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On our Lenten Pilgrimage of Sacred Spaced in 2010 we journeyed out from Yorkminster Park early one Friday morning with one hundred pilgrims and visited three sacred spaces in the Hamilton area followed by an unforgettable visit to St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Catholic Church east of Brampton.  Since opening almost twenty years ago, the wooden structure has been a beacon for all who immigrated from Ukraine.  In a land where everything was so different, it was one of the closest reminders of home.  

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St. Elias the Prophet was built in the style of the Boyko Wooden Churches of Western Ukraine.  The tall timber structure built with its majestic onion domes stood out from a significant distance.  With nothing but farms all around it, one might easily happen upon it and wonder if they weren't in Ukraine, rather than in the countryside west of Brampton, Ontario.  But to step inside with the icons 'written' as they say, rather than 'painted,' was to get a glimpse of heaven itself.  This is the very intent of orthodoxy to remind the faithful that heaven has come to earth, whereas in the west we tend to think of the church as a place to lift earth up to heaven and so it is we have built our churches in the shape of the cross and spoken of them as the  nave or ark.   In the east the church gathers beneath a dome where it is intended to be the focal point of heaven's love and mercy.   

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The Ukrainian church was unlike anything most of us had ever seen, but even we felt strangely at home.  The priest, Father Roman Galadza explained with humour many of the traditions and insisted we sing a Baptist hymn in a church where hymns like ours are not part of the liturgy.  Our co-leader, Corey Keeble, Curator Emeritus of the Royal Ontario Museum, had prepared us all for our visit by describing Father Galadza as kind, open-hearted, witty, generous and wise.  In fact the description was so generous that we were quite certain no one could live up to it, but the Ukrainian priest did not disappoint.  He was outgoing and energetic and so warm in his welcome.  

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Once he had us gathered inside, Father Roman sang some of his own liturgy with us and even had us chanting with him, but it was when someone asked him who St. Elias was, that Father Roman did something people are still talking about.  He said, "I always thought St. Elias was a Baptist, because you are the ones with a hymn about him and then he started to sing the old spiritual, "Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home..."  In no time he had a hundred voice Baptist choir singing its heart out beneath the dome of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.  In that moment it was as if all that divides the church was lost and forgotten and heaven had come to earth and we too were home.   

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The church was named for Elijah and like her namesake she, who had been heaven on earth, left this world in a chariot of fire.  In the sake of Elijah it was a liberation from death, but in the case of St. Elias Church it was as Father Roman has said, "Good Friday two weeks early."  On Saturday morning, St. Elias the Prophet Church caught fire and in no time the timber building was tragically destroyed.  For the faithful, there are few things worse than the sight of one's beloved church going up in flames.  And this was no ordinary church.  "Yet the church is not a building," Father Roman insisted.  "It is the people."  

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One of the things that impressed me most about Father Roman was his desire to spread the gospel to all people.   He spoke about the importance of holding their services in english because that is the language of the world around.  He was not trying to keep Ukrainian culture alive in a strange land, but rather responding to the living Christ here and now by reaching out to the world beyond. The magnificent structure that was destroyed on Saturday, may appear to have been his legacy, but in fact his legacy is alive.  It is the hundreds of people who lent their voices to the hymns and chants during yesterday's liturgy at a nearby school.  

Judging by the tremendous coverage the fire has received in local and national media, I believe God will use this tragedy to speak of the power of faith and love.  As eloquent an interpreter as Father Roman was of his sacred space, he is even more faithful as a witness to the power of Christ.  St. Elias has had Good Friday come early, but Easter will not let them down.  One day they will rebuild, but I believe God has already started.  

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Yesterday we prayed for the St. Elias Church, but as they rise out of the ashes in the days to come there will be much to learn from them.  



All of the above photographs were taken by Henry Regehr on the occasion of our pilgrimage to St. Elias.  Thanks Henry!   

p.s. We will be visiting a very similar wooden Ukrainian Catholic Church on our upcoming pilgrimage of sacred spaces in May 2014. 

Driving home from church a week and a half ago I heard an interview on the CBC radio show, Tapestry, with folksinger, Veda Hille.  I must confess that I didn't know of the Vancouver singer or her music, and it would seem she knew little of the Christian faith or church, beyond a childhood memory of sitting through two boring services with her grandmother.   But all of that changed after her grandmother died and left her Presbyterian hymnbook of 1930 to her musical granddaughter.   

Her grandmother's hymnbook coupled with a visit to an old log church in the Arctic changed her music.  Sometime after receiving the hymnbook Hille participated in a government sponsored tour of the Arctic for Canadian artists offered in the hope of inspiring the artists to write and create new images of the north.  As Veda reflected on her time in the north she realized that the church buildings dotting the landscape had moved her deeply.   

In particular she'd been inspired by a log church in Tuktoyaktuk with a seal skin altar and an old pump organ.  Once inside, she sat at the organ, opened the hymn book and played.  The discovery of hymns and the experience in the old log church led her to write a hymn of her own called the Tuktoyaktuk Hymn based on the old familiar, "Jesus where'er Thy people meet."

Belief and faith have come into her life, though it would not be fair to refer to her faith in terms that I would describe as orthodox or even Christian, but she is no less on a spiritual journey on which she has clearly discovered the need to align her heart and life with the God who is so much bigger, and to lift it up in song.  And to think such a journey all started with her grandma's hymnbook from which she still sings and gains inspiration.  Of course there is no telling where the journey might yet lead.   

In the end of the interview I was left with more questions than answers, but oftentimes that is good.  I marvelled at the power of the old hymns to speak to a modern soul and wondered why the church of today has all but left the hymns behind.  I marvelled too at the God who has used an old book and a quiet building on the edge of nowhere to speak to a young urban soul of greater things. But why not?  It was on Palm Sunday that Jesus said if the children didn't offer praise the stones would cry out.  There's no telling what music might yet come from grandma's old hymn book.  

I don't have grandchildren yet, but if hymnbooks continue to fall into disuse and churches keep closing, my grandchildren will be growing up in a world where these things are harder to come by.  So I am not going to wait till I die.  I think I will give them all a hymnbook for their first birthday and sing them the old old story whenever I babysit. 

The Tuktoyaktuk Hymn ends with the final verse of William Cowper's hymn of 1769.  If you need proof of the relevance of a hymn, you need look no further...   

Lord we are few, but Thou art near;  

Nor short Thine arm, nor deaf Think ear; 

O rend the heavens, come quickly down, 

And make a thousand hearts Thine own!  



p.s. To hear Veda Hille's 'Tuktoyaktuk Hymn' go to...

For the last four weeks the world has been baffled and mystified by the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370.  Even with earthquakes, wars and rumours of wars abounding in other parts of the world the story will not go away.  The baffling disappearance of a airplane has raised so many unanswered questions and caused much heart wrenching speculation.   

On the news we see weary family members taking out frustrations on public figures whose statements they find less then helpful, but something that may not get as much publicity is the way the people have turned to prayer.   A Wall of Hope was erected in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on which people of various faiths posted their prayers for others to read and pray.   Similar Walls of Hope were erected in malls and other public places in Malaysia as in the face of mystery and confusion the people turned to God.  Walls of Hope have been erected in other places and prayers are accumulating online.  

In referring to the prayers being offered one public figure in Malaysia said, "We have been reminded of what really matters."  I was offering up short prayers from time to time when I would hear the latest report, but a few Sundays back I looked into the eyes of two of our members who are from that part of the world and soon discovered they have numerous friends working for Malaysian Air all of whom have been impacted greatly.  Speaking with them, even briefly, was different than watching the news.  I promised I would pray with them and soon after I returned home and wrote this prayer.  

I haven't posted my prayer on any Wall of Hope, but I share it with you in the hope it might help you pray and perhaps prompt a prayerful response from your heart regarding this or any of the other events and happenings weighing heavily on our collective minds in these days.  

So, let us pray.... 

Almighty and merciful God, you are the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  There is not a distant galaxy that you do not know just as well as you know the hairs upon our heads and the sand upon the shore.  Whether we are on a beach staring out at the ocean, or walking beneath a starry sky, we marvel at how great you truly are. But we are also painfully aware in these days of how small and finite we are.  As crews from around the world scour the Indian Ocean from air and sea in search of any remains from flight MH 370 we sense within us the fear and helplessness of the families left behind.  

We long O God for the mystery to be solved, but it seems beyond the reach of our best minds.  We affirm our trust in you, O God, believing that neither those whose flight has been lost to us, nor those loved ones who feel lost in the confusion, are lost to you.  And so we pray, O God, that you would guide the steps of those who search and lead them safely to the truth.  We ask that you would also give the families and  loved ones burdened by heavy grief and mystifying confusion, the peace which passes all understanding. And as we journey on O God, may we be ever mindful of those things which truly do matter in this life and may our hearts and lives overflow with thanksgiving and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.    



Pancake Tuesday

I don't know if the local pancake restaurants close down today or not, but it seems to me that nowadays half the churches in the city are sponsoring pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday.  For the most part it is embraced as a nice family activity and perhaps a chance to help raise a few dollars for charity, but behind it is an important tradition about getting ready for Lent.  

Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  Lent is the 40 day period of penance, fasting, prayer and devotion in preparation for Easter.  In other words during Lent we get serious with God.  And so to prepare ourselves we clear the cupboard of all that can interfere with the disciplines of Lent. In the old days, the first thing to go had to be the lard and so it is we cook up pancakes the night before it all begins.  The tradition was to get rid of all the fat in order to trim down to the basics of life and elevate one's faith in God.  

Whether it is Lent or not, it is always a good idea to cut back on some of the excesses of our lives and especially to do so to deepen our spiritual disciplines and heighten our attention to God.  Lent is a good time to also do an inventory of the heart and clear the cupboards of the mind of all the things that get in the way and hold us back.  For some it may be a critical attitude, for another it may be an old offense, for another a bad habit hidden from everyone - except God.  Most of us have something to deal with and now is the time. 

Let's get ready. 



Keep the Beat and Beat the Winter

I am not usually one to pay much heed to those commercials that promise to help beat the winter blahs.  After all, winter after winter of late the green Christmases have lingered into the new year where what was once the 'January Thaw' of a few days has grown into weeks of balmy weather as Torontonians have sat on park benches sipping their lattes conversing about global warming. 

But that was then and this is now. Winter in Toronto this year has been real, as in real cold and relentlessly so.  Day after day we are reaching new lows.  And so it is, for the first time in years my ears perk up when I hear an ad for faraway beaches sure to beat the winter blahs.   Even some skiers are ready to take flight.  I can't imagine how cold it must feel on the face as one skies down the escarpment with wind chill gales south of minus 30 C. coming in off Georgian Bay. 

I may well be desperate to get to some faraway beach this winter were it not for MUSIC. Apart from my wonderful family and home and the church and people I love to serve, one of the best things about working at Yorkminster Park is all the music.  I just have to leave my door open when William or the weekly noon hour recitalist are rehearsing on the organ, or wander down to the Centre Hall where Richard Margison has been auditioning singers throughout the month, or up to Cameron Hall where Gene DiNovi and some of his friends have been working on a new jazz program, and Helena Bowkun preparing for the preludes on the Steinway, and where the church choir, the Orpheus Choir and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir have all been rehearsing.

This week it has been Mendelssohn rehearsing morning, noon and night for a special concert at the church on tomorrow, (Saturday, Feb 1), at 3 p.m.  This is a great opportunity to not only beat the winter blahs, but enjoy some magnificent music by one of the finest choirs in the land.  Hear works by Canadian composers including Corlis, Raminsh and Willan and excerpts from classical masterworks: Dona nobis pacem from Bach's B Minor Mass; Zigeunerlieder by Brahms; The Lord is Great from Haydn's The Creation and Hear my prayer, O Lord by Purcell.

And if the thought of such glorious music doesn't take your blahs away maybe this will.  It is FREE.  There is no charge and collection will not be passed.  The only thing they ask is that in exchange we help relieve others of their winter blahs, by bringing non-perishable food items for the Churches on-the-Hill Food Bank.  It is no wonder the forecast is calling for warmer conditions tomorrow.  Thanks Mendelssohn!  See you tomorrow.



Letting Go


The red oak about which I have written more than once has died.  It clung to its leaves winter after winter and I admired it for holding on as it did and reminding us all through the winter of the blessings of summer, but in the end, this was the cause of its fall.

The truth is the red oak couldn't help itself.  Some scientists explain the phenomenon of the red oak holding its leaves through the fall and winter as evidence that it was once a coniferous tree that has not made the complete transition to life as a deciduous tree.  In the end this tree that had grown by leaps and bounds in the ten years since it was planted has died because it wouldn't let go of its leaves.  The ice storm of Dec 22 did it in. 


As the ice clung to the leaves that refused to let go of the tree, the weight proved too great a burden on the young trunk.  For a day and a half it was bent completely over until it finally snapped and when it did, it was a sadder sight than all the surrounding branches that littered the lawns and roads.  Those branches came from trees that had lived long full lives, but this young red oak which was planted as a mature fifteen year old still had so much ahead of it.  I don't know how many neighbours have stopped at the sight with sadness in their eyes.  One even said, "If only it had let go its leaves."  


The tree offers a lesson in the importance of letting go of the past in order to move into the future.  Often it is the bitterness of some past grievance, or even an old habit that we can't give up on that weighs us down while other times it can even be the great accomplishments of the past that have us refusing to enter the new day God has prepared for us. 

As we move into the new  year it may be time to stop and wonder what the Lord would have us let go of.  This is the year the Lord has made and to rejoice in it we must let go of the past to embrace the new life in Jesus Christ.  In Philippians 3, Paul wrote, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Grace and Peace,


Christmas At A Mosque

I had the privilege of speaking prior to the Friday Prayers on December 13 at The Noor Cultural Centre, a progressive Islamic community which gathers in the former Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre on Wynford Heights Drive.  It was the second time I have spoken at this mosque and in many ways it was even more meaningful the second time round. 


The building was designed by the great Japanese Canadian architect, Raymond Moriyama in 1963.  The design called for elements that would evoke memories of the internment camps Japanese Canadians were forced to live in during the Second World War.  When the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre outgrew the space it was sold to the Noor Centre and the Islamic leaders of the centre engaged Moriyama to redisgn the building according to their needs.  This gracious and thoughtful move was indicative of the life of the Noor community as it engages the world around.  The leaders spoke of their concern for social justice, human rights and all in a spirit of non-violence and peace. 

On my first visit I spoke about the Baptist belief in religious liberty, but since this visit fell in December I asked if I could explain the meaning of Christmas from the Christian perspective.  It was my desire to help them distinguish between the truly Christian aspects of the celebration and those which have come from other sources and forces.  I retold them the story as outlined in Luke 1 & 2 and Matthew 2 and I explained what it meant to us as Christians. 


Although they do not share our Christological conviction that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, these Muslims were enthusiastic listeners.  As soon as their prayers were finished they rose and thanked me and several of their members informed me that Jesus is important to them as well, and what's more, several told me that Mary is one of the two most important women in their faith.  The Imam informed us that many Muslims celebrate the birth of Jesus by putting up Christmas trees and exchanging gifts. 

The Imam also responded to my talk by informing us of his own Christmas traditions and by telling a story from the Koran concerning the infant Jesus.  As a baby Jesus answered an inquiry of the religious leaders of his day.  I have heard this text referred to in the past and it is for our Muslim brothers and sisters a sign that Jesus was and is different than any other person who has ever lived. 


The Christian scriptures do not make mention of this miracle.  In our tradition we are left with an infant Christ who was completely powerless and vulnerable.  Yet for me this is a mystery greater than the miracle.  God in his longing to identify with humankind held nothing back in love.  He became one of us so completely that he lay helpless in Bethlehem's manger.  Imagine the germs and dirt and danger all embraced by God in the gift of the infant Christ - a gift expressing God's love for the world. God loved the world so wonderfully in Christ's birth at Bethlehem, there was little need for Jesus to sit up and explain himself. 

I shall be glad for an opportunity to return to a mosque and speak of my faith in Jesus, but it is hard to imagine an Islamic community as warm and welcoming as our neighbours at the Noor Centre.  The leaders of this mosque set a wonderful tone for worship and service and community building.  I hope our paths will cross again. 

Grace and Peace,


Winter Leaves


The leaves outside my office offered a remarkable show for several weeks running into early November, but after a few strong storms they were stripped bare along with the forests of the entire province, yet the red oak in front of the manse still clings to its leaves.  It will serve to remind us in the months to come of not only the summer that was, but of the spring that is yet to be.  


Ruins at Christmas


I had seen the signs but didn't want to believe it could be true.  Earlier this month they began to demolish a church which I can see from my bedroom window.  The tower of the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, still stands but most of the rest of the church building has been reduced to rubble. 

There were large clear windows which made the nave of the church almost transparent to the passerby.  It was such an inviting space, and yet I didn't once make it through the doors of the church.  Whenever I had the urge there was something else demanding my attention and now it is gone. 


I hope the world around awakens to the importance of the sacred spaces of the city that offer glimpses of true beauty and grace and hint to the great beyond and above.  Such sacred spaces are an invitation to believe in something beyond ourselves.  A week ago I wandered over to the sight and snapped a few pictures, but it wasn't until I arrived home later in the day that it finally dawned on me, the ruins bare a striking resemblance to what we often think the stable must have looked like, rude and bare as it was. 

Here is our true hope.  Christ was born among the ruined places and broken lives where faith seemed long forgotten and in the midst he still comes and brings life and love where all seems lost.

Grace & Peace



We look forward to welcoming R.H. Thomson back to Yorkminster Park on Christmas Eve.  Back on December 7th I couldn't wait to meet R.H. Thomson.  He was one of the headliners at this year's City Carol Sing which will be broadcast on CITY TV on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  We are all familiar with R.H. Thomson's great work on the stage, screen and television stretching back beyond his days as Avonlea's Jasper Dale to some remarkable more recent portrayals of the great characters of history and literature. 

However, you will forgive me for wanting to find out first and foremost about his initials R.H. which I had discovered stood for Robert Holmes. As many are aware my father's name was Robert Holmes, a name which has been passed on in the family to my brother and my son.  R.H. Thomson's mother, as it turns out, was a Holmes from the Victoria branch of the family, though R.H. grew up in Richmond Hill.  Ironically I am from the Willowdale branch of the family and grew up in Victoria.   

I knew I would be inspired by R.H. Thomson's readings at the concert, but it was his humility and patience in entertaining my inquiry that made the most significant impression.  With so many accolades and awards in this life R.H. Thomson might easily have been too carried away with his own importance to take the time to listen to me, but I discovered in R.H. Thomson, a person of grace in whom there is no sign of false pretense or arrogance. 

It wasn't long till I discovered R.H. Thomson is a man with a mission and a most impressive one at that.  As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 approaches R.H. has a desire to remember and name the fallen - all nine and a half million of them - over the course of the four years that follow.  He is passionate about remembering the fallen from both sides of the war as reconciliation is a key component to his hopes and dreams.  To learn more about this important project please go to 

I started the conversation in the hope of finding a connection to link us as relatives, but as he spoke of the fallen and the need to remember I realized I was with a man who knows what it is to be kin in the deepest and most abiding sense.  R.H. Thomson belongs to the whole of the human family and we are all blessed to be his brothers and sisters. 

I was delighted when earlier this week he accepted our invitation to return and read at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 11 p.m. on Dec. 24. 

The Christmas Eve Candlelight Service is a wonderfully reflective service with the choir. It is built around the music and readings as we welcome Christmas in a prayerful spirit.  Towards the close of the service the church is lit only by candlelight, and as we sing Silent Night the flame is taken from the Christ Candle and passed from person to person.  What a privilege it will be to welcome RH Thomson back to Yorkminster Park. 

Grace & Peace


p.s. In the photo my son, 'Robert James Holmes' meets and clowns with his namesake Robert Holmes Thomson.  

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Rev. Dr. Peter Holmes

Peter Holmes, BA, MDiv, DMin is the Minister of the Congregation at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church

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