Monday, May 16, 2016

June Newsletter

What ministry are you doing right now, this week, each day?

That is the question asked by Already Missional: Congregations as Community Partners by United Church minister Rev. Dr. Brad Morrison.

A few months ago I attended a webinar Brad led as he was working on this book and found his thesis intriguing. And then once the book came out a group of clergy on Facebook decided to have a study of it together. So while I was going to wait and read it on my Sabbatical I started it earlier than planned.

I finished it this morning and am quite impressed with what I found. I am thinking that it would be a great book for Council to read and talk about or maybe for a book study in the fall involving folk not currently on Council (or possibly both?).

The book is a new take on how we as a congregation live out God's mission in the world. Normally when that discussion comes up it focuses on the congregation creating some new (or revitalizing an old) program to help us get out there and become active in the community. Which is a great idea – on the surface. But in the end many of those programs just don't happen, for a variety of reasons.

At the same time people of faith are living their lives and doing what they do. Hopefully those lives are impacted and informed by their faith, rooted in how they have come to understand God and God's hope for the world. Where in those lives are they doing ministry? Where in those activities are they participating in God's mission?

In short, rather than create new opportunities for mission, can we celebrate and support the ways we are already missional?

And so I ask again, what ministry are you doing right now? Or maybe that should say what ministries.

Maybe it is parenting. Maybe it is helping people run errands. Maybe delivering meals for Meals-On-Wheels. Maybe you are helping connect people around a common cause to create a better community. The options of how we can be, and are, already participating in God's mission in the world are Legion.

Then comes the next key question.

Assuming that people are already participating in God's mission in ways big and small in their daily lives, how can the church support you in that?

It is my experience that many United Church people are VERY active in their local community. Sometimes we recognize this as ministry, often we don't. What might it mean if we started to see these things as ministry? How might it change our attitude to what we do? How might it change our understanding of how we, the congregation of St. Paul's United, are a part of the community of Grande Prairie? How might it change how we see ourselves as the church?

I look forward to continuing this discussion in the fall.

Blessed Summer!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Looking Forward to May 15, 2016 -- Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday for Children's Time we will hear the beginning of the story of Pentecost, often called the "birth of the church".  You can read it here.

The other Scripture Reading for this week is 1 Corinthians 12:1-13 

The Sermon title is Spirit-Gifted

Early Thoughts: What gift has the Spirit of God stirred in you?  When the breath of God stirs the embers of the fire in your belly what do you feel driven to do?

Maybe your gift is found in the list that Paul lays out.  Maybe it is different (I doubt that Paul was claiming this is an exhaustive list of gifts, more like these are some of the gifts that the folks in Corinth are claiming and/or fighting about).

On Pentecost Sunday we remember that the Church is made alive when God's Spirit blows through our communities. The same wind that, in the beginning of our faith story, blew life into the lungs of Adam and Eve blows life into our faith, into our churches.

It is my belief that with that wind comes gifts.  We all have gifts that we offer for the growth and benefit of the whole community (both inside and outside the church walls).

And so the question remains: With what gifts/talents/strengths has God gifted you? As the fire of the Spirit burns in your soul what do you feel called to do?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Looking Forward to May 8, 2016 -- Easter 7, Paul Teaches About Resurrection

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture passage for this week is 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57

The Sermon title is L'Chaim

Early Thoughts: 6 weeks ago we began the Easter Season with the story of women visiting the tomb, finding it empty, being told of Resurrection and then fleeing in terror.  Now, on the last Sunday of the Easter Season we listen to Paul tell the Corinthians what Resurrection means.

Part of me would like to read the whole 58 verses of chapter 15.  I think we miss out on the full strength of Paul's argument when we skip those central verses (we miss the spiritual body and the physical body as well as the seed imagery-- although that does tend to lead into a dualistic approach to body and soul/spirit).  But then there would be even more options to choose from as a sermon hook. As it is there are plenty to choose from. In fact I suspect one could use 1 Corinthians 15 as your primary text for the whole Easter season...lots of sermons in that chapter.

One of the themes in this chapter is the idea of victory. Conquering the last enemy. This idea of victory is an ancient understanding of Easter. In opening the tomb and raising Christ God shatters the power of death. I suggest that we still live in a culture where death and dying are sources of terror. Maybe we are afraid of the death of our loved ones or ourselves. Maybe we fear for the death of our church, or our service club, or some other organization. But theoretically as people of Easter faith we should no longer be afraid of death because we know that life wins. In the end life still wins. How do our lives show that we believe that death no longer has the victory, that death has lost its sting?

Not to mention that this is the passage where we find "The last enemy to be destroyed is death", which is inscribed on the tombstone of James and Lily Potter. When they find this Harry and Hermione have a discussion about what it means, about how death is destroyed.

The sermon title is a Hebrew toast, literally meaning to life. As we stand in the Easter season, as we proclaim that God has conquered death, what other statement of faith could we share but l'chaim?

Monday, April 25, 2016

May Newsletter

Take A Break!

When were stores open when you were little? When were they not allowed to be open? And was that a good thing?

In both Deuteronomy and in Exodus Moses shares the 10 Commandments as given to him by God. And in both cases we are told that there should be one day a week where we do not work – we are commanded to keep Sabbath. And as I prepare for my Sabbatical this summer I find myself pondering the purpose of this commandment.

I am remembering a story (joke?). One night after Bible Study people were talking about how busy they were. One after another they shared, or even boasted, that they had not taken a day off in weeks. As the discussion paused, one woman said quietly, “I know that we sometimes have trouble living how God would want us to. But usually we feel guilty about breaking commandments. What makes sabbath different?”

What makes sabbath different indeed? Many of us can talk about how rarely we take a day to do no work. Not just a day off from our employment but a day when we do no work (laundry, housecleaning, mowing the lawn...). But is that a good thing?

Why is Sabbath-time important? In a world where commerce goes 7 days a week. In a world where even statutory holidays are becoming shopping days, where one can go into a store and see an apology that they are no longer open 24 hours a week (as happened to me recently), where thousands of people do not take all their holiday time, where thousands of people are overworked and exhausted in mind and body, where economic health and activity is seen as the most important thing why would we even consider the quaint idea that it might be a good thing for work and commerce stop for 1/7 of our time?

Because we would be healthier. Physically healthier, emotionally healthier, mentally healthier, spiritually healthier. Our relationships would (hopefully) be stronger as we spent more time just being together. Maybe not when we first started doing it, anxiety might make us a little on edge for a while thinking about what we could be accomplishing. But once we become accustomed to saying “no work” for a day we would be healthier. We would have time to recover and regenerate. We would push ourselves to re-vision what we thought was most important.

Once upon a time Sabbath time was regulated. Commerce stopped for one day a week because the law demanded it. I remember 30+ years ago when Alberta was having the debate about Sunday shopping and other places have had that debate even more recently – in 2005 Patty and I were in Halifax for a weekend and when the event we were attending was over and we tried to find somewhere to get something for supper found that everything was closed because it was Sunday. I think there was great wisdom in mandating hours or days when commerce stopped. I also think that it was problematic to tie that mandate to one religious expression. And so even though I think we are healthier when we take a Sabbath day I am not sure legislation is the best way to go about it.

Like everything else about our life of faith, I believe that is is a matter of choice. If we as a community, as a nation, chose we could create a situation where people had the opportunity to choose to take Sabbath time. We could create a world where people do not have to go full-tilt 7 days a week just to keep up (whether that be with bills or with having a house as clean as it “ought to be”, or with the perfect yard, or with having all the right activities for their children, or whatever else programs and fills our days). And while we are building that world we could choose to step off the treadmill for a day every so often, we could test and model Sabbath.

It won't necessarily be easy. It would require a rethink of our lives. But that is what God keeps asking us to do – rethink our lives. God challenges us to put our priorities in places that we might sometimes think strange. But over and over again Scripture shows that this just might be because God has a clearer understanding of what we actually need.

One final thought. In Deuteronomy the reason given for observing Sabbath is that the people are no longer slaves. Slaves can't choose when not to work but free people can. And so the next time you insist you can't take Sabbath-time I encourage you to ask yourself if you are a slave or if you are free. And then you might ask who or what has enslaved you...

Then go ahead, take a break. Help others find a way to take a break. It is good for all of us.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Looking Ahead to May 1, 2016 -- 6th Sunday of Easter, Paul's Hymn to Love

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

The Scripture reading for this week is 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

The Sermon title is: Love -- The Greatest Gift

Early Thoughts: Just before this (and again just after it as it happens) Paul spends time talking about Spiritual Gifts. In chapter 12 he has outlined a number of them, even as he has also reminded the divided (possibly even fractious) congregation in Corinth that they are not to lord their gifts above others, that all gifts are needed.  Then we have this beloved passage [one of my favourite pieces of Scripture].

This passage suffers, I suspect, from being overly associated with Weddings.  And I get it, what better time to share Paul's great hymn to love than a wedding. But we need to go deeper with it.

In the Gospels Jesus makes it clear that the greatest commandment we have is to LOVE.  Love God, Love neighbour, love each other as Jesus has loved us. Love is the gift that makes all the other gifts possible. Love, so they say, is what makes the world go round (or is that money???). All we need is love the Beatles told us so many years ago (before some of us were born).

It is in love: deep abiding love, love that sees each other clearly, love that pushes us to do the impossible that we are able to be the people God has called us to be. And even more, if we don't have that deep abiding empowering love we are nothing. Without love our gifts are useless. Love is what completes us.

Another writer of the Christian Scriptures, the writer of the letters of John, will later tell us that God is love.

The whole of Christian tradition tells us that LOVE is the center of how we are able to be who we are called to be. The whole of Christian tradition tells us that living that love is our primary task. [And the whole of Christian history tells us how hard that has been to actually do.]  SO we stand with Paul and say....THe Greatest of these is LOVE.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Newspaper Submission

For this round I chose to adapt this piece I wrote for the March Newsletter:

Belief, and Doubt, and Faith

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

And so I think of another song, this one by Canadian singer-songwriter Linnea Good, where the chorus says:
“Believing may be easy but faith is slow, it takes a lot of doubting for our faith to grow!”
That sounds much more realistic to me. Faith is something that we wrestle with all our lives. Sometimes it is easy to have faith. Sometimes it is a struggle to believe in things that don't seem to make much sense from a rational, logical perspective. But I firmly believe that it is in the struggles that we learn and grow in our faith, in our understanding of God, and in our relationship with God.

One of the things I like about my faith home is that we have a tradition which encourages “Christians of each new generation are called to state it [the Church's faith] afresh...with the emphasis their age needs”. My predecessors have not handed down to me a static unchanging faith. They have handed to me a faith that is open to questions and reformulation and growth.

Another thing I like about our approach to faith is that we are what is technically called “non-creedal”. This does not mean we don't have or use statements of faith. It does not mean there are no standards about what we believe. It really just means that we do not require members or leaders or clergy to sign a piece of paper saying they agree to a specific understanding of Christian faith.

We are encouraged to ask questions. Questions and doubts do not show a lack of faith, they show an engaged faith. In every other aspect of life we are told that questions are how we learn, why should it be different in our faith and spiritual life?

Then we are invited to share where our questions and explorations have led us, so that we can invite others to share their results with us. And so here is some of where I have ended up (so far);
  • I believe that God is active in the world, stirring people's hearts and minds, pushing us to new understandings of how to live in the world, challenging us to change our attitudes and behaviours to match those understandings.
  • I believe that in Jesus of Nazareth God was doing a new thing, God was being revealed in a new way.
  • I believe that the experience of Easter, of encountering the reality of resurrection, changed the lives of Jesus' followers in such a profound way that their understanding of everything that had gone before was changed, including their understanding of who Jesus was.
  • I believe, with Hamlet, that there are “more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and so there are things that we cannot explain rationally, which forces us to accept paradox and ambiguity, trusting that there we will meet God.
  • I believe that the primary purpose of being a follower of Christ is not to win a reward after our death but to make a difference in the world where we live.
  • I believe that the original blessing pronounced at Creation “and God said it was very good” has never been withdrawn and that it trumps all else. However in our acceptance of free will we can and do choose to act in ways that denies that blessing and turn our backs on who we are created to be.
  • I believe that the Kingdom of God is real and among us and slowly growing to full flower and majesty. Someday it will be revealed in all its fullness and the world will be what it could be. I believe that is very arrogant and misguided for anyone to claim to know when or how that will happen or what it will look like in the end.
What are your questions? What are your answers?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Looking Forward to April 17, 2016 -- Easter 4, Paul in Corinth

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Acts 18:1-11 1
  • Corinthians 1:10-18
The Sermon title is Church Building

Early Thoughts: What does it take to build a church?

It takes a vision, and possibly a visionary.  It needs a person or a group of people who see what is possible. People who are willing to pony up the support needed as the new community coalesces and grows.

It takes a sense of mission, a clarity of the Gospel.

It takes a willingness to work together despite differences.

Sometimes it seems that last one can be the hardest to find...

As we follow Paul through the book of Acts, supplemented by what he himself says in his letters, we see him planting and building churches.  We see a visionary with a firm grasp of the Gospel he is called to share. We see a preacher who is not dismayed by early "failures" and obstructionist behaviour but shakes himself off and tries again. We see a man who is able to form a core community of faith who will carry on after he has moved on. And when it comes to Corinth, we see that differences withing the community can cause trouble from the beginning.

The overarching theme of the letter we call 1 Corinthians is unity in (or despite?) diversity. This will come up over and over. But in this first chapter the problem appears to be that the community is divided by who they see as the best teacher of the faith. In response Paul reminds them that the teacher is not the point. The one to whom the teachers point is the center of attention.

THe process of church building never really stops.  We don't get to the point of being able to point at it and say "There! Done!". And so we continue to need that core group of vision-keepers (and vision-casters). And we still need that clarity of mission, that understanding of the Gospel/Evangel/Good News that we have to share. And we still need to be ready to look at and deal with the differences of opinion and understanding that come up.

How do we continue to build/renovate/re-build the church?