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Was the York Cave Religious?

I had a call from Tammie Sutherland of City TV last week hot on the trail of unearthing the story behind the strange cave discovered at York University.   She called me in search of 'religious expertise' on the cave that had been discovered at York University.  Until police revealed they had the two diggers who had built the underground 'man cave' as nothing but just that, the city was in a bit of a frenzy about terrorists perhaps planning to attack the venue for the upcoming Pan-Am games which was only yards away.   

But the theory the day Tammie phoned, demanded a Christian interpretation.  It was revealed by police that a rosary had hung in the cave and was adorned with a poppy.  Rosaries are used by Roman Catholics and others in the discipline of prayer and meditation.  As one moves through the beads they are to recite and repeat the Hail Mary, the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria and the Apostles' Creed.  No longer was Tammie looking for a possible terrorist plot, but perhaps an underground monastic community. 

I didn't think a rosary was enough to draw any conclusions about the cave. Perhaps the rosary had been uncovered while digging and simply hung on a nearby nail.  As for the poppy, poppies fall off so easily it is hard not to imagine at least one blowing into such a cave.  

When I seemed unimpressed Tammie played the card the media had not yet reported, "The cave is in the shape of a cross."  She picked up on my silence.   "So there is something to it, isn't there?" she responded.  "Maybe," I said, "After all, Yorkminster Park is in the shape of a cross as are many Gothic churches."   She said she would soon be in the neighbourhood of the church and wanted to drop in and talk about it.  As if it were some sort of trivia show, I asked if I could call a friend. 

Half an hour later, Tammie was speaking to me and my friend, Corey Keeble, Curator Emeritus of the ROM, in the Yorkminster Park sanctuary.   She said, "You were right.  Yorkminster Park is in the shape of a cross. I Google earthed the building and look at this."  With that she showed us an image of the church.   "But what about the cave?" we asked.  "Do you have an image of it?"  She did and had already placed it side by side with the image of Yorkminster Park.  Corey Keeble was the first to point out that the image of the cave she showed us was a perfect Latin cross.  From above it looked like a miniature Yorkminster Park.    

"Why do they build churches in the shape of a cross?" Tammie asked.  Corey introduced her in his delightful way to the cruciform design and together we spoke about the 'nave' or ship of the church being like the ark as the place of refuge from the storms of the world and that ultimately the cross of Christ is our refuge that saves us.  Churches are built in the shape of a cross because the cross of Christ is meant to shape our life together as followers of Jesus.  It calls on us to sacrifice and forgive and love unconditionally.  

So," came her question, "Does the cave have religious significance."  We were certainly not in a position to comment on that question except to shrug our shoulders and say, "Who knows?"   Maybe the builders hadn't finished and had it been complete it would have looked nothing like a cross.  Maybe the cross shape and the rosary beads were intended as a distraction.  Maybe it was nothing but a coincidence.  To know the significance of the design one would need to know the builder of the cave. That of course is a religious observation, but not about the cave so much as about life.  To know the purpose of life it is wise to consult the Creator and listen to the wisdom of his Word.  

Somewhere in the midst of the conversation Corey and I also asked Tammie, "Which direction was the cross facing?"  The answer was north.  "Does that make a difference?" Tammie asked.  Traditionally cruciform churches, synagogues and mosques are built to face east representing Mecca or Jerusalem depending on the faith.  Christians often face east in both worship and burial because it is in the east the sun rises and since our new life is to be found in the Risen Son we journey in life and death towards the Risen Son in the hope and promise of a new day.  East is the direction of the pilgrim.  The northerly direction of the man cave was one less reason to conclude it was related in any way to Christian worship.    

If anyone got a new day it was the two whom the police discovered had built the cave. They were able to come up into the light of day free from any trouble as the police chose to lay no charges and let them off without anyone learning even their names.  The cross gives us all that kind of a new day through the free gift of Christ's forgiveness and grace.  As Charles Wesley put it:    

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th'eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

So was the cave religious?  Probably not, but life certainly seems to be in so many ways. 

Grace and peace,


What Ever Happened to John Fenton?

In an earlier blog I am afraid I left John Fenton out in the cold on his 10 Km walk for the Yonge St. Mission as part of the 'Coldest Night of the Year' charity walk for the homeless.  It was not only cold that afternoon, but also snowing and blowing hard and slippery underfoot.  As the night went on and I hadn't heard from John, I almost started calling around to emergency departments, but low and behold there he was in church the next morning with a little grin on his face. 

John and Jonanne and their entire team had completed the full ten kilometer walk in those terrible conditions.  He described it as the hardest walk of his life as the sidewalks had not been plowed.  I later learned that 6,000 people had participated in the walk in Toronto, but that only John and his team and completed the full ten kilometers.  Not only did they finish the course, but they far exceeded their goal of $10,000, by raising almost double that amount.  

John has a glow about him these days causing me to wonder if it isn't something more than the nordic poles and his new daily walking regime.   Has this 82 year old discovered the fountain of youth or is he Toronto's version of Benjamin Button?  Hardly.   The glow and the grin come from a place deep in the soul that is saying 'Amen,' to the words of Jesus, who taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and, as St. Francis said, "It is in giving that we receive."  Well done John and Jonanne and team!   

Grace and Peace,


John was interviewed on CBC TV shortly before the walk began .   You can watch the interview at

I had one of those moments today which I wished I could take back.   It was like meeting someone in the street whom you haven't seen for a while and only realizing after the fact that you called them by the wrong name and  they were too kind to say anything.  Except it wasn't in the street, it was in church, and it wasn't someone I hadn't seen for a while but someone who was being memorialized with flowers in the Chancel. 

The flowers were placed to the glory of God and in loving memory of Hope McBride by her daughter, Hope Hambly.  Hope McBride died before I came to the church and so I did not know her, but I know her daughter and I know better. 

I try to say a word about the person being memorialized and I did so with confidence, but I was talking not about Hope's mother, but about her mother-in-law, whom I did know.   If I have any excuse whatsoever it is simply that Hope cared so lovingly for her mother-in-law, that it was only natural to think she was May's daughter.  She was towards May as Ruth was towards Naomi.  It was like Ruth's spirit lived in Hope as she loved May.

"Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."

Hope's mother was also named Hope and her mother was well named, because when her family moved to China when she was but four, she became very sick with malaria and almost died.  Eventually Hope was back in Canada giving birth to a family of her own with the wonderful Christian names of Hope, Joy, Peter and Christopher and then along came Grace.  

Fortunately at the end of my day, grace came along all over again when I phoned to confess my mistake to Hope and she said, "I forgave you this morning.  You didn't know my mom and so it was an easy mistake to make," said Hope.  I said tell me about your mom and she said, "She was the most wonderful woman in the world." 

I immediately thought of the words of Proverbs 31:28 about the godly woman, whose children rise up and call her blessed.  Bless the memory of this mother to one and all, and bless her children near and far. 

Grace and Hope,


Coldest Night Walk

Thankfully tonight is not the coldest night of the year as it is pegged by a national charity drive for those working with the homeless.  Last Saturday might have been the coldest night of the year in Toronto, or several of the nights since when temperatures have been well below minus twenty Celsius, but things warmed up to a balmy minus seven in Toronto today.  But as is so often the case in the winter, the warmer temperatures bring a fresh cover of snow and it has been snowing all day long.  

Judging by the grin on John Fenton's face when he was interviewed on CBC this afternoon his spirit was undaunted by the slippery conditions.  He had every intention of completing the ten kilometre walk alongside his wife Jonanne and a few other family members.  And if anyone should know that he is not alone it is John as he sets out on trek in the snow, because friends have rallied round him and his team pledging upwards of $17,000 all of which will go to the work of The Yonge St. Mission with the homeless of Toronto.  

In the CBC interview the octogenarian spoke of having accompanied  his father to the mission some seventy-one years ago when he was eleven years of age and how the sight of such poverty provoked him as a youngster to make a pledge of his own to support the mission.  In the year's since he has been more than true to his word and tonight he is putting a giant exclamation mark behind his many years of service.  

It wasn't long ago John was using a handicapped parking space at the church and hobbling into the church with the aid of canes, but some months ago he traded his canes in for nordic poles and began a rigorous walking regime along the lakeshore where he lives.  Cold temperatures and icy conditions have not kept him from working up to ten and even twelve kilometres a day and now with his debut on CBC TV, John is the new poster boy for nordic pole walking everywhere.  

Many have made pledges for both John and Jonanne and whether he finishes or not in these terrible conditions he has blessed and inspired us all by simply crossing the starting line.  I can only assume he is still out there fighting his way to the way to the finish.  As for Jonanne, we all know she is the salt of the earth and as long as she stays a step ahead of John we can be assured the snow will melt with the touch of her feet and all will be well.  

If you too would like to make a donation to support John and or Jonanne go to

Grace and Peace,


Shrove Tuesday

I recently learned of a friend who is in the habit of going through his fridge every Saturday morning and checking all the 'best before' dates.  If anything has passed its date, it is thrown out. 

Now some will argue that 'best before' dates have only created a culture where perfectly good food is thrown out while many in the world are starving.  There is truth in this assertion to be sure, but some foods do go bad in a hurry and on those items it is best to pay attention to the dates. 

Shrove Tuesday is the ultimate 'Best Before Day.'  The tradition is to clean the cupboards today of all the fatty foods that might negatively impact one's spiritual diet.  It is for this reason pancakes are traditionally made on this day to use up all the lard in the cupboard. 

The word 'shrove' means confess.  This is a day to clear the heart and soul of all the things that get in the way of one's relationship with God and our sense of communion with one another and with the whole of creation as Lent is a time to intensify our connection to God. 

Today is our annual Pastor's Pancake Supper from 5 to 6:45 p.m.  The pancakes are amazing and at a very reasonable cost.  The proceeds help us raise money for this summer's Short Term Mission trip to Lebanon.   The supper's a lot of fun and the ministry team makes some pretty awesome pancakes. 

After supper there is a worship service from 7 to 8 at which time we will focus on deepening our faith.  We will be following the beautiful prayers from Iona, in Scotland, and singing rich Celtic hymns accompanied by harp, flute, and piano. 

We won't be using lard in our pancakes, but the bacon will be fresh, the syrup will be flowing and the music inspiring. 

Grace and Peace,


Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Today at YP

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was at Yorkminster Park all week for their annual Choral Conducting Symposium.  The TMC's Artistic Director, Noel Edison and his associate, Caron Daley have been mentoring and guiding five young conductors all week in preparation for the Symposium Concert which was offered this afternoon at the church and webcast around the world.  

I was amazed when one of those involved in the webcasting told me they had tweeted two of the composers, Eric Whitacre and John Rutter, during the performance to tell them of the livestream of their works in progress and they heard appreciative comments back from both.

The concert was free, but guests were asked to bring non-perishable food items for the Churches on-The-Hill Food Bank.  A van load of items was being taken over to the food bank as I left.  Thanks to Noel and Mendelssohn for a great concert and to Dave King and his webcasting crew for bringing into our homes and to all who brought food for the food bank.    

If you missed the concert, it can still be watched online at:    When you arrive at the webpage be sure to click the word 'livestream.'  




The Canadian Brass dropped in one Saturday afternoon recently.    It seems the world famous brass quintet had heard from someone about the acoustic of Yorkminster Park and they wanted to check it out for themselves as a possible recording venue.  They arrived with instruments in hand and their legendary sneakers under foot.  From start to finish they loved the space.   It was just one more example of musicians expressing an appreciation for our sanctuary both visually and acoustically.   The visual part is easy to explain with the woodwork, masonry, stained glass, clear sight lines and a gradual slope in the floor carpeted in a rich red. 

The acoustic has always been harder to explain except to note the obvious, sound carries with tremendous clarity.   The testimony is solid.  In October 2014 when the great American composer, Morten Lauridsen, visited the church for a concert of his music, he said, "I love the sound of this room."  Similarly, Alice Parker, a year earlier walked into the sanctuary, snapped her fingers, sang a few notes and said, "What a wonderful room to make music in." 

The acoustic is one of the key reasons so many great choirs like to perform at Yorkminster Park including the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Orpheus Choir, the Amadeus Choir and the Toronto Children's Chorus. 

The first time the great Canadian tenor, Richard Margison sang in the church his wife, Valerie Kuinka, an accomplished musician and opera conductor, turned to me and said, "What a church!  His voice was made for this space."  His voice filled the church and just seemed to keep going.  Another tenor, John McDermott, turned to me after his first concert here and simply said, "May I come back."  He too loved he sound of the place. 

Noel Edison, Conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir since 1987 says he loves conducting the TMC at Yorkminster Park, which he describes as a Gothic space with European cathedral acoustics.  The stone work and red carpet render the space beautiful and surprisingly he notes the carpet seems to have little impact on the acoustic.  He describes Yorkminster Park as one of the best proportionate acoustical spaces of a church in Toronto.    He notes that musical friends and patrons will sit at the front, centre and back and all hear beautifully.  He says he likes to sit at the back or even in the back balcony. 

Robert Cooper, the conductor of the Orpheus Choir which often sings at Yorkminster Park says, "The reverberation enhances the sound especially with choirs and lends to the excitement of the instrument and enables the great instruments like the organ or a brass band in particular speak into the room with great volume and power." 

Eric Robertson, a long time church musician and Canadian composer with two Gemini awards to his credit, sits at the back each Sunday where he claims the sound grows in its beauty.   Eric says the acoustic is, "Surprisingly great, because when you walk in you assume the space is too big, but sound carries and matures in the building.  Things are clear at the front but as one moves away the sounds blend beautifully - the organ and choir sound beautiful and rich at the back.  

Robertson runs a concert series in the sanctuary every Tuesday at 12:15 and he notes that most of his patrons like to sit near the front in order to see the artists, but he likes to sit at the back where the sound is rich and clear.  

William Maddox, the Director of Music, who has been making music in the Sanctuary for nineteen years and has considerable knowledge in the area of acoustics says, "The acoustic is enhanced by the elliptical arches of the ceiling so that we have a very clear sound throughout the space.  Further," he notes, "the two shallow transepts act like a dome and also enhance the acoustic." 

Eric Robertson adds, "The barrel ceiling is very unusual in buildings in North America and it allows the sound to go unobstructed  by pillars.  In churches where pillars enter into the nave he said the sound can ricochet almost like a ping pong match and the clarity is lost.  Finally he added, "The ceiling not so high that sound is lost."

William Maddox agreed with Edison's assertion that it is surprising the carpet does not seem to interfere with the sound, but he goes on to say, "Carpet is one thing, but pew cushions are quite another and would certainly interfere with the acoustic."  It is one thing to explain the great acoustic, but without great music it would be lost.  The Canadian Brass, Morten Lauridsen and scores of others may like the space but we appreciate it all the more thanks to the music they bring.  


Within an hour I received two messages by email last Friday from opposite sides of the world and two different religious camps, both pertaining to the same thing - the atrocities in Nigeria perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists.  

The first came from the Baptist World Alliance with a message from Samson Ayokunle, President of the Nigerian Baptist Convention pleading with the world to pay attention to the suffering of his people in Nigeria.

The second came from Samira Kanji, President of the Noor Cultural Centre, a mosque which belongs to our Neighbourhood Interfaith Group.   Samira was horrified by the reports from Nigeria and was paying attention in a way that the President of the Nigerian Baptists prayed his fellow Christians would.  

Samira and her people spontaneously decided to invite their Christian and Jewish neighbours to join them in offering prayers for peace.  She wrote to invite me to lead some of the prayers as a Christian and she invited all who are moved to pray with her and her people.   

When the second message appeared it was like a grace to me.  It is so easy to fall into the trap of drawing false conclusions about all the members of a group based on the actions of a few, but the invitation to pray from Samira and her people was a call to something higher.  

The service will be held on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Noor Cultural Centre, 123 Wynford Drive, (on the south side just east of the Don Valley Parkway).  I invite you to join me.  

I have attached the article containing the message of Samson Ayokunle and the message from Samira beneath it.  


Washington, DC (BWA)--Samson Ayokunle, president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC), has castigated the international community for ignoring terrorist violence and attacks in the West African country.  NBC is the largest Baptist World Alliance (BWA) member organization in Africa with approximately 3.5 million members in some 10,000 churches.

"My consternation is in the attitude of the international community toward the huge destruction going on in Nigeria," Ayokunle told the BWA. "The earnestness with which they intervened in the ISIL attack in Syria and Iraq, or the Taliban problem in Afghanistan, etc., is not shown in the case of Nigeria."

He accused the world community for devaluing Nigerian lives. "Does it not matter to the rest of the world if Boko Haram continues to kill hundreds of people every week? Are these people less human than those being killed in other place where they have gone to directly intervene? My people are being killed like animals and the whole world is just watching."  Ayokunle was responding to the latest spurt of attacks by Boko Haram, a jihadist group that seeks to establish Sharia law in Nigeria.

Boko Haram conducted the Baga massacre in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno in early January this year causing an unknown number of deaths, though estimates range from dozens to more than 2,000. In April 2013, more than 185 people were killed and more than 2,000 homes in Baga were destroyed as a result of fighting between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram.

Up to 2014, the group killed more than 5,000 civilians in attacks occurring mainly in northeast, northcentral and central Nigeria. Since 2009, Boko Haram has abducted more than 500 persons, including the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014. An estimated 1.5 million have fled their homes because of threats and attacks.

"The situation is pathetic." Ayokunle declared. "The main targets in all these attacks are the Christians first and any other person that opposes them. Any town they enter, after killing the Christians there, they go ahead to bring down all the churches there sparing the mosques. Major Christian cities such as Gwoza and Mubi among others have fallen to them. Christians in cities such as Michika and Baga are also on the run."

The Nigerian Baptist leader said "the church is under siege of severe persecution." Baptists have been directly affected. "No Christian church is standing anymore in Mubi where more than 2,000 Baptists fled the city through Cameroon when Boko Haram attacked."

These Baptist Christians, he said, returned to Nigeria through another town called Yola in Adamawa State but never to their homes again. "They have become displaced and are now living in displaced people's camps scampering for food, without decent accommodation and naked."

Ayokunle said Baptist buildings, including the offices of the secretariat of Fellowship Baptist Conference of the NBC, was burned in Mubi, and the home of the conference president was vandalized. The conference president and Baptist pastors have fled to the city of Jos in Plateau state, another region that has been attacked by Boko Haram. "Our Baptist High School in Mubi has been closed while our Baptist Pastors' School in another neighboring town, Gombi, was indefinitely shut down."

He expressed appreciation for the prayerful support of Baptists and other Christians and requested financial support to assist those who have been displaced by the terrorist attacks. "Continue to join us in prayer so that the gates of hell might not prevail against the Church of Christ in Nigeria."


Dear Peter,

I have sent this out on the NIG list but wanted to reach you personally as well, as I would really love to have you do a prayer, if you're able to attend. This was planned on a spontaneous impulse yesterday after hearing the desperately sad report about Boko Haram's latest mass obscenity.  What succour can we look to but prayer.

We have planned  to host multi-faith prayers for peace on Wednesday  January 21, at 7.30pm, at Noor Cultural Centre.   Our prayers are the least - and yet perhaps the best - we can offer at this troubled time of so much global suffering, human and non-human, caused by human behaviours of violence and environmental depredation.  The invitation to participate is being extended to all faith congregations.

Date: Wednesday January 21
Time: 7:30 pm
Location: Auditorium, Noor Cultural Centre
Admission: Free


Tonight at 11 the great Canadian actor, R. H. Thomson will be with us and will read some of the letters that came home from soldiers serving on the front lines on the first Christmas of the First World War.  He will read too some of the scriptures they read and we will sing or hear some of the same carols of Christmas that warmed their souls and raised their hopes for peace so completely that the dividing wall of No Man's Land was broken down at Christmas 1914 and the lion and lamb lay down together.   

It is my prayer that the centennial of that great Christmas Truce will serve to remind us all that there is no barrier which Christ's coming into this world cannot overcome and through the wonder of not only his birth, but also of his death and resurrection, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.    

One of the letters from which R.H. Thomson will read was written by a young man from Brantford who was in a barnyard that had been bombed and was smouldering and everything he touched was mud and the odour of the barnyard dirt was almost as unbearable as the war itself.  The young Canadian asked his comrade for the time and was told it was five after twelve.  "Merry Christmas!" he said.  "The same to you," came the reply, "But never in a place like this again."  It was then he noticed how still and quiet was the night.  Not a shot was fired that night and on Christmas it was as if the war had ended.    

The first Christmas was also marred by violence and visited by some of those same barnyard odours.  While the soldier rightfully hoped that he would never know another Christmas to be marred by war, it is into a world that stinks of conflict and hatred that Christ was born and into which he continues to come. 

There are always folk far from home at Christmas who hope to never have to go through a Christmas like this one again, but in the stillness and aloneness of the night, Christ comes to beckon us to higher things of peace and joy, of forgiveness and love.  When there was no room in the inn, Christ was born into No Man's Land and again and again ventured into territory that few others would dare venture into in the hope that all that divides the human family from God could be overcome.  It was for this he was born and for this he lived and died and was raised again.   May this be our peace this Christmas and forevermore.   

Merry Christmas!  



p.s. a British television ad gives a lovely glimpse back at the Christmas Truce of 1914

The music that plays in the background as soldiers from both sides engage in a soccer match is the lovely old hymn, 

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Today is Christmas Eve and the unseasonably warm temperatures and light rain throughout the day in Toronto will not produce the postcard perfect white Christmas many long for.  Nor will it be ideal for the pilgrimage through our park to visit the stations of the Nativity, though I doubt the camel, sheep and other animals trucked in for the evening will complain about a bit of rain on Christmas Eve.    

I am secretly pleased with the weather because it will not coat us in layer after layer of ice which left vast areas of our city without power and heat in the frigid days and nights of Christmas 2013.  Our street was so cold and dark a year ago that many of our neighbours told me they chose not to celebrate Christmas.  You certainly couldn't thaw a turkey at room temperature a year ago and it is hard to wrap presents with gloves on.  Most of the churches in the heart of the city were not even able to open on Christmas Eve 2013.  

So, I say, let it stay warm and rain lightly all day long if that is what it wants to do.  You may not have to bundle up for Bethlehem on Yonge after all.  A golf umbrella and rubber boots will probably do the trick tonight, but I wouldn't be surprised if some bold soul even shows up in Bermuda shorts this Christmas. 

Many of the hymn writers and poets suggest there was snow on snow on snow so long ago at Christmas, but something tells me it was likely foggy and damp and dark in Bethlehem, just as it is today in Toronto.  Bad weather has never scared me away from Christmas.  I am warmed by the thought that God gave no thought to the weather when his Son was born in the bleak midwinter.  It is a reminder that whatever we are going through in life, God is with us - Emmanuel.   How fitting that on the birthday of the Sun or Righteousness the forecast is saying the fog of Christmas Eve will soon be burned away and we will be free to walk without fear of falling.  

Merry Christmas!


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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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