Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Superman or Jesus?

Superman was the creation of writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Siegel was an American and Shuster was a Canadian, born in Toronto. They were both children of Jewish immigrants. They were living in Cleveland, Ohio when they began to work together. Their character made its first appearance in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. Superman has been credited with inspiring the whole “super-hero” genre, and is arguably one of the most recognizable American icons.

In my sermon for Sunday, December 27 I spoke about the television series “Smallville”, which focuses on the coming of age of Clark Kent.

This image from “Smallville” vividly demonstrates that the producers are quite aware of parallels between the story of Jesus, and the story of Superman.

Tom Welling, the actor who plays Clark Kent is shown here in a photo from the first episode. Clark Kent has been subjected to a high school “hazing” called “The Scarecrow” that leaves him looking like he has been crucified.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

part two

As I mentioned in the last 5th page, there is no sermon for this week, as the Trinity choir is doing a very nice Christmas Cantata. In the last 5th page I recycled a piece I wrote for the Advent Alphabet letters series last year. Here is the piece that follows it:

On Christmas morning at our house we have a tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus from the Bible before we do anything else. At times it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)

I suggested that you take time to read from Matthew and Luke, and note any differences you saw between them, in their treatments of Jesus’ birth. While there are times to soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our considerable intellectual gifts.

Both Gospels offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. One example is that Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli.

Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat (which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Samuel story). Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appears to Joseph in his dreams). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.

Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph do not flee to Egypt with Jesus.

Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look suggests they are not complimentary tales that each fill in blanks left by the other.

There are some things about which these writers are in agreement. They both say that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus (in fact, the genealogies, though different in detail, demonstrate that as Joseph’s son, Jesus was of the line of King David.) They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)

Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.

What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus are not dependent on the reliability of the stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many discrepancies and disagreements. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way that Jesus taught.

Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) having a theological discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fanciful tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible. They are found in documents written much later, that are considered of doubtful authenticity.)

Until the moment that Jesus began his public ministry, and was gathering followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known about his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The most wonderful time of the year...

It is probably an indication of the busy-ness of the season, that I have not produced a 5th page for this week. I had an idea, but did not have the time to develop it. There will not be a 5th page next week either, because I am not preaching this Sunday. We are having a Christmas Cantata instead.

In lieu of a proper 5th page, I am going re-present a piece I wrote at this time last year, part of the "Advent Alphabet Letters" series:

S is for story. We love the Nativity stories. As my children love to point out every year in pageant rehearsals, there are two distinct Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke’s stories are often “conflated”. -That is the term scholars use when two stories are fused into one. (So that you end up with the shepherds from Luke and the Magi from Matthew all crowded on the same pageant stage.)

When I lead Bible studies on the nativity stories, people often find it hard to believe that there are significant factual differences in the two stories. The best way to sort that out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20. Before you do your reading, let me try to address why these two stories are so different.

Both Matthew and Luke were gospels, rather than historical accounts. They were doing theological, rather than journalistic work. Matthew wrote at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. They were most likely 2nd generation followers of the Jesus movement- and not amongst the original disciples. (Scholars note that it was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- this at the same time was a tribute, and a way to claim some of the stature of the person.)

Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in the ancient greek that was the common language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to anything they wrote about, certainly and especially not the birth of Jesus. What they were witnesses to, was the effect that Jesus and his ministry had on the people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement of people that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as the fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting on “the news”. When we try to talk about the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, that happens within us, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of religious vocabulary. Many scholars are convinced that in the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening for truth more than for facts.

I think a gospel writer has more in common with a song-writer or poet than a reporter. They tried to use human language to transmit the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. They used stories that had survived in the movement’s oral tradition, hymns and sermons that were collected, and other documents that were shared amongst the early churches. They wove them together, each writer with their own style, and agenda. Matthew and Luke were writing for specific audiences, and would have aimed to be accessible, and sensible to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

Biblical scholars who specialize in “source criticism” believe that Matthew and Luke had access to materials that included an early version of Mark’s gospel, something called “M”, that only Matthew had, “L” that only Luke had, and something called “Q”, which was likely a list of “sayings” of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke had seen. (These names were made up by the scholars.)

My suggestion would be that you take some time and read from Matthew and Luke, and have a pad of paper handy to jot down the differences you notice. Next time I will offer you my list.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Peace be with you....

During the sermon this past Sunday I asked "What comes to mind when I say the word Peace?"

I was a little surprised when people in the congregation spoke up, and gave their answers. I was actually asking in a rhetorical way. But it was wonderful! The responses were heartfelt, and reflective, and varied.

It warms this preacher's heart when I feel like people are that engaged, that they will join in the "sermon event" by speaking out loud. (It might get a bit much if we did it every week!)

One of the ideas about preaching that I was exposed to in seminary was that the "sermon event" is something for which the preacher lays groundwork, but which is actually being created as the prepared text is preached and heard. God is in the midst of that speaking and listening, and in all the thoughts, feelings, memories, connections that get sparked. The idea, or hope, is that the sermon's effect is deeper and greater than the preacher knows.

When something good spontaneously happens during a sermon, I get the feeling that there is something to this "sermon event" notion.

I felt very blessed when people vocalized their ideas about peace.

There was another moment that was a blessing, and it was about a blessing. I had been talking about Peace, and Shalom, and Salaam, and Namaste'. A member of the congregation who was born and raised in India asked if she could talk about the use of "Namaste'" as a greeting and a farewell.

As she explained it, when people are parting they would be saying to each other, "Go and come back", and Namaste" would also carry the meaning, "After I leave, may you continue to be in peace."

This coming week I plan to talk about Joy.

I would like some help with this one. If you have a moment, after reading this, please send me an email, and tell me something about Joy in your life. Here are some questions to prime the pump:

What brings you Joy?
What is Joy for you?
How do you offer Joy to others?

You can click on to my email link, and drop me a line!


I look forward to hearing from you.

Peace (and Joy) be with you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Here is an image of the front cover of Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I spoke about this image in my sermon on Sunday. I see the single flame breaking into the darkness as an evocative symbol for the role that meaning and purpose for living have in our lives. It is also a great image for the first week of Advent.

On Sunday we lit the first Advent candle. Many Christian churches use the Advent wreath during the pre-Christmas season. The first Sunday’s candle is for HOPE. The successive candles are for PEACE, JOY, and LOVE. The wreath is, of course, a circle, which in many cultures is a symbol for eternity, or infinity- things that do not have a beginning or an end.

Last week I asked children and adults to come to the front of the sanctuary and help me make a circle, which represented the circle of the church year. The suggestion has been made that the repeating cycle of the season of the church year is also symbolic of the infinite nature of God.

When I was reflecting today on the last two weeks of worship at Trinity, I made a connection between seeing the kids and adults standing in a circle, enacting the cycle of the church year for the rest of the congregation, and one of the points in my sermon for this week, which is that according to Frankl, those who devote themselves solely to their own happiness never achieve it.

Our meaning, and our hope lie in learning to live our lives in service to others- in dispelling the darkness with light.
Advent is the season in which Christians anticipate the birth of the Christ child. One of the theological words used to refer to this is "Incarnation", literally, the divine entering into flesh. Jesus is described as "embodying" the love of God.
We are called to the same work- to "incarnate" God's love for other people. As we do that, it becomes that much more real for us as well- we can see by the light of our own candle.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Religion Outside the Box

There is a weekly email I receive from a man named Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer called The 77% Weekly. (He also has a website called "Religion Outside the Box". Brian was ordained as a Jewish rabbi, and for a time served a congregation in Los Angeles. He left that work to become a high school math teacher, and also to begin a new kind of ministry, outside the bounds of organized religion. I first heard of him when he was interviewed on CBC radio's Tapestry, a weekly program about contemporary religion and spirituality. (That interview can be found by searching the CBC radio offerings on iTunes.)

The reason I mention all this is that this week the email from Rabbi Brian is a great companion piece to the sermon I gave on Sunday, about our cosmology, or view of the life, the universe and everything.

It would not be right for me to reproduce Rabbi Brian's work here, but you can find it for yourself at:


Monday, November 16, 2009

Questions about the Future

My sermon this week was about Apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In a nutshell, what I was saying was:

1) These texts have been mis-used in the last two centuries of Christianity. Interpreters have made claims to be able to "de-code" the mysteries of these texts, and then make pronouncements about "the end of the world as we know it". These readings of the texts very likely go well beyond the original purposes of the authors. To use these texts, and their strange and bewildering images to frighten people into accepting Christian faith is abusive.

2) A more helpful interpretation of the texts may be to say that they express the sincere hope and faith that no matter how unfair life may seem, or how difficult, that ultimately, God is in charge. We place our trust in God, and carry on living our lives of faith.

Next Sunday is Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. On the church liturgical calendar it is the last Sunday of the year. Following that, on November 29, we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. Traditionally the Church Year begins with the preparations for the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus.

The stores are way ahead of us. As I drove home tonight from the church, I noticed again the festive holiday season decorations and lights that adorn "Dorval Crossing", one of the malls I pass. Their decorations went up before Hallowe'en!

Inside the stores the transformation is even more evident. The pre-Christmas shopping season is in full swing.

As I make my preparations for the Advent/Christmas season, and ponder the new church year that is about to begin, I have questions about the future of the 5th Page.

I enjoy the opportunity to reflect further, and sometimes in a different or deeper way, on the themes I address in sermons. Very often I actually do have material that "did not make it into the sermon", that I think is worth sharing.

I have also experimented with doing other things:

-posting prayers that I have used in worship
-sharing the lesson I teach in the Sunday School class once a month
-posting the "Trinity Top Ten" hymn choices
-posting material I have written for worship services for Halton Presbytery
-reflecting on the discussions that have happened in the Re:Member class

Lately I have been wondering about trying to make the 5th page more interactive. I am not quite sure how to do that. Maybe I could take people's questions, and then try to respond to them.

It would be good to know what people think.

Is the 5th page still interesting and of use to you?
Are there some things you like better than others?
What would you like to see in the new year?
Would you like to submit some topics or questions for discussion?
Can you think of other ways we could make this more interactive?

I look forward to reading your feedback.

Monday, November 9, 2009

bread and buns

the fifth page for November 8, 2009

On Sunday afternoon I phoned the woman I spoke about in my sermon, who used flour made from the wheat grown on her farm, to bake bread and buns that she sold to a local cafe’. Talking with her was a true joy. As nourishing as having lunch together in her farmhouse kitchen.

She reminded me that the money she earned from her baking all went to the Mission and Service Fund of the United Church. That is the mechanism our denomination uses to fund ministry beyond local congregations. Some of that money is spent inside Canada, and a lot of it goes to other places, allowing the United Church of Canada to participate in work being done with some of our mission partners.

In the same conversation I got an update on this woman’s family. In the sermon I mentioned her two sons. (She also has a daughter, who I forgot to mention! ) The daughter is happily married, to a local farmer. They have raised a great family. She has a “town job” which means that most days she is just a phone call and a few minutes away if her mom ever needs her at the retirement condo. This summer and fall she kept her mother, and her condo neighbours well stocked with fresh vegetables from her farm.

The youngest son is now working in Northern Manitoba as a social worker, involved with families that have been effected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. From what I hear, he loves the work, and it is exhausting.

The older son, the one who used to train soldiers in bomb disposal, is now out of the military altogether. He came back from his last tour in Afghanistan suffering the effects of traumatic stress disorder. Depression, the end of a marriage, and issues with alcohol are some of the ways his 20 years of service have left their marks on his life.

I don’t know if this man will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony this week. He will certainly be on my mind, and my heart as we take time to consider the costs of war.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Live long and prosper

My son and I went out for Hallowe'en together this past weekend. It was his idea that we dress up as Spock and Kirk from the latest Star Trek movie. This was the first year that it was just the two of us, as my daughter was out with her friends. (A sign she is getting older!)
We have a short route of houses that we visit every year, all within a block or so of our home. We tend to visit only people that we know. (It's not about the candy- we never finish all of it anyway! It's about the opportunity to see some of our neighbours.)
There is one lady who lives very close to us who takes pictures of some of the neighbourhood kids every year. This year as those kids came to see her again, she was able to give each child a print of their photo from last year. A real treat!
This lady also has an uncanny ability to tell which child is in there, underneath even the most elaborate, and identity-obscuring costume. We made some of our stops with another little boy named Jake, whose face was hidden behind his Spiderman mask. But even Spiderman did not fool the woman who knows all the kids. (It helps that she knows all the kids, and their interests, and could guess who is likely to be what character. It also helps that she talks to the parents, and hears about what the kids have planned. In other words, she can tell who the kids are, because she really knows and loves them.)
I think that God is like that. God can tell who we really are, no matter what outward disguise we put on for the world. The masks don't fool God. God knows us from inside, and loves us.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the fifth page for Sunday, October 25, 2009

After two sermons in October in which I have been pondering the story of Job, I got wondering where the hero of this tale would fit in the “stages of faith development” as suggested by Dr. James Fowler. His is not the only analysis of faith development, but is the one I have worked with the most. Fowler suggests these stages, that seem to parallel cognitive development.

Primal faith is that which is formed in infancy, and reflects our basic sense of the trustworthiness and reliability of the environment into which we are born. Our parents or caregivers are the most powerful influence. (For good, or for bad, it seems.)

Intuitive-Projective faith is our pre-school stage. While our imagination is beginning to take flight, we grow in awareness of God, and of the reality of death. We are the centre of our own universe, and may operate with “magical thinking”- believing that things happen because of us.

Mythic-literal faith is our early school stage. We are taking in more of the world, and rely less on fantasy, and more on what we see and hear. Our faith is built on shared traditions, stories, and practices of others.

Synthetic-conventional faith is our early adolescence- we are pulling together a world view made up of elements we have absorbed, but likely without deep reflection on the individual parts of the puzzle.

Individuative-reflective faith is the project of our early adulthood, in which we are examining things more closely before we commit to them. Claiming our own identity.

Conjunctive faith typically arises in mid-adulthood or later. We learn to hold apparent opposites in creative tension, and we recognize that truth is more complex than we might have once thought. We become more open to other perspectives and interpretations.

Universalizing faith is the ultimate stage in Fowler’s analysis. It is characterized by “detachment”. The apparent tension between opposites seems unimportant. The movement is towards “kenosis”, spiritual self-emptying.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hot Dog !!!

Once a month I leave the worship service at Trinity United right after the children's hymn, and I go to Sunday School with the children. This gives me a chance to spend time with them, and to teach a lesson. Unless there is something special happening in the worship service, I spend about 20 minutes with the Sunday School, and then come back in to the worship service in order to offer the sermon. (This week there was no sermon, as the service was led by choir members. The theme was Trinity's Favourite Hymns, as chosen by a poll of the congregation, a few weeks before. If you are interested in the list of the congregation's favourite hymns, you can see it, as well as special prayers I wrote for the occasion by looking at my sermon blog. There is a link to it on this page.)

This Sunday I had the opportunity to teach the Gospel lesson from the weekly lectionary, which was Mark's story about James and John asking for places at the right and left hand sides of Jesus when he "came into his glory". (Mark 10:35-45) Earlier in the week I had told the story to Joel, our eight year old son, and asked him for advice about a game to go with the lesson.

Joel suggested "Hot Dog Tag". In this game, if you get tagged by the person who is "it", you have to lay down on the floor. You are stuck there, until other players respond to your cry "I need buns!", and lay down on your left and right, to complete a hot dog. The way we played on Sunday, the person who was tagged, and then freed by being "bunned" then became "it", and then began to chase the other players.

It was a lot of fun. Joel chose the game because of the aspect of the game that called for buns to go to the left and right side of the new "wiener". While we were playing, I realized that without the help of the "bunners", very soon all the players except the person who was "it" would be laying prone on the floor, and the fun of the game would be over.

I asked Joel if he had this in mind when he chose the game. He didn't, and I didn't see it until I played it with the kids. Built into this game was a lesson about the necessity of helping each other.

"But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." (Mark 10:43-44)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Scarcity, Abundance, and Thanksgiving

Mardi Tindal is the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. For many years she was a co-host with Rev. Ken Gallinger on the United Church’s television program: Spirit Connection. She is currently the director of Five Oaks, a retreat and learning centre near Brantford. I read her moderator’s Thanksgiving message on Sunday morning as our first Thankful Thought:

A few years ago, my southern Ontario congregation decided to host a regular Sunday supper for anyone who needed it. My husband and I became team leaders and spent every third weekend from November to April shopping, cooking, and serving a meal for as many as 120 people.
After a couple of years, we and other volunteers began to feel the strain of this commitment. In fact, the coordinator even wondered if we might have to end the dinner, though it filled a critical need during the cold winter months.

But in this moment of apparent scarcity, we experienced unexpected abundance. Members of the Muslim community, with whom our congregation has a lively relationship, heard about our concerns and asked if they could take care of one Sunday a month. We gratefully accepted. Soon, the Seventh-day Adventist congregation with whom our church shares its building offered to coordinate another Sunday. The Sikh community also got involved, and other community members continued to give leadership.

The weekly supper is now entering its fifth season as an energetic intercultural and interfaith venture. Kitchen and guests have been introduced to menus from around the world. To me, it is an example of the abundance that can be found in community if only we open ourselves up to the possibilities. As many Canadians gather this weekend with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, it offers a powerful message of hope in a society that often tends to see what is not there, rather than what is there, and what might be.

The story of our church supper reveals a truth, and a paradox, described by Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal in Washington state. Palmer points out that when we think something is scarce, we tend to act in ways that increase scarcity. We fear food shortages so we hoard, decreasing the supply. We fear rejection so we withdraw affection, diminishing relationship.

But when we act as if we believe in the abundance of what appears to be scarce, we create conditions that help generate abundance. When we do this in community, the power that arises from our common action is almost unbelievable.

This isn’t magic, and it’s not just “Pollyanna.” And please don’t confuse it with the notion that abiding by religious beliefs is the route to being rewarded with stuff, or the damaging idea that our ambitions can be limitless. To the contrary, one of our greatest challenges is recognizing the natural limits of the earth and living within these limits for the sake of life itself.
Rather, it is an invitation to imagine what it would mean to trust in the supply of whatever seems scarce in our lives today. It is an invitation to courage.

Each of us has fears, and many people from marketers to political leaders try to capitalize on them. When election posturing heats up, for example, I’m struck by how political leaders tend to wield fear like a weapon: “You must support us, or there will be [name your fear]: scarcity of economic prosperity; scarcity of physical safety; scarcity of healthy food, clean air, and water.”
We need courage to resist such manipulation, and we should demand it of our leaders.

The degree to which there will be enough food, shelter, and ecological resilience is the degree to which we trust that these are shared desires and that the rest of our extended community—those in other political parties, cultural groups, faith communities, and families—will work with us to bring them about. Why would we assume otherwise? Why assume that others don’t want good things for their children, or that they aren’t prepared to work as hard toward these goals as we are?

Over the past few years, living in my small southern Ontario city, I’ve grown accustomed to meeting friends and neighbours everywhere I go. But, after a recent move to Toronto, I’m tempted to perceive manifold scarcities when I go out into a sea of strange faces—scarcity of friends, scarcity of comfort, scarcity of trust. It takes courage to perceive these unknown multitudes as potential friends on a common journey.

One recent evening, my husband and I took a stroll in our new neighbourhood. We noticed a nearby church and decided to take a look inside. The back door was open. We came upon a few activities going on here and there as we wandered through the large structure. People glanced at us, complete strangers to them, but no one asked us who we were or what we were doing. Smiles and words of greeting were all that were offered.

In the face of such abundant trust, we think we may have found a place to belong, a place to bring food to a table where everyone is welcome—and where we trust that we, too, will be fed. A table of Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 5, 2009

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

the fifth page for October 4, 2009

“When bad things happen to good people” by Rabbi Harold Kushner is the book many people think of when Job’s plight, and the questions raised by Job’s story are discussed. Kushner wrote it in response to the death in 1977 of his 14 year old son, Aaron. Aaron had the incurable disease progeria. The book is dedicated to his memory. If you have not read this book, it is well worth picking up. I have a copy you can borrow, and I am sure it is available at the library. It has been a best seller since it was first published in 1981.

Kushner writes in read-able prose, and does not hide behind vague academic or theological jargon, as he wrestles with the same question as Job: “ If God is benevolent and loving, why do bad things happen to us?” This is the classic “problem of evil”.

"I knew that one day I would write this book," says Rabbi Kushner. "I would write it out of my own need to put into words some of the most important things I have come to believe and know. And I would write it to help other people who might one day find themselves in a similar predicament. I am fundamentally a religious man who has been hurt by life, and I wanted to write a book that could be given to the person who has been hurt by life, and who knows in his heart that if there is justice in the world, he deserved better. . . . If you are such a person, if you want to believe in God's goodness and fairness but find it hard because of the things that have happened to you and to people you care about, and if this book helps you do that, then I will have succeeded in distilling some blessing out of Aaron's pain and tears." (from the Random House website)

I am going to include an excerpt from the first chapter, to offer you a taste:

“There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting; somewhat like doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper and feeling very satisfied when you have made the words fit; but ultimately without the capacity to reach people where they really care. Virtually every meaningful conversation I have ever had with people on the subject of God and religion has either started with this question, or gotten around to it before long. Not only the troubled man or woman who has just come from a discouraging diagnosis at the doctor’s office, but the college student who tells me that he has decided there is no God, or the total stranger who comes up to me at a party just when I am ready to ask the hostess for my coat, and says, “I hear you’re a rabbi; how can you believe that . . .” —they all have one thing in common. They are all troubled by the unfair distribution of suffering in the world.

The misfortunes of good people are not only a problem to the people who suffer and to their families. They are a problem to everyone who wants to believe in a just and fair and livable world. They inevitably raise questions about the goodness, the kindness, even the existence of God. “

Sunday, September 27, 2009

the galilee emails

Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum is currently hosting an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is hard to drive around the GTA without seeing a bus-stop sign or a billboard promoting this important event. Recent work, from lesser known scholars than those who brought the Dead Ssea Scrolls to public attention, has unearthed another interesting set of documents. The Galilee emails seem to represent a dialogue between the John the disciple, and Jesus.

To: Jesus@galilee.com
Subject: unfair competition

Dear Master;

Several of our local area managers have observed someone casting out demons, and claiming to be from our company. I directed our representatives to take the appropriate action to have them cease and desist. I thought I’d better keep you in the loop.



To: john@galilee.com
Subject: your note

Dear John;

Thank you for your note. I am always happy to hear from you. As to the situation you describe:
Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.



To: Jesus@galilee.com
Subject: acting in your name

Dear Master;

With respect, I have discussed the situation with a few of the other regional management team, and we feel there are some issues you may not be taking into account. What about copyright infringement? If we allow an unlicensed operator to use your name and image, we could lose exclusivity.



To: john@galilee.com
Subject: good works

Dear John;

I can see that you are giving this matter a lot of attention. I appreciate your concern, but wish to remind you of the following:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Peace be with you,


To: jesus@galilee.com
Subject: financial implications

Dear Master;

I know it is not my role in the company to set policy. I would never question your thinking. But I have to say that we are all more than a little concerned down here at the office. What happens if one person doing deeds in your name multiplies into two, and then five, and then ten? How do we do quality control? And what about the revenue stream? Some of your followers have been very generous in supporting the ministries. What happens if these upstarts also begin to collect in your name?

Your loyal servant,


To: john@galilee.com
Subject: abundance

Dear John;

You have always been such a good friend. I can see how much this is bothering you. Please, trust me on this! Don’t worry. Remember:Whoever is not against us is for us.

Yours in love,


Sunday, September 20, 2009

the fifth page for September 20, 2009

In her book “Not Counting Women and Children- Neglected Stories from the Bible”, the Roman Catholic theologian and story-teller Megan McKenna reflects on her experience working amongst people who lived in small villages and towns in Northern New Mexico:

“They spoke of their childhood, of belonging to all the adults in the town, known by all, and told by each what to do—when not to do something, to go home, to fetch, and to do errands. They carried water, firewood, and slops, emptied chamber pots, and were sent on errands by their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. But they spoke too of belonging to all the people, of being accepted, cared for, loved, and protected. Home was not a house, but a place of relationships, of extended family, a place that looked out for others needs and considered it normal for children to obey and serve. When this passage (the one from Mark about “who is the greatest?”) was discussed in small groups, it dawned on the participants that this is childhood in the kingdom—service combined with belonging, obedience given in love, servant-hood that is both joyful and hard, expected and appreciated. It revealed a relationship that bound the community tightly together and an atmosphere that share responsibility and privileges across family ties. It was home. “ (p.74)

Later in the same chapter, McKenna wrote:

“Home is going after the lost, the little ones, the children of God. One old woman, a grandmother of many, told me that if we want to behold the face of God always, we find it in those little ones, the lost, the ones needing to be found, taken in and taken care of, the least, the poor. She knew the wisdom of God and put it bluntly. The face of God looks remarkably like the face of the least of the lost in society, the little ones, beloved, and most favoured children in the kingdom that Jesus brings.” (p. 77)

McKenna does a marvelous job of weaving together the “child” threads in the gospel stories. Jesus uses the image of a child to call the disciples to understand true “greatness”. Jesus is presented as the “child of God” who makes himself vulnerable to the suffering and hardships of the world. Jesus brings the message that our identity as children of God is linked to how well we welcome and embrace, and listen, to the weakest and most at risk people in our world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

the fifth page for September 13, 2009

On most Sundays my sermon begins with some kind of story that may provide images to reflect on, or return to later on, or which is a direct illustration of some point I want to make, or some issue I want to address. Over the years, I have realized that beginning with a story is often a good way to draw people into listening. (At least, that's what I hope is happening!)

There are risks with using stories, especially true stories. I am never sure what part of the story will come across as the most interesting or memorable.

This Sunday I began by talking about officiating at a wedding in a nearby church. I mentioned that in my preparation for speaking at the wedding, I had been thinking about two things:

1) What do I have to say that will be useful wisdom to the couple being married?

2) What do I say to a "congregation" of family and friends, the majority of whom are not regular church attenders?

That second question was the one I really wanted to work on. My hope was to get people musing about it on their own- what is it about church involvement that they value?

Even as I was preaching on Sunday, I was aware that I had described being in a full church, that holds about 80-100 people, and being able to identify only 3 people who are regular church-goers. I don't think this low percentage is necessarily an accurate reflection of societal trends- but it definitely feels like it is! People who regularly attend, and give of their time and resources and skills to support a church, are in the minority.

I chose not to dwell on the "negative" picture in my sermon. I did not want those listening to get depressed, or caught in the "survival blues". You know what I mean, "How will we ever carry on....."

There are lots of theories about why church attendance is not what it once was. There are also lots of prescriptions offered, to help churches reverse the trend, and "fill the pews". I am not aware of any "quick-fix" plan that actually works.

I think that rather than finding or creating the formula that will "get them back in the pews", we might be better off if we reflect on the question of what is we ourselves value about our church involvement.

Hopefully it is something more than just keeping our congregations going.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

the fifth page for September 6, 2009

There were two underlying themes in the lectionary readings for this Sunday that just leapt off the page at me, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shook me. The first was about privilege.

In Mark’s gospel we read the story of an encounter Jesus had with a Syro-Phonecian woman (a gentile). She asked him for help, and he responded with the infamous line about not feeding the dogs (the gentiles) until the children (the Jewish people) have had their fill. Her answer was brilliant: “But even the dogs are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children’s table...”

This story is part of a set of stories that push at the traditional boundaries between Jew and Gentile. We may not divide the world into those categories, but that does not mean that we see all people as equal. We certainly do not treat everyone with equal regard for their dignity. In the United States, there has been a lot of criticism of the federal response to the damage caused to the city of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many have suggested that if a similar disaster had befallen a “more white” area, things would have been different. I don’t think we need to look that far afield to see examples of the power of privilege.

The other issue, related to the first, has to do with our treatment of “the poor”. The selection from Proverbs included these words:

“A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.”

After 4 weeks of vacation, during which my family and I enjoyed the luxury of time off together, in beautiful settings, and during which we spent money freely and ate very well, I feel very aware that I am not poor. I may not be “wealthy” compared to some of my neighbours here in Oakville, but I need to remember that I live in one of the world’s most affluent communities. Does that sound like an exaggeration? Do we really live in one of the world’s richest towns?

I have not done my homework on this one. I cannot prove my claim statistically. I am pretty sure everyone reading this can think of a “richer” place.

My claim is based on having viewed a video called “The Miniature Earth”,


which I included in the Sunday morning service. The video asks what the world would look like if it were a community of 100 people. Who would be there? What would they look like? How many would look like you and I?

Monday, July 27, 2009

the fifth page for Sunday, July 26, 2009

In last Sunday's sermon I made reference to non-canonical texts- documents similar to those we find in the New Testament, that did not “make the cut” when decisions were being made about what would be included in the “official” scriptures of the Christian church. Many of these texts are available in libraries, bookstores, and of course, on-line. This Sunday I read a portion of the “Gospel of Thomas” in the worship service. It roughly paralleled the style and content of the other reading for the day, which I chose from Mark’s Gospel.

Gospel Reading: Mark 8:27-33 (New International Version)
Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Tell me, who do people say I am?"
"Some say that you are John the Baptist," they answered; "others say that you are Elijah, while others say that you are one of the prophets."
"What about you?" he asked them. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah."
Then Jesus ordered them, "Do not tell anyone about me."
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: "The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life."
He made this very clear to them. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around, looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter. "Get away from me, Satan," he said. "Your thoughts don't come from God but from human nature!"

Gospel of Thomas 13:1-8 (Patterson/Robinson translation into English)
Jesus said to his disciples: "Compare me, and tell me whom I am like." Simon Peter said to him: "You are like a just messenger." Matthew said to him: "You are like an (especially) wise philosopher." Thomas said to him: "Teacher, my mouth will not bear at all to say whom you are like." Jesus said: "I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have become intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out." And he took him, (and) withdrew, (and) he said three words to him. But when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: "What did Jesus say to you?" Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the words he said to me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up."

The complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, in several different translations, is available at a website offered by the Gnostic Society: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/

Monday, July 20, 2009

the fifth page for July 19, 2009

From the Song of Faith: (words in italics)
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

For at least the last 100 years, most mainline seminaries (training schools for ministers) have taught an historical approach to the study of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In a nutshell, what that means is that ministers have been taught to read the Bible as the product of actual human communities, that existed in a particular time and place. The content of the scriptures was produced as part of the faithful response of people in those times and places to their experience of God.

Some ministers of previous generations seem to have held back from making this view of scripture explicit in their preaching and teaching. Some have theorized that ministers found it too much work, or too risky. Perhaps there was a concern that members would leave their congregations if the “party line” on the literal truth of the Bible was not upheld.

This strategy may have backfired. Mainline congregations (the ones that tend to be the most “liberal” in their thinking) have bled members in at least two ways. People who craved a more literal interpretation of the Bible have migrated to more fundamentalist churches. Some members who craved a more intellectually honest approach have drifted away altogether.

The recognition that scripture is a human and not a divine product is crucial, not only to interpreting the actual texts, but also to presenting our faith in a way that has intellectual integrity, and respect for other cultures and traditions.

We are long past the time when preachers and churches can get away with dismissing any and all questions about the Bible by saying, “The problem is that you lack faith! The Bible is true, because it is God’s Word.” (So shut up and pray for more faith!)

The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community.
The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture
by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,
using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.
The wholeness of scripture testifies
to the oneness and faithfulness of God.
The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:
two testaments, four gospels,
contrasting points of view held in tension—
all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,
the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

the fifth page for July 12, 2009

Evil Thoughts:
According to Wikipedia, “The term 'Theology' literally means the study of God, deriving from the Greek word theos, meaning 'God', and the suffix -ology from the Greek word logos meaning "the character of one who speaks or treats of [a certain subject]", or simply "the study of a certain subject". It now means the science of God or of religion, typically as it is practised in a systematic and reasoned or philosophical manner.”

The fact that people study religion, and think and write about God in a disciplined way tells us at least 2 things. The first is that these questions continue to be of interest. The second is that we don't have it all figured out.

One of the greatest challenges is what has been called the problem of evil, which has implications for our fundamental understanding of God, the universe, and everything.

In their book, “Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith but probably doesn’t” authors Paul Alan Laughlin and Glenna S. Jackson refer to the four classic approaches to the Problem of Evil. I have summarized and put my own spin on them, below:

1) Evil as a value judgment: There is really no such thing as evil, and our subjective opinions are based on our preconceptions, our experiences, our values. Others may look at what we see as “evil” from a different perspective.

2) Evil as a Deprivation of / Deviation from the Good: the authors used the analogy of a spacecraft that heats up as it nears the sun, but cools as it moves away. The cooling effect is not produced because the ship is nearing a huge ice cube in space, but because it is more distant from the heat source. Evil does not have a source or substance, it is the absence of Good.

3) Evil as an Attribute/Aspect of the Good: God uses events and people to mete out justice and retribution. The Hebrew Scriptures are very prone to name a military defeat as the hand of God at work to correct a faithless Israel. This also minimizes the role of a devil- Satan is depicted as an agent of God rather than a being in direct opposition to God.

4) Evil as a Force Opposed to the Good: Satan is the Evil One, unleashing torment and affliction on humanity as part of the larger cosmic struggle. This is a significant departure from Jewish thought, which understands itself as strictly monotheistic. Some Christians seem to elevate the “Evil One” to a status rivalling that of God. One positive effect is that in the Christian Scriptures God does not appear as bloodthirsty and prone to violence as in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In my sermon for July 12, 2009, I talk a bit about the way the Garden of Eden story has been used to try to account for the existence of pain and hardship in life. It can be found at http://www.trinityunited.com/

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The fifth page for July 5, 2009- the continuing voyage...

The fifth page for July 5, 2009- the continuing voyage...

You can read the text of my sermon (once it is posted) on the church's website:

In my sermon /teaching time on Sunday morning I mentioned that in its 84 years, the United Church of Canada has occasionally expressed its faith in contemporary terms. The first effort it made in this direction can be found in the “Basis of Union”, prepared by representatives of the three founding denominational groups that came together in 1925. To this day, candidates for ordained or commissioned ministry are asked if they are in “essential agreeement” with the doctrine found in this document. Here is a link to the Basis of Union: http://www.united-church.ca/history/overview/basisofunion

Here is the part about God:

2.1 Article I. Of God.
We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy, full of compassion, and abundant in goodness and truth. We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory.

In 1968, the United Church offered “A New Creed”, which very quickly became a part of worship services in congregations across the country. The creed was revised a few years ago, when the line “to live with respect in creation” was added:

We are not alone,
we live in God's world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God's presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Every time I read or hear the “new creed” I remember a remark made by a friend who grew up in the United Church, but left as a young adult to become an Anglican. He is now an Anglican priest in Manitoba. He told me that he thought our creed sounded like the mission statement of the USS Enterprise, as spoken by the captain at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek:

Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

My Anglican friend meant this to be a disparaging comment, but I decided I liked the connection. It suggests to me that our United Church, like the crew of the USS Enterprise, has remained open to the mystery and adventure of the unknown.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Fifth Page for Sunday, June 28, 2009

It will be Canada Day this Wednesday, July 1. On Sunday morning with the kids, I talked about how it is possible to think of our national anthem as a prayer. I read the words to them, and placed emphasis on this phrase:

“God keep our land glorious and free!O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

I have some “theological tension” within me whenever we invoke God’s name, and call on God to take care of “us, and our country”. On the one hand, I am keen to promote the point of view that God is the source of all good things for life, and that it is part of our spiritual health to remember this, and to practice gratitude. But on the other hand, I think it is important that we avoid encouraging any sense of entitlement- that God has given us these blessings as a sign that we are especially deserving- that we are the favoured ones. (Or that we have earned these blessings, because of our hard work, our heritage, or our religious commitment.)

We are privileged to live in a wonderful country. I believe that with this privilege there must also come a deep sense of responsibility. So while the theme of the service yesterday,and the sermon, was awareness of God’s presence, and of God’s beneficence (God’s overhelming goodness and generosity), we also need to move beyond this awareness to our response.

How are we to respond? The best image that I can think of is of the garden my maternal grandparents kept during my growing up years. They lived in a very small house in Westfort, the part of Fort William (Thunder Bay South) that was closest to the paper mill. Their house was small, but they had this deep backyard that featured several crab apple trees, and a huge garden. This part of town was close to the Kaministiquia River, and the soil is very heavy and black, and good for growing. My grandparents took care of that garden, and grew potatoes, and carrots, and beets, and radishes, and lettuce, and onions. They grew raspberries, and they harvested the fruit from the apple trees. My grandmother canned fruit and vegetables to be used for the whole year, and the cold room in the basement was lined with shelves of jars. They grew more than they could use themselves, and our family, and others, received the bounty.
We are called, as people of faith, to care for the gifts we have been given, to make them fluorish, and to share with others, especially those in need.

As we celebrate “the true north, strong and free” this week, let us also contemplate how we can use our strength and freedom to make the world a better place.

Happy Canada Day!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The fifth page for Sunday, June 21

This week it is actually more like a “sixth” page, because I integrated the scripture story of David and Goliath into my sermon, so it ran a little longer than normal. In my research into the story I read a very good essay by Dan Clendenin at the “Journey with Jesus” website. He included images from Caravaggio’s paintings, and a Dore’ woodcut of the gruesome scene of David holding up the head of Goliath. This is the one that stuck with me:

Goliath looks surprised. I think Caravaggio deliberately depicted human emotion on Goliath’s face to remind us that there is nothing glorious in violence, and it is not to be glorified.

Clendenin’s essay included what he called “warning signs” that a religion is going off the rails and veering into the always dangerous tendency to legitimize “sacred violence”:

“We should learn the warning signs that religion has become evil and evil has become religious:
* Fanatical claims of absolute truth. I do not mean the belief that absolute truth exists, but the doubt-free and uncritical confidence that one understands such absolute truth absolutely.
* Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
* Identifying and rationalizing “end times” scenarios in the name of your religion.
* Justifying religious ends by dubious means.
* Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy, demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, to claiming that God is on your side alone.
* Pressure tactics of coercion, deception, and false advertisement.
* Alienation, isolation and withdrawal from family, friends and society, whether psychologically or literally.
* Exploitation and all forms of unreasonable demands upon one's time, money, resources, family, friendships, sexuality, etc. “

fifth page for June 7, 2009

Dear Friends; I will not be sending out a 5th page this week, as I will be away on a course from Sunday to Sunday. This is my second residency for the Jubilee Program in Spiritual Direction. For information about this program, check out this link:


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This past Sunday I made reference in the sermon to having run several long distance races. What follows is an edited version of a sermon I gave in May 2004, a week after having completed a marathon for the first time:

”Heart and Sole”
I am not the same person I was 200 days ago. 200 days ago I was someone who wanted to run a marathon. There is no way I could have done it. It was a dream, a heartfelt desire- maybe even a calling from God to try a new thing- but it was also impossible for the person I was then. If I had tried to run 26.2 miles on the day I got the inspiration, no amount of prayer, luck, will, or stubbornness would have made it happen. I simply was not ready.

But last Sunday, I ran a marathon, something I always thought was for people who were gifted with a lean running machine of a body. I now know that you do not have to have the perfect body, but you do have to do the work.

At one point I ran past a water station in front of an elementary school. Some of the student volunteers were yelling the Nike slogan, "Just Do It!" as runners passed, to encourage us. I have two thoughts about this- The first is: You can't just do it! You have to train, and learn, and apply discipline, and accept pain, and make sacrifices, and get help and advice, and get hurt, and recover, and train more, and rest, and recover, and then you can do it! My other thought it is: Yes, just do it! If I had waited until I had the perfect body, or the ideal schedule, or the best resources, or the exact right training plan before I began- I would never have started!

It was in the last week of October that I came home from work and talked with my wife Lexie about training to run the First Annual Mississauga Marathon. We talked about the effects that would be felt by the whole family. Lexie supported this ambition, even though it meant that I would run 4 days a week for the next 6 months. The weekday shorter runs I could fit in early in the morning before the family woke up, or in the later afternoon before evening meetings. But the longer weekend runs were big chunks of time away from my family.

I have had a few people ask how I fit in the running with all that is happening in our busy church. Having a personal project has pushed me to be better organized, and more disciplined about the use of time and energy. It has also been a good year for me to have something to work on that had a definite beginning and end, because a lot of the work we do together to build a new congregation is ongoing.

I missed you all last week. I thought of you around 11 am, when I was about halfway through, and hitting the toughest part of the race. I felt like I was being prayed for. I am grateful for your prayers, and your support, and for the flexibility in my work that allowed me to take a study leave the week of the marathon. Thank you.

The race was an amazing experience. I learned so much in the process of getting ready for the big race, and the marathon itself taught me more.

There were amazing kindnesses. Every few miles there were volunteers at water stations, standing in the sun with arms stretched out, handing cups of cold water or Gatorade to runners. There were also hundreds of people along the route, clapping, and cheering. During the race, these kindnesses touched me so deeply that I just had to find a way to pass something along.

My time came on Southdown Road, about halfway through the race. This part of the route was a big loop. We had to run on Southdown towards the lake, and then turn around and come back the same way up to Orr Road. I found this to be the toughest part of the race, because it went against all my instincts to run 5 kilometers south and west, only to have to run back up the same road. And as I was heading south, there were the people who were further along the loop, running back towards me. I made myself get past being annoyed by this, and decided to try to be generous. So I smiled, and waved, and clapped, and tried to encourage people as I met them face to face. Because I could see their faces, I often saw people return the smile, and pick up their step a little. We need each other, and we can help each other do amazing things.

It might surprise you to hear that I spent far more time resting, and recovering, than I did actually running. The sports physiologists call it the “Training Effect”. Simply put, after you apply stress and exertion to the systems in your body, you have to let them rest before you push them again. Rest gives your muscles a chance to heal, and grow stronger. There is a natural rhythm of stress and rest, stress and rest, that I have talked about before. There also needs to be a proper balance. All work and stress will burn us out, and too much rest and we won't make any progress. That was true as I was training for a marathon, and it's true in our life as a church. We need to exercise, to push ourselves, in order to grow. We also need to slow down sometimes, to allow healing and strengthening to happen. The rest after a long, hard run is a satisfying, earned rest.

One of my spiritual heroes, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton once defined prayer as “the desire to pray”. In other words, in order to be with God, you have to want to be with God. I thought about this on the days when I did not feel like running. I remembered that in order to be a runner, I actually had to run. In order to become a marathoner, I would actually have to run a marathon. In order to be a Christian, I have to turn my desire to follow Jesus into action.

On some days, my running time is very prayerful, and meditative. I focus on my breathing, and sometimes imagine that I am breathing in health and strength and love from God, and that I am breathing out fear and anger, and tired thoughts, and all that holds me back from being everything God desires me to be. This is intensely personal prayer.

Usually on Sundays I can be found somewhere near the front of the sanctuary, involved in leading worship. It was a powerful contrast for me last Sunday to be way at the back of the crowd waiting to start the race. I didn't get to say when to stand up, and when to sing, and when to pray- someone else was in charge, and I was one of thousands in a crowd. I was struck by how an experience can be both intensely personal, and powerfully communal at the same time.

I spent so many hours on the road, mostly running on my own, that I am somewhat conditioned to view running as solitude time- time when I am on my own with God. I brought that sense of running to the race last Sunday- but I was one of thousands of people who were running- and my experience of solitude, of being alone with my thoughts, and feelings, and with God, was blown open, expanded to included all the other faithful disciples of this open air church.

I mentioned that were stations along the route where volunteers were offering water and Gatorade. There were also medical aid stations, and a couple of times closer to the end of the race, we could hear and see ambulances on their way to runners who needed help. I can tell you that as I was running, and feeling my body protest the effort I was making- the minor pain and hardship I experienced made it that much easier to feel compassion for those around me who were also suffering, and especially for those who might be in real trouble. The siren's call was a not so subtle reminder that this thing I was doing was not to be taken lightly- there was risk involved. People get hurt, and sometimes die.

It is not that great a leap from feeling an empathetic connection to the other runners in a race, to realizing that we all, every person, not just runners, have these physical bodies that are subject to limitations, and aging, and stress, and disease. Beyond that, it seems a natural progression to remember that physical pain is not the only challenge or hardship we face as human beings.

Running a race in the GTA is an excellent opportunity to see the whole rainbow of humanity. There were people of many different backgrounds, and in many shapes and sizes, all gathered together to run. To be honest, a wider range of humanity than we usually see in church.

There were people in that race who have been running marathons for years, and there were people like me who were doing it for the first time. There were the front of the pack runners who travel the circuit, and make their living from the race prizes, and there were guys like the man I met before the race who decided about 4 weeks before that he'd like to try the half-marathon, so he went out and bought himself some running shoes. (I wonder how he made out?)

There were a number of different running and walking events. (10 km race, 1/2 marathon, full marathon, relay teams for the full and half marathons) One of the thoughts that came up for me as I was being passed, or passing another runner is that we each were running our own race. My experience was not about beating another person, but overcoming the factors that made it a challenge for me to get my 42 year old, not particularly athletic body to go the distance. Looking at it that way, I feel great respect and joy for all those who were out there, running their own race.

Whether it is a running race or a faith community, people grow and progress at their own pace. And God is at work in all of us, making the change possible.

Perhaps the most important learning I want to share this morning is about becoming. As I said at the starting line, the person I was 200 days ago could not have finished the race. It was not enough that I believe in the idea, or agree with the idea. I had to make the idea come to life. I had to change my life, to give the idea life. I needed lots of help, and I had to read, and improve my diet, and schedule, and learn how to run, and how to dress, and how to rest. That's kind of bad news, that real change is hard work, and that good ideas do not take the place of hard work.

The good news is that change is possible. I ran 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 37 minutes, 34.2 seconds. By following an inspiration, asking for help, making a plan, and doing the hard work, I was able to accomplish something that used to be impossible for me. I have shown myself that it is absolutely possible to grow to meet a challenge. If I can run a marathon, this church can do almost anything.

When I got to the end, and I could see the finish line, I sprinted. Legs and arms pumping, I was filled with excitement as I realized two things: I had made it, and I had strength to keep going. I felt like I was flying.

I was overwhelmed by joy. I had pushed beyond my limits, and thrived. I had been helped, and supported, and loved along the way, by God, and by many people in my life. I felt totally alive, and incredibly grateful for life. That transcendent mood stayed with me for the rest of that day, and on into the week. I found that I laughed easier, and could also cry at the smallest emotional nudge, which is something I have been trying to not do as I tell you this story. Amen

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Sunday May 24 I spoke about Jack's Lemonade Stand, a street party/community fundraising event that benefits the Sick Kids Hospital Foundation in Toronto. Here is a link to a Youtube video that nicely tells the story, and also features some music by my friend Dave Brinton's band Groovehammer!


Here is the link to Jack's website, where you can learn even more about him:


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the fifth page for May 17, 2009

In my sermon I referred to an Interfaith Symposium I attended recently at Sheridan College, that was organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. There was some scheduling confusion that I don’t fully understand, and two Christian representatives actually appeared to speak that evening. I was quite happy to bow out, and listen to the “other guy”, who as it turned out, was one of my professors long ago, and far more qualified to speak. But I saved my speech, and I am offering it here as an extra long edition of the fifth page:

Good evening. I am grateful, and honoured to be one of the speakers at this event. I am here, not as an expert spokesperson for my Christian faith, and certainly not as an expert on the issues before us. I am here as a person who tries to be faithful, knowing full well that I have much to learn, and a long way to go in taking what I learn, and putting it into daily practice.

Let me begin by telling you some things that I believe: Everything we do has moral, and ethical, and spiritual dimensions. Every aspect of our lives, is part of our spiritual life. The choices we make, for good or for bad, are expressions of who we really are. When I tell my children, I love you, and hope that you will be a faithful follower of God, but they see me putting myself first, and forgetting about God, they can tell the difference between who I say I am, and who I am being.

One person has said it this way- when I get up in the morning I say, “Dear God”. When I go to bed at night, my last word is “Amen”. Everything in between is my prayer. When I remember that, and live the moments of my day, and make my decisions, with the awareness that my words, actions, thoughts, decisions are all heard and seen by God, I live differently.

The problems we face in our own lives, in the lives of our family and friends, and in the world in which we live, are not new. The underlying causes are not new. The scale of our world’s problems is larger - but the hardship and pain that people experience, the havoc that is wreaked on the environment, the aggression amongst cultures, and classes, and nations, have always been there.

It is good for us to talk to each other, and listen to each other, with mutual respect, and openness. This is a time for humility, and patience, and love. This is a time for renewed faithfulness, and courage, and hope. As people of faith, we can have confidence that we have much to offer the hurting world. Faith offers us a new way of seeing the world.

I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior, in Northwestern Ontario. I was raised in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of that city- a place much like parts of the Kerr Street area here in Oakville. Outside of the school, the most important place for me in our neighbourhood was our church. I was there at least twice a week. Our church was a very old, very small red brick building on a street where the neighbours changed on a regular basis, because most of the houses were rental units, often with more than one family in each house.

On Sunday mornings I was taught the stories about Jesus. I was taught that Jesus came to teach that God loves every person, and that no human barriers should stand in the way of that love. Jesus taught that we can, each of us, approach God, and pray, and know that we are God’s beloved children.

I learned to pray, and got the basic message that life was not just about me, and my wants and desires. I was taught that every human being is part of God’s family. There were wealthy people who drove back into the neighbourhood to come to church, and there were poor people, and the whole range in between. There were aboriginal people, and there were 1st and 2nd generation Japanese people. There were people from Eastern Europe, and from the Middle East, and from the British Isles. We did not cover the whole human rainbow, but there was enough variety to show me that God’s love extends to us all. My little home church planted in me a vision for life that went beyond my neighbourhood.

On Monday nights I went to Cubs, which is part of the Boy Scout movement. Cubs are taught to make promises and keep them. Cubs are taught about honour, and duty, and responsibility to others. We were also taught about the wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Once a year we went camping. We would sleep overnight in tents, and marvel at the night sky, away from the lights of the city. We could sometimes see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. That display in the sky, and the sweep of stars would sometimes overwhelm me, as a little boy trying to grasp my place in God’s universe. In the day time we would hike, and learn about plants and animals, and about caring for the creation we live in. It literally opened up my world to leave behind the concrete and pavement of my inner city neighbourhood, and go to a place where there was forest, and streams, and the wildness of nature.

These early experiences, of learning my faith with people from around the world, and revelling in nature with the cubs, have shaped the way I now see things. Each of us are part of something greater than ourselves. We are part of the human family, and we are part of God’s creation. We are all deeply connected, and connected to creation, even though much of our conditioning has encouraged us to believe in divisions.

I have come to believe that most of the distinctions that are used to divide people have their roots in fear and greed. We are afraid of people who are different from us. We are afraid that we will not have all that we need, so we find ways to justify hoarding valuable resources, usually at the expense of others.

I am a minister in the United Church of Canada. I serve the congregation called Trinity United, which is very close to Sheridan College, on McCraney, here in Oakville. The United Church has a long and rich history of cooperation and dialogue with people of faith from many different traditions. We are also committed to staying connected with other Christian groups around the world.

One of our global connections is the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Five years ago, in August of 2004, the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which represents Christian churches from almost every country, met in Accra, Ghana, and reflected on what they named then as “ the increasing urgency of global economic injustice and ecological destruction”.

While they were in Ghana, delegates visited the slave dungeons where millions of Africans were treated as property, sold and subjected to the horrors of repression and death, as slaves. The dungeons were a grim reminder of the ongoing reality that greed and oppression are at work in our world. People continue to suffer the hands of others, and damage continues to be done to the creation which is our home.

The delegates gathered in Accra observed that the root causes of massive threats to life are unjust economic systems that are protected by political and military might. We are seeing in our time that not only are these economic systems a matter of life and death, but that when these systems begin to collapse the consequences are terrible.

The meeting produced a very long document called a Confession of Faith in the Face of Economic Injustice and Ecological Destruction. Here are some of the key ideas:

We reject any claim of economic, political, and military empire which subverts God’s sovereignty over life and acts contrary to God’s just rule.

We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation. Jesus calls us to put justice for the “least of these” (Mt 25.40) at the centre of the community of life. All creation is blessed and included in this covenant.

We believe the economy exists to serve the dignity and well being of people in community, within the bounds of the sustainability of creation.

We reject any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation, and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all.

We believe that God calls us to stand with those who are victims of injustice.
We know what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, love kindness, and walk in God’s way (Micah 6.8).

We reject any theology that claims that God is only with the rich and that poverty is the fault of the poor.

We believe that Jesus brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; he frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind (Lk 4.18); he supports and protects the downtrodden, the stranger, the orphans and the widows.

It is quite a challenging and inspiring, (and long) document. I found it particularly important that it included some words of confession:

We acknowledge our complicity in the economic systems which benefit us, and do harm to others and to our world. We acknowledge that we have become captivated by the culture of consumerism, and the competitive greed and selfishness of the current economic system.

In other words, we are all a part of the systems which our faith is calling us to change. This humility is important, and is speaking in the spirit of Jesus. I want to close my remarks by reading from what Christians often call the Beatitudes. Jesus was speaking to a large crowd, and he had great compassion for them. These people were not the movers and shakers of the world, they were simple and poor peasants, whose lives were often at the mercy of market forces, and foreign rulers, and wealthy land-owners. They knew that they needed help, just making it through each day. Jesus tells them that they are blessed, precisely because they know that they need God’s help.

Jesus said,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The fifth page for Sunday, May 10, 2009

The United Church music resource “Voices United” says that the hymn-writer Joseph Scriven likely composed “What a friend we have in Jesus” while he was working in Brantford, Ontario, as a school teacher. It is a piece that I associate with the many of the funerals, and services in senior’s residences I have helped with over the last 20 years in ministry. It is a hymn that many people name as a favourite. My mother-in-law loved this hymn, and it was listed in the funeral instructions she left for her family.

It was during the singing of this hymn, at my mother-in-law’s memorial service that I felt a powerful sense of being strengthened, and “held up” by the presence, and by the faith, of the people who were there. Here is how I described it in the sermon:

“The voices around me were strong, and earnest, and coloured with both the grief of loss, and the hope of faith. I felt the strength, the force of their prayers and best intentions flowing through me. That strength, and that courage, gave me what I needed to be able to sing with joy, and to cry freely with my son. That strength, that love, that sense of connection has continued to empower me as I do what I need to do, to offer care to my family, and other hurting people, every day.”

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful,
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Christ the Saviour is our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do our friends despise, forsake us?
Are we tempted to despair?
Jesus' strength will shield our weakness,
and we'll find new courage there.

It is interesting to me that I would have a powerful spiritual experience during the singing of a hymn that is not actually one of my favourites. But now that I look at the lyrics, there is something that I really like about this hymn, the persistent insistence that whatever we are facing in life, we can, and should, “take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The fifth page for Sunday, May 3, 2009

This past Sunday we had a modified worship service, to accommodate the wonderful opportunity to have a group of puppeteers from a neighbouring United Church congregation present their version of the “Good Shepherd” reading from the Gospel of John. Their teacher had sent me the script in advance, so I had a good idea of the ground they would be covering. (That script is available to be read on the Trinity website, under “worship services”.) In order to keep a worship service that also included the celebration of the sacrament of communion within the usual length of about an hour, I ended up preparing a one page sermon rather than the typical four page effort. So there really isn’t a “fifth page” this week.

One thought I would like to have developed if there had been time on Sunday, would have been the matter of social status or respectability, versus humility and service to others. Several of the biblical commentators I consulted made the point that in the society in which Jesus lived, the occupation of shepherd was very low on the status ladder. Most of us living in this time have no direct connection to agriculture or animal husbandry, and have only vague ideas of what a shepherd’s life would be like. The highly romanticized and idealized image of the “Good Shepherd” is all most of us have to go on- that, and the stylized symbol of a shepherd’s crook as held by bishops, cardinals, and popes.

It seems to me that in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented as naming himself as the “Good Shepherd”, he is calling us to follow him, and also be shepherds of the “sheep”- the people in our lives who need help and direction, love and guidance. I do not think he is calling us to place ourselves above people, but rather, to make sacrifices and be humbled, as we love others in God’s name.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

5th Page for April 19, 2009

This is a digital copy of Caravaggio's "The Incredulity of Thomas" that I found on Wikipedia.

When I look at the face of Thomas, it seems to me that Caravaggio is mocking him for wanting "hands on" proof of the real presence of the Risen Jesus.

I have always found the phrase "Doubting Thomas" to be judgmental, and loaded with the implication that it is wrong to be possessed of questions or doubt.

In my sermon I made the connection between the "bad rap" that doubt has received, and the harm that has been cause when the Christian church has failed to be humble- and has assumed that it had the exclusive franchise on truth. Alongside our history of spreading the gospel around the world, and doing good works in God's name, we have a darker history of managing to find some category or group of people to actively exclude, wherever we have gone.

Thomas, who is literally poking around, seeking the truth of things, may be for us not only the patron saint of "doubters", but also of all those who did not want to be left out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

The fifth page for Good Friday, April 10, 2009

I met a woman this week who was born in Eastern Europe, and was trained as a translator. I have felt for some time that part of my work as a minister is to in some sense “translate” ideas and values rooted in the Ancient World into language that connects with us in our context. This woman told me that when she was going to university, her “mind was blown” when she heard a professor say that languages evolve. Later in our conversation, this woman told me that when she met her future husband she knew very quickly that there was an important connection between them, but she had no words to describe how she felt. Years later she learned the term “soul-mate”, and felt that it fit. She said that in the language of her home country, there simply was no word for how she felt about this man.

Things can happen, and we can have thoughts and feelings for which there are no adequate words. We may end up doubting the validity of our experiences, if we can’t find a way to talk, or even think about them. My new friend found that the discovery of the term “soul-mate” liberated her, and made it possible to explore in greater depths her relationship with this man. Her own language of thought “evolved” when she was able to add this valuable concept.

It seems to me that the writers of the Bible were often in the position of having to tell a story, or describe something, for which they lacked words and concepts. They did what we do- they drew on the “tools” available to them, to describe and to interpret (attach particular meaning) events and experiences.

When the first followers of Jesus began to tell the stories of his life, and his teachings, and the dramatic events of the time we call “Holy Week”, they would naturally have drawn on the poetry, and the religious ideas of the time and place in which they lived. One of the religious ideas which provided a framework for discussion of the death of Jesus on the cross was the story in the Old Testament book of Leviticus about the sacrifice of the “scapegoat” to atone for the collective sins of the nation of Israel.

Canadian song-writer Steven Fearing has this line in his song “When My Work Is Done”:

“Hold a hammer tight enough
The world looks like a nail”

If by our cultural and religious conditioning we have been “programmed” to believe that God is an angry, vengeful being whose favour must be re-established each year by making blood sacrifices, then it may be difficult to move beyond this way of thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross.

But if our religious language is allowed to evolve- if we are able to learn new words, new poetry to talk about these things- we might be able to see God and ourselves in a whole different kind of relationship.