Musings from an interesting vacation

I don’t normally feel compelled to write to the world about the goings-on of my vacation time, but I spent enough time behind the wheel of our camper van in the past week that I had time to ponder a few things that I will share with anyone who cares to read!

We had two goals (and a third that Diana didn’t know about) on this vacation:  spend a couple of days with friends in Ohio, and visit the world’s largest knife store in Tennessee.  The third goal, which was a surprise to Diana, was to meet a mutual friend, whom we have not seen in some time, in Pennsylvania.

She was happily surprised.

We have shared a relationship with our friends in Ohio for many years (with her, over 10, with him, over 20).  He is my mentor in model railroading; he’s forgotten more about the hobby than I’ll ever know.  His new avocation is serving as a volunteer at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, PA.  They wanted us to see the place, so after arriving at their home and settling in, we drove a few hours to the museum for a private tour.  I even got to sit at the controls of (and operate…sssshhh…don’t tell anyone!) an old streetcar that had once roamed the urban rails of Pittsburgh!

From Ohio, we headed eastward for Pennsylvania, where Diana was delighted to see a friend of ours.  Any marriage takes trust, and neither Diana nor I are fond of surprises.  But she trusted me on this one, despite wanting to know what it was all about.  She had no idea until we walked in the door of the place where we met our friend.  I’m glad she was happy about the surprise!

After that, we headed for Tennessee.  While visiting the world’s largest knife store was an interesting curiosity (at which, by the way, I did not buy a knife), the desire was just to see some territory we had not seen before, and experience some warm temperatures.  While we were in that neck of the woods, Diana wanted to retrace some steps of her childhood and visit Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I was game to give it a try, but had no idea of the challenges we would face.  Spoiler alert:  my Apple Watch granted me my move goal for the day solely by steering the van!  When most people read “mountains” and “park” in the same phrase, they would expect endless switchbacks and dangerous grades, and might not take anything other than an ATV or a pickup on such a journey, but not us!  We took a cotton-pickin’ motor home through this windy, hilly, shoulder-less terrain.

If you have ever driven a large vehicle with overheating brakes, you can imagine what that felt like.  It was one of those moments when I wish I had been able to call my late father and ask him what that was all about.  Thankfully, once the brakes cooled down, everything worked fine, but now that we’re home, the van is going in for a mechanical examination!  Pro tip:  don’t drive a motor home through the Smokies.  You’re welcome.

From there (and no, we didn’t go to Dollywood!), we headed north again, stopping in mid-Kentucky on Saturday night, and scrolled the Internet for a place to worship on Sunday.

Most people seeking a church treat the congregation’s website as a “front door”, and as I sought out a nearby worship gathering for the next morning, we settled on a church about 15 minutes from the campground.  While the website said a lot about what the church believed – basics of historic Christianity, really – we were not prepared for what we experienced.

It was a small congregation – smaller than ours, which makes it quite small by US standards – composed mostly of younger families with kids, which was great to see.  The service began at 11:00, and we had Communion 15 minutes in.  Most churches, like ours, celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a response to the Word, near the end of the service, but this congregation came to the Lord’s Table early in the service, which seemed odd to me.  (It was also a bit odd that the server, who also happened to be the preacher for the service, took the tray of grape juice from me so quickly that he bumped me and I got grape juice on my pants.  It’ll come out.)

What was particularly striking, though, was the sermon.  I don’t know who the preacher was (who also served Communion), whether he was their regular preacher or a guest or an intern or what he was, but he began preaching at 11:30 and stopped, I suspect, sometime around 6:00 p.m.

(Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.  Probably.)

There was not a thing wrong with what he said, but how he said it was, well, boring as spit.

He was approaching his third point (of heaven knows how many) forty-five minutes into the message, having repeated himself many times and done what seemed his best to make the gospel as boring as possible.

My heart ached.  

We wanted to hit the road, so at the beginning of Point Number Three, we quietly departed from our back-row seat.  (Is that why most people like to sit at the back?  To make a quick escape if worship suddenly appears to be turning into a hostage-taking?)

There was a lesson for this preacher in that experience.

If you’ve ever listened to me, you know I try to keep the energy up, the material engaging, and the truth front-and-centre.  Sometimes, I go long.  But I’m not repetitive.

As a preacher, I try to be a good listener to preaching as well, especially when I am in the worshipping congregation.  And at times, I find this a terribly trying task, because the quality of preaching that’s available nowadays is decidedly abysmal.

I don’t know precisely why this is the case.  Sometimes, I wonder if it’s bad training, or a lack of training altogether in the arts of sermon preparation and delivery (and, let the reader understand, these are arts).  But when I visit churches while on vacation, I often come away disappointed, despite my best efforts to engage deeply.

What particularly saddens me about these experiences is that I get only so many Sundays off in a year, and I like to steward them well by engaging with congregations where I’m going to be edified, encouraged and challenged, both as a disciple of Jesus and as a communicator of the gospel of Christ.  And after Sunday, I must admit, I feel as though I squandered one of those opportunities.

I hope and pray that no preacher who ever listens to me feels that way, and I will work to ensure that is the case to my dying day.

Upon our escape from the hostage situation, we stopped for lunch at a place that is becoming more common in the US, even as one creeps north, and that’s Buc-ees.  On our way to that big knife store, we saw the largest-ever one being built, near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  The one we visited in Kentucky was no slouch, either.  If you’ve never been in one, think of it as the love child of Walmart and a gas station.  And try the brisket sandwich.  I don’t know if it was the proximity to Lexington on the day of The Derby, but it was very busy.

Everything else we did was rather pedestrian (though, ironically, we did little walking!), but let me leave you with a few statistics:

  • Warmest temperature achieved:  28 degrees Celsius, in Tennessee
  • Coldest temperature achieved:  4 degrees Celsius, in Ohio (the furnace was on!)
  • Distance travelled:  just over 4,200 km (time for an oil change!)
  • Lowest gas price seen:  US$2.969 per gallon (about C$1.05 per litre; alas, our tank was full at that time!)
  • Highest gas price seen:  US$3.699 per gallon (about C$1.31 per litre, which was still cheaper than the C$1.469 per litre we saw when we crossed back)
  • States visited:  10 (this includes a very brief journey through Maryland and an only slightly longer journey through West Virginia; the distance through the other 8 made up for it)
  • Hills ascended and descended and switchbacks traversed:  we both ran out of fingers and toes to count these, just in the park
  • Work emails awaiting me when I got home:  134
  • Actual emails worth reading and replying to:  77
  • Homes “plugged in” to for sleeping:  1 (thanks, friends!)
  • Campgrounds stayed at:  3 (all KOAs)
  • Truck stops slept at:  2 (“dry camping” is handy when all you need to do is sleep)
  • Memories made with the One You Love:  too many to count

If you made it this far, thanks for reading.  It’s good to be home.

Musings, Uncategorized

Open for (God’s) business

The Session at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton decided today to open this Sunday, June 21.  This is the (edited) content of an email sent to the congregation tonight.

The building has been sanitized.  All materials have been removed from the seats in the worship space.  The lobby has been emptied of all furnishings except the small table next to the worship space doors.  With the exception of the main doors, the lobby, the upstairs washrooms and the worship space, the building has been cordoned off.

Hand sanitizer will be provided and its use will be mandatory as you enter the building.  If you choose to come – remember, nobody’s twisting your arm here! – and you are more comfortable wearing a mask, please bring one with you. We will have a few extras available in case you forget.

Here’s what will happen if you choose to come this Sunday at 10:

  • As you enter the parking lot, please try to avoid parking adjacent to another vehicle.If you must, then please ensure the occupants of the nearby vehicle are not exiting their vehicle at the same time as you.
  • All entry and exit will take place via the main doors that face King Road.All other entrances will be locked.  Upon arriving at the main doors, if others are nearby, please maintain a two-metre distance from them as you wait your turn to come in.
  • At the door, a masked elder (this Sunday, it will be Erma, in case the mask fools you) will write your name on a sheet of paper so that we can notify Public Health if for some reason we find anyone present is later diagnosed with Coronavirus.
  • You will be instructed to use hand sanitizer at this time.Please do not wear gloves; you will be asked to remove them.
  • Someone will escort you to a place to sit in the worship space.Households will be seated not less than two metres apart, staggered throughout the worship space.  If you have a preference for where you wish to sit, you can express that, recognizing that priority will be given to those arriving first.  You will be asked not to get up and move from the time you are seated until you are called on to depart the building.  If you think you might need to get up and use the washroom after you’ve been seated, please be sure to wear a mask.
  • Children are welcome to come, too.Individually packed take-home resource packages will be provided for smaller children to keep busy during worship.  There will be no children’s ministry of any other sort provided at this time for health reasons.
  • The worship gathering will follow much the same format as we’ve seen online, with acknowledgement of the people in the room.There will be two songs sung near the end.  If you are not comfortable with having people singing around you, it is recommended that you sit nearer the back.  (The science on singing and the spread of Coronavirus is somewhat conflicting; some say it is problematic, while others say that at a safe physical distance, it poses no threat.)  Paul Mason will be joining me to lead the singing.
  • When the gathering is over, you will be asked to leave as a household, with safe gaps between households as they depart.
  • If you want to share fellowship at a safe distance, it is recommended that you wear a mask, bring your own beverage (if desired), and stand in the parking lot to do so.The lobby will not be made available for fellowship during this stage of re-opening.

The gathering will be limited to not more than 54 persons, inclusive of volunteers and worship leaders.  So we’re asking that you indicate your intention to attend this Sunday if you plan to do so, by commenting below.  That way, if guests appear, we will know how many we can welcome.  It’s not like us to turn away anyone at the door, but under the current emergency regulations, we have no choice but to limit physical attendance.

We ask that if you feel unwell or have symptoms of Coronavirus, please stay home and watch the live-stream.  And if you are in a vulnerable category, that is, elderly, or with a pre-existing health condition that compromises your immune system, likewise, please stay home and watch the live-stream.  Furthermore, if you are not quite ready, whether emotionally or physically, to gather with others in worship, don’t feel that you must come because the doors are open.  As much as we all would like to see one another in person, your health is your top priority.  The live-stream broadcast will continue irrespective of the restrictions that may or may not be placed on public gatherings, so a worship experience will always be available to you online, as it has been for the past few months (and many months before that).

By opening for public worship this Sunday, we are offering an option for those who are ready and well enough to come together.  I have no doubt it will feel a bit weird, coming into a familiar place that in some ways will seem unfamiliar because of the situation we’re in.  But if you are physically and emotionally ready to gather together in God’s praise, this Sunday, we’ll be ready for you.  The flag will be out at the road to welcome you…and if you come early enough, weather permitting, I might be out at the road to welcome you, too!

Again, if you plan to attend this Sunday, please comment below.  Thanks!

May the Lord be with us as we take this step of faith.



The Lord gave me a thought as I was going to sleep last night, and I’d like to share it with you.

Like you, I’ve been feeling an unusual kind of stress this week.  But what’s behind it?

As I was reviewing my day, looking for God’s gracious and faithful hand at work, he gave me this thought:  You are feeling stressed because your routine has been turned upside-down.

The more I considered it, the more I believe it is true.  Like most people’s, my week has an ordinary rhythm.  And this week, that rhythm was not there.  Meetings I normally have, people I usually see, tasks I normally do…most of these things changed.  It felt – it feels – strange.

Compound that with the odd paranoia that we all have about touching things other people have touched, standing closer than two metres to another person outside of our household, and wondering if there’s going to be enough toilet paper to go around, and that makes for a stress-filled life.

(By the way, I think “paranoia” might be too strong a term; we need to be careful and diligent, to be sure, and even a previously excellent record of hand-washing should be vigorously increased, but I don’t think we need to be paranoid.  And yes, there will be enough toilet paper, and everything else, to go around.  Paper plants and farmers are still in operation.)

The good news amid all this is that God is in charge and he will keep us in perfect peace when our minds arefocused on him (Isaiah 26.3).  Remember that.

The photo shows our “studio” for the live-stream of worship.  Same time, same place, same station…but a different set-up.  You’ll be able to see the screen, because I’m going to put the slides on the television monitor.  We’ll sing a song, pray, hear a message wrapping up the book of Ruth, and sing another song.  The whole broadcast should be around 40-45 minutes.  As I noted yesterday, I will live-stream to both my Facebook feed and the church’s Facebook page, accessible here:

There’s hope for our present circumstance even from an old book like Ruth.  I hope you’ll tune in.  Feel free to share questions in the comments on Facebook or YouTube (if you watch it later).  I’ll gladly respond.

Don’t hesitate to be in touch if I can help.  And please check in on your neighbours, and folks from the congregation who are not connected to the internet.  Offer to pick up groceries for people who are quarantined or self-isolating.

And trust God.


My Favourite Centenarian

I received word this evening of the death of my favourite centenarian.  She was a friend, a counsellor, and a true Barnabas, a real encourager.  And she was my honorary grandmother.

I met Eleanor when she was but a young thing, aged 77.  She was a member of the search team that called me to a congregation I served.  At the time I was being interviewed, she was simply another member of that team.  But when my call was processed, she was part of the group that came to support the call.  After the call was sustained, I escorted the group out of the church where we were meeting, and she said to me, “I’d like to be a grandma to you if that’s okay.”

I readily accepted.

Little did I know how much I would come to appreciate her wisdom, her faith and faithfulness, and even just her presence.  She had a spiritual gift of hospitality that manifested itself in countless ways, not least of which were leading and hosting two small groups for the church, and welcoming her Pastor at anytime of the day or night, with the promise of being able to put up my feet, sip on a wee dram, and share what was going on – good or bad.

She was a faithful member of the Session (the elders’ board) during my entire tenure, and always had a wise word to offer to whatever issue was being deliberated.

When the Lord led my wife and me to serve another church, and our house sold and closed the day before my last Sunday, Eleanor put us up for the night before my final service.  We have kept in touch ever since.  In more recent years, our keeping in touch has been limited to telephone calls, usually on her birthday or mine, since they are a day apart (plus a few years!).

I spoke with her on my birthday, not quite two months ago.  I was not surprised I could not reach her on her birthday, since I expected she was being well feted by her caring family, for one who turns one hundred years old ought to be celebrated!  And she wisely went to bed early that night.

I have always wished that the Lord would bless every church I served with an Eleanor.  In fact, I wish that every church ‘period’ would have an Eleanor, for every pastor and every church need people who will provide calm wisdom, a loving smile, and an open door.

Eleanor provided all that, and more.  I will miss her.

I am teary for me, and for her close family and friends.  But I am not sad for her.  For though she has seen ‘through a glass darkly’ as the old King James put it, now she sees ‘face to face’.  The Lord Jesus, whom she served so well, has welcomed her to her eternal home.

As they say good-bye to Eleanor, her family will sing a song that probably is not often sung at funerals.  It is a song that I introduced to the church in which we were co-labourers, and one that she so loved that I remember her saying, perhaps 20 years ago or more, “I want this sung at my funeral.”

It’s not a song about being sad.

It’s not about gardens or flowers.

It’s about Jesus.

The Eleanor I knew centred her life on Jesus.  So it’s very appropriate that her send-off should include something that turns the attention of those present to the Lord she loved and served.

I’ll append a YouTube video below that plays you the song and displays the Jesus-centred lyrics.  It was written by Graham Kendrick, a British Christian musician.  It’s called “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

Jesus shone through Eleanor in a way to which I can merely aspire.

I pray that her family and friends will take comfort in the grace of the Lord Jesus that shone through Eleanor.


This Pastor is Appreciated!

I don’t normally share our weekly in-house email, Between Sundays, with the wider public, but I think this one deserves to be shared.  If you’re not tangibly appreciating your pastor, here’s some inspiration to do so, whether in October or any other time of year – since nobody gets too much encouragement! — JFL

I was speaking with my spiritual director last week, telling her about October. Insightfully, she said, “October is like Christmas for you.”

She was absolutely right.

October is a month for giving thanks in Canada, and it is Pastor Appreciation Month. I am the envy of many of my colleagues, whose congregations have never heard of Pastor Appreciation Month.  I brag a little bit each year – not about what I receive, but about you, and how, even after ten Pastor Appreciation Months with you, I am still surprised, honoured, and humbled by your kindness.

(Can you believe it’s been ten Pastor Appreciation Months?  It was 10 years ago today that Diana and I moved into the manse, with me in some fear, some trepidation, and a lot of faith as I eased my way back into the pastorate after two and a half years in parachurch ministry.  What an amazing journey this has been, and continues to be! God is good.)

I have a collection of cards on my desk; each will be kept, read again, and treasured, as I have done for the past 10 years.  I’ve mentioned before that in previous congregations, I had a “happy file”, in which I kept notes of encouragement that I received from congregants.  Early on in St. Paul’s, I learned that a “happy file” won’t do; I actually have to keep a “happy drawer” in my desk, one of the deep drawers, to contain all the encouragement I’ve received over the years. I’m sure it’s no secret that your encouragement makes it a joy to serve the Lord among you, and I truly hope that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27.17), that I am able to be an encouragement to you, too.

I don’t know who organizes this, but it’s obviously a coordinated event.  Most people sign their cards, allowing me to thank them.  Some choose not to sign, and that’s okay, too – though if I recognize the handwriting, I thank them anyway!  There was one person who scratched out a signature, thinking it was supposed to be anonymous, and that person’s handwriting eludes me.  (Whoever you are, thank you!)

October has always been my favourite month of the year, with beautifully-coloured leaves and crispness in the air.  But you have doubled my delight with your ongoing kindnesses.

A culture of gratitude – not only toward the pastor, but from the pastor, and toward one another – makes a church’s culture irresistible to those seeking a church home.  So keep up the good work of being grateful, as will I.

Again, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.  It truly is a joy to serve the Lord together.


*Really* thinking about St. Patrick

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to share here my newsletter article for March 2015 at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton.  It’s a different way of thinking about St. Patrick.  Read on…

MARCH IS A MONTH FILLED WITH POTENTIAL. It is, after all, the month in which spring arrives, at least on the calendar; given the frigidity of this winter, it takes a certain de- gree of hope to believe that spring will come later this month! (I imagine it will take even more hope for our friends in eastern Canada to believe that, with all the snow they’ve received!)

March also is the month that brings March Break. Students and teachers look forward to that time with great excitement, since it offers them a rest from learning, and teach- ing, and from each other! For some families and individuals, March Break affords the opportunity for some respite from the chill; for others, it’s a chance to make the most of the cold weather. For still others, it’s an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, irrespective of the weather.

The month of March is known for the feast day celebrated on the 17th. St. Patrick’s Day is marked not only by Christians, but by many others who simply use it as an ex- cuse for a party. And why not? While many people don’t realize it, Patrick is a saint worth celebrating. Why is that?

Patrick is best known as the patron saint of Ireland, and anyone with as little as a drop (or less!) of Irish blood within willingly makes the most of the opportunity to celebrate the heritage of the Emerald Isle with great merriment (and green-tinted libations, I un- derstand). But Patrick is worth celebrating for other reasons.

St. Patrick gives us reasons to celebrate good theology and evangelism.

We can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day because Patrick was perhaps the most popular theo- logian to articulate a doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of folks assume it all has to do with the three-leaf clover, which might be more of a legend than an illustration of One God In Three Persons. Patrick lived not long after the doctrine of the Trinity was first ar- ticulated by the early Christians, and he helped popularize this important point of Christian belief among the people of Ireland, who had not been that well acquainted, because of distance if nothing else, with some of the basic doctrines of the church.


While the Trinity is a difficult theological tenet to explain – it remains a mystery which is clearly alluded to in Scripture but not completely spelled out – it is a hallmark state- ment of faith among followers of Jesus. The one true God, made known in the three Persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is beyond our complete comprehension. Yet by faith, we can apprehend this truth and experience communion in community with the God who is, in one sense, the very definition of community!

For a humorous yet accurate take on Patrick and the Trinity, check out this video.

Patrick also gives us reason to celebrate as Christians because he was a master at evan- gelism. He might better be remembered for driving snakes out of Ireland – also a tale of mythical proportions – but his greater feat was leading countless people to faith in Christ. Ireland, in those days, was primarily a land of religious people whose faith was druidic and pagan in nature.

He was a missionary. While this is debated hotly, many believe Patrick was born in Scotland, and that he believed God called him to bring Christ to the Irish. He was a master at understanding the culture he sought to transform. He learned what the cul- ture of druidism and paganism meant to the people, and he explained the gospel to them using terms from their own lexicon of faith. As a result, today, Ireland is a nation very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. (There are many Anglicans and Presbyte- rians there, too, among other denominational groups.) The testaments to Patrick’s ef- forts may be seen in the numerous large and ancient church buildings which still stand from Cork to Dublin, from Londonderry to Belfast.

Patrick reminds us of the importance of good theology, and sharing our faith.

So March really is a month filled with potential, even for the church! Enjoy it and em- brace it, with God as your guide.


Why Aren’t We Panicking?

In the wake of the 140th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, an ecumenical friend who was in attendance asked me a most interesting and insightful question:

Knowing the decline in membership in the Presbyterian Church (a fact starkly shown on the screen during the Record’s presentation), why was nobody running around sounding the alarm? I just read a report about the Anglican Church that predicts it will have no members left by 2056; I wonder if the United Church and Presbyterians are far behind. Why wasn’t there a greater sense of concern (or even panic) at the Assembly? Or did I just miss it? Or is that not the Presbyterian way? Or am I off base?

In my twenty-plus years in this denomination, only rarely has anything resembling an alarm been sounded about our membership decline, and when it has been expressed, it has come from only a few different sources. Do we lack a sense of self-preservation? Are we apathetic? Or do we believe God has a greater plan?

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, it’s possible that all three of these scenarios may be true for us.

I think it might be more than foolish to say that there is no sense of apathy among those affiliated with The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Some are sufficiently wrapped up in the excellent work done by their local churches that what happens to the broader, connectional church is none of their concern. (It might make for a good argument as to whether it ought to be, of course, but let’s leave that for another time.) There are other congregations that are so engrossed in trying to stay afloat for just one more week that the state of health of a denomination matters little when the local entity has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

There is also the reality of leadership, or lack thereof. When leadership, whether at the local, regional or national level, is weak, it becomes easy to focus on the present without giving a moment’s thought to the future. We can blame this on the clergy or the seminaries or what-have-you, but to be fair, there is so much that needs to be taught to future pastors during their three-year (minimum) tenure in seminary that not everything could possibly be covered. Sometimes, what gets missed is leadership. And even when it doesn’t get missed, not everyone who senses God’s call to full-time Christian service is spiritually gifted for leadership.   True, there is a measure of leadership skill that can be taught, and a measure that can be caught, but unless the person has been given a leadership gift by God, there are pretty significant limits to what leadership that person can exercise. (Check out Romans 12.6-8, and other passages, to learn more about the spiritual gift of leadership.)

While we’re on the topic of spiritual gifts, perhaps you’ve noticed that there seems to be a skewed distribution among certain gifts. For example, I don’t know very many Presbyterians (though I do know some) who exercise the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This is ironic, considering that the use of the gifts of tongues and prophecy is the foundational context for a verse we Presbyterians love to pull out of context:   “[B]ut all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14.40, NRSV). But I digress.

The other common spiritual gift that seems in short supply among Canadian Presbyterians is the gift of evangelism. Put simply, the gift of evangelism is a special ability given by the Holy Spirit to be able to explain the good news of Jesus in such a way that people become his followers. Now, we’re all called to have a heart for evangelism, and we’re all called to do evangelism; that’s the crux of the Great Commission. If we’re to be about making disciples, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is helping people have a life-changing encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ. Not everyone, of course, will have a special gift that gives him or her the proverbial Midas Touch when it comes to leading people to faith. But surely some must have the gift; where are they? Are there any in The Presbyterian Church in Canada?

Some congregations get so focused on social justice that they miss its hand-in-glove partner, evangelism. That’s too bad, because many acts of social justice can be outstanding ‘pointers’ to faith in Christ. This is, I think, at the heart of being missional in today’s context: we go out into the world, taking Jesus with us as we serve the community in mission. But if our acts of justice are done either without comment or merely for the sake of a better human race, we have moved from ministry to social work, and ought to name it as such. Social work is unlikely to grow God’s Kingdom, but social justice ministries done in Jesus’ name most certainly can.

Faith without works is dead, as James wrote in the New Testament, but works without faith aren’t much good, either.

A lack of evangelistic fervour is a significant contributor to apathy. When we fail to see the good news as truly good – and good for everybody – that banana peel on which one foot is stuck gains significant traction.

The Moderator of the 140th General Assembly, Stephen Farris, noted in one of his series of prophetic, cut-to-the-quick remarks to the Assembly that while sociologists tell us that the world has been moving in a post-denominational direction, perhaps God is doing likewise. In that sense, self-preservation for us, as a ‘tribe’, is pointless; after all, if God is at work, and God’s Kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven, our task as followers of Jesus is not to preserve a particular sub-culture, but to get on board with what God is doing.   In other words, God has a greater plan and we should pay attention.

One of the many theological joys of the Reformed tradition is the eminently biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In one of its many iterations, it assures us that when it comes to the future of the church, the work is God’s, not ours. What we sometimes miss in the utterance of that truth is that God regularly chooses to use people in the divine work of preserving the church. We are, as the hymn puts it, “Called as partners in Christ’s service.” So while God has a plan – a greater plan – we can be certain that those who are called by the name of Jesus now are called to be participants in the execution of that plan.

That may mean working for a denomination, but it certainly means working for the Kingdom of God. Let’s be honest: for many people, the future of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is not about a particular expression of God’s work; it’s about the preservation of the Pension Fund. The government will make sure the Pension Fund is preserved, in one fashion or another. If God’s plan is to prosper the Kingdom in some other expression, God is God, and is free to do so!

I am a Presbyterian by choice, not by birth. I serve in The Presbyterian Church in Canada because I believe, at its heart, our expression of God’s church is, at least on paper, the best expression of biblical Christianity. I want to see God prosper The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I seek to heed the clarion call, issued well by some of my colleagues, to do my part to bring growth to this part of God’s vineyard. But I do so for the sake of the edification of the Kingdom, not the upholding of a denomination or its structure.

And ultimately, I think Presbyterians are a people who, above all things, trust God, who will preserve the church universal. Perhaps that is why there were no Chicken Little cries of “The sky is falling!” at the 140th General Assembly. May we all be sensitive to God’s call on our lives to fulfill the divinely-mandated role made for us in that act of preservation.


Sending or Seating?

I read a quotation on Twitter last week that I found really thought-provoking. I don’t know who said it, but it has been kicking my butt ever since I noticed it. Take this in:

We should be more concerned with our sending capacity than our seating capacity.

The more I think about the future of the Christian church in Canada, the more I believe that sending is going to matter more than seating.

Don’t get me wrong: gathering for worship is crucial to our spiritual development and our maturation as disciples of Jesus. We want to grow numerically even as we grow spiritually. But as time goes on, we are going to have to move from an attractional model of being the church to a missional model. And that says more about going out than coming in.

My latest reading has been Al Roxburgh’s book, Introducing the Missional Church (Baker, 2009). Among his premises in the book is a bit of a head-scratcher: the concept of ‘missional church’ cannot be clearly defined. He says that trying to define the missional church is like trying to define the Kingdom of God; it’s just too big to wrap our heads around.

However, we can garner principles that will help the church in the future. And key to those principles is getting out and being the church in the community, serving people in mission. That can be a mission of helping, such as doing lawn mower maintenance (or even lawn maintenance) for single moms. It can also be a mission of listening, such as hearing from business owners and school administrators in the community about what the church can do that will make a difference.

What are your thoughts on what it means to be missional as a church?  I’d love to read your comments and start a dialogue.


Merry Christmas!

It occurs to me that I have some faithful readers with whom I have little other contact, so I take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very merry

The bell tower on the Church of the Nativity, taken December 2, 2013.
The bell tower on the Church of the Nativity, taken December 2, 2013.

Christmas, and a new year filled with many blessings.  Celebrate by worshipping Christ, our new-born King!  God’s best!

Passionately His,



Summer Reading 2013

Summer is often a time when we can slow down and do things we really enjoy.  For me, one of those things is reading.  It’s been a while since I suggested some good summer reading for you, so I’ll take the opportunity to do that now.  Of course, you could read these at any time of the year you wish!  But here’s a short list of books that will help build your faith and encourage you in your growing walk with the Lord.  I put this list in our church’s summer edition of the newsletter.

Ruth Haley Barton,  Invitation to Silence and Solitude (InterVarsity Press, 2010)

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

These three books by Barton give a good introduction to practical ways to be formed spiritually in the Lord.  It is her video study we’re doing throughout much of June and July at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton.  I have heard her speak in person, and her writing is just as compelling.  She has been a ground-breaking writer in the field of spiritual formation for many Christians.  Her writing style is easy to read and you’ll find great helps for building your faith.

Michael Mangis, Signature Sins (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

Mangis’ thesis in this book is that the seven “deadly” sins, as they once were called, can be seen as the foundational sins from which our typical sin patterns emerge.  It’s likely, he says, that we each have a “signature” sin from among the seven.  What we often find ourselves confessing is not sin but symptoms of sin, and that, as Dallas Willard said, we tend to engage in sin management more than anything else.  Each chapter closes with useful questions for reflection, and there is a group study guide at the back.

Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (InterVarsity Press, 1993)

While this book is by no means new, it is an excellent overview of what it means to be formed in Christ.  Mulholland correctly identifies that our spiritual formation is not something we do just for ourselves, but that it happens for the sake of others.

These are just a few books that can accompany you to the real or virtual hammock this summer.  Enjoy the rest, and remember to keep growing!


Some refreshing news, and some lessons

I read an article posted by a colleague, which deserves attention, particularly from Canadian Presbyterians interested in renewal. The author writes for United Methodists in the US about Anglicans, but we in The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and other mainline denominations, can learn from it, too. Read on:


Interested in a Retreat in Daily Life?

Church life can be about making a difference in your own life, too.  There are many ways that can happen, and one of those ways that’s coming up this fall, about which you have been hearing announcements, is a Retreat In Daily Life that we at St. Paul’s are sharing with our sister congregation, Cornerstone Church in Kleinburg.

A retreat in daily life is a bit like a regular retreat, where you go off to a special place and find yourself challenged by God’s Word as you are led into a deeper walk with the Lord.  But in this case, because it’s “in daily life”, you don’t go off to a special place.  Your retreat happens each day, in your own daily experience.  Then, once a week for five weeks, you meet with a spiritual director to discuss some Scripture passages that you have been reading for each week, and you can talk about how any of those passages have gained new meaning for you as you let them live in your spirit while you went about your everyday activities.  Meeting with a spiritual director gives you the opportunity to reflect on where God is showing up in your life, in ways great or small.

This process is a concentrated (5-week) form of the ongoing spiritual direction opportunity that I offer to people in the congregation, where we meet once every few weeks in a safe, confidential environment to discuss the ways God is at work in their lives.  As I describe spiritual direction, the basic structure goes like this:  I will read a passage of Scripture and pray for you, and then if some word or phrase from the Scripture seems to jump out at you, we can discuss that, and you can share what’s been going on as we look for God in the details of life.  Spiritual direction is not counselling or therapy, but a spiritual discipline which helps to build our faith more and more.  There are different forms that spiritual direction can take, and your spiritual director – me, or the person assigned to you in the Retreat in Daily Life – listens to the Holy Spirit to discern if a particular approach should be taken with you in a given session.

The cost for the RDL is $50, and you can register by speaking to me.  I’ll gladly entertain your questions, too.  The retreat begins with a group worship session on Saturday, September 15 and concludes with a closing session on Saturday, October 20.  Mutually convenient dates for your meetings with a trained spiritual director will be set once we have a clear picture of how many participants there will be between the two congregations.

I know that my own experience with a spiritual director has been life-enriching, and I think some in our congregation who meet with me for spiritual direction would say the same.  So if you’d like to take spiritual direction for a test-drive by signing up for a 5-week retreat in daily life, let me know.  I think you will find it a blessing.


Prayer and responsibility

While soaking up some of God’s free vitamin D today, I was reading David Benner’s excellent book, Opening To God, in which he wrote these very interesting words:

Coming to God in trusting openness does not mean abandoning our agency and responsibility.  Genesis tells us that God invested in Adam and Eve the responsibility for all of creation, and at no time since then is there any reason to believe that God has said:  “Since you have made such a mess of things I now absolve you of that responsibility and ask that you simply trust me to take care of things.”  Prayer is divine communion that enables us to engage the world with renewed focus, competence and passion – and with all of our natural gifts and abilities.  And pondering problems, both personal and communal, can form a central part of that experience of communion with God.  (David Benner, Opening To God [Downers Grove:  IVP, 2010], 96)

What a great reminder!  Even though God is sovereign, and he invites our prayerful communion with him, we are still responsible, and can share our decision making process with God as a form of prayer.


Some early highlights of the 138th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada

This week, I am a commissioner to the 138th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Since each Presbytery sends one-sixth of its ministers, and an equal number of elders, to Assembly each year, it means that most pastors get to be commissioners several times over the course of their ministries.

I’m not able to slack off, though, because I was appointed to the Assembly’s Committee on Business, which is sort of the embodiment of mad duck-paddling that takes place in order for the agenda of the Assembly to float smoothly down the proverbial river.  Together, the committee members are trying to make the Assembly’s agenda run like a well-oiled machine, and we seem to be having a measure of success at it.

The Assembly began on Sunday afternoon with “Q&A@GA”.  Formerly, Assemblies hosted briefing groups for the whole of Monday in order to allow commissioners to be brought up to speed on the work of the committees and agencies of the church.  This year, it was moved to a less formal ‘marketplace’ model and held as commissioners arrived on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday evening saw the opening worship and installation of the Moderator.  Worshipping with a thousand others is a great experience.  The outgoing Moderator, Rick Horst, gave a fine message challenging the church to be more missional.  He then installed the new Moderator, John Vissers, who has chaired each sederunt (sitting) of the Assembly since his installation.

On Monday, numerous reports were heard and acted upon by the Assembly, and the Assembly banquet was held.  The entertainment was a youth choir from the Durham region, and they sounded great.  Catching up with old friends made it all a real blessing.

On Tuesday morning, the Assembly took on a celebratory tone as retiring national staff and missionaries were feted.  Along with that, we heard from a Presbyterian leader from Taiwan, who came to celebrate with us the completion and printing of the entire Bible in Hakka.  Hakka is a dialect of Chinese, spoken by many people in Taiwan.  It was an emotional occasion to see our own Paul McLean, a missionary and translator, talk about (and read from) the Hakka Bible.

Having served the Bible cause in parachurch work at one time myself, I understand the value of having the Bible in one’s heart language.  It was great to see one more translation completed.  (Last Sunday, the Canadian Bible Society celebrated the completion of the Bible in Inuktitut, so that’s two translations in one week!)

This just gives you a taste of what’s going on at General Assembly.  Being able to spend free time with friends that I don’t get to see very often is a treasured bonus of coming to Assembly.  We may not be in the ritziest town in Canada for Assembly, but it doesn’t really matter:  most of our time is spent sitting in a gymnasium listening to stories of the work God has done, and praying and deciding about the work God may and will do among us.

I love being part of a connectional church, where we are, indeed, not alone.  When you see little bits in the bulletin each Sunday that connect us with the wider church, you’re getting a taste of our connectedness, and how it enables us to serve God and build his kingdom more effectively.


“A Christian alone is no Christian”: a brief excursus

Yesterday, I tweeted a great quotation from Tertullian, one of the church’s earliest theologians; he lived in the late second and early third centuries in north Africa.  He said, “A Christian alone is no Christian.”

This generated a fair bit of conversation on Facebook, so I thought I’d take a moment to expand a little on what that means, as I see it.  Remembering that Tertullian wrote in the years before the Christian faith was established and had any credence with society at all, the church had a much stronger sense of community.  Under persecution, the church experienced the value of community in ways that it generally doesn’t appreciate when it is not persecuted.

If you need an example of how community is cherished in persecution, consider the Jews.  We tend to think of how they ‘stick together’ and look out for each other in the shadow of the Holocaust, but in reality, this has been true since the diaspora in the second century.  Anytime a Jewish person or family is in crisis, it is the Jewish community that tends to the needs first.

What Tertullian is telling the church is that we could learn from our Jewish friends.

But this is true not just in a practical sense, but in a theoretical, theological sense, too:  with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, never again in the New Testament are Christ-followers highlighted positively except in connection with a  community of faith, the church.  Without other Christians, it is virtually impossible to be a Christian.

This is why Sacraments are celebrated within the community of faith.  This is why church membership so strongly emphasizes participation in church life.  This is why the genius of Presbyterian polity involves the whole leadership of the church, not just the pastor, in the care of the congregation.

Can we be Christians in isolation?  If our faith is strong and our isolation is mandated, perhaps; but if we intentionally isolate ourselves from fellow believers, it is unlikely that our faith can stand.  We were made for Christian community.  And that’s what Tertullian would have us know, in brief.  The church may not be perfect, but it is the beautiful Bride of Christ, and it’s “part of the deal” when it comes to engaging as followers of Jesus.