Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Forward to January 5, 2013 -- Epiphany Sunday

This being the first Sunday of January (and of the New Year) we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Reading for this week is Matthew 2:1-23

The Sermon title is Gifts & Blessings, Fear & Murder

Early Thoughts:  It is a story we all know.  Sort of.  Matthew's version of the Nativity story has the visitors from afar bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And so we have the "three kings" showing up in many Sunday school pageants (and of course in the carol of that name).

But the thing is we often don't read the whole story.  As the lectionary is built the 2nd half of the story is set to be read the Sunday after Christmas (which is often the Sunday before we read the 1st, more familiar, half) which is often a "low" Sunday in terms of attendance.  So this week we will read the WHOLE story.  Both the adoration and the tragedy.

How do we react when the world is being changed?  Do we celebrate or strike out?  

Matthew, in chapter 2, reminds us that both happen.  Matthew reminds us that sometimes discretion is the better part of valour (go to Egypt until the danger has passed).  Matthew reminds us that God breaking into the world, God transforming the world, is a threat to some people.

As God continues to break into the world, as God continues to cause transformation to happen in the world, are we aligning ourselves on the side  of gifts and blessings?  Or are we reacting in fear, in murder?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Looking Forward to December 24, Christmas Eve -- the 8:00 service

This service will have Prayers, Carols, Handbells, Candles, Drama, Choirs, Organ!  Oh and the story of course.

The Scripture Readings for this service are:
  • Isaiah 9:2-7
  • Luke 2:1-20
 There will also be a three person drama where residents of Bethlehem are discussing the strange events.  One is the Innkeeper.  One is the midwife.  One is a wealthy townsperson.

Then there will be a meditation called The Center

Early Thoughts:  This evening we light the candle at the center of our wreath.  It is the center of our circle and signifies the One who is at the center of our hope, the center of the season, the center of our faith.

What is the center of the season? Is it light?  Is it life? Is it love?  I would argue it is all these things wrapped up in a baffling baby.

At the center of the season is the Birth of the one who taught about love, who is sometimes referred to as Love Incarnate.  It is the Birth of the one who came to bring Life, and that in Abundance.  It is the birth of the one who is called the Light of the World.

The center of the season is announced by angel song to frightened shepherds.  "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord".  The center of our faith now lies in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

On this night we move towards the center.  We gather with the shepherds to see this thing which has been told to us.  Having been to the center we now move out from it.  How will we do that?

Looking Forward to December 24, Christmas Eve -- the 6:30 service

This service is our less formal service. 

We will say some prayers, and sing some carols.  We will tell the Christmas story (though I am tempted to see if I can find a YouTube of Linus telling it....)

We will also tell/read the story "Room for a Little One".  AS children arrive they will be asked if they want to be a Dog, Cat or Mouse and then they can take part in the story as it is told.

It is expected that the service will be between 30 and 45 minutes long.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Looking Forward to December 22, 2013 -- 4th of Advent

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.

This year our Advent Candle liturgies will call us to consider the various parts of the Advent wreath. This week we are called to consider the candlelight.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Genesis 1:1-5, 14-19
  • Isaiah 9:2-3, 6 
  • John 1:1-9
The Sermon title is Let There be Light!

Early Thoughts:  Light.  Dark. Is there a more basic dichotomy?

The faith story begins with "let there be light".  Isaiah says "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.".  John begins his story of the Incarnation by taking us back to the beginning, to the Word who was with God from the beginning, the creative Word in whom all things came into being, then says "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.".  Later in John's Gospel Jesus is quoted as saying "I am the light of the world".  It is undeniable that light is a central issue in the life of faith, and one time that is most noticeable is Christmas.

 There are times it is blatantly obvious that many of our Christmas traditions and language were developed in the Northern hemisphere.  Christmas is set at the time of the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year.  And so we are primed to be looking for light, all the more so in those years before electric lights--because let us be honest, we can completely avoid being in the dark now if we so choose. 

Where is the Light needed in our world today?  Where is it breaking through?  Who are the people who live in a land of deep darkness?  Who needs to be reminded that the Light is one that the darkness has not, will not, and can not overcome?

One further thought...
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew's Jesus reminds us that we are light to the world.  How are we shining?

For more that I have written about light this year check out this devotional.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

DHT Christmas Special..

Where do you need hope this year?

That is what Christmas is all about. We celebrate the coming of hope into our lives. The true power of Christmas is the coming of hope, of promise, of a renewed vision for the world.

Hope can come in the way hearts are opened and people come to understand what it means to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours. Just look at the classic characters Scrooge and the Grinch. If even they can change then there is hope.

Hope can come in the form of new life. How many people, looking at the face of their newborn child, can resist that sense of hope and excitement? We may know that the child in our arms will not always have an easy life but we still see the potential for amazing things lying there wrapped in a blanket.

Wherever you need hope this year may it be a part of your Christmas. The story we tell about a baby born in a manger is the story of a God who never gives up. Christmas reminds us that God is with us, that God works with us to bring a better future. May God walk with you at Christmas and throughout the New Year!

Merry Christmas from all of us at St. Paul's United Church!

Hot Chocolate at the Santa Parade

Monday, December 2, 2013

Looking Forward to December 8, 2013 -- 2nd Sunday of Advent

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.

This year our Advent Candle liturgies will call us to consider the various parts of the Advent wreath. This week we are called to consider the evergreen.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 35:1-10
  • Luke 1:5-17, 24-25
The Sermon title is Green and Lively

Early Thoughts:  Why do we hang greenery in the middle of winter? Why kill a tree to haul it inside for a few week before tossing it out in a snow drift?

Because it is a sign of life.  Because it reminds us of the life that is bubbling under the surface.  Because in the depths of Winter we need to be reminded of life and hope (particularly as I look forward to shoveling for a few hours this afternoon).

The story of Christian faith is the story of life in surprising places, of life that shouldn't be there, of life that pops up where one expects only death and barren-ness.  From Abram and Sarai, getting a son when it was well past the ordinary time, to Isaiah talking about flowers blooming in the desert, to Zechariah and Elizabeth also having a child where everyone assumed they were infertile, to the empty tomb the story is about life where no life was/is expected.

Evergreen boughs remind us of the life that is bursting forth all the time.  They remind us that even in our times of quietness and rest we are growing.  They remind us to look for the life.  Always look for the life.  Because where there is life, even (or perhaps especially) unexpected life, there is hope.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Looking Forward to December 1, 2013 -- First Sunday of Advent

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating Communion.

This being the first Sunday of Advent, it will also mark the beginning of our annual Advent/Christmas Outreach campaign.

This year our Advent Candle liturgies will call us to consider the various parts of the Advent wreath.  This week we are called to consider the circle.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
  • Luke 1:46-55
The Sermon title is Round and Round

Early Thoughts: One of the more common symbols in a wide range of spiritual systems is the circle. Cultures around the globe and throughout history have noticed the rhythms of life: the hours of the day, the seasons of the year; the cycle of life and death and life.

The circle is also used as a sign of the eternal.  In wedding services the line I often use before the exchange of rings includes these words:
The most familiar of these symbols is the exchange of rings, made in the shape of a circle without beginning or end; made of gold, a metal which does not tarnish or corrode, but which, like love sustained by God, grows in beauty through the years.
A circle is a sign of the unending love of God.  The ancient Celtic Christians incorporated this in their great stone crosses which had a circle joining the arms of the cross (coincidentally this also had a practical value as it added stability to the stone).  And much Celtic tracery includes intricate weavings which are circular in form, no beginning, no end, or at least where the beginning and end are impossible to locate.

And a third image that comes to mind is the wheel, the wheel of fate that turns over, upending the world, putting what was on top on the bottom and vice versa.  Part of our Christmas story is the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, where she sings of the child who will come to turn the world on its head, to toss the proud and mighty from their thrones.  At Christmas we remember the wheel turning and the world being changed.

SO this week we pause to think about circles: the cycles of life, the eternal love of God, and teh turning wheel of fate.

Wonder how all three of those will mesh into one sermon?????

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

December Newsletter

As we head into the season of Advent, the time of preparing for Christmas, I thought I would share this piece I wrote some years ago about some of the meanings of Christmas...

Christmas Is…

Christmas is carols and children. At Christmas time the child-like senses of wonder and acceptance are awakened in us. As we sing the carols and tell the story we are reminded of our childhood memories. The gifts and the foods bring out the child in all of us. The mystery of the stories (either Jesus or Santa) challenges us to move past adult rationalism. Christmas calls us to be child-like once again.

Christmas is waiting and hoping. When will Santa come? When can I open my presents? When will the baby be born? When will the world be better? When will things be right again? We wait and we wait. But we wait with hope. Christmas reminds us to be people of hopeful expectation. Christmas reminds us to hope for the future. Hope is born at Christmas, and so we wait for birth.

Christmas is chaos and calm. There is so much to fit into the month. Parties and concerts and shopping and baking and special church services. Oh my! Chaos is part of Christmas. But there is calm too. There is the peace of the Christmas snow sifting down. There is the silence of the frosty nights. There are both in our story too. The calm of the traditional vision of the manger is shattered by the chaos of a newborn’s cries and the violence of an oppressive world. Christmas comes in the midst of our lives with chaos and calmness.

Christmas is life changing. Some of the chaos of Christmas is because if we take Christmas and the story of the baby in the manger seriously Christmas is life-changing. Birth means that the life beforehand will die. Life will never be the same again, for parent, for child, for everybody associated with the child. At Christmas we mark not just the birth of a child but of a whole new world. And while we wait with hopeful expectation for that birth, we also wonder what will need to die so that the birthing process comes to full potential. Christmas is life and world changing.

Christmas is light in the darkness. Even in the chaos there is calm. Even in the fear of change there is hope. There is hope because Christmas reminds us of light in the darkest times. It is Christmas. The nights are long and cold in midwinter. But then we hear a tale of light, we hear that those who walk in times of darkness will have light shined on them. The world will be changed. New life will be born. There is light and there is hope.

That’s what Christmas is Charlie Brown.

From the Waldie household to all of yours, a Merry Christmas.

And God Bless Us, Every One!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Looking Forward to November 24

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Readings this Sunday are:
  • Luke 9:53-62
  • Mark 1:32-39
  • Ephesians 5:15-17
The Sermon title is Procrastination, Self Care, Prioritization

Early Thoughts:  In a busy world with so many demands on our time, how do we take care of ourselves?  In a world of instant communication through texting and social media; in a world with a 24 hour news cycle, where we want to know all the details moments after it happened; in a world where people want answers not now but two minutes ago; is it allowable to put things off for a bit?

In the end it is all about priorities.  Caring for ourselves, getting what needs to be done, meeting the needs around us all depend on priorities.  As one colleague of mine used to be fond of saying (often after a meeting where everything was described as being a "high priority" item): "If everything is the top priority than nothing is the top priority".  If we fail at the setting of priorities then we have set ourselves up for burn-out, and/or misplaced resources, and/or missed opportunities, and/or a whole other range of negative results.

As people who strive to follow Jesus, it is sometimes helpful to look there for a model.  In our readings for this week Jesus is fairly clear about priorities.  He challenges those who wish to follow him on what is important, he sets a priority to go and find time alone (self-care), he goes somewhere new even though there still appears to be work to do where he is. 

As for procrastination, that too is a question about priorities.  What looks like procrastination to one person may be taking time for self-care, or may be time for the brain to digest/mull over a topic to someone else.  In the end it is about what gets accomplished (and on what timeline), less than how it gets accomplished.  Procrastination can lead to difficulty of course, but sometimes it is needed if we are to do our best work.

And now, if you will excuse me, I need to go check Facebook, scroll through my Twitter feed, and maybe play a game or two...

Monday, November 11, 2013

Looking Forward to November 17, 2013

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Romans 8:28-31
  • Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
The Sermon title is:Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Early Thoughts:  There are certain phrases that probably should be stricken from our repetoire.  And the irony is that many people use them in a desire/attempt to be comforting.

"God must have needed another angel"
"God never closes a door without opening a window"
"God never gives us more than we can handle"
"Time heals all wounds"
"It must be God's will"
 "Everything happens for a reason"

To be frank most people find these statements, when offered in the face of tragedy, generally unhelpful and sometimes downright infuriating. 

One of the most perplexing questions in Christian theology is "Why do bad things happen?" [often with the add-on "to good people" and the corresponding "why do good things happen to bad people?"]

If God is in control then why do young children die of illness or accident or willful action?  Why do people get cancer?  Why does a person have to watch his/her life partner descend into dementia?  Why do we see (over and over again) reports of "ethnic cleansing" and genocide?  If God is in control, if God is all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful why do terrible things happen?  Is it all part of a grand plan?  Does everything happen for a reason?

To make it a more difficult discussion, it is fairly clear that much of the Scripture witness supports the idea that God is in control, that there is a plan, that things do happen for a reason.  And the only appropriate response in the minds of some people of faith is to say "it is all a mystery".

But what if God is not in control?  What if God is not in fact all-powerful? Then what?

That is where I have come to.  I don't think everything happens for some deep philosophical reason.  I think life is just like that.  This I think is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is referring to.   (As it happens, my Hebrew Scripture professor once suggested that this passage is a little bit depressing and fatalistic.) 

SO then what do we make of Romans 8:28 "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."?

That verse could easily support the idea that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan, that "it will all turn out for the best".  OR.  Or it could mean that the same God who turned the tragedy of the cross into the victory of Easter is willing to transform things.  Not to take away the pain, or the tragedy, or the rampant unfairness of life.  Just to, as the saying goes, make the best of a bad situation.  So things don't happen according to the plan, they happen and we adjust the plan in light of new information...

It isn't as neat as saying that  there is a reason, that this is part of a big plan but to me it is more honest.  It pushes us to wrestle with hard questions and in the end it is only in the wrestling that we find whatever hints of meaning, or learning from the events of our lives...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Looking Forward to November 10, 2013

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Psalm 46 
  • Philippians 4:4-7 

We will also have a reading from the AA Big Book.

The Sermon title is Key to Serenity

 Early Thoughts: It is a prayer well used within the 12 step movement (although popular usage changes the wording a bit from the original we will use on Sunday and posted here):
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, 
Courage to change the things which should be changed, 
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. 
But what is serenity? Where do we find it?

The 12 step folks will maintain, and I tend to agree with them, that serenity comes with acceptance, with balance, with a realistic look on life. At the same time I think there is more.

Another source of Serenity is to follow the wisdom found in verse 10 of our Psalm reading this week.  Be still and know that I am God.  Serenity comes, not from chanting/yelling/grunting "Serenity NOW!!!!!" (for those Seinfeld fans out there), but from remembering that God is present, God is in charge (if not always in control--we will talk about that difference next week) and God is constant.

Our peace and serenity don't come from us.  We can make choices that allow us to embrace it but we don't create it.  Our serenity comes from God and when we embrace it we are putting ourselves in God's care.  May God help us find the path to serenity, acceptance, wisdom, and peace.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

November Newsletter

How many failures do you have in your back pocket? Do you have enough? Are you willing to grab for them?

Last month, as a part of the program at the Banff Men's Conference, a group of us heard from the Right Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson, moderator of the United Church of Canada. As a part of his speech (sermon?) Gary reminded us that for every project that makes it big there are 9 or 10 that were abysmal failures. And then for each of those that even get to the point of being produced there are 9 or 10 that never made it off the drawing board. So in the end approximately1 out of 100 ideas makes it big.

The challenge of course is not only to deal with the (quite likely) chance that your idea will not work. The big challenge is to know how to learn from the failures. The challenge is to not get disheartened by the lack of success, but to be bold enough to fail again. He even suggested that if you don't have a long enough list of failures (and learnings from them) that means you are playing it TOO safe, that you are not risking enough newness. After all remember that a truly new product is not just putting a clock into something that already exists, newness is more than just tweaking the existing (despite what some advertisers might try to tell us).

Why did Gary share that bit of trivia with us? He was talking about the future of the church, how the United Church might move into that future. Why talk about the ratio of product ideas that make it big?

Maybe because we expect everything to succeed? Maybe because we are afraid to fail?

Twice in the last month I have heard the phrase “safe fails, not failsafe” (granted both people I heard it from attended the same event this summer so they may have had the same source). In most of our lives we spend a lot of time trying to make things failsafe. But how can we create an environment in which people feel safe to fail? How do we give room for experiments that may or may not work, or may take several tries to be a “success”?

Last year when Gary spoke to us he read the story of ScaredySquirrel, a squirrel who is afraid to leave his tree until one day circumstances force him to and he leaps out to find that he is in fact a flying squirrel. This year he told the story of workers on a oil platform that caught fire. They know that the chances of surviving the ocean (which is cold, which has oil floating on it that could also catch fire, which may have sharks in the area) are low. On the other hand, the chances of surviving while on a burning oil platform are pretty much zero. So at least one worker decides that low is better than zero and jumps.

Why would he tell us those stories?

Maybe because we need the courage to jump. Even if it seems like going from frying pan into fire, maybe we need to jump and trust.

So, the courage to fail, the courage to jump, the willingness to risk. Is that the way into the future?

I think so. The way into the future is going to involve more than playing with and adjusting the way we currently do church. The way into the future will mean trying new things. The way into the future will mean taking risks, trying new things, embracing the possibility of failure, jumping out of our safe trees without our emergency pack. Can we do that?

What new thing do you want us to try? What risky jump do you want us to make? Are we ready to jump into the future?

And remember that the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God in who we trust, the God we gather together to worship every Sunday is the God who proclaims in Scripture “Behold, I make a new thing, I make all things new”. May the God of the new thing give us the courage to take risks.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Looking Forward to October 27, 2013 -- Reformation Sunday

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Habakkuk 2:1-3
  • Revelation 21:1-7
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Sermon title is Que Sera Sera...

Early Thoughts:  There is a tradition (more strongly recognized in some churches than in others) that the Sunday before (or closest to) October 31 is a day to celebrate the Reformation [because according to tradition October 31 is the date on which Martin Luther launched the Reformation by posting his 95 theses].  But Reformation Sunday is not just about remembering the saints of the past, it is also about asking what Reformation is happening/could be/should be happening in the church of the present.  Because Reformation is a constantly ongoing process.

Reformation is a challenging business.  It makes us uncomfortable.  We are the inheritors (in part) of a Spiritual tradition that prized life being lived "decently and in good order".  True Reformation often is neither decent not orderly.  True reforming of our lives, our understandings, our structures is a messy, disorderly, untidy business.  In the process there are ragged edges, there are things we might find irritating or unwanted but that we need to hold on to for a while to see where they get to.

And in the end it is not us who is in control.  [Which may be the most unsettling aspect of the whole process.]  We certainly want to be in control, to shape the process, to work towards some pre-determined goal.  But we are the church.  As people of faith we claim the Someone Else is in control. And so to a degree part of being reformed is letting go, is learning to live -in trust- with some disorder, is waiting for the first signs of new fruit.  And in the end....what will be will be.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Looking Forward to October 13, 2013 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 26:1-11 
  • Luke 17:11-19
The SErmon title is You Are Blessed, Be a Blessing

Early Thoughts:  It is Thanksgiving.  Why is important to give thanks?

It is about more than just manners.  It is about how we view our lives.

A thankful life changes how we see the world.  When we remember how we are blessed (most importantly when we make ourselves remember that at times when we are tempted to feel hard done by) it changes how we interact with life.

God calls us to be a blessing to the world around us.  Can we do that without knowing that we have first been blessed?  Plausibly we could, but I would suggest it is easier and healthier to be a blessing because we know we have been blessed.

There is a common activity around Thanksgiving dinner tables to ask each person at the table to name one thing for which they are thankful.  That is a good start to our celebration.  I have another question or two to follow up...
What about us are people thankful for?
How can I be a blessing to the world around me?

What are your answers?????????

Monday, September 30, 2013

October Newsletter

Just a little dream,
who can blame a person for dreaming.
Wishing on a star
what are stars for anyway?
Walk beneath the stars
Hold your love close to you
Put your dreams upon a strong heart, they'll come true

(opening verse of “Just a Little Dream” by Connie Kaldor)

We people of faith are called to be dreamers. We are called to dream of and hope for a world that is changed. And if we don't have a dream than what are we looking for?

This weekend at our Presbytery meeting we asked folks to talk about a number of questions. This was one of them:

If your dream for your faith community came true what would it look like 3 years from now?

It is a challenging question isn't it. But I wonder what we would say. How would we, as individuals and corporately, answer that question? What do we hope our community of faith will look like in 3 years? And of course the follow up is to ask what we are going to do about making the dream a reality.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving...
...I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
(from “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables)

But hope is high. Life is worth living. Love will never die. God has been, is, and will be forgiving. Life may not be what we dreamed it would be. The world changes in ways we don't expect, and sometimes don't welcome. But does that have to kill our dream?

If your dream for your faith community came true what would it look like 3 years from now?

I have dreams, hopes, ideas. I have thoughts, vision, wonderings. How will we continue to be a faithful and faith-filled community? How will we not just continue but grow in our faith? There is not space for all of that here, but I will share one idea....

I want us to do another worship service. An evening (possibly mid-week) service once a month. And here is the catch. This service would be intentionally different than Sunday morning. And each month would be different from the month before. There would be no box, no template to it. It would be our chance to offer something different to the community.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
(from “Imagine” by John Lennon)

Now as with most dreams, this can't happen without help. So who is out there who wants to share in my experiment? It might work, it might flop a few times, but we only know if we try. That is how we make dreams come true – by experimenting, by taking risks.

Who is with me? Who wants to share their dream?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Looking Forward to October 6, 2013 -- Proper 22C, 20th Sunday After Pentecost

This Sunday is the First Sunday of October so we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this Sunday are:
  • Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
  • Psalm 137
The Sermon title is Faith Sings in Exile 

Early Thoughts: They were in exile. Forced from their homes, driven across the wilderness, how could they possibly sing the songs of faith?

And yet that is exactly what they are asked to do.  In fact they are told to do more than that.   Jeremiah says that in this strange land the people are to:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
As advice to exiles, to a people whose national identity was tied up with the land and the temple that is now occupied and destroyed it seems to go against all logic.  It would seem more sensible to tell them to keep the faith, to hang on, to wait until they are able to go home and be the people they once were.  But instead God tells them to live.  Not wait until they can be what/who they once were, but live.  Embrace the new place as if it were home and live there.  Can they do that?????

Well do they have much choice??????????

The image of exile and return, in addition to being one of what Marcus Borg calls the meta-narratives of Scripture, is one that has often been used to describe the church of the 21st Century.  And I have used it myself.  IT works n some ways.  The church finds itself in a whole new place, in a whole new world.  The rules, the landscape, the culture is different, strange, sometimes it seems unfriendly or hostile or threatening.  Aren't we in exile?  Who could blame us for wanting to return "home", to go back to that comfortable familiar place?

The problem I have with the exile image is that it suggests we can go back home some day (which is what Scripture says happened to the people of Israel -- at which point there is a struggle about those wives and children that Jeremiah encourages in this week's reading).  But the thought that we can go back leads us to spend too much time remembering what was, too much energy trying to recreate those "golden days" of yore.  Back in August Terry Leer wrote in the Daily Herald Tribune:
...hungering for the past is like feasting on cotton candy: Tasty while it lasts, but only tooth-rotting, empty calories in the end.
Nostalgia tricks us into thinking we’re doing what God wants. We cannot move forward if we are living in the past. The past cannot be recreated for our current circumstances have changed – almost beyond recognition. Our Sunday Schools are not full. Budgets are a problem. And most non-Christians regard the church with disdain and distrust.
Hungering for the past, for the time when Christians prayed in school, when the church was the centre of social life and when clergy were respected authorities in the community, will leave the church abandoned in the past. Nostalgia will not save the church – it will be the death of it.
So, what is the opposite of this religious nostalgia? Mission, God’s mission.

Maybe we too are called to live in the "exile" land.  Maybe we are called to sing the songs of faith (both old and new) in a strange land.  Maybe we should not yearn for what was and embrace what is. Can we do that????

Do we have much choice??????????

Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking Forward to September 22, 2013: Proper 20C 18th Sunday After Pentecost

This Sunday we will Celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
  • Lamentations 3:19-26 
  • Psalm 79 (VU p.793) 
The Sermon title is What Gets You Down? 

Early Thoughts: Have you ever felt that the world, or more precisely YOUR world, was falling to pieces around you?  Have you or a loved one struggled with depression?

Arguably Jeremiah did.  Tradition tells us that Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations in response to the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem.  We even have a word, jeremiad, that comes from his laments.

The UCCan worship resource Gathering had this suggestion for this week:
Sermon Starter
Last week the passage we read from Jeremiah described the desolation of the land. This week we read about the desolation of the people, perhaps an appropriate time to inform and educate the congregation about the issue of mental illness in our communities and country. Goodness knows, enough people in the pews are dealing with issues of mental illness including stress, anxiety, and depression, but they are probably suffering in silence. It’s time to open the discussion. (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health ( has information, statistics, and resources.) As the people of Jeremiah’s time found, it can be impossible to hold on to faith in the midst of depression, grief, and anxiety. Talk about the role of the faith community in being the strength and hope of faith for someone at a time in their life when they can’t hold on to faith.
Normally I don't use many of the sermon starter suggestions in Gathering (often I find myself wondering where that idea came from).  But this one struck me as something that needed to be done.

Last time I checked (I have to do some research this week for current information) prescriptions for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications were increasing steadily.  Mental health issues are arguably reaching epidemic (or even pandemic) levels.  And to be honest the church has not always been helpful in response.

I hunch that we all know someone (relative, friend, co-worker) who has had struggles with depression or anxiety (or both).  Some of us are that person.  Sometimes it is a short "episode" sometimes it lasts for years, sometimes it is lifelong.  AS a community of faith how can we help each other in our struggles?  Can we help find the Balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Looking Forward to September 15, 2013 -- 17th After Pentecost, Proper 19C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 14
  • 1 Timothy 1:12-17

The Sermon Title is Who is the Fool?

Early Thoughts: Why believe in God? Who is the foolish one, the believer or the unbeliever?
The psalmist makes a bold statement when he says Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”. Richard Dawkins got a lot of press a few years ago for saying the exact opposite in his book The God Delusion. 

Many years ago Blaise Pascal laid out Pascal's Wager, a statement that said the safest bet was to believe. Pascal argued that if you believed and there was no God, then you lost nothing. But if you didn't believe and there was a God judging you at the end of life then you lost everything. That would be a reason to believe (not necessarily a good one but it is a reason). So why believe in something which, in the end, can not ever be actually proved?

In some ways this is a question that has plagued the church for years. There have always been atheists and agnostics who challenge the concept of faith. In the last century however the challenge has become more strident. Likely this is due to a number of things: the end of Christendom as a socio-political force, the continuing development of thought started in the Enlightenment period, the development of scientific theories and knowledge that directly challenged a literal view of Scripture, and horrific events such as the World Wars and the Holocaust. In fact in April of 1966 Time Magazine's cover story announced that "God is Dead"

And yet we still believe. Some believe experientially, that is we have experienced God's presence in our lives. Some believe "genetically", that is we have been raised in a believing family. Some of us have believed, have not believed, and have come back to believing. Are we deluded? Have we been indoctrinated (a charge used by some atheists regarding faith formation activities for children and youth)? Are we just following Pascal's wager and playing it safe?

In the end charges of foolishness where faith (or no faith) are concerned are probably not helpful. So are words like delusion. In the end we each come to our own decision on whether and why (not) we believe. And that is as it should be. On Sunday we will explore a bit about our "God Delusion". Want to come and join in the foolishness of faith?

UPDATE: while the TIME story from 1966 is (sadly) no longer available without a subscription (as of 6 years ago it was available) here is a NEWSWEEK cover story from 2009 on a similar topic, the article title is "The End of Christian America"

Monday, September 2, 2013

Looking Forward to September 8, 2013 -- 16th After Pentecost, Proper 18C

This week will be reading one Scripture lesson.  The letter to Philemon.

The Sermon title is What IF? -- An Experiment in Reading Scripture

Early Thoughts: What preconceptions do we carry to Scripture?  What assumptions do we make about what is being said and what "everyone" knows about the story?

I suspect there are more answers to those questions than we are aware of.  SO this week I am revisiting an experiment from my first seminary class in New Testament Studies.  This will involve dialogue, so consider yourselves warned!

We are going to read Philemon as if it was the first and only Christian document we had ever seen.  What does it mean if we know nothing else?

Admittedly this is really difficult.  It is almost impossible to "un-know" something -- sort of like trying to unring a bell. 

I'll be honest, I have no idea how well this will work.  That is why it is called an experiment.  Right?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

September Newsletter Piece

At our last Council meeting we responded to a request from Presbytery to host the February meeting. Yes we hosted Presbytery only a couple years ago, so why are we being asked so soon?

Well at my first meeting of this Presbytery I shared a hope that we would have a youth event in conjunction with a Presbytery meeting. Effective ministry requires a “critical mass” of people to gather together, this is particularly true for Youth Ministry. And so in an area of small communities and small congregations sometimes have regional events is one of the best ways to support youth ministry. Over the last couple of years some people have been talking about this idea and have suggested that Presbytery have just such an event. Because St. Paul's is one of the largest churches in the Presbytery (both in terms of building size and in number of people) we were asked to host this meeting and the associated Youth Event.

As it happens, at that same meeting the Joint Needs Assessment Committee presented their report to council. In that report it was noted that the congregation had expressed a strong desire to do more to support ministry with youth and young adults. As we discussed whether St. Paul's could meet the request from Presbytery (more the discussion was about HOW we could meet it, we know we have the capacity) someone made the comment, “We just read the JNAC report that talked about supporting youth. How can we say no to this request?”. So St. Paul's is hosting Northern Lights Presbytery and a bunch of youth the last weekend of February 2014.

In order to do this we will need help. Council is hoping that someone will step up and serve as the co-ordinator for the weekend. We are looking for groups of people to volunteer to look after meals (Friday Supper, Saturday breakfast for the youth, Saturday lunch, Saturday supper [we think that the youth can do cereal/yogurt/fruit for Sunday breakfast]). WE need a person or a couple of people to staff the book table. We need a small group of people to look after coffee break supplies during the day on Saturday. We will need one male and one female chaperone to stay in the church with the youth on Friday night and another pair on Saturday night. And while folk from Presbytery will look after the programming for the Youth, we may need volunteer drivers to get them from place to place.

If you can be part of this opportunity to support the churches of Northern Lights in the ministry we share please let me know!!!!!!!!

Last winter we shared that Council had set a goal of strengthening community within the congregation. One of the comments made at that time is that one of the biggest things about building community is calling each other by name. But we don't always know or remember everybody's name. So I am challenging everyone to grab their name tag each and every Sunday morning and wear them. If you don't have or can't find a name tag then let the greeters know and they can let Carla know that you need one. I look forward to seeing a white patch on everyone's chest as I lead worship!!!

Finally, with the fall comes a start up of programming. While I was at a continuing education event last Spring I worked out an idea for a 6 week study on spiritual practices. Maybe we could call it Teach us to Pray. WE will look at different traditional Christian spiritual practices. Day and time yet to be determined.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Looking Forward to September 1, 2013 -- Labour Day, 15th Sunday After Pentecost

This being the first Sunday of September, we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 55:1-3, 10-13
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
  • Luke 12:22-32
The Sermon title is For What Do You Labour? 

Early Thoughts: On this Labour Day weekend we pause to think about the meaning of/for/in our Labour (in between watching football games of course).

The Isaiah passage asks us:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:2)

Good question isn't it? Why do we labour and labour and seem to have such trouble finding happiness or comfort? Or, as Jesus asks, why do we worry all the time?

Of course we labour, in part, to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Jesus may speak eloquently about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field but our lived experience tells us that we have to do more than simply trust the what we need will be provided.  And indeed Paul`s letter to the Thessalonians seems to speak against such  an approach.

And we labour at things we love, things we find are important. Remember that not all of our labour is paid, that not all of our labour is work/career. Parenting is labour, serving on community boards is labour, taking time for self (reading, walking -- whatever one does for refreshment) is also labour. It is of course hoped that some of this labour brings re-creation, that some of our labour is re-energizing as well as draining.

But the reality experienced by so many is that labour is labour is tiring. So many of us find ourselves exhausted by the labour we do for sustenance and by the labours of love. Why? Are we in fact going for the things that do not satisfy?

The words of Isaiah tell us of people who have lost their way. They talk of people who have lost (or abandoned) the connection with God. Their choices take them away from the promise and into the land of dry water and unfulfilling purchases. But they also point us to the cure.

The cure is to find the balance of our labour. The cure is to remember that our labour isn't meant as busy work, but that it is to bring us what we need. The cure is to remember that God is part of the labour, that unless we let God work in us (which is hard when we are constantly ont he treadmill of busyness and worry) we will not find that which we truly need. The cure is to trust that God will help us get what we truly need (if not everything we want) When we do that then we too can go forth with joy and celebration -- dancing trees and all.

But I am still dubious about living like birds and flowers. That level of trust seems a little bit beyond my capability.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Looking Forward to AUgust 18, 2013 -- 13th After Pentecost, Proper 15C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 5:1-7
  • Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
The Sermon title is Renewing the Vineyard 

Early Thoughts: What shape is your garden in? 

The image of the vineyard as a metaphor for the land of God is fairly common.  And of course the Scripture story both begins and ends in a garden.  Which makes us wonder who is caring for the vineyard?  ANd if the vineyard starts to fail how do we renew it?

What shape is the vineyard in?

As the church has developed over the centuries there has been a misguided understanding that the church is the vineyard (it isn't, it is a part of the vineyard--the vineyard is the Kingdom of God, or in this passage it is the kingdom of Judah).  Some churches have even called themselves Vineyard churches.  ANd while the church is not the whole vineyard, it is a part.  And we each have a responsibility to tend that part of the vineyard where we dwell.
So what shape is our part of the vineyard in?

And more to the point, if we sense the vineyard is falling into a state of disarray, how do we renew it?

Isaiah suggests that the vineyard falls into disarray when the caretakers don't follow the instructions, when they go their own way, when things are allowed to go wild.  So to renew the vineyard we have to stop and listen.  We have to pull ourselves back to the path.  ANd if we can't renew it maybe it will go back to the wilder part of the greater garden.

We renew the vineyard by trusting in the Gardener.  We bring life back by listening to the Voice of the One who has a vision.  It may be a different vineyard than what was there before.  It may be wilder, less controlled.  The protective fence may be gone, and that may be a good thing.  We need to catch the vision, so that life will come back to the vineyard.

How can we tend the part of the vineyard where we live????
How will we????

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Looking Forward to August 11 (using a reading from the Lectionary for August 25)

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is Hebrews 11:29-12:2

 The Sermon title is Faith That Endures

Early Thoughts:  What is faith?  What worth is faith?  Can we run the race and persevere?

And where does the cloud (or crowd) of witnesses come from?  Where do they fit in to our life now?

We are inheritors from those who have gone before us.  They are the cloud of witnesses.  They are the ones who have laid the road.  It is up to us to do the same for those who will come after us.

Faith is commonly equated (when used in a religious sense) with believing.  BUt it is far more than that.  Faith is one of the words Marcus Borg talks about in his book Speaking Christian.  In that volume Borg challenges the reader to recover earlier understandings of a variety of words and concepts.  Faith comes from the same Latin root as Fiduciary, being faithful is a matter of love and trust and commitment, not about believing (Borg also suggests that modern Christians use the word believe wrongly by the way).

So what is this faith that the writer of Hebrews is talking about?  Is it believing in a set of doctrines/statements/ideas or is it trusting in God, relying on God, floating in God as in a deep pool of water?  I suggest the passage only makes sense if it is the latter.  Trusting in God, floating in God (in whom, according to the book of Acts, we live and move and have our being) has empowered people to change the world despite hardships big and small.   Do we have the faith and trust to run the race that is before us and persevere?

We run our race in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses.  Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Harry goes out to face death at the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named he uses the fabled Resurrection Stone--a stone that can bring the dead back to life.  And so he marches off to his death with the support and comfort of those he loves who have died.  Yes, as he approaches the Death Eater camp he drops the stone and so the figures of those he loves disappear but Harry knows that he is not alone.  This is the great cloud of witnesses.  Those who have gone before us, with their own successes and failures, those who have run their race and continue to support the rest of us in the running.

The secret to faith that endure, to living faithfully within the cloud of witnesses is in remembering that we are supported by the cloud but not directed by it.  We are inheritors of those who have gone before, but not imprisoned by them.  If we are to live as faithful people we have to trust in the God who may call us in a whole new direction.  I read a quote on Facebook this week:
There are those of us who prefer a dead Christ in his place to a living one outside of our control.
There is truth in that.  The church is guilty of wanting to confine or contain God: Creator Christ and Spirit all 3.  But being faithful means trusting in the Living God, the Risen Christ, who shatters all boxes and preconceptions.  Can we embrace that God and run the race and persevere?

Only with faith and trust.  Add some dust and we can fly.

Shall we fly together?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Looking FOrward to July 14, 2013--8th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10C

The Scripture Reading this week is Luke 10:25-37.

The Sermon title is What Stops Us??? 

Early Thoughts: The Good Samaritan.  It may well be one of the best known stories in Scripture, a story that those of us who grew up in the church have heard many many times over the years.  And a story with so so many possible sermons in it.

One could preach on the commandment to love your neighbour, about how love is a verb and not an emotion.  Or one could preach on the whole "who is my neighbour" piece, the call to think beyond the box (arguably this is one of the most common directions to go with the parable).  One could read it from the point of view where the Samaritan is the hero, reaching out beyond the lines of culture and acceptance.  Or one could posit that Jesus' listeners may have felt more for the victim, waking up to find out that he has been helped by, of all things, a Samaritan.  Sometimes loving outside the lines means accepting help as well as giving it.  But I think there is another, more important question.

When we read the story, we sometimes tend to slide over the ones who didn't stop.   We might make some note about possible reasons why they didn't stop but they are rarely the focal point.  We choose to focus on the positive.  After all, we want to encourage or exhort each other to be like the Samaritan.  But let us be honest.   We don't do that, at least not all of the time.  So what stops us????

I am quite sure that if you did a poll of the general population you would find that the majority of folks think that helping someone in need is the better choice.  I even suggest that this would be true regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof).  But I am equally sure that the majority of people are often reticent about offering that help.  What stops us???

It is somewhat fashionable in theological circles to claim that it is selfishness and self-centredness pure and simple.  WE don't help because we don't believe it is in our best interests.  There may be times when that is the case.  But I have a higher opinion of people than that.

One study done a number of years ago suggested that we are too busy, in too much of a hurry (or at least we believe that we are) to stop and help.  Here is a description of that study (taken from this site, emphasis added):
In the book you give a wonderful example of the power of context: the experiment done on the seminarians.
Oh, yes. There was a study done at a seminary in the 1970s, in which seminarians were told to prepare a religious paper that they then were supposed to deliver as a speech in a conference hall in a nearby building. The architects of the experiment made sure that as the seminarians were walking to the conference hall they would pass a man writhing on the ground in pain. The question was, Who would stop and help? The experiment was set up with three variables. First, all of the seminarians were given a questionnaire asking them why they had gone into the ministry. Was it to help people? Was it for spiritual and intellectual stimulation? Second, some seminarians were told to prepare their paper on the story of the Good Samaritan, and to make it the subject of their speech. Finally, some of the seminarians were told that they had to hurry, that they only had a very limited amount of time before they had to give their speech; others were told that they had a lot of time. The question was, Which variable would be most important in determining who would stop to help the man writhing on the ground?
The seminarians' stated reasons for being in the ministry didn't seem to have much impact on their behavior as they passed the man writhing on the ground. Whether they had just studied the story of the Good Samaritan had no impact. The only thing that really seemed to matter was whether the seminarians were in a hurry: those who were didn't stop. To me that's just a wonderful example of how important our immediate context is in determining our behavior. I'm sure these seminarians were all very kind, thoughtful, generous people, but the point of the story is that there are certain contextual conditions in which all of those intrinsic personality traits can be thwarted. To me, there's a powerful lesson there, which can be applied to the control of problems like crime -- namely, that there are conditions that can allow people to express their better side. Maybe what has happened in a lot of our inner cities is the equivalent of the seminarians' having been told to hurry: situations have been created that cause people to act like jerks.
When we are busy or in a hurry we are less likely to offer help.  I suspect many of us can feel the truth of those words in our own experience.  This is part of the answer to my question.

But I think probably the biggest reason why we don't stop is that we have been convinced that it is not safe to do so.  There are urban legends about the use of an injured child as bait for a mugging/sexual assault/murder plot.  There are plentiful stories about people who stop to offer assistance and then it goes bad.  Every day on Facebook I read people in Grande Prairie saying they would never offer help, or open their door to an unknown person at the door, because they are convinced the person is trying to do them harm.  This is the real problem.  Not that we are uncaring, but that we are afraid.

Why don't we stop?  Why do stories of Good Samaritans still appear to be the exceptions rather than the rule?  We need more than encouraging each other to do what, in our heart of hearts, we know is the better choice.  We have to seriously talk about the things that keep us from helping.  We have to address the twin taskmasters of busy-ness and fear.  Then maybe more people will stop.  And that can only make us a better society as a result.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Looking Forward to July 7, 2013 -- 7th After Pentecost, Proper 9C

(Although for those who are picky one of the Amos passages comes from Proper 10C and the others are thematically related but not in the Lectionary for this summer)

The Scripture Readings for this Sunday are:
  • Amos 2:6-8; 5:21-24; 7:7-9; 8:4-7
  • Psalm 82 (VU p.799)
The Sermon title is Evaluation Time ... 

Early Thoughts: Prophets (both modern and ancient) are clear.  There will be a call to accountability, there will be a time of reckoning.  And sometimes, like Amos, they really don't pull their punches.

What shall we do with these passages?  They are not always comfortable to read are they?

What shall we do with these passages so that we don't get lumped into the same category as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson?  I mean really there is little philosophical difference between announcing the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem for their moral/ethical failings and decreeing that the Haitian earthquake or hurricane Katrina or the Boston marathon bombings are a result of the moral/ethical failings of the present.

What shall we do with the call to accountability?  I assume we still think such a call is worthwhile.   I assume we still think that there is a time when we need to take stock of how well we live up to the mark, how "plumb" we are.

I think that the first part of that process is to ask what the measuring standards will be.  Amos gives us some guidelines.  What is the important stuff?

Then we have to seriously ask ourselves how well we meet those standards.  How well have we kept track of what is truly important? 

And then we remind ourselves that we wait and work for the time when we let "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream".

Thursday, June 27, 2013

July Newsletter Piece

I know it is summertime and we are all want to coast into the lazy hazy days of light topics and beaches and cold beverages but this is what is on my mind this week....

Poverty. Specifically poverty in Grande Prairie and what we can do about it.

A couple weeks ago I received an invitation to attend 2 half-days of meetings to do some visioning on that very topic. And because this is a very important issue, and because it is an issue the faith community needs to be involved in, I went.

If you were to describe the reality of poverty in Grande prairie what words/phrases/pictures would come to mind? If someone asked you what we could do about poverty in Grande Prairie would you have suggestions?

We started out by defining poverty as (working from memory so the wording might be a bit different) “The lack of secure and sustainable access to basic rights such as food, shelter, education, clothing health, and safety” [I pushed for the use of 'rights' instead of 'needs' because that language pushes us to action]. And then we talked about who in Grande Prairie is impacted by poverty.

Some are directly impacted: those who live pay cheque to pay cheque, those who live on set/fixed incomes, those who experience episodic poverty because of seasonal fluctuations in work (such as break-up). But we also recognized that in the end we are all impacted by poverty. Not only are many (most? all?) families a missed pay cheque or two away from real financial hardship but when we find ways to lift the least of our community out of poverty then we are all healthier.

After defining a vision and mission statement for the Community Action to End Poverty (CAEP) group in Grande Prairie we started to develop a plan. I left to go to another meeting before this was done but I know there were some great ideas out there about what can and needs to be done.

My question now is where do we fit in. Lisa Watson from the City was very clear that she wants the faith communities at the table as this moves forward. There were 3 ministers present this week. At least one of us will likely end up on the committee moving forward. What do we have to share?

I think we have a role in two ways. One is that we are a place where issues get discussed, where hard questions get asked, where information gets shared. Poverty-reduction work is often hampered by assumptions and mis-information, and pre-conceptions so a place for open discussion is vital.

The other big gift I think we have to offer is that we believe in two very key things. One is the possibility of transformation. Repeatedly in our discussion I mentioned that we are taking about transformative work if we are serious about this task. Transforming the culture, transforming the society, transforming the way we interact is the way to eliminate poverty. As followers of the Resurrected One we know that transformation is possible.

We also believe in the centrality of a call to justice. Not just fairness, not just equality but justice. Justice is what makes us demand (and demands of us) that all people have those basic rights met. Justice is not treating everybody the same. Justice means that sometimes you give one person more support to compensate for something else. As spiritual descendants of Amos and Isaiah and Jesus we are people who live into God's justice. This helps us (and requires us) to work to reduce and eliminate poverty.

CAEP is going to continue to work. I am sure we will hear more about what they are doing over the next few months. Governments at all levels will be part of the work. But citizens need to be as well. Only as a whole community can we embrace transformation. Together, we can reduce poverty. I trust that the people of St. Paul's will pray for and support this work as best they can.

A final reflection on these meetings. In our discussion it was noted that when something sudden happens when a major disaster strikes and 1000's of people are left without the basic rights in our poverty definition because of, say a historic flood in Southern Alberta, there is a massive push for voluntary and governmental relief. It can be argued that people living in poverty is an ongoing disaster across the country. Where is the same push for relief?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Looking Forward to June 30, 2013 -- 6th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 8C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Galatians 5:13-26 
  • Matthew 7:12-20
The Sermon title is What Fruit Are You?

Early Thoughts: How do we judge something? By appearance or by substance?  How do we judge ourselves and each other?  By our words or our deeds?  By our appearance or our substance? By our beliefs or our actions?

The passages we read this week make it clear that substance, actions and deeds count more than appearance, words (although to be fair words can be counted as deeds or actions), or beliefs.  And this is hardly news to most of us.  Remember the old adage about not judging a book by its cover?

Now of course we all tend to judge books by their cover.  For me the thing that will make me take a second look at a book is usually the title, possibly along with the author's name and the cover art.  And in the end we tend to do the same with people.  Just watch how people react to a picture shown of a "person of interest" in a crime story.  If the picture makes them look slovenly or dis-sheveled people jump to the conclusion that they are somehow in the wrong.  (I would point out that many of us have pictures of ourselves where we may look like less than prime citizens)

In the same way people make assumptions about how we will react to issues based on our membership is certain groups.  Or because of our position in society.  Or because of our age/skin tone/gender/sexual orientation....

THe passages this week tell us to look beyond all these things.  Yes where we came from, who we hang around with, our place in society are important.  Yes they help shape who we are.  But they do not necessarily define us.  What should define us (for both our self-definition and how other define us) is the fruit that we bear.

So what fruit do you bear?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Looking Forward to June 23, 2013 -- 5th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Kings 19:1-13
  • Matthew 14: 23,24a
  • Mark 1:35-37
The Meditation Title is The Sound of Silence 

Early Thoughts: To misquote Simon and Garfunkel: "Hello silence my old friend...."  But is that really how we approach silence?

How much silence do you find in your life? How much silence to you invite into your life?

Silence is more or less an urban legend for most of us these days.  Many of us always have the radio, or a CD, or the television on to provide background noise to our lives.  And then there is all that other background noise that we just can't escape.  But what would be the benefit of more silence?

Would more silence be oppressive or freeing?  Would we welcome it or fear it? (or possibly both)

It is my belief that we need more silence, we need more times to sit and listen and reflect.  All too often the constant background noise contributes to my busy-ness, it reduces my ability or inclination to sit and reflect and ponder.

Scripture (which was written in a time when silence may have been easier to find) is clear that silent times are a good thing.  Silence times are part of how Jesus re-energizes himself.  Silence times are sometimes how we become aware of God's presence.

I encourage us to find silence times.

Now of course there would be something highly ironic about a service that talked about silence but did not include it.  (Let us be honest and admit that most United Church, most Protestant churches for that matter, have very little silence in our worship -- we seek to fill almost every minute with words of some sort)  So this week we will have a time of silent meditation interspersed with the Lord's Prayer.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Looking Forward to June 16, 2013 -- 4th Sunday After Pentecost Proper 6C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 32 (VU p.759)
  • Galatians 2:15-21
  • Luke 7:36-8:3
The Sermon title is Forgiveness, Justification, Grace 

Early Thoughts: For many people these words lie at the very heart of Christian theology.  And of course there are several sermons that can be spun out of each of those words.

One of the meta-stories of Scripture is the story of the God who forgives us when we miss the mark.  Some people will try to claim that this is THE story of Scripture.  I disagree.  There are other meta-stories about being released from bondage, about being made well/whole, about being in exile and coming home.  These are all images on par with forgiveness when it comes to talking about renewing our relationship with God, with being the people God would want us to be.  But certainly the question of forgiveness is a key point in Scripture.

God is one who forgives.  In both Jewish and Christian Scriptures God is one who forgives.  Jesus proclaims that fact in his ministry.  Paul proclaims that fact in his ministry.  The writer of Psalm 32 proclaims and celebrates that in his poem/song.

God forgives not because of anything we do.  God is not bought off by good or merciful acts.  God does not forgive because of what we believe.  Nor, in my belief structure though others will call what I am about to say heretical, does God forgive because the death of Jesus on the cross paid a blood price on our behalf.  God forgives because God is gracious.  God forgives through the Grace of God.

In his book Free of Charge (see a review I wrote of this book here) Miroslav Volf describes forgiveness as acknowledging that a wrong has been done but then setting it aside without punishment.  This is an act of grace.  The challenge for us as people of faith is that we are called to forgive as God forgives.  God's grace is abundant enough.  Is ours?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Looking Forward to June 9, 2013 -- 3rd Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Reading this week is Psalm 146 (VU p.868)

The Sermon title is Whom Shall We Trust??? 

Early Thoughts: Trust.  Some of us would claim that trust is the foundation of human society.  Imagine life without the ability to trust (admittedly some do not have to imagine this).

The Scripture story is clear in many places that even when other humans prove less than trustworthy we can/should trust in God.  Now I am the first to admit that there are times in the Scripture story where trusting in God seems a dubious activity.  I will also admit that there are times in the life of faith where I forget to trust, where I can't "let go and let God".  But in the end we need to trust.

We need to trust others, we need to trust ourselves, we need to trust God.

The Psalmist gives us reasons to trust God.  Sometimes life gives us reason to be wary.  How do we reconcile the two?

Trust.  An easy word to say.  Pretty easy to spell.  A good and needed thing to do.  But sometimes very difficult.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

June Newsletter Piece

How do you feed your Spirit?
A month ago I attended a continuing-education event developing spiritual leadership. One of the points being made was that to provide spiritual leadership one needs to develop and feed one's own spirituality.

Coincidentally, at yesterday's meeting of the Grande Prairie ministerial the devotion was about dealing with or avoiding exhaustion and burn-out. And the proposition was that one reason church leaders end up exhausted is that in the pressure to live out the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves we neglect the commandment to love God with our whole being. And then we fail to take care of the relationship with the One in whom, to quote St. Paul, we live and move and have our being.

So, in the midst of the busy-ness of the world, how do you feed your Spirit?
As I have told many people over the years, it is my firm belief that all people have a spiritual side that needs to be fed. Some people meet that need through yoga, or Tai Chi, or walking along the lake/seashore, or through artistic endeavours, or through participation in a faith community [note that this is a sample list, there are many other possibilities]. Some people (maybe most people) use a combination of things. Some people are not aware of the need at all – until something goes wrong. But my bias is that we all have this need and that if we do not meet it we will pay a price.

So how do you feed your spirit?
What price might we pay if we do not take care of our spiritual side? What happens if life becomes unbalanced in this way?

I suggest we might find our energy and passion failing us. I suggest we might lose sight of what is important in our lives. I suggest that our quality of life feels lower. I suggest that in the end it will start to impact our physical and mental health, that it impacts how able we are to do our daily tasks.

So how do you feed your spirit?
When I have this sort of discussion with couples preparing to get married I make it clear that this is not the “come to church” bit of the process. Because after all, I am talking to adults who can (and will) make their own choices. But I have the discussion because it is my firm belief (and I share my obvious bias that this work is best done in community) that caring for our whole selves makes us healthier individuals, healthier spouses, healthier parents, etc. And so I have an ethical responsibility to bring it up. Now I have a further question for you:

How does/could being part of THIS faith community feed your spirit? How do we support each other in developing as spiritual beings? How might we do it better? Too often, in my experience anyway, United Church folk become too rational, too focused on practical matters. I think we can do far better at helping each other grow spiritually. And I want us to find ways to do that. Starting in the fall. Who's with me?

In the meantime, over the summer, be sure to take time to feed your spirit!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Looking Forward to June 2, 2013--2nd Sunday After Pentecost

This Sunday we will Celebrate the Sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 96 (VU p.814)
  • Isaiah 42:9-13
  • Psalm 98 (VU p.816)
  • Colossians 3:16
The Sermon Title is Sing! Sing a Song!

Early Thoughts: Why do we sing?

If you ask many people what their favourite part of church services are they are likely to say "the music". People are far more likely to remember a hymn they really like (or really dislike) than a favourite sermon (despite what ministers might like to believe).

We sing in church because people are inherently musical, all cultures have music. We sing in church because Scripture encourages, nay commands, us to sing. We sing our joys and we sing our laments. We sing our way through the faith story -- in fact more people learn the Christmas story through carols than through reading the Scriptural text. We sing to remind us of God active in our lives, to remind us of God's hopes for the world, to remind us of our obligation to respond to God's call. For many of us music is simply part of our faith life.

Where the question gets clouded is when we ask what do we sing. Do we only sing the old favourites or preference the new songs? How do we choose what is "singable"? Well we sing both old an new (remembering that every old favourite was once a new piece. We look at the words and at the music. Sometimes we let go of an old favourite because the words don't have meaning for us anymore. Sometimes we can change the words a little bit and still sing it. Sometimes new words can be sung to familiar tunes. And of course sometimes we need to stretch ourselves a bit and learn music that is different.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Looking Forward to May 26, 2013 -- 1st After Pentecost

This week we will mark the end of the Sunday School year.  And as part of that there is a lunch (or a "wiener boil" if you remember the announcement in the bulletin) following the service to which all are welcome.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • John 14:15-17, 25-27
  • John 20:19-23
  • Matthew 28:16-20
The Sermon title is Sent Out in Jesus' Name

 Early Thoughts: Easter has happened, Pentecost has come, now what?

The Gospels are fairly clear about the answer to that question.  You go out into the world.  What you do out there has been the subject of a great deal of theological debate and controversy over the centuries.  But you simply have to go out into the world and live as though Resurrection means something, as though the Spirit blowing through your lungs makes a difference.

We go out into the world to baptize.  We go out into the world to share truth (or is that Truth?).  We go out into the world to be people of peace.

Last week we heard the story of Pentecost as the writer of Luke-Acts tells it.  This week we hear the way Matthew and John cover some of the same territory.  Maybe not quite as spectacular as Acts tells it.  But the point is the same.  We are sent out in Jesus' name.  Our hands are ready now.  To make the World a place in which the kingdom comes.

The real question is how will we do that?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Looking Forward to May 19, 2013 -- Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday we will Celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Genesis 11:1-9
  • Acts 2:1-21
The Sermon Title is Babel Babble Baffled 

Early Thoughts: Near the beginning of our faith story people are separated, driven apart by their different languages.  Near the end of the Scripture story those self same divisions are broken down as people lose themselves in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is often called the "birthday of the church".  As the writer of Luke-Acts tells the story it is only at Pentecost that the early followers of Jesus gained the confidence/courage/certainty that they needed to move out from amongst themselves and build a broader community.  Without Easter there would be no faith community.  Without Pentecost it may never have become more than a small local movement.  Such is the power of the Spirit to move within and through people.

AS people of faith we are called to allow the Spirit to feel our bodies, we are called to let the Spirit blow us where it will (which may or may not be the direction we intended to go).  This can be a threatening challenge.  But Pentecost reminds us that what seems impossible is in fact possible.

The tower of Babel story is about people being divided.  Life in the Spirit is about people being united (remembering of course that unity is not uniformity -- the people in Jerusalem that day each heard their own language, they did not all hear the same language).  How is the Spirit at work in our communities?  What walls of division are being broken down?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Looking Forward to May 12, 2013 -- 7th Sunday of Easter

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Revelation 22:12-21
  • John 17:20-26
The Sermon title is: Ut Omnes Unum Sint, Akwe Nia’Tetew√°:neren

Early Thoughts:  What do those words mean?  The Latin is "That All May be One".  The Mohawk is "All My Relations".  They are included on the crest of the United Church of Canada and come from the Gospel reading for this week.  Jesus prayer for his followers, prayed just before his arrest, trial, and execution, is that:
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.(verses 22-23)

Back in time, this sentiment was included on the crest because there was a dream that the events of 1925 were a precursor to a series of unions that would created one united Protestant church in Canada.  A wonderful dream.  Not all that likely to become a fact sometimes it seems that rather than May Be One we should be saying Maybe One?...

So what do those words mean for us today?  When the Mohawk was added to the crest last year (Mohawk was chosen because the Mohawk were the nation that the first Methodist missionaries worked with) it was noted that although the English translation was different, the 'sense' of "All My Relations" was the same as the 'sense' of "That All May Be One".  So how do we tie that 'sense' to our lives as people of faith?

As usual with such things, I am sure there is more than one "right" answer.  But at the same time the answers are related.  It is my firm belief that the "right" answers all have to do (as does so much of living as a person of Christian faith) with how we treat each other.  They have to do with respect, with caring, with seeing them not as the other but as one of us, with the importance of focusing on what links us instead of what keeps us apart.  How does it change our attitudes and behaviour to take these phrases to heart?  How does it effect the choices we make towards the people who sleep on our doorsteps, the ones who cut us off in traffic, the ones who teach our children, the ones we elect to government?

How do we live lives that show how we care for "all our relations"?  Do we share Jesus'' prayer that "all may be one"?