Tuesday, January 26, 2016

February Newsletter -- Sabbatical Update

As some may remember, I will be on Sabbatical from the Victoria Day weekend (Sunday May 22 – 4 days before the 15th anniversary of my ordination) until Labour Day (September 5). The M&P Committee and I have been in discussion about the plans for this time and I thought it was time to give you all an update.

Sabbatical leaves in the United Church are intended to meet three goals. One is a time of rest/relaxation. A second is a piece of spiritual nourishment. The third is some form of academic stimulation. It is expected that the activities during the leave will relate to the practise of ministry within the congregation and that there will be some form of reporting back on learnings/experiences.

Many people plan a variety of activities and travels for their sabbatical. This works great when you don't have 4 children and a larger budget. So I am doing something different.

My plan is to do a lot of reading. Earlier this month I sat down and started building a reading list. Now I have to cull the list to a more manageable size. My plan is that for the reporting back aspect I will do an annotated bibliography of what I read. While this will be a document I can share in the fall it will also likely be posted online as I finish and comment on each book.

This reading will primarily be in two topic areas. The first is congregational and community development. This is a topic that has been talked at and around for all the time I have been in Grande Prairie. The half-time position that was in the 2009 JNAC report was largely intended to be doing this type of work. Since the position is not likely to become a reality in the near future it seems incumbent on me to develop some knowledge in the area as we continue to plot our path into the future. In addition to a list of books on this topic I have also started looking for some TED talk videos that relate and colleagues have given me some websites to explore.

The other topic area is going to be some reading in Pastoral Care. I have done little reading in this area since finishing seminary 15 years ago and thought it worthwhile to refresh myself and continue to develop a theology of Pastoral Care. It is my belief that everything we do as a church community has a Pastoral Care side to it, and also that everyone in the congregation is a part of this work. My proposed reading includes books talking about spiritual parenting and about working with older folk – the whole gamut of life. Oh and I just thought of another one to add to the list (a thought which helps explain why the list is already too long)!

A third area of reading, on the strong advice of the M&P committee will be “fun reading”. We learn best when a variety of sides of life are stimulated. When I was on internship we were required to read (and report on) at least one novel, in part to keep a bit of fun reading in our lives but also because good fiction also helps us understand life in a different way.

From the very beginning of the planning process M&P and I have been clear that part of the plan for the sabbatical time was to be family time. This consideration, as well as the rhythms of congregational life. Was a big part of why the leave is happening in the summer. Patty and I have started to talk about what that time might look like. A few years ago we had thought of going to Naramata for a week but unfortunately that is no longer an option.

In terms of the spiritual nurture, I am thinking of doing a retreat at a retreat house in St. Albert. If I can make contact with a spiritual director and come to an arrangement this will be a guided retreat. I last did this the year Miriam was born and found it very refreshing. 10 years later it is probably time for another one.

Oh and there is one last thing (and the fact I almost forgot to include it may show why it is important that it is part of the plan). With the support of M&P and the congregation I am trying to be intentional about getting more exercise. And so I will need to build into the plan not only time for reading but also time several times a week for getting exercise. If it works I might have to buy new clothes!!! (Unlikely but possible)

Obviously there are still details to be worked out. Like choosing a place to read. And setting a goal of how many books to complete. And probably a few others. But that is the plan thus far. More details to follow!


Monday, January 25, 2016

Looking Ahead to January 31, 2016

The Scripture reading this week is Mark 3:13-19; 6:7-16

The Sermon title is Where Are You Sent?

Early Thoughts: Spreading the Good News takes a lot of people.   Proclaiming and growing the Kingdom is a group task.

It has always been true. Being the people of God is a collective effort. Early in the journey across the desert Moses is overwhelmed by the task of leading the people and appoints assistants. And here Jesus shares the load by first appointing 12 apostles (those who are "sent out") and then later sending them out to teach and preach, to heal and cast out demons. 

ANd as a result the fame and knowledge of Jesus (which has already been growing steadily as Mark tells the story -- despite the number of times Jesus tells people not to say anything about his healings) grows even more. The work of the sent reflects the work of the sender. Which leads Herod to start to wonder who this rabble-rouser is. The suggestion that it is a resurrected John shows how concerned Herod is about this many and his disciples/apostles. In Jewish thought resurrection is a sign of how God is working to correct the wrongs of the world.

What was true then is still true now.  Proclaiming and growing the Kingdom is still a collective task. As members of the body of Christ we are not just around to learn how to be "good" people, we are part of the body of Christ so that we can participate in the changing of the world. Faith is a participation sport.

We gather together to grow in discipleship and to be sent out. Maybe we are not called to  cast out demons or heal people. But we are all called to proclaim the Good News. We are called to share the possibility of the kingdom.

Jesus points out that this action is not always well-received. There are times when we need to know that it is time to cut our losses, to try a new audience. But the challenge the church faces is being willing to chance the rejection. If we wait until we are sure the message will be received we will never share it. On the other hand, sometimes we share a message we know to be unpopular over and over again to allow it to work into the consciousness of the listeners (every parent will recognize this tactic--both by using it and by having it used on them).  The important part is that we fulfill our calling to take part in proclaiming and growing the Kingdom.

As followers of Christ we too are disciples--learners. As followers of Christ we are sent to live our faith in the world.  So where are you sent?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Looking Forward to January 24, 2016 -- Those Poor Pigs

The Scripture Reading this Sunday is Mark 5:1-20.

The Sermon title is Madness and Calm.

Early Thoughts: What demon(s) would you want to get rid of?

In the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as being a healer, a teacher/preacher, an exorcist, and Messiah. Part of the way Jesus reveals the Kingdom is by driving out the demons that afflict people.

One of the things that jumps out at me in this story is the place of naming. Being able to name someone/something gives you power.  And so Jesus asks the demon what its name is before he can drive the demon away.

It also jumps out that the demon claims to know exactly what/who Jesus is.

And finally I can't help but notice that this is not a gradual return to "sanity". One minute the man is possessed/ill and a threat to life and property and the next he is sitting calmly with no sign of possession or illness.

So what do we do with this story? As inheritors of liberalism, modernism and the Enlightenment, which all had a focus on scientific inquiry and rationality what do we do with the stories of demons and possession and healing?

We could just dismiss them as superstition or myth.  But then why read them?

We could take this story and see it as a political allegory, especially since the name of the demon(s) [Legion] is described in one resource as
a Latin loan-word, denotes a unit of 6000 soldiers in the Roman army. Many Jewish and Christian texts, especially apocalyptic texts, express a belief that God would destroy the Romans.... {The Jewish Annotated New Testament Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler editors p.69}
The same source then asks:
Do the swine represent the expulsion...of unclean animals or the Roman armies? Are the Gerasenes angry over a symbolic battle or the loss of their herds? {ibid}
But while such a reading makes the story somewhat easier to work with, I think it misses something.

I think that while we don't use that language anymore, preferring to use medical terminology, possession is an issue that people still face.  We still wrestle with things that change us, that lead us to be someone other than who we are, that makes us act in ways that are not socially acceptable, that covers who God calls us to be. We just don't call them demons anymore.

And so I return to the question at the top of these thoughts. What demon(s) would you want to get rid of? What is there in your life, or even in your self, that needs to be sent packing so that you can be who God has called you to be?

And in a strangely ironic sense, it is possible that being who God has called you to be, might make you stand out from society.  Maybe some of the demons we wrestle with make us "normal" in a world where we are called to be a little (or a lot) abnormal.

Wonder where this line will take the sermon.....

Monday, January 11, 2016

Looking Forward to January 17, 2016 -- Seeds Flying

The Scripture Reading this week is Mark 4:1-34

The Sermon title is Wild Oats

Early Thoughts: Who sows seeds like that? Who tosses them around so carelessly that only some land where the growing is good?

I am reminded of a line from 1 Corinthians. Paul is discussing the fact that some in the Corinthian church are followers of Apollos and some of Paul. He says:
6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. [1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
Is this how the kingdom grows? Not by careful selective planting and pruning and watering but by casting the seed widely and profligately and allowing God to work? It appears so. And it appears that in this process results can exceed expectations (along with the times when results are crushingly disappointing).

So what are we to do?

Shine like a lamp on a lamp stand. Be the seed that produces in abundance. Spread the seed so that God can give growth. All of the above?

At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus announces that the time is now, that the Kingdom is at hand. Given that reality, how can we help but share this good news -- even if not all ears are ready to hear it, even if some of the soil is less than optimal for growth?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Christian Unity -- A Newspaper column for later this month

United We Stand???

It is a seminary classroom. One student asks if there was ever a time when the church was one unified, homogeneous body. The professor stops for a moment and then says “maybe for the first 15 minutes”.

Another story. 24 years ago I went to the minister of my home church and started the discussions and process that would lead to my ordination. As part of that I met with a couple of people from the church to discuss things. One of them asked “are you sure this is the church for you?” As I was born and raised in the United Church young 22 year-old me (with all the arrogance that comes with being 22 years old) thought that was a really weird question. Now I think it was incredibly wise, I suggest it is a question we should all ask ourselves from time to time.

As we read the Christian Testament we see that there are different factions and understandings popping up in the early church. At the beginning of his letter to the church in Corinth Paul says:
“What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)

Jump forward almost 2000 years and what do we find? Well in Grande Prairie itself there are dozens of churches. And amongst them there are (sometimes substantial, sometimes almost contradictory) differences in theology that get played out in worship style, music, preaching, belief statements and lived faith. And yet I believe that we are all part of the universal church. I believe that despite all the differences we have something very key in common, something that is, in the end more important than our differences.

More than that, I believe that it is a very good thing that there is such a wide range of ways to be part of the universal church. It means none of us have to be everything to everybody.

There is a phenomenon called church-shopping. People new to a community, or people new to attending church, or people unhappy with the church they are currently attending or people who are simply curious, will go to a different church each Sunday to find the one that fits them best. Some people find this to be a strange concept. I think it is brilliant.

At heart we all share a basic construct. That in Jesus of Nazareth God did (and is still doing) something different and amazing. We share a faith in a God who takes the worst the worldly powers could do –execution– and turns it on its head, bringing life where there was death. We share a belief that the Kingdom of God is amongst us now and is going someday to come to full flower. We share a belief that God is active in the world. That is the important stuff. How we express and explain those things, how we worship, how we describe our faith, well those are matters of (deeply loved) traditions and aesthetics.

Next week is the week of prayer for Christian Unity. Unity can seem like an odd word to describe a faith with so many different faces and incarnations. But we are united by those things we have in common. And they are wonderful. We are also united when we can openly share that it is okay that not everyone is like us. I believe we are more united when we allow each other to express and live the faith in our own tradition than when we try to insist everyone else has to be like us. That insistence has been tried in various places and times in the history of Christian faith. Generally it did not go well. Besides that how boring would it be if we were all the same?

I look again at the question I was asked 24 years ago. My answer is still the same. I love my church. I don't always agree with my church but I love my church. I also know that I would not make a very good Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Pentecostal. They would not be my home. But they are home for others of my Brothers and Sisters. They too love (but probably do not always agree with) their churches. Isn't that a wonderful thing?

So next week I plan to give thanks for all the varied and amazing ways we Christians can live out our faith. I give thanks that we can stand together under the cross, gaze together at the empty tomb. And I give thanks that they are my Brothers and Sisters.

United we stand. We just might stand in different places and postures.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Looking Forward to January 10, 2016 -- Entering the Gospel of Mark

The way that the Narrative Lectionary is built is that between Christmas and Easter we explore one of the Gospels, working our way through it in order. This year we work through Mark. And since Easter is on the early side (March 27, almost the earliest it can possibly be) our journey through Mark will hop skip and jump along to get to Chapter 16 by Easter Sunday. This means we will have some relatively long passages. But it also means that most passages will appear to have multiple sermon possibilities. Mark is a Gospel writer in a hurry, everything happens fast, and so when you read longer passages you likely have two or three discrete events recounted.

Technically the cycle began on December 27 but we were doing other things the last 2 weeks. So we jump in on week 3 of Mark and a reading from Chapter 2. More specifically our reading for this week is Mark 2:1-22.

The Sermon title is New Wine New Skins

Early thoughts: I see about 5 distinct, though inter-related sermon starters in these 22 verses.

You could focus on the opening story and the conflict over words of forgiveness.

You could look at the second story and talk about inclusion, bringing in the outsider.

You could take the third section and talk about fasting and feasting.

You could look at the whole and talk about the growing conflict between Jesus and the powers-that-be, a conflict that will eventually lead directly to a cross on a hill.

But I am not following any of those paths. I think the unifying piece to the passage is in the last few verses. Patching cloth and having it tear, using old wine-skins and heaving them burst.

Mark’s Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the Kingdom is at hand. The time is now, the day has come. Does this perhaps mean that it is time for new cloth and new wine-skins? Are the healings and the teachings and the conflict signs that there needs to be a new way of looking at things? Even more, is there a hint that it is difficult to live the new way using old patterns?

It seems to me that this is the challenge of Christian faith. Mark has been clear thus far that interacting with Jesus changes life completely and immediately. And yet human nature, particularly within faith communities perhaps, tends to resist major change. We tend to try to slow it down, to make it incremental and reforming rather than sudden and revolutionary. We want to patch the hole, to make use of the old containers. This seems to be common sense. This seems to be prudent. This seems to be making best use of what has been handed down to us. Unfortunately it also seems that it often doesn’t work.

What cloth in our midst has been patched but is about to tear? What wine-skins have been used one or two times too many? Is there a need to punch a hole in our ceiling to allow wholeness to come in? Where is the new trying to break through?