Inter-faith Courage on Martin Luther King Jr’s 84th Birthday

In Washington D.C. today, some will observe Martin Luther King’s Birthday by holding a “Pray-in for the Climate.”

It’s a fitting commemoration, because climate change is our most pressing moral challenge, just as racial inequality was for Dr. King.

And, like him, we are called to choose hope over despair and action over paralysis. Our children’s future depends on our courage today. Courage to demand principled leadership from our politicians. And courage to change our own lives.

Nearly 50 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, King was jailed for taking part in a non-violent protest against segregation. White church leaders were harshly and openly critical.

Dr. King responded with clarity and courage. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

King’s appeal to a common humanity and his compelling image of a “single garment of destiny” apply with equal urgency to the challenge of climate change, and inequality — of wealth, of power, and still, very often, of race — remains at the heart of this challenge.

Our reckless use of fossil fuels overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, disrupting the climate. It’s already causing catastrophic storms and droughts that kill tens of millions a year.

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is still being felt in one of the richest, most powerful cities on Earth, just as last summer’s Midwest drought is driving up food prices this winter. Imagine how much more devastating such severe weather events are in Haiti or in sub-Saharan Africa.

Those suffering the most are the poor. They didn’t create the problem. They don’t take part in the profit.

In effect, they are giving up their security, their lands, in many cases their lives, so that others can become even richer.

To me, this sounds like slavery by another name.

Slavery represents an immoral economic system that harms many and profits few. Despoiling our common atmosphere with carbon dioxide is equally an immoral economic system that harms many and profits few.

Dr. King referred to the “manacles” of racial segregation and the “chains” of discrimination.  I make bold to suggest that he might respond in similar fashion today to the unequal burden of climate change borne by the poor.

This is a moment of choice. We must choose between a more just economic system, or carry on with morally bankrupt and unsustainable economies that enslave the poor and ultimately threaten human life everywhere.

Those whose wealth is tied to the current unjust system will resist fiercely and predict ruin — just as they did when confronted by challenges to slavery and discrimination. But the reality is that abolishing slavery and ending segregation led to periods of economic resurgence.

The matter is urgent. Justice could not come soon enough for slaves and their descendants, and the Earth’s life support system has a fast-approaching limit.

Those who gather in Washington today invite us to find the courage necessary for the urgency of this moment. A motley crew of young people, survivors of Hurricane Sandy, religious leaders and others will make a choice to take part. Let’s accept the invitation to be with them in spirit and in action, in our inescapable network of mutuality. How deep is our courage?

In the Communion of Struggle

This morning the wonderful poet Judy Brown sent me an amazing Denise Levertov poem entitled Beginners.

These words could not have arrived on a more poignant day.

As Hurricane Sandy furiously raps and rustles at my windows, I consider the poet’s words: “We have only begun to love the earth…”

Perhaps Sandy is trying to wake us up to a deeper love. Maybe today we will begin to find “the power that is in us if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle…”

David Roithkopf who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine writes of his hope that Sandy will end “the sad virtual silence” about climate change in the U.S. Presidential election, and refers to climate change as that “which amounts to nothing less than a planet-wide risk of the first order.”

Our neighbours of the Global South have lost loved ones to unprecedented weather events for some time. They recognize this as the consequence of global warming, caused largely by our northern greed, and they too have been waiting for us to awaken – to awaken to their pain and the need for us to make dramatic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Bill McKibben suggests that we start naming these unprecedented hurricanes and storms after oil companies. Not a bad idea, in my opinion – not to demonize the oil companies which are, after all, only meeting our demands; but rather to help us all name the truth of how we together must turn away from our high consumption of fossil fuels which is jeopardizing planetary life, including our own.

So I’m provoked by two questions which Levertov’s poem asks of me today, and maybe of you:
What power is in me which I can bring to the communion of struggle?
What is unfolding here that must complete its gesture?

May our responses, in prayer and action awaken us to what is in the bud.

Pushing Down

Last spring I was seduced by a fresh green shrub, waving in ocean breeze by the marine blue sea. Surrounded by my invited Clearness Committee* members, I was asked, “What colour will you be on the afternoon of August 18th?” (They knew that The United Church of Canada would install its 41st Moderator that morning, and I would start a new stage of life.)

There was such confidence in my voice as I declared: “A spring green against a sea blue. It will be a new season. It will not be autumn.”

So much for my confident predictions and memory lapses about how much soul is grounded in natural cycles and seasons! Yes, I’m smack dab in the middle of autumn, and it’s a far better place to be than I would have imagined.

Autumn is a season for going deep into the soil of experience and reflection; of preparation for a winter that will make way for fresh activity in spring. During my new, almost daily walks in Toronto’s High Park, I’m developing a friendship with centuries-old oaks. They’re teaching me a thing or two about these life-giving rhythms.

Water and nutrients are moving away from their leaves, into their stems, and down into their roots. No longer are they preoccupied with the feverish production of chlorophyll. Instead, sugars and amino acids are being produced, so a flow of sap will come when the time is right. Proteins are being stored in roots and inner bark to grow new spring leaves – eventually.

“I’m trying to push you down” my massage therapist tells me. According to her, the pace and inevitable stress of three years of constant motion – not to mention the effects of being in a car accident a few days after General Council – have me living too far away from my core, my roots. She and the trees are getting me to move in the right direction for this season.

As Moderator it was important for me to move from heart to head much of the time. In order to represent the church as fully as possible, I tried to use both the soul’s language of scripture and poetry and the head’s language of order and of reason.

Now, though, is my time to breathe deeply, to push down into the heart again, to read my journal entries and files from three busy years –and to notice the nourishment that’s rooted there to serve new growth in the next season.

Last week I spent five glorious days with other Courage & Renewal® facilitators. Our time together reminded me of the extraordinary blessings of being part of this community of deep spiritual and communal practice. Next week I’ll be engaged in ‘courage work’ again, co-facilitating with Fred Monteith and a full circle of retreatants at Five Oaks Centre. I feel richly blessed.

Discovering seeds of true self is one of autumn’s themes. Thomas Merton put it this way: “We can be ourselves, or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours…. But we cannot make these choices with impunity.”

As the writer of Ephesians puts it, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… bearing with one another in love.”

May your autumn choices – and mine – reflect the seeds of our true selves and calling.**

* A Clearness Committee is a communal way of supporting an individual in discernment. It is a gift of practice from the Quaker community. Clearness Committees are normally incorporated within Courage & Renewal® retreats. I will be facilitating a number of these retreats in the months to come and will keep you posted. The first is at Five Oaks Centre, Oct. 22-24: in Sudbury Nov. 19-21; and at Tatamagouche Centre, Nov. 24-26.

**If you’re wondering where to find my earlier blog postings written in other seasons, they’re in the process of moving here from wondercafe and can still be found there as well.

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Moving On

I am grateful for the inspiring and steady stream of notes, articles and messages still flowing from and bearing witness to eight days of faithful work at the 41st General Council of The United Church of Canada.

Yesterday, for example, my friend Jim Champ, President of the Canadian Council of Churches sent me the editorial he’s written for the November issue of the Salvation Army’s magazine where he serves as editor. That issue of The Salvationist is not yet on-line but I commend it to you whenever you get a chance to see it – maybe in hard copy with a neighbour’s help.

Jim was one of our ecumenical and global partner guests at General Council, and among those whom I had invited to speak on Parliament Hill during the Ottawa Pilgrimage for which Youth Forum joined me on the afternoon of August 15th. He writes particularly about this experience in his November editorial.

And the Ottawa Citizen published a big colour photo of our prayer vigil on the Hill, bringing public attention to the young faces of the United Church who represent our community of faith so well. If you missed news of that afternoon, you might be interested in seeing the video account here:

With you, I continue to delight in the gifted leadership of our 41st Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson… and in the gifts of 14 other extraordinary leaders of our church who were nominated for this office.

Next weekend I’ll attend the first General Council Executive meeting since August, doing my best to play a supportive role as Past Moderator.

Indeed, much of what I’ve written here on wondercafe over the past three years is about that which is ‘past’ – including this posting and this website as home to my blogs.

I’d love to stay in touch, so invite you to visit me and my postings at That new website is still in development, and will be for some time. But I’ve begun to write again there, including today’s Autumn posting on Pushing Down:

May this season (and those to come) be blessed for you, our beloved church, and the world God loves!

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: More Reason for Gratitude

Since my last blog posting, there are more reasons to thank Margaret Wente for igniting many lively and faith-filled conversations throughout my church. All of this is well timed as we prepare for the 41st General Council will will focus upon the identity and connectional nature of our church.

Late afternoon yesterday, Colin Robert Phillips was kind enough to copy me on his direct response to Wente. Colin is a remarkable leader of our church, and I found his letter to be a brilliant testimony to his faith: thoughtful, substantive, well organized and profoundly personal and prophetic. Colin has graciously given me his permission to share it with you here:

Dear Ms. Wente,

My name is Colin Robert Phillips. I am a 28-year-old doctoral student in the Policy Studies program at Ryerson University. For the past 3 years, I have served as Member-at-Large, representing youth and young adults, on the Executive of the 40th General Council of the United Church of Canada. I am honoured to be recommended for re-appointment to the Executive of the upcoming General Council.

I read your recent opinion piece about the state of the United Church with great interest. As our Moderator often laments, the mainstream media seldom pay attention to the life and work of the United Church. I would argue that this is symptomatic of the media’s propensity to only give heed to the “new” and the sensationalistic. Even by your own estimate, it would be a falsity to characterize the United Church as being new or engaging in anything newsworthy, so I was pleased to see that you chose to write about the upcoming General Council.

Your piece goes to great effort to detail the statistical decline of the Church’s membership and the ramifications of this on how the Church operates. I am certainly not denying that the picture you have painted is accurate in that regard. Indeed, to do so would controvene my responsibilities as a director of the organization. However, I must question the level of research you did in preparation for writing in three regards. This letter is an attempt to address these shortcomings and to suggest to you some reasons for thinking that version of the United Church that you lambaste makes the Church more relevant today then it was ever before.

First, it appears that you simply ignored (or failed to look for) actions taken by the outgoing Executive to acknowledge our new demographic and financial reality. The steps we have taken are most certainly not the final solution, but for you to suggest that Church leadership has been blissfully ignorant is simply wrong. For example, we have come to see that our processes and procedures were geared towards a time when we had more volunteers. We have therefore simplified these administrative elements in order to allow members to do the work of the Church (i.e., staff members are now overseeing what were previously volunteer positions). The success of these internal initiatives is perhaps why we have started several new ministries in Quebec’s francophone communities- something else you forgot to mention.

Though these new French ministries are a sign of new life, you are right to say that we have an aging demographic.  However, in my role as a young leader, I must ask you why you neglected to mention the vibrant and passionate youth contingent of the Church. Over the last three years, I have been able to meet with many of my peers and I have to tell you that the future of the Church is strong. We are a theologically and intellectually sophisticated group. While you suggest that our theological thinking can be reduced to Rotary Club Membership, the young people of the Church see a deep call to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus.

In a secular culture of instant gratification, and I would extend this to argue instant and overly simplistic relationships with God, the youth of the United Church are actively seeking alternatives to what we see as the destuction of creation, and are genuinely practicing theism. This brings me to my third point. I quite frankly found it offensive for you to question the theological beliefs of United Church members, particularly since there is no evidence that you read statements of our faith such as “A Song of Faith” (2003). If you had, you have found that our faith is as deep as the early Church.  Yes, it is nuanced. Yes, it is consciously intelligent. Yes, it is inclusive. But it is grounded in Biblical scripture and the supremacy of the Trinity. You question if an inclusive faith can be a faith at all. As a openly gay man with severe disabilities who is in a leadership role in the Church, I have to say that true faith- a faith that reflects Jesus’s ministry- must be inc lusive.

As I said, I am a doctoral student. You will undoubtedly know that PhD studies are a tough slog. I am often asked what keeps me going and it is my faith. True to my Calvinist roots, my work is my worship.  I may not need to overtly proclaim my faith but it is the foundation of who I am, and the vessel through which I practice my faith – loving my neighbours, seeking a just world, and walking humbly with my God (Micah 6, 8)- is the United Church of Canada.

Again, thank you for your interest in the life of my Church. May I suggest next time you actually get to know us before writing our obituary?

Colin Robert Phillips

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Critics and Conversations

I’ve been overwhelmed by the tweets about my response to Margaret Wente’s Globe and Mail article on ‘The collapse of the liberal church.’ Thank you!

And this morning’s letters to the editor in the Globe contribute more to these important conversations, as does Lawrence Martin’s ‘Religion’s fair game if it motivates politics.’

General Secretary Nora Sanders and I decided together that she would write a letter to the editor and I would offer my response on our website. That has worked out well.

Never fear the critics. I repeat what I’ve learned well from Parker Palmer: “There’s almost always something to be learned from critics.”

And more importantly, Jesus exhorts us to not fear.

We are blessed by the conversations…

Opportunities to participate in God’s healing of soul, community and creation!

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Accept the Miracle

Mark’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes was heard in many churches last Sunday morning. Along with Mark’s words, I’ve been re-reading Mary Oliver’s  poetry, inspired by Mark 6: 30-44.

“Accept the miracle” Oliver writes in her poem, Logos. “Accept, too, each spoken word, spoken with love.”

I’m savouring with gratitude the abundance I’ve witnessed throughout the church over the past few months and years, and throughout the many words spoken in love. Now I’m immersed in preparation for another time of abundance at the 41st General Council, where again, I trust that we will accept the miracle, and each spoken word, spoken with love.

You’ve offered many messages, phone calls and comments in response to my interview with CBC Radio’s ‘As It Happens’ in early June.

Thank you. Thank you for each spoken word, spoken with love. We have encouraged one another in our living faith: a faith that breathes in with prayer and breathes out with action. We cannot have one without the other if our faith is to continue to be lively, with fruits of abundance. I’m grateful that the National Post reflected well my comments along these lines, in Charles Lewis’ follow-up article.

Recent summertime gatherings have given me another powerful reminder of how we are people of prayer and spiritual discipline, not driven by fear of scarcity but rather by accepting the miracle and words spoken in love.

The Annual meeting of Hamilton Conference, the Grand Council of the All Native Circle Conference, the National Truth and Reconciliation event in Saskatoon, St. Andrew’s College centennial celebrations and the national UCW’s week of 50th anniversary celebration are examples. I expect to see the same faithfulness at next weekend’s gathering of Affirm United, to be held in Montreal.

And the nominees for the 41st moderator are a tremendous sign of God’s abundance! As I said to Hamilton Conference, each of these 15 leaders has allowed him or herself to tremble in the presence of God’s call and, with humility, say yes to God and Church. Their leadership will help the General Council do its work of discerning direction and clarity about who we are as The United Church of Canada for this time, and they will enrich the church with their ongoing leadership following General Council, regardless of who is elected. These individuals are accepting the miracle and helping to create abundance in community. They are an answer to prayer in a time when too often we hear a lament about scarcity of leadership.

Commissioners to the 41st General Council have received a number of messages and a recent pastoral letter from me, trusting that we will remember how we make decisions in our church.

Within our General Council there will undoubtedly be passionate perspectives. I celebrate this. Our decision-making will be based on an abundance of information received before and during the meeting and, most importantly, on our common discernment as we gather as the body of Christ.

I have invited Commissioners into a process of prayerful discernment with a commitment to speaking with love, by which we may come to Spirit-led decisions together. We will bring both our passions and our openness to the General Council; our readiness to listen to the Spirit in our midst and to be shaped by what we hear from one another and from God in Christ.

We rely on Spirit’s leading to make faithful decisions on every matter. We also rely on the careful preparation of each participant: reading, praying, and thinking matters through with others, preparing well for this and other decision-making.

On that long ago hillside day, the disciples began where we all tend to begin in anxious times. When Jesus asks them to give the people something to eat, they assume that they do not have enough; that they need to look elsewhere to buy what they need with money they don’t have.

Jesus exposes the illusion of scarcity and reveals the reality of abundance.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about how this conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us in our time.

I believe that Brueggemann is correct. Christ presents us with a choice. Will we accept the reality of God’s abundance? Will we accept the miracle? Will we accept each word spoken with love?

Will you lift your prayers that we might do all of these things at the 41st General Council and throughout the life of the church?

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Faith in an Emergency

It was after 8:00pm on Monday evening when I phoned the Rev Bob Gardner and his congregation of Holy Trinity United in Elliot Lake. I had flown into Toronto from Saskatoon’s Truth and Reconciliation event, and was met with the horrifying news about the Algo Mall collapse on the airport screens.

I assumed that I would be leaving a message at the church at that late hour. But, no. A woman named Ruth answered. She was among those cleaning up from having served another meal to the many rescue workers. Bob was still in the hall so we had a good talk.

Bob offered a grounded clarity about what people in Elliot Lake were going through, both those who live there and the rescue workers from throughout the province. That evening he had been accompanying the rescuers through their grief. Their search had been fruitless and they knew that there were many who were angry with them as they stopped due to the danger. (Events have moved on since then and I’ve had further conversation with Bob, but this was the moment I first reached him.)

Bob’s military background, including time in a war zone, had clearly prepared him well for carrying the healing ministry of Christ into such a traumatic week.

He was at the site of the collapse within fifteen minutes, and has walked with people there ever since. His asked me to reach out to all of the police and emergency units involved in the rescue attempts. It has been my privilege to carry his gratitude – and that of the Holy Trinity congregation and the broader church – to people who don’t likely yet know about the depth of gratitude hidden under the voices of understandable grief and frustration.

Darren is a young fire fighter at the Elliot Lake Fire Department. He, for example, couldn’t say enough about the difference that “the ladies” at the church had made by providing home-cooked meals throughout the week. “There’s a big difference between fast food and home-cooked meals at a time like this, and it gives the guys a sense of home when they’re so far away from home.”

At times like this, when I reach out to a community on behalf of the church, it’s always good to know that I can assure them the whole church is praying for them and their community. It’s also wonderful to see how Christian love is lived out by so many parts of the body. The Rev. Will Kunder, Executive Secretary of Manitou Conference, has offered to preach for Bob this Sunday. What a grace. Bob was supposed to be on vacation this week, and I’m sure he is exhausted. Will is stepping in to carry some of the load of care.

Elliot Lake is a strong community which has come through trying times before. Bob tells me that the local Foodland (Sobey’s) whose inventory has been crushed, has assured their employees that they will continue to have jobs and pay. But many will continue to rely on food banks and this is, I’m told, where financial support is most needed.

The steady, strong voices of those caring for others in Elliot Lake are upheld by the same God who Isaiah proclaimed: “… but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40: 31)

Thanks be to God, and thanks be to friends in Christ who demonstrate how it looks to wait upon the Lord in times of destruction and death.

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Anniversary of Canada’s Apology and Re-Righting History

Monday marked the fourth anniversary of when our prime minister offered Canada’s apology to residential school survivors. It was a moving and dramatic moment, and a new journey as a nation became possible for all of us.

On May 31st, at Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, I offered a few words of reflection on behalf of the historic churches involved in the residential school system.

Here’s some of what I said that evening, followed by a comment about the United Church’s recent repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. A column on that has been published today in the National Post’s Holy Post.

Do you remember where you were at 3:00 p.m. on June 11, 2008? I was with young adult leaders that afternoon, at Five Oaks Centre, one of our church’s education and retreat centres on the traditional lands of the Six Nations. They were glued to the television screen, absorbing the weightiness of the moment. Afterward, they asked good questions and wondered about what this would mean for our country.

We in The United Church of Canada are among the many who want to see the potential of that moment fulfilled, and so we are committed to the long journey of healing.

In 1986 The United Church of Canada offered words of apology for our broken relationship with the First Nations; in 1998 we added an apology focused on residential school students and their families and communities.

In our understanding, an apology is a beginning. It marks a turning that makes it possible to live into new relationship.

I wear a cross, a symbol of sacred truth among my people. I am honoured to have been entrusted with an eagle feather, which I respect as sacred in First Nations tradition. In Ontario courts (and perhaps elsewhere) an eagle feather may be used to swear an oath. I am honoured to carry it as a symbol of my commitment to walking the path of truth and reconciliation.

The eagle feather a symbol of the sacred and of truth. The particular beauty of the eagle feather I hold comes not only from the eagle and its Creator, but also from the one who gave me this feather.

Last October at the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Halifax, Lottie Mae Johnson, on behalf of the TRC Survivors’ Committee, gave each of the church leaders there an eagle feather—and a tearful hug. It was an act of remarkable grace and courage and generosity.

Lottie Mae lives in Eskasoni, the largest Mi’Kmaq community in the Maritimes. She is a survivor of the Shubenacadie Residential School and travels throughout the Atlantic region supporting survivors and urging more gatherings for truth and reconciliation.

Her grace, courage, and generosity are extraordinary—and yet they are typical of what we have witnessed on this journey.

And that brings me back to today’s article in the National Post. The grace, courage, and generosity that Lottie Mae exemplifies is what we will all need to bring to this moment of our national story if we are to write/right the next chapter in the direction of God’s ways, in the peace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Grieving the loss of the Very Rev. George Tuttle

The United Church of Canada is grieving the loss of one of its beloved moderators, the Very Rev. George Tuttle. George died on Saturday morning, in his 97th year.

I spoke with George most recently on February 16th. He had just received my invitation to attend our 41st General Council as a former moderator and was calling to explain that precarious physical health would make his attendance impossible. But he remained very keen and deeply interested in issues coming before the Council. He wanted to be sure that he would receive all of the pre-Council materials, and see the results and statements from the meeting. “I would be hesitant to comment… but if I see anything left out, I’ll give you a phone call on any issue which I think needs greater attention.”

This is the generosity of spirit with which I first became acquainted when I met George in 1977. I was a 25 year old leader at our church’s first national Youth Forum at the 27th General Council – the meeting at which George was elected moderator. George’s passion for youth ministry was evident from our first meeting and ever since. When we last saw one another in January of last year he told me that in his visits throughout the church as moderator, there were always two questions which he asked congregations:

  • What’s happening with your youth? and
  • How is your relationship with Native persons?

And he always made a point of speaking with local leaders, adding that he learned so much from church custodians.

The world is sagging today from the loss of George’s thoughtful, gentle and caring approach to ministry. Perhaps being the son of a moderator (the Very Rev. Aubrey Tuttle, our 9th moderator) helped prepare him for his strong, loving leadership of our church.

The church has always been transformed more by love than by anything else. And the church became a welcoming place for me as a young adult leader – with George’s loving invitation and interest in what was happening with us.

I invite you to add your memories of our 27th moderator here, and to join me in prayers for Eunice and their family.

Finally, here are more details about George’s life-work, as prepared by staff in the General Council Office:

“Dr. Tuttle had wide experience throughout the church, including several mission fields (also had a special period of service in Kenya during the nation’s year of gaining independence), a pastorate in Sangudo, Alberta, and a term as an assistant minister in Toronto. On the administrative and educational side, he was at one time National Director of Youth Work prior to appointment as Professor at Union College, Vancouver (now Vancouver School of Theology). He was principal of St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton, also. In the church courts, he worked consistently on committees at presbytery, Conference, and General Council levels. He was president of the British Columbia Conference in 1963, and was appointed a member GCE in 1974. He was elected the 27th Moderator in 1977.”