Sunday, April 30, 2017

Another Sunday, Another Book

It's Sunday - that means another book needs to be finished and written up. Book 15. I'm still one behind. I had thought I could catch up by the end of the month but that didn't happen. And I'm okay with that. For now.

This Challenge of mine has been an interesting journey in more ways than one. I have collected or been given books over the past years for a variety of reasons. Depending on my life circumstances, I would read the book in short order or, more times than I care to admit, I put the book on my bookshelf and tell myself that I would read it when things calmed down. But, as it happens with four children and taking university courses while in ministry training and then working the first years at SVUC that brought it's own series of challenges, reading extra books on theology or spirituality above and beyond what was required for congregational ministry was just too tiring.

So, this year I pushed myself to pull together 52 books that have been hanging around on my work and home book shelves - just sitting there and mocking me, reminding me that I've been lazy, that I've lacked motivation, that there was a huge amount of new and exciting information to be had if only I would just sit down and read now and then. It sucks how the voices inside our heads can be such jerks to us.

Once all the books I've purchased at conferences and speaking events and all the books given to me were lined up nice and neat on one of my bookshelves in early January, the reading began. As I've been deciding which book to read each week, I've been recalling the circumstances in which the book came into my possession. That process alone has been a fun, unintended consequence of this Challenge.

This week, I read A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. This book was given to me a few years ago by my friend and colleague, Kelley. I can't remember specifically instigated her to give me the book, but it was loaded with sticky notes marking certain pages. I have to say, one of the reasons I've resisted reading this book over the years is because I had it in my head that Eckhart Tolle was a little too flaky-spiritual for my taste. I am trying to recall why I thought this about Mr. Tolle, but I'm thinking it might have been just simple snobbery on my part.

I started this book and, much to my surprise, I couldn't put it down. I've already starting planning the book study for SVUC that will run sometime in the fall or New Year. This is not a book to read alone. It NEEDS to be read with a group of friends or trusted folks so that each section can be thoroughly discussed and explored.

The long and short of A New Earth is that our ego controls so much of our lives--our emotions, our experiences and our responses to life--without us even being aware of what is happening. And until we are aware of how the ego operates within our being, we cannot be at peace or become the whole human beings that God intends for us to be. I know. Sounds a little hokey. But, I believe that Mr. Tolle has hit the nail on the head in several places throughout the book and for those of us who have recently read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, I see this as an excellent follow up to that book study.

Here's a small taste of what Mr. Tolle has to say,
An ego that wants something from another--and what ego doesn't--will usually play some kind of role to get its 'need's' met, be they material gain, a sense of power, superiority, or specialness, or some kind of gratification, be it physical or psychological. Usually people are completely unaware of the roles they play. They are those roles.
I am looking forward to this book study next year - I hope you'll be able to join in with the study!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

This is Better than a Funeral

In his reply to the speeches made listing all the wonderful and
amazing qualities of himself and Joy, Frank stated:
This is better than a funeral!

This past Sunday the congregation of Symons Valley United Church celebrated two very dear members - Frank and Joy Van Dusen. The Van Dusens have been attending SVUC since they moved to Calgary in the 90s from their farm in southern Manitoba (which was depicted on the cake made by Heather Klekta). The faithful and loving commitment and dedication Frank and Joy have displayed over the years to the life and ministry of the congregation has been incredible. Each person who shared stories at the luncheon following the service, all mentioned the integrity with which both Frank and Joy have both lived their lives and how each of them are amazing examples of what living out God's love in this world looks like. Without a doubt, Frank and Joy are shining examples of what it means to be the salt of the earth and light for our world. Thank you so much Frank and Joy for simply being you!

Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:13-17

One of my favourite lines of scripture in the Gospels is when Jesus and the disciples are in the Garden of Gethsemane, during evening after they shared their last meal together. Jesus knows he is to be betrayed and to be handed over to the Roman authorities. He is apart from his friends, praying to God, the one he calls Abba, Father. He goes to find his companions—it’s not said why, maybe, despite his desire, his need to pray alone, he seeks the comfort of those who, in this world, know him best. At any rate, he finds them and they are snoozing. ‘Stay awake’, he tells them. He goes to pray again. Once more he seeks out the company of his disciples. And once more he finds them asleep. Stay awake, he tells them again. This is the culmination of his time with his disciples. Shortly after this moment he is betrayed, arrested and taken away. He had been striving throughout his three-year ministry to have his followers understand what he had been saying, what he had been teaching, what about God and God’s Kingdom he had been trying to reveal. Depending on which Gospel you read, Jesus alternates between being a patient teacher of his people and then being irritated by their inability to make the connection between what he was doing in his miracles, his relationships, his parables, between all of that he did during his ministry and that coming Kingdom that was of God’s making. His patience would wear thin and he would harangue them, wake up! Do you NOT see! The Kingdom of God is at hand. We need to participate in God’s work to make the Kingdom a reality! WAKE UP and see. Stay awake. Keep awake he tells them. Do not close your eyes to the work of God’s Word that needs doing in the world.

Throughout the New Testament, the Christian Scriptures, there are references to dying to the old ways and being reborn into a new era of life. Literalists like Nicodemus thought this meant actual death and rebirth. But Jesus very rarely meant what he said to be taken literally. In being reborn, he was speaking of letting go of not knowing, of ignorance, of not understanding and being renewed, through the waters of baptism, to being aware. Of knowing. Once you are reborn, you cannot live as you once did. Once you know, you cannot un-know. It is like that moment in the Matrix when you take the red pill. You suddenly understand what's really going on and find out all you did not know before. You understand better. Just as the scales fell away from the eyes of the man Saul so that he might see and understand Jesus our Christ, just as in that seeing he was transformed and became the apostle Paul—in that moment, in the knowing what you did not know before, you see more clearly. In your awakening, you are woke.

With the turbulent political times happening with Brexit, with the US election of a man who says he is one of the people while his home is made of gold, with France entertaining the election of a barely veiled bigoted and racist, with one of our own political parties having as its most publicized options for leadership, a racist and bigot in their own right or alternatively someone who is lifts up business first and worries about the common good last and with the growing understanding that our social media and our news cycles are being manipulated with nefarious intent, with the dismantling of  the progress made in environmental protections and the reversal of what we understand to be basic human rights for people of all makes, sizes and religion, with all that has been boiling up and surfacing over the past two, three years, there is this sense that people are becoming woke. Eyes are being opened, lights are being cast into the dark and dusty corners of our social, financial and political structures and the dirt of these corners is being revealed. The entry in the Urban Dictionary for this revelation is to be woke, meaning you are aware, you know what’s going on in the community.

I’m sure there are many stories in this room of epiphanies of where in one sliver of time you knew one thing and then suddenly, in the next sliver you suddenly understood what you knew just that second before was not right, not accurate, not truth. Remember, Mary had such a moment, at the tomb. Her friend and teacher was dead, she was wondering where they had taken his body and then Jesus says her name and she was woke. She understood all that she hadn’t before. Jesus was the Christ, the messiah, the savior. One such moment for me took place a few years ago, during my ministry training. You see, the first years of my life were spent in the far north of Manitoba. Until about grade 2, I lived surrounded by Native people, indigenous people. I can still remember a few words of Cree that my Dad taught us—he had to learn it because he was The Bay clerk and then manager of the small northern stores that provided provisions for the area. Residential schools were not some far off thing for those of us who lived up north. I grew up with the perspective of a residential school being very close by and yet I was not involved, in any way, with the school. Because we moved from that area when I was still young, I did not grow up seeing what impact there was on the children who were compelled to attend those schools, or what lifetime effect there were on the families of those children. I only understood that all children needed to go to school, whether they liked it or not. I did not realize what was being lost in Residential Schools—language, culture, traditions, spirituality, never mind what was inflicted on the children by cruel adults—abuse of all forms, fear and isolation. And while there were good and loving people working in the Schools, a minster friend of mine who is Native, cautions against giving the good that happened weight over the systemic wearing away of a culture—to say, ‘but good happened’ runs the risk of diminishing the ruinous effect Residential Schools.

The Very Reverend Stan McKay
34th Moderator of the UCC

And so, in my adulthood, in all of our adulthoods, we learned of the tragedy of Residential, that they did not help the indigenous people but, instead, forever harmed multiple generations of families. Although I knew this, like one knows the facts of the matter, it was not until I watched a video with my student colleagues, we watched it in preparation for spending two days at North End Stella, a United Church Mission in Winnipeg, where we were to hear first-hand stories of how people were healing from the impact of Residential Schools. Stan McKay, the first native moderator of the United Church of Canada—and, in fact, knew my Dad when they lived up north, sat with us in the circle for those two days.

So, there was this moment in the video that showed a group of children being received by one of the Schools. They were all little—maybe six or seven. Each of them, boys and girls, had long, black hair, done in braids. And, one by one, they are taken over to a person with a big pair of shears. Each child is turned around so their back is to the person with the shears and we can see their faces in the video camera. And then, one at a time, their braids are lifted up and cut off, as close to the child’s head as possible. Now a few of you might remember, but when I began my call here at Symons Valley, my youngest child, Abigail, had just turned seven years old. And she had hair like you would not believe. It was long and thick. It went right down to her backside. It was beautiful. Gorgeous. I spent hours washing and drying that hair.  Brushing, brushing and brushing it. And, because I didn’t like her to have her hair in her face, I spent hours braiding her hair. After three boys, I learned how to French braid. I would find all sorts of ways to do up her hair but the easiest and fastest way to keep it managed was to do two simple braids, one on either side of her head. Just like those children in the video. I watched those fear-filled faces as their hair was unceremoniously chopped off, and I thought, what if that was Abigail, and I began to cry. It makes me weepy still today to think of it. If my daughter’s hair, which had no other meaning for us, just that it was beautiful and lovely, if the thought of cutting off her hair like that bothered me so much, what must have it been like for those children who had been taught that not cutting their hair was bound up with their culture? How their hearts must have been broken, standing there without their parents to comfort them. In that moment, I was woke.

In today’s scripture reading we hear, quite definitively, that, as God’s people, we are to rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Yesterday it was my great privilege to lead the women’s retreat through a process of finding out for themselves who or what God is, who are we as God’s people and what is our task. I shared with them my creed and was I was reminded of the strength of my own belief that our task on this earth is be seekers of justice. Justice can be a difficult thing to comprehend sometimes. What seems like justice to one person may be an insult to another. There were people who genuinely believed they were doing good work with the Residential Schools, on paper it all very much made sense and the process of ‘civilizing’ a certain group of people was God’s work. We know better now. And in that knowing, we know to be more discerning, more critical of other plans to help, fix or solve problems around us. But, as is the case when we are dealing with relationships between individuals, between cultures and different groupings of people, there is no clear formula for justice. This picture shows just one of the snags we run into with attempting to find a just solutions. Equality is not the same as justice. Equality is often the easier route—a math formula that’s then meted out. But, more times than not, equality does not mean disparities amongst people are resolved.

There are many examples in the Bible of what justice looks like. The Old Testament is all about justice for those who have no voice at the table, who have very little power or control in their lives, for those who have missed out on having the means, opportunity or good fortune to be able to advocate for themselves and those that they love. We heard from Jeremiah today—that prophet who spoke at the time of exile when so many Israelites had been taken into Babylon and were struggling to keep themselves alive and together as a people in a foreign land. Jeremiah reminds the people that to do justice and be righteous is to know God. We know very well what the prophet Micah had to say—seek justice and love kindness. Jesus built upon the teachings of the Torah and declared that God’s Kingdom was at hand if only we could help make it real through the feeding of the poor, clothing the naked and loving one another as we would ourselves. Justice is not declaring for another what they need to be healthy and whole. Justice is listening to what the other needs to be healthy and whole. I have story after story from my visits to Zambia of what silliness has been done in the name of mission, the name of helping, of fixing by those from the North and from the West for those in the South. Second hand farming equipment has been shipped over but with no replacements parts should and when any of the machinery breaks down. Declarations from people who have never been there of what type of seed, fertilizer or types of chicks should be bought and raised. Determination that buildings be painted but did not investigate what paint to use and it all peeled within days of the missionaries leaving. And there is not just the advice of the ignorant but also the lack of follow through. What good is it to have medication for tuberculosis or to provide anti-retroviral drugs for HIV if the ill do not have the nutrition that is needed for their bodies to properly process the medication? Or can store the medicine as required in the heat of the day? Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who is now the host of the Daily Show, says in his memoir, that it is all well and good to teach a person to fish but if they do not have money for a fishing rod, what good is the knowledge?

Justice is not for us to define. Justice can only be defined by those who’s voices are not heard. By those who are not at the table. By those who do not have the power to effect positive change in their lives and in the lives of their children. To find out what justice is, we need to have all voices at the table. All points of view need to be considered. Power needs to conceded by those who hold it. Control needs to be shared by those who wield it. If justice is be found, we need to learn so much more than we already know of the world. We need to be woke. Mary was the first to realize that God’s love overcame the hate and greed of empire—a kingdom not of God’s making. She was the first of the disciples to be woke to the significance of the Risen Christ. She would have heard Jesus say in the garden, stay awake, do not close your eyes to what is before us. What needs to happen. What can happen. The Resurrection offered to us hope. The Resurrection showed us that love trumps hate. The Resurrection told Mary and tells us to go and make that love known in the world. The Resurrection gave us the truth that justice is always possible. Let us not waste the good news of the Resurrection.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Monkey Off My Back

I've had a monkey on my back. Or rather, on my bookshelf.

Long story short, there was a moment sometime last year, that I was involved in a lively discussion concerning the polity of the church and how ineffective our church structures can be when polity is not consistently adhered to or, at worst, ignored. My colleague and I were lamenting the damage that can be done when either clergy or congregations (or both) are not brought to bear for patterns of behaviour that are not life-giving or life-affirming for everyone involved. 

Within the United Church of Canada, there is a Remit that has been submitted to congregations and presbyteries for consideration. The Remit involves the creation of an Office of Vocation for ministry—which, in simplistic and general terms (do NOT quote me or believe that this is the totality of the Remit – I’m only trying to explain the context of the lively discussion), would result in the creation of a denominational disciplinary body should the Remit pass. The creation of such a body would remove the local relationships from the often complicated and emotionally-charged inquiries that are made when the effectiveness of a minister is under review or if a congregation seems to have a toxic or dysfunctional nature, impeding the ministry of their called clergy. A denominational body would allow for people, who are more removed from the immediate goings on in the presbytery, the congregation and the minister’s life, which would, hopefully, allow for open and transparent reviews to take place.

Anyway, the conversation ended and we went on with our separate days. Until the next Presbytery meeting when my colleague approached me and handed me John Updike’s book, In the Beauty of the Lilies.
I should read it.
There is an interesting bit about removing oneself from ministry.
Pages were marked.
There were stickies with notes.
I tried reading it.
Really, I did.
Have YOU ever read John Updike?
Not bedtime reading for sure.

So, a year later—after it has sat on my shelf at home, near my bed, mocking me because I only made it 8 pages before I gave up—I added it to my To-Read pile for this 52in52 Book Challenge of 2017. About three weeks into the Challenge, I realized the grave error of adding this book (along with four or five others) to the pile. These certain book choices involve too much reading for a week. Especially if I still have to:
  • write a sermon
  • go on pastoral visits
  • be at a committee meeting or two
  • pray
  • lead a bible/book session
  • prepare worship services.
You know. My job. Ministry.

So, I made a plan to read this difficult novel that was not my choice to read. Ten pages at a time, over time. I even made a little check list. I began considering what my reward for each 100 pages would be.

But then, this week happened. I was compelled to pack for a quick, short get-away trip that was a bit of surprise planned by my Beloved. I knew I was leaving but I didn’t know where. I didn’t know how much down time there was involved so I took a few options for reading. As a lark, I threw this novel into my luggage. Turns out we had a bit of down time and plenty of airplane time. So, I pulled out John Updike and tried again.

I know my colleague and more than a few of you (my Beloved included) will shake your heads and say, ‘for pete’s sake, you DON’T have to read it. It was only a suggestion.’

But, to be honest, there was one line, near the front of the novel (obviously cause I only made it 8 pages on my first go around), that had caught my attention and made me want to see what happened. The line was this:
…the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the parsonage of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of this faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward. (5)
The novel goes on to detail how Clarence tried to remove himself from ministry—and this is what my colleague thought I would find interesting—and the difficulty, in the early 1900s, of placing oneself on the Discontinued Service List (our modern UCC language).
“Calvin would say ‘it would be a very serious accusation against us to have rejected God’s call.'...[But]…once the presbytery be satisfied that he cannot be useful and happy, in the exercise of his ministry, they may allow him to demit the office and return to the condition of a private member in the Church. (73)
The reason Clarence feels called out of ministry is due to the rise of scientific knowledge and rational thought that did not permit an all-powerful and all-knowing God to exist. The moderator of Clarence’s presbytery urges him to allow his mind to expand to include the new understandings of the universe. The moderator blames the theological education Clarence received, stating,
“You imbibed conservatism there, and it limits your thinking now…[theology] quite helpless when the winds of history blow.”...The moderator goes onto to say that modern theologians are “taught not to be afraid of science, not to fear admitting that the Holy Book is embedded in history—that it contains the best wisdom of its time, but that time is not our time.” (75) 
I love how this is written. In the United Church, newly ordained and commissioned clergy need to be in essential agreement with the Basis of Union which include 20 Articles of Faith, written in the years leading up to Union in 1925. Ministers in training do a lot of exploration of what it means to have theological statements, creeds, and articles of faith that inform us of how the people of those times understood God, the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. To know the Bible as a book that is a living document, that allows, encourages and interprets current and modern understandings of the world, science and technology, means that we are adding to the history of the first Christians. We are not stuck. We need not be afraid. We have the Word of God and we can use its wisdom to go forth and continue the rich and long history of God’s people in a world filled with the knowledge of science, astrophysics, evolution and quantum theory.

PS. The rest of the book was okay. Updike uses a LOT of words to describes situations, scenarios and events that I had little patience with. After learning about Clarence, we hear from his son, then the son’s daughter and, finally, from her son. No one is really happy in their life and there is an existential angst that is threaded through each of the characters that was not very uplifting. With apologies to any Updike fans, this is not on my ‘read again someday’ list. I’ll be glad to hand it back to my colleague at next month’s Presbytery meeting - the monkey is finally off my back/shelf.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nevertheless, Love Persisted

Easter Sunrise Service - 6:45 am

John 20:1-18

Christ is risen—Christ is risen indeed! Just two days ago, at the foot of the cross, we heard Jesus say, ‘it is finished’. He bowed his head and died. But here we are, on the third day, knowing that it is, in fact, not finished. As the story from John is told, Jesus knew each step of the along the way of what was happening. He knew he was to be betrayed. He knew he would be arrested. Within the gong-show that was his so-called trial, Pontius Pilate tried to negotiate with Jesus in order to spare his life. However, Jesus did not relent. He spoke his truth—God’s truth—all the way to Golgotha. Right to the end. And yet, he said, just before he died, ‘it is finished’. Another translation might be, ‘it is accomplished’ and thereby announcing that his work, his ministry was over, completed. Either way, it seems, in that moment, that Jesus believed his work on earth, his ministry in the world, was at its end. And, I have to say, if it were the last that had been seen of him, if that was the last encounter with his followers, his work then might truly have been concluded. Despite knowing the tick-tock (as Sean Spicer, the beloved press secretary of Donald Trump is wont to say), despite knowing the tick-tock, the series of events that would lead to the cruelty of the cross, Jesus did not seem to be aware of what the next actions of God would be—that God would not allow death to be Jesus’ final moment on earth, that God’s love would overcome hate, fear and power. And so, although he thought his work was finished, that his time was over, it was not. God was not yet done with Jesus. Jesus had work yet to do.  And so, love trumped hate. In the resurrection of Jesus, the one that we call Christ, God’s compassion and love set aside the fear, the uncertainty and the greed that was dominating the social and economic systems of the world. And, in his resurrection, it became understood that Jesus was, indeed, the Risen Christ, the messiah, the saviour, the healing and hope for the world.

This story today of discovering the empty tomb is full of beautiful imagery and notable moments. It is hard to know even where to focus. Did you catch that it was still dark when Mary went to the tomb? From the growing darkness of our Lenten journey, to the black of Good Friday, Mary emerges to visit the tomb. She is still in the dark, so to speak. She has no idea of what she is about to encounter. And, did you notice that she didn’t stop to look into the tomb? She knew something was terribly wrong and just as if we arrived at the gravesite of our beloved and saw the headstone toppled and broken, we would not linger, we would run. We would go get help. And so, she runs to get her friends, two disciples of Jesus. The one who is lifted up as the Beloved, looks in and sees the tomb empty and believes. As simple as that. The cloths used to cover the body and face of Jesus lay there in the tomb, neatly folded. Clearly the body has not been stolen, for who would take the effort to remove and fold the cloths? Much less wish to carry a now naked corpse to wherever they were going? No one. And so the disciple seems to understand that something extraordinary happened. It’s not explained exactly WHAT he believes, just that he does. Peter, on the other hand, the Rock upon which Jesus was to build his church, looked in and saw the same emptiness, the same folded cloths, but then left with the Beloved, uncertain of what he saw. I wonder if he just needed a bit more time for reconciling what he had heard through his travels with Jesus and then being confronted with the empty tomb. An Anglican priest, R.S. Thomas, seems to acknowledge how many of us realize, only over time, the significance of what happened earlier in our lives. He writes…
… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
 And so Peter and the Beloved left, one believing and the other uncertain.

Mary however. Mary stayed. And in her staying, she came face to face with the resurrected Christ. She called him ‘rabbouni’, meaning teacher, revealing herself to be a student of Jesus. Now there is a tendency in our modern day, to not catch the significance of this moment. To forget that in our Western society where the role of women is considered nearly equal to that of men, in the time of Jesus to have a woman be in such a prominent position in this pivotal story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, is nothing short of remarkable. We cannot diminish here that for the authors and communities of the Gospels, women were valuable participants in the ministry of Jesus. History and kingdoms not of God’s making reduced and diminished the roles of women in the church until very recently in our modern time—very recently. But in this critical time of God being known to humanity, women were right there, alongside the men.  And so, we have this student of Jesus, this woman who was at the foot of the cross until death arrived and then at the tomb. Her friends have left. She arrived that morning, expecting there to be a corpse but instead finds the tomb empty. She finds the tomb empty and, still, she stayed. She persisted. She would not leave. In tears, she could not leave. It seems she was not quite ready to let go, to return home as the others did.

Simone Weil, French philosopher and mystic wrote,
“One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says, ‘He is risen.’ 
In her grief, she sees a man she does not recognize. He calls her name and suddenly she understands. She believes. She believes because, just as God loves each and every one of us, loves us so much that each hair on our heads are counted. Just as God loves us that much, Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows his flock, each and every one so that when the gate is opened he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. For anyone who has been called the wrong name, especially when you were growing up and you were called all your siblings names before your own—I was MarcImeanVicki for at least ten years of my life—if you’ve been there,  you might appreciate how Mary might have felt in that moment.  The Risen Jesus, in his life beyond death, still knows who Mary is, what her name is. Think about this for a moment. When you turn to your own beloved, to your parent, to your dear friend, and maybe it hasn’t been the best of days, and you ask, ‘do you love me?’ It wouldn’t do for them to say, of course I love you—I love everyone, all of God’s people. NO. You want your beloved, your mom and your dad, your dear friend, to say, of course, I love YOU—I love you Heather, I love you Phillip, I love you Gary, I love you Elsa, I love you because I know you, I know your heart and I know your whole self. And it is this love that Mary hears early that morning on the third day after she lost her close friend, teacher and Rabbi.

In an instant Mary’s grief becomes joy. Jesus tells Mary not hold onto him, that he cannot return to how he had been, that things must change and that she must go forth and make this known. She understands that what was cannot remain the same. That they will not always have Jesus to be their leader, guiding them and telling them what needs doing. In his telling her that he will be ascending to God, she realizes that the disciples, the followers, those who loved and cared for Jesus will have to start figuring this out for themselves. Those who have understood his message that the Kingdom of God would break through only if they participated in God’s love and peace in the world, need now to realize in their discipleship, they have been transformed in how they experienced the world. They no longer allowed fear and scarcity guide their actions, hopes and dreams. The love of God, through the example of Jesus, was the new way of experiencing the world. God is the name we give to the way of living in which we experience the world as worthy of living for, fighting for, dying to our old way of being.

Jesus charged Mary to become the first resurrection preacher, to find his followers and share with them this Good News of the resurrection. The news that hate and death has not had the last the word, that goodness and love had prevailed. That to empire’s no, God has said yes and has overcome. It is this moment that propelled the ministry of the man Jesus, who, before his death, was itinerant preacher who moved from town to town speaking of the Kingdom of God, it is this moment at the empty tomb that takes his circuit rider ministry and reveals the work and teachings of Jesus to be that of the messiah, a saviour, of God incarnate. His work was not done on the cross. And so, we learn that Jesus’ work, his ministry was not finished. Neither Jesus or Mary could know the fullness of how God works in
the world. How God could and does work through and amongst us. In this moment of calling Mary by name, by showing his care and love for her and then sending her to spread the message that death did not win, hope was not only created, it was witnessed as being a reality. We are reminded that God loves each and every one of us beyond measure. That our presence matters and that we are to be participants in what is coming next, although as we do not fully understand what next is. Even Jesus, at the cross, did not know, Mary did not know what next was. But when called by God, they responded and carried on the ministry that was begun by the man born in a stable and who was baptised by the Holy Spirit. Declaring that love for one another shall always, each and every time, be the measure by which we live our lives, create policy, develop communities, structure our socieities—love one another, first and foremost. We know the resurrection of Jesus did not end violence, did not end persecution, didnot end marginalization of the widowed, the poor, the orphan. However. However, the resurrection showed how love persisted. Nevertheless, love persisted. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


Not very often do I sit down and read a book, cover to cover, in just a couple of hours. But, with a certain beloved staff person nagging me enquiring if I had a book blog this week to post on the SVUC Facebook page today, I decided to take the afternoon to read.

I picked up Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus, written by two United Church of Canada ministers, Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson. I was given this book by a colleague who took a course led by Jamie and Debbie. I'm wishing now that I attended their course. This book is excellent and I will be sharing it with the lay leadership of SVUC.

Bullseye maps out six markers that are signs of a Christian life - spiritual practice, worship, community, serving, giving and sharing Christ. For those at SVUC who have participated in the Natural Church Development surveys, this book will be reminiscent of the different elements measured in that survey. The essence of Bullseye is that a congregation grows in faith, develops a sense of community and encourages its members to live out God's love for the world when the spiritual lives of everyone involved are nurtured.

Here are some quick quotes from each of the six markers included in this book. If you find yourself intrigued and want to know more, email me.

Spiritual Practices

  • When we become intentional around spiritual practices we're simply bringing our life before God and opening ourselves up to all the beautiful things [God has created]. (19)
  • [Spiritual practices] may actually feel kind of weird, or you may not experience anything profound at all...but, over time, if you keep at it, you will start to experience something quite transformative as you feel God's presence close, as you feel the power of being so intimately connected with our Creator. (13)
  • why bother? Because the spiritual practice of prayer left Jesus in a state of gratitude and with a sense of purpose and clarity about God's call on his life. Prayer gave him the connection to God that brought him the power and strength to persevere in all circumstances. (24)

Worshipping Together Weekly

  • There is something that can and does happen in the context of a worship gathering that continues to be worth making it a priority in our lives as followers of Jesus. (38)
  • Studying scripture can lead us into the character of God, but worship takes into the heart of God. (45)

Discovering Authentic Community

  • '...there was this group of people that I have been so blessed to walk with, share life with, grow with, be connected to. I have to tell you, I really couldn't of done it on my own.' (59)
  • The power of small groups, of being connect with other, whether it's a mentoring relationship, working team, or small group, is knowing one another, and somehow God blesses that. (65)
  • ...authentic community is...'walking life together' or 'doing life together'. (66)
  • Discovering authentic community leads to growth...because we really do become who we hang out with. If we want to grow in Christ, let's hang out with people who are growing in Christ! (69)


  • We serve because Jesus served. We serve because Jesus invites us to serve. We serve because we have been given a unique gift in Christ's own Spirit that needs to be offered for the common good. We serve as our response to what God is doing in and through our lives. We are blessed to serve and by serving in Jesus' name. (101)

Giving Generously

  • [Fundamental principles]: God owns everything, what we have been given is to be invested in God's mission, growing in generosity is key to our growth in discipleship (112)
  • It took a generation to understand how big and faithful God was and is (in reference to the Exodus). Learning to recognize and respond to the generosity of God offers us freedom from bondage--from the pull of our culture to spend more, from the fear that what we have or who we are is not enough, from the slavery of "stuff". (116)

Sharing Christ

  • Why share Christ within the reality of our world today? Because...the truth is, we live in a world that is broken and in need of good news. All around us there are people who are stressed and lonely and hurting. (131)
  • If you really believe you have something good to share, why aren't you? Why are you keeping it from a person you encounter, know or love? (140)
  • Our job isn't to convert or judge or prove anything. Our job is simply to be open, sharing Christ. And when we are--you never know what God might do. (150)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sex, Religion, Politics - Hold onto Your Hats!

Matthew 21:1-11

You know when you in social gatherings of people you are not overly familiar with, you are supposed to avoid three topics – you know what they are right? Sex, religion and politics. I think all of us also have close friends and family that are included in this rule as well. I’m about to talk about all three, hold onto your hats. Let’s start with sex. I am thinking, back in the day, people did not talk about sex because sex is a private thing—no one at a dinner party needs to know who does what when behind closed doors. No need. At all. However, in today’s world, it’s not so much the act of sex that is actively avoid but it’s the all the stuff around the sex or gender of individuals and about who is attracted to whom that we try avoiding in general conversation. Particularly when we are uncertain where our fellow conversationalists stand on LGTBQ rights, or on bathroom usage or we don’t know if they understand that gender identity and sexual orientation are continuums rather than binary. If you find yourself on the opposite side of the fence on any number of topics that involve sexual or gender rights and freedoms, you will quickly discover it is a very uncomfortable place to be, so we have learned to stay away from these discussions.

And one of the reasons why it’s uncomfortable is because of the belief, or I should say, because of the disbelief that God has created all of humanity to be expressed in a diverse manner of ways—not to be just this or to be. This is why talking sex gets so uncomfortable, because it is not just sex that we’re talking about, we’re also talking about one’s moral code—which then easily translates into religious belief—so that, before you know it, you are not just talking about that one taboo subject, you are now talking a second taboo topic, your religion views. And you don’t need to go very far down the path of religion, do you, before you start in on the reasons of why or why not the law should reflect your moral and religious beliefs. And then, Bob’s your uncle, you have managed to hit all three of the topics you are not supposed to touch with a ten-foot pole when at a dinner party. You can’t really talk about one without bringing up the others. And I think I know why. It’s because sex, religion and politics are not three separate and distinct subjects. They actually all fall under the same heading—plain and simple. It’s ALL politics. One of the definition of politics is ‘the total complex of relations between people living in society.’ Where each of us stand on sexual and gender rights and how our religion informs how we are to interact with each other, with the stranger and with all of God’s creation, ALL of it determines our political view. And, like it or not, no matter how much we try, we cannot avoid politics.

Don’t you just love it when someone says, ‘I wish those religious people would just shut up about politics—why can’t they just go back to just helping people and stay out of politics?’ What is not understood in this comment is that what the church is doing in its helping of the poor, the sick, the homeless, the marginalized, when we work to make life better, work to make situations more just, all of this IS politics. There are three major stories that Jesus is known for. Three stories that even if you are not overly churched or have ever read the Bible, there are these three stories that the general population will have some familiarity with. First, that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger. At Christmas time. That’s one. The second is that Jesus was crucified on a cross but was found to be alive after a few days. The third story of Jesus that most people will have heard about is today’s story—his entry into Jerusalem. That moment when Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey with people shouting and cheering for him. Hosanna they yelled out—it was a cry of adoration. Hosanna – blessed is he who comes in the name of God!

These three stories that mark significant moments in the life, death and resurrection are amongst the most familiar stories of the ministry of Jesus. And each one of them was, first and foremost, a political statement. One could argue the whole of Jesus’ ministry was a political, but in particular these three moments were especially so. The birth because the one who was thought to become the savior of the people arrived as a vulnerable and helpless baby—not the solider wielding a sword full of might and terror to fight back against the evil Roman Empire. Despite his lack of physical power, the baby Jesus held such promised power that Herod, the ruler of the land, was filled with fear and demanded the execution of all boys born at that same time. The story of the crucifixion and resurrection are about Jesus’ refusal to bow down before a king who believed himself to be higher than the one true God. Jesus, in denying to participate in the game of power, intrigue and fear enacted by Caesar, Pontius Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders of his time, was executed by the government.  But then, in his resurrection, God’s determination that love will always win out over all that is hateful and evil, was made evident—love, grace and hope won out over Roman judgement and execution, revealing chinks in the armour of the Roman Empire.

And the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem was as just political as the other two events. Jesus knew his scriptures inside and out. There are many, many references in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, to predications, prophecies and hope-filled speculations about how the coming savior of world would be recognized when he did, in fact, show up. Jesus knew very well that it was prophesized that the expected savior would arrive on a donkey. From the Book of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
And so Jesus told his disciples to find a colt for him to ride upon into the city. And then he chose to enter the city from the east, knowing that same time, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor was entering Jerusalem from the west at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. From the east arrived a man from the peasant village of Nazareth, proclaiming the kingdom of God while from the west arrived an army, proclaiming the power of empire. Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. Make no mistake, Jesus intentionally set up this contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. This story of Jesus entering Jerusalem is, first and foremost, was a political statement.

The most important aspect of this political statement centered on a sense of hope that was woven through the ministry of Jesus. All was not lost. There was hope that change was possible. Hope that life under Caesar would change. Hope that injustice and inequality would end. Hope hunger and illness would no longer define a life. Hope that one’s children would live in a world governed by peace and love. Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught and made real how one could live a life operated first from love and concern for one another. He also showed one could stand up against the forces keeping people down. Through his ability to be his best self in almost every encounter he had, whether it was someone who had come to hear him speak or a person who had been outcast from society, a leper, a prostitute or if it was the religious authorities themselves, by offering up the best of himself, people began to experience the Divine, the one true God.

The Kingdom of God began to be revealed right then and there, on earth—not in some far-off heavenly time, but right before their eyes. People who had been oppressed and marginalized for so long were witnessing how Jesus held his ground against greed, fear and power not with a sword and shield but with his ability to be, consistently, his best self. He answered in love and with grace. Always. Every time. Well, nearly every time. He wasn’t perfect after all. But he got it right many, many times over. He had the strength of his faith to always seem to know how best to respond, in any given situation. One example is when asked if a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, he stated, let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone”. Oh SNAP! That was perfect because, of course, no one is without sin and so the men all walked away. No one was injured or killed, or even, really insulted but everyone involved left, I’m sure, asking questions about right and wrong that they hadn’t asked themselves before. Jesus brought all of this with him on the back of the donkey when he entered the city on the day the army was entering the city from the opposite way. Jesus couldn’t fight Caesar’s army directly. Combat and killing are not God’s ways. Jesus fought back against empire with his biggest strength, by using his power for good through being his best self. There’s this lovely saying, ‘in a world where you can be anything, be kind’.

Jesus knew this is what God wants for this world. One of the primary messages of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is justice for all people. Again and again, the prophets of ancient Israel remind us that we are to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Psalm 82 does not leave anything to the imagination—what is needed most in this world is to:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
In and through his ministry, Jesus made it clear that God’s will for peace on earth would not and could not happen through will alone. Change was not possible without God’s people using their power for good. Transformation is not possible without God’s people being their best selves when they find themselves up against was is not right. Not good. Not helpful. Not kind. Not loving. We are two thousand years away from the life, death and resurrection of the man named Jesus, who entered into a city filled with people who so desperately needed to hear messages of hope. People whose lives had been controlled by those who operated from places of greed, power and fear needed Jesus not to be afraid to be political. To not be afraid to address the complexities of relations between people living in society. We are two thousand years from the desperate need for hope to be made manifest in people’s lives and yet here we are today, feeling, I’m sure, some measure of that same desperation. Syria. Gas attacks by their own government and military. Muslims having their freedom of movement and their freedom of religion being restricted. Brown and black people being under suspicion for no other reason than the colour of their skin. People starving to death in Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen. People in Latin America living alongside the detritus of mines operated by Canadian companies. The rights and freedoms of LGTBQ under attack in the United States. North Korea sending missiles into the Sea of Japan. The people of Russia impoverished as oligarchs pillage their country.

Let’s face it, our sphere of influence on matters in Latin American, in Syria, in Russia, in North Korea is not great. But we do have influence in our day-to-day lives. And who can really measure the full impact of one good act? Of one good moment of standing up and not allowing hate? One excellent discussion at the dinner table when you have the presence of mind to channel how Jesus would manage the bigoted comment? Let those among us without sin cast the first stone. We could let it slide or we could choose not to. It is said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. At our dinner parties, or even in our family gatherings, in 2017 we can no longer afford to be quiet. We can no longer afford talking politics. Because currently the complexities of relations between people living in all the different societies around the world is in a constant negotiation between the good of the individual over the good of the community. If we are to do the will of God, if we are to give justice to the weak, maintain the right of the destitute, if we are to rescue the weak and needy, if they are to be delivered from the hand of the wicked we cannot accept the mean-spirited joke, a bigoted, racist comment or an uninformed and ignorant alternative fact. Remember your sphere of influence is right there, right then. To demand change. We need to stand up for what is right. And good. Thanks be to God.