Sunday, May 13, 2012
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The point I thought was really interesting was that people simultaneously hunger for human community, and avoid community because it takes work. At the same time we long for connectedness with others, but because relationships are demanding, we will find any excuse to avoid them. That seeming contradiction in human nature is an example of what the Bible would call "sin." Sin is that about us which creates estrangement, which undermines our fundamental need for relationships. It's about how we sometimes do the very thing that is harmful to us and to others.
Churches ought to be places where people can overcome their isolation and find community. Sometimes I think we don't work hard enough to make that available to people for whom isolation is easy and relationships are hard. And I wonder what steps we could take to break down the growing barriers in our culture to meaningful human relationships?
Here's the link to the article.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Tim remarked on the great weather and said he'd love to go fishing. I asked him about fishing, and he told me it's one of this favorite passtimes. Then he said something that kind of surprised me. He said fishing is the thing that makes him most thankful, that arouses in him the greatest sense of gratitude. I always knew people went fishing to relax, but I'd never thought of it as a way to encourage thankfulness. "So, it's a kind of spiritual experience for you?" I said, and then he launched into an animated description of the spirituality of fishing.
Friday, April 6, 2012
"You Did That For Me"
Text: Hebrews 10: 16-25
“I will remember their sins no more.” This is the promise made through the prophet Jeremiah, 600 years before Christ, that comes as close as possible to a one-sentence summary of the Christian faith. God’s declaration, “I will remember their sins no more,” is really the Gospel in a nutshell. It’s all that really needs to be said. All of the New Testament, all of our preaching, all of our practice, it’s all commentary on this one amazing, incredible, almost unbelievable statement: “I will remember their sins no more.”
Because our natural human instinct is to remember sins, both our own and those of others – to hold onto them, to rehearse them, to allow them to work their way deeply into our hearts where they become the dominating reality in our relationships. We find it nearly impossible to let go of the things we have done that have wronged others, or the things others have done that have wronged us.
And we think of God primarily as the one who never forgets our sins – from whom there is no escape. “Be sure your sins will find you out,” is the way that so many people picture God.
And yet here is God saying definitely, without qualification, “I will remember their sins no more.”
Through Jeremiah, God promised to enter into a new covenant relationship with God’s people, in which the things we need to do to keep that covenant aren’t external laws, written on stone, that carry the threat of punishment if we do not obey them, that we struggle to apply to our lives – but instead are written on our hearts – God’s will penetrating our hearts and minds so that serving and obeying God become not something strange and alien, but second nature. God promised a new covenant in which God would come to actually dwell within us, God would confer on us a new identity, not of sinners deserving death, but of dearly loved sons and daughters.
It’s a puzzle that Christianity is so widely regarded as a religion of judgment and condemnation. If you ask people on the street their opinions about Christianity, their responses will usually have something to do with rules and regulations, with self-righteousness and judgmentalism, with people who go around behaving like they are better than everyone else.
Maybe it’s not a puzzle, though, because that is so often how Christians have behaved. Christians over the centuries have not really believed what they’ve been told: “I will make a new covenant with you. I will remember your sins no more.” All too often, Christians are guilty of doing what people accuse them of doing – simply carrying on with their old natural human life of judging and condemning.
Jesus puts an end to all that. Jesus puts an end to our need to prove ourselves worthy of God’s acceptance. Jesus puts an end to the need to offer repeated sacrifices in the hopes that we might appease the wrath of an angry God; that maybe if we give enough, or we’re good enough, maybe, just maybe, God will accept us.
So often we project onto God the harsh reality of many human relationships. If I just do a little bit more, maybe he’ll love me; if I just try a little bit harder, maybe she’ll approve of me.
The history of human religion has largely been the story of two struggles in the human heart – the struggle to prove ourselves worthy; and the tendency to condemn of others for not being good enough. The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion amounts to the effort of human beings to justify themselves before God. Jesus puts an end to that effort by making it unnecessary. We do not need to justify ourselves before God. We simply need to receive the grace of forgiveness which Jesus makes possible.
If we would only listen. “I will make a new covenant – not like the old covenant that required an endless series of ever more lavish sacrifices, offered day after day – but a covenant based on the sacrifice of the Son of God, made once, for all. Because of him, I will remember their sins no more – a clean slate. A fresh start. A new beginning.” And yet it’s so hard for us to believe. It’s hard for us to believe that it is true for us. And it’s hard for us to believe that it is true for other people, whose sins we think are simply too great, too heinous, to merit forgiveness.
”Where there is forgiveness of these sins, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
In other words, we don’t need to live like that. We don’t need to do it anymore. We can stop striving to atone for what we have done. We’re forgiven. We’re free.
But, the objection is always raised, doesn’t that encourage irresponsibility, letting people off scot free? Where is the incentive to live a better life if God has simply forgiven us?
No, the Letter to the Hebrews says. God has not left us in our old dead-end way. God has opened up a new and living way. Jesus has made it possible for us to entrust our lives to God without fear. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean. Our consciences have been purified.
And that means we really can be free to spur one another on to good deeds, because we aren’t dominated by the great weight of either our wrongdoing, or that of others. We can let go of the guilt of our own past; and we can let go of burden of other people’s sins.
St. Paul says it best. His critics asked, “If God just forgives us, does that mean we can go on the way we always have and not worry about it?” “Absolutely not,” Paul replied. “Christ has set you free from sin – from the need to do things that set you at odds with God and your neighbor. Christ has set you free from the need to prove yourself, or to build yourself up at the expense of others. Christ has set you free from being dominated by your destructive impulses. If you’ve been set free, why in the world would you want to go back to being slaves again?”
You see, forgiveness that just leaves us the way we were isn’t really forgiveness. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” True forgives always transforms and redeems.
What Jesus has done for us is to create the possibility of a whole new way of life. He makes possible a real change in our relationship with God – from being a relationship based on judgment and fear – to one based on acceptance and love – and because of that he changes the basis of our relationships with others.
The greatest problem is not that we need to be forgiven. Or that others need to be forgiven. Jesus has looked after that. The greatest problem is believing that it’s really true – and living like it’s true.
Because so much of the time we don’t live like it’s true. We continue to strive to earn God’s acceptance to measure up – to be good enough. And even if we don’t think of it consciously as trying to appease God, that’s what we’re doing. Or we simply rebel and say we can get along without God’s acceptance and go it alone.
Or we continue to try to make ourselves look better by making others look worse; to build ourselves up as if God has forgiven us because we’re such good people, and tear others down by saying that what they have done is so much worse.
Our great problem is that we can’t cope with the enormity of grace. That’s, I think, why many people don’t want to deal with Good Friday. It’s not just because of the violence and suffering of the crucifixion. It’s that we cannot deal with the size, the depth, the sheer vastness of what God has done for us. We either think we don’t need it, or we think we couldn’t possibly deserve it.
But that’s why we come here on Good Friday. On Good Friday we do stop to wonder at the enormity of what Jesus has done for us. “And from my smitten heart with tears, two wonders I confess,” the old hymn puts it. “The wonder of his glorious love, and my unworthiness.” That’s a lot to take in. But it’s the truth.
It’s what he’s done for us. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it. We can only accept it, and marvel at it.
Through the Glass describes her own harrowing journey through the shattering of her dreams, coming to terms with the unthinkable -- that she was married to a violent criminal -- and ultimately learning to support him, even as he was held accountable for his crimes. She describes the judgment and criticism she received for her decision to not simply write him off as a monster, and the reconciling encounters she had with his victims. Her story is an interweaving of the redemptive power of forgiveness and a vision of restorative justice.
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Friday, March 30, 2012
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Over the last five or six years, we’ve had many conversations and meetings in Presbytery about church planting. We have closed a third of our congregations since I came to Niagara in 1996, and we have recognized that unless we start some new ones, the future of the United Church is not very promising.
Niagara Presbytery passed a motion a couple of years ago committing the Presbytery to starting some new form of Christian community.
In 2010, the Presbytery paid for seven people to attend the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto.
The Congregational Support Committee has held several discussions on strategies for beginning new churches.
Some of the assets of Central Ave. United in Fort Erie have been directed to the Extension Council, to be held for up to two years as seed money for a possible new church planting venture in Fort Erie.
Funds are available through Hamilton Conference and the General Council to support new ministry initiatives.
Hamilton Conference staff are enthusiastically supportive of church planting proposals.
Presbyters responded very positively to Pastor Mike Collins of The Village Church in Thorold when he spoke at the January meeting of Presbytery about how that church was started.
The time seems right to move ahead.
Church planting has become a personal passion and burden of mine as I have become convinced that the church cannot abdicate its mission to pass on the faith to a next generation and still remain the church. As it says in the Psalms, “We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s hand” – and healthy sheep reproduce. For 1500 years of Christendom, the church has been able to count on its numbers being replaced simply by birth as children inherited the religious identity of their parents, supported by the values of a Christian culture. We know that time has passed. So, we need to relearn how to plant churches.
I have been a member of the United Church my whole life, and despite wondering at times if we’ve taken leave of our senses, I have remain committed to the church that is my home. And I continue to believe that the streams of faith that gave birth to the United Church of Canada in 1925 can still be a powerful witness to Jesus Christ in the 21st century.
I spend a lot of my time thinking, learning, networking and reflecting on what is involved in beginning new churches in a post-Christendom culture. I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge which I want to place at the service of the Presbytery so that we can begin to start new congregations.
When I speak of church planting, though, there are a few things we need to realize.
First, any future “church plant” will bear little resemblance to the 1950s style “new church development” model, where the church went into a growing suburb, bought a piece of land, identified members of the United Church tribe who were moving there, invited them to start attending services at the local school or community centre, and gathered enough money to break ground and build a new building.
Today, you can’t build a church building in the traditional sense for less than $4 million. There are no burgeoning new suburbs in Niagara – or at least not many – and where there are, the majority of their residents have no meaningful identification with any traditional denomination.
There is enormous fluidity in the forms churches take these days, so we can’t predict up front what a newly planted church will look like exactly. But we can say a few things with confidence. The church of the future will not be primarily “attractional” – it will not be a place people come to in order to access programs and services. Instead, it will be apostolic – a community gathered around faith in Jesus, and sent out to live the gospel in neighborhoods, work places and places in need of hope and healing. It will not be centred around a costly infrastructure of programming and paid staff. Rather, it will be “lightweight and low maintenance,” centred on relationships and serving others, not burdened by impossible budgetary overheads.
Second, we will have to admit that we know longer know how to do this. We will have to have the humility to turn to other denominations that have a successful track record of planting churches. The Christian Reformed Church, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Mennonite Brethren and the Free Methodists are all active in church planting. Realizing that there may be significant theological and cultural differences between us and them, we need to be open to their skills and expertise in starting new congregations.
I believe the United Church has a unique mix of inclusivity, commitment to social justice, and willingness to ask critical questions that will resonate with today’s spiritually searching population. We also have in our historical DNA a deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the one who shows us the face of God, which will be essential in planting new churches.
But we also have a kind of institutional paralysis that prevents us sometimes from moving forward. Diana Butler Bass in her book The Practicing Congregation notes that mainline Protestant churches have done precisely the opposite of what thriving organizations do. They have changed their core traditions while resisting innovation in form. They have changed the content, but clung stubbornly to the package. That has to be reversed. We need greater clarity about basic identity – who we are and whose we are – while learning to be experimental and adventurous in developing new forms of church.
Third, we should not see any new church planting initiative as conveying the message that churches that have had to disband or amalgamate have somehow “failed.” There ought to be no implied judgment about any existing congregation in committing ourselves to starting new congregations. Nor should we see resources that might go into future churches as help that has been somehow withheld from current congregations. We need to have the grace and the faith to accept that every institution and organization has a natural life cycle.
As Diana Butler Bass says, what is happening to many of our churches is nobody’s “fault.” Most organizations do not endure for more than a few generations without reinventing themselves. Many of our churches have been operating faithfully out of essentially the same model of church for over 150 years. And we need to simply accept that some of our churches are at the point where they are not capable of making the kind of radical transition they would need to make in order to reinvent themselves. We should say this without a hint of judgment or condescension. We should celebrate the faithfulness and work of all of our congregations, knowing that not every church will last forever. Or expect that every church will be able to adapt to new realities. There is a new congregation in St. Thomas that was planted as a mission of a local Christian Reformed church. It is reaching out to whole groups of people, including young people and single moms, that wouldn’t normally be in a traditional church. The parent congregation realized that, you know what, there are certain people we will just never be able to reach. We shouldn’t try to draw them into our existing church, but start something new.
We should continue to do everything we can to support the good work of our existing congregations, at the same time as we work to plant new forms of church that will more effectively address the cultural situation of the 21st century.
I would like to issue a challenge to Niagara Presbytery to stop simply talking about church planting and begin to do it. I propose that we commit ourselves to move ahead with planting at least one new church in the next two years. In order to do that, we need more than nodding heads and murmurs of support. We need people who will be involved in doing research, visioning and discernment – who will help to answer the questions Where? What? Who will lead? How will we support it? To begin to seek sources of funding. To recruit leadership. And above all, to bathe this entire initiative in prayer.
I’d like to know who is prepared to commit some time and energy which, let’s face it, is always in short supply, to this task. It doesn’t need to be only Presbytery members. Maybe there is someone in your church who is longing for something new. Maybe there are folks who still belong to your church but have drifted to the margins because they’re looking for something more. We don’t need experts on church planting, because none of us is an expert. We need people who have a passion for the future of the church, and are willing to make a leap of faith.
So I would like to appeal to you to speak to me, email me, phone me, tell me you’re interested, or you know someone who might be. And let’s get started.
Here's a link to a 1 hour talk in which he clearly outlines how to read the Bible through this lens.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
But it was a big breakthrough for me because it hit me -- our conversations have the potential to convert us -- to change us. If you read the Gospel of John, what you see Jesus mostly doing is talking. Schmoozing. Chatting. Having conversations. They're extremely deep and holy conversations, but he spends way more time talking to people in John than he does healing them or preaching to them. Philip and Andrew. Nicodemus. The woman at the well. The man paralyzed for 38 years. His disciples. Talking. Conversing. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and John portrays him bringing salvation and transformation through this words.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
How about you?
Monday, March 5, 2012
Thursday, March 1, 2012
But there's more. I think the second thing you need if you're going to have a church is a story.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The demands of ministry are just the sheer number of different things that you're required to do in a week -- everything from writing a sermon to talking to a family about baptism to visiting the nursing home to helping people debrief from a contentious meeting to filling out paperwork for Presbytery -- it's a constant stream of different demands and requests that can drain you.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Most clergy have had a conversation that goes something like this.
"Oh, how interesting. Personally, I need a church to find God. I can worship God just as well on the golf course."
So, what do we need to have if we're going to do that? What's essential? And what can we get along without?
I'd appreciate comments on these questions. And I'll address them further in future posts.
Friday, February 3, 2012
Each of these comments was a condensed personal story. Behind the words was a lived narrative.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Kairos the Greek word for "significant time," "fullness of time," or "decisive time." When God does something in your life, that's a "kairos moment." Kairos moments are times when we realize we have to make a decision, or we see something we never saw before, or we find ourselves caught up in a change.
This blog is going to be a place for sharing views, thoughts, opinions and experiences about how God is at work in us and around us. I'll try to post regularly, and I'd love to be able to address questions about God, faith, doubt, spirituality that are on your minds.