“Church”

November 22

“Listen up, “Church!” Hey, Church.” Amen, Church! “I want to share this with you, Church” “Welcome, Church.” “Are you with me, Church?” I’m not sure if you’ve heard a Pastor or religious type person call folks “Church”, but I have, and it drives me crazy. Here’s the thing: no matter how you slice it, a church is a building or an institution. It is a place where people gather, either physically to worship, or spiritually as a (mostly) cohesive unit. It is not, however, a useful way to refer to a group of people when speaking to them.
When I write, or preach, or hang out with a group of people, even if it is in a churchy building, they are friends, co-worshipers, siblings in Christ, fellow children of God or any other personal identifier. They certainly make up the church, either as a congregation or in the broader sense of the institution, but to call them church is to lessen their humanity and deny me a personal connection, or at least the sense of being connected.
Imagine calling students “school” or prisoners “jail”. What would it feel like if store clerks refefred to you as “store” or even worse, “cash”? Yes, people are the church. I get that, but even when we sing “we are the church” we sing “the church is a people”. Ok, the grammar is terrible, but the message is clear: people make up the church but they are not “church”.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. But my pickiness comes from the belief that Jesus isn’t about “church”. He laid the foundations for His church on Peter, but Peter was not the church. In fact, that was the only reference Jesus ever made to “the church”. He wasn’t creating an institutionalized organization; He was building a relationship building model that, if truth be told, doesn’t actually need a “church”.
Friends, I don’t want to belabour the point too much. I simply want to let you know that you are important to me for who and what you are; as such, I will never, ever call you “church” (unless that happens to be your name…). You are not a pile of bricks or a set of rules and regulations. Each of you is a weird and wonderful fellow child of God. You are fellow travellers on the amazing journey we call life. You are followers of Jesus. Heck, you are the living presence of Christ Himself, frail and failing human thingies embodying our Heavenly Creator with your own unique style so why would I ever refer to you in any other way?

“Inspiration”

November 15

A Facebook friend of mine (and fellow Pastor), Maren Tirabassi, is a blessed writer. She has a gift for timely prayers that speak to current events or things she has observed in her own life. One particularly inspired prayer arose from a Squirrel dining on (and in one photo she shared, in) a post-Halloween Pumpkin. Her inspiration came from the cuteness of the image and the simple act of a creature enjoying the free meal offered in a discarded pumpkin.
My friend’s inspiration, however, is not found simply in things happening on the world stage or on her front porch. She is literally “Inspired” as well, as her reflections and prayers are led by God’s own breath of wisdom. That’s what “inspired” means; it means that the Holy Spirit is driving Maren’s actions, empowering her to give earthly life and breath into God’s work within her.
For me, as a writer, Maren’s inspired creations are a source of awe and wonder. She speaks to the heart of things in an honest way that goes straight to the heart. The way she picks up on Scriptural images and plays with them gives a depth of meaning and beauty that transcends simple understanding. Most incredible is the simplicity with which she offers her deepest thoughts and feelings; her prayers are easy to read and understand yet beautifully complex in the way she blends common phrases, Bible verses and her prayers.
Again, as a writer, I can recognize, however imperfectly, where Maren gets her inspiration. It is from real life, from the headlines, from the people and situations that influence and impact her. While I can’t claim to share any of her talent, we do have the source of inspiration in common. What I write about comes out of the people and situations that fill my life.
I share this common source of inspiration because I would like to invite you into my process of writing and preaching. Fantasy writers like Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) or Frank Herbert (Dune) seem to find inspiration out of thin air, creating fantastic characters, plot-lines and worlds that are, quite often, out of this world. Maren and I, on the other hand, find our inspiration here on earth, so what we write about reflects the real world in which we live and move.
Maren’s friendship and writing are part of my life, an inspiration to do a better job praying and preaching. That’s why I’m sharing these thoughts with you: you are all part of my inspiration. You help shape not only how I pray or preach, but what I pray or preach about as well. God blessed me with the ability to write, but it is you who bless me with content. God inspires me to serve others. You, in turn inspire me to serve God in a constant circle of inspiration that, I pray, allows me to share my gifts as best I can.

“Job”

November 8th

What happens when you kick a good man not just once, but twice? What happens when you do something bad to a good person who has never known anything bad in their lives? What happens when a good person who is so faithful he even offers sacrifices and prayers to God on behalf of his children, just in case they have been naughty in some way?
This is the question posed in the book of Job, named after a good, faithful man who seems to have everything going for him. When God points Job out to Satan as the perfect example of an excellent human being, Satan responds with a question: would Job be just as faithful if something bad happened to him? God takes up the challenge on Job’s behalf. Without knowing why things go south for him, Job stays faithful to God. God is vindicated, Satan defeated.
It’s a strange, difficult story to read and comprehend. Satan is not necessarily an evil being, but an instigator, an adversary to humans. Satan simply points out to God that Job is a good person because of his many blessings, and that in the face of adversity Job might well turn against God. Rather than simply make the case that Job is exactly who he is because God made him that way, God allows Job to suffer in order to prove his true nature.
This permission to make Job a victim is a troubling issue when trying to understand God. Why did God let Job become a victim simply so that Job’s true character be revealed and Satan’s doubt be overcome? There is no easy answer to be found in the book of Job. That’s not what it’s about; the story is all about Job’s constant fidelity in the face of outrageous fortune. We need the whole Bible in order to understand God’s true, loving nature; one book, especially “Job” isn’t enough to get the whole story across.
So what is the “takeaway” from this troubling book? For me, it’s Jobs great strength and fidelity to God. He is self-aware enough that he did nothing to deserve either his good or bad luck. Job knows in his heart that, despite the bad things that happened to him, God is good and worth trusting. The same heart that drove Job to offer sacrifices and prayers for his children “just in case” drives him to stay faithful to God, even if he is personally frustrated and just about ready to die rather than suffer any more.
The book of Job is a troublesome text, but it does reveal that even in our biggest troubles, we can struggle through. Job made a conscious decision not to give up when he was knocked down. Despite the challenge to his faith, he remained faithful. He lost everything except for his trust in God. In the end, God rewarded Job for being so faithful, but Job didn’t know what would happen to him before that. Job simply believed in the face of adversity, and that strength of character, for me, is my greatest takeaway from the book of Job.
We have two choices when we’re troubled: give up, or do our best. You’ll notice that in the case of the troublesome book of Job, I chose not to give up on it. I did my best by following Job’s example of strength and fidelity.

“Named”

November 1st

A Facebook post featured a newspaper clipping from way back when. Printed in 1960 it provides a fascinating look into what was happening, a window to a past that isn’t all that it cracked up to be. Sure, in some ways it offers nothing new. The tribute to a citizen who had died is touching, but it’s something that, sadly, will always be newsworthy. Also consistently newsworthy are the updates on local affairs. Knowing what’s happening in the clubs and organizations in our community will always be important.
As interesting as this newspaper clipping was in terms of providing a window in to past current affairs, what was really fascinating was the unspoken message in the caption provided for the single image that appeared on that day.
It was a picture of the local Legion Ladies being honoured for their years of service. Great! Local history revealing the faces behind the story and bringing it to life. The caption helpfully identified the women and that’s where I found a sudden, huge disconnect between yesterday and today.
That disconnect was in the way the local Legion Ladies were identified. Or, more honestly, unidentified. The naming was not of the women, but of the husbands. The caption did not read “Mrs. Jane Doe” but “Mrs. John Doe”. I suppose it was the cultural norm of the day, but even having grown up way back when, I was shocked. Maybe it’s my more modern perspective, but it was as if those women were all but erased. They were not people without their husband’s names being attached to them. Marriage, it seems was all about the man in the relationship. The female simply didn’t matter.
While in many ways women are still second-class citizens in our society, they are at least themselves, in print or in person. We would no more think of calling a woman by her husband’s name than we would calling a man by his wife’s name. Women are named for who they are and in that naming are given both their full identity and power.
That newspaper clipping was enlightening. It speaks to why things must change, to the progress made so far, and the long road still ahead for women to be fully appreciated, honoured and empowered to their full potential. What’s especially curious to me is how, in a time when the Bible featured much more prominently in society, that text didn’t devalue women in quite the same way. While not necessarily a paradigm of women’s rights, when it came to naming women, it got things right. It was Sarah, not Mrs. Abraham. It was Mary, not Mrs. Joseph. It was Priscilla, not the wife of a prominent early Christian. When it came to naming women, the Bible got it right most of the time.
We must get it right. God did not create women as second class citizens. They are a specific expression of God’s image, each with their own name, gifts and purpose. They do not find their identity in anyone but God, and even then, their identity is not subservient or secondary. Women are fully children of God, blessed creations who need no man to be fully known and appreciated.

“Ugliness”

October 25th
“Ugliness”
When I was a boy, skulls were a sign of terror or horror. The Skull and Crossbones flag pointed to pirates that were thieves and villains, not the affable, well-intentioned Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame. Seeing a skull on TV or a movie meant that there was death and fear in the air. Comically shaped, animated skulls in cartoons were kind of funny but still scary. And a skull tattoo generally marked someone who went against the grain of society, and not in good way. Seeing a skull when I was growing up was not intended to be a pleasant or inviting thing. It was something terrible and ugly.
Things have changed greatly since those days. Pirates are fun loving heroes rather than violent villains. Skulls in movies are just as likely to be a sign of the cool, quirky gal next door as they are an indicator that something foul is afoot. Skull tattoos are in, as is art that features skulls. Some organizations still mark themselves with skulls in order to remind others that they are truly a scary bunch, but others simply use them as just another decorative bit of art.
I have to admit that I’ve never been comfortable with skulls. I am very much a product of the times in which I grew up. So seeing the transformation from object of fear to just another kind of decoration has been uncomfortable for me. I don’t get the appeal and probably never will. That’s my personal reality.
I do understand that it’s all a matter of interpretation and what society deems appropriate. The Swastika was originally a Hindu religious symbol of divinity. When it was adopted by the Nazi party, it became a symbol of terror and tyranny in Western society. Its adoption by the Nazis forever tarnished its holy and beautiful origins. So too with the skull. Once a symbol of fear and ugliness, it’s now simply another image suitable for framing in the loveliest home.
When I was a boy, I was taught that a person’s appearance didn’t matter. What mattered was their character. It is an eternal, universal truth that speaks both to how a person looks and to their personal tastes. I’m not a big fan of skulls as a form of art, but I have friends who like them, and they are truly, genuinely wonderful people. Despite our different likes in terms of the decorative arts, we like and care for each other. Character counts more than image in any healthy relationship. I may never understand why they find something beautiful that I think is ugly. They may never understand why I think something they think is beautiful is ugly to me. The wonderful thing about friendship is how it lets us see past any possible ugliness straight through to the beauty within each of us.

“Essential Essence”

October 18th

A project I am undertaking has had some real ups and downs. Made up of a number of subassemblies, it’s been hit and miss as to which components have succeeded and which have failed. The successes have been a source of joy. One spectacular failure was the source of a Children’s Story I shared with my congregation. What’s important about the failure isn’t the mess I created; rather, the important thing is that I just started over, reusing parts that were salvageable and recycling those that were not. It was a good metaphor for how God never gives up on us even when we mess up, hence great material for a children’s story, complete with the failed subassembly as a visual aid. 
After sharing the story of my failure, one gentleman came up to me following worship and remarked how my reusing the good bits of my disastrous project was like the Biblical image of clay in God’s hands. He was absolutely correct; when we mess up, God refashions us as a potter refashions a failed pot of clay. I was thankful for my friend’s insight and understanding, especially as he is a fellow creator who knows the joy of success and the frustration of failure.
As I pondered our conversation I thought more and more about the clay. It is a powerful image. God takes us when we mess up, mushes us up into an unformed ball of clay and then reshapes us into something better. Notice, however, that the clay itself remains unchanged. While its form undergoes a transformation, its essential essence does not. It retains the same texture, keeps its colour and holds onto its density and flexibility.
Clay, of course, is clay. The potter alone determines its final shape and function. There may be various types of clay suiting different needs and requirements but for the most part, one lump of clay is much like another. Humans, however, are unique creations. Each of us is a very different lump of clay, differing vastly from one another. As we grow and mature we develop our individual God-given gifts and talents as we realize God’s purpose for us.
When we mess up or follow the wrong path, God doesn’t change our essential essence. Our unique abilities and interests remain; God helps us to refine and grow them to their highest possible level. Should we really mess up and miss out on our true calling and gifts, God redirects us onto our right path. Again, our essential essence is not changed; God just makes sure that we know ourselves more fully and truly so that we can be all that God means us to be.
Each of us is uniquely and wonderfully blessed by our Creator. Our individual gifts and talents reflect a particular aspect of God’s heavenly image. They are our essential essence, the means by which we express God’s love and contribute to serving our fellow humans, and indeed all creation, in our own way. Sometimes we mess up or miss out. When we do, God reshapes us and sets us back on the right path but the essence of who we are and what we are called to do does not change. God simply ensures that we use our blessings in a way that will be a blessing to our fellow blessed and beloved children of God.

“Enemies”

October 11th

A certain world leader who is disliked by many people recently was stricken with the COVID-19 virus. Other world leaders quickly offered their words of sympathy and of support. Despite the fact that many of these Presidents, Prime-minsters and Monarchs may not be this person’s friend or even had extremely warm national relationships, they were willing to offer their stricken colleague encouraging words and basic human kindness.
Those sentiments were not universal. Because this particular world leader is know for not always being entirely truthful, many people claim that he is lying about being sick. A good number of folks went even further, claiming that he feigned being sick in order to gain sympathy votes or for other political gain.
Some of his enemies even when so far as to wish him a slow painful recovery, while still others prayed for no recovery whatsoever, and that he simply die as a result of the Corona virus.
I’m not a big fan of this person. I find him petty, childish, hateful and generally rude and unkind to anyone that cannot advance his political agenda. At the same time, I believe that he is genuinely ill and that he is not pretending. I also hope that he recovers fully and that the process of recovery is quick  and as comfortable as possible. I might not like him, but I certainly don’t wish him any ill. While I hope that he does not remain in office much longer, and that he receives the due punishment he deserves for the harm and division he has caused, I hope that he survives. And, as I mentioned before, I believe that he is indeed ill and that this is not a ruse of any kind on his part.
I am distressed and disappointed in the people that I thought were friends I could trust claiming that his world leader is faking his disease. I am truly stricken to the core by their belief that it is simply a ruse designed to gain sympathy and possible political advantage. Christ taught us to love our enemies. I am very much saddened by the fact that these Christ-following people have so readily forgotten that teaching.
I know that many people would call me foolish or naive for believing a man with a proven reputation for lying. I may well be completely wrong, but as a follower of Jesus I would rather err on the side of love and have sympathy and compassion for this person rather than assume he is lying. I simply can’t accept that even he would stoop so low and even if he has, then I must take even more pity on him. For someone to lie about being sick points to an illness far deeper than the Corona virus. Whatever the truth may be, I prefer to believe that this person is genuinely physically ill, and will pray for his recovery and that he returns to full health and wholeness very soon.
As Jesus said, what good is it if you only love your friends?

“Struggling”

October 4th

I’m struggling with what to say today. I have prayed and pondered, read some inspirational material and done my daily Bible study. I’ve distracted myself so that I could shake the cobwebs out, then hunkered down hoping to have the right words to share. I’ve even gone so far as to write down a brilliant title that expressed a good idea, but the idea doesn’t seem quite right for today.
Nothing seems to be coming easily. Nothing seems to be coming with great struggle. So rather than a neatly and tidily prepared set of “Thoughts” I offer today the reality of the in-between. The process rather than the finished product. The struggle rather than the victory.
As I write, two images come to mind: Jesus leaving the crowds to pray by Himself, and Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, wrestling with God in prayer. Both those scenarios reveal Jesus working through His faith; He goes away to pray alone, separated from his disciples, just Him and God. We don’t know what He prayed on those occasions; only in the garden do we hear what happened, and it was not what we expected. There Jesus struggled with His fate. There we realize His full humanity, a condition that belied His Godly perfection and revealed how He too could suffer and doubt.
“Not my will, but yours.” He concludes.
And so I share my own struggling thoughts, uncertain what to say but saying something anyway, understanding that what I am doing is not my will, but God’s. I might not know quite what that will is today, but even in my doubt I trust that Jesus is worth following, and that somehow, God’s desire for me will be accomplished even when I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to think.
Perhaps out of all this rambling I can offer this one clear thought: sometimes it’s the struggle and not the victory that matters. In the struggle we reveal that we’re trying, that something is worth working or even fighting for, that in our weakness we still have power, and that in our doubt there remains the possibility of an answer. Or it’s maybe that the very fact we are willing to struggle means we have hope. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Jesus always came back from His prayers. Jesus left His Gethsemane struggle and went to Skull Hill. His struggle was not the final answer, but it was a vital part of making His choice to follow God’s will.
Don’t be afraid if there are no immediate answers. Don’t be afraid of the nagging questions or troubling doubts. They are not the final expression of God’s will; they are just part of the process, part of the reality of being human. If nothing else, our willingness to struggle marks that we still have hope. We might not know what God’s will is. We might be uncertain we can carry it through. We might not even like what God’s will seems to be for us, but if we aren’t willing to struggle with the choice, we will never get to the place where we can say with confidence: “Your will, not mine, God.”

“Imbalance”

September 27th

On a properly socially-distanced Pastoral visit I was invited to stand in the middle of my parishioner’s apartment. From that vantage point I was perfectly placed to see each of the four rooms that made up her home. It was moment of perfect balance, but in that moment of balance, I was nowhere. I could see into each room, but I was not in any of them.
Balance is a curious thing. It is something, yet it is nothing. Writing this on the Vernal equinox, the sun will be seen for just as long as it will be hidden. What is the true meaning of that temporary temporal balance? We may mark it as a curiosity, but in truth, the balance between day and night has little import.
Balance is a fragile thing. The slightest force can tip over a dancer delicately balanced on one toe. While she seems stable and secure in her footing, every muscle in her body is hard at work responding to, and working against, the slightest air current or other factor that might cause her to become unbalanced. Balance is a difficult thing to maintain.
We seek to remain neutral on a subject. Balanced. Level headed. We don’t want to cause waves or upset the delicate equilibrium between ourselves and someone who is different from us. Or maybe we’re comfortable where we are, even though we know that our comfort comes at the cost of being better than we can be. Only when we lose our balance can we move forward. A Ballerina standing statically might be beautiful for a moment, but it is when she moves with determined grace that the true beauty of her dance is revealed.
As people of faith we often seek to balance our religion with every other aspect of our lives. We want the best of what God has to offer along with the best that society offers. But when we try to balance our lives that way we forget or ignore the reality of the Christ who threw Himself into life fully as God’s Son. Jesus didn’t live with one foot in Heaven and the other on Earth; he immersed Himself in this life as the full expression of God’s love, wisdom and power. He did not balance His Spiritual and Physical nature; He drew them together and lived as His full Son-of-God self.
It’s hard for us humans to be the full Spiritual beings we are meant to be, but having been created in God’s image, it is something we are invited to strive for. We can’t simply balance our earthly lives with our Spiritual ones. We are called to shape and inform every aspect of our existence so that it reflects our own bit of God’s image. We are called to love and serve others as Christ did. We are called to care for creation and our neighbour as God does for us.
And if we tip over in the process, God’s forgiveness restores us and offers us another chance.
Balance is good. But it is in the imbalance, in the motion, that we truly live as we are meant to do.

“One Job”

September 20th

I recently donated blood. Canadian Blood Services makes an easy job of it. They are well organized and follow a regular schedule so that arranging for a donation and actually making it are as pain-free as possible.
Their organization is both impressive and vital as their donation centres change from day to day so that they can reach more people. The one I attend regularly is in Midland, about a 25 minute drive from where I live and it’s always held in the local sports complex.
The COVID-inspired need for social distancing and extra cleanliness has not hampered the Canadian Blood Services efforts. It has changed how they do things a bit, but the changes are nothing new in Ontario: mandatory masks, keeping apart two metres, a limited number of people in the space and all the other things that must be done. The only major change in the way CBS does things has been the addition of a dedicated cleaning person. Their one and only job is to clean the chairs and the surfaces we donors may have touched.
When I was there, the gentleman charged with the task was always busy. A steady flow of donors moving from station to station provided more than enough work for him, While we didn’t have a chance to talk to him, his efforts were much appreciated, both for what they accomplished, and for the quick and efficient way he did his job. He may not have been a part of the actual blood donation process, but he was still very much part of the team that made donating blood possible in these COVID-19 days.
It’s notable that the team actually collecting blood were multitasking; they would switch jobs, going from interviewing donors to taking their blood. In between donations they were responsible for cleaning each station, the one area the designated cleaner didn’t enter. In short, they did a few different jobs while the designated cleaner had only task to perform.
The blood donor clinics models life in that respect. There are some folks who do a multitude of different things in their course of life. There are others who only ever do just one. It might seem odd, or even unfair, but it’s reality, and there’s nothing wrong with it. God gave us different skill-sets and interests. None is superior to the other; each is a blessing we are invited to use to the best of our abilities. In turn, just as our gifts bless us, our use of them is a blessing to others, whether we are called to multitask or simply to do one job.
However God has blessed you, whatever unique gift or gifts you have been blessed with, is your way of blessing God and serving those around you. And our biggest job, the one that we all share, albeit in different ways, is to bless God by using our gifts joyfully and generously.