Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Christmas Letter from the Chair of Presbytery

Brothers and Sisters:

I write this on the Saturday before Advent begins as there is a flurry of activity in the church putting up Christmas decorations. I guess I can no longer pretend that Christmas is months away and have to start getting more prepared.

We now enter one of (if not THE) the busiest months of the year, both in the church and in the world around us. And yet a month from now the fuss will be almost over for another year, in just over a month the decorations will be put away and the turkey will be made into soup. And maybe we will all have caught our breath again.

But in amidst the bustle of gift shopping and wrapping, the baking, the special events, the worship planning can we pause to find a moment (or a series of moments) to just experience the season? Can we stop and listen for angel song and look for the light of a strange new star?

That is my hope for all of us this season. My hope is that we can shut off the busy-ness and once again feel what it is like for God to break into our world. Because without that all the coloured lights and gaily wrapped gifts and plates of baking lose their meaning (except for chocolates—chocolates always have a meaningful place in life).

So I ask you today. How is Christ being born in your midst? Where is the Light of the World shining in the shadows of your communities?

I pray that we can all be open to see the Christ-child in places that we don't expect – because that is where we most often find God. I pray that in a world full of shadows, and here I remember my favourite Advent hymn (Tomorrow Christ is Coming, #27 in Voices United) which says “The world is full of darkness, again there is no room”, we will see the light shining. The light which shines in the darkness but the darkness can not overcome is coming into the world again. Do not be afraid, for this is news of great joy for all people. A child is born. A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.

Blessed Christmas to one and all!


Monday, November 24, 2014

Looking Forward to November 30, 2014 -- 1st Sunday of Advent

Our Advent Candle readings this year are written by Rev Martha K. Spong, a United Church of Christ minister in the US.  They can be found here (though we will be using them as all read by candlelighters instead of as congregational responses)

Our Scripture reading for the first Sunday of Advent is: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19

The sermon title this week is The Christmas Vision

Early Thoughts:  Advent is a time of hope.  A time of waiting.  A time of vision.  What is your vision this Advent?  What is OUR vision this Advent?

As we prepare for Christmas we are not only preparing for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago.  We are preparing for Christ to come into our world today.  We are waiting, as we are all year round, for the world to be changed, for the Kingdom of God to come into full bloom.  And when we look at our newsfeeds it seems we could honestly say "how much longer?"

But still there is the vision.  It is the vision and the hope that keep us moving forward.

There is not a lot of cause for hope in these readings.  Habakkuk lived in a land that had been, and still was devastated by warfare.  There is little to no light on the horizon.  Dawn is a LONG way off.  But still Habakkuk talks about the vision, still he exhorts folk to keep the vision in front of them, still he says it will (eventually, at the appointed time, in God's time) come to fruition.

What is the devastation we see around us?  What is the vision just over the horizon?  What do we hope for this Christmas?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Looking Forward to November 23, 2014 -- Reign of Christ Sunday, Jeremiah

This week we have two selections from Jeremiah:  Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

The Sermon title is From the Mouths of Babes...
Early Thoughts:  Called as a child, convinced he was too young, Jeremiah goes on to challenge the understanding of the house of God....

Now there is nothing in the text to tell us how young/old Jeremiah is when he stands in the gates of the temple and gives his sermon, challenging the listeners to rethink their understanding of God.  But in conjunction with his call story it is tempting to see a teenager standing there lambasting the adults.  After all it touches a favoured saying from Isaiah "and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6) along with Jesus saying "Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:17).  And there is something attractive about the idea that children/youth are sometimes (often??) wiser than their older neighbours.

Within the Jewish Scriptures there is a variance in the idea of God's protection.  One strand holds that the Promised Land belongs to the people for ever and ever amen.  And in that stream the fact that the House of God (the temple) stands in Jerusalem gives Jerusalem special protection.  Another stream holds that the gift of the land may be revoked if the people do not live up to their part of the covenant.  If the people fail to live as God would have them live then there will be consequences.  AS do most of the Prophets, Jeremiah here stands in the latter stream.

In some ways he is in the same place as Micah from a couple of weeks ago.  Micah points out what God wants is not sacrifices of rams but justice kindness and humility.  Jeremiah points out the hypocrisy of ignoring God's desires, of worshiping other Gods, and then standing in the temple calling on God to protect the nation.

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year.  As we prepare for Advent to begin, we pause to consider how the Kingdom is closer this year than it was a year ago.  Jeremiah suggests that if we live lives of justice then we will know that God is in our midst.  So where are we along the way (because the profession of Christian faith has always been that the Kingdom is already here and yet the full bloom of the Kingdom is still coming--the Now and the Not Yet.

Referring back to Jeremiah's call experience, what needs to be pulled down and plucked out so that the Kingdom will bloom?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Looking Forward to November 16, 2014 -- Texts From Isaiah

This week, as we  continue our romp through the Prophets, the Narrative Lectionary gives us a few selections from Isaiah:
  • Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20
  • Isaiah 37:1-7
  • Isaiah 2:1-4
The sermon title is Whose Voice is Louder?

Early Thoughts:  I think I will begin this week with a quote from the Working Preacher commentary (a commentary I read every week):
We can learn from this story some basic dynamics of fear and trust.
1. The Assyrian king’s messenger speaks in the language of the Hebrew people, rather than Assyrian, a strategy to intimidate people on their own terms. Such voices try to “get into our heads,” using the things or people we care about most to provoke fear.
2. The loudest voice gets our attention. In Isaiah’s story, all the people line the city wall to listen to the impressive Assyrian delegation pronounce threats. We, too, are riveted by voices crying, “be afraid!” Even when we know God is faithful, the megaphone of fear captures our attention, quickly dominates our awareness, banishing our trust in God to a distant whisper.
3. We are formed by these loud voices. Just as Hezekiah and his retinue tore their clothes and put on sackcloth, we react, too. The daily barrage from Facebook to cable news is loud. That voice becomes “the way things are,” and defines reality, denying the deep, true reality of God’s life within and among us.
4. In the midst of anxiety, a leader whose gaze is clearly focused on God can make a difference. Hezekiah warned the people ahead of time not to listen to the threats, to keep their gaze focused on the God who had delivered them rather than on these bullies, no matter how impressive their uniforms were. And he turns to Isaiah to help him keep his eye on God. So, too, we need leaders who draw our eyes back to the One who made us, who knows our going out and our coming in, who keeps us and saves us. This One has the final word, defines reality, and steeps us love that casts out fear.
5. God’s first words are: “Don’t be afraid” (Isaiah 37:6). While telling people not to be afraid does not banish all fear, it is the first step to interrupting the false narrative of intimidation. “Be not afraid” is the word of truth in the midst of lies. We must proclaim this word to one another again and again.
6. God’s mission for the world is in contrast to fear, a different frame of reference altogether (Isaiah 2: 1-4). In this frame of reference, God is at the center. Isaiah draws attention away from the gaze on military might and toward the reign of God. Jerusalem is not the beleaguered people under threat, but the center of life-giving teaching, the flourishing of life, and a source of light for all people. When our gaze shifts from a horizon of fear to a horizon of hope, trust in God grows deep roots that sustain life.
As I read these passages with two voices offering contrasting messages the first question that came to my mind was the sermon title.  Whose voice is louder?

Unlike King Hezekiah we may not have an invading army at our gates.  But we have people trying to convince us that we do.  We have many voices in our world attempting to convince us of our dire threat and that the only appropriate response is to strike out/strike back.  But we also have many voices in our world that tell us different things, that share a different point of view.  Which voices are louder?

Really though I think my question is wrong.  The question, when it gets right down to it, is not which is louder.  The question is "which voice will we listen to?".  Will we listen to the voice of fear and destruction (We may think propaganda is a new-ish weapon of warfare but in this story Sennacherib of Assyria uses it masterfully) or will we listen to the voice of calm, the voice which says relax and trust?  Will we listen to the voice of hope and peace?

Well?  Which voice do we want to listen to?  Which voice do we actually listen to?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Letter to the Editor

Next Sunday there is an event called "Islam 101" happening in Grande Prairie. (Info here).  This is the second year running that the same group has held an event I find concerning. (see article from last year here)  As I researched this event and the speaker I became very concerned about the content and so have drafted the following letter to the editor for the local paper:

This is a letter I really wish I did not have to write, because writing it reflects my deep disappointment with some of my fellow residents of Grande Prairie.

A while back a poster was dropped off at the church advertising an event to be held at the Pomeroy on the afternoon of November 16. The event is called Islam 101 and the speaker is Bill Warner. I think an event to introduce us to what Islam is sounds like a great idea because I strongly believe we are a stronger society if we get to know about each other's beliefs. This event, however is most definitively (in my opinion) not what we need.

Because of comments made to me from a variety of sources I looked up the speaker who was coming. This is not someone I believe will give a helpful or fair picture of Islam. Indeed he has, under his actual name Bill French (his own website lists that Bill Warner is a nom de guerre) been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US as a part of the“Anti-Muslim Inner Circle”. As I perused his site on Political Islam I was deeply troubled. The content on that site, while not exactly hate speech, is the sort of rhetoric that leads quite directly to incidents like the vandalizing of a mosque in Cold Lake just a couple of weeks ago.

The other concern I have about this event is that I can not understand why anyone would not invite a member of the Islamic community to do an introduction to Islam. Would it not make more sense to have someone who actually has credentials in the topic to present? The speaker who is coming does have a PhD. But it is in Physics and Math, not in Religious Studies. He is a self-declared expert on “Political Islam”.

As Christians we are called to be people of love. In John's Gospel Jesus says “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another...”. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells us “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies”. What I see in the proposed speaker for Islam 101 is not love of neighbour, friend or enemy. What I see in his writings are fear-mongering and the politics of division.

We can do better. The Grande Prairie we want to be is about building bridges between communities, not walls. We should avoid doing things that would cause harm or insult to our neighbours.

Rev. Gord Waldie
St. Paul's United Church

Friday, November 7, 2014

November Newsletter

It has often been said that your ministry lies where your passion, your gifts, and the needs of the world intersect.

So where is your ministry? Where is our ministry as a community of faith?

It seems to me that to know that we need to know three things.

First what are we passionate about? What are the issues or things you just can't let go of? What is it that you work on and get energized through the work? This may be the easiest question to answer as individuals. It is much harder as a community of faith because we have differing (and sometimes opposing) passions. But what is it that we as a faith community are passionate about?

Second we need to identify our gifts. Strangely this is often harder than we expect, both as individuals and as communities. I think that is in part because we don't feel comfortable naming our giftedness lest it seem like bragging. I think it is also in part because we have been conditioned by a lifetime of advertising to look at what we don't have, what we “need” instead of what we already have. We have been taught to see scarcity instead of abundance.

There is an approach to budgeting and planning that I find deserves a closer look. It is called asset-based budgeting. What you do is you start by listing all the gifts you have. This could be “stuff”. It could be buildings and property. It could be cash. It could be people – their talents, their connections, their time. Then when you have all the gifts listed out (each one on a sticky note for example) you can start to clump them together, to look for connections. Then you look at the clumps and ask what can be done with those things. [Note that this is a heavily simplified description based on my limited reading on the topic] This seems to me to be a great way to discover gifts that you did not even know you had. It also could be a way to see potential in something that always seemed relatively useless.

Finally we need to know what the needs of the world are. This one, I think, deceives us. Sometimes it is easy to tell ourselves we know what the world, or at least what our community needs. But we need to check on that. I have a suspicion that many of us get to know a subset of the community relatively well but the whole community? Particularly in a community that changes quickly it is hard to always know what is happening out there. And unless we know what is happening how do we know what needs we might be able to meet?

This is a question that has been niggling at me in all the visioning discussions we have been having at Council meetings. We talk about wanting to meet the community, about wanting to connect with the community, but what do we know about the community? I know we each know a bit. So part of the way to get a picture of the community is a variation of the asset-mapping approach. We each share our own snapshots and a fuller picture emerges.

I have a plan shaping in my head. (One of these days I should probably write it down in case it falls out of my head – which I guess I sort of am doing in this piece.) I invite us to take Monday evenings during Lent learning about our community. Or maybe more than just during Lent (because that is only 6 weeks and we might want more discussions than that). My thought is to have people come and talk with us about what is happening in Grande Prairie, about what the issues are. Then we can know more (which is always a good thing) as we talk about how we as a faith community respond to the needs around us. So my question to you is (assuming there is interest) who do we need to hear from?

I look forward to your input. More details about the study will come out in January.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Looking Forward to November 9, 2014 -- Words from Micah, Sunday Prior to Remembrance Day

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Micah 6:6-8
  • Matthew 25:31-45
The Sermon title is What Should We Do??

Early Thoughts: How should we live?  It is the quintessential ethical question.  How should we live?  How should we make decisions?  How should we act?

Micah tells us to love kindness, do justice, walk humbly with God.  Great.  Now what exactly does that mean?

Micah 6:8 has a prominent place in a lot of United Church discourse.  It forms the base of our Minutes for Mission this year.  It gives the structure for a recent video about the work of the Mission & Service fund.  But what does it MEAN?

How do we do justice?  How do we love kindness?  How do we walk humbly with God?

I think it is not about acts.  I think it is about attitude.  Especially in the last two.  And that attitude leads us to act in different ways.  A while back I read a book called Switch.  And the authors suggested that real change is not made by an ongoing act of will.  Because we get tired and the will fails.  Real change happens when the underlying patterns/systems/attitudes have been adjusted.  We can, in the short term will ourselves to act in a certain way.  But if we have a different attitude then the acts we want to make are automatic, not an act of will.

Which leads me to Matthew.  I love that passage, it is one of my favourite passages in Scripture.

It gives us a list of concrete actions that we could/should do.  But I think it also pushes us to see the world differently.  Not to see the "least of these" as those in need of charity but to see them as brothers and sisters deserving of our love and support.  When we see everybody in that way then how can we help but live as Micah (and Christ) challenge us?

It also strikes me that to live in this way is actually the path to peace as well.  Maybe this is what we need to hear on Remembrance Day--change how we see each other, change our priorities, change how we act.