When asked about how I choose the passages that I preach on, I often say that I gave up on the Lectionary years ago.
The lectionary is a three year cycle of Bible passages for reading during Sunday worship. Preachers who use the lectionary generally confine their preaching to one or more of the passages listed for the day.
There are a number of reasons why I gave up. I grew tired of the it. After the first couple of times through the cycle, I certainly found it repetitive. I also have a rather perverse liking for Bible passages that are obscure and often forgotten and would not want to be denied the opportunity to preach on them just because they weren't in the lectionary.
But, in many ways, my biggest beef was Advent. The season of Advent is the season immediately before Christmas – starting 4 Sundays before the big day. My problem with Advent is that the themes of the season in Christian tradition and in the lectionary are all about the end of the world. All of the readings have to do with the second coming of Christ and apocalyptic visions of the end times.
Now, I don’t have any problems with preaching about such things. They are very important Christian themes and I believe that they still have much to teach us in these modern and often troubling times. I am just not sure that the month of December is the best time to talk about these things. During that season, our society is often in an orgy of overconsumption and spending and cultural clashes often come to the fore. I believe that these issues need to be addressed in the church. I don’t want to miss them because I’m busy talking about the end of the world. So, for several years now, I have not really preached advent and have used the time of the year to talk about other pressing issues.
But I’m wondering if this is the year to finally preach advent during advent. Why? Well because this year the end of the world might just be on everyone’s mind because it has apparently been scheduled yet again. As you’ve probably heard, the Mayan Calendar runs out this year on the winter solstice – December 21. Some have interpreted this to mean that the Mayans predicted the end of the world at that time and have gone on to make connections to other “signs of the times.”
Surely this will be all over the media and thus on everyone’s minds this December. Well Christians can talk about the end of the world as well as any Mayans so surely this is as good a time as any to present our perspective. So, yes, I am tempted to actually preach Advent this year. Whether I use the lectionary passages to do so, I have not decided, but it is definitely time to dust of these important themes in our tradition.
Yesterday I was filling out an application for the Pastors of Excellence program (I’ll no doubt write more about that program in the future if I am accepted). The application was surprisingly probing.
One of the questions gave me some pause. It asked, “What is your greatest frustration in ministry?”
My immediate response was to say that nothing frustrated me more than when people get upset at something that has gone wrong or that hasn’t gone their way in the life of the church and, in response, they withhold something – perhaps their money or their time and talent or, in the worst cases, their entire presence.
I do hate that and find it very frustrating. And even if the thing that they are reacting to has nothing to do with me and is nothing that I could have (or should have) made to go differently, I always feel as if it is my fault. I feel personally attacked.
So that is the response that I wrote down. But when I went back and looked at it, I knew that I hadn’t really told the whole story. Though I hate that kind of circumstance, I realized what really frustrated me wasn’t quite that.
You see, I find that I may hate the circumstance but I do not hate the people who react that way. The real frustration is that I can sympathize with them, even while I do not approve of the ways that they respond. The reality is that things do go wrong in the church – sometimes very seriously wrong. People are unkind or unfeeling towards others. Disagreements are not dealt with constructively. Often (not always, of course) when people are upset they have good reason to be. I don’t like the way that they react but I am frustrated to find that I can sympathize with them. Perhaps it would be so much easier if I could just hate them, but I find that I can’t.
I have decided to preach a sermon (in a couple of months) on the issue of when people withdraw from their support of the church because they have been aggrieved. I don’t know what to say about it yet, but I am seeking some Biblical inspiration. The best story I can come up with so far is Jesus’ parable of the tenants who refused pay their rent, but that one hardly ends well – with everyone dead. (Though, I guess, that is where the church might end up if we don’t tackle this problem.)
Where else might I look?
Up until the spring of this year, St. Andrew’s Hespeler had a position called the Creative Ministries Coordinator – a part time position that was very ability filled by Adriana Vermaas for many years. In the spring she resigned and is moving on to other challenges (while continuing to participate in the life of the congregation).
What do you do when a position like that is suddenly vacant in the life of a congregation? Generally speaking Christian congregations are not overstaffed. Though there are always concerns about how much the payroll costs, of course, the problem is almost never that there are too many people on staff but rather that there are not enough to do everything that needs to be done.
So there is a temptation, as soon as a position like this is vacated, to go ahead and fill it right away because there is a danger that, if we don’t, the congregation will just decide that they can get by without the position and the existing staff will only end up getting stretched thinner.
But immediately filling the position is not what we are going to do in this case. Instead, after considering things for a bit, the session has decided that we will take some time to evaluate things. We have created a list of all the responsibilities that have fallen on the Creative Ministries Coordinator in the past and created some proposals for how these these responsibilities can be covered by others – by committees or volunteers in some cases, by staff (hopefully without overburdening them) in others.
We will very carefully monitor how these responsibilities are being covered over the next six months. In every case we will be evaluating whether or not these responsibilites are being covered and by whom. We will also be keeping track of whether or not taking care of these responsibilites has led to other things in the congregation being neglected.
At the end of this period of evaluation – by next spring – it is our hope that we will have a better picture of where the gaps are in the work and ministry and work of our congregation. Then we will be in a better position to determine whether we need to increase our paid staff coverage, whether specific volunteers need to be recruited or other solutions need to be considered. We do not know where this evaluation will lead us and we want to be open to all posibilites.
I think that this next period of evaluation has its risks. If we are not honest with ourselves about how things are going, if we wrongfully overburden some individuals or if we fail to consider new possibilites, we could end up making some wrong decisions.
I would greatly appreciate everyone’s prayers during this period. I encourage everyone to pitch in and help but also to be very open to talking about how things are going. Above all, let us place our trust in God that, as we open ourselves to his leading, we will be able to find an excellent partnership between staff, committeess and volunteers that will continue to lead this congregation with excellence.
We must not be governed by fear of change or fear of large budgets. If we are faithful to follow God’s call, we know that our Father will provide what we need. We will be governed by faith.
Why I like the St. Andrew’s Stars
We’ve just completed the first season of the St. Andrew’sStars (You can catch all the episodes at www.youtube.com/standrewsstars) with awonderful Academy Awards Gala. I thought I would do a bit of personalreflection on the group and what I find good about it.
A successful Method
The St. Andrew’s Stars have been a great success. It hashelped to make the church experience much more meaningful for many of our kidsand it helps them feel that they are making a significant contribution to thelife of the entire congregation (because they are). They are being treated aspeople who have something important to add to our worship. After all, no oneelse could do what they have done for us.
Many have told us that they have found new meaning in theBible stories that they have helped to tell. And in many cases they certainlywill not forget these important narratives. I would like to explore here someof the elements that make this method so successful.
A “Sprinter” Event
Church consultant Kennon Callahan has written about a shiftthat has occurred in our generation. In former generations, a majority ofpeople had what he calls a marathon mentality. When they decided to activelywork to make a contribution, to support a cause or to minister to people theyapproached it with the mind of a runner of marathons. They were like thetortoise in Aesop’s fable who knew that “slow and steady wins the race.” Theyvalued things like long-term commitment, diligence and perseverance. These are,of course, the kinds of people that church has depended on down through theyears – the people who have filled our committees, sung weekly in our choirsand freely made membership commitments.
But Callahan notes that today people of this marathonmentality are increasingly rare. Instead we meet people with a sprintermentality. They are no less passionate about being involved and making adifference in the world. But they are much less likely to make any sort of long-termcommitment to do so. They want to work in short bursts – one day events, shortterm projects, seasonal involvement for example. When they are involved theyare like a sprinter who devotes every bit of energy that can be mustered intocreating speed. But then they can withdraw from action for long periods.
The church has long been good at providing opportunities formarathon minded people. But there is a great need in our times to offeropportunities for people enter into the life of the church as sprinters. Andthis is perhaps especially true for children and for their parents. Kids arejust so busy these days and their lives are so heavily scheduled that it isvery hard indeed to count on their consistent attendance for anything. Perhaps thisis one of the reasons why the St. Andrew’s Stars works. We take our actors andvolunteers as they are and when they are available. If all they can give us isan hour, we can still give them a chance to contribute to something meaningful.
And yet at the same time, the method has some built inincentives to help people to move towards a fuller participation in the life ofthe church. If the participants want to see the video that they helped make,they have to attend worship the morning that is presented. If they want theirfriends or family to see it, they must invite them. And if, immediately afterthat service another filming is taking place, it will leave them with anincentive to attend again.
Everyone craves recognition. And in the church (perhaps dueto a misunderstanding of the true nature of humility) we are often slow orparsimonious in giving praise to our people. But in St. Andrew’s Starspresentations credit is always something that is given first and that leaves anaftertaste. And you can be sure that people notice. Every time the kids seetheir names on the big screen they point and smile and you can tell that theyfeel important. Older kids might react more nonchalantly, but the recognitionthat they receive (and that is echoed within the congregation) does have animpact on the way that they see themselves.
A Biblically Centred Activity
We always begin with the Biblical text; nevertheless, we donot allow the Biblical text to constrain us. We are quite happy to reset thestory into a modern context, to introduce anachronisms (like the disciplesgetting their information from the internet or cell phones) or to tell the storyto fit with a very specific interpretation or application of it.
Also, because of our decision to take and use whoever comes,we are very free with our casting. We do not cast by age or gender or othersimilar considerations. Sometimes this means that a key character like Jesus ora king is played by a girl or a male character is rewritten (on the spot) as afemale or vice versa. In one sense, this is a necessary way of proceeding givenour method. (And, honestly, if we didn’t do this, the girls would so rarelyhave significant roles!) But in another way, it has helped to communicate animportant message – that, no matter who we are, we can all find ourselves in these important stories.
A very flexible method
When you create your own scripts, you also feel very free tochange your scripts. When I go into a filming, I often have a fairly clear ideaof what the final video might look like, but I am often surprised with thefinal outcome. Often this is because of the ideas of our actors. The directortells them to do something or say something and they do it but in a way that isquite different from what was expected. You ask them for a bit of sadness andthey weep uncontrollably. You ask them to pretend that they have just beenhealed from being lame; they jump up and run around yelling, “I can walk.”Their ideas are usually very good and you’re best to let them improvise whenyou can.
Builds on the strengths of a small church
Often, in order to reach its full potential, a ministry withchildren or youth requires a large pool of kids to draw from. You just need acertain critical mass to create the necessary interest or excitement. But theStars have benefitted from being able to draw from a smaller pool. This hasmeant that every actor who wants to has been able to have a starring role or asignificant supporting role, everyone has had a turn behind the camera andeveryone has a strong sense of making a significant contribution to the finalpresentation.
Not just an add-on
The St. Andrew’s Stars have been successful because thefinished videos are fully integrated into the worship service. They are notsomething extra that is added on as an afterthought – not as something thatmight be nice to watch but that had nothing to do with anything else that issaid or done in worship. Most often it is the Stars’ presentation thatintroduces the themes and ideas that are picked up and run with through therest of that service. This is made especially clear when images from the videosare used to illustrate the sermon. These presentations allow us to look atthose themes and ideas in unique ways and from new angles. You can find thingsin biblical stories through drama that you simply cannot find by reading themor listening to sermons preached on them.
Sometimes things are added to services – anthems, solos,stories or readings – that are nice and enjoyable to listen to but that don’treally connect with the rest of the service. You might enjoy them, but youwould not really notice if they weren’t there. A Stars’ presentation wouldleave a definite hole if it weren’t there because it is integral to theplanning of the entire service.
Letting kids make a significant contribution
But above all St. Andrew’s Stars have been important becauseit allows our kids to make a contribution to worship that is truly meaningful.Sometimes, unfortunately, congregations can be somewhat patronizing with theirchildren. We love to chuckle at their amusing answers to questions in achildren’s story or to ooh and aah when they sing for us (even if they’re alittle off key). But we’re not really ready to let them teach us something newor change our opinions on something. In that sense we are not really ready tolisten to them and children and youth are quite able to sense that.
A St. Andrew’s Stars presentation allows our kids to speakdirectly to the congregation andto get a message across to themthat perhaps no one else can. They allow our children to play a key role in communicating the message of life. It creates the kindof opportunity that we need much more of inthe church.
Can I make a confession – I mean, there’s just the two of us here.
I love so much of what I do in my job but, if there is one particular part of the job that I have never really liked, it has got to be the “recruiting.” I just don’t enjoy going to people with hat in hand (at least that’s what it feels like) and saying to them “Please, would you take on this job or fill this position for us.”
I think that what I mostly dislike about it (apart from the inescapable fear of rejection) is that the underlying message of the conversation usually seems to be the similar to what I referred to in my recent blog post:
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” she said impatiently, and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
In other words, the conversation is all about needs and people taking turns and how somebody needs to do something. It really isn’t about what actually matters.
That is why I am so happy about my recent “recruitment” efforts. Last month at St. Andrews we gave an opportunity for the entire membership to tell us who they thought should be elders and deacons by writing names of other members on ballots. Once all of the nominations were tallied, the task fell to me to contact the nominees in the order of the number of times their names had appeared. I wasn’t really looking forward to the job.
But, I’ve got to say, the whole thing was a real pleasure. I decided right away that I was not calling people in order to ask them to be deacons or elders. I was actually just calling them to tell them how much they were loved and respected by the people in the congregation. I was calling to tell them that their peers – their sisters and brothers in Christ – had perceived that they had special gifts and abilities that God could do great things with.
I was not calling them ask them to do anything. I did ask them if they were willing and able to respond to the calling of the congregation and of God but did not feel that I needed to pressure them at all.
To my surprise the process of filling the positions that the session had asked for (4 elders and 6 deacons) took about a month. But this was not because many people turned me down but merely because they (wisely and responsibly) needed to take time to think and reflect and pray before answering and in many cases (mostly because there were people nominated in both categories) I needed to wait to hear back from people before I could call further down the list. Though I was sometimes impatient to be done, as I look back on it, it really was a joyful experience.
In some ways it feels like it is a shame to stop calling now. There still remains a large number of people in the congregation who have been named – who have been identified as having special gifts and who are respected by the congregation -- wouldn’t it be nice to tell them so?
But we do have to draw the line somewhere. So let me just celebrate the wonderful people that we have in this congregation – so many other them – and note that we are truly blessed.
I won't post the names of the new deacons and elders here. We'll announce them during worship once the session has added its approval.
Not being expert gardeners (but willing to learn) it is like an adventure each time we head outdoors. We don't know what those who have worked here before us have planted and we just get to sit back and watch it all explode in life around us. What a privilege.
Today -- on Victoria Day afternoon -- it was a wonderful surprise to look up and see that four beautiful iris flowers had just appeared. What a pleasure to be blown away by unexpected beauty!
St. Andrew’s Hespeler: Living in Christ, Sharing his Love.
St. Andrew’s Hespeler Presbyterian Church has what I think of as a motto or a slogan. It is emblazoned on a plaque at the main entrance of the church and often printed on such things as letterhead. It is, I know, a slogan that means a lot to some of the people at the church – a slogan that has encouraged us to stretch towards worthwhile goals like getting more involved in our community – reaching out to people and helping to meet needs.
So I hardly want to mess with a good thing. This slogan really has helped make us who we are.
But I do sometimes wonder if it is enough given the challenges being faced by the church in these days.
It is possible to read that slogan in a completely non-challenging way. It is kind of like being in favour of mom and apple pie. Of course these are good thing and we are in favour of them but are they really pushing us to be more and do more in the name Jesus?
The other night, as we were engaged in our Long Range Planning exercise, I was struck by a thought though. That motto can only seem safe and non-threatening when we leave it abstract – when we don’t think about what it means practically to live in Christ in this world, when don’t consider how we share his love are with whom.
So I’ve started to think that we need to dig deeper into that slogan and map out what it means. What if we were to expand it like this?
Living in Christ …alongside people who think differently from us.
… in the workplace, at school, in the mall.
… when we don’t have all the answers.
… when we’re sick or lost or grieving.
… when we’re surrounded by people who practice other religions?
Sharing his love … with those facing mental challenges.
… with those who scare us (for whatever reason).
… with people who have different taste in music or in worship styles.
… with those who are bringing change into our lives.
I’m just starting to think about this and these expansions are just off the top of my head. I’d love to know what people think about it – am I on the right track?
Lost Generation - YouTubeContinue reading »
You have to watch this one all the way through.
You have to watch this one all the way through.
In her most recent book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass tells about a conversation with a woman in her Episcopal (we’d call it Anglican) Congregation:
"Would you like to join the altar guild?" asked an older woman, a member of a church where I was a member. After all, you like to arrange flowers.
She was a nice person, diligent in her service to the church. Most every week, she showed up early on Sunday morning to set up the altar. She ironed the altar cloths, shined the silver chalices, and laid everything out. Sounded like holy housework to me.
Instead of saving yes or no, I responded, “Why?”
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” she said impatiently, and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down. I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:
You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out the altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar. Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.
I know how I would have responded: “Sign me up.”
I was struck by how much that interchange reminds be about how we do so much in the church. Whenever we talk about the things that we do in the life of the church we speak of them as duties – as things that need to be done. When we recruit new people to take on somebody’s old job, we talk about how it is somebody else’s turn. We rarely talk about why we do things beyond the simple assumption that they just need to be done. We don’t talk about the things that we do as spiritual practices and disciplines that bring meaning in and of themselves.
We really need to start asking the why question – why do I sing in the choir, why do I teach Sunday School, why am I an elder – with a willingness to go deeper into the meaning of it all. The answer that it just needs to be done is no longer good enough.
Tonight many leaders in the congregation will gather to look at our long-range plan – to renew our objectives and think about how they will work out practically. This reminds me that we cannot do any of that without a willingness to talk about the why questions – about what our purpose really is and how we can all get meaning out of what we do.