Monday, October 25, 2010

November Newsletter

Earlier this year I read this:
The dedication service of McQueen Presbyterian Church was held on October 8, 1911, with capacity attendance. Its name honored the Rev D.G. McQueen, who had played an important part in the creation of this mission. It was a proud moment for the Rev. And Mrs. Forbes – their first church in their new mission field... (And We Come After page 19)
McQueen Presbyterian would, in due time, become St. Paul's United Church. And our current building is on the same parcel of land as that original log church. We are 100 years old next year!

It seems to me that this is a significant thing. For starters it gives us a reason to have a party (always a good thing). But anniversary years are special. They give us a chance to look back and to look ahead.

Yes that's right. I said that special anniversaries are a chance to look back and to look ahead. As we remember those that laid the way for us, as we give thanks for those that built the community to this point we have a responsibility to the future. When people gather in this place to celebrate the 125th or 150th anniversary of that dedication service of McQueen Presbyterian what will they say about those of us who celebrated the 100th?

As we approach our centennial date next Thanksgiving weekend (yes, we mark our centennial on Thanksgiving weekend, how appropriate is that!?) I encourage us to be forward looking. Yes we will engage in that holy task of telling the stories of the past. Yes we will be thankful. But our future is not our past. What was once here will not be again. It is my opinion that we don't honor our predecessors by trying vainly to recreate their world. We honor them by continuing to build and rebuild the community they passed on to us.

What is our hope for the future? What stamp do we want to make on this place? In my mind that all comes back to the question I asked in my first sermon with you. Who and what is God calling us to be in this place and time? How we answer that question shapes what decisions we make about our programs, about our building, about our future. And that, in my (not quite so) humble opinion is a GREAT anniversary project.

Oh and if you are interested in the party part of the anniversary? Let us know. A good party takes someone to help plan it.

Looking Ahead to October 31, 2010 -- 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, Reformation Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:

  • Psalm 130 (VU p.853)
  • Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Sermon Title is Semper Reformanda

Early Thoughts: Maintain tradition or change? What is the best way?  Or is it really an either/or situation?  is reforming an institution about a little of both?

This Sunday is Reformation Day.  According to tradition and story, on October 31 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (propositions for debate and discussion) to the church door in Wittenburg and thus began the Reformation.  Of course history is rarely that straightforward or simple, but it does make a convenient point on which to hang a history lesson.  There is a saying that grew out of the Protestant Reformation (and is equally applicable to the Roman Catholic church): ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda -- the church reformed, always reforming.  And so on this Reformation Day I ask:
  1. How is the church being reformed here and now?  What is changing?
  2. How "should" it be reformed?  What would you like to see changed?
  3. What is essential to keep, either as is or with some tweaking?
  4. What is your vision of how the church moves forward into the future?
In general, the longer an organization exists, the more it resists reforming.  This is true of the church.  Some of us say that the church as we know it is hopelessly bound by tradition and habit.  Some of us say that there is room for change.  (And some of us waver between those two depending on the day)  The reality is that traditions, those links to the past, have a place in our life together.  At the same time there is truth in the saying that the last words of any organization (especially the church) are "we never did it that way before".  We have to hold in tension the new and the old.  Change for the sake of change can be just as unhelpful or destructive as clinging to meaningless traditions.

Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones (skeletons for Halloween?) and the voice of God came to him asking "Mortal, can these bones live?".  We in the church need to ask ourselves (or let God ask us) the same question.  Can the bones of the church live?  Can we allow them to be reclothed with flesh and sinew?  Where is the breath of life blowing us as a church which is always being reformed by God?

I am third generation United Church of Canada leadership.  My paternal grandmother was a Presbytery Secretary in her day, and both she and my grandfather were active in their congregation wherever they lived.  As long as I can remember my parents have been active in the leadership of  my childhood congregation (I think between them they served on every committee at least once, sometimes 2 or 3 times).  I am in paid ministry.  The church in which I serve is not the same as the church in which my grandparents served.  It is not the same church in which I grew up.  The church my daughters will see when they are adults will be different again.  The church, whether it admits it or not, whether it eve recognizes it, is always changing.  The challenge is not to fight that change.  Nor is the challenge to see how fast we can throw away what we have inherited.  The challenge is to discern what needs to be kept, what needs to go, what new things to bring in, and what needs to change.

On Reformation Day, remembering that we have 2 millenia of tradition behind us, I am always remeinded of Jaroslav Pelikan's quote:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead.
Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
As we serve this constantly reforming church may we be people of tradition but not traditionalists.  And may we keep our eyes and ears open for how the bones are being brought back to life.

Oh and be warned.  This Sunday you may even be asked to TALK about your vision of a reformed church.

Tradition vs Change in song

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Grace From Sunday October 17

In case anyone is interested, here is the grace I taught during Children's time for World Food Sunday (sung to the tune of Kookabura sits in the old gum tree):
Fruits and vegetables are good for me
Breads and cereals so I can see
Milk the moo-cow
Milk the moo-cow
How good my God can be

Remember to sing it in pairs and for the "Milking" lines one partner holds his/her hands up with thumbs pointing down and the other "milks them". If you sing it twice each partner can do the milking/be the milkee

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Blurb" for Pictorial Directory

A couple years ago Patty's mom was going through her basement full of memories in preparation for selling the house. And so, every time we went to visit there were more pictures to look at. And even though I had to keep asking “Who's this?” or “Where are you” I loved it. Looking at family pictures is a great way to learn about each other.

Church directories are family photo albums. I quite enjoy looking through a set of them in a church. As you do that you see how the community has changed over the years. Each edition has a different set of people – babies have been born, older children have moved away from home, some folk have moved (in or away), others have died. These directories become part of our history, part of how we tell our story. Besides who can ever resist those “did I/he/she really look like THAT” discussions?

This directory is but a snapshot of who we are as a congregation in 2010. It shows who is a part of the community as we look ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2011. We are the descendants(sometimes in a very literal sense) of those who formed a congregation and built a log building on this site. But we are also those who will pass on this community of faith to those who come after us. Who will be in the family snapshot next time? What story of faith will they tell?

In closing, I remember the first song I learned as a member of Junior Choir. The first verse proclaims:
The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple
the church is not a resting place the church is a people...
Here in these pages we find St. Paul's United. Not all of it since no family portrait ever gets everybody in. But the people staring back at you as you flip the pages, and those whose pictures are missing, that is the church. And so, whether you have been in every directory or this is your first time, welcome to the church...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking Forward to October 24, 2010 -- 22nd Sunday After Pentecost , Year C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 24 (VU p.751)
  • Luke 18:9-14

The Sermon Title is Humility and Shame

Early Thoughts: When are we too proud? When do we need more pride or self-esteem? When does realistic guilt become crippling shame?

Sometimes I think in songs. And when I read this Luke passage a couple of songs come to mind. As I read about the Pharisee's prayer part of me hears this:

Pride. Overbearing pride you might say. Pride that blinds us to our own faults but makes us more than willing to see the faults of others. Is this healthy psychologically or spiritually?

And on the other hand there is the tax-collector, someone who is all too aware of his own faults. In part his prayer reminds me of this song:

Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I'll go eat worms Is this healthy psychologically or spiritually?

In the end I would say that neither of them are healthy points of view.  Simply because they are both unbalanced.  One needs a dose of humility.  The other needs a self-esteem boost.

Christian theology has spent much time and ink trying to convince us of the evils of pride.  And has largely been successful, perhaps too successful.  One strand of theology holds that Pride is the basis of all sinfulness, starting from the Genesis story about Adam and Eve being tempted to be like God.  And yet this emphasis on pride, when taken to extremes, can (and has) communicate to people that they should be ashamed of themselves.  Extreme Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential sinfulness of human nature (even calling humanity Totally Depraved) is a prime example.

And yet we are told in the Creation story that we are created in the Image of God, and that all Creation is very good.  Being ashamed of ourselves is not what God calls for anymore than overbearing pride.  There is a role for being proud of ourselves, as long as that is based on a realistic picture.  There are times when feeling guilty about something is honest and true.  But if we are allowed to slide into a sense of shame about our very being then we have gone too far.

Some of us know all to well the danger of extreme shame.  Some of us have lived with its crippling effects.  And for some, the shame is fatal.  Some people hear so often that they are no good, that they are flawed, that they are wrong that they start to believe they are worthless and it kills them. 

So we have to find the balance point between pride and humility.  We have to know when to feel guilty.  It isn't just a matter of an interesting theological discussion.  It is a matter of life, and that in abundance, and death.

Pharisee and Tax-collector, neither are healthy.  Neither are where we should be.  Because we are special.  We are not perfect.  But "Just as I am [we are], without one plea" we are loved and accepted and worthwhile.  Thanks and Praise to God.  AMEN

Monday, October 4, 2010

Looking Forward to October 10, 2010 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 26:1-11
  • Psalm 100 (sung to Old 100th using the old words -- VU p.823)
  • Philippians 4:4-9

The Sermon title is Memory and Hope

Early Thoughts: Why do we give thanks?  Or maybe the better question is why do we forget to give thanks?

The secret to giving thanks is memory.  It really is that simple.  We are better at giving thanks when we are intentional about remembering what we have to be thankful for.

This Deuteronomy Passage is a great illustration.  As part of the thanksgiving offering the people are told to recount the history of their people.  What do we need to remember?  This week we will sing old words to an old tune, reminding us that we are part of a continuing story.  For that we give thanks.  This season we remember the food on our tables and where it has come from.  And we give thanks.  Continually we remember that we are a part of many different communities and for that we give thanks.

And what difference does it make?  What is the positive effect of this remembering and giving thanks?  It changes how we see the world.  It gives us more hope.  It gives us a more optimistic outlook.  How could it not?  After all, in a world that often tries hard to convince us to be afraid and to show us that we don't have enough, it is a wonderfully empowering (and counter-cultural) practice to think of the reasons we have to NOT be afraid and to remind ourselves of our blessings.

This thanksgiving, let us all take time to remember.  Let us all embrace the reality of memory and hope.

Dialogue Sermon from covenanting Service

Here is the sermon from the Covenanting Service last evening:

Covenant or Contract?
A Dialogue Sermon for Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference Celebration of Ministry Service: May 29, 2005
Written by: Rev. Gord Waldie
May 2005
Revised and Edited for use in Covenanting Service between Rev Gord Waldie, St. Paul's United Church (Grande Prairie) and Northern Lights Presbytery – September 2010

Scripture Passages:
Jeremiah 31:31-34
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
John 15:9-16

Scene opens with G sitting at a desk working. There is a knock on the door.
G: (looks up) Hello? Oh Susan, nice to see you. Is it 10:30 already?? Come in, come in.
S: I think I might be a little bit early. I can wait a moment if you are busy.
G: Oh no problem, I was just catching up on a bit of reading, nothing that can’t wait. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about the M&P committee and to thank you for taking on the chair. As you know, Personnel stuff is vitally important work, but it is also very confusing at times. Did you get a chance to read through the M&P Handbook I gave you?
S: Yes I did, and the M&P files from the office. They were very helpful in letting me figure out what exactly this committee does. But there are a few things that I am confused about.
G: I thought there might be. M&P work isn’t exactly like Human Resources work but it is close. So what are your questions?
S: Well the first is this line from the beginning of the Handbook. It talks about “being in ministry together”. I thought you were the Minister. What does it mean?
G: (shuffling papers) Well, now, maybe this will help. See, here on the bulletin each week where it says “Ministry by: The Congregation, Enabling Minister: Rev Gord Waldie”? Well that is because we recognize that the work of the church isn’t just done by one person. All of us work together to make the church grow. All of us are part of a relationship, we call it a covenant, where we promise to work together.
S: “Enabling Minister” If you are our enabler doesn’t that make us co-dependent?
G: (chuckles) Not really, but it does mean that we are interdependent. Churches need many things to run smoothly. They need people who are good with money and numbers, people who are good with children, people who paint the windowsills and all sorts of other things. Even if I was good at all those things, which I’m not, there is no way that I could do it all. Part of my role here is to help people discover what they can do as a part of the church and encourage or help them as best as I can. Maybe Empowering is a better word than enabling.
S: Hey, is that what you meant last week when you were talking about how we are all part of one body? I thought it was about spiritual gifts.
G: Well Paul does talk about spiritual gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues on but later he goes on to talk about the church as a body. He suggests that if all of us were an eye we wouldn’t get very far in life. So yeah, that is why we talk about being in ministry together. Really we all do a bit of the work, eyes, ears, feet, hands. And while my title might be The Minister, really I am one of many.
S: But aren’t you in charge?
G: (laughing) I Wish! Actually the congregation and the Board are “in charge” if anyone is. We try to understand what path God has laid out for us and follow it but it is tempting to find a path we like better sometimes. You know, Jesus told his followers that he didn’t see them as servants but as friends. I think that is helpful to remember when we try to run the church. No one person is in charge and no one is the servant. We are all friends trying to work together. (pauses) Actually I don’t think that any of us is really “in charge”. The congregation, the Presbytery and I are all part of a covenant. The congregation appoints a committee, the M&P committee, to work with me and help set goals, talk about how things are going and so on. But I don’t really work FOR them. Part of the time I work FOR Presbytery, not only at meetings but in helping to represent the wider church to the congregation. My best guess is that I work for the church as a whole but most of that work is focused in working with this congregation.
S: OK, I think I am starting to see what you mean. We pay your salary but you really work with us, not for us. You enable us to be a part of the church.
G: Well I think that God is a part of it too. A big part of being the church is trying to understand what God is saying to us, who God is calling us to be. In fact God is a part of that covenant I just talked about. But basically that is what I mean. What else were you wondering about?
S: Well I couldn't find an employment contract? Don’t you have one?
G: Well you should have seen something called a “call form”. It lists things like salary, vacation and study time, housing allowance. It is pretty much a contract. And you should have be a copy of the Joint Needs Assessment report. It included a position description.
S: Yeah I saw both of those but they don’t aren’t as clear as I think a contract should be. But I guess there are lots of ways people get hired.
G: Yes, the church sometimes isn’t as clear as we would like. But there is another point to raise. Although we agreed to those terms of employment when I was called (and a lot of them have to meet or exceed minimums set by National Church Policy) I don’t really work just under that contract. We work together in a covenant relationship.
S: You keep using that word, covenant. What do you mean?
G: A covenant is, well it is sort of hard to describe. A covenant is a way of working together. It is the same word we use to describe a marriage. Each party to the covenant makes promises about how they will behave and what they will (or won’t) do, just like the vows at a marriage ceremony. Actually it is a term that is used a lot in the Bible. God makes a covenant with Noah, and with Abraham, and with Moses. Jesus spoke of his followers as being part of a new covenant. Actually, I think Jesus was thinking about the prophet Jeremiah when he said that. Jeremiah talked about a covenant that wouldn’t be written on stone tablets or on scrolls but would be written on people’s hearts.
S: What do all these stories have to do with how we run the church though? I mean I understand why it is important to tell them and why it is important to talk about God’s promises and our promises to God. But when it comes to employment wouldn’t you rather have a hard and fast contract instead of this loose covenant thing? At least a contract would hold up in court.
G: In some ways you are certainly right. When things go sour it would be nice to have things a little bit more cut and dried. But unfortunately that doesn’t always work in the church. When we talk about the arrangement between a congregation and a minister we are really talking about a relationship. In fact when the time comes a minister doesn’t quit or get fired, but either the minister or the congregation asks Presbytery for a “change in Pastoral Relationship”. The best way I have found to describe it is like a marriage. And another thing, in any marriage things change as the relationship develops. The same thing happens in this covenant. Over time the position description will develop and evolve as the needs of the congregation change. That is easier to do when things are not cast in stone.
S: That sounds like a bizarre way to talk about someone’s job. How are conflicts worked out?
G: That really depends on the people involved. But for me, that is where that idea of a marriage helps. A covenant is a set of promises we make to each other. When a couple comes into problems we hope that those promises will support them, the same thing happens in a church. We remember that we promised to work together through our difficulties. When that happens a contract can be helpful in reminding us of what our legal and moral obligations are (what my salary and position description are for example) but the love and promises of the covenant are what help us to keep trying. At least that is the ideal.
S: Is that what you mean about the covenant being written on our hearts? That if we truly let ourselves live into these promises they become part of who we are? They become part of how we run our lives? I see. Then we act out of love and commitment instead of duty and obligation.
G: Exactly!
S: You know, as you talk about this I can see how this covenant ties in with that idea of us all being in ministry together.
G: I think it does, actually I think it is integral. But how do you see it?
S: Well, if we hired you and signed a contract it would be really easy to look at your job description and say that you do the ministry and we don’t. But when we make these promises to each other then we all have a stake in making sure they get lived out. The promises push us to take a bigger part in helping the church thrive, or even survive.
G: I agree. And don’t forget that these promises are made in a worship service. So God is part of our covenant. The book of Ecclesiastes talks about a threefold cord that is not easily broken. If the covenant promises had to rely on all of us as people then it would be easy to see how they would never work. But with God as the third strand in the cord we add strength and stability. I use that passage a lot in weddings.
S: So let’s see if I have this straight. We pay you but the ministry is done by all of us. We have agreed to some conditions of employment, like a contract, but really your work with us is guided by a set of promises we make to each other. And we include God in those promises to help when we don’t feel that we can live up to them by ourselves.
G: That just about covers it. It may seem confusing but I am sure that with time you will see both the strengths and weaknesses of the way we do things.
S: I sure hope there are some strengths. It seems like an awfully silly way to have people’s employment handled to me. But then I guess that the church doesn’t always have to do things the way everyone else does them.
G: And that is a good thing. Amen.