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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Let's Go!

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the Celebration Service for Waterloo Presbytery on Sunday, November 4 at Parkminster United Church in Kitchener. 

When I was a seminary student I took at chaplaincy course at a hospital in Toronto. That was a long time ago. The first day, everyone went around the circle and introduced themselves. The chaplain who was teaching and supervising us went last. He informed us that he was 59 years old. I can remember clearly thinking, “How depressing must it be to be 59 and realize your life is more than half over.”

Well, here I am today. 59 is a receding memory and I realize that my life is well more than half over. I also realize that the ministry I started in 1981 – at least the part of it with a pay cheque attached – is also almost over.

And, that the church into which I was ordained almost four decades ago has changed beyond recognition. One manifestation of that change is that Presbyteries, which in a lot of ways were the glue that held this widely flung church together since 1925, are soon to be no more.

It’s a symptom of our time. We no longer have the resources or the people to keep the kind of multi-leveled governance structure that defined our church for so long going. It points to a church that is diminished, more fragile and vulnerable. We might have restructured 30 years ago when our hand was not forced. But such is human nature that we often don’t change until our backs are against the wall.

I’ve done my share of complaining about Presbytery over the years. But – and there was a time I could not have imagined saying this – I’m going to miss it. My work as Presbytery Support Minister has given me an insight into the value of this much maligned dimension of the church’s existence.

For me personally, it was a godsend. In 2014, I left my last congregation after a conflict that I tried unsuccessfully to manage finally got the better of me. I had begun to doubt my effectiveness as a minister and knew that if I didn’t get out I would be no good to anybody. One Sunday night I called Greg Smith-Young and said, “Buddy, you got any interim appointments up your way? I’m going to need something.” “I don’t know about that,” he said, “But there’s this full time position the Presbytery has just created. I think the application deadline is tomorrow.”

And so here I am. People often tell me they appreciate my work. What you may not know is the role that Waterloo Presbytery has played in my own personal healing, and in the recovery of my confidence in my vocation. So thank you.

But this work has also made me aware of how, with a little support and some consistent attention, even struggling congregations can be very resilient. It’s been a joy to me to see small bands of faithful people recover a sense of hope and confidence in their future.

And, I’ve become aware of just how important the community and collegiality of Presbytery is to many of you, both lay and ordered alike. In the past, I was puzzled by the “Presbytery junkies.” You know who you are, you people who just can’t get enough of Presbytery. There was a time when I thought, “It’s my job to go to Presbytery. You mean there are people who do it because they want to.” I’ve grown to admire your dedication – you Presbytery junkies.
So, for me and probably for many of you, this is kind of sad time. It’s not just that something familiar is ending, but we recognize it as part of the move of the church from the respected centre of our culture to the fringes where most people barely notice us.

That’s why I chose Romans 8 for my Scripture text this afternoon. I think more than any other passage in the New Testament, this text reminds us of why we are here.

Someone once asked Lesslie Newbigin, that giant in the ecumenical movement of the last century, whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the church. “I believe Jesus Christ is risen from the dead,” Newbigin replied. “Optimism or pessimism has nothing to do with it.”

Jesus is risen. Regardless of whether the church is thriving or struggling, Jesus is risen. That’s all we need to know. And that’s all we need.

My guess is that Romans chapter 8 was written on Lesslie Newbigin’s heart. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful and compelling theological vision than these words of St. Paul which sit like an anchor in the middle of his greatest letter. Paul reminds us that, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how our fortunes may be rising or falling, God has a plan – a plan to restore the whole of creation – not just to take individuals to heaven when they die but to redeem the entire cosmos.

And so, no matter what, we live in hope. Hope, Paul says, is by definition something we cannot see. “Who hopes for what he or she already has.” No, we live in hope for what we do not see and, truth be told, what we cannot possibly see hidden in our present reality.
In our weakness, God out of love sustains us God’s Spirit. Which is a good thing, because without the Spirit we are pretty hopeless cases. For heaven’s sake, Paul says, we do not even know how to pray – ever felt like that? Ever felt that our empty, banal words are an offense in the face of the suffering and need that surrounds us on all sides? Well, you’re in good company. The Apostle Paul went through the same thing. But no worries, Paul says. God’s mercy is so great that, when our prayers fail, the Spirit even prays for us with sighs too deep for words.

“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” This doesn’t mean that the faithful are protected from harm or that all they do always prospers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Faithfulness to God more often leads to suffering and disappointment and heartache. But we live in the conviction that our faithfulness will not fall to the ground – that in ways we will never know, our faithfulness contributes in the furtherance of God’s purposes. I hope you who feel tired and discouraged and wonder what you could possibly do that will make any difference will hold these words close to your heart.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” In the end, says St. Paul, there is this. And it is on this that we build our lives. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8 is a text most often heard at funerals. And there’s a good reason for it. It is about hope in the face of death, whether it’s our death, or the death of something we have loved and cherished.

I’m reminded of another great saint of the church who has given us some cues in how to prepare for the coming death of something many of us have given much of ourselves to.  Eugene Peterson died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 85, in hospice, of complications of dementia and heart disease.  I will bet that almost everyone here has been touched by Eugene Peterson, whether you know it or not -- through a reference your minister made to one of his many books in a sermon; or a passage read from the translation of the Bible known as The Message, which Eugene Peterson wrote. Peterson was an enormous influence on me and many pastors.  Peterson understood the Gospel. And he understood that chipped and broken clay vessel called the church into which God, for reasons that often escape us, has placed that Gospel. He was a man of deep faith and humility, a teacher, preacher and pastor who has enriched the church immeasurably. His writings taught many of us a long obedience in the same direction. 

Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian minister and taught at Regent College in Vancouver, but he was raised in the Pentecostal church.  Here’s what his family said about his dying “During the previous days it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between heaven and earth.  We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise.  There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his Pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well. 

Eugene Peterson wrote in 2012: “Resurrection does not have to do exclusively with what happens after we are buried or cremated. It does have to do with that, but first of all it has to do with the way we live right now,” “But as Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, pithily reminds us: ‘Only where graves are is there resurrection.’ We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.”

Among Eugene Peterson’s final words were, ‘Let’s go.’”
And I think those are fitting words for us at this transitional moment in our history as a church. We know that things are not what they used to be. We know that the future is uncertain. But Christ is risen. And we are people of the resurrection.
So, let’s go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Inviting and Equipping

Is your church’s mission statement working for you? If so, great. A good mission statement can be a powerful tool for ministry.

But if it isn’t working – if people can’t remember it, or they don’t know what it means, or it doesn’t affect the way you make decisions – it may be because it’s not focused on the right things.

Your church’s mission statement should describe its purpose – the reason the church exists. The root meaning of the word “mission” is “send.” “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) Your mission is the work that Jesus sends you to do – a continuation of the work that God sent Jesus to do.
St. Paul gives expression to this same idea through his image of the church as the Body of Christ. Christ isn’t physically present in the world, but he is present through his Body – his people who are his hands, feet and heart.

What many mission statements actually do is describe the results or outcomes of the mission rather than the mission itself.

There are two common types of mission statements that illustrate this problem. 

One could be described as the “caring community” type. For example: “Our mission is to be an open, inclusive, compassionate community, welcoming all people.”

Another is the “change the world” variety – as in “Our mission is to serve those in need and seek justice for all.”

Now, let me be clear. Churches absolutely should aspire to be both caring communities and places of service to the needy. But these qualities and actions are the results of a church faithfully living out its mission. The mission itself, though, is somewhat different.

I believe that the mission of every church has two aspects. First, to invite people to faith in Jesus; and second, to equip people to follow Jesus in their daily lives. Each church will find its own way of living out this two-fold mission, but invitation and equipping are the basic elements of every church’s purpose.

We are all called to love God and neighbour. And we are all called to live with compassion, humility, forgiveness, justice and love. In a post-Christian world, we’re discovering more and more that the primary impact of these actions and attitudes ought not to be within the church, but in the places where people live and work.

The purpose of the church is to help people get to know Jesus, so that they can learn how to follow Jesus day by day.
There are several ways in which churches would benefit from focusing their mission on inviting and equipping.

First, clarity. Many churches have a “branding” problem. People, including people in the church, don’t know what they’re for – except to benefit their own members and perhaps provide community meeting space. Some argue that the church needs to downplay Jesus if it wants to be more relevant. I disagree. Proclaiming the counter-cultural message of Jesus and equipping people to follow him clearly defines the purpose of the church and distinguishes it from other service organizations.

Second, practicality. A mission focused on inviting and equipping is doable. Many mission statements have the effect of making churches feel like failures because they set an impossibly high ideal. Needs are endless. They can overwhelm us and paralyze us. Churches that define themselves primarily in terms of compassion and service can be defeated by their human fallibility.

We can’t be a community of perfect love, and we can’t change the world. But we can invite people to faith in Jesus, and we can equip people to follow Jesus in their daily lives.

Third, it’s inspiring. A mission centred on inviting and equipping is true to the reason the church has always existed. It is able to touch people’s lives personally and to awaken a sense of personal mission. And it addresses the aching needs of the world that God created and loves.

If you feel like your mission statement isn’t working, have another go at it with these two ideas in mind: The church exists to invite people into the vision of God, the world and humanity proclaimed by and embodied in Jesus; and the church exists to equip people to live out of this vision in practical ways in their everyday lives.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Speaking and Keeping Silent

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes contains fourteen polarities – sets of opposites – and says that there is a time for each one of them. We know that, don’t we. Not every time is a time for birth. Sometimes things need to die before new things can be born. Not every time is a time for laughing. Sometimes laughing is completely inappropriate. It’s a time for weeping.

At the Annual Meeting of Hamilton Conference, May 25-27, I invited delegates to reflect on three of the fourteen polarities. In earlier posts, I shared people’s thoughts about whether we are in a time for scattering or a time for gathering, and whether we are in a time for embracing or refraining from embracing.

On the last day of Conference, we considered whether we are in a time for speaking, or a time for keeping silence.

Christianity is a very wordy faith. We worship a God who creates by speaking. We read the
prophets who declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Our worship services consist primarily of lots of words – spoken words, sung words, read words, prayed words. Talk is all around us.

Our faith certainly calls us to speak – to speak the truth, to speak up in the face of injustice, to give voice to the voiceless, to open our lips in praise or lament, in thanksgiving or sorrow.

But we also need to be aware of the importance of silence, of not speaking. Sometimes it is best to keep quiet.

In the Book of Job, after Job suffered a terrible series of calamities, his friends came to comfort him. And it says that they “sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one said a word to him, because his suffering was very great.” Sometimes there is nothing we can say.  There are times when it’s best not to say anything.

After the shepherds left Bethlehem, Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Sometimes we’re also called to keep silence in the face of great mystery – in the face of things that are too momentous or profound to explain.

I invited folks to complete one of these sentences:

“I believe we are in a time for SPEAKING because….”

“I believe we in a time for KEEPING SILENT because ….”

A Time to Speak
Ninety-eight people said we are in a time for speaking.

About half of those said we’re in a time for speaking because communicating builds

community. As one person put it, “Speaking is essential for vital healthy conversation and communication.” It’s important to create space where people can share a variety of perspectives and grow in their understanding of one another.

Some people said it’s a time for speaking because the Good News needs to be shared. “We are called to bear witness to our faith. If we do not share the stories of how God is working in our lives, who will?”  A couple of people even used the “E”-word (evangelism.)

For some, speaking means speaking out about injustice and in solidarity with the marginalized and suffering. “Not everyone has a voice,” one person wrote, and the church is called to ensure that their voice is heard.

Others saw speaking through the lens of the changes taking place in the church. A common theme among this group was the importance of continuing to speak about our tradition so we do not forget where we came from in the midst of great change.

A time for silence
Seventy-five people said we in a time for keeping silent.

One group said we should keep silent so that we can listen. In these times, it’s important to hear different perspectives and careful listening is required. This is the opposite of a wonderful expression I read recently – “predatory listening.” Predatory listening is listening just long enough to load up with a come-back or counter argument. This group saw silence as the context in which we can begin to hear one another.

Another group also talked about listening, but specifically listening to God or to the Spirit. Several people quoted the verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” “Give God a chance to get a word in edgewise!” one person wrote.

As expected, there was a group that related listening to the restructuring of the church. There is so much information and so many unanswered questions, it’s essential to give ourselves the space to let it sink in, to ponder and reflect.

A fourth group talked about keeping silent in the face of injustice. Interestingly, the “Time to Speak” group said we need to give voice to the voiceless. The theme of this “Keeping Silent” group was that we need to be quite so the voiceless can be heard.

In his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson says that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the antidote to the temptation to try to provide either miracles or answers. It speaks into the ambiguity and uncertainty of life and warns against the “vanity” of looking for the easy way out. This approach to wisdom is captured in the polarities of chapter 3. Some times are right for gathering stones, at other times scattering is called for.  Some times  are meant for embracing, others for refraining from embracing. Some times we are called to speak out. Other times we called to keep silent.

The collected wisdom of Hamilton Conference is that, depending on how you look at it, these “times” can happen simultaneously. It can be both a time for speaking and for silence.

What I learned from this exercise is that pondering the meaning of these activities and the demands of the moment is, in itself, a spiritual practice.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

To Embrace or Not to Embrace

The “Wisdom Tradition” of the Bible has different forms. Wisdom speaks in different voices.

There is the self-assured voice of the Book of Proverbs which says that if we live responsibly and well we will be rewarded, and if we live irresponsibly and badly we will suffer. Much of the time, that is true.

But it is not always true. Sometimes life is more complicated and harder to understand.
So, Scripture also includes the questioning voice of the Book of Job, for example, or Ecclesiastes. These writings are attuned to the perplexing and paradoxical side of life. The canon of the Bible makes room for both because both describe human experience, including the experience of faith.

At the Annual Meeting of Hamilton Conference, May 25-27, I invited delegates to reflect on
three of the fourteen pairs of opposites in Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 which says that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

In my last post, I described delegates’ responses to “a time to scatter stones, and a time to gather stones together.”

On the second day of our meeting, I invited folks to complete one of these sentences:

“I believe we are in a time for EMBRACING because …”


“I believe we are in a time to RERAIN FROM EMBRACING because …”

The word “embrace” means to “encircle,” to “enfold in one’s arms,” to “clasp to oneself.” In the Book of Genesis, we read that Esau ran to his estranged brother Jacob, “embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him.” Embracing is a sign of affection, intimacy and communion – and in the case of Jacob and Esau – reconciliation.

So, what’s not to like about embracing? Isn’t embracing always a good thing? When would it not be a time for embracing?

My granddaughter is three-and-a-half. She loves to be with other kids and whenever she meets someone new, she wants to hug them. Her parents are always saying, “Nina, you need to ask people if it’s OK before you give them a hug.” But when we are with her and it’s time to go, she won’t hug us because that means it’s time to leave.

Nina is still sorting out when it’s appropriate to embrace and when it’s not.

We talk about embracing metaphorically – as in, “embracing change.” But not all change is
good. Is it the right time to embrace change? Or not yet the right time? There is wisdom involved in discerning these things.

All of these angles were reflected in the responses that people gave.  

One hundred and twenty-three people thought we are in a time for embracing. Their responses clustered around some key themes:
We need to “embrace” because people need community. We are becoming more isolated and less connected. Key words that surfaced in these responses were “support,” “reassurance,” “comfort,” “connecting,” “hugs,” “the Body of Christ.”

·         Another key theme was that change is inevitable, so we need to embrace it, whether we like it or not. Otherwise, we’ll be left behind.
·         Others said we need to “embrace” change, both in the church and in culture. Many referred to the need to adapt to changing church structures and to being open to new ideas.

·         Some took what I would call a “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day”) approach. God is on the move, the wind of the Spirit is blowing, it’s time to take risks and “swing for the fences.”  These folks saw change as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a threat to be avoided.

·         A few focused on the specific need to embrace justice and reconciliation.

Sixty-one people said we are in a time to refrain from embracing.
Their reasons:

·         We need to let go of our fears and the inertia of the status quo. These folks viewed embracing as holding on to things that we need to relinquish.
·         We shouldn’t try to embrace others before we do the hard work of repenting and reconciling. People who responded in this way came at the question from the angle of respecting boundaries and gaining consent.
·         It’s too soon to embrace the changes that are happening. We’re in a time of too much uncertainty. What is called for is discerning, waiting, listening, contemplating, keeping our options open. There is such a thing as embracing prematurely.

It was fascinating to me to see the different ways in which people interpreted the question, and the common themes that emerged from their responses.

In my next post, I’ll look at “A Time to Speak” and “A Time to Keep Silent.”  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Gathering or Scattering?

According to tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes expresses the wisdom of King Solomon in his old age. That makes sense to me, because Ecclesiastes is more about questions than answers. Although I certainly feel like I know more than I did when I was young, I also feel like I have more questions, and that my answers are not as sure as they once were. It seems that the older we get, and the more learn, the more we realize we don’t know.

Ecclesiastes is also a book that seems to resonate with the times in which we live, where a lot of old certainties just don’t hold any more. Old Testament scholar William Brown says that Ecclesiastes is about finding “God … in the details of the daily grind of living” rather than in some all-encompassing explanation of the meaning of life. Ecclesiastes reminds us that faith does not necessarily mean having everything all figured out.

The best-known section of Ecclesiastes (made doubly famous by 1960s song by The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn) is found in chapter 3:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Fourteen sets of polarities, each declaring that answers change with times and seasons. That seems especially true in these times – times of fluidity, uncertainty, anxiety, change.
At the Annual Meeting of Hamilton Conference May 25-27, I invited delegates to reflect on three of the fourteen pairs of opposites in this well-known passage in the light what we are going through as a church.

“A time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together.”

Nobody really knows what this verse means by scattering and gathering stones. But we know from experience that there are times when it seems right to gather together, and times when it seems right to scatter. Since the First Letter of Peter calls the church, a “house of living stones,” I wonder if we can find a metaphor for the church?

We usually think of church as gathering. The church is really the church when we are
together, strong and united, full and busy. When we go our separate ways, we’re done with church until the next time we gather.   

Except that, in Scripture, God’s power and grace often show up most dramatically in times of scattering. The Israelites scattered in the wilderness. The Jews scattered in exile. The Book of Acts says that the early Christians were scattered by a great persecution. Rather than stamping out the new faith, this scattering spread the Word far and wide.

We focus on how to gather the church – into worship, into programs and events. But what if we are in a time for scattering? After all, Jesus didn’t invite his disciples in to a sanctuary or
a building, he sent them out to witness to the kingdom and to prepare his way.

I asked Conference delegates to choose between two sentences and complete one of them – either “I believe we are in a time for GATHERING because…” or “I believe we are in a time for SCATTERING because…”

Sixty-three people said we are in a time for gathering.  Some of their reasons for saying this were:
         Because we need to come together for mutual support – to be grounded in                            tradition, to share stories, experiences and common practices, to encourage                          one another in times of anxiety, challenge and aging.
     Because people are hungry for intimacy, community and the love of Christ.
     Because we’re going through a time of structural change and we need each                          other.
         Because we need to imagine together a new way to be the church.
     Because by gathering, we are equipped to scatter.

Ninety-six people said we’re in a time for scattering. Some of their reasons were:

·       That’s what God calls us to do.

·        As in the Parable of the Sower, we need to scatter the Word.

·        Because we need to get out of our sanctuaries and connect with our communities.

·       Because we’re going through a time of structural change and we need to get used to            being more scattered.

·       Because everything around us is being shaken and we need to learn new ways to be the      church in the midst of that shaking.

·       Quite a few people connected the image of scattering with other biblical metaphors,              such as “new wine,” “springtime,” “rebirth,” “pilgrimage,” “being the wilderness,” “yeast,”        “the hovering Spirit.”

The church is meant to be both a “gathered” people and a “scattered” people. That two-fold reality is maybe more true than it has been at any time in our history.

In my next post, I’ll look at “Embracing” and “Refraining from Embracing.”  

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Who Are We?

Who am I? That depends on who you ask. 

When I was in Grade 9, I discovered that a girl in my class had a brother who was married to a former girlfriend of my older brother. “You should tell her you know me,” I said.

A few days later, she said, “Well, I talked to my sister-in-law. She said your brother was mean and horrible, and you were a little brat.”

Generations of Sunday School children have learned the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man. Who is Zacchaeus? It depends who you ask. The people of Jericho, Zacchaeus himself, and Jesus all had different answers to that question.

Who is Zacchaeus? If you asked the people of Jericho, they would say that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a sinner, greedy, dishonest, corrupt, cruel, a Roman collaborator. And on top of all that, he’s short!

Who is Zacchaeus? If you asked Zacchaeus himself, he would say that he was disliked, confused, misunderstood, disrespected, ashamed, tired of feeling like an outcast, searching for a better way to live.

What about Jesus? What did he see in Zacchaeus? A man with the potential to change, the capacity to give, not just take; hungry for belonging and acceptance, a dinner companion – meaning an equal – and, in Jesus’ own words, “a son of Abraham” – part of the family.

According to Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, “Who are we?” is one of the basic questions every church should ask itself. What if we were to ask this question about our churches from a variety of perspectives -- the community, ourselves, and Jesus?

Who are we? What would the community outside the church say? We might be surprised. I was going to a meeting at a church in a small town. It was pre-GPS days and I didn’t really know where I was going. Three times, I stopped and asked a passerby, “Do you know where the United Church is?” And three times, I received the answer, “No idea” If we asked the community who we are, they might say, “Beats me,”
I once heard an Anglican priest describe attending a neighborhood BBQ. “What do you do?” one of his neighbors asked. “I’m a pastor,” he replied. “Wow, it must be hard to be so closed-minded and judgmental all the time,” the neighbor said. Is that how people outside the church see us? 
I know the answer the community would give about my former congregation. “That’s the church with the great flea market every April.”

Who are we? What would the members of our church say?

Statistically, it’s likely they would say “We’re friendly.” All churches think they’re friendly. Or “We’re a family.” Many churches say, “We’re aging.” Or, “We aren’t what we used to be.” Almost all churches would say, “Flawed.”

Recently, I led a workshop at a church and asked them to describe their main strengths. They came up with answers like, “loyal,” “devoted,” “caring.” Then I asked them to describe their weaknesses. They said things like, “superficial,” “judgmental,” “afraid to change.” Isn’t it interesting, I thought, that they would say all those things about themselves at the same time. We love our churches and we’re proud of them. But we also know how deeply imperfect our churches are, and how far short we fall of who God calls us to be.

Who are we? What would Jesus say? 

Scripture gives us some ideas about that. First of all, Jesus would see us exactly for who we are, with no illusions. He had no illusions about his disciples, and he has none about us. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

But Jesus sees us as God sees us, created in God’s own image. Jesus sees us  differently from the way others see us, or we see ourselves.

The First Letter of Peter was written to scattered, struggling churches whom Peter called “exiles.” They didn’t count for much in the world’s eyes. They felt inadequate and discouraged – like many of our churches.

But Peter wanted them to see themselves as God sees them. So here’s what he said:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.”

Who are we? How different Jesus’ answer is from that of the surrounding culture, or ourselves. 
We are invited to find our identity in Christ, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us.  Because that’s the deepest truth. We are precious, valued, beloved, called and chosen. It’s that identity that identity that Jesus wants us to embrace, and it’s out of that identity that Jesus wants us to live.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Lessons from the Monastery

I read a story in The New York Times about the crisis facing a Trappist monastery. ( In the 1950s, there were 55 monks praying and working at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Now there 13, most of them in their 80s.

I experienced a sense of familiarity when I was reading this article. Although a Trappist monastery and a United Church of Canada congregation are very different in many ways, the basic issue is the same – the passing of a form of religious community and commitment.

The Trappists have it worse than us. There was a time when young men were eager to take a lifelong vow of prayer, silence, manual labour and celibacy. It was viewed as a high calling, and a heroic way of life. And the essence of that way of life – seclusion from the world, resistance to change – makes it all the harder.  

But when you get right down to it, our problems are fundamentally the same. The number of people – especially young people – who find it spiritually and socially meaningful to commit to weekly participation in a congregation is dwindling. Our world operates according to rhythms that make that way of life very difficult. And increasingly people want to chart their own spiritual journeys without the burden of institutional forms.

The irony is that we live in a time of intense spiritual longing. People are feeling fragmented and dislocated, lonely and confused. The dramatic rise in mental health issues, addiction and stress-related illness is testament to the malaise of our culture. People are longing for connectedness, community, purpose, and meaning. They are aching for compassion and rest.

And so here’s the interesting thing about Mepkin Abbey. While the monks are getting old 
and dying, the monastery’s retreat centre is fully booked months in advance.

(The monks have also found that the Abbey grounds are a stunning location for a wedding.)

What this says to me is that, while the specific form of religious observance and commitment is becoming  unsustainable, there is something about the place and what it has to offer that still speaks to people’s souls and draws them to the Abbey.

The monks, God bless them, are trying to change. They are beginning to offer short-term monastic experiences – one month, a year – that don’t require a life-time vow. They know that, even though the supply of novices has dried up, there is still something they can offer.
This provides an analogy to our churches. There are things about us that are unsustainable. 

But are there also things about our churches that people are longing for? Can we find different and imaginative ways to offer those?

Recently, I conducted a workshop at a congregation. I invited people to answer the question “Why don’t more people come to church?” That’s a good, open-ended question.

But then I said, “What if we turn that into a closed question and ask: Are people coming to church? Is it true that they're not coming?” Well, not as many. And not so much on Sunday mornings. But they’re still coming. There might have been 300 and now there are 60, but that’s still 60 people.

And it turns out that people are coming to lots of other things at the church – study groups, community groups, dinners, events. The church is actually a hive of activity all week. 

We seem to be fixated on one single metric: How many people are in worship on a given Sunday.

Not to say that the rapid decline in this number isn’t significant. And not to say that showing up to the monthly community dinner is equivalent to being a fully committed member of the church.

But I believe that, hidden in the interactions the church has with people outside of Sunday morning, and in the connections members of the church have with neighbors, friends, co-workers and strangers, might be clues to how the church will evolve in the future.

We need to explore those connections at a deeper level, and ask how they could provide opportunities to do what the church is really called to do: witness to the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like the monks of Mepkin Abbey, we have something precious to share for which people are desperately hungry. The future could be right under our noses – if we have the faith and imagination to follow the clues.