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?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Looking Forward to June 25, 2017 -- Ruth in the Fields of Boaz

This is the second of 4 Sundays where we are exploring the book of Ruth and so we will be reading Ruth 2.

The Sermon title is Gleaning

By Léon Augustin Lhermitte - lhermitte, Public Domain

 Early Thoughts: Within the Torah are commandment about caring for the vulnerable in the community. Within the rules of living together are guidelines about ensuring that all have access to resources. In the book of Leviticus we read:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien, You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (Lev 23:22. Lev 19:10)
Ruth has come to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. They are both widowed, Ruth is a Moabite, an alien, a foreigner. How will they make a living?

For most of human history their choices would be few. Arguably even today, in most places on the planet, their choices would be limited. Luckily in Jewish law there is an option. They can glean. They can walk behind the harvest crew and collect the missed grain.

Surely no farmer seeking to maximize his income would allow such grain to lie in the fields. Surely the prudent approach to farming would be to send a crew out to gather what was missed, that it too might get put into the barn, any good farmer would harvest right to the edge of the field. Right?

Unless care for the community, care for the vulnerable is made a priority. Then you might do things like leave some grain in the fields so that those who need it can come and get it for themselves.

At any rate, Ruth goes out to glean. And it appears she makes an impression on Boaz, the owner of the field where she ends up.  Is it love at first sight? Is it, as stated in the text, because Boaz has heard reports of Roth's faithfulness and devotion to Naomi? Is it God moving behind the scenes, stirring in the heart of Boaz? At any rate Boaz not only allows Ruth to glean in his fields but he ensures that her gleaning will be very profitable.

In the brokenness of her life, in her time of need, Ruth finds great abundance. Abundance which she then carries back to share with Naomi. Where there is abundance fighting against need and scarcity, is that a place where we see God?

WE have times of brokenness. We have times where something in our lives seems scarce. Where can we glean for what we need in abundance? Where is God's grace waiting to be found?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Looking Ahead to June 11, 2017 -- We begin to explore Ruth

Over the next 6 weeks we will be taking time to explore the 4 chapters of the book of Ruth. This week we begin by reading and looking at Ruth 1.

The Sermon title is Family Bonds

Early Thoughts: What do you do when life falls apart? On whom can you rely?

For most of human history the first place you would look would be family. Family is the group that provides support (in theory at least, there have always been stories where family has been distinctly less than supportive). For most of human history family (extended to clan and tribe, not just our modern nuclear family) has been the social safety net.

Naomi has had her life torn apart. She and her family flee their home as economic refugees (ironically Bethlehem, the House of Bread, is hit by famine). The settle in a new land. Then her husband and both sons die, leaving 3 widows. What is one to do?

Naomi (who we will learn is as much of the heroine of this story as Ruth is) goes home. Assuredly there are still family there who will take her in, because that is what family does. But what about these daughters-in-law? What family are they a part of now? If they remain with Naomi Jewish law suggests that they need to marry within the family of Elimelech, preferably to an as-yet-unborn brother of their husband, to maintain the name and line of Elimelech. Naomi knows this is a dubious proposition.

So she releases them. Go home, find new husbands, live prosperous and happy lives. By all accounts this is the path of wisdom, however much it may break Naomi's heart to do so. One woman agrees. The other has changed her family loyalty already. And so Ruth refuses to go. This is a different type of wisdom, some might even call it foolishness.

In the ancient (and not so ancient if we are honest) world, to be a widow with no sons [and little or no financial resources -- money has always made a difference] put one in a highly precarious position. Unless you can find a source of support you will either starve or be forced to less than honorable ways of making a living. Ruth is taking a great risk. But her love of and commitment to her mother-in-law appears to leave her no choice.

In the next weeks we will learn how Ruth and Naomi will fare. But this week we only get this far. Ruth's statement of commitment (arguably the best known verse in the entire book) and love that contradicts and stares down Naomi's sacrificial loving offer. Life has fallen apart for this family unit. Where do they look for support?

And where is God in all this? [Because the text does not actually say anything about God]