“Verification”

December 6

It could all have gone so badly.
Gabriel: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary: “What in the world? Who are you?”
Gabriel: “This is God’s Angel, Gabriel. Can you please answer a few questions so I can verify that you are the correct ‘Mary?’”
Mary: “I beg your pardon? Who are you? How do I know you are really God’s Angel, Gabriel? Nobody around here as ever seen an Angel before. You could be an impostor or a terrible salesman.”
Gabriel: “Well of course it’s God’s Angel; here’s my ID badge. Now, I really need that you please prove it’s really you…”
Mary: “That badge could be fake. I looks like it came from the Dollar Store.”
Gabriel: “Yes, well, what about my wings?”
Mary: “Very impressive, I’m sure, but I require at least two legitimate forms of identification that aren’t physical attributes or purchased from the Dollar Store.”
Gabriel: “Oh for heaven’s sake…”
In today’s world we are extra careful making sure that we know who we are talking to. We don’t want to be fooled; we don’t want to be scammed; we don’t want to victimized. While we are cautious and seek to verify that folks are who they claim to be, we often have to prove that it’s us as well. A lot of on-line interactions require a two-step verification process that involves both a password and a security number before getting to where you want to go or doing what you need to do. That’s the reality of our modern day existence. Without verification of our mutual identities, very little can happen.
When Mary was sought out by God through the Angel Gabriel, there were no identity checks. God knew to whom the Angel should speak, and Mary instantly recognized God’s messenger. She might have been nervous, but there appears to be no doubt that Gabriel was truly an Angel sent by God.
When God is really talking to you, you just know. You know you’ve been blessed by an Angel when an unexpected kindness comes your way. You know it’s God at work when a locked, sealed and barricaded door finally opens. You know it’s God speaking when you say just the right thing without thinking about it. You know it’s God reaching out when you feel genuinely loved by the person sitting next to you.
Occasionally, God speaks to us through Angels and their glorious presence requires no verification. More often than not, God speaks or reaches out to us through the people around us, family, friends, strangers serving as God’s palpable presence in our midst. In those blessed moments, no verification is need. When God reaches out to us, God makes sure that we know who it is.

“Playfulness”

November 29th

There are many words associated with a workplace: professional; personable; focussed; industrious; diligent; conscientious, and a great number of others. One word, however, would probably not make the list of most offices, shops, factories or restaurants: playful. Playful is for backyards, nursery schools, dog-parks and beaches. It is not usually associated with a place where meaningful work is done and goods must be prepared and served quickly and efficiently.
Em’s Cafe, in my hometown of Coldwater, breaks the mold. While the staff are indeed professional, personable, focussed, industrious, diligent, and conscientious, they are also the most playful people I have ever seen just about anywhere. Manager Kathy and employees Kim and Laura provide excellent service and delicious food and beverages. They take their jobs seriously and are clearly good at what they do, but it’s their interpersonal relationships that stand out.
Watching them work is a study in friendship and cooperation: one of the most frequently used phrases amongst themselves is: what can I do for you? They constantly have each other’s back and make sure that no-one is left lagging. They don’t walk behind the counter as much as they dance, moving around and past one another with efficiency and grace that would vie with the best ballerina. And they laugh and joke with one another in a way that fills the space with an infectious joy I’ve rarely seen in any other cafe, let alone any other workplace. In short, playfulness seems to be the order of the day creating a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that complements the quality of the food and coffees beautifully.
As a person of faith and a follower of Christ, to see people working together so well brings great joy to my heart. The sound of laughter accompanying the sounds of coffee brewing and soup pots bubbling is genuinely music to my ears. For me, the joy and playfulness of the three women behind the counter brings to mind a world where we humans genuinely enjoy one another. Their constant calls of “how can I help you?” or “what do you need?” speaks to me of a world where we look out for one another not as an obligation but out of a sense of true appreciation and love for our neighbour.
How would you describe your world? How would you describe the way you relate to others? If the word “playful” is one of the first words that comes to mind, you are truly blessed. If not, you might want to spend some time at a place like Em’s Cafe and see just how much a sense joy and playfulness can add to your life. There’s nothing like an excellent coffee served with a sense of care and joy that blends professionalism with a genuinely Christ-like appreciation of one’s neighbour.

“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.”