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,