Saturday, February 27, 2016

I Believe (also for the March Newsletter)

In the Broadway hit musical The Book of Mormon there is a song called “I Believe” and in that song (which is definitively not respectful of Mormonism or of faith in general—then again the musical was written by the same folks who created the TV show South Park) this line occurs a few times:
And lets be honest, sometimes it feels like faith would be easier if we could say that, if we could just believe without question what others tell us to believe. But of course that is not the case, even in the song it is obvious that the singer is trying to convince himself that this is so rather than actually believing it. In reality knowing what we believe is a process of thought and discernment and evolution – many of us have slightly (or vastly) different beliefs about God and life and meaning at various times in our lives.

One of the things that I have often heard people say they like about the United Church is that we are a place where we allow, or even encourage, people to explore and sort out what they personally believe. Technically speaking, we are a “non-creedal” church. This does not mean that we don't use Creeds, indeed many people in earlier generations memorized the Apostle's Creed as part of a confirmation process and many of us in later generations grew up with the so-called New Creed as part of our faith training. To say we are non-creedal simply means that nobody in the United Church has to sign or subscribe to a statement of faith in order to be a member or a leader.

The biggest danger in this approach to faith is that it can become muddy about what we do believe, the boundaries of being a part of the community and no longer fitting in the community become vague, while it is great to say “come and explore with us” sometimes it is also important to be able to say “this is who we are”. It is my belief that one of the keys to us growing (both in numbers and in depth of faith) as a congregation is for us as individuals to get better at sharing what it is we believe.

Such a task is a lifelong endeavour, not just a newsletter article. But I thought I would at least start the ball rolling. I invite others to keep kicking it along...
  • I believe that God is active in the world, stirring people's hearts and minds, pushing us to new understandings of how to live in the world, challenging us to change our attitudes and behaviours to match those understandings.
  • I believe that in the stories and poems and sayings of Scripture we have an account of various people trying to understand where and how God is in this world and how God would have them live. I also believe that sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, and sometimes various writers of the account disagree with each other. And in these ancient stories and poems and sayings we find hints and insights to help us form our own rule of life as followers and Children of God.
  • I believe that in Jesus of Nazareth God was doing a new thing, God was being revealed in a new way.
  • I believe that the experience of Easter, of encountering the reality of resurrection, changed the lives of Jesus' followers in such a profound way that their understanding of everything that had gone before was changed, including (or especially) their understanding of who Jesus was.
  • I believe, with Hamlet, that there are “more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and so there are things that we cannot explain rationally, which forces us to accept paradox and ambiguity. Life in general, and faith in particular is not black and white – there are many shades of grey. But God helps us, through nudges to the heart, to navigate through the grey ambiguities.
  • I believe that the primary purpose of being a follower of Christ is not to win a reward after our death but to make a difference in the world where we live.
  • I believe that the original blessing pronounced at Creation “and God said it was very good” has never been withdrawn and that it trumps all else. However in our acceptance of free will we can (often do?) choose to act in ways that denies that blessing and turn our backs on who we are created to be.
  • I believe that the Kingdom is real and among us and slowly (far slower than we would like) growing to full flower and majesty. Someday it will be revealed in all its fullness and the world will be what it could be. I believe that is very arrogant and misguided for anyone to claim to know when or how that will happen or what it will look like in the end.

That is a start. Who wants to take the next kick?

March Newsletter...

Easter is coming!

In just a few weeks we will gather to tell about triumph leading to disaster leading to triumph. We will join the crowds along the roadside waving Palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, loud Hosanna to thee Redeemer King”, seemingly oblivious to the shadow that lies ahead. Then we will gather for a shared meal and tell the story that liturgically begins with the words “on the night before he died...”. Then we will gather on Friday and hear about trial, and conviction, and execution.

Anyone might think that would be the end of the story. And they might wonder why we tell it.

But Friday is in fact the penultimate moment. The best is yet to come. And so on Sunday we will join Mary and Mary and Salome on a sad slow walk to the tomb...for a surprise. And in an instant the world is changed. In an instant nothing will ever be the same again. Is it any wonder that our reading on Easter Sunday will end with the words “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)?

I suspect we who know the story so well lose something in its telling. We are able to move past the Friday sorrow and darkness because we know that the sun (and Son) will rise on Sunday. WE have become accustomed to the rhythms of faith and may lose the wonder and power and awe of those words “Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed” that so often open our Easter worship.

That Easter moment probably should inspire some fear. Life-changing events, even if they are positive changes, generally have a tang of fear to them. It is like stepping through a doorway that only allows traffic in one direction. From that point on our lives will be different. Easter is just that. Easter is when God steps in and changes the world. Once we have met Christ who has been raised we are different people and we are called to live in a different way.

Feel like running away and saying nothing to anyone yet?

But obviously the story does not end there. That verse is indeed the last verse of Mark's gospel in the oldest manuscripts (your Bible will have several verses after verse 8 but it is believed that these accounts were added by later copyists) but obviously the story does not end there. Because if it did how would we know it? Someone told somebody something.

This Easter I encourage us to dwell in the moment, to hear the story again as if we don't know what is coming. I encourage us to then ask ourselves “Now What?” (which may well be the sermon title of Easter Sunday).

What do we do now that we have learned that life conquers death?
What do we do when know that God is actively working to bring the Kingdom into being despite the worst humanity can do to resist it?
What do we do when the world is changed?

Will we run away and say nothing? Will we sing songs of joy? Will we be changed by the encounter at the tomb?

Easter is coming. Are you ready?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Looking Forward to February 28, 2016 -- Lent 3

Just a reminder that our Annual Congregational Meeting will take place following the service this Sunday.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Psalm 24 (VU p.751)
  • Mark 12:13-17
The Sermon title is Those Things That Are God's...

Early Thoughts: But which are which? That is the key question....

During the last week of his life Jesus is asked a question about taxation. It could be a no-win situation. Support paying the tax to an oppressive regime and lose favour with the crowds or speak out against the tax and commit a crime....

Out of the exchange we get one of the phrases that echoes through the ages, particularly in the King James Version wording: "Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's and to God those things that are God's". The coin is claimed by Caesar, it has his name and face, so give it back to him. But what is God's? What are we supposed to give (back?) to God?

In part this is a story about loyalty, about choosing which side we are on. Do we align with the kingdom(s) of the Caesars or the Kingdom of God?

I think it is also about ownership and debt. We live in a world where we are (often overtly) encouraged to live by maxims like "what's mine is mine" and "I just want what I am entitled to". Are such claims compatible with being a follower of Christ? How? How are they problematic?

Given a chance there are forces (governments, individuals, even our own psyches) that will lay claim to everything in our world. Jesus comes from the religious tradition that gives us the Creation stories in Genesis, that gives us those opening words of Psalm 24 "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it". Competing claims of ownership to be sure.

So what do you think are "those things that are God's"?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Minister's Blurb for the Photo Directory

OK everybody ready? Eyes open! Stop chewing gum! 3-2-1 SMILE!
Did the picture turn out?

Family pictures are always a challenge aren't they. I remember many a special meal where we were sure the food would get cold because my dad wanted to get the picture just right. But the pictures are important. They help us to remember, they help keep a record of what happened, they give us a spark to start telling the stories (and sometimes they provide evidence to resolve disagreements about what happened).

This directory is a snapshot of who were are in 2016. We are a different family than we were in 2010. Some people have moved in, some have moved away. We have all gotten older (and possibly bigger). Then next time a directory is made we will be a different family again. But this is who we are right now.

The people in these pages have inherited this place from those who have gone before. We have the task to pass this community of faith on to those who will, one day, replace us. Who will be in the next snapshot?

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

Annual Report for 2015

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ!
Another year has come and gone and once again we are in preparations for our Annual Congregational Meeting.

At our Annual Meeting this year Council is bringing forward revised Mission and Vision statements for you to consider and so I have a request. As you read the reports imagine you have never set foot in this place before. What do these reports tell you about who we are as a community of faith? What is not said?

[Please note that I am not suggesting a that this is good way to introduce the congregation to a newcomer. It is more of a thought experiment.]

It is my belief that as you read through these reports, and as you look at our financial reports and budget, you gain a sense of who we think we are and how we have lived that out in 2015. It is my hope that we use that sense to determine what we do next. Do we keep on keeping on or is there something new we need to try?

As I sit to write this I have only seen actual text of a few reports. And so I don't really know what the total says about us. But here is what I hope we see.

I hope we see and recognize that this is a very generous congregation. In the midst of one of the strongest economic downturns in recent memory (I saw one prediction from the ATB that this may be the first time since 1982 that Alberta will be in recession for 2 consecutive years) we have almost come out with a balanced financial statement. And at the same time as we have (though givings and fundraisers) contributed $217 000 to fund our operations we have given almost $27 000 to the Mission and Service Fund and over $13 000 to the local community through our Local Outreach fund. That is $40 000 (or about an extra 18%) over and above local operations. This is indeed a very generous congregation. We need to recognize and celebrate this fact.

In addition to these financial realities our generosity is shown in the use of our building. Reporting on behalf of the Co-Chairs, Karen Scott has listed many of the ways this building is used by others in the community. While many of these users rent space, many others are not charged rent (though they do make donations as a measure of thanks). Our mere existence is an act of generosity.

What else might we see? I would hope our commitment to exploring what it means to be a follower of Christ shows up in these pages. Maybe we see that when we remember the various Youth programs that happen here. Maybe when we reflect on our worship services. Maybe in thinking about UCW meetings. Maybe in remembering that we have reconstituted the Pastoral Care Committee to expand our ability to care for each other. We explore by trial and error what it means to follow Christ.

What do you see? If someone asked you what St. Paul's was all about how would you answer?

If each Annual Report is a snapshot of our life together, what will next year's picture show? The world around us continues to be in economic turmoil. There are many people in our community who are feeling the pinch (I learnt last week that Grande Prairie has the 2nd highest unemployment rate in Alberta). As people who proclaim that God is active in our midst, as people who proclaim that the Kingdom of God is both here among us and growing to full flower how will we make those claims real as we live our our vision and mission and respond to the realities of the world in which we live?

I look forward to finding out.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Looking Forward to February 14, 2016 -- Love and Wealth, Lent 1

This Sunday marks the first Sunday of Lent, as we prepare to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross.

The Scripture reading this week is Mark 10:17-31

The sermon title is Where is your Heart?

Early Thoughts: Linnea Good has a song where the chorus sings:
Lay your burdens down
Sing you own life's part
And there where your treasure lies
There is your heart
It seems to resonate with this passage.

It is an age-old quandry. Where does money and wealth fit in with the Kingdom Jesus proclaims? Does being a follower of the Way mean renouncing all possessions? Is it possible to be wealthy and be a faithful follower of Christ (and what is the cut off that makes one wealthy)?

Maybe the question is actually what gets in the way of our ability to follow the commandments. Are our many possessions a help or a hindrance in that task? In 1 Timothy we are told that the love of money [not money itself as is often mis-quoted] is the root of all evil.  The full verse (1 Timothy 6:10) actually reads: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. So yeah, it appears that money can get in the way of following The Way laid out by Christ.

It has been said in many various places that if you want to know the priorities of  any organization (from the smallest household to the largest nation or corporation) look at the budget. Follow the money is not just an criminal investigative mantra (a favourite of Inspector Thomas Brackenreid of Station House 4 [Murdoch Mysteries]) it is a way of examining how well we are following the narrow path of faith.

I am reminded of a joke.  A rich man dies and turns up at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter asks if he has anything to declare.  "Just these," says the man, opening up his trunk to reveal a shining stack of gold bricks. "You brought paving stones!?" an amazed St. Peter replies.

In the Kingdom of God the world is turned upside down. Last will be first, first will be last. Those things we are taught have great value may indeed be almost worthless. The challenge for us as people of faith is to determine what the really valuable things are.

And where are our hearts?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Looking Ahead to February 7, 2016 -- Transfiguration Sunday

The Scripture reading this week is Mark 8:27-9:9

The Sermon title is The Path to Glory

Early Thoughts: Where does glory lie? That is a question this passage raises.

If we jumped from Peter's confession of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah straight to the glory of the Transfiguration we would get one answer. Glory lies in recognizing that God is present. Glory is what faith is about.

The only problem is that is not what Mark (nor Matthew and Luke who tell the story in the same order) does. The path between confession and transfiguration is interrupted with a reminder of suffering and struggle and the costs of discipleship. In short the path to glory is decidedly not glorious.

One commentary describes this passage as a sequence of Confession, Confrontation, Confusion. This commentary ends with the suggestion that if Peter (and we) stops and listens to the hard words he (and we) might end with clarity instead of confusion.

It is tempting to jump from recognizing who Jesus is to the search for awe and glory. But that is not the path Jesus offers us. Jesus offers us the foolishness of glory through struggle, life through death. Like Peter we might want to "correct" Jesus on these things.

AS we seek the path of glory, lets not forget that it leads through places we might not want to go...