Monday, December 18, 2017

Looking Ahead to December 24, 2017 -- Christmas Eve

There are two services this coming Sunday. One in the morning and one in the evening.

During the morning service we will be celebrating the sacrament of baptism. We then will join in exploring the story of Christmas.

Our evening service will be at 8:00. At that service we will have lots of music as the Handbell Choir, Junior Choir and Adult Choir will all be taking part, along with a number of carols being sung by the congregation. As is our custom, the service will close with candle lighting and the singing of Silent Night by the glow of our candles.

The Scripture Readings for the evening service are:
  • Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
  • Luke 2:1-21
There will also be a couple of poems read, one written by J.R.R. Tolkien and one written by Madeleine L'Engle.

The Christmas Reflection this year is called A Child is Born

Early Thoughts: Birth. It changes things. Every child that is born makes a different family, makes a different city, makes a different world. Whenever a new member joins a community the community is changed.

The change may be small. It may take a while to know the difference. Or the change might be overwhelming, noticeable immediately. But there WILL be change!

What kind of change does the birth story we tell this night presage?

What is being born as we sit and listen for angel song this Christmas?

At Christmas we celebrate a birth that happened 200 years ago. At Christmas we celebrate a birth that happens this very night.  Both. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus the man from Nazareth, we celebrate the coming of the kingdom that Jesus will announce as an adult. We also celebrate that the angelic announcement is as much for us as it was for the shepherds of Luke's account.

For to US a child is born. For to US a son is given. For to US is born this night in the City of David...

Birth, it changes things.  Tonight we mark a birth that has changed, is changing, and will continue to change the world.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Looking Ahead to Blue Christmas

This Sunday afternoon at 3:00 we are having our Annual Blue Christmas service.  This service is that time when we pause to recognize that sometimes the Christmas season can be difficult for some people. Maybe money is tight and the stress of trying to meet expectations is unbearable. Maybe this is the year that an adult child is not coming home for the first time (or conversely that the grandparents can no longer travel in the winter). Maybe this is that first Christmas after a death in the family, or maybe is the the 10th, or 21st, or 40th...

For whatever reason, Christmas can be hard. And so we need to give each other space to feels the hardness, We need to ask how God is speaking into the anxiety or the emptiness this Christmas.

Because God is. God speaks to our joy and to our sorrow, to our hope and to our despair, to our comfort and to our discomfort.

The Scripture passages we will read on Sunday afternoon are:
  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Luke 2:1-8
As usual, we will have time for people to light candles as a part of our quieter reflection on where God is in the midst of the season.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Looking Forward to December 10, 2017 -- Advent 2

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Communion

The Scripture reading this week is Isaiah 55:1-13

The Sermon title is Go Out in Joy

Early Thoughts:
They could be forgiven for having no hope. After all, they were living in exile, a defeated and enslaved people whose land and temple had been destroyed. And to these people God speaks through Isaiah saying:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price...Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
In the midst of the lives of scarcity, shattered dreams, and despair God speaks of abundance and promise and hope.

If we are honest, we would admit that we do spend our money and our labour in ways that are often less than satisfying. Often those choices feel forced upon us. And short of the Kingdom of God coming to full flower I am not sure that will totally change anytime soon.

On the other hand, the passage reminds us, there is more about life than those things.  God is still active and changing the world. God's word (the word of life, of love, of hope) is still falling on the world. God is still speaking, and God promises that God's word will have an impact -- eventually at least..

Which means that we can go forth in joy and peace, we can join in the celebration of the earth.

Christ is coming, the birth of hope is nigh, Joy shall come, even to the wilderness.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Newspaper COlumn for December 1

Is There a Place this Year?
Let’s start with a story (I like stories):
The wind gusted, sending the fresh snow swirling around the lamp post. Miriam shivered, pulling the thin coat tighter around her chest. “Gonna be a cold one tonight,” she muttered, squinting through the darkness.

A little further down the block was the big old church. Miriam remembered going there as a child, remembered the beautiful stained glass windows. Suddenly a friendly voice boomed in her ear. “Merry Christmas! Please come and join us for worship!”

Miriam looked around, wondering who the cheerful man was talking to. Surely it couldn’t be her. Christmas Eve was a special service, someone wearing an old coat and wrapped in a hand-me-down blanket didn’t fit in with the fancy dresses and bright lights. But there was nobody else around. “Ar-are you talking to m-m-me?” she asked.

“Of course my dear,” the greeter replied. “Come in and warm up at least.” Miriam could hardly believe her ears; certainly a chance to get out of the wind was welcome. Gratefully she made her way up the old stone stairs and snuck into a pew way at the back of the sanctuary, just as the opening notes of the first hymn were being played.

As she listened to the familiar old carols Miriam couldn’t help remembering the Christmases of her childhood. Things were so much happier, so much simpler then. “What had gone wrong?” she muttered to herself. Then the pageant started. Watching Mary and Joseph get turned away from the inn Miriam felt her heart reach out to them. She knew what it meant to have nowhere to go.

After the service, Miriam started to wrap herself in the blanket again and sneak out without being seen. No luck. The greeter was right there beside her again. “Where will you sleep tonight?” he asked. Miriam said nothing, just looked away.

Finally she looked up, “I don’t know, there was no place at the shelter.”

“Well that will never do” the young man said. He paused for a moment then a smile came back to his face. “Please come to my parent’s house with me,” he said. The story we just heard reminds us that there should always be a place somewhere.

It might have been a trick of the light and wind. But at that moment Miriam was sure that the greeter’s face was shining, just like the angel in the window behind her. And somewhere she heard voices singing “Hallelujah!”…

We lose it in the lights and the carols. We focus on the baby in the manger or the angels on the hillside, or on the man this baby will become, and we lose it. We lose sight of the fact that Christmas comes to the least and lowest. In the New Revised Standard Version of Luke’s Christmas story we are told that Jesus is laid in the manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Not just the inn was full but there was no place, they did not belong. Then then angels appear to shepherds, dirty smelly shepherds who also did not belong in polite society (at least not without a bath). Where was the place for them?

Miriam was sure she didn’t belong either. But she was told otherwise, she was invited in.

Christmas is not about trees and lights and presents and carols. Christmas is about God joining in with our life. And Luke tells us that God chooses to do that with people who don’t belong, with people who don’t have a place, with those on the outskirts of their world. Christmas reminds us that in God’s eyes all have a place, in fact that those at the bottom have a special place in God’s eyes.

Over 40 years ago Miriam Therese Winter (of the Medical Mission Sisters) wrote these lyrics:
On a dark day deep in December, grinding the poverty, grey was the morn.
Only the clean of heart still can remember the day and the moment when Jesus was born.
On a dark day deep in the present, grinding the loneliness and plight of the poor.
Only the clean of heart dare to remember, the poor were His Gospel and their hope is sure

From Mary’s song of revolution, to the birth of Jesus and on through the preaching and teaching of Jesus it is obvious that God’s plan is for there to be a place for all – even (or perhaps especially) if established understandings and hierarchies have to be destroyed first. We are still waiting for it to happen. Maybe this Christmas it will start.

If Christmas happened in Grande Prairie in 2017 who would fill the parts? Is there a place for everybody in our Christmas celebrations? In our life as a community?

Looking Forward to November 26, 2017 -- Reign of Christ Sunday, Light in the Darkness

This Sunday we will be celebrating the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Reading for this week is Isaiah 9:2-7 [in the Tanakh it is actually Isaiah 9:1-6 as they put the chapter break at a different place].

A little Handel for your day:

The Sermon title is Dawn.

Early Thoughts: This is a passage that is often read during the Advent-Christmas season. And to Christian ears (after almost 2000 years of teaching) all those words about light in the darkness and the child being born and the coming reign of peace do sound very Christ-like. 

I hunch that is not what Isaiah (or his original hearers) had in mind. In fact some commentators think that Isaiah is referring to Hezekiah, king of Judah.

IN the preceding chapters of Isaiah we learn that the nation is under threat. When a nation is under threat there are people who get very gloomy. If the threat is dire enough (or the people are made to believe it is dire enough) the communal mood becomes dark. [And history has shown that in these periods of darkness communities and nations can be lead to do horrific things, though Isaiah does not say that Judah follows that path.]

In the middle of the fear and gloom Isaiah brings a word of hope.  In 7:14-16 he tells King Ahaz:
Therefore Adonai himself
will give you people a sign:
the young woman* will become pregnant,
bear a son and name him ‘Immanu El [God is with us].
15 By the time he knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
he will [have to] eat
curdled milk and [wild] honey.
16 Yes, before the child knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
the land whose two kings you dread
will be left abandoned.
Promising that the threat will be short-lived, that the armies which are threatening Judah will fade away.

Then we have our passage of the week. A promise that light will dawn, a promise of release from oppression [the reference to the day of Midian points back to the book of Judges and the story of Gideon].

Where do we look for dawn today? What darkness threatens to overtake our world?

This is the last Sunday of the Christian year. On the last Sunday of the year we celebrate the Reign of Christ even as we acknowledge that we have come to the end of another year and the Reign of Christ/Kingdom of God has not yet grown to full flower in the world around us. Next week we begin the season of Advent, a time both of preparing for Christmas but also a time of preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God in full flower. We look at the darkness and we celebrate the promise of light.

Light in the darkness. Dawn is coming. We know darkness. We know those things that bring fear. Deep in our hearts we know that when we are afraid it is harder to be who God has called us to be. But dawn is coming. The kingdom of God is birthing.  We are people of hope, or at least we are called to be people of hope. 

Where do we look for the first rays of dawn?

PS: I think this is a riff off of the chorus of the dame name from Handel's Messiah..but it sure has a different musical feel:

Monday, November 13, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 19, 2017 -- Valley of Dry Bones

Following worship this Sunday there will be a potluck lunch.  Join us for this time of food and fellowship.

The Scripture reading for this week is Ezekiel 37:1-14

Complete with props for Children's Time.
The Sermon title is Can These Bones Live?

Early Thoughts: Ezekiel stands in a place reeking of death and despair and he looks for signs of hope and life.  Or more to the point, God leads Ezekiel to a place of death and asks if there is life.

Near the end of Lord of the Rings, after the battles have been fought and won, Gandalf takes the new king out to a desolate place. Aragorn asks for a sign of hope that his line will endure and Gandalf tells him to turn away from the city and look out into the desolation, where all seems dead. There Aragorn sees a seedling of the White Tree, a sign of the continuing line of Elendil. He finds his hope, not in the battle victory, or in his coronation, or in the celebrations of his people, but in the middle of a dead plain.

Similarly Ezekiel is looking for hope. His people have been enslaved and exiled. Their temple and city have been destroyed. They wonder if they have bee cut off from or forgotten by God. And God gives him a vision of skeletons lying jumbled in a ditch. "Mortal, can these bones live?"

Transformation needs us to be open to the Spirit's work within us. Transformation means we need to be able to give the same answer Ezekiel gave "O Lord God, you know". The bones were not alive even when reassembled and covered in flesh. They were only alive when the ruah, the Spirit that first moved over the waters of creation, the breath of life, was blown into them. For full transformation, for full resurrection, we need to let the winds of God fill us and change us. Are we ready to be transformed? Are we ready to look in the desolate places for new signs of life?

It is easy to lose hope. It is easy to think that death and decay will win. Ezekiel reminds us that God brings life, brings resurrection,  brings hope.  Where do you see God's transforming power bringing new life today?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 12, 2017 -- Justice that Flows Like Water

The Scripture reading this week is Amos 5:1-15, 21-24.

The Sermon title is Flood time?

Early Thoughts: Sometimes we need a good strong washing to allow for new growth to follow. Sometimes we feel like we are in a drought, and are crying out for that flow of water.

It seems a little strange to say, but I have always liked Amos. Not that taking the words of Amos seriously is a cause for comfort -- just the opposite in fact. But something about Amos has always struck me as special. I  think it is his passion for justice, his passionate denunciation of the world in which he finds himself that attracts me so much.

At the same time I think we could use some more Amos in the world today. I think many of his complaints are just as viable in 2017 as the were in the time of Kings Jeroboam and Uzziah.

We live in a world where people are shot in a plaza in Las Vegas while attending a concert, where a vehicle mows down people on a walking path in New York, where others are shot while attending worship in Texas. We live in a world where some live high on the hog while others are barely paid a living wage and others sleep in shelters or in doorways. Are thoughts and prayers the only things we can offer?

Don't get me wrong, thoughts and prayers are important. But if we stop there are we showing that we love the good and hate the evil as Amos exhorts? Or are we setting ourselves up for his next words "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps"

What might it look like if justice came down like waters? What would it mean if the everflowing stream of righteousness flowed through and nourished  our culture?

I see two image of water in those words. The first is the flood. Th rush of water that washes away many things. What might the flood of Justice wash away -- no matter how tightly we want to hold on? The other image is the constant steady flow of water that gives life. As people of faith we proclaim that Righteousness is a mainstay of God's kingdom. How do we feed and nourish those signs of righteousness, of justice, of peace so that the Kingdom will continue to grow in our hearts and in our world?

Takes more than thoughts and prayers.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 5, 2017 -- The Sound of Still Silence

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

The Scripture reading this week is 1 Kings 19:1-18

The Sermon title is Hush Children! What’s that Sound?

Early Thoughts: Sometimes what you really need is silence. Sometimes you need to force yourself to pause and leave space for God to enter.

From his perspective at least, Elijah is fighting a losing battle. King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel are leading the people into apostasy, turning to the old local religion rather than remaining faithful to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Just before this week's reading Elijah has had a "miracle-off" with a few hundred prophets of Baal and after winning the challenge proceeded to kill them all. Unsurprisingly, this does not win the favour of the Queen who promises to kill Elijah in return.  So Elijah flees into the wilderness, heading south out of Ahab's Kingdom of Israel through the Kingdom of Judah.

SIDEBAR: Many important things happen "in the wilderness" in the Scripture story. It is a common location.

Despite his low feeling (he really suggests it is time for him to die) Elijah is led to the holy mountain. God provides food for the journey of 40 days and 40 nights before Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. (which brings out echos of the Exodus story)

SIDEBAR #2: Many important things happen on mountains in the Scripture story, it is another favoured location (particularly in the Gospel of Matthew).

Here Elijah has a theophany, a time where God's presence is revealed. What is interesting, given the references already made to the Exodus story, is where God is found. In Exodus God is revealed in a pillar of fire, in the crashing of thunder, in signs and wonders. In the "miracle-off" God was revealed in fire falling from heaven God being revealed in an earthquake makes sense. But Elijah does not find God in any of these things. Instead God is found in what the KJV translates as the "still small voice", the NRSV translates as the "sound of sheer silence", and a newer translation (the Common English Bible -- CEB) puts as "After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet." (translation notes from here). It is at that point that Elijah makes himself ready for the word of God.

I think Elijah needed to be reminded to pause. The story up to this point is full of action and volume. Elijah is both panicked and depressed. The sound (or lack thereof) seems to start  breaking his panic and his depression. Not immediately because the next words out of his mouth will be to once again recount the horrible situation in which he finds himself. But it begins. Some would find that if God was not found in the fire or the earthquake or the mighty wind then the still silence is an odd place to look. Some would start to assume the God is absent (and there is a long tradition of people with deep spirituality having long periods where God seems absent).

But for whatever reason that is where, in this instance, Elijah finds God. ANd that brings a question for me...

Are we ready to look for God in places and ways we do not expect? Is there a part of us that wants the strong wind or the earthquake or the fiery pillar, that wants the signs and wonders and so we miss the still small voice?

We lie in a world where silence is often seen as the enemy. There is almost always a soundtrack to our lives. Get a group of people together to sit in silence and it is not long before it feels uncomfortable. But we can teach ourselves to be comfortable with silence, we can learn to pause and leave the space where something else can happen. Elijah did it (and then was given a bunch of work to do). Can we?

And I just can't resist...

OR this one (which prompted the sermon title)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

November Newsletter

Let Us Pray...

Earlier this year I was given a copy of a book called Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus. And more than that I read it!

Bullseye was written by the ministry personnel from North Bramalea United Church in Ontario to share some of the wisdom they picked up as North Bramalea has been revitalized and grown over the years (for more information about NBUC talk to Karen Scott as she knows a bit about that community). There are lots of nuggets in this book. I would actually love to re-read it with a group of folks so we could discuss what we see there and where/if we see it intersecting with our life here at St. Paul’s. [And then I read Fishing Tips by John Pentland where he shares the learnings he found in the revitalization of Hillhurst United in Calgary, which was expected to close and now is a thriving multi-staff faith community, and want also to read it with a group from the congregation – maybe we can do both some day.] But early in my reading of Bullseye something struck me.

The book is about growing disciples, as that is what NBUC sees as a key part of who they are. The first target Jamie and Debbie write about is Spiritual Practises. One of those is prayer. Prayer is a vital part of how we reconnect with God. Prayer is vital to our growth both as individuals and as a faith community. And then I started to think.

How can we increase the ministry of prayer in our faith community? Is there a way we can become more intentional about holding each other, and the community around us, in prayer? I truly believe that the community that prays together grows closer. I believe that prayer clears our minds and allows us to gain an understanding of who we are called to be as people of faith.

A few ideas came to mind. One is that I want to set aside a period of time each week, at first I thought Wednesdays at lunch time but maybe there is a better time, for some of us to gather in the sanctuary and pray. What we would pray for/about would depend on what we bring to the circle that day.

Another idea was something we used to have. When I first arrived in Grande Prairie St. Paul’s had a prayer group. This was a group of people who had committed to offer prayers for people who were struggling in some way. We would meet every month to 6 weeks to update who was on the list and then people would pray at home for those names. Over time those who had been providing leadership and were the driving force behind that group became unable to be as active and the group sort of faded away. I would like to see if we can get it started. Because the community that is held in prayer is strengthened, just by knowing they are held in prayer.

A third idea was that I may create a prayer cycle for the congregation. This would be a way for us to hold each part of our faith community in the Prayers of the People at sometime during the year. Not because of some major celebration or concern (we would still have time in worship to share those) but simply because they are a part of our faith family and we care about them. If I start on that soon I might have it ready for 2018.

Beyond those things, I point out that prayer is a ministry we all can take part in. In invite, encourage, and challenge each one of us to hold each other, to hold our neighbours, to hold ourselves, in prayer. Prayer does not have to be fancy or formal or use special words. It can simply be laying names and circumstances before God. As people of faith prayer is part of who we are. Let us pray...

Monday, October 23, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 29, 2017 -- David is Anointed

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13
  • Psalm 51:10-14
The Sermon title is Look to the Heart

Early Thoughts: David is a hero, for some reason. David is seen as a paragon of duty and kingliness, though I am not really sure why. God sees something in David's heart that is worth raising up -- though David's behaviour as king and husband and father will leave much to be desired.

The reading from Samuel this week marks the entry of David into the narrative of faith. A few chapters before now the people convinced Samuel  (and God) that they wanted a king like other nations and Samuel, with God's guidance, chose Saul. But by now Saul has fallen out of favour with God and Samuel is commanded to go find a new king. A risky duty -- kings tend to look negatively on people seeking to replace them, and in later chapters we will learn that Saul is not entirely stable.

Following God's commands Samuel goes to visit a man named Jesse. One of Jesse's sons is the one to replace Saul. And indeed it seems that God has already made God's choice.

Samuel has Jesse parade all of the sons past. Each time Samuel is sure that this must be the one but God keeps saying no, that Samuel is looking at external signs, which seems to be a pattern -- in chapter 9 when we first meet Saul we are told how handsome and tall he was, while God is looking to the heart. After 7 sons have gone by Samuel asks if there is anyone else. Only the youngest, David, out keeping the sheep. David is sent for and when he arrives Samuel is told to anoint him, for he is the one.  Interestingly, even though we are told that God is looking at the heart rather than a physical characteristics, the first thing we are told about David is what he looks like.

The other reading is from Psalm 51. Traditionally it has been believed that this Psalm was written by David in the depths of his guilt after he rapes Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband. This link may be accurate, it may be a tradition with little basis in fact. But the section we read this week talks about the heart. It is a prayer any person of faith could (should?) share at various times in our faith journey. The poet asks that his/her heart be clean, that her/his spirit be made right with God.

God looks to the heart. God looks to David's heart, God looked to the heart of Moses, God looks to the heart of Peter and Paul. God touches the hearts of those who live in God's way. God looks to our hearts. Not necessarily the literal pump that sits in the middle of our chest, but to the core of our being. Our core values, our deepest priorities, our essential beliefs. God looks there, God speaks to us there, God stretches us there. SO maybe we should pray "create in me a clean heart O God and put a right spirit within me".

But more than that, God calls us to look as God looks. David is chosen out of all of Jesse's sons because God sees something in David's core that says he will be a Godly king. David will at times hear God speaking to his core calling him to a new way of being (which is probably why Psalm 51 is tied to the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah). And David listens to his heart.

Later Paul will be struck to his core and will listen to his heart and be lead to proclaim the Way of Christ rather than persecute it. Martin Luther will be struck to his core and in remaining true to the understanding of God he finds there will start a ball rolling that will change the church. When we listen to the heart we just may hear God calling us to be truer to ourselves. When we look to the core we find God.  What do you see and hear in the core of your being? How is God creating and sustaining a clean heart and a right spirit within you?

(not a perfect match but...)  (full lyrics seen on one screen here)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 22, 2017 -- The Call of Samuel

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is 1 Samuel 3:1-3:21

The Sermon title is The Word of the Lord

Early Thoughts: When do we hear God whisper in our ear? What do we do next? Do we seek out the wisdom of others, possibly our elders? Do we engage the whisper? Or do we roll over and go back to sleep?

This week's reading tells us of the call of Samuel as a young boy. There is an element of misunderstanding in it as we see Samuel running to old Eli 3 times before anyone figures out what is actually happening.  But finally Samuel makes the response "speak for your servant is listening".

And if we actually stop and listen to the voice, what if we hear something that we don't like, or makes us afraid?

Samuel is given a message to pass on to old Eli. Eli his teacher and mentor, Eli the wise priest. Eli the father of troublesome sons. Samuel is to tell this man that because of the abominable behaviour of his sons the mantle of leadership is passing from Eli's house. No wonder Samuel is reluctant (the text actually says he was afraid) to pass on the message.

To his credit Eli demands that the message be shared even if Eli had reason to think it was not good news. [If you look back at chapter 2 you find out that Eli has already been given the message once but has been unable or unwilling to correct the behaviour of his sons.] More to his credit Eli is willing to accept the word of the Lord.

Often it is tempting to preach about the beginning of this story, about the farce-like scene of Samuel running back and forth to Eli. Then the sermon culminates with Samuel's eventual response "speak for your servant is listening". ANother temptation is to pick up on a single line way back in verse 1 "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." and ask if we are currently in such a time as that, to ask if/how God is still speaking today.

But this time round what jumped out at me was Samuel's fear/reluctance to share the word of the Lord.

Sometimes God reveals hard truths. Sometimes as people of faith we are led to share hard words, to say things that are unpopular, to say things we ourselves would rather not hear. What do we do then?

We can pretend we didn't hear properly. We can find some way to express the words in euphemisms or platitudes, if we do that well enough we might even rob them of their offensiveness. We might say "at a better time" and hold off. Avoidance is a common way of dealing with awkward conversations.

That is when we need an Eli. That is when we need someone to say "it will be hard but you MUST share the words" [noting that Eli even threatens Samuel with a curse if he does not share the Word of the Lord].

It ends well for Samuel. He becomes one of the heroes, one of the chief prophets of the story.  He will go on to anoint the first 2 kings of Israel. And he will continue to be called to do things that make him afraid -- such as anointing David while Saul is still king, such as telling Saul that God's favour is no longer with the king.

How will it end for us? When God challenges us with hard truths how will we react? Both as those who hear and those who pass on the truths?

PS: it also strikes me that if everything you hear God saying affirms all that you are doing and all that you believe then you might want to ask yourself if you are hearing ALL that God might have to say...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Looking Forward to October 8, 2017 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

Since I was away at a Presbytery meeting on the first Sunday of October, we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion this week.

The Scripture reading for this week is Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Sermon title is Memory and Gratitude

Early Thoughts: Can you be thankful if you don't remember?  Probably not.

This passage from Deuteronomy, a common one for Thanksgiving Sunday, is not really about giving thanks -- at least not at first reading.  It is about remembering. And it is about giving from what you have.

The remembering what God has done is a common theme in the stories of the Israelite people. Does that mean they tended to forget to remember? Remembering is often a conscious act, it is something we choose to do (or choose not to do). BUt if we don't remember what happens?

I am not thinking here of Santayana's dictum that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it (though I tend to find wisdom there). I am thinking of how remembering or forgetting tie in to both our gratitude and our stewardship.

If we forget then are we aware of why we are grateful? I suspect not. If we forget the path that has led us to this point, the gifts shared and given to help us along the way, then it is easy to not express our gratitude.

ANd if we forget the gifts shared and given that helped us along the path it is easier to think that we did it all by ourselves. And then to wonder why others can not do the same for themselves.

Memory is at the base of our gratitude and our stewardship. In the Deuteronomy passage the act of remembering is intrinsically tied to the act of offering the first-fruits to God's service. Practically speaking it appears that this offering goes to feed an support the Levites (religious workers) and Priests as well as those who are in need. AS they remember they are thankful and they give from what they have received.

What memories make you thankful? What gifts do you pass forward as you remember and are grateful?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

October Newsletter

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda
(The Church Reformed, Always Reforming/Being Reformed)

October 31, 1517. An Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther, incensed at what he saw as abuses within the operations of the church he loved, posted a series of statements (known as the 95 Theses) as an invitation to debate. Generally speaking this act is seen to have launched the Protestant Reformation.

A century later the Western Church, which had believed itself to be wholly unified, was split asunder. Luther and other Reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli and Knox had started something that the hierarchy and structure of the Roman Church could not contain (at the same time the Roman Church itself went through its own reforming). And the division would continue until this day, as new denominations would form and split from others for a variety of reasons and arguments.

Reforming movements in the church, starting with Luther and Calvin and continuing with Wesley and on into General Booth (who founded the Salvation Army) have a commonality. There is always a sense of trying to reclaim something that is lost, even as that reclamation leads to new practices, emphases, and understandings. The reformers of history were not trying to create something new, they were trying to remind the people around them of some of the basics that may have been lost.

The original origin of the Latin motto above is unclear. The original understanding is unclear as well. One suggestion is that it grows out of a comment by Augustine that named that God is constantly at work forming and reforming the church. And that is the reality that it is meant to point us to. One version of the motto I found in my searching actually includes the words “secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God)” [it appears this is a later, likely 20th Century addition though I doubt that any major theologian or Church leader of the past would really argue against the concept]. This additional phrase reminds us that the reforming work within the church is not up to the whims of human though but relies on our being open to where God is pushing us to go. It is not, and never has been change for the sake of change. So when I look at the motto now, 500 years after Luther launched the Reformation I have to ask, how is God forming and reforming the church today.

What have we maybe lost that God is pushing us to reclaim?

Have we putting our emphasis on the right things? Or should we shift that emphasis somewhere else?

One of the factors in the popular success of the Reformation was new technology (particularly the development of movable type and the printing press). This, along with a growth in literacy, allowed pamphlets and books sharing the arguments of the reformers to be shared more widely. How is/can the church use new communication techniques to share our understandings of what God is doing in the world today?

I suggest that these are questions that always need to be floating around in our collective consciousness, as God continues to form and reform the church. They need to be the questions that shape how we operate as individuals and as a congregation.

How do you see God shaping the life of St. Paul’s United Church? Are we following God’s lead or are we resisting?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Looking Forward to September 24, 2017 -- Stewardship Begins

Over the next three Sundays we will be exploring our Stewardship as a congregation. We will be leaping off from the resource produced by the United Church of Canada We Sing Thanksgiving.

This Sunday after worship all are invited to stay for a potluck lunch in the large/east basement.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Exodus 16:1-18
  • Matthew 20:1-16
The Sermon title is What We Need...

Early Thoughts: Years ago the Rolling Stones told us:
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
But if you try some time, you just might find,
You get what you need.
Turns out Mick Jagger is a theologian! Who woulda thunk it?

Israelites Gathering Manna
The story of manna and quail in the wilderness is a story that reminds us that we just might (will?) get what we need. The people don't really believe it. Indeed some of them try, despite being explicitly told not to, to hoard some of the manna, to save it for the next day. After all what if it doesn't fall tomorrow? But it does. And for the next 40 years the people are fed, God provides what they need.

In the Parable we have a group of day labourers. All of them, those hired in the morning and those hired just before quitting time, get paid the same. And so the people who worked all day are a little bit upset. This doesn't sound fair, in our world where we expect that reward or compensation is somehow linked to effort and labour. Surely any ethical employer would pay those who work longer more...right?

Depends on your ethics.

Like most of Jesus' parables, the story of the day labourers is tying to give a glimpse of what it means to live as people of God's Kingdom. The amount paid to each of those labourers is the amount that is needed to buy food for that day, the amount needed to live another day. In the Kingdom of God people get what they need. That is the ethical guideline. People get what they need.

So what does this have to do with stewardship? Well there are a few ways to come at it.

One is to talk about the difference between wants and needs. A lot of us have trouble with teat from time to time. (And it does NOT help that there is an entire multi-billion dollar industry committed to making us think things we want are in fact things we need.) We need basics. We need the basic stuff for survival in some measure of security and comfort. Everything else is a want, although there are varying priorities in our wants. BUt if we have trouble seeing the difference it skews our impression of whether we can share what we have.

And that is the real connection between these stories and stewardship. If we believe and trust that we have/can get what we need then sharing is easier.  If we are not sure of getting what we need we are more likely to try and save our manna for a second day, we are more likely to get irate when we work harder.longer than those lazy good-for-nothings and don't get any farther ahead.

As people of faith we are asked and challenged and commanded to take the gifts we have been given and pass them on for the betterment of out neighbours. As people of faith we are reminded that  the common good is as much of a priority as our own personal safety. What we do with the gifts we have been given is our stewardship. We might be good stewards, we might be bad stewards. But I firmly believe that our level of trust or anxiety about having what we need is a big help or hindrance in our ability to see what we might have to share.

The STones were right. We can't always get what we want (and of we are honest that is probably a good thing). But the promise of God's Kingdom is that each of us gets what we need. And then we can use our gifts to support each other.


ANd to help with the earworm I planted earlier:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NEwspaper Column (for September 22 edition)

In the interests of Full disclosure, this is an expansion/adaptation of a column I wrote in Atikokan in 2009)

Who is Welcome?

The brightly lettered sign on the door said “All welcome, come as you are”.

Pete looked at his his wheelchair and asked “even me?” and then he continued down the street. How would he get up the stairs?

Next came Sue and Cathy. They looked at the sign, and the beautiful stained glass windows and for a moment thought about going in. But then they remembered the last time they had been, and the clear message that folks like them were “bad”. They knew they weren't welcome as a couple.

Next down the block was a young family. “Let's go see!” shouted the youngest. But the kids tended to be noisy, they had trouble sitting still. Not wanting to cause trouble the parents quickly walked away, dragging the kids with them.

Even as the children’s shouts could still be heard echoing down the block Jim wandered up. He remembered attending services as a child back home. It might be nice to do that again. He even peeked in the door. Nobody there looked like him. He was different. How would they react to his skin colour, his accent, his colourful traditional clothing and tattoos? And so he went away to find a church full of people more like him.

Finally came Fred and Alice. They thought it would be nice to have a warm place to sit and maybe a cup of coffee. But they looked at their shabby clothes and their unwashed faces and knew that their presence seemed to make others uncomfortable. So they went down the street to try and find a meal.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the people passing by and wishing they could come in, the congregation sat looking around the half-empty sanctuary and asked themselves: “Why aren't there more people here? We are such a friendly group?”

What moves us from saying “All are welcome!” to people actually feeling welcome? Do we show that we really mean all are welcome or are there unwritten rules about who is acceptable? Do we only welcome folk if they agree to be and act and believe like us?

I have noticed that we humans tend to be a terribly cliquish and tribal species. We tend to stick with other people who look, talk, think, and believe like us. We will welcome others but often there is an unspoken (or sometimes loudly spoken) expectation that then newcomers will conform to what is “normal”, that they will behave “properly”. People who stand out too much tend to make us uncomfortable. Behaviours or beliefs or customs that are different from what we do are easily seen as unacceptable. Asking the group to change is seen as a threat.

And when we fall prey to those thoughts we have forgotten the Gospel. We have forgotten that we are meant to be changed, our beliefs and behaviours and customs are meant to be challenged, that for the New Heaven and the New Earth to appear the world has to be transformed.

The Gospel message is clear. The love and grace of God are offered to all of God's people. Not that the people in our faith stories always get it right. Even Jesus has to be taught about God's amazing welcome. It takes a foreign woman challenging his prejudices to show Jesus that, as an old hymn says, “the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind” (see Mark 7:24-30). We all have our own set of blinders to the wideness of God’s mercy.

Every church I have attended has described themselves as warm and friendly. Every church wants to believe that all are welcome in their midst. Most municipalities tell themselves that anybody is welcome to move in there and make a life. But the reality people experience is far different. The story told earlier plays itself out over and over across this country. Still, God is calling us to a new way.

God is calling the global community to be a place where all are welcome. All. Regardless of age, or physical/emotional/mental ability, or gender, or race, or social background, or economic status, or marital status, or sexual orientation, or any of the multitude of other ways we have of dividing people; despite all of that you are welcome in the Family of God.

This is the challenge for the world, to live out God's amazingly broad and open welcome. We will sometimes fall short. Sometimes we fall short intentionally, sometimes we don't even know it. If we are going to do better we need to be challenged. Otherwise we are as oblivious as the congregation in the story. What barricades do we put up that keep others out of our clubs, our businesses, our communities? How do we go about breaking them down?

Looking Ahead to September 17, 2017 -- Jacob the Blessed? Jacob the Jerk?

The Scripture reading this week is Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

The Sermon title is God Blesses HIM?!?!

Early Thoughts: Sometimes (often?) in our faith stories the hero is heavily flawed. Jacob fits right in with that description.

Jacob and Esau are twins. And as the story is told they were striving with each other in utero. Esau emerges first and so is the firstborn and in the family structure portrayed in Genesis Esau therefore is to be the next patriarch of the family.

Except there are issues.

One issue is certainly that Rebekah and Isaac each have a favored son. In any family that rarely goes well.

The other issue is that Jacob is kind of a jerk. Earlier in their story he extorts the family birthright from his brother in exchange for a boil of porridge (Admittedly Esau does not come off as the brightest bulb in that story). Then we have this story. Feeling his death approaching, Isaac sends Esau the hunter (and apparently Isaac's preferred son) out to get some meat and in exchange Esau will get the fatherly blessing. Rebekah hears this and decides that her preferred son Jacob should get the blessing instead. So she helps Jacob fool/deceive his father and steal the blessing from Esau. {I am still wondering why Isaac insists that he can not bless both his sons}

Esau is not happy. He promises that when Isaac dies Esau will kill Jacob. Which, understandably, worries Rebekah. And so she arranges that Jacob needs to go away to find a wife from among Rebekah's people instead of the people amongst whom they are living (who apparently are fine for Esau but not good enough for Jacob). And Jacob essentially flees for his life.

Later in his story Jacob will continue to use deception and trickery to his own benefit. At no point in his story does Jacob come across as a shining example of human potential. And yet God chooses Jacob to become the father of a nation, Jacob will be renamed Israel and from his 12 sons will come 12 tribes.

As a precursor to those events Jacob has a dream. While fleeing the wrath of Esau Jacob has a dream. ANd in that dream He is told that God is with him, that God's favor lies upon him, and that through him the world will be blessed.

Seriously? This lying, deceptive trickster is the one that God is going to bless? Through him will come the nation that will bless the earth? The actions of Jacob and his mother have broken up the family of Isaac and yet he is getting this blessing????

What is God thinking?

But God does this. Throughout Scripture God takes flawed people and raises them up. God takes the person others barely notice (or in some cases the person trying valiantly to escape notice) and makes them key in the story of faith. GOd does not seem to look for the most qualified, or the most virtuous, or the most likeable. God chooses based on some other criteria, criteria that are not always shared.

As readers that may confuse us. As people of faith that should give us hope. If God can choose flawed, even violent people like Jacob and David and Peter and Saul/Paul and work through their flaws. Then God can and will work through and bless us.

Or the neighbour we think is not worth thinking about.

Or the political candidate we find abhorrent.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 10, 2017 -- The Beginning

This Sunday marks the beginning of a new program year.  Sunday School begins on the 10th, CGIT and Explorers begin on Tuesday the 12th at 7:00, and the Youth Group will start meeting on Sunday the 17th. Also the Adult Choir will begin this Thursday the 14th at 7:30, the Junior Choir will begin after church on the 17th. Beginner Handbells will start after church on the 24th with the Handbell choir starting Monday the 25th at 7:00.

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a
  • Psalm 104:24-34
The Sermon title is Who Has Created and Is Creating...

Early Thoughts: This Sunday marks the beginning of Year 4 in the Narrative Lectionary cycle.  Since the goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to carry the church through the scope of the Biblical Narrative between now and Pentecost Sunday it only makes sense that we (to quote a would-be nun named Maria) "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start".

To begin with, let us be clear. This passage is a hymn. It is a song of praise. It is not a historic account or a scientific explanation. It is a theological statement about creation.

It is also the beginning of the story. It is not the end. Nowhere in the text (nor in the 66 books that follow in our Scripture library) does it say that when God gets to the 7th day and rests that Creation is complete. Creation is an ongoing process, one that continues to this day. Maybe when the eschaton comes Creation will be complete. Maybe. (Personally I suspect that even then, in the fullness of the Kingdom, when the New Heaven and the New Earth have arrived, newness will continue to be created.) And so we turn to the phrase from the United Church Creed that describes God as the One "who has created and is creating". Indeed one phrase I have often used in benedictions speaks of the God who creates and re-creates us.

What is being created within, around, among, beside us today? How are we leaving room for God's creative energy to work? (Which does assume we are doing that, are we in fact leaving that room?)
Genesis 1, the Priestly hymn to creation, introduces us to the God who actively works with the creation to make more creation. It introduces us to the God who sees creation as a process, as something that takes time (maybe even 14 billion years and counting?) rather than some sort of fait accompli that happens in an instant. And perhaps most importantly, it introduces us to the God who cares about what is being created, who looks at it and says it is good.

So what? What is our response to reading this piece of poetry? What does it mean for us to profess that God is still in the work of creating? What does it mean for us to recognize that even in the beginning of our story God is working with that which is to create something new?

Surely we don't read this just to argue about Creation vs. Intelligent Design vs. Evolution?

It is my belief that one reason we read this song to give us hope. It is hopeful that creation is not yet complete, that God is still at work creating and re-creating (because if we are honest we all know things and people -even us-that need a bit of re-creating now and then). It is hopeful to be reminded that God looks at the creation and says it is very good.

It is also my belief that we read this song to give us a reminder. We are not in charge of creation.  We did not create anything all on our own. There have been partners (present and past), there will yet be partners, and one of those partners is, was, and will be God. God starts the ball rolling, invites participation from the rest of creation and keeps pushing. When we read this song we are reminded that we need to work with the Source. Neither standing back and letting things just happen nor stepping in with a heavy hand to control the final outcome are desirable. This is God's party. How will we be partners with God in the ongoing work?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 3, 2017

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

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is John 6:1-14.

The Sermon title is The Bread of Life

Early Thoughts: A simple meal. A cube of bread and a taste of juice. And yet we believe it to be as filling as a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. Because God is present in the meal. It is the center of our faith.

The feeding of the multitude is one of the rare things in the Gospels. It is a memory that shows up in all four of the Gospel accounts (even the Last Supper where Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, the institution of our communion meal, does not have that status). Which says something. It tells us is that this event struck close to the heart of what those first generation followers of Jesus felt to be important in telling his story. There was something about this event that said something vital about what the Kingdom of God would be like. It is no accident that from the earliest of days Christians gathered in worship shared a meal together.

As John tells the story a crowd gathers and eventually Jesus asks his friends where they plan to buy food for them. Sensibly the disciples point out that the cost to do so is beyond their means. They have a little bit of food, but not nearly enough for such a crowd. In the end all eat their fill with basketfuls of bread and fish left over. Where there was a very real sense of not enough there was an abundance and then some.When the Kingdom is made real in our presence we have more than we think.

After recounting the story John goes further. Most of Chapter 6 is further discussion about the Bread of Life, the Bread that Jesus offers for eating. It is in this chapter that John's Jesus makes the statement "I am the Bread of Life" (verse 36). To share in the Bread of Life is to be nourished in a different way than to sit down at a full turkey dinner. To share in the feast of faith (whether that be bread and fish on a lakeside hill, crackers and water beside a hospital bed, or bread and wine/juice in the midst of a worship service) is to be renewed in our souls.

As a faith community we greet each other at the table to be renewed. As a faith community we welcome all comers, all those who seek to follow The Way of Christ to share in the meal. We pass the Bread of Life to each other, we share Christ's real presence in our midst, we allow the meal to change us as we continue to strive to live as residents of the Kingdom.

Such a simple meal....right?

Friday, August 25, 2017

September Newsletter

Cast Your Nets...

At the end of August I started reading Fishing Tips by the Rev Dr. John Pentland. In this book John shares some of his learnings from the transformation that has taken place at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary since 2004. John is clear that he is not trying to right a “this is how to become a great church” manual. He is sharing what happened for them, with the hope that there may be some wisdom other congregations can use to explore what kind of a church God is calling them to be.

The Scripture passage John says sparked the structure of the book comes from the Gospel of John. It is an Easter story. Peter and the others have returned to Galilee and their lives as fishermen. They fish all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore tells them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. Why should they listen? They know how to fish! But sometimes anything is worth a try – and they catch so many fish they can hardly bring in the net.

In the Church this story has been used to remind ourselves (or to teach ourselves) that sometimes we intentionally have to do things differently to allow for renewal or growth or rebirth. It is a challenge, because often our corporate reaction is “don’t tell us what to do! We know what we are doing!”. But the reality is that some of what we do is timeless and some of it it universal, and much of it is limited to a certain context and time.

Earlier this year I asked folks to consider what the “big rocks” are in our life as a faith community. I want us to know what we understand to be the most important things to do as a faith community as we set priorities over the next year. A related question is “what do we do well?”, what do we do that is different, what do/can we do better than other parts of our community. Once we sort out those things we can look at what resources we need and what resources we have to make those things happen.

But I want us to be open to the voice on the shore that says “try the other side!”. In the Gospel story, once the net is full of fish the disciples eyes are opened and they see that it is Jesus on the shore. What does he know about fishing? He was a carpenter after all? Some scholars have suggested that from the shore maybe he could see a shadow in the water that showed where the school was swimming. Possibly so. But I think that throughout his ministry Jesus is trying to make people see differently. Jesus continuously tries to make people understand that it is time to do life differently, that in the difference is where God can break in. I suggest that this is still just as true.

Maybe we need the voice of those on the edges, or even outside the community who see the things we can’t see. Maybe we need the voice that reminds us that just because one approach or activity or style has been meaningful in the past it may have had its day.

But at the same time we need the voices that remind us why something had meaning, why something worked before. Because there might still be wisdom there to live by.

When I started seminary 25 years ago a recurring theme in my theology class (at least one I heard) was that tradition was problematic. A recurring theme I hear in many organizations is that tradition is the guidepost by which we need to live. I think neither statement is true (especially given my mother’s definition of a tradition as “something we tried once and it worked”). I think tradition can be problematic, it can also be helpful. When we plan we need to talk through and see which side it falls on in each instance.

And so I ask you. Where do you hear God challenging us to throw the nets on the other side? Where do you hear God calling us to keep on keeping on? (I suspect that some of your answers will contradict each other.) Where are our traditions moving us forward? Where are they holding us back in a changed community? And along those lines, if there was one big piece of ministry you would love to see the congregation take on or expand or revive in 2017-2018 what would it look like?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Looking Ahead to August 27, 2017 -- The Bent Over Woman

The Scripture Reading for this week is Luke 13:10-17

The Sermon title is  Stand Up Straight

Early Thoughts: What is holding you back or bending you over? And do you know when it is time to allow the interruption to take precedence?

This has long been one of my favourite of the healing stories. And there are two things that jump out at me this exploration.

One is the first question above. Sometimes we don't even know the answer. I have known people who have lived  with undiagnosed depression for years. Then they hit the crisis point and start to get treatment. Suddenly the world changes for them. Sometimes we assume that something is "normal" when in fact it is because we have adjusted to and accepted the weight that is sitting on our shoulders. I wonder if that was what the woman felt like. After 18 years of being weighed down did she think that life without that weight was even possible? What was it like to adjust to her freedom?

The story of Scripture is, among other things, the story of a God who wishes God's people to be free and whole and healthy. The work of Jesus was, in part, to bring the good new that we are set free. From what chains do you need to be set free?

The other thing that jumps out of the story at me this time is the interruption. Jesus is busy doing something (teaching) when he sees this woman across the room. He stops what he is doing and goes to her. And at that point the interruption becomes more important than what is being interrupted.

Any parent knows the feeling. You try to get something done and a child comes in with a question, or a book to be read, or a crisis to be solved. Sometimes (often) our first reaction is to get irritated and wish for just a couple hours of time to get our own plans accomplished. But what is more important?

Many people find that the same thing happens in their professional lives. There is that letter to write or article to read but then someone stops by to chat....

Many of us have learned that sometimes the most profitable ministry we do is done in the unplanned interruption. The child who gets the hug that makes her day, the co-worker who needs emotional support because his world is crumbling, the woman who has been bent over for 18 years get freed.

I believe that when Jesus saw her enter the room he knew in his heart what was most important. Freedom. Wholeness. Health. Practical and visible signs that God is at work in the midst of the gathering. Yes it was an interruption. But it was a holy interruption.

Where are the holy interruptions in your lives? When have we missed them because our own agenda got in the way?

Reflecting on the events of the last couple of weeks another thought occurs to me.  When God acts to release people from chains, to allow them to stand up straight, why  does the rest of the world so often try to put the chains back on, to add weight to each other's shoulders?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Looking Ahead to July 16, 2017 -- The Conclusion of Ruth's story

This week we reach the end of our series on Ruth as we read chapter 4.

The Sermon title is Redeemed

Early Thoughts: As with any good story, in this final chapter the plot comes to a conclusion, the conflicts are resolved. Back in chapter one it was uncertain if the ending would be tragic or happy, but chapters 2 and 3 have been giving us ample clues and here we find that it is indeed a good news story.

In part this ending gives us a glimpse into a piece of Jewish custom (the business of who will redeem the land). In part this ending is a wrap-up of the story. And in part it is a launching point for the story of David (which is likely one of the reasons the text made it into the canon).

But there is something deeper too.  For the whole book we have watched Naomi as she has coped with the reality of loss. In chapter 1 she renamed herself Bitterness, even as Ruth proclaimed that she would remain faithful through all of life Naomi still found herself feeling empty. Throughout chapters 2 and 3 it has been unclear that Naomi comprehends the gift that Ruth has been -- focusing all that is good on the works of Boaz. Here, at the end, Naomi is told outright by the women of the village that Ruth is a greater gift than 7 sons. And maybe, as Naomi holds her newborn surrogate grandson she can see where the path to fullness has been all along.

Chapter 1 was about death and famine and emptiness. We have heard much about abundance throughout the rest of the book (directly in the form of grain, more symbolically in the burgeoning relationship between Ruth and Boaz). Now we are reminded that life wins, that life continues.  The land and family of Elimelech have been redeemed and restored. Life has won.

But where is God?

I have no doubt that some read the book of Ruth, get to the end, and presume that this is what God had planned all along. From the moment Elimelech took Naomi and Mahlon and Chilion to Moab God had this endpoint in view. I am not convinced God works quite that way. So where is God? Is God in the myriad acts of faithfulness and love which have pushed along the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz? Is God in the rules of life that created a space for Ruth and Naomi to find a life as childless widows? Is God in the healing of Naomi's empty heart?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Stand Up Straight! (Newspaper Column for July 14)

Often when I was growing up my father would tell me to stand up straight, to stop slouching. I am not sure I ever listened all that well. Looking back I wonder why I slouched so much. Maybe I was tired, maybe I was lazy (this one gets my vote), or maybe there was another reason. Maybe something was bending me over.

One of my favourite healing stories in the Gospels is in Luke 13:10-17. In it Jesus heals a woman who has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, for 18 years. Luke tells it in such a way as to make us think it is about healing on the Sabbath, but I think it is about being set free from 18 years of bondage. And celebrating freedom is a big part of the life of faith.

The late theologian Marcus Borg lists the story of being set free from captivity as one of the meta-stories of Scripture. We find it most famously in the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing from Egypt, but we also find it in the story of Jesus.Being freed is a large part of my understanding of the work Christ came to accomplish. So talking about being freed is hardly a small matter.

What do we need to be set free from today, in Grande Prairie in 2017? What has us bent over with a heavy load or left us chained? Is it possible that some of us don't even know we can be freed? Is it possible, or even likely, that we have been bound for so long that we think bondage is our normal, natural way of being?

Maybe a story...
In Junior high I was heavily bullied (admittedly I was a good target). And while I wasn't happy – not even close, there were days I was almost suicidal – there was a part of me that accepted how I felt as normal. And for years afterwards the chains remained, the chains that set me into a description of myself that was less than helpful.

Only when working with a therapist 15 years after the bullying did I really realize what had happened. We were using a technique that allowed or pushed me to remember the events of the past so I could process them. As I revisited the events of my teens something happened. I slumped lower and lower in the seat, my voice got quieter and quieter, I started feeling cold. As we talked about it afterwards, I realized not only how bent-over I had been but also that I had been freed. But for so many years I thought I couldn't be freed, that I was who I was and that couldn't happen. In hindsight I had been freed, the bonds were not there any longer. I just needed someone to tell me to “stand up straight” and find out that I was indeed free.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:30). In Christ God offers relief from our burdens. In Christ, God offers us freedom from bondage.

So what is bending you over? What is bending over your neighbours or family members? Where are the chains in our lives? How long have you been bent over? How long have you been in bondage? What would it look and feel like to be set free? Who will set you free, who offers release from bondage?

In an old hymn by George Duffield we read:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, /stand in his strength alone; /the arm of flesh will fail you, /ye dare not trust your own. /Put on the gospel armor, /each piece put on with prayer; /where duty calls or danger, /be never wanting there.

Freedom is one of the greatest gifts the Messiah brings. Freedom from what oppresses or holds you down. Indeed that freedom is one of the ways we are brought back into loving relationship with God and neighbour, because only when we know that we are free can we openly give ourselves to deep relationship. In the strength of the Christ we are freed from our bondage. Armed with prayer and a relationship with God we are able to stand tall. When we know we are free, we can accomplish great things.

God is calling you to stand up straight. God is trying to break the chains that keep us from being who we were created to be. God knows what burdens and bonds are holding us back. Can we let God lead us into freedom? Can we hear God saying “let my people go!”? May God lead us on the road to freedom.

Looking Forward to July 9, 2017 -- Ruth 3, What happens on the threshing floor?

This week we continue our tour through the book of Ruth as we explore chapter 3.

The Sermon title to go with this chapter is The Threshing Floor

Early Thoughts: The romance, which started to bud while Ruth was gleaning in the fields of Boaz in chapter 2, starts to blossom...

Or at least it moves to a new phase.

Naomi, in essence, counsels Ruth to seduce Boaz. After the party to celebrate the end of harvest, after Boaz has eaten and drunk his fill and lies down to sleep it off, Ruth is to go and uncover his feet. It is worth noting that feet may be feet. Feet may also be something a little higher up on the male anatomy.

The seduction is accepted. Boaz throws his cloak over Ruth, a sign of placing her under his protection (if nothing else). And as a kinsman of Elimelech Boaz is an appropriate husband for Ruth to allow the continuation of the family of Naomi and Elimelech. There is, however another closer option. But we will learn more about him in chapter 4.

Then we return to the abundance. AS Ruth leaves in the morning (early enough that folk will not know she slept on the threshing floor) Boaz gives her 6 measures of grain.

Boaz continues to be struck by Ruth's faithfulness. Boaz shows signs of being a model of faithfulness himself. Naomi is still on the fence. Has she yet seen the gift that Ruth is or is she still stuck in her bitterness phase? At least she is showing signs of worrying about Ruth's future as well as her own. But where is God? How is God active in this chapter of the story?

THat is the question for this Sunday...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Summer Newsletter

What are our Big Rocks??

On the first Sunday of August 2010, the first time I led worship here at St. Paul’s, I shared this story:
As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"
"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. (

What is the point of the story?
Some people say that the story tells us that there is always room to add more. These people tend to be the ones who are so busy they are working themselves to dis-ease.
The point of the story is to add the big rocks first. We have to know what the most important pieces are before we start worrying about the little ones, because given the chance the little stuff will fill up our jar and there is no room for the big stuff.

I told that story 7 years ago for a reason. As we started a new relationship I wanted us to be clear about what the top priority items were, where we needed to spend the brunt of our energy. Now I want us to have the discussion again.

A few weeks ago I was looking at the “rogues gallery” in the narthex. And as I looked I realized that over the last 30 years St. Paul’s has called a new minister every 5-9 years. That means that at regular intervals the congregation has, in whatever way the United Church structured it at the time, had a chance to ask itself what its priorities are, what the ministry needs of the congregation and community are. Key questions as we strive to be the church God calls us to be in Grande Prairie.

It is my belief that in a changing world we need to intentionally ask ourselves these sort of questions. I know that I personally am really good at getting into a pattern, or routine, or even a rut. I think communities have the same tendency. We keep on as we have been going. Unless we ask if this is the best way to keep going that is.

At most of our meetings Council takes time to have some sort of visioning conversation. One of the results of those conversations has been the revival of a Pastoral Visiting Team. This fall Council is going (they agreed to this at our June meeting) to work at bringing the rest of the congregation into that visioning discussion. As a prelude to this I asked them to think about the big rocks.

Now I ask you. What are the key things we do as a congregation? What are the big things you feel God is calling us to do as we move forward to meet the spiritual needs of those inside the building and the community which surrounds us?

God has called us to be the church in such a time as this. God is challenging us to be clear about why we are here. What are you hearing?

PS: I have some dreams. But I want to hear yours first.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Looking Ahead to July 2, 2017 -- A reflection of #Canada150

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture passages we will hear are:
  • Psalm 72:1-14
  • Jeremiah 29:4-9
The Sermon title is What Kind of Nation?

Early Thoughts: National holidays are a bit of a conundrum in the church.  On the one hand (many would say the dominant hand) we in the church are called to recognize an allegiance beyond nationality, we are called to be citizens of the Kingdom first and Canadians (or Americans or British or...) second. On the other hand, when something is a large event (celebration even) can we truly ignore it?

Then there are questions about whose party it is....

On July 1, 2017 we recognize 150 of a political entity. 150 years since a group of British colonies officially joined together to form the Dominion of Canada. That is what the day commemorates. Technically you could say that the day is only #Canada150 for Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia since all other provinces joined later.

We are not commemorating the length of time Europeans have been present on the continent (Montreal marks 375 years since Ville-Marie was founded this year, and other communities are older than that). And to be really obvious, our Indigenous neighbours have been on the continent for 1000's of years before that. We are not even marking 150 years of colonization (though the reality is that colonization have been an integral part of our history) since that too goes back long before Confederation. We are marking 150 years of a political entity, nothing more, nothing less.

But even then, how do we bring our faith to bear on the commemoration? After all, despite what some people may claim, Canada is not a "Christian nation". We have no national religion, no national church. Our laws are not shaped to conform with any one theological position. So what does our faith have to say about what it means to be Canadian?

This is when I start to think it would have been easier to not build a service to reflect on #Canada150....

But the reality is that something is missing from all the party preparations. There has been, in the official resources, a focus on celebrating what Canada has accomplished -- as evidenced in April when we heard all about the battle of Vimy Ridge on it's centennial -- but a lack of encouragement to stop and reflect on who we are as a country, how we have gotten here, and at what cost. I believe that as people of faith, as people who are called to be citizens of a larger Kingdom, as people who have a faith story which points us to a way to live in community we are placed to have that reflection. SO that is part of what we do this weekend.

And then I remembered the passage for Jeremiah. As their world is crashing around them, as they are being lead off into exile, the people have a choice. They can lament. They can resist. They can make life miserable. Or they can, as Jeremiah says, " 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 citizens of the Kingdom who happen to reside in and are governed by the nation of Canada I think that Jeremiah's challenge lies before us as well. We need to seek the welfare of the nation, as residents of a democratic society to seek the welfare of our communities is to be active in helping to shape those communities.

So I ask: What kind of nation do we want Canada to be? How does the nation Canada currently is reflect those aspirations, and how does it vary from them?

In order to seriously ask those question we need to take seriously that a large number of people who live within the political entity are not celebrating this year. We need to take seriously the ways that Canada has not been a nation of which we can be proud and ask how we can do better.

WHat does our faith say about how we live together?