Great Speech

It’s rare to hear a speech that moves you like this one does. If you have 23 minutes this is a quality way to spend it. What makes this speech so wonderful for me is not the clear and thoughtful arguments the Mayor of New Orleans makes. There are many speeches where the speaker takes you on a journey of her/his own, where the orator makes the case for what s/he wants you to believe. What is unique about this speech is that the Mayor not only makes his positive points for his agenda but also carefully and systematically goes through the arguments on the other side of this debate and one by one knocks them down. You cannot hear this speech and say, “he didn’t address…” or “he never talked about…” The mayor addresses all the points on this issue, on both sides. 

Those who hear this speech walk away emboldened by the inspiring words of the speaker and by the way he gives them arguments to use when confronted by the opposing view. Further, the fact the mayor confesses his own silence on this matter, for many years, gives the speech additional power. The mayor is not pointing his finger at others, he is speaking the truth to his city, a city that includes Landrieu and his own family. 

There are many references to God in this speech. And those references include diversity, truth, humility, sin, justice, moral indifference and the prophetic words. They too make this speech memorable. In a political landscape of cheap shots and ten second clips this speech stands out for this lasting effect, this speech will endure and be played for future generations. I can think of all kinds of other issues where this same logic and moral reasoning applies. As I ask people involved in these debates over the years, “In 25 years when you are talking to your younger relations which side of this issue do you want them to know you were on?”

Psalm 119

Psalm 119:24-45 (Selected verses) The Message

Yes, your sayings on life are what give me delight; I listen to them as to good neighbors!

When I told my story, you responded; train me well in your deep wisdom.

Barricade the road that goes Nowhere; grace me with your clear revelation.

I choose the true road to Somewhere, I post your road signs at every curve and corner.

God, teach me lessons for living so I can stay the course.

Give me insight so I can do what you tell me—my whole life one long, obedient response.

Guide me down the road of your commandments; I love traveling this freeway!

See how hungry I am for your counsel; preserve my life through your righteous ways!

Let your love, God, shape my life with salvation, exactly as you promised;

Don’t ever deprive me of truth, not ever—your commandments are what I depend on.

Oh, I’ll guard with my life what you’ve revealed to me, guard it now, guard it ever;

And I’ll stride freely through wide open spaces as I look for your truth and your wisdom.

What I love about this Psalm is the balance it holds between a life of love and a life of obedience to the Commandments. There is this sense that we need precepts and laws and “shoulds” to bend our distracted will and follow a right path. But there is also this sense that we need the freedom, the liberty, and the creativity, to find our way in this world. What the great artists teach us is that first we must master the chords, the rules, the basics of the form and then we can allow ourselves to express ourselves in unique and loving ways.

The Apostle Paul wrestles with the law and love throughout most of his writing. He wants his followers to know they still live within the law but that the law is there to serve the love of God, the love expressed in perfection through the life of Jesus. Paul also attempts to find that sweet spot between the form and passion of our lives. But I think the Psalms do it well too, and what I particularly like is the way the joy of living is affirmed here in words like “And I’ll stride freely through wide open spaces as I look for your truth and your wisdom.” There is this sense of striding in confidence and certainty that we are on the right path but that the way we stride is both free and expectant, for the spaces are open to our design. How marvellous, how grateful we are for the wisdom, how amazing it is to stride with such passion and grace.

Going Retro?

I love retro things, items that remind me of happy times from my childhood and teenage years. Because I was a sports fan then many of the retro things I own reference sports teams and players. I own a Bobby Orr t-shirt and a photo of his famous Stanley Cup winning goal, tripped and flying through the air. More recently I have a Minnesota North Stars t-shirt, hat and hoodie. That team no longer exists in the NHL, making it especially worthy of retro memories. Whenever I see anything with a Minnesota North Stars or California Golden Seals crest I am likely to consider a purchase.

In Churchland such retro nostalgia is even stronger. Seniors still attending church on a regular basis can all remember a time when the churches were full, hearing special preachers was a “big deal” and the singing of older hymns made the walls shake with enthusiasm. But those days are largely over. A good indication of this reality can be found at any thrift store, take a look at all those church plates from communities across Nova Scotia. No one wants them anymore. And yet in days gone by every household would have at least one hanging in their kitchen.

Retro church can still be found alive and well in the summer. Look for a church in the countryside that no longer has regular worship, holding services only in the summertime, with a visiting Minister dropping in. Seniors dress up like the old days, the hymns are the favorites from the early 20th century, and people are in a good mood. There is a feeling of touching something special, from a time long ago when church kept one’s life on a steady keel.

But in the context of regular worship, September to June, such retro worship services seem more sad than nostalgic. The contrast between what was and what is just makes people more upset. The blame-game is never far from the surface, everyone has someone or something to blame. Traditionalists blame the lack of continuity, the changes the churches have made, both in practice and theology. More liberal types blame the church’s lack of change, the fact we still sing hymns written two centuries ago, the fact the churches seem so slow to embrace the causes that animate activists; climate change, poverty, transgendered rights. Yet churches that do lean in either of these directions don’t seem to grow or become any more dynamic than those who practice that “Old Time Religion”.

In my seminary days we were given training as worship leaders that pushed us to use rituals borrowed from my liturgical churches but with more inclusive language and theology. In essence my generation of church leaders worshipped like Anglicans and talked like Unitarians. One thing you can say about evangelical churches, they may refuse to use any version of the Bible besides the good old King James but their worship practices tend to be more personal, more emotive, and the music is more accessible. As church growth guru Bill Easum used to say, “So how many people today listen to classical music on the radio, in their homes, on their iPads?” His point was this, the Wesley brothers used the tunes of their time and the lyrics of their time to make accessible spiritual music. By using their tunes and words today we are neither being theologically nor liturgically accessible. It just feels like a museum where the guides are in costume acting out their context, something like the Fortress Louisburg.

I think the way forward is to find a way to convey our theology in words and music that reflect who we are today. Traditionalists going back two centuries are not going back to Jesus and the early church, instead they are reflecting a certain era in church history that has no more connection with the Gospel than what we do today. And my generation of church leaders, with our Anglican liturgy and Unitarian theology, also reflect more of a time, the 1980’s, than the present spiritual hunger and context.

People are hungry for this experience. Finding the way to express it will not be easy. But going “retro” is hardly the answer.

Grace at Weddings, it's all in the invite list

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move…Jesus turned to the host and said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours, the kind of people who will return the favour. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favour, but the favour will be returned—oh, how it will be returned! – Luke 14

I thought of this sacred text when I read this news story yesterday on the CBC website.

One of my favorite stories in Philip Yancey’s excellent book What’s So Amazing About Grace comes from an article in The Boston Globe about an unusual wedding banquet:

Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered a wedding banquet. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry, Really, I am.”

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken “in honor of the groom,” she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. The homeless took one night off from the hard life of the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

It is summer, the season of weddings and banquets and feasts. Let’s never forget the instructions Jesus gave to us about how to celebrate these occasions and how whom we invite says everything you need to know about our understanding of Christian grace, God’s unconditional love for us and others.

Consistency

What role does consistency play in one’s faith development? I remember being a senior in high school and an undergraduate student and having some doubts about the life of faith. Those doubts were 100% based on the lack of what I perceived as inconsistency in the Christian faith (although this critique could easily apply to any faith that is founded on a God or Gods who is eternal and unchanging). The obvious question would be “why do bad things happen to good people” and the shadow side of that same question “why do good things happen to bad people”. If one’s faith journey is a linear line of learning to be and do good and God is a supreme being who sits on a throne and judges us according to some litmus test (Ten Commandments, Matthew 25, John 14) then surely those of us who are “good” ought to prosper and those of us who are “evil” should be punished. Some punt this question and suggest that while there seems to be no justice in this world that eternal reward will happen in the next life. But since there is little assurance of this reality here and now it begs the question for those struggling this life what does a life of faith offer us today beyond the promise of a good life in the sweet hereafter?

These questions, which we in the seminaries refer to as the exploration of “theodicy”, come to us at some point in our lives. For me it was in high school and my first year of university, strangely for many it does not seem to come until a very late stage in their lives when at 70 they receive a cancer scare. Then there is this outrage of “why me?” But surely that begs the question, why didn’t that person wonder at some point why persons they knew are pure goodness have a much easier and longer life? Why did North Americas have to wait till 09/11 to ask, “How could this happen to us?” Surely there have been much more examples throughout history of the suffering of the innocent. Why did it take a terrorist attack on New York to finally raise this existential question of “why me” or “why us”?

As I got older I began to see there is no such thing as total consistency. Life is a series of compromises and there is some form or moral corruption in motive in every choice we make. To put it in more theological language the reality of sin is everywhere and failing to see it only makes our innocence a conceit we cannot afford in these challenging times. If in fact no one is consistent and the presence of God a mystery then that basic human impulse for faith, for spirituality, for a connection with the sacred other, is one we need treat with respect and understanding. In spite of the inconsistency of who gets what and when I know in my bones there is a source of life and a presence of Spirit in my journey and in the world at large. And making sense of that source and that Spirit has become my life’s work. If I can help people experience that source and Spirit I feel I am living out my vocation.

It’s not that consistency is unimportant, all of us should attempt to be fair with others, and make sense of why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe. But surely this deep and long-lasting impulse to connect is greater than our limited notions of what is consistent. In other words while rational understanding and reason are very, very important parts of being human they are not the be all and end all of what it means to be human. There is a mystery to the human experience that needs attention and speaking of this impulse is necessary to explore all that is possible in this life.

Legacy and Retirement

I spent the morning at the Hubbards Market. I met three different men, all in their late 60’s or early 70’s, all retired in the last 5 years. I asked them, “How goes the transition?” Each of them spoke of a period of exhaustion that they needed to squeeze out of their system with frequent naps. For a period of a year these three men transitioned into something new but none had any idea where they were headed. One constant thought on their minds, “Has my work meant anything to anyone?” I call this the legacy question and many men of a certain age carry this question into retirement with a lot of uncertainty.

I’ve noticed that one way of dealing with this anxiety is to keep everything, to keep all of the materials that made your work possible. I often ask these men why they hold on to these items. The answer is almost always some form of “Someone might have need of it”, which sure sounds to me like “Someone might have need of me”. I think wrapped up in these issues is the unspoken concern about whether one’s work has made a difference but also whether one’s future work will be needed. I try as best as I can with these men to hear them out, to listen attentively to their story and absorb the life lessons that can be a) used in my own life and b) catalogue them in my mind to share with persons down the road whom could use this wisdom themselves.

For many retired men this outreach is appreciated and you can feel their joy in sharing what they have learned and done. But these sometimes comes a point when I need to say, “So as I have benefitted from listening to your information and learning you may wish to do likewise with another man in a similar place.” Sometimes this not very subtle hint is heeded, often it is not. Further, there can be an insistence on the part of the man I am listening to that I not only hear their stories but begin to act on their advice. That always feels a tad presumptuous and I will on occasion remind them that while I am interested in their story I am not necessarily interested in following the same path.

As I look back on my work life I realize there was a crucial life lesson that came to me when I was 40 that changed everything about the way I see the legacy question. I had then worked for some 13 years, most of these included long hours and going to great lengths to serve the needs of those I served. At a critical moment I made a mistake in judgement, bragged when I shouldn’t have, indulged in comparisons between myself and others, and openly shared where I intended to change the church I was then serving. It was embarrassing. But I assumed then that all I had done up till then, the popularity I enjoyed, the total commitment I had given, would somehow mitigate the criticism that would come my way. I was wrong. It was truly, “What have you done for me lately” or more precisely “What have you done to me lately.” I was not surprised by the disappointment, I felt it myself, but I was shocked at the emotions that came with the critique.

In time I came away from that experience with some important learnings, namely that I will make more mistakes and that I need to be prepared to understand that whatever good and extra work I offered in the past was really for my own peace of mind, not to impress others or to receive brownie points that I could count on later to lessen the blow when I messed up. In short I learned that if I chose to work extra hard, offer extra effort, do more than anyone could expect, I did that because I wanted to do it, and for no other reason. I had to accept that what I did I did willingly and without expectation from the other.

I look back now at what I offered in the past with some pride, I did a lot of good work. But I no longer think of this work as a means to be liked, popular or to mitigate any criticism when I make mistakes. I do this work because I want to. And for the same reason when I am no longer able or willing to put in that kind of effort I will stop.

My prayer for men like me who move closer to retirement is that they no longer need worry that holding on to their “stuff” and their learning and their legacy is what validates their lives. What they did, whom they cared for, the ways they met needs, this is their legacy and nothing they do in the present or the future can change that. With the time left there is more to be learned, opportunities to serve and be part of something larger than self, but there need not be the burden of worrying whether anyone cares about what I know or did. Those whom I served in the past know what I did in the past and so do I. That is enough. It’s all what I now call “peace of mind.”

Leading by Example

It’s not “do as I say”, it’s “do as I do.” I remember attending a workshop on leadership styles. Like anyone who is being honest about their wants, I would like things to go a certain way. I remain open to learning a better way and I am humble enough to know I don’t know all, that there is much, much for me to learn. But after 53 years of living and 27 years of Ordained Ministry I do have some idea of where I would like to see church leadership headed. But I am most uncomfortable with leading by decree. And while many in the church, who are used to an old model of church leadership and come from their own secular culture model of leadership (from 20 years ago) may suggest that leadership by decree is the way to go even they would resist such a performance by me if what I decreed was not to their liking.

I remember an older man tell me, “you are the CEO, you say tell us what to do and we will follow.” Finally one day I had enough and I responded, “That only works as long as I am doing what you like.” He disagreed but by then I knew him and we both knew deep down that I was right. It’s no secret that the leadership style of years gone by is decidedly out of favour and no longer effective. In fact that style is more than problematic, it is counter-productive. Both because of the individualistic times we live in (“no one is going to tell ME how to live”) and the baggage of the past (we all know the stories of the hypocrisy of leaders who said one thing and did another) no one will take orders from on high at face value. Leaders today who fail to understand that they must walk the talk are leaders who are tempting mutiny or worse.

That’s why I try as best I can to do what I want others to do. I don’t whine, I don’t complain about something unless it is a matter I have tried to fix myself, I don’t ever ask people to do what I am not willing to do, and most importantly, I try to show consideration for others in the way I want other church leaders to show consideration for each other. That latter effort is key, unless there is a culture of consideration no one will go the extra mile for each other.

And the same goes for mission or strategic planning, if the church has a mission, a vision, it wants the faithful to live by then the leadership, lay and clergy, MUST demonstrate over and over that they live and work that way. Time and again I have seen great plans remain untried, strategic plans gathering dust on shelves, because the leadership did not live by the vision itself. The laity look at such plans and wonder what the self-interest is for the leadership, if it is not another example of the clergy getting “her/his way” at the expense of the laity. Under such circumstances it is less about living into a new way and more about a battle of wills for theories that will never be demonstrated in the community itself.

I have found that even when lay people strongly disagree with my vision for the church they will give me time to demonstrate it and live it out if they see me living it myself. Leaders who live by their own words get much more of a hearing, more consideration, and more attention, if the effort matches the rational.

rest, refreshment and relaxation

Funny thing, what you expect is not always what life offers. Planning and thinking about this trip to White Point for some rest and relaxation and refreshment my mind kept returning to a morning walk on the beach with my dog Nova, coffee in hand, listening to and watching the waves crash and roll toward me. The reality was close. I did get up this morning from our beach front cottage and walk my dog Nova along the beach and the waves did crash and sound so spectacular. But we didn’t bring our French Press or our own coffee so we used the instant coffee provided in the cottage. It was foul. But the visual and sound experience was every bit what I expected. Still my dog was not as keen as I to walk the length of the beach so there was a lot of “come on Nova” throughout the stroll.

The highlight, the transcendent moments, have instead turned out to be sitting in Muskoka chairs with my partner Kim listening to the waves crashing against the rocks that are literally 50 meters away from our cottage. The feeling of the fresh air coming from the nearby water, the visual of the waves and rocks, the sound of the water crashing against the sand and rocks, all combine to make this a very transcendent moment. I could sit here for hours and lap up this experience and come away feeling refreshed and renewed.

Also, the staff here have social skills any vacation business would love to employ. Every one of them stop by our cottage to pet our dog, engage in conversation, ask us what we need, answer our every question. The guests here are friendly but guarded, it is relatively expensive to be here so these are folks who likely work long hours with lots of pressures. Here they come to relax and small talk with strangers is not high on their to-do list. That is fine with me, it gives me more time to spend on my red chair, sipping the coffee from the dining room (which is much, much better!).

And I have a great book to read, not one connected to work, so I can indulge in stimulating thought that does not have an immediate outcome related to work. Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace helps me understand something I have never been able to grasp, namely what caused the First World War.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/24/war-ended-peace-margaret-macmillan-review

Letting go of work, letting go of expectations and embracing the splendid nature all around us is the sure way to rest, relaxation and refreshment. My partner would add, “and you need to get away.” She may be right.

 

Preparations for Happiness

What do you need when you go on a vacation trip? I loved my dear mother but she would take everything, and I mean everything, on a vacation trip. Our trunk could barely close, in fact several of us would sit on top of the trunk while our father would attempt to close it so that we heard the latch click. I remember thinking, “what if we buy stuff on this trip, where will it go?” Mom kept everything, took everything, and at the last, just before we left the house, she would inevitably get into a fit of rage trying to control everything, plan everything, while the rest of us watched helplessly. Then we would get in the car, somewhat in shock and afraid to upset her, and she would turn to the backseat and shout, “We’re having fun here, for heaven’s sake look like you are having fun!”

My wife wonders why I find these preparations so stressful. My spouse is the exact opposite of my dear mother, my wife waits till the last minute, usually forgets all sorts of things (that we then need to buy when we get to our destination) and then relaxes and can’t understand why I am annoyed that my pestering about “remember to bring…” was unheeded. The temptation to say “I told you so” is too much for me.

I am no fun to travel with. I plan, plan, plan, get everything ready days in advance, make lists, and take as little as possible. My belongings are few and I take only what I will need. And then I let everyone have it with “I told you so.” Charming aren’t I?

And so at this advanced age I have come to a place where I need to understand that my own behaviour has to be taken into account if I am going to relax and have a good vacation trip. I now realize that it was not my Mom, my wife, anyone else, who would taint the trip, it was my own attitude, my own behaviour that determined my own experience of these trips. So now I quickly pack, put things by the door, and offer to assist others in my house with their preparations. If we end up with more than we need, if we end up having to buy stuff we have at home, I now understand this is built into the vacation experience, like putting a raincoat on when you know it is going to rain. You prepare but you know you are going to get wet. What you hope is in the rain you feel the fresh breeze of the morning and see the other magnificent things going on in and around the pouring rain.

On this trip what I am most looking forward to is not “having a great time”, I am not lifting expectations so high I will be disappointed when reality sets in. Instead what I am doing is focusing on those little moments that I know I will remember on bad days, those moments on good days when I will savour and cherish, those moments that make one truly happy. In the morning, at our beach front cottage, my wife will use a French press to make me a dark/bold cup of coffee and I will walk my dog along the rough, rocky, shoreline. I am not normally a person who needs to see the ocean or waterfronts of some kind but I do so love the sound of the water crashing against the rocks, rushing to the beachfront. That sound, the freshness of the air, the walking, my happy dog, bold/dark coffee, all of it is what I cannot plan for. But I know that if I am present to those moments they will come. My Creator wants me to be happy and within this fragile existence and my own shortcomings and failings there are hints of what happiness looks like. I aim to find them.

http://www.whitepoint.com/virtual-tour/

Consideration

What is the “lens of life” today? For my mother and father’s generation and their parent’s generation the “lens of life” was often, “what will people think?” One’s standing in the social setting was all important, how we behaved in a social context mattered a lot, we noticed how others related to one another. I would like to think this noticing was a function of care for one another, that we had one another’s back, an expression we sometimes use now. But I think that noticing was more a function of a homogeneous context, a more or less uniform social order with definite social norms. In a sense we were all the police of that state of mind, watching one another lest someone fall out of line. “Did you see how he…” would be the whisper. The result was a fairly clear set of norms and expectations and we took great exception to those who failed to live by the code.

For persons my age and younger these norms began to fray with the advent of individualism, the idea that the determination of what was right and sure originated with the freedom of the individual. “Judgement” became the nastiest form of censure in our culture, for one to judge another was a terrible sin. From the classroom to the pop culture to the influential works of art the focus on “me” and the call was to be “me” moving beyond the norms to the sweet spot where my happiness would rest in a life path only I could assess. Of course social pressure is still a reality for all of us, we want to be thin, attractive, successful, and popular. But there was no one uniform determinant to be successful, there were several ways to get there.

But missing in all of this, from a social point of view, was consideration of the other. Noticing the other and her or his needs should be less a function of their conformity or exercise of their individual talent but an assessment of their ability to see the other as s/he truly is and care for that other in that manner. How many of us really see the other from the point of view of someone who has made choices, has tastes and passions for life that make them different than us and learning from them and being in relationship with them? When they answer one of our questions with “Well, I love to…” our response shouldn’t be “Well, I love that too” or “Well, I love to (something different)”. Instead our response could be, “Well, that’s most interesting, tell me more…”

When Jesus met that woman at the well he was interested in her, her story, her hurts and aspirations, her needs. Jesus listened but he also spoke in a fashion that revealed deep consideration of the other, it was not all about him, it was about her.

Increasingly my assessment of people I admire and want to spend time with is in large part a function of the interest and care they express in the other. I am less interested in what they can do for me, how they support me, what they say about me and notice more how they are caring about the others around them, in particular people who just show up on their radar screen.

Kim, Lucy and I recently attended a wedding and together after the service and reception our conversation focused on who we noticed were caring about others, in conversation, in acts of kindness, in unexpected gestures of grace. In many cases we were truly inspired to do be more “Christ-like” ourselves and we give thanks for the witnesses around us who show us the way.

Christian Hospitality

Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it! – Hebrews 13:

A friend and colleague recently told me about the writings of Christine Pohl. I have ordered her books and watched several of her lectures. Pohl is an academic and a passionate Christian who believes that in an age of isolation and loneliness like ours the essential Christian message of hospitality and an open Table is exactly what the Church is called to embody. It was a strange experience to listen to Pohl, I have been thinking and acting on this vision throughout my 27 years of ordered minister but have rarely heard anyone tie all the pieces of hospitality together, buttress it with academic work and strong Biblical exegesis. I am eager to share this vision with Bethany and Brunswick Street when I return from my vacation.

But as always with seminary lectures and texts how do we put these theories to work at the church level, how do we live out this mission in a way that is more than a Minister and a handful of leaders coming up with a strategic vision, feeling satisfied and the rest of the church life continuing on as per usual?

I found this helpful video that breaks down Pohl’s thoughts into 7 ways local congregations can live out the unique brand of hospitality spelled out by Jesus and the early church.

1)    Hospitality must be modelled by the leadership and owned by the congregation. Amen! If people don’t see this “strategic plan” lived out by the church leadership a cynic would say it is more a marketing strategy and less a witness of the agape love of the Christian church.

2)    Welcoming churches partner with a “bridge group” that doing hands-on work in the community. You see churches around the world partnering with groups like Habitat for Humanity, refugee sponsorship agencies, Mental Health coalitions, this partnership gives the church with a heart for mission a tangible way to make connections.

3)    Hospitable churches invite people into service and leadership from the outset. When I visit new people and they indicate a passion for a ministry that exists inside the church I will hear people say, “Let’s wait and see if they are serious.” I think that is the wrong approach, equipping, encouraging and connecting new people to mission and leadership in the church starts the moment they walk through the front door.

4)    Welcoming congregations eat together. Time and again we often think of our potlucks as afterthoughts or extra work when they often function more as ministry than the program or event they were intended to “lead into”. Eating together is not “fuel for the event” it is THE event.

5)    Keeping the vision alive, offering a theological rational for the practice of hospitality. Some people in the church suggest that welcoming new people and explaining why we are doing it is “repetitive and boring” and want to move on… And yet while they may feel already connected and aware of the “why” of welcome many others in the church are not. It is a message that never ceases to be relevant to the life of church.

6)    Hospitable churches are ecumenical and network with other faith communities to express the true welcome of Christian witness. If you don’t know the church across the road, the Minister at that church, it’s time to go for coffee, to share a potluck meal together.

7)    Creating a “space for grace”, which means everyone in the church who is practicing this challenging work needs a break from time to time and that not everyone in the church is yet ready to live out this ethos. Grace in this context is both patience and Sabbath time.

the consistency of our support

The other day I had coffee with someone I met many years ago. Then he was going through a very rough time. I hope I helped, we had many coffees. Later he disclosed he was a very conservative Christian and links to various websites that speak about end times, how believers get to Heaven, who doesn’t go to Heaven and the current events that these persons believe point to some kind of apocalypse. Occasionally this man raises what he believes with me, I am never quite sure if he does this to get my reaction or to somehow warn me of what he sees coming. On this occasion we talked Donald Trump and how Christian conservatives like him are supporting the President in record numbers.

I told him that while I do not agree with Vice-President Mike Pence or former President George W. Bush I do believe they are authentic conservative Christians. Pence recently made waves when he disclosed he will not be in a room with a woman who is not his wife unless others are present. Some saw this as reflective of his very rigid views but I saw it was someone who is trying to live by the words he preaches. Of course I distain Pence for the funding he gave as Governor or Indiana to “turn” people from gay to straight. I loathe this practice. But again it is a consistent piece of his worldview as a conservative Christian. Donald Trump is no conservative Christian, not in any way you can define these terms. Comedian Bill Maher says that if Trump was speaking about the Ten Commandments he would need to write LOL after each one.

I asked this man about how conservative Christians could support someone whose values and life are so outside the boundaries of what he could ever condone. I have heard his response before, conservative Christians like what Trump is doing; his Supreme Court pick, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and his choices for cabinet, all enforcing an agenda friendly to Christian conservatives. But what that does is expose the fact that when Christian conservatives complained about liberal Presidents and their life-choices that was really never their concern. In 1980 Jimmy Carter was a Bible-believing, evangelical, Christian who wore his faith on his sleeve. Ronald Reagan then rarely went to church, and spoke of God only in connection with a strange view that the United States of America were God’s chosen people. And yet because Reagan offered policy prescriptions that made Christian conservatives happy and Jimmy Carter did not interfere with a more progressive approach to social policy Reagan won the Christian right in massive numbers.

There are Christian conservatives who have a more compassionate approach to political issues, namely Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich offered Christian conservatives an approach with more empathy for the poor, the refugees and those with mental illness. He received almost no support from Christian conservatives. I found that shocking.

Of political hypocrisy is not unique to Christian conservatives. During the impeachment debate about former President Bill Clinton a lot of feminists defended Clinton from complaints made by women who were in clearly subordinate roles to him, where his offerings of a sexual relationship crossed over from an affair to an inappropriate and potentially illegal act. If the President had been a conservative Republican you can bet these feminists would have criticized him severely.

More and more it appears that Christians offer support less for whom they admire and more for whom they believe will further their agenda.

Open Table

My all-time favorite dining experience takes place in downtown Bangor. That’s right, downtown Bangor. It’s been a while since I went there so I am not sure if the business is still in operation but the Friar’s Bakehouse is a small café tucked into the downtown core of Bangor. Amidst a lot of boarded up store fronts is this welcoming, inexpensive, tasty, establishment where you can eat your lunch amidst college students, bankers, low-income seniors and government employees. The Friars greet you with warm hospitality and the smell of the food is out of this world. As you order you see the Friars dressed in their traditional garb, the thin but deep books all around the dining areas (authors like Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Francis of Assisi, etc…), and the tables bunched together so no customer can sit without engaging the others in the café.

When I think about symbols for the church Jesus envisioned there seems no better image than an open, welcoming table full of wine and bread. In the early church the gathered believers would meet in local homes and share in the sacred meal of Jesus, Communion, but do so in the context of a full and abundant feast. In other words the connection was clear, to be in Jesus’ Mission one shared in a meal with the community. And the table was open. In fact the only instructions on who comes to the table seems to be a directive to reconcile with your neighbour (Matthew 5:23). And after the community shares this sacred meal with Jesus what story does Jesus tell? Jesus warns the believers not to ask “who is greatest” among you but rather to focus on serving one another. Table manners are not figuring out who doesn’t belong, they are offering a welcome in the spirit of genuine service.

I am presiding at a wedding today for two persons who offer this kind of hospitality. One of them cites a passion for craft beer and family and the other names environmental concerns and craft beer as that which “gets them up in the morning.” I asked them this question, what are your passions in life, because all too often we overlook this “search for meaning” in our daily effort to just stay ahead of the next demand on our time. But allowing the daily demands to swallow you up forfeits us the opportunity to make our lives about bigger things, things that will really matter when we have the chance to look back and see who and what we were.

As a Christian Minister my life is about this open table Jesus offers, a mission to include others in an abundant feast. But I would be a fool if I did not admit at the outset that the Church as an institution has not done exactly the opposite of what our founder demanded, that is spend our time thinking about who doesn’t get to the table. A movement built around inclusion (see stories about the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well and the Ethiopian eunuch) has as its focus an open table, but the Church as an institution has often countered with an image of a closed table with a long list of who is not invited and where the favoured ones sit.

My prayer for this couple whom will marry this day is that they practice an open table in their home, in their offering of craft beer, in their passion for environmental justice (so everyone can be at the table) and in openness to a family not just of relations with the same name but a family that includes many names, many races, many religions, many orientations, and demographics you might not typically meet in the reality of your life. We live in a world where we more and more only associate with people we know, who think like us, vote like us, socialize like us. Imagine an open table where everyone is here, where everyone matters, and where everyone helps build community. That imagination is what Jesus lived for, what he died trying to accomplish and what can make our lives so full and rich that when we come to the end of our lives we can look back with satisfaction and joy. That is the blessing I wish for them and for us. Amen.

why we stay, why we go

Why do some people choose one church and not another? Why do people decide to leave a church they’ve attended a long time? What is it about a church that attracts, and perhaps later repels, a Christian looking for a spiritual home? In my early days I would have answered the questions this way; analytical people join churches that connect to their values and more emotionally driven people join churches where they feel affirmed and cared for. But several things have poked holes in those theories. I have met countless women and men who could only be described as analytical, cerebral, and what they wanted more than anything was to be in a church that felt like family. And likewise I have met countless emotive people who will join or leave a church solely on the basis of that church’s stand on one specific issue.

Early on in my Ministry I would ask prospective members what they were looking for from church and then proceed to tell them what our church stood for and how the church makes each other feel special and loved. Missing from all of that was the way the church absorbed people into our community. And that turned out, in many cases, to be the most important piece in drawing the newcomer into the fold. Less that the ideology or theology of the church, less than the “friendliness” of the church, how persons are drawn into the circle, become part of the community, that seems key to whether they go elsewhere or stay and invest in this community of faith.

If people see their way into this community, if people can begin to be part of something, if they are welcome to participate in an organic community where they are offering what they bring to the table, the chances of a deep and lasting connection get better and better. Now to state the obvious if a church begins to express values that are antithetical to those of the newcomer no pathway to community is going to be able to compensate for that source of division. Likewise if the church is downright unwelcoming, telling people they can’t sit in that pew because it belongs to someone else, then the seeker is going to search elsewhere. These are given. But the underlying reality of churches and other non-profit groups is this, if you want to make a home for new people there has to be a way for those persons to feel connected to the existing community. The more gatherings where this new person is actively involved in being part of this community the more likely s/he will stay and thrive.

That does not mean I have stopped trying to insist upon a friendly and welcoming greeting at church or that I have stopped being transparent about the values of the church and how they can speak to those who walk in the door, but it does mean I have focused a lot more energy these days on getting the new person involved, right away. The minute someone tells me they like to sing is the minute s/he and I are standing new to the Ministry of Music asking when the next choir practice is. And lay people need to absorb this message too. All too often a small band of faithful volunteers have struggled for years doing one important task. The song they sing is familiar, “No one will help us, we are all alone.” But when I share with them all the new faces who are coming and how they could be approached not all of the familiar faces are as eager for new blood as you might expect. That has to change, these community-building experiences are crucial to remaining a vibrant place where new people feel a part of something. And they will likely stay until that feeling no longer remains. Community cannot be underestimated.

working for what matters

I have often thought about what it means to be a Minister in 2017. I know many of my colleagues think about serving in the most effective and authentic way possible, but I wonder if they understand the context the church finds itself in today. Yesterday I ran into a recently retired Minister who asked about how things were going in the churches I serve now. I explained that attendance was up, givings were up and the committee structure of the church was full of eager volunteers. The retired Minister looked at me and replied, “Be careful you don’t set up your successor for failure, not all Ministers are going to do all the things you do.” My response shocked him. I said, “Who says there is going to be a replacement for me.” “Do you mean you plan to stay until you retire”, he asked. “Yes I do”, I said, “But it is more than that. I retired in 8 years, look around you at the mainline churches you know, several have closed already, many are moving to 75%, 60% and 50% time, some are merging, who says the churches I serve will be exempt from this trend?” There was a sobering silence as what I said washed over my older colleague. He had never stopped to consider the possibility that the church as he knew it, as he had served, would cease to exist in such a short period of time.

Why is this relevant? Ask anyone who has been given serious and challenging news by their doctor as it relates to their physical or mental health and see if that has affected their outlook on what they do? I can tell you any such news changes you and changes how you live. Likewise if you know the church as we know it could have a shelf life of 10 to 20 years (if we are lucky) how would you serve such an institution? I suppose the cynical and lazy would simply run out the clock, put in their 40 hours a week, serve their 35 years, and retire. Funny thing, those are the same people who seem to be complaining that the pension we receive is not going up as they expected. It’s certainly no surprise to me. And my eyes were wide open when I was ordained, I could see the demographics in front of me and the church closings even then. My motivation was such that, like someone who gets challenging news from her/his doctor, it is time to focus on what matters most and leave behind the stuff that will soon be forgotten.

When I ask people in neighbourhoods and communities where churches have closed “what do you miss about that church” they don’t answer the colour of paint they used, or how the Elders served Communion, or the gowns the clergy and choir wore, or the liturgy they used, or about the plaques on the wall… No, the words used by people who remember the church are “friendly, warm, set an example, made a difference, helped the poor, sponsored a refugee family, or made my kids feel special, or had beautiful music, or the preaching really spoke to me, or the studies were really interesting and opened my eyes”. If you look at church with these news eyes it immediately changes the way you look at the contents of the church building, at the programming of the church, at the use of the Minister’s time, at the time volunteers are asked to offer and what tasks they carry out and most importantly, at the parts of Jesus’ life and words the church chooses to lift up.

If you knew your church was not guaranteed to be around a long time how would you change what you did in that church, where would you put more effort and what would you let go? I work harder and harder every year of my Ministry but how I work and on what I work changes as I see what is happening to the institutional church. One day there may be no paid Ordained Ministers in the churches, no buildings like we have now, but Jesus’ church will go on. And serving that church will push us to further consider what is essential to being Jesus’ church and what is not.

coffee with a friend

Today I am sharing a coffee with a good friend. I look forward to it. We always find things to talk about, there is serious conversation, silly asides and observations about people we both know, each of us looking to the other for confirmation that we are accurately reading the other. We listen to one another and will not always agree with each other’s observations. We disagree gently but firmly and then move on. I like all of this. My friend has an excellent sense of humour and is marvellously humble. His example bring out the best in me.

We are an odd couple of sorts, he is very quiet and artistic, even emotional and I am loud, a performer and shove all my emotions into a “locked box”. Still we love people, we love to analyze and we both like to stretch our brains and laugh. What could be a better coffee conversation partnership?

There is a wonderful little program one can watch on the internet called Comedians in Cars Having Coffee hosted by none other than Jerry Seinfeld where Jerry and a fellow funny person go to a café near where the guest lives and talk. At the beginning Jerry shows you the vintage car he is picking up his friend in and why he has chosen that model car for this particular friend. I am not a car person but I do appreciate the explanation. I sometimes wonderful what model of car I would use to pick up a friend on our way to coffee. I think if a friend was picking me up s/he would likely choose the famous New Brunswick car from the 1970’s, the Bricklin. It’s loud, somewhat unique, obsolete, impractical and very open in its design. It also moved fast.

I also love the way the show makes your mouth water with the way the coffee is prepared. After watching an episode or two I want to start brewing my own java. But it’s the conversation that makes having a coffee with a friend worthwhile. There is almost a liturgy to the way the conversation develops, initial greeting, how each other is feeling, what we have been doing lately, what the next few months look like. The conversations I like best are devoid of bragging or covering up missteps or pretending all is well. Likewise I do tire of conversations that are all about aches or pains or hurts or blaming everyone else for our state of affairs. The person I am having coffee with today lives with illness that is beyond comprehension and rarely talks of it. In fact I need to keep at him to reveal his real thoughts and feelings about it.

Summer time in particular is a great opportunity to call an old friend and go out for a coffee. Halifax-Dartmouth is now littered with amazing coffee shops, there is literally one near anyone in this municipality. My favorite coffee is found at the Trident on the southside of downtown Halifax, my favorite atmosphere at Two If By Sea and my favorite overall experience at the Bike and Bean in Tantallon. If you have never been to any of these I highly recommend you call a friend this summer and check them out.

I think the thing I most love about coffee with a friend is how much we learn about the world, ourselves and humanity from each other and how much fun and stimulation comes from a simple and open conversation. Of course good coffee helps too!

living values

I have been asked today to speak to a group of unemployed persons about goal-setting. As I reflected on that theme my mind immediately went to a couple I met 13 years go this September. He was a man my age who grew up in Nova Scotia, not far from me. She was a First Nations person having grown up on a reserve in Nova Scotia. Her first husband had died leaving her with two small children. When she met this man from Nova Scotia and they had dated for some time they became a family. Now she was pregnant and they wanted to marry. The wedding itself took place in a gazebo in a public park. I took my daughter Lucy, the wedding was only a 30 minute walk from our home.

The husband-to-be was Caucasian like me, as were half of the 50 wedding guests. When he and I met for the first time he was reading Augustine’s Confessions. He was extremely well-read and quizzed me on my views of original sin, redemption and salvation. I could tell he had studied the classics and wanted to know if my own faith was grounded in the study of theology and philosophy.

The wife-to-be was a First Nations person, her passion was First Nations land rights and her family. She worked for the Federal Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. That is what had taken them from the valley of Nova Scotia to the National’s capital. She was very driven and knew this would come at a cost to her family life. That is what made her partnership with her husband so special, he was brilliant, creative but not driven. He was as laid-back as she was intense and he was happy to stay home and care for the children. Moreover job he had when they met, security guard, was well matched for someone who wanted flexible hours, maximum time to spend with his children and read (even at his desk).

Their home reflected their values, it was NOT tidy but instead full of activity, classic paintings on the walls, books everywhere, everything they needed to remain active, engaged and ready to go. The wedding was set in a public park, the bride wore a dress she had purchased at a used clothing store, same for the groom. The music was a blend of sacred and pop, all on CD’s played with a music box. When the wedding ended the meal consisted of buckets of KFC and cake made by a guest. The atmosphere throughout was festive and inclusive and the cost was minimal. In short the values of this couple were reflected in everything they did, said and shared that day.

In short the couple put their time, talent and treasure to the efforts they believed in and they skipped and saved on anything that was not part of who they were, who they were attempting to become. Never have I witnessed a couple at one event, that most perfectly reflected what putting one’s values to work, living one’s faith and beliefs, looks like.

I intend to share this story with the group of participants I will meet today. I hope it is as inspiring to them as it has been to me.

Happiness 101

Tomorrow I have been asked to speak to a group of unemployed students who are attempting to move back into the workforce. My role is not spiritual, rather I am to share the work habits, values and relationship building that has helped me to be whom I am today. I have thought long and hard about what I will say. The non-profit who have invited me have provided several hours for the class and I to have this conversation. And while at least half of the time will be devoted to questions and answers I know I need a solid message to keep their attention and give them something to think about when they go home.

The overall framework of this presentation will be that we need to know whom we are, who are neighbour is and what together we can do as community. It’s been my experience that many, many people do not know themselves. As the singer Joe Jackson once said, “You can’t get what you want unless you know what you want.” If you think what you want is what everyone on TV wants, what your friends want, what your family wants, then even when you move close to that goal you will not be any happier. Knowing what makes you happy is the first step to happiness. For some that happiness comes with warm, familiar and constant time with family. For others that happiness is found in challenging work. For others there is a constant need to learn new things, go new places. For still others there is a desire to make their community, their world, a better place than how they found it.

I once knew a man named Jake who gave up an academic career and focused his life on learning all he could on bridge. I don’t know anything about bridge, but according to my friends it is a card game that is more than a card game. Jake is not motivated by relationships or having nice things, he loves this part of his life like no other. So he works as a night security guard, he lives in a part of his city that few would choose, and he spends his time and energy learning this sweet game. This life makes Jake happy, he knows what he wants and he makes sacrifices to get there.

I know others who want a family where all the opportunities available to their children far outweigh what the parents had in their early years. Both parents work long hours, the father travels great distances to work for long periods away from home, the mother works from her home doing work for companies headquartered in the American south and as a result the children have amazing opportunities. These parents have sacrificed a lot to make this happen, but they made these decisions with their eyes wide open.

I know people who choose to live in small dwellings, use minimal resources and live very simple lives. They do this to minimize their footprint on the earth and everything they do; what they eat, how they move around their community, how they work, all of it is geared to living a sustainable life. Having the peace of mind to know that their values are being lived in an authentic and true way bring them happiness and joy.

For me the first step to happiness is know what make you happy and then moving into a place, a life, a way of being, that reflects this need for happiness and makes sacrifices, gives up things, all to get to that place of happiness you identified at the beginning. When I go to bed at night I sleep knowing that in some measure what I did that day is reflective of what makes me happy. I don’t just do this unconsciously, quietly, I actually tell myself on my late night walks, what I did that day that connects to the goals I have set for my life. That knowledge, that peace of mind, gives me great satisfaction.

I hope to share some of these learnings tomorrow.

Birthdays

Today is my daughter’s birthday and many people have asked me what we have planned for the day. Lucy’s preference since her childhood years has been to invite a small circle of family and friends to our home for a BBQ, usually later in the summer when more people are available. July 2nd is a date many, many people have other plans. As a result the actual date of Lucy’s birthday is somewhat subdued, relaxed. We give her a card, a gift and we go out for supper, she usually brings along a friend. Lucy picks the restaurant.

There is a religious connection to this issue of birthdays and I came across it early in my Ministry. In rural and smaller churches there is a tradition of singing Happy Birthday to parishioners who are celebrating their birthday during the upcoming week. Many churches turn it into a mini-fundraiser, a model of the church has a coin slot that the birthday girl/boy inserts monies into as a display of gratitude to God for the blessings of life. Musicians are usually not keen on this and many Ministers like me worry it can distract the overall theme of the Sunday morning service.

In larger and more urban churches singing Happy Birthday is seldom practiced. The concern is the length of time it would take to ask the church (for reasons I can never discern it takes a long time to get people to speak up and share their birthday news) members to tell us of their birthdays. However, on birthdays with 0’s at the end, usually 60 or 80 or 90, there are exceptions made and the familiar song is sung. But it raises the question why birthdays have become the moment when we single persons out for praise and attention. What about the other 364 days of the year? Sure there are moments when the person performs a task well, is honoured for her/his actions or happens to look particularly fetching that day, but we all know these moments are few and far between.

I once worked in a church where the tradition was for all staff to buy each other Christmas presents. My approach to team building within staff ranks is to use every authentic opportunity that arises to celebrate someone I work with, for something s/he has done. I also like to take staff out for lunch, buy them coffee, occasionally purchase clothing items from a used clothing store. There is no occasion attached, it just seems fitting and right to do. But in that particular church the other staff did not do this, just me. So when Christmas came I did not buy any of them gifts and they all bought me something lovely and added a thoughtful card. One year a staff member saw me in the New Year and berated me for not buying him anything. I sat there and wondered why this single occasion was so important for affirmation but the other 364 days were not. I am still puzzled by this.

My relationship with my daughter and my wife are such that I think of them all the time and wherever possible I purchase things they love and tell them what wonderful things they have done. I confess I am not one to end every conversation with “I love you” but I feel I demonstrate that love every day in some authentic and fitting way, the items I offer them are what they love, not what I would want to receive. Surely in the world of church, in God’s house, we can all resolve to do a better job at that kind of affirmation. It is not necessary to sing Happy Birthday to let the other know we care.

Canada 150

Today is the 150th anniversary pf Confederation. It is cause for some celebration, some reflection, and some penance. I was pleased that our Prime Minister went to the teepees on the grounds of Parliament to address and support the demonstration of First Nations peoples. We Canadians need to be aware and repent for what our forebears did and how the land was taken from those who cared for and identified with it. This “taking” had other manifestations than just the passing of the land from one set of hands to another. We also moved First Nations people away from their culture, their education, their spirituality, we need to be aware and repent of how we attempted to totally destroy a people and a way of life.

But with repentance on our lips and in our hearts I think we can at the same time celebrate what Canada has done. Our remarkable ability as a nation to hold two linguistic groups together in a federation, to absorb many cultures from around the world in a way that is not only tolerant but more importantly promoting these various cultures within one country. It is a model for a world that now seems divided by nationalism and ethnic strife. While in the United States it appears culture is tolerated in aid of a larger vision of personal freedom in Canada we celebrate culture and place as our vision something our early constitution called “Peace, Order and Good Government.”

If back in the 1800’s Canada was more defined as a place of peace and order and good and the United States as the place of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” these distinctions have largely vanished. While we can still celebrate the Canadian dream of multiculturalism within a framework of peace and order there is no doubt our relationship with our powerful neighbour to the south has had its consequences. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms has had a powerful effect, both practically and philosophically, on our body politic and made Canada far more individualistic and freedom-focused than in previous generations.

One writer who saw this most clearly was George Grant, who write the now famous slim book Lament for a Nation. That book pointed to the underpinnings of this shift, where the “other” was no longer seen as a subject to be understood, with its own inherent goodness and value but instead to be seen as an object, to be manipulated and brought into a larger system of technique and efficiency. Other philosophers like Jacques Ellul would write about the power of technique and its effect on the mindset of a people, that religion and political philosophy and culture would surrender to this penetrating new way of being. Capitalism and Communism, each in their own way, would gather steam from this new way of objectifying humanity and offer a worldview that systemized our behaviour and made any other form of looking at humanity strange and archaic.

George Grant predicted that Canada was slowly disappearing and would be absorbed 100% into the American Empire. In many ways Grant was right, Canada no longer is a place of Peace, Order and Good Government and now more passionately identifying with Freedom, with Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. BUT I would argue that lasting residue of our Canadian experiment remains with us, that is that freedom and happiness need not be private pursuits, that the collective spirit of a country has value and thus government can, and should, make decisions that are not only in aid of private and individual freedom but the freedom of a people, of a culture, of a way of being. Ironically it is that difference that provides really the only hope we have of addressing climate change and the terrible treatment of our First Nations peoples.

Today I celebrate being a Canadian and the freedoms I enjoy as a person and as part of a collective effort to pursue justice for all peoples.