1980's.  And his premiership marked a grand shift into the neo-conservative philosophy.  He (well his government, a premier can not do these things by him/herself) slashed budgets, he cut jobs, he did balance the budget and pay off the debt.  One year he even sent out "Ralph bucks", rebate cheques to every Albertan because there was such a surplus.  And for that he was applauded.  By some.  Others of us watched and asked what the cost of that was.  There were those who asked if there was even a plan both to the cuts and the debt pay off and to dealing with the budget as a whole (late in his time as premier, as the province was back in a boom and growth he more or less admitted the government did not have a plan).  Dart board economics was how I used to describe it--dart #1 decided which department to cut and dart #2 decided how much to cut.

The thing is, Ralph was not always a deep conservative.   As this article reminds folk he was once quite the opposite.  At one point in the mid 1980's he was tied heavily to the Canadian Liberal party. But memories are funny things, and it is often what we do/who we are last that sticks in people's minds.

What he was, despite the fact that I found his premiership to be deeply troubling (when I was looking at settlement in 2001 I pretty much was saying my preference was NOT to be in Alberta because I had had enough of Ralph Klein's Alberta -- so the church in its ironic wisdom sent me to Mike "the Knife" Harris' Ontario), is an excellent politician.  As mayor he sold incredible property tax hikes and was re-elected by a grand majority.  As Premier he decimated the public service, he closed hospitals (some of which never should have been built to be honest but Alberta had money coming in hand over fist in the 70's), he reduced nurses, and he became popular for it!  Ralph made it look like he was a populist because he made the public think they had asked for what he did.  This is a man who resigned as party leader because he only got 55% in a party vote of confidence--some party leaders would love to have that after a decade of the top job.

He was always controversial.  He showed up (drunk, the story goes) at a homeless shelter one night and threw change at the shelter residents.  He said that a rancher who discovered a cow with mad cow disease should have chosen to "shoot, shovel and shut up" as the that discovery damaged the Canadian cattle industry.  He was not always (was rarely?) diplomatic.  But he was committed to the job.  THat you can not take away from him.  I just wish the lionizing I saw on the news tonight reporting his death would take time to name that he was not a saint, that his choices as premier accomplished his stated goals only at a great cost.

Here are soem highlights from his long career.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday

29 years ago today (by the liturgical calendar at least--by the secular calendar it was April 15 [I just checked]) I was confirmed at the age of 15.  I was in Grade 9.

In that era in that congregation it was the practice that Teen Confirmation always happened on Palm Sunday.  Before that you met once a week (in the case of our year we had a weekly potluck) starting in the mid-fall. 

To be honest I don't remember a whole lot about what we talked about in all those meetings.  I do remember that there was some time taken for team-building.  I also remember that the Diaconal Minister who was leading us was somewhat out of his depth and that the group got much better once he asked the youth group leader to assist him.  There were times when hard questions were asked--both by leaders and by classmates.  But the only discrete piece of content I remember for sure is a Christmas Quiz that I have used a couple of times since then.

And within a couple years of our Confirmation a small handful of us were regularly seen on Sunday morning, with a slightly larger handful seen at youth group on Sunday evening.

But what I do remember is those Confirmation services.  Pam Sunday as Confirmation day went on past the end of the 80's and into the 90's when I was teaching Sunday School.  Which meant that the Palm Sunday service was a LOOOOONG service.  You would have a Palm Parade and some sort of Children's Time, then the Sunday School folks would head off .  THen the rest of the service would include a full-length sermon, and Confirmation, and often a baptism or two (at the very least from within the Teen Confirmands), and then we might as well do membership transfers that day, and then we had to have Communion of Confirmation Day.  The upshot was that it was 2 hours easily.  And those of us teaching Sunday School, particularly those of us with the Grade 4-6 age group were going a little bit crazy.

I always try to remember those years when we have special, added, stuff happening in worship.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Plan B -- A Newspaper Column

We have come to the crowning weekend of the Christian year. This weekend people will gather for worship on Thursday to tell the story of a leaders who washes the feet of his friends. People will gather on Friday to tell the story of a man who was so passionate about, so committed to, his vision of the world that he willingly went to his death. And then people will gather on Sunday to tell the story of a God who overrides the wishes of the world, who shouts a glorious and triumphant YES in the face of the world that said NO.

It is the heart of Christian faith, this Easter celebration. It is when we proclaim that life defeats death, that hope defeats despair, that light overcomes the darkness. Easter, the reality of resurrection is what creates our faith. And yet it is a celebration that raises questions.

Every year about this time someone somewhere starts a discussion by asking something like “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”. One common answer in Christian thought is that Jesus had to die to save us, to pay the price for our sins. This suggests that the whole reason Jesus is born is not so much to teach and preach but to be a willing sacrifice. The true effect of Easter then seems to be accomplished as much in the death as in God's act to defy that death.

Some of us, however, find that answer troubling. At least one author has gone so far as to suggest that a God who sends God's own Son just to be murdered is guilty of divine child abuse. Some of us find it hard to believe that this is how God works. And so I find myself wondering if maybe Easter as we know it was in fact Plan B.

During the last week of his life Jesus told a story about a hopeful landowner and the tenants who defeated his hope. You can read it for yourself, Luke 20:9-18. A common understanding of that parable is that the landowner is God. God who has sent many messengers to remind people who they could be. God who sends one last messenger. But even then the messenger is rejected and murdered by the tenants who think they have a better way.

Maybe God's hope was that Jesus would be the prophet that caused the world to be transformed through his teaching and preaching. Maybe the hope was that Jesus' preaching that the Kingdom of God is here now would take hold and become a full reality. Maybe the hope never included torture and execution.

So why did Jesus die? Jesus died because the world is NOT what God would have it be. Jesus died because when you are bold (some might say foolish) enough to challenge the authorities in the world they will push back. Jesus died because God's hope did not pan out, because the people of Jesus' day did not launch the great transformation that Jesus proclaimed. And so the powers around Jesus brought him down and executed him as a traitor, a brigand, a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser. The killed him because he threatened to upset the system. Did Jesus expect to be murdered? If he understood the system and the challenge he was to that system he must have known the system would kill him.

Many of Jesus' friends must have believed that the cross was the end of the story. Jesus must not have been the Messiah they thought he was, there was no concept of a Messiah who would die on a cross. Decades later Paul refers to the problem of Jesus' death by calling it a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The story was over, the hope was gone, the light was extinguished.

Enter God, Stage Right.

The plan has not worked. So we need another plan. And God chooses to act. God chooses to raise Jesus from death. God chooses to prove that God's YES is more powerful than the world's NO.

This is the glory of Easter. We continue to live in a world that falls short of God's hope, that is not yet what God would have us be. But God continues to say YES, it is possible. The power of Easter is not shown on Friday. Friday only reminds us that we continue to block God's hope. The power of Easter is when people of faith experience the Risen Christ. The power of Easter is in life, not death.

It may not have been the original plan. But God took the failure of the world and turned it on its head. And God continues to do that. Thanks be to God! Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book 4 of 2013-- The Renegade

Many years ago I was introduced to Jack Whyte's "Dream of Eagles" series (about the time period leading up to the Arthurian legend).  Years later I came upon his Templar trilogy.  Then a year and a half or so back I came across the first book in his Guardians trilogy and have been watching for the next one to come out.

Then at the beginning of this month I was browsing through Kobo and found that it was out!  Conveniently this was as I was heading into a week of vacation time.  So I clicked "Buy Now" and started to read this book.

This trilogy is set during the period of the Scottish struggles against Edward Plantagenet of England.  But, just as he did not write about the Arthur period, Whyte does not write about the peak part of the characters story.  In Book 1 we followed William Wallace from a child until just before he started the path that led to the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  In this book we follow Robert the Bruce from childhood until he is about to move from English Knight to Scottish Rebel (though arguably the word Rebel is mis-used --or at least shows a pro-English bias-- as it is impossible for a Scot to rebel against an English King who is trying to take over the country).

This book draws an interesting portrait of a conflicted young man.  Is he English or Scots?  Is Edward I a friend or foe?  Where will his destiny take him???

Monday, March 11, 2013


Today there was a consultation in town.  The topic--homelessness.

Normally I would not go to a day long meeting the first day back from a week of vacation time.  But this seemed like an important event to attend (and I find it notable that I was one of only 2 clergy in attendance -- and the other may well have been there as much because his church runs an affordable housing building) so I went, having done most of my "Monday work" on Saturday to allow for it.

But there is something terribly serendipitous about attending a meeting on homelessness this week.  Why you ask?  Well here are my early sermon thoughts for the week, and here are my liturgical bits for the week.  The gospel passage includes the line "you always have the poor with you", which sadly many people have taken as freedom to merely accept the reality and inevitability of poverty. 

As people of faith, how do we live with the reality of winners and losers, the reality that our stewardship of God's abundance has be grossly uneven, the reality that while some have more than they could use others across town are seeking a cot in the warming centre so they have a place to sleep for the night?

Hard questions.  But the day will inform my sermon this week.  And I came out with a great quote "Poverty is what happens when people stop caring for one another". 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Urban Sprawl

Central Alberta has some great farmland.  Rich topsoil, a good mix (on average) of heat and moisture.  So why are we living out Joni Mitchell's song Big Yellow Taxi?

In the 15 years since I last lived in St. Albert several whole new subdivisions (with overly large and over priced houses) have sprung up, with more planned.  The city annexed a huge amount of land to the north a few years back -- I often comment on how much stuff is there that was a LONG way out of town before.  Same to the West of town.  Areas where I once rode my bike along gravel roads with fields beside them are now paved roads with developed lots.

Last week when we were down in the Edmonton area this story hit the paper.  12 000 hectares.  Most of which is currently active farmland.  More area where utilities and water lines and sewer (storm and sanitary) pipes will need to be run.  More area of asphalt and buildings and lawns.  On some high quality farmland.

It happens all over.  Grande Prairie has plans to annex land.  Calgary has done it many times.  ANd even without the annexations by cities the counties and municipal districts are rezoning land to residential and industrial.  And often marginal farmland is also marginal for other uses (poor drainage, swampy, rock outcrops etc) so more farmland gets taken away from the plow or the pasture.  Or more bush land is cleared away and the brush burned...

We need to find a better way.  Maybe higher density neighbourhoods are part of the solution?  Maybe redevelopment of existing neighbourhoods?  Possibly, but before that in politically acceptable we have to change some attitudes about how we live and what we "deserve".  Until then we will continue to "pave paradise and put up a..." [parking lot, mall, subdivision, freeway, school, industrial park...]

Saturday, March 09, 2013


This morning I got up and found this story on the front page of the paper.

Coverage for prescription drugs (and for other medically necessary things like blood sugar testing strips or canes or braces but this one is just about drugs) is one of the holes in the Canadian medical system.  Unless you have a benefit plan through work or a private insurer you are on the hook for any prescription you get.  Which means that there are many people (some of whom may already qualify for another program but refuse to use/are unaware they qualify for it) who do not get the drugs they need because they can not afford it.

TO cover off this many provinces have some form of a coverage plan for specific population sectors (often for seniors, often for those on Social Assistance).  Some of us believe that there should be national standards for such programs (some of us even would prefer a national plan but since health care is a provincial responsibility under the Canadian Constitution that seems unlikely).  The question, of course, is who gets covered and how is it funded.

On the face of it this article describes a good idea.  Combine a variety of programs and expand who is covered.  Set it up so that those who can afford more pay more.  All good.  Yes this means that some people, particularly seniors, who are currently covered will end up paying more.   But that does not necessarily worry me.  SOme people under a blanket plan are in a financial position that they need the coverage, others can clearly afford to pay more and so they should.  Yes this is often politically challenging since seniors are a bloc that vote more than say 20 year olds but sometimes the politically challenging stuff needs to be done in the greater interest.  But there was a problem as I see it.

How do you claim to be expanding coverage and also claim to be saving that amount of money (claimed to be up to $180 million annually)?  That makes me suspicious.  There is stuff in this announcement I like and support.  But that part makes me suspicious.  How will they save that much?  Who will pay that cost?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Vacation Week...

When I was called to ministry with this congregation one of the terms of call was "A week of vacation between Christmas and Easter".  The first year Easter was late and so I took off the week of Spring Break, because it seems most fitting to take vacation time when the girls are not in school.  However, most years the Spring Break in our area is still actually an Easter Break, in that it begins with Easter weekend.  So that is not the normal week I can take.

As it happens however, the regional Teacher's Convention always falls the second weekend of March.  Which means it IS always between Christmas and Easter.  And has the girls off-school for 2 days of that week.  So naturally it is the week I take off (which also happens to allow me to not have to lead worship the Sunday that DST begins and the Sunday closest to my birthday).  And that means it is this week that I am off...

 So how am I spending my vacation week?  Well I started it by working.  Last Sunday we had communion and it is my practice to do communion at one of the care homes the Monday after that.  I did not want to take this from them so we did that.  And then we are in the midst of a 6-week faith study during Lent.  To miss this week would put us out of Lent and to miss a week in the middle of a study always throws off the rhythm of the study.  So we did that as well. True that meant about a total of 4 hours of work over teh two days but that was not an issue to me.

Then we left town (always the best way to avoid working while on vacation).  And today was the planned highlight of the week.  This year the Brier (Canadian Men's Curling) is in Edmonton.  So we decided to take in one draw.  And as an added benefit for the girls they got to take the train to get there!!!!!  It was a highly enjoyable afternoon.  The first time I had watched that level of curling in person. So glad we took advantage of the opportunity.

Now to relax for a couple days (well I might do up the bulletin for next week since I have registered for an all-day event on Monday)....

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Lost And Found

In churches that follow along with the lectionary this week's Gospel passage is the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.  I however am not preaching this Sunday (nor am I following the lectionary during Lent anyway) but I do like to preach on parables.

There are two questions I almost always ask myself when preparing to preach on a parable.  Where is God in this story? [or more properly HOW is God in this story?] and Where am/are I/we in this story?

The beautiful thing about those questions is that the answers are not always the same.  The beautiful thing about parables is that there is not one meaning to them -- despite what tradition may say about them.

One of my frustrations about the lectionary is that it tends to lift bits of scripture out of context and then we lose something.  This week is a good example.  The assigned reading is the first couple of verses and the we jump over the first 2 stories about lost and found to get to the story of the lost son.  Yes, I just changed the name.  And really I think that name (or perhaps the prodigal father) fits the story better -- in or out of context.

Luke 15 is all about the God who searches for the one who has gone astray.  More to the point it is about the God who finds that the one who has gone astray is as valuable (if not more) than those things which have stayed put.  And so, while the son does spend his inheritance like it was going out of style the point of the story is not his frivolousness--it is that he has made himself lost.  And the surprise in the story (parables pretty much always have a surprise) is the prodigal love offered by the father.  So it is the story of the Lost Son and the Prodigal Father if we are searching to find "how is God in this story?".

So if God is the one who searches for the one who has gone astray, (and I have to point out that it is God who decides what "gone astray" means -- unlike many who like to sermonize on the faults of the Lost Son, or the lost of the world) where are we in this story?

ARe we the one who has been seduced into a path that led to a very different endpoint than was expected?

Are we the one who loves so freely and prodigiously that the embrace is more important than pride and decency?

Are we the one who is affronted by that same prodigious love?

OR of course are we any and all of those at various times?????

Such an easy sermon to preach.  And I am on holidays.  But maybe the layperson leading worship this week will see this and get some ideas?????

Monday, March 04, 2013

Budget Day is Nigh...

This Thursday the provincial budget is being presented.  For most of my life this province has crowed about being the most prosperous province in the country.  Still does for that matter.  Which leaves some of us wondering why it appears we are being prepared for a budget of service cuts.

This province is growing.  Growing quickly (with the accompanying rise in cost of living that goes with such growth) in fact.  ANd growing with young families, which means our schools are full -- and then some, which means all our support systems are being stretched.  Our infrastructure is aging and has not been well maintained in teh name of "fiscal restraint" under various governments.  LAst year the PC party promised a bunch of new and modernized schools.  And highway construction.  And improvements to primary medical care.  And all of these are needed.

But here is the kicker.  20 years ago the party took a severe right turn into the land of limited government and fiscal restraint.  Our infrastructure deficit out of that era is staggering--even before you add in oodles of population growth since then which calls for more infrastructure.  The government of the day then decided that getting rid of debt (a laudable goal) was the only priority, and then when they had no debt and a surplus decided that this meant they were collecting too much money.  [Many of us thought this meant they were not spending enough money] And so they crippled the income tax system by moving from a progressive (earn more pay a higher %age) system to a flat tax, which ends up benefiting higher earners the most.  ANd the royalties required from our main economic driver--the oil industry-- were lowered.  Now the government claims that they can not do anything to increase revenue (although some polls, as noted in this article, suggest this is in fact what Albertans would prefer) and is crying broke.

Which leads us to wonder what heavy shoes are going to fall on Thursday.  At the best of times, due to inflation, a spending freeze really means service cuts.  In a place with a growing population this effect is magnified.  Honestly it appears there may be both a revenue and a spending side to moving away from deficit.  But we have to consider ALL the deficits, not just the dollar one.

I predict a tough budget.  Hopefully not as tough as the ones in the early 90's which were marked by horrific and deep cuts to everything.  But tough.  And while it may help the fiscal deficit, I predict it will be at a deepening of the deficit in service and infrastructure.

Sunday, March 03, 2013


At the church we are doing a six week study using a DVD with presentations on Emerging Christianity from Phyllis Tickle.  Week 1 was a generalized intro to the Great Emergence and the 500 year cycle of "rummage sales" within Christian/Judeo-Christian history.  Last week was about authority.

Tickle points out that one of (if not the) defining questions in each 500 year cycle is the question of authority. After the Great Schism of 1000 years ago the Papacy/Curia became the source of authority in the Latin Church (and to a degree in the culture at large) and then with the Great Reformation we see the development of sola scriptura as a principle of authority within the church--all the while the church maintained its self-understanding of being a/the source of authority in the larger culture.  Sola scriptura  has, arguably, been under attack for quite some time now -- and in fact the concept of Biblical inerrancy was/is more or less a reaction to the beginning of that attack.  So what comes next?

Being at the beginning of the new era we do not know yet what the source of authority will turn out to be.  One thing that is easily said is that the source of authority within the church will not have the same place in the culture that it once had.  I am quite sure that the various versions of Protestantism will continue to include scripture (possibly with less focus on tradition than either Roman Catholicism or the sola scriptura folks have ended up with) as a part of that authority.  But it will be an authority based on a different hermeneutic, a different set of interpretive assumptions.

Of more interest to me is are 2 other questions.  One is the question of authority in the culture at large.  Where will it be located?  We are continuing the challenge to authority that really started to hit North American culture 45 years ago.  We started with "don't trust anybody under 30" and have moved to the mass protests against the WTO and the OWS movement and the INM protests.  As we move forward (Tickle suggests that each "rummage sale" period starts with about a century of sorting out the answers to these sorts of questions), where will civic authority be assigned?

The other question is how we will make these decisions.  The century of sorting that followed the Great Reformation was a century of open warfare that shattered Europe, paired with internal repressions and heretic burnings and so on.  I am sure that we don't want that again.  But can we redefine our understanding of authority in the civic society and avoid bloodshed???  It was openly wondered during all those protests I just named.  People were wondering when they might become riots.  If more such things are in the future when will they turn into riots????  OR can we avoid the violence?  In the church can we redefine authority and avoid schisms (something that has not been done well --or at all-- in the past)?