In 2017-2018 I found myself available to consider new ministry opportunities, and so when "a friend of a friend" invited me into a project in Kitchener, I joined in. St. Paul's Lutheran Church/Bridgeport was looking at alternatives to closing their doors. Together with the minister (at the time) and the church council we began imagining "outside the box" possibilities. The church wanted to find a way to maintain their almost 150 year presence in this community along the Grand River. Out of their core values of faith, service and fellowship we identified what that might look like in the present moment. Through some "dream sessions" and a call for partners, a partnership emerged with MennoHomes and Parents for Community Living.
St Paul's Lutheran/Bridgeport has merged their 2.5 acres of high-value/high visibility property into the project, with MennoHomes now taking the lead in developing the building and property. As you can imagine a partnership like this takes a substantial commitment of time, trust, relationship building, and mind-boggling budgeting exercises. The St Paul's congregation just recently moved out of their building which will be demolished in March as construction gets underway. A recent article in The Record (K/W paper) tells some of the story.
The link here takes you to MennoHomes site with some background on the need for affordable housing in the region and more info about the financial model required to bring it to pass, including substantial grant funding (millions $) from levels of government.
It seems that everybody is reflecting back on the past decade, over this past week or so. I thought I would throw in my own List of the 2010s from my reading lists (I've been keeping track of my annual readings since 2004). Most of these years I was reading around 30 books/year. A good number of these books have had their own blog post, because they were so outstanding. My criteria for getting on this list is -- do I still refer back to them, personally, (do they still influence my thought and practice?) and have I recommended these books to others?
This past year (2019) was literally the year I have read the least books in the last decade. Only 19. On the other hand I have read more academic articles and listened to more podcasts. Even with podcasts, it's about having time to listen. My go-tos for podcasts are CBC Ideas, Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History, The New Leaf Podcast and Stuff You Missed in History Class.
All that being said, here are my Top 10 reads of 2019 (in no particular order):
Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America (Carol Delaney)
The Kitchen House (Kathleen Grissom)
Evangelism After Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness (Bryan Stone)
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion (NT Wright)
Worship and Mission After Christendom (Alan & Eleanor Kreider)
It's a Long Story - My Life (Willie Nelson)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Arundhati Roy)
For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Daniel Block)
The Emotionally Healthy Church (Peter Scazzero)
The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community (Ron Wolfson)
Isaiah 54:1-10, Psalm 124, Matthew 24:23-35
In the Christian tradition, Advent is a season of great hope and possibility. God has come to dwell among human beings, setting in motion something new and mysterious – the kingdom of heaven emerging in our earthly dimension.
Today’s lectionary readings don’t start with hopefulness, they start with disturbing images. A desolate, barren woman. Anger, floods, being swallowed alive. False messiahs and false prophets, deception, unsettling.
These images remind us of the daily headlines we process. Except, and I am continually surprised, that a lot of people I engage with don’t seem to even pay attention to the times we are living in. Some for good reason, “it’s so disturbing, I’ve just stopped watching, I don’t need that!” And they literally have no clue what is going on beyond their own lived experience. Others are largely ignorant of the real issues but express themselves in extremely polarized utterances.
Our recent election in Canada is a case in point. My connections included people who had no clue what was going and just functioned on auto-pilot; as well as people who had no understanding of the real issues but expressed extremely volatile opinions (on all sides), and thankfully, a few people with whom I could carry on a thoughtful conversation. I often found myself wondering, how does the notion that we “should have no other gods before Yahweh” factor into our daily lives and, let’s say, our political decisions?
The Isaiah passage starts off as a loving invitation to a barren, desolate woman, to have courage and widen her tent because blessing is coming. “Don’t be afraid, you won’t be put to shame.” Feelings of empathy emerge for this downtrodden, struggling, rejected, marginalized woman. We want to defend her, hold her up, to advocate her case, to seek justice.
Until we read a bit further and come to realize that this “woman” is actually a personification of the nation of Israel. A woman, a people, who turned away from a loving, compassionate, slow-to-anger God/Husband, to seek after other, more tangible, more handsome, more convenient gods. We discover that the loving, compassionate Husband wants to restore the relationship despite the rejection, despite the sorry state this woman has fallen to, as the consequence of her choices. The Holy One of Israel, your Redeemer, the God of all the earth, Yahweh, says “my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace removed.”
Psalm 124 is a cry of thanksgiving following desperate circumstances. It could be the cry of the desperate, barren woman who now wants to return to her husband. Despite the consequences she has suffered for turning away, she realizes, “if not for him” I would not have escaped. Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth has broken the snare, for me.
Matthew 24 warns that false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive the faithful. And people will be deceived. Everything around the faithful will be shaken, but do not be disturbed. Look for signs of hope – like the fig tree. There is an inevitableness about these things. Many things we hold sacred will pass away. But Messiah’s time will come.
I think our recent election was a disturbing time for many people. My reminder, as we gathered to worship the Trinity on the day before the election, to the congregation I serve amongst, went something like this.
“Which God are we worshipping today? Which God will you worship throughout the week?
If we are worshipping the middle-class, growth-market god who deceives us with a few more dollars in our pockets and a secure job, then we may be turning away from the Loving Husband God. If we are crying in desperation to some human god to save us from the snares we have fallen into, then we may be turning away from Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.
But if today, we are reminding ourselves that the loving, compassionate God who sent himself amongst us to demonstrate that love, is the only one we can look too in our desperation, then there is a reason to be hopeful. Our actions today are treasonous, we are saying in the songs we sing, the Scriptures we read, and the prayers we pray, that Yahweh, Messiah, is Lord and not the leaders and pundits of this nation-state. When we bring our financial resources forward, giving them away as an act of worship, we are saying the market-force-gods do not control us.”
To me, those are “fig-tree” signs of the kingdom of God emerging on earth. Signs that Emmanuel has come.
Last fall I read a book referred to me by my friend Evan Garst. Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise by Richard Beck. I read a lot of books related to Christian theology and the practice of ministry. This one will stick with me for a while. One of the lines from the book:
Being like Jesus is a million boring little things -- things like waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, being patient with your kids, listening to your spouse, being a dependable friend.
The premise of the book is rooted in Matthew 25 where the disciples are told they are actually meeting Jesus in the beggar looking for a cup of cold water. God is the Stranger; we meet him when we welcome, extend hospitality to, those who are outside our natural circles of relationship.
Beck addresses the first thing that comes to many of our minds -- "I don't have time for more people." He says "People are exhausted. Our schedules are totally maxed out. We have no margin. So where are we going to find the time and energy for all this hospitality... our lives are dominated by those feelings of scarcity." Beck is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University; he says, "I think our busyness and our exhaustion are rooted in a spiritual sickness that runs throughout our society." But he quickly says that addressing that issue isn't the purpose of this book! He suggests that while we figure out how to address that bigger issue, we just work at our practice of hospitality.
Hospitality is welcoming and being with the people already in our lives: the people we live with, the people we work with, the people in our neighbourhood.
If we don't have time to be present and welcoming with the people already in our busy lives, we will never be able to greet the strangers around us. [His premise, though, is that when we learn to practice being welcoming and present with the people already in our lives we start to have margin for strangers.]
That's the first half of the book. Good stuff. Then Beck introduces us to Therese of Lisieux and her, "Little Way" and things get really interesting. I won't say much more about Therese (read the book). But Beck wants us to know that Therese's Little Way could be revolutionary (his says atomic) to our practice of the Christian faith.
Noticing/Seeing Others - nothing can be accomplished by way of welcoming until we notice others. Paying attention, seeing others, is the practice of kindness.
Slow down, stop, practice being interrupted. When Blind Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, Mark 10 says, "Jesus stopped." If you follow Jesus, he will make you late.
Approach, seek out, offer a smile, a kind word to someone who isn't being noticed, who you might tend to make a detour around.
That's it?! Yes.
We will "widen the circle of our affections" (hospitality) by the intentional and disciplined practice of seeing, stopping for, and approaching people whom we otherwise would avoid or ignore.
... a million boring little things.
On my blog here, (left sidebar) I always post my accumulated reading throughout any given year. Then I archive the list and start new from Jan 1 of the new year. Been doing this for more than a decade. 25 books read this past year.
Here's my summary from 2018 (in order read from beginning of the year) * highlighted books are highly recommended; books that will continue to challenge my thinking and practice.
Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality
George Verwer, Drops from a Leaking Tap
Peter Brett, The Core
Mandy Smith, The Vulnerable Pastor
Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams
*Paul House, Bonhoeffer's Seminary Vision
J R Woodward, The Church as Movement
David Roberts, The Pueblo Revolt
Thom Rainer, Becoming a Welcoming Church
Sandra Maria Van Opstal, The Next Worship
Thomas Cobb, Shavetail
Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You
Scott Daniels, Embracing Exile
Lee Beach, The Church in Exile
David Liss, The Day of Atonement
Wessel Ebersohn, Those Who Love Night
Steven Saylor, Wrath of the Furies
David Csinos, Children's Ministry that Fits
Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation
Joe Gannon, The Last Dawn
*Richard Beck, Stranger God
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Gary McGugan, The Multima Scheme
Bernard Cornwell, Warriors of the Storm
My friends at New Leaf Network have put together an Advent Reader with daily devotionals from a number of different authors. This was my contribution for Monday Dec 3. You can SIGN UP to have them delivered to your mailbox each day.
Lectionary Texts: 2 Peter 3:1-18; Numbers 17:1-11; Psalm 90
I’m not an athlete and have never really felt an inclination to jog mindlessly, or to run a marathon. But I am inspired by people who “just give it a try.” Not the athletes, or the people whose names will go in the record books, but the people who keep on running when the winners crossed the finish line 2 hours earlier. I’m always fascinated by the shots of family or friends waiting for “their” runner to cross the line. The media are gone, the crowds looking for the thrill of “the win” are gone. It’s just people who love or care about the runner standing around, waiting patiently for their friend to “complete” the distance.
Advent is the season of preparing for the coming of the Lord. After 2000 years of preparing for the second coming of Jesus, we might be inclined to express our sentiments in the same way “the scoffers” did in the first century (2 Peter 2:4). “They say” nothing has changed, everything just goes on as it has since the beginning of time. That may be a similar sentiment on the minds of many of us this Christmas. Enough already, when are You going to wrap this up?
Kind of like the media or the race thrill-seekers. They might stay around for 15 or 20 minutes after the winners and front-runners have completed the race. But they aren’t going to wait around for another 2 hours while Joe or Mary complete the run. They have no personal attachment or concern.
Peter counters the scoffers’ argument by suggesting that just as God spoke at the beginning of time and created, by that same word God has promised a day of reckoning, a day of judgment. It’s as sure a reality as creation itself. But why this inexorable wait for that day of reckoning? Peter tells us it’s not that God is slow, or has forgotten, but that God is patient, “not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God is not toying with us, instead God is extending compassion to the n-th degree.
I think we need to see God as the spouse, parent, or friend of the runner who is still running the marathon. He’s not tapping his toes impatiently; he’s not checking his watch, saying “the heck with this, I’m packing it in.” God is genuinely concerned, perhaps agonizingly concerned, that all who will complete the race have done so, before things are wrapped up. Because, in the case of God, and the culmination of God’s intentions for this world, there are consequences for not finishing the race.
Our Lectionary passage in 2 Peter 3 goes on to say a number of other things about this day of reckoning (judgment, destruction, perishing, fire). Peter uses language, and suggests “advent” outcomes, that we may be uncomfortable with in our “everybody-gets-a-ribbon-for-participating” times.
The Lectionary framework is intended to help us reflect on the whole counsel of God, the length and breadth of the Scripture record. That’s why Numbers 17:1-11 and Psalm 90 are included with our 2 Peter 3 reading.
The story in Numbers 17 is the culmination of several incidents of grumbling and rebellion by the Israelites wandering in the desert. They feel that promises made about a land flowing with milk and honey have not come to fruition. And this journey to the promised land is just taking way too long. Moses and Aaron become their target in this dissatisfaction. God isn’t happy and says “let me just wipe them all out and start over.” But Moses and Aaron plead with God that that doesn’t seem fair; as a result God only punishes the ring-leaders not the whole nation.
In reaction the people are now angry with God, not just Moses and Aaron. This time God sends a plague and 14,700 people die, before Moses and Aaron’s intercession succeeds in changing God’s mind. Finally in Numbers 17, God confirms to the nation that Moses and Aaron really are the leaders they should be listening to. In essence, this waiting and preparing for the entry into the promised land is all part of God’s purposes, don’t be impatient.
In Psalm 90, (a prayer of Moses the man of God), we get a glimpse into how Moses understands all that has transpired. This Exodus is God’s project from beginning to end. Moses understands that God’s timeline is not the same as an Israelite trekking through the desert (“a thousand years are like a day”). He has seen the anger of God, a consequence of the rebellion of the people, and he has seen the compassion and unfailing love of God relenting in response to Moses’ prayers. Moses says he wishes people understood what God could do if he chose. In conclusion he asks God to teach the people the value of their short lives, in history’s vast timeline – that wisdom might be gained from that insight. He asks that knowledge of the true character of God would be passed to the next generation.
And that’s the final takeaway from Peter as well. Since this Day is coming, “what kind of people ought we to be?” Peter urges his readers to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with God.” There is a promised new heaven and new earth, where righteousness dwells, but justice and the righting of wrongs precedes that desired outcome.
In these days of Advent, as we wait and prepare for the Day of the Lord, the Second Coming, we should recognize that many people had given up waiting for Messiah and the First Coming. Many people were disappointed then, as are many today, that God seems to have forgotten the plan. Scripture’s word to us is that it is God who is waiting. God is the long-suffering parent waiting for their child to cross the finish line, even if its hours beyond expectation.
The Tyndale Intercultural Ministries Centre (TIM Centre) in Toronto (connected with Tyndale Seminary) has just released a book to which I contributed a chapter. I have been involved with this learning community for almost 15 years. The collection of authors have contributed greatly to my understanding and practice over these years.
From the Amazon blurb:
This book is a collection of essays written to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre (1998-2018). Each chapter is written by a reflective practitioner engaged in ministry to, through and beyond the diaspora. They write, not as leaders who have all the answers, but as servants of God who are “building the bridge as they walk on it.” The TIM Centre is one of the key pieces of Tyndale’s Open Learning Centre, a strategic part of the ministry of Tyndale Seminary, located in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Believing that mission is not one-directional, “the West to the rest,” TIM Centre sees mission as from everywhere to everywhere, beginning on our doorstep and going to the ends of the earth. As you read this book one theme is constant throughout: We are living in a changing cultural context where the proven solutions of the past no longer relate to the questions being raised in the present. This book challenges us to be aware of the assumptions we bring to our ministry context and to be willing to evaluate them as we engage the global community that now resides in our neighbourhoods. This will require a spirit of humility to listen and learn from people of different cultures that God has brought to our doorstep.
Several years ago I read Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden. A film adaptation of this story premiered at TIFF recently. It's a powerful story of contemporary indigenous life set in both Northern Ontario and several mega-cities. At the time of the book's release in 2008, it was highly acclaimed. As was his previous novel 2005 novel, Three Day Road.
It was only after the release of his 2013 novel, The Orenda, that Boyden began to be questioned about his claimed aboriginal identity. I have a suspicion that the shaming of Boyden began because certain elements didn't like the content of that novel. There is so much to be explored in the story of his shaming -- the "real" issues behind the APTN "expose" of Boyden, and the white liberal, neo-colonialist progressives who made the story "popular," etc.
But what really grabbed me this week was this CBC conversation with Tina Keeper, one of the aboriginal producers of the new film. She's a personal friend of Joseph Boyden. The article touches on an issue that I raise frequently, "who gets to tell whose story?" Keeper is aware that working on a project like this involves a cooperative, collaborative process in an industry where indigenous people are in short supply. She says:
"There are some cultural elements that need to be addressed and how we work together, absolutely. I'm not talking about those things, I'm talking about how do we collaborate and work together," she says. "Because I know [Indigenous people have] been so discarded and so dismissed in the history and the cultural memory of this country, so I just feel that it's important for us to understand all of that when we're collaborating."
For me, that is a positive "way forward" approach to navigating our differences. Being aware of our own "stuff," paying attention and listening authentically to others, and then collaboratively finding a way to work together -- because together is much better than separate or oppositional.