Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Letter from the Presbytery Chair

Brothers and sisters,

Well this was supposed to be the time I wrote a letter for Easter. But it is also the time I need to write a letter around the Comprehensive Review Task Group Report. I wonder if combining them will work.

Well I will try anyhow!

We are entering the holiest of seasons. The three days of the Easter weekend are the reason the Christian faith exists. Sometimes we focus on Friday and execution and oppression. Sometimes we focus on Sunday and Life that conquers Death. But the reality is that this is the heart of our story. In the face of death and violence and the world's “NO!” God responds with a resounding “YES!!!!!”, as yes that continues to echo and reverberate 2000 years later.

And so as we continue to walk the road that leads to Palm Parade, Cross, and Empty Tomb I hope you keep your eyes and ears open for God's YES. It is easy to see the cross, to see the ways we in the world say no. But watch for the yes. Even if it is only hoped for, or glimpsed in a brief second it is there.

A moment ago I suggested that we focus on Friday or Sunday. And in our liturgy and our theology I think we do. But in truth I am not sure we live in either spot. I actually think that as people of faith we live, more often than not, on Saturday.

Saturday is the in-between time. The time of uncertainty. The time of waiting. We profess the hope of resurrection but we wait for “proof” that it will happen. And some years the Saturday feeling is stronger than others.

I think of my time in Atikokan, when the mills were both closed and the plan was that the government would mothball the coal-fired generating plant. We were living on Saturday, knowing so much loss and wondering if there would be new life.

And in the United Church today I think we are living on Saturday. Uncertain about the future. Still mourning a past that may only really exist in our memories. Hoping there is new life yet to be found.

Which brings me to the Comprehensive Review report....

Earlier this month the Comprehensive Review Task Group released their report and recommendations. If you have not already done so you can find the following at http://www.gc42.ca/comprehensive-review-report :
-- the report, containing the 6 recommendations
-- the proposals that are going before General Council
-- 10 backgrounder documents
also some YouTube videos:
-- an invitation to engage in the report
-- an introduction to Recommendation #3: the 3-Court Model
-- an introduction to Recommendation #4: the College of Ministers
-- an introduction to Recommendation #6: the Funding Model
and some other resources:
-- an FAQ document
-- a bulletin insert
-- a PowerPoint slideshow

I ask all of you to read the report and the proposals carefully and more than once.  They recommend a church that will look very different from the United Church that was formed 90 years ago.

As many of you will already know we are planned to have a special Presbytery meeting on April 18th to discuss this report along with the proposed changes to Manse Fund guidelines (a copy of that document was e-mailed with the minutes from the February Presbytery meeting). At our Executive meeting this morning we decided that it was important that congregations have time to look at and discuss this report before that meeting. And so we decided to change the to April 25th. This meeting was planned to happen in Spirit River for those who wish to attend in person but that church has a major fund-raiser that day so the in-person meeting is going to happen at St. Paul's United in Grande Prairie. Because it is costly and inconvenient for all Presbyters to travel to a one-day meeting we are also making arrangements for folk to attend electronically. Details about the timing and the technical contact info for this meeting will come at a later time. Because the more connections you have to a virtual meeting mean the more possibilities for a bad connection and because it is often helpful to have more people to gather with rather than being alone in a room staring at a screen I encourage folks in close proximity to each other to gather together for the meeting.

Between now and April 25th I urge you to take time as congregations to look at the report. Some of you may want to create a Proposal to suggest changes to the recommendations. These Proposals can then be considered by Presbytery and passed on to the Conference meeting at the end of May. To aid in these congregational discussions in encourage you to look at the videos and other resources on the GC42 web-page (see address above). I also offer these questions as ways to spark discussion:
-- as you read each recommendation ask “what problem is this trying to solve?” “does it solve it?” “does it cause new problems?”
--how do you see yourself living in the church as it is pictured?
-- What, if anything, excited you about the report?
-- What, if anything, worried you in the report?
-- Is there anything for which you need more information?
-- Did the report overall, capture your imagination and excitement, or did it make you feel sad, angry or worried?
-- How will your life and church life change if the report is accepted in large part by the commissioners at GC42?

It is easy to read the CRTG report and proposals and become very angry, or very depressed, or both. There is a lot of loss that is going to happen in the next few years within the United Church. The reality is that whatever we as a denomination do with this report a lot of loss will happen anyway as we still need to gut massive amounts from the denominational budget. We can not be the church in the same way that we have been the church since 1925.

But we are an Easter people. We are those who hold a resurrection faith. There will be death and loss but there is also the promise of new life. Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24 English Standard Version). The structures of the United Church might die (or possibly collapse altogether) but the faith continues. Where and when will we find Easter in light of the CRTG report?

I look forward (with a bit of anxiety) to our discussion on April 25th and all the discussions that will precede and will follow.

Yours in Christ,
Gord Waldie

I got Sarah to help me make a video:

Monday, March 16, 2015

Looking Forward to March 22, 2015 -- Sheep and Goats, Serving Christ

This Sunday we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Reading this Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon title is When Did We...?

Early Thoughts:  It is an honest question.  They have just been told they did something they have no recollection of doing.  "When did we do that?" they ask. 

The surprise is in the answer -- when you served the least of my family, you served me.

But I think the best part is that the people did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the lonely in order to serve God.  They did it, I think, because that was just how they lived as people of faith.  They did it because they took seriously the commandment to live lives of love.  As one commentator points out, the questions asked by the blessed and the accursed are exactly the same.  The difference is that the blessed aren't seeking to be rewarded, where the accursed appear to be trying to figure out how they can get the reward next time.....

There is an ancient blessing: "May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet.  And may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you".  I think this happens when we live out the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Or maybe we live out the parable when we intentionally try to match the blessing.  It is sometimes a chicken vs. egg type of thing.

This is not about serving our friends and family.  It is not about serving those who are "like us".  It is not about building up favour debt that we can call and get repaid.  This is about love.  This is about serving to meet the needs that show up in our path just because they are there.  This, Matthew suggests, is what it means to live in Kingdom ethics. 

So the question for us is indeed "When did we...".  The challenge for us is to know whether we are asking when we met needs or asking when we failed to meet needs.  Not because we expect or hope to rewarded.  Nor to avoid some sort of punishment. Simply because the law of love has been written on our hearts and thereby has changed who we are.  Once so changed, we meet needs because we can.

May God help us to be so changed.
--Gord

Monday, March 9, 2015

Looking Forward to March 15, 2015 -- Day Labourers and Payment

The Scripture Reading this week is Matthew 20:1-16

The Sermon Title is What do You Need?

Early Thoughts: Karl Marx did not like the church.  He said this about religion:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. 

And yet there is something distinctly Marxist about this passage.

After all, at the end of the day everybody gets what is considered necessary for survival, even those who only work for an hour.  Doesn't that remind you of Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his [sic] need".

Actually I think God's justice goes beyond Marx (and also beyond St. Paul as it happens).

One of the prevailing concerns of Scripture (some have suggested it is THE prevailing concern but I think that is a bit of an overstatement) is economic justice.  And it appears that in God's understanding of economic justice everyone gets what they need to live.  EVERYONE.  Not based on how hard you work, or who your parents happen to be, or how moral a life you live.  EVERYONE.

And this is where God goes beyond Marx and Paul.  In  2 Thessaloninans we find a principle that was later taken up by the Stalinist regime and fits well with the first half of the Marx quote above:
He who does not work neither shall he eat
But I suggest that God's view of justice is that life is life and so all should eat.  Not that Scripture encourages "freeloading" but that Scripture exhorts us to care for each other and nurture life.  Especially when many who do not have are in need because they cannot (either because of lack of opportunity or because of physical/mental/emotional health limitations) work.  God is not a Social Darwinist, God calls that all may have life (and that in abundance).

And so everyone gets what they need.

Is that fair?

No.  But then where are we promised that life is fair?

And so here is the question.  What do you need?  What do you need to live?  What does your neighbour need to live?  And how do we ensure we all get that?

And remember that in our world we have many day labourers....
--Gord

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March Newsletter

I have actually sent Leanne 2 things for the Newsletter this month.  One is a revision of this blog post regarding Physician Assisted Suicide, here is the other:

We Live in a Time of Change – Is it a Curse or a Blessing?

Since early 2013 there has been a group called the Comprehensive Review Task Group working within the United Church of Canada. ON March 3rd they released their report. It proposes radical (and remember that radical comes from the Latin radix or root) change for us as a denomination.

As I write this I have only read the teaser that was on the website, not the actual report, so I have no firm opinion on what they are proposing. I have preliminary ones but am trying to keep an open mind until I read the report twice (once for my initial emotional reaction and then a second more reasoned read-through.

If you are interested in what they had to say you can find the report (and some other documents surrounding it) here: http://www.gc42.ca/comprehensive-review-report.

It is my intent to give some more information in the April Newsletter. But also I wanted to give a heads-up that sometime after Easter I will host a gathering of interested folk from the congregation to talk about the proposed changes. Presbytery will have a meeting to talk about it on April 18th so it might be nice if we had a discussion before then.

-Gord

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Minister's Annual Report

We have this ministry and we are not discouraged,
it is by God's own power that we can live and serve.
Openly we share God's word, speaking truth as we believe,
praying that the shadowed world may healing light receive.
We have this ministry, O God receive our living.
(verse 1 of “We Have This Ministry” #510 in Voices United)

We have a ministry of sharing God's Word of light, life and love with the people of Grande Prairie and the wider world. It isn't always easy knowing best how to do that. We struggle with it daily in a thousand different decisions. We explore how God is speaking to us in our times of worship, study, and work. Your Council takes seriously the task of providing leadership, of looking for where the path is headed. In discussions about how our building will look and operate, in discussions about what studies to have, in discussions about what impact we make on our community, in these and many other discussions we, the church, are exploring and living out the key question – how is God calling us to be in the world?

Elsewhere in this report you will find discussions of what we as a church have done this past year. I wonder what the highlights of the year were for you? What were our challenges?

For me one of the highlights was the work your Council has done, steered by Ken, to explore how we respond to the concerns raised in the Annual Meeting a year ago. We have done a much deeper look at causal factors and starting to assess best responses than often happens in a Joint Needs Assessment process. We don't have full answers yet, and I do believe that for St. Paul's to grow as a congregation we will end up looking at more paid Ministry time, but by taking a step back and trying to drop assumptions about the “cure” I believe we have done a good piece of diagnostic work.

Another highlight for me also raises a challenge. At the end of the summer we were in a year-to-date deficit of $30 000. By the end of the year we were at a break-even point. In fact we were even able to decide at our February Council meeting to only put half of the revenue from the Garage Sale and the Beef Dinner & Auction into general revenue with the rest going into Special Projects. Our revenue for general operating was the highest it has ever been! Well done! The challenge was laid down and we rose to meet it.

Looking forward to 2015 I wonder what highlights we will talk about next year. I wonder what challenges will fall into our path.

What new ways will we find to connect with our community? What new ways will the community make an impact on us? How will we share the light of Christ in a world of shadows?

God has called us together as a community. God has called us to share the Kingdom with Grande Prairie. That is our ongoing challenge. But I have confidence that we are up to the challenge. We have the resources to do amazing things. And so I ask if there is something new you want to try?

On a more personal note, one of my tasks for 2015 is planning for 2016. In discussions with the M&P committee I am planning to take a sabbatical leave from Victoria Day to Labour Day in 2016, in part to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my ordination. So this year we need to plan how I will spend that time and how we as a congregation will cover off those three months.

As Shakespeare's Henry V said “once more into the breach dear friends”. Let us head off into the adventure that will be 2015.
GORD

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Looking Forward to February 22, And also March 1....

I am preaching at Presbytery next Sunday.  But since the sermon will also work for our Annual Meeting Sunday, why not use it twice!

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Matthew 28:16-20
  • Joshua 24:1-18
The sermon title is Why Are We Here?

Early Thoughts: A couple of weeks ago I posted a query on-line.  If you had to state the purpose of the church in a tweet (140 characters) what would you say?

In any organization we need to be clear about what our purpose is, what we are all about, what is our mission.  We need to know this in order to plan and live because everything we do needs to follow from our primary purpose/mission.

It is my fear that we in the United Church are no longer clear about our primary mission/purpose.  And so any attempt we make to change the trends that David Ewart ( the so-called 'prophet of doom') keeps pointing out (and note that one specific trend goes back to 1925--since then the UCCan has been shrinking as a percentage of the Canadian population) is going to amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic unless we rediscover, or discover anew for the first time, our primary purpose/mission both as a denomination and as individual congregations.

Our problem is not governance.  Well to be frank governance is an issue at all levels of the church.  But the problem will not be solved by rejigging how we operate.  Changing the committee structure doesn't invite more people to become a part of the community, or give them a reasons to stay (though sometimes not doing it might scare them off).  To bring new life into the church means knowing what we are all about and sharing that.

In the near future the Comprehensive Review Task Group will release its report (I think it is already written but is now being translated and prepared for release).  As I read the signs, this report will suggest a radical rejigging of how we as a denomination operate.  As in it will no longer be the denomination we have grown to know.  And I know we will all have opinions about what that report suggests.  But I have a hope.

My hope is that the report begins by stating boldly an understanding of the purpose and mission of the United Church of Canada.   This would be a bold thing -- I am not sure such a statement has been made for many many years.  But the rest of the report about HOW we are the church needs to rest on a statement of WHY we are the church.  Based on what the CRTG has released thus far during their work, I don't expect this to happen.  But I hope it does.

And even if it doesn't we all, as congregations and Presbyteries and Conferences, we all need to ask ourselves "why are we here?".  Then we can build from that foundation.  And in my experience a statement of mission needs to be short and memorable to be much good.  We can (and will) then expand more about what it means to us but we need to put it succinctly -- and succinct is not exactly what the UCCan is known for. 

So what would your tweet be?
--Gord


Monday, February 9, 2015

Looking Forward to February 15, 2015 -- Peter's Confession

The Scripture Reading this week is Matthew 16:13-28

The sermon title is Who do you say he is?

Early Thoughts:  It is one of the key questions for the Christian church.  Who is Jesus?  In fact many people have made a career in academia trying to answer that question.

Here Simon the Fisherman, Simon who will later (out of fear for his life) deny Jesus 3 times, looks at Jesus and says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”.  True, only a few verses later Simon tries to instruct Jesus on what that means (and what it does NOT mean), but the confession remains.

Then comes the real kicker.  To follow this Messiah means taking up your own cross, means placing yourself second to the Kingdom, means risking everything.

The next thing that happens in the story (Matthew 17:1-8) is the Transfiguration. Jesus is revealed in his glory and God says again "this is my Beloved Son".  The one Peter has already called the Messiah is now claimed by God.  The one who will die, the one who calls his followers to take up their own cross, this is the one who brings God's kingdom into the world.

In that light, are we ready to share Simon Peter's assertion?

Of course then we might have to sort out what it means....
--Gord