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A home for things I write

20190515_185448My first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction. The annual competition is sponsored by Dundurn Press and CrimeWriters of Canada. On May 23, my wife and I attended a banquet at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where I had the honour of meeting other authors who were nominated, as well as a number of editors, publishers, and authors. It was great fun!

The winning manuscript in my category, the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime novel, was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane. You can learn more about Liv at her website: https://livmcfarlane.com/

I look forward to reading The Scarlet Cross, and the work of the other nominees:

  • Hypnotizing Lions by Jim Bottomley
  • Omand’s Creek by Don Macdonald
  • One for the Raven by Heather McLeod

 

That the manuscript of my first ever novel was even considered for such an honour, has inspired me to improve my online presence. This site is a re-tooling of my old “Sharing Bread Along The Way” blog, along with old material from “The Fifth Page”, which is where I used to post what didn’t make it into my sermons, which are always a maximum of 4 pages. (I now call them “learning times”, to reflect the truth that I am still learning as I go.)

I am a minister in The United Church of Canada, currently serving the congregation and wider community of Harrow, in beautiful Essex County, Ontario. In the words of Max Marshall, a singer-songwriter from Harrow, it’s a “bread-basket town” in “fruit-stand land”. You should also check out Max, he’s great! 

https://www.maxmarshall.org/about

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O is for Ontario (or wherever you live!)

O is for OntarioDec 15, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 15 of the Advent Alphabet

O is for Ontario. That’s the province where I live, and where most people reading these letters make their home. (Although, the analytics for my writing blog indicate people read these posts in India, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.)

Think about the place where you live. At Christmas time, whatever our theology, whatever our reading of the biblical stories, we celebrate God’s intimate engagement and involvement with the human race, in the places where we live. We are both comforted and challenged by the message of universal love, extended to all people.

In G is for Gold, I tackled questions related to our materialism, and raised the possibility of celebrating Jesus’ birth in ways that are closer to the values he represents. Not long ago, Sojourners Online https://sojo.net/magazine/current sent out an email that offered a reminder in the same vein:

“A popular Christmas song says “let your heart be light,” and that “our troubles will be out of sight.” Even though Christmas is a time of wonder and excitement at the birth of our Saviour, a troubled economy, violent conflicts, and extreme poverty weigh on our spirits and require our attention.

So instead of just the feasting and presents, what if we all take action this Christmas? Let’s not just sing about God’s love when we can commit to actions that will bring love, peace, and justice for our neighbours far and near.

In the spirit of a joyful, Christ-centered Christmas, we’ve even written a carol for a subversive sing-along. Who said doing justice had to be boring or serious?! So, clear your throat and join us in a rousing chorus of: “Have Yourself a Peace and Justice Christmas” (to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”).

Have yourself a peace and justice Christmas,
Set your heart a-right.
Flee the malls and focus on Christ’s guiding light.

 Have yourself a peace and justice Christmas,
Give your time a way.
Share God’s love, And serve “the least of these” today.

 Here we are, as we pray for peace,
We’ll live simply and give more.
We care for those far and near to us,
Which brings cheer to us, once more.

 God brings down
The haughty from high places,
And lifts up the low.
God cares for the hungry and the humble, so –
Forget the stress and let the peace and justice flow!

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. http://www.harrowunited.org/ Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

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N is for Nazareth

nazareth graphicDec 14, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 14 of the Advent Alphabet

N is for Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Today we consider the problem of Nazareth. (The town in ancient Israel, not the Scottish hard rock band from the early 1970’s!)

The Nazareth question is a kind of gateway to considering some questions scholars have wrestled with for at least 100 years of reading the Bible with the critical eyes of academics, , as well as with hearts of faith.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in the year 70 (3-4 decades after Jesus’ death), Jewish leaders clamped down hard on the Jesus followers. There was bitterness and name-calling, reflective of the tension between the traditional followers of Judaism, and Jewish Christians, who had begun to claim that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah.

A major challenge to the Messianic claims about Jesus was that he came from Galilee, which lay in Gentile territory. Hebrew scriptures said the Messiah would be of David’s line, and come from Bethlehem in Judea. Nazareth was a backwater village, and the butt of many jokes. John 1:46 quoted the insult frequently thrown at Christians: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Scholars have hypothesized about how Matthew and Luke worked with the raw material, the stories that had been collected about Jesus, to deal with the “Nazareth problem”.

Matthew described Joseph and Mary and the baby living in a house in Bethlehem (the city of David) when the Magi came bearing their gifts. (There is no visit by shepherds in the Matthew version of the story.) This information served to link Jesus to the family line of King David, bolstering the claims of his followers that Jesus was sent to become another great king.

The reference to a house in Bethlehem opened up another issue- how and why did the holy family end up in Nazareth, as it was common knowledge that this was where Jesus grew up?

Scholars suggest Matthew included the story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, as a pretext to have the family flee to Egypt. (There is no historical record, outside of Matthew’s Gospel, that Herod, a client king in service to the Roman Empire ever ordered such a horrible thing.) Having the Holy Family flee to Egypt deftly connected Jesus to the story of the first Joseph (his earthly fathers namesake), who was taken by force to Egypt, and rose to a place of power second only to the Pharoah. (An early “rags to riches” tale.)

The Egypt connection also identified Jesus with Moses- which allowed Matthew to use his version of the Jesus story to tell fellow Jewish Christians, a persecuted minority, that God would protect and save them, even as Joseph protected his people in the story from the Book of Genesis, and Moses led the people of out of slavery in the Exodus story. Matthew wrote that Joseph kept the family in Egypt until he heard that Herod had died- but because Herod’s brother succeeded him, Joseph hid his family in Nazareth.

Luke began his story with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, but used the plot device of the census to get them to Bethlehem. (Historical records indicate that Rome ordered a census in Palestine several years after Jesus’ birth, but there is no evidence Jews returned to their hometowns to be counted.)

Luke provided his own version of a geneaology that also linked Jesus to David, through Joseph. (The family tree Luke offers is not all the same as the one found in Matthew.) Luke followed the nativity story with a description of Jesus’ family going to Jerusalem for purification rites in the temple, and then returning to Nazareth, where Jesus was raised. In Luke, Mary was presented as the faithful woman, obedient to God, who would help God renew the covenant between God and the people, and open it to Gentiles as well as Jews.

In Luke’s story, there is no visit by magi from the East. The ragged unclean shepherds who visited the new-born Jesus represented the poor who would be lifted up, as the rich were to be brought low, as Mary sang in her song of praise to God upon learning that she would bear a child. (There are strong parallels to Hannah, the faithful woman who had been barren, and when by some miracle became pregnant, dedicated her child to God’s service. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel is clearly the model for Matthew’s poetic rendering of Mary’s Song.)

The writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke took up the task of communicating the meaning, and the significance of Jesus’ life, to different audiences. Did they expect that their stories would be bound in the same volume to be pored over by biblical scholars, who use the differences in the way they told their stories to gain clues about the “story under the story”?

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

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M is for Magi

letter m designDec 13, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 13 of the Advent Alphabet

M is for Magi. I’ve always thought that outside of the baby Jesus, the magi were the most interesting characters in the nativity story. And they are magi- not kings. I don’t know when, or really even why that song about “We Three Kings” ever became popular- because if you read Matthew’s Gospel , it says clearly that they were wisemen, not kings from the East who came to pay their respects. (Incidentally, the only reason we think of there being three is because that’s how many gifts they brought. In some streams of the Christian tradition, they talk about as many as twelve visitors.)

I like the magi because they were seekers after truth. There are many sayings about how it is the truly wise who can admit they don’t know everything. These wise ones serve as models for anyone willing to endure hardship, take risks, and literally step away from all that is familiar, and go where they’ve never been, in order to fulfill their quest.

In another letter I will say a bit more about the religion of the wisemen, and the origin of the word “Magi”. For now I’ll just point to the fact that they were not Jewish. Nonetheless they were interested in the birth of a child some hoped would be a Messiah for the Jews. There is no indication in the story that they became followers of Jesus. They were faithful people who were open-minded enough to look beyond their own religious traditions, to see God at work.

Part of my not-so-hidden agenda for these Advent letters is to offer nurture to people’s minds as well as their spirits. The phrase I have been playing with is “intelligent piety”. I believe it is healthy for us to ask questions, and dig deeper into the stories of our Christian tradition.

The Jesus movement has lost a lot of great people who felt they’d have to turn off their brain, or at least compartmentalize their thinking, in order to stay in the church. I had a wonderful conversation with a man who holds a doctorate in atmospheric physics. He said he felt like a hypocrite going to church. He thought he was expected to accept unquestioningly the Bible, and the creeds as literally true.

I have a colleague who makes the distinction between faith and belief. He would say it’s possible to have faith in God, and to see the sacred and spiritual dimensions of life, without necessarily buying into, or “believing” every aspect of the portrayal of God found in popular religion, the teachings of the church, and all the layers of tradition.

How about you? Do you think we can have faith, and at the same time have questions, and doubts about what we have been taught about God, and Jesus?

Here is something about which I have no doubt. Jesus taught that God wants us to bring our bodies, and spirits, and minds along for the ride, on our journey towards truth. When a religious teacher asked Jesus which was the most important commandment, he said,

“‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

That’s a word to the wise. (Magi, and others!)

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

 

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L is for Love

letter lDec 12, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 12 of the Advent Alphabet

L is for love.

“My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4:11-12) (The Message)

When I was a teenager, I went through a time of spiritual searching. There was a period of about three years after my family moved out of the neighbourhood of our home church, and before I had a driver’s license, when I got to church only if someone else drove. (Buses did not run all that regularly on Sunday mornings.)

There was a guy named Dan who was vigorously trying to “save me”. In his way of thinking, this meant I had to say that I believed certain things about Jesus, repeat a simple prayer, and then my eternal soul would be assured of a place in heaven. If I sound a bit cynical about this, it is because I am. There were members of my family who’d been raised on this kind of “Old Time Religion”, and I had heard it all before. Maybe because I heard it as a young child, the frightening images of eternal hell-fire and sulfurous damnation actually got to me. Dan would preach this vile stuff, warning that if Jesus came back this afternoon I would not be with those on the roll to be called up yonder. (The pictures he painted made it hard to fall asleep at night.)

I sometimes went to church with Dan. He would pull up to my house in his little yellow Volkswagen beetle- an original, not one of the neo-retro versions we see today. I knew that as soon as I got in the car he would start in with his monologue. Dan had two things he liked to talk about: the valiant Russian soldiers who fought against the German army in world war two, and the horrors of what would happen if I didn’t get saved. (I realized years later that Dan was fighting his own particular military campaign, for his idea of Jesus.)

One bright Sunday morning Dan and I went to worship at an evangelical church. I ‘d suggested this church because there was a young woman I knew who attended there, who had a friendly smile. She wasn’t there that Sunday- at least I didn’t see her. But God was there. There was a feeling in that place. I had been in churches before that seemed to be places of reverence- in the sense that people became quiet when they walked in- a kind of holy hush. This sanctuary seemed different. I felt an aliveness in the room, that did not seem to have much to do with the worshippers, or the music, or even the preacher (who in tone, and content, sounded very much like Dan.)

I experienced for a few minutes in that place a sense of God’s presence. It was reassuring, like a kind person’s smile, or a hug from a toddler. This presence seemed to be saying, “I know you. You’re going to be okay- don’t worry about what they’re saying. You are loved.”

It didn’t happen that day, but there came a time, a few months later, when I had a conversion experience, and made a conscious decision to follow the way of Jesus. I don’t know if I got saved, but I know that I am loved by God. And so are you.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

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K is for Kite

k is for kite

Dec 11, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 11 of the Advent Alphabet

 

K is for kite. No really, it is. The K is as big as a kite!

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
“Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite.

“Do you hear what I hear” is a popular seasonal piece, a favourite since it was written in 1962. It became a hit the following year when Bing Crosby made his record, and many other artists have since covered it. (Here is a link to a video of Pentatonix offering back-up vocals to a version by the late Whitney Houston. https://youtu.be/GqwmBO5L0xI )

This song is a good example of what story-tellers often do. They take elements from a well-known tale, and use them like a painter uses the colours on their palette, to create something new.

The “new” story may remind us enough of the old one to ensure that we pay attention, and take the new piece seriously. This is often quite deliberate, to gain an audience for a message the writer wants to get across. In this case, the composers, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker had a definite agenda, that is revealed in the line “pray for peace people everywhere”. They wrote their song at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when they feared a nuclear war was very possible.

The casual listener can easily grasp the message, and is likely not too concerned about the factual details. We know that in the “real” Nativity stories from Matthew and Luke there is no talking wind (or lamb!) no shepherd boy, and that Herod is not much like the King in the song. We also know the song writers went beyond the biblical text when they described a star with a tail as big as a kite, dancing in the night.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him… Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem… the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (excerpts from Matthew chapter 2)

At this time of year there are often articles that put forward explanations for the appearance and behaviour of the star. The “tail as big as kite” alludes to the theory the Magi had spotted a comet. I have also heard versions involving a distant star going nova, or some alignment of planets that together reflected an unusually bright light. I will say a little more about the star when we get to Z is for Zoroastrian.

I wonder if 2000 years from now there will be commentators taking time to analyze the words of “Do you hear what I hear?”, and offering plausible explanations of how a message could be passed from the wind, to a lamb, to a shepherd boy, and then to a mighty king? If they go to all that trouble, I hope they also get the message, and pray for peace.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. http://www.harrowunited.org/ Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

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J is for Joy

printable-letter-j_5627eada83283December 10, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 10 of the Advent Alphabet

J is for Joy. On the third Sunday of the Advent season, we will light the candle for Joy. What do we mean by Joy?

“ joy is the intersection between the human and the divine, and that’s why at some points, when you experience joy you throw your hands in the air, you laugh, you dance, but at other times you experience joy you cry, and you like release in this other way, and it’s the same thing, and its coming from this place of letting go…”

That came from a hip-hop artist named Michael Franti, who leads a band called Spearhead. I heard him interviewed on the CBC radio show Tapestry. Franti is a deeply spiritual person who was raised a Christian, and is now a Yoga teacher. He uses music as a way to work for peace and unity.

I am attracted to Franti’s idea that joy is found at the intersection of the human and the divine. During my training for ministry I worked and studied with Quakers. Many Quakers say that every moment, of every day, is potentially sacramental. (God is equally present with us at all times, everywhere, but there are times when we are more open, more able to accept what God is offering us, which is Presence.)

I don’t think God ever “goes away”. God is everywhere, in everything, including us. But most of us are not able to sustain that awareness of God’s Presence all the time. There are times when we feel like God is very far away, or that God is just an idea, and not a reality.

The image that comes to mind is of feeling so weighed down with the pain and grief that we all experience, that we are unable to look up. Our head is downcast, and our eyes are pointed at our own feet. All we can see is what is just ahead. It becomes hard to imagine we might ever feel different, or better.

In our culture there is a powerful tendency to avoid feeling bad. We have numerous medications and distractions available. There are all manner of short-term highs we can use to numb our feelings, or mask them, or allow us to feel something other than what is real. But these do not lead us to joy.

There our times when our spiritual path must take us through the sadness, through the famous “valley of the shadow of death”, before we can come out the other side.

In the first chapter of Luke, Mary’s first response to being greeted by an angel was to be “greatly troubled”.

When the angel told her that she would bear a special child, she said,  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” 

Mary accepted the angel’s news. But then she got moving.

“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”

It was only after a physical (and perhaps spiritual) journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, that Mary said,  “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Mary’s did not immediately rejoice, when the angel told her about the baby.  I wonder if she used the time on the road to pray, to come to a deeper understanding of how God was with her, and would sustain her, even in those challenging circumstances. Only then could Mary sing the song of joy that has come to be known as the Magnificat.

Michael Franti talked about this in musical terms: “in the history of African-American music we have the blues, which is this expression of deep sadness, and sorrow, and struggle, and then once you have passed through the blues you come to funk, which is the same chords, just played faster, and now you have music that is celebration, and it is that transformative quality of music…”

When we find ourselves open again to God’s presence, there is a transforming power. The song of sadness can become one of celebration. Our slow sad shuffle through life can become a dance of joy.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

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I is for Incarnation

Letter I designDec 9, 2019 Second Week of Advent – Day 9 of the Advent Alphabet

I is for Incarnation. Another name for Christmas is the “Feast of the Incarnation”.

When I was a child, my mother prepared our milk by mixing water with flakes poured from the red and white box of Carnation powdered milk. The result was a literally pale imitation of the real thing. Money was tight. On special occasions, like Christmas, my parents splurged and bought ”real” milk- the good stuff!

Twenty years later, while studying theology, it was hard to keep a straight face when the seminary professors spoke of the “good news” of the Incarnation. Growing up, good news meant “no-carnation”- I hated the pale bluish, thin fluid. The manufacturing process which began with milk, freeze-dried it, powdered it, and boxed it, to be reconstituted later by well-meaning parents only took away from its natural goodness.

“Incarnation” comes from the latin for “flesh”- caro. In Christian theology, it means that Jesus, is “God in the Flesh”.

There are times I find that idea as hard to swallow as I did the milk mixed from powder. Please, don’t get me wrong. I believe God sent Jesus to help us understand the incredible depth of love, and compassion that God has for us. I believe that God wants each of us to know that we are loved, and cherished, and vitally important to God’s hopes and dreams for the world.

But after Jesus’ earthly life, the people who passed on the Good News did not just deliver the message, they “processed” it. They broke it down, and put it back together, and packaged it as they saw fit. (A bit like the Carnation people do with milk!)

In the process they subtly changed the focus from God’s love and acceptance, to our need to “accept Jesus”. I find no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was drawing attention to himself. Jesus wanted everyone to feel free to approach God with the confidence of a child who knows that they are loved. I don’t believe Jesus was trying to start a new religion, or to ever have people worship him.

One unfortunate result of the “Jesus is God” idea taken to its extreme, is the inference which is drawn, that if you don’t know about Jesus, or make Jesus the focus of your religion, you can’t possibly know anything about God, or God’s love.

The powdered milk people have a vested interest in convincing us their product is the best. Well-intentioned followers of Jesus, living in a world of competing religions, made similar claims- that Jesus was the best, and perhaps only way to experience God’s goodness.

We understand when an advertiser claims one product is better than others. It’s the game they play, to capture market share. That behaviour can be offensive when it comes to faith.

I believe the way to follow Jesus, is to offer people the same radical love and acceptance he offered. We might begin by acknowledging that all people are God’s people, and our human ideas about who is “in” and who is “out” cannot limit divine love. We should not “water down” the incredible gift of God’s love. We should share the “good stuff” and proclaim Jesus, who as we say in our United Church Song of Faith,

“ announced the coming of God’s reign—

a commonwealth not of domination

but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

love of God, love of neighbour,

love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

as he had loved them.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.