Monday, March 25, 2019

Looking Ahead to MArch 31, 2019 -- Lent 4 -- Death/End of Life

This week we continue in our series looking at Practices of the Church with a look of where faith speaks at the end of life.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • John 11:17-26
  • John 14:1-6
  • Psalm 23
The Sermon title is At the End...

Early Thoughts:  There is an old truth.  "None of us is getting out of this alive" Or maybe "We all have a terminal condition".

In the end we all have times in life when we have to stare in to the reality of death. Eventually it will be our own but there will also be the deaths of friends and family over the years. Some of those will be tragic and sudden, some of them will be long-expected, some may even come as a release. But we all have toe deal with the reality of death.

I suggest we do our children a favour when we tell them this and let them do it as they age rather than try to shield the from the fact until they are "old-enough to understand".

AS people of faith we believe that dealing with the reality of death is a faith matter.  Questions of life and death and meaning are, in the end, spiritual questions. When we ask "WHY" in the face of tragedy I do not think we are asking for scientific or legal explanations (or at least not mostly, that may be part of it).

There are two main things I think Christian thought has to say in the face of death:
1) there is something more, life continues beyond what we call death
2) we are not alone in the face of death, as we die or as we grieve we are not alone

Many times we think of death as the enemy. I am not sure that is theologically (or biologically) supportable. The natural end of life is death. As resurrection people we need not be afraid of death. [Personally I like the quote of Woody Allen's "I am not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens"] But to get to that point we need to stop and think and talk about what we believe about life and death and life beyond death.

We mark the end of life in our faith communities. We do that because life and death are not just medical issues. In the end I think we need to talk about at time other than the funeral.  We need to talk about what we believe. I think we are healthier for it, I think our children and youth will be healthier for it. I think we will be more ready to wrestle with the sometimes uncomfortable reality the "to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven...a time to be born and a time to die".

Monday, March 18, 2019

Looking Forward to March 24, 2019 -- Lent 3 -- Marriage/Relationships

This week we continue our series looking at various practices of the church with a look at Marriage.

The Scripture passages this week are:
  • Genesis 2:18-24
  • Ecclesiastes 4:7-12
The Sermon title is Sharing a Life

Early Thoughts: I am reminded of a line about 4-wheel church members -- that is they come to church in a carriage/stroller (baptism) in a limo (wedding) and then in a funeral coach. A less formal way of saying it is "hatch, match, dispatch". There is something about these life transitions that calls out for a spiritually-based recognition. Something about them that is in fact sacramental.

One of the more common definitions of a Sacrament is that it is a visible sign of an inward grace. While the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions name 7 Sacraments, within the Protestant tradition the only 2 things called Sacraments are Baptism and Communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper as they are both linked to the life of Jesus as shared in the Gospel accounts. But it is my opinion that even things that are not called Sacraments are still sacramental. Deep, mutually supportive, loving relationships can be things that reveal God's love and grace and so I consider them in that category.

For me the sacramental nature of relationship is not in the legal status. While I think that God celebrates when we bind ourself to another in a covenanted relationship I am not at all sure God worries about what the state calls it. There is an historic role for the church to serve in part as an agent of the state in formalizing relationships in the form we call marriage, to me the spiritual discussion is about how the relationship is lived out. What does it mean to live into a sacramental relationship with another, a relationship where God's love and grace are made real in our interactions?

It is my belief that humanity is pretty much hard-wired to live in relationship. For most of human history we have seen that life is simply easier (and maybe better?) when shared with others. That is part of what I see in the Scripture readings for this week. They talk about the benefits of being in relationship. [The other place I went looking for a possible reading was 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul expounds on whether followers of Christ should be married or not but while it is certainly interesting reading it was hard to pull out a few verses to summarize his argument.]

In the end I think we celebrate and covenant relationship in the church for a variety of reasons. Some of those are traditional. Some of those are morally based. Some of those are simply because we know that relationship seems to be God's intention for us. Life is somehow (usually) better and easier when it is shared. God is made real in the love we share with each other. Sharing a life, whether is a friendship or in a marriage relationship is rarely perfect or easy. It requires us to open ourselves to the other and to be vulnerable. But it is worth celebrating. It is a sign of Divine love.

SO I return to the question I asked earlier:
What does it mean to live into a sacramental relationship with another (as friend or lover or spouse), a relationship where God's love and grace are made real in our interactions?

Monday, March 11, 2019

Looking Forward to March 17, 2019 -- Lent 2 Prayer

This week marks the beginning of a series for Lent called The Practices of the Church. This week we look at Prayer [which is a topic worth a whole series of its own when you think about it].

The Scripture readings for the week are:
  • Matthew 6:5-15; 7:7-11
  • Romans 8:26-27
  • James 5:13-16
The Sermon title is What Use is Prayer?

Photo Source
Early Thoughts: It is a ministry that anyone can do.  If you are 5 or 50 or 90 you can pray.  If you can run marathons or have trouble getting out of bed you can pray. If you secure and strong in faith or often wonder if you have faith you can pray. And you should. We all should probably pray more.

In fact in his 1st letter to the church in Thessalonica Paul writes Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

But in the current world where productivity is pretty much an idol, where we think we have to be accomplishing something however we choose to spend our time the question arises "what does prayer accomplish?". Which I think is another way of asking "is prayer a waste of time?".

The question becomes more pressing when we want God to make a specific change in the world (eg, heal someone's cancer, end a drought, bring peace...) and that change does not happen.  What good is prayer if we don't get what we want?

But is that what prayer is about? Is it the "Santa list"? I say no. Prayer is about deepening our relationship with God. And that changes how we live our lives. Last year the Observer had an article about how one minister found that prayer changed the congregation she serves, how it turned them around and brought new life. (As it happens a search of the Observer Website using the keyword 'prayer' shows that they have published several pieces on the topic). I have heard it said that prayer is not intended to change God, it is intended to change us. While it is very traditional that prayer includes words of petition and intercession (asking for things) it has never been intended as a way of controlling God or the world.

Prayer can be formal and structured. It can use words written by others. Prayer can be wordy. OR prayer can be informal and rambling, speaking out of the heart. Prayer can be silent (I would suggest prayer must include some silent to listen to the Divine whisper to the soul). Prayer can be calm, contemplative and meditative. Prayer can be active and loud. Prayer can be kneeling by the bedside, or in a chapel, or walking along the Bear Creek trails, or driving down the highway. It can be praising, or thankful, or remorseful, or angry, or sorrowful. I have found that there are few hard and fast rules for prayer.
Photo source

Scripture exhorts us to pray. We are told that Jesus regularly takes time to go off by himself and pray. At first glance it may seem like unproductive time, but I have found that it sets us up for more productivity in the long run. ANd I remember a story, one that may be heard on Sunday, which suggests that when life gets too busy for prayer that is when one needs to pray longer. I do think prayer makes a difference. I know it has for me in the past.

Maybe I should do more of it?  WHat about you?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Are You Good Enough? -- A Newspaper Submission

If you are like me there are days when the answer to that question is a half-hearted “maybe” followed by a large question mark. Then there are the really bad days when the answer is a definite NO. Those are the days I need to remind myself to follow these instructions: “(Breathe in) I am a child of God (breathe out) and that is enough”.

Why do we sometimes doubt that we are “good enough”? I can think of a few reasons. I have come to believe that sometimes are good at telling each other, and ourselves, that we fall short. We can be really good at tearing each other down when we should build each other up. In the beginning of the Scripture that is shared by Judaism and Christianity we are told that God looks at what has been created and says it is very good. Someone, I think it was Matthew Fox, has suggested that despite everything that comes after that first chapter of Genesis this original blessing has never been withdrawn. So we are good enough. Why is that sometimes hard to believe?

One reason we may doubt we are good enough is something called ‘Imposter Syndrome’. This shows up in that little voice which tells you that you are not qualified for or capable of the task in front of you. Maybe you think you are a ‘post turtle’ as a joke I often see online says about politicians. In full blown effect it makes you convinced that people will find out and you will be ruined upon exposure as an imposter. Imposter Syndrome denies that word of God telling you that you are enough. Imposter Syndrome speaks against the truth that maybe God has led you to that place and is speaking through those who gave you the job. A cure for Imposter Syndrome is to remember the practice: “(Breathe in) I am a child of God (breathe out) and that is enough”. More training and practice help too, but we need to tend to the spiritual injury it causes as well.

And then there is the big one. We often feel we are not good enough because lots of voices tell us we aren’t. Sadly we often find it easier to point out those times we each have failed, or done something wrong than congratulate each other on our successes. This leads to guilt. And in excessive amounts guilt leads to shame, and shame is about how we see ourselves. Guilt can help us see a person who does some things wrong, who sometimes fails. Shame, especially in excess, can lead us to see a person who will never be good enough, who can not do anything right. It can cause a paralyzing injury. The way to cure this spiritual injury is grace. Grace is what reminds us that we are beloved children of a loving God. Grace reminds us that what we are, while not perfect, while still growing and maturing, is enough.

To be honest, this second spiritual injury is one of the places I take issue with the historical church. Historically I think the church, or more specifically some people in the church, has often been more interested in reminding people that they are imperfect,’sinful’, beings who can not measure up to some idealized saintly concept of good enough. There is a story I once read of a broken woman who was asked if she had tried the church. Her response: “why would I go there, I already feel terrible about myself?”. The church she described was forgetting the cure. As people of faith we sometimes need to remind each other where we fall short. As people of faith we ALWAYS have to remind each other of grace. We always need to remind each other that simply because we are part of God’s creation we are good, we are enough.

To some this may be a question of theological priorities. To me it is life and death. Those times when suicidal or self-destructive thoughts seep into my soul they ride the carriage driven by the voice saying “you are not good enough”, the voice which tells George Bailey the world would be better off if he had never been born. To remind each other that we are ‘good enough’ may well save lives. Good enough does not mean perfect. It means enough. That is what Christ says. Jesus never asks people what they did wrong. Jesus says “you are forgiven, stand up and walk”. Jesus says we are good enough. So when the days get too hard, when you wonder if you are good enough, remember to: “(Breathe in) I am a child of God (breathe out) and that is enough”.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Annual Report for 2018

As I sat down to write this year’s Annual Report my mind drifted to one of the United Church’s faith statements, A Song of Faith, and in re-reading it I found these lines:
We sing of a church
seeking to continue the story of Jesus
by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.
We are called together by Christ
as a community of broken but hopeful believers,
loving what he loved,
living what he taught,
striving to be faithful servants of God
in our time and place.
They struck me as a good, if not complete, summary of what it means to be the church. And as I look back at 2018 I think we have given a good shot at living up to that summary.

As a congregation we have, I believe, made an impact on the life of Grande Prairie. In part we have done that through the use of our building, through making it available to the community. There are times when it would be nice if we could make more money off of that availability, but to be honest I would rather offer space for free to meet a community need than see our space as a money source (and in reality it can sometimes be both). But we have also made a difference by our presence. In December St. Paul’s received a grant through the Community Foundation. On a picture posted by the Community Foundation from that presentation someone commented “St Paul's church is full of wonderful people who have a wonderful spirit. They are champions of our community and I am very glad to see that they will be able to continue to extend that love through this grant.” I think it is safe to say our presence is noticed.

See here for the comment
For a more detailed list of what we have done in 2018 I encourage you to read the other submissions in this Report.

Yet, even as I want to celebrate the good things that have happened this year I also need to raise up a concern. As I look back at the year I see signs of a growing issue around stewardship, both in terms of people power and money. I have not yet seen the final financial reports but at the January Council meeting the draft statement showed a deficit of about $9900, and that is after we had a one-time gift of having our 2018 Presbytery Assessment (about $7300) refunded. At the same time we did raise about $10 000 for the roof fund so we think that may be where some of the operating funds got redirected. Still this is a worry as we can not continue to operate at that significant a loss. How do we redo our finances? To be honest there is no possibility of finding $16 000 in expense cuts, and when the youngest part of the building is starting to show its 32 years some expenses will go up ($1300 dollars of our deficit can be accounted for in one plumbing bill for a plugged drain in November). So where might we find new money?

At the same more and more often when an idea (often a fundraising idea) comes up the first question is “who will do it?”. And that is certainly a valid and important question. But I am hearing more and more signals of how tired people are, how they are unsure if we can take up new things. This goes along with the multiple vacancies we have on our nominations slate. Just as we can not operate with a financial deficit, we can not operate without people power.

But still there is hope. As you may remember, we did some visioning work in the Spring. And as we move forward with discussing and implementing the results of that work we will have a chance to discuss what is important, and how we will make the important stuff happen. That may possibly mean we will let some other things go to make room for something new, or just to focus our energy on something of a higher priority. It may mean we rededicate ourselves to a prized project or task. And it will certainly mean we each get a chance to take ownership of the ministry that we all share together.

One of the questions I have continually tried to hold in my mind, and periodically raise up for the rest of you to hear, is “what is God calling us to do in this place and time?”. I live in hope, faith, and trust that when we seek the answer to that question we may also find new way to deal with the accompanying stewardship question “and how will we do that?”.

I opened this with a quote from A Song of Faith. I think I will close the same way.
We sing of God’s good news lived out,
a church with purpose:
faith nurtured and hearts comforted,
gifts shared for the good of all,
resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize,
fierce love in the face of violence,
human dignity defended,
members of a community held and inspired by God,
corrected and comforted,
instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,
creation’s mending.
We sing of God’s mission.

St. Paul’s United does not have a mission, God has a mission and invites us to take part. How will we sing the song in 2019 and beyond? What part will be ours in the dance of faith?


Monday, January 21, 2019

Looking Forward to January 27, 2019

The Scripture Reading this week is Mark 2:13-22. (or here is the passage as Eugene Peterson put it in the Message)

The Sermon title is New Wine

Early Thoughts: Do we want new containers? If we are honest do we really want new wine?

Some people fall easily into comfortable patterns. Most organizations do the same. And once we are in the comfortable new wine and new wineskins are sometimes a threat.

This, I think, underlies much of the conflict Jesus has with the Jewish leaders of his day. From dining with the unacceptable to not being ascetic enough, to proclaiming God's healing forgiveness in a much broader way than ever before Jesus upsets the comfortable pattern.

Do we want new wine?  Do we want our comfortable way of being to be challenged? I know that while there are days I would say yes to those questions there are far more days I would say most definitely NO.  And yet I almost always will say that maybe we need some of that disruption.

Jesus speaks of the dangers of trying to use old containers with new stuff (though personally I always use old scrap fabric when needing to patch something, why would I buy new cloth for such a thing). One of the realities is that our old containers were made to fit the old contents. Sometimes we just can't force new contents into that box. Maybe, like the cloak, the new just moves or adapts to the environment in a way the old can not. Maybe, like the wineskin, the new is still lively and growing or fermenting and expands beyond the old boundaries. Maybe the new is just of a totally different shape or nature and it is like the square peg for the round hole. It just won't work.

I think that sometimes we in the church get it wrong the other way too. I think sometimes we think up new forms and structures and think they will solve all our problems and yet we don't change the stuff inside. While it is too soon to say for certain, I suspect this is what we may find with the recent restructuring of the United Church of Canada. WE have shaken up the structure, but lots of people want the church to operate the same way. Where is the new wine for these new skins?

Jesus is about healing our dis-ease. WE need Jesus not because we are healthy but because we have dis-ease -- and sometimes we don't really want to be healed. Jesus is inviting us to celebrate because God is with us, and sometimes our ideas of what it means to be decent and orderly seem far from a celebration. Jesus is about transformation, about new things happening, about new growth springing from the old. WE need healing, we need to celebrate God's presence, we need to be transformed. We need new wine AND new wineskins.  ARe we ready?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Looking Forward to Monday JAnuary 21, 2019 -- Week Of Prayer for Christian Unity Service

This year the local week of Prayer for Christian Unity service will be held Monday at 7:00 at Forbes Presbyterian Church. It is my turn to preach this year.

The Scripture readings for the service are:
  • Deuteronomy 16:11-20
  • Romans 12:1-13
  • Luke 4:14-21
The theme verse comes from the end of the Deuteronomy reading Justice and only justice you shall pursue

Early Thoughts: The Kingdom of God is a place of justice. Which means what exactly?

On the website for the Week of Prayer we find:
This year’s theme calls us to move from shared prayer to shared action. Drawing on the traditional values of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) and gotong royong (living in solidarity and by collaboration), Indonesian Christians invite us to be a united witness, and an agent of Christ’s healing grace in a broken world, by making specific commitments to justice, equality, and unity. 
 In a world with many different expressions of Christianity what makes us unified? Christ is the obvious answer. Another is that we proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God both the now and the not yet. And one of the markers of he Kingdom of God is that justice shall reign.

JEsus, at the beginning of his ministry, reads a passage from Isaiah in the local synagogue. Judging from the words says after reading it is clear Jesus sees these words as a description of what his ministry will be. ANd those words are clearly a call for God's justice to be made real on earth.

Deuteronomy is, according to tradition, Moses' recounting of the Law just before he dies and the People of Israel cross the Jordan into the promised land. One of the themes in the book is that if the people do not choose wisely and follow the commandments then then land may be taken away from them. To choose wisely is to choose the path of justice. As the story of the People of Israel continues through those books we call the Old Testament we will find that they wander off the path of justice and so repeatedly the prophets try to call the people back to the right path.

WE as people of faith, one branch of the spiritual descendants of Moses,  are still called to follow the path of God's Justice. This year our service falls on the same day as Martin Luther King Day in the US. Dr King once said that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." (though it appears that the idea behind this statement predated Dr. King by about 100 years and was used by various others before Dr. King said it). To be walkers on the path of justice means we follow those words from Isaiah that Jesus read in synagogue. It means we follow the song Mary sang before Jesus was born. It means we agree to take part n the transformation of the world as the Kingdom of God becomes more and more real in our midst.

How can we remain steady on such a path?

In and of our own strength and willpower I am not sure we can. But we are not alone. We trust in God. AS people of faith we place ourselves in the hands of God in whom we live and move and have our being. I his letter to Rome St. Paul bids us "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.". We can follow the way of Justice because God is renewing and transforming us.

As followers of Christ may we continue to be people of justice.