“Traces”

January 22

On the wall behind my desk there hangs a framed photo of my graduating class and the professors that equipped us to receive our Masters of Divinity way back in 1994.
The three-and-one-half years I spent at Knox College getting my degree are both fresh in my mind and a partially-remembered blur. They were good, if challenging years that left me with many fond memories of the folks I studied with and learned from.
Like a roughly formed statue, I entered the MDiv program barely equipped to answer my call to Ministry. When I finished my time there, the professors had shaped and refined me and prepared me and my fellow seminarians to serve God in the unique ways They had in store for us.
All of those folks, staff and student alike, shaped and formed me in some way. When I preach, visit a parishioner, take study leave or lead worship there are traces of their influence in the way I act, think and speak. Some things, like the need to study the folks I’m going to be talking to as much as I study the text I’ll be sharing with them, are permanently and indelibly marked on my soul. Some things, like various ways to educate folks, have informed how I work with small groups. A few things, like the limited training in counselling I received, serve as more of a “what not to do” after having done more learning in the art after graduating.
God created us perfectly according to their plan. Each of us has a purpose in life and the gifts to see that purpose through. But those gifts need to be understood, developed and refined over time. God created us with the ability to make up our own minds and even to defy Their plans for us should we decide to do so. God also created us to be in relationship with one another so that we can learn about them and through them learn about ourselves.
Every relationship we have, whether it’s as formal as that between a Seminarian and their Professor, or a customer and the person preparing their coffee, shapes and informs us. They help us use our gifts, or bless us with gifts we don’t have. They shape us in ways both obvious and unseen. And when we think about them, we see the traces of their influence in the way we speak, think and act.
Underlying those influences is God’s own image, the one in which we were created. Our love, kindness, mercy, grace and desire for justice are traces of God’s own nature. When we adhere to God’s plan for our lives, the traces of those that shaped us not only inform how we live, they point away from us and them as they reveal the One who Created us in Their image.

“Instantly Gratified”

January 15

A current advertisement starts off tensely: a young woman is trapped in a car. She’s in obvious distress, maybe in her last few moments of life, so her friend encourages her to hold on!
We’re hooked. We want to know what happens, when suddenly a phone rings to notify our dying hero’s friend that he has just won at poker. The camera pulls back to reveal it’s just a movie being filmed and the young woman is safe. Unfortunately, the phone call to her friend has spoiled the whole sequence.
Huzzah! Nobody is dying. Boo! The actor with the phone has ruined hours of work. But, Huzzah again, for him, because he’s won big! His online gambling, enabled and instantly gratified with a phone app, has paid off! Everyone on set rejoices with him, and the ruined shot and wasted time are instantly forgotten.
Yay Online Gambling? Sure. If you can have fun with it and stay within your limits, fine. It isn’t my thing from a faith perspective, but it’s not my place to judge. What really bugs me about the ad is the idea that it’s OK to be instantly gratified about a passion, hobby or anything that isn’t an emergency. So, Huzzah! for an app that allows you to indulge your passion no matter where you are or what you’re doing? Nope.
Making our hobbies or passions, whether it’s online gambling, the latest news about your favourite actor or the newest sewing hints, so important that it’s OK to interrupt other aspect of our lives in order to accommodate them is a problem. Sure, I have a hobby or two that interest me greatly, but there’s a time and place for them; I don’t need or want to be constantly on top of the latest development in model car kits or music writing.
I’m pretty sure that my parishioners feel the same way, too. Can you imagine a counselling session being interrupted by a notification about the latest model kit on the market? Can you imagine the person I’m visiting cheering along with me that my 1958 McGillicudy Flivver molded in resin is finally available?
Whether it’s work, chores or fun stuff, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “there’s a time for everything”. Our gifts, talents and time are all gifts from God to be enjoyed for our own satisfaction and fulfillment and for the good of others. The technology that allows us to keep up with the latest developments in our interests and the things that impact our lives is wonderful and empowering. At the same time, it can also be less than helpful when it intrudes into what we’re doing. It’s even more disruptive when others are involved, as it takes the focus off “us” and puts it on “me”.
Sure, instant gratification is nice. It’s great to be in the know about and keep up to date on things that interest us. It’s even more gratifying, however, to be fully engaged in what we’re doing and who we’re with.

“Stay As You Are”

January 8

Common wisdom has it that the new year is a good time for change. We’re told to make resolutions that will help us to become better people, accomplish goals left unaccomplished or to try something different and exciting.
I used to be one of those people who made such resolutions. I’m going to lose weight, climb a mountain and make a parachute jump. Most importantly, I often resolved to change into a better person.
This year, and for the past few years, I have resolved nothing. I have chosen instead, to accept me for who I am and to make the best of it. Sure, I could promise myself or you that starting on this or that date I will work on certain personal issues, finish a long-unfinished project and do something absolutely amazing, but I’m not going to. My only goal is to stay as I am.
Is this laziness? Am I uninspired? Do I no longer care enough to make an effort? No, no, and no. The way I have started to see things is that God made you and me exactly as They intended. We are exactly the unique image of our Creator that we are meant to be. The challenge is knowing what that means to us and living according to the possibilities that have been built into us.
That’s why so many folks are trying to change themselves, or encouraging others to change. That’s why we’re told to make new years resolutions, to go to seminars that will help us alter bad habits or behaviours or to turn ourselves into something new and wonderful.
Hogwash. God made us right the first time. I don’t need to change. You don’t need to change. What we can do is to try to understand ourselves better, to see what quirks within us cause us to fall short of our potential and to build up the gifts that reveal God’s image within us.
We all have our own issues. We might deal with stress in unhealthy ways. We might think too much of ourselves and too little of others. We might think too much of others and too little of ourselves. We might be afraid of getting too close to people or not recognize personal boundaries. Sometimes those things are part of who we are, of genetic traits, and sometimes they are behaviours adopted because of trauma or were modelled by others. These are things we can change or adapt to, but the core essence of who and what we are never truly changes.
Each of us is blessed with unique personal gifts that bless us and allow us to bless others. Each of us has limits as well, whether they are mental, physical or Spiritual. Above all, each of us is different and reflect God in a way that no other person has, can or ever will. That’s why I don’t want to, or need to, change, and why I believe that you don’t need to, either. All I want for myself, and for you, is to be as true to God’s intention for us as we can be. And if you’re already there, stay as you are.

“Oversight”

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

December 18th

There is “Oversight”, or supervision, or, more plainly, watching over somebody. An “Overseer” is the person whose sole job is to ensure that everyone in their sphere of influence is doing their job. And, yes, you can have overseers overseeing overseers who have oversight over other overseers.
On the other end of the observation scale, we have an “Oversight”, or missing something, that may or may not be obvious, but certainly should have been noticed. You know, like not putting the stamp on the letter before mailing it out, or forgetting to check if you have enough gas before taking a long drive, or failing to notice somebody not doing their job when you are overseeing them.
In our faith system, we sometimes understand God as the great overseer watching their creation to make sure that everyone is doing what they were created to do. What’s more, is that as our “overseer”, God isn’t just watching over us, but is actively involved in challenging us to do better when we blow it or supporting and encouraging us when we get it right.
For our part, it’s our oversights that get us into trouble. When we forget to keep in touch with God through prayer or study, or don’t notice the hungry or lonely people who could use our help, or don’t take care of ourselves physically, emotionally or Spiritually, God notices.
There’s a problem with this God overseeing us so as to minimize our oversights, and that problem lies in seeing God as a boss expecting us to do our jobs, or else.
First, we weren’t put on earth as slaves or workers or employees. Second, God doesn’t really need, or indeed want, us to do anything. Our Creator is wise and powerful enough to see that the universe runs smoothly and beautifully without our help, thank-you very much.
What God desires is a relationship with us. God wants to be loved by us unconditionally. God wants us to reflect their own love for us in everything we do, say and are. That’s why God came to us as one of us, starting their life on earth just as any other human being. God came as a baby to make it clear, once and for all, that they weren’t some mighty overseer making sure we did our jobs. God, through Jesus, came to us to reveal not only their own earthly image, but to remind us that we too are Spiritual beings.
Now, if feel that by some oversight I’ve forgotten that I’ve shared this message recently, that’s not the case. I’m consciously repeating myself because this message is too important not to share over and over again. What’s more, you’ll be hearing it from me again at some point. After wouldn’t it be sad if someone missed God’s Good News because of some oversight on my part?
Wouldn’t be sad if, by failing to share God’s Good News, someone might not know that God is not a cruel cosmic overseer, but our loving Creator who wants to be known and loved and enjoyed by their creation?

“Crazy”

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

December 11

A friend recently shared words to this effect: “Crazy isn’t seeing people who aren’t there; it’s not seeing the people who are.”
Let that sink in: we’re crazy when we can’t see the people who are right there in front of us.
Isn’t that thought itself crazy? How can anyone not see somebody right there with them, who is standing close enough to hug them, who is right in our face?
Well, the truth is that we humans are good at missing things, because we’re pretty good at seeing what we want to see. We might be with someone who needs our help, but our “too busy” blinders keep us from seeing their need. We might be with someone who wants to be our friend but we only see their faults rather than what they have to offer. We might even be with someone who is offering help us, but we don’t think we need help, thank-you very much.
What’s craziest of all, however, is that we can’t see God reaching out to us through the people right in front of us, close enough to lean on or to hug.
Our Creator God came to us as baby, Jesus, the Christ-child, a human just like us, to reveal to us our own Holiness. Jesus grew up, taught us how to live Holy lives, died and rose from the dead to save us from ourselves. And now that same Creator God who made you and me and revealed themselves to us in human form continues to let themselves be known through Christ-like people.
Yes, it’s true. As crazy as it may sound, we can actually see God in ordinary people who have extraordinary love. In fact God wants us to see them and to know them and to draw close to them through our neighbours, a kind stranger, a helpful clerk or that challenging person who forces us to look at them despite our personal discomfort. Sometimes we can’t see people because we’re afraid that they might show us something about ourselves. Sometimes we can’t see God in those people because we don’t believe enough in ourselves to accept that we might be worthy and loveable just as we are.
One final, crazy thought. Sometimes God reveals themselves to us through a loving, Christ-like person. And sometimes, God reveals themselves to someone right in front us of through we ourselves.
You read correctly. Sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, you and me are the ones God is using to reveal themselves to a friend, or a neighbour, or that challenging person who needs to know they are worthy and loveable.
Some folks think Christmas is a crazy time. It’s too busy. Too commercialized. Too flashy. Too good to be true. But the real craziness is how Christmas points us to the God who revealed themselves through a baby in a manger.
And, as crazy as it seems, we can still see God today in ordinary, Christ-like folks, just as they can see God in you and me.

“Make Believe”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

December 4

I don’t want to upset anybody, but I have to share with you that “Christmas” is a made-up holiday. Yes, Jesus was born, yes, He was God’s only child, yes, He was both human and divine, and yes, He started life as a baby, just like all humans do. But no, we don’t know exactly or roughly when He was born, and if we really read the Bible carefully, there is no order to celebrate His birthday. Christmas is a wonderful thing but only serves to point to something even more wonderful, which is Jesus’ lasting impact on humanity.
That being said, realizing that Christmas is a made up holiday might take the steam out of the Advent season that we human thingies made up in anticipation of celebrating Jesus’ birth. If there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that we make a big deal out of Jesus’ arrival as a baby, there is even less to point us in the direction of a four week time of preparation for that occasion.
But, here’s the thing: even though Christmas is the product of enthusiastic worship leaders from days long ago, and Advent even more so, the core messages which are the Bible stories describing Jesus’ entry into the world as a baby, are part of the bigger story that is to be celebrated not just once a year, but every moment of our lives.
That’s the first takeaway from the Bible’s birth narratives. The stories give us the background of our Saviour. Without them, Jesus wouldn’t be the same connecting element between God and humanity. Had Jesus simply appeared fully formed as a being who was both God and human, we wouldn’t be able to relate to Him in quite the same way. He would be a Supreme being imposed on us rather than as a living sign of how we are the divine children of God. So celebrating His birth is fun, and can have a great deal of meaning to us both as a church and as individuals.
The second takeaway from the stories of Jesus’ birth and our annual Christmas celebration is the importance of putting our faith “out there”. While Jesus is the reason for every season, holidays or, more correctly, Holy Days like Christmas make us put Jesus in the public eye more than we might normally be comfortable doing. With the emphasis on His birth during Advent and Christmas we have the chance to help folks feel how close God wants to be to all of us. Our challenge is to sort through the earthly trappings that distract folks from seeing the Divine reality of God reaching out through Jesus to each and every human being.
Christmas might be a made up Holy Day, but it points to the reality of a God who so loves us that He came to us directly through a Child who is both human and divine. Christmas and Advent invite us to speak to that reality boldly, with bright lights and special songs and a party atmosphere. Our challenge is to look beyond this obvious celebration of Jesus and to find ways to draw folks closer to Him and celebrate Him throughout the year.

“Direct Contact”

November 20

Frequent readers of my “Thoughts” expect a reflection based on a positive experience. Sometimes, however I ponder something not quite so pleasant, because my reality, like yours, is not a pie-in-the-sky perfect one, but one where joy and sorrow exist in uneasy tension. If I only ever shared happy stories, I wouldn’t be speaking my genuine heart and true thoughts.
So, the sad, painful truth is that my character was attacked, publicly, on two separate occasions a few weeks ago. In the first instance it was an opinion based on rumour and innuendo. Imagine forming an opinion about a movie based solely on incomplete bits of ads, reviews, and disconnected comments from people who hadn’t seen it, but had a thought on it anyway.
That’s what happened; I was accused of having done and said things that never happened as they were presented. My accuser had based their opinion on stories and vignettes from people indirectly involved with me. Yes, it was that convoluted, and their opinion was as far from the truth as could be.
The second instance was based on a deep theological divide with my accuser, who claimed that I am biased, unfair, dismissive and opposed to his position. Nothing could be further than the truth. Just as joy and sorrow exist in tension and we still manage to thrive, we can hold different opinions and still work amicably together within that tension. Of course, since this person hadn’t spoken to me directly, and based their opinion on their own biases, they accused me of something that was not at all true.
In both cases, a direct chat would have sufficed to clear the air. In the first instance, my accuser would have realized that they had been misinformed, and that the truth was nothing like what the various snippets and vignettes had suggested or implied. In the second instance, a quick conversation would have cleared the air quickly without either of us having to compromise our positions. All they had to do was understand that I am fully capable of living with the tension of others thinking differently from me.
My take on these unpleasant events is that we have a heavenly model for direct communication with the “other”. We have direct access to God through Jesus, who invites us to know and trust them as a friend and mentor. That direct contact allows us to share joys and sorrows without fear or hesitation. We have it through reading the Bible directly rather than trusting others to interpret it for us. We have it through prayer and meditation. We have it through Christlike people who love, support and challenge us.
There is no shortage of ways we can be directly in touch with God, and it’s vital that we take advantage of the connection for us to be our best selves. In the same way, if we are to understand and accept one another despite our differences, there is no better way than to reach out to the other in love, friendship and respect. In fact, only when we talk about how we have hurt one another that even negative experiences can have a positive outcome.

“Trophy Scars”


I have been donating blood for many years. It’s something I do willingly and joyfully, because it’s an easy way to help others and requires remarkably little effort from me.
As the nurse checked my veins looking for a suitable subject from which to draw blood, she commented “Lots of trophy scars” rather nonchalantly. “Trophy scars?” I asked. “What do you mean?” She explained that she could tell that there was scarring from the many times I had made a blood donation, something that surprised me quite a bit. Apparently, (and quite logically, if you think about it…) even veins can be scarred, and when you have the experience my nurse did, you can tell.
“Trophy Scars”. What a concept. Signs of damage obtained willingly for a good cause, is how I interpreted her comment. What she saw in my veins were the scars caused by having made almost 80 blood donations over the course of my life. Amazing!
Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s not out of pride that I think those “Trophy Scars” are amazing; it’s the simple fact that I’ve been so blessed as to be able to donate blood so many times, and will continue to do so for as long as I can. My temporary discomfort (and it’s very, very temporary…) and the visible-to-skilled-eyes signs of that discomfort are a small price to pay for the blessing that results from countless people donating their blood.
It’s quite humbling, actually, and I’m really quite happy that my “Trophy Scars” are only visible to the highly trained and perceptive eye. After all, no-one wants to stand out from the crowd for any reason, and having to explain where I got my “Trophy Scars” could all too easily turn to boasting, which is not at all what I want to do.
We all have our own “Trophy Scars”, visible or invisible signs of painful things we’ve done in order to achieve a positive result. They might be well blistered hands earned whilst wielding a hammer fixing a friend’s house. Maybe they’re scrapes and cuts rescuing an animal caught in a bush. Maybe it’s the wounds on a heart gained when sitting with a loved one who shares with us their deepest pain and sorrow.
While “Trophy Scars” are never a reason for us to boast about our accomplishments, they are a reason to point to our Creator God, who gave our bodies the ability to heal as well as giving us the ability to help and heal others. Each one represents a moment in our lives that we were able to share our God-given gifts to bless others. Each one represents a moment when we set our own comfort aside to comfort another. Each one represents a risk we took knowingly out of our Christ-like love for others. Most of all, all of our “Trophy Scars” remind us that we have done something good and have the resources to do it all again.

Appreciation

November 6

Ministers of religion, like myself, have a fairly broad job description that ranges from leader to servant and everything in-between. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, a minister is believed to have been uniquely called by God to “preach, teach, rightly discern doctrine, conduct the sacraments, and offer pastoral care and discipline.” That’s the gist of the official party line, but unofficially, the list of duties includes leading a congregation, pitching in with clean-up and maintenance, running teams, being a part of one or more teams, promoting the congregation, acting as a shepherd, serving as a referee, being the public “face” of their congregation and the Presbyterian Church in Canada and generally living and modelling Christ-like love in everything they do, say and are.
It’s a pretty big and often vague job description that can be understood and expressed in many different ways.
For me, one of the biggest jobs I have is showing appreciation to the many people who make my congregation, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Coldwater, work and thrive, both within the church and in the community it serves.
It think it’s an important part of my calling because a church is very much made up of its people. Nothing happens without everyone pitching in; without my congregation I couldn’t do my job. Without its congregation, St. Andrew’s would just be a unique building. So, not only is it my job to help those folks be their best, most Christ-like selves, it is also to offer them constant appreciation for what they do, because they deserve it.
It’s that simple. The folks at St. Andrew’s work hard to see that the place functions as church and serves its community, and that effort is indeed praiseworthy.
In fact, as the public face of St. Andrew’s, I get personally thanked for things like the Caring Closet and free seasonal dinners they serve. People in Coldwater appreciate the way St. Andrew’s contributes to the well-being of its residents, and they are not shy in showing their support to me. Just today a nice woman told me how much she appreciates what we do in the community and thanked me for those good works. I thanked her in return and naturally turned the appreciation away from me and directly to the folks at St. Andrew’s.
That’s my job, and it’s one I do happily, because the appreciation St. Andrew’s receives is for the way it touches people’s hearts through good works. Things like the Caring Closet, our support of the Kid’s Breakfast program and our affirmative stance are Christ’s love brought to life.
I appreciate hearing folks praise St. Andrew’s for those good works. It tells me we’re doing something right in our community and reminds me how much I appreciate everyone in the church and the way that they so ably show Jesus’ love in action.

“Serving Customers”

October 30

I dropped my wife, Lois, off at the venue where she would be playing and where I would be in the audience, listening. She had to be there early in order to prepare, so I had some time to fill. Since it was around dinner time, I went in search of a snack to tide me over until we could eat together after the concert.
Downtown Orillia, after 6pm on a Saturday, has many good restaurants, but very few snacky venues. I eventually found a place that sold fries but didn’t offer coffee. What they did offer, was a suggestion: the owner told me that the bakery across the street had coffee, so I could get my fix there, and then bring it back to his place where I could enjoy my fries with my cuppa Java.
Frankly, I was surprised at his suggestion, since it’s not often that you get advice to go to another food place and then bring your purchase back to the original one. After all, even though one was an Ice Cream shop and the other a Bakery, they were both food places, and competition can be fierce in the restaurant business, or any business for that matter.
Competition can be fierce, but not always. When a business is more about serving customers than profit, sharing isn’t out of the question. Since the place where I got my fries didn’t offer coffee but they knew the bakery did, the owner did me a favour by bridging the gap and helping me to get what I really wanted.
Even big stores will suggest a competitor when they don’t carry what a customer is looking for, or an item is out of stock and they can’t wait weeks for it to be back in inventory.
Customer service doesn’t worry about competition: it worries about the needs of the customer and does what it takes to see them met.
Jesus was a master of Customer Service. He did whatever it took to see that the people He served got what they needed. He didn’t care where they came from, their status or wealth, or whether or not they believed what He did. Jesus ate with sinners, helped the weak and the poor, and even served Samaritans who didn’t follow the Israelite ways.
We humans do silly, selfish things. It makes us judge others as to whether or not they are worthy of our time and effort. We compete with our neighbours for the attention of others. We withhold our services because we’re not in the mood. We withhold our services because we weren’t their first choice for help.
Guess what: if we sought Jesus’ help, even with all those excuses we have for not helping others, He wouldn’t turn us away. That’s what serving others looks like. That’s what Jesus invites us to do, because it’s not about what we get out of it, but what we give in the name of love.
And if you can’t meet someone’s needs fully? Well, it’s OK to offer them some fries and send them to another person for a coffee. That’s what serving others is all about.