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What lifts you up?

There is more than a little puzzlement, anxiety, even fear across the land. How could once solid Conservative Party of Ontario elect Doug Ford, brother of the former mayor of Toronto the late Rob Ford, as its leader to take them into the upcoming provincial election? For many the election of rabid populists only happens in the US and other countries not quite as civilized as we are. After all didn’t the federal Conservative Party soundly defeat Kelly Leitch in favour of the more traditionally sounding Andrew Scheer?

I am not going to pretend to understand the political dynamics or the minds of certain voters. What stands out for me, although I do not support their line of thinking or their brutalist solutions, is the appeal they make to marginalized, disaffected and frightened people. Politicians, it seems, are discovering the vote gathering potential of the too large body of wounded and broken people, and some are willing to exploit that potential to the hilt if it will get them elected.

There is a message here and not just to the government and politicians. The Christian church had its beginnings by connecting with and ministering to the hurt and marginalized of the ancient world. The church stood against the massive enterprise of the Roman Empire, an enterprise with little or no interest in people beyond their ability to produce wealth for the elite in Rome. Look at how many stories about Jesus (the ones we love to hear, maybe?) are about his connecting with troubled people and inviting them into a life giving relationship, into a realm grounded in right relations with others, where people were cared for and valued as children of God rather than for their value to government or corporation.

Because we have become disconnected with our historic roots we have become disconnected from our neighbours and our communities and we have become irrelevant to many. When we don’t know where people are suffering how can we know how to minister to them. When the church does engage in ministry with marginalized people we can move mountains and transform lives – look at the wonderful work that has been done through refugee sponsorship, or providing homes for the homeless! What I am saying is that there are people living in our neighbourhoods that are isolated and alone in their struggles that we are not aware of and we have forgotten how to find them.

The church is and must be a place of comfort and healing. Too often we are content with just being comfortable, and that is very discouraging.

What lifts you up when you are discouraged? I would love to hear some stories of the impact of the church on your life, or how the church can connect with people we are not comfortable with and rather not notice. Feel free to argue with me as I don’t pretend to have all the answers or even some of the answers. I am mainly interested in how we can journey together as God’s children.

 

 

Paul

Let’s Talk About…. The Transition Team

The Interim Transition Team is the most important part of the Intentional Interim structure in a congregation going through an Interim period.

Interim Ministers are specially trained to help congregations take the risks involved in transforming themselves. Interim Ministers know about change and transition processes; they know about congregations and how they can get stuck. They bring special techniques to assist a congregation to work through self-study. They also understand how individuals may react to the prospect of change, and can help them cope by offering spiritual guidance and providing pastoral care. Most importantly, Interim Ministers will anchor the transition process in the great biblical stories to help the congregation know that it is not alone in the bewilderment that often comes with change.

Congregational members of the team also bring special knowledge to the work of transition. They know the rhythms of the congregation’s life—its customs, rituals, and practices as it moves through the church seasons. They have stories from the past that explain certain things in the present, and they know about those “sacred cows” that are bound to trigger reaction if prodded. The presbytery representatives on the team also play their part, bringing an outside perspective and a knowledge of church policy to the work.

The Interim Minister and the other team members play complementary roles. The minister can affirm and encourage inexperienced congregational representatives who may feel uncertain about what they must do. Team members can help the minister be aware of seemingly insignificant issues by explaining the political realities of the congregation, and its fit within its presbytery. As they interact, the minister gains insight into the congregation, and other team members learn to see the congregation in a new way. As they learn from each other and collaborate, a synergy builds, and together they build an effect greater than the effect either could produce alone.

As well as understanding the technical requirements and procedures of the interim work, members of the Transition Team must learn what is expected of them personally in terms of time, energy, skill, and commitment. However, that knowledge alone will not be sufficient for them to play their pivotal role in the congregation’s life. They must also establish a mutual understanding of and commitment to the principles and values by which the team will work together. They must feel that they can speak freely and honestly, and bring all points of view to bear on important issues, creating the climate that is essential for the discernment and decision-making that lies ahead.

The work of the Transition Team is intensive with the group meeting approximately every two weeks through the Interim time, except for the summer and other holiday times. The Council has been speaking with some members of the congregation who they feel would be excellent members of the Transition Team. We are also inviting people to volunteer to serve if they feel that they might be ‘called’ to do this important work. If you are interested in serving on the Transition Team, or if you would like to suggest another member of the congregation for Council members to speak to, let one of your ministers or the Acting Chair of Council, Bruce Lukey know.

The Wilderness of Lent

I was in Junior High before I became aware of Lent. It was probably not for want of Sunday School as I was a preacher’s kid (PK) and didn’t have a lot of choice. It had more to do with Lent being something “those Catholics” did, like eating fish on Fridays. Lent was not a big deal in the United Church, or the protestant churches for that matter. It was part of how we knew, in those pre-ecumenical days, that we weren’t like “them” (I won’t remind you of the more pejorative terms that were used way too often). Since the Roman Catholic Vatican II Council in the early 60’s attitudes and practices have changed. Many mainline protestant churches, including the United Church, get along pretty well with the Catholic church and they with us. Along the way the United Church has become more liturgical and some practices, like observing Lent, have become part of who we are.

 

Becoming more aware of Lent as I grew up I tried “giving up” a favorite thing for the 40 days prior to Easter. I knew it had something to do with Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, and that it was about getting ready for Easter, but not much else. My “practice” was more futile than successful as my Lenten resolve was about as determined as my New Year’s resolve and usually faded away before the first week ended. It certainly didn’t make me feel more like Jesus in the wilderness or gain much appreciation for suffering or sacrifice, especially of the voluntary kind.

 

As my spiritual growth continued I religiously bought the yearly devotional Lent booklets and was a bit more successful in reading a number of the reflections in them. Still, my rebellious spirit has a tough time with things I tell myself I “should” do. What works better for me is to avoid the “should-ness” of spiritual practices and make a conscious choice to do or not do something. Like choosing to confess some of my struggles, such as I have done here.

 

On a more interesting note, a few years ago I discovered “Lent Madness” which has made the season educational and fun to boot. Lent Madness was developed by two Episcopal priests who were inspired by basketball’s March Madness playoffs. Five years ago they decided to have a saintly competition each year where each day two saints (not all official or ancient) are pitted against each other. Short biographies are pitched by volunteer writers, posted on the internet and people are invited to read them and vote for their favorite. The favorite is be entered into a bracket and eventually set against another saint until all but one are eliminated with the “winner” receiving the highly coveted “Golden Halo” in time for Easter!

 

Lent Madness is a great way to become acquainted with some very fine and, more than occasionally, some very quirky people. I could say more but it would be better for you to check it out for yourself at www.lentmadness.org (they even have merchandise) or follow their Facebook page.

 

I guess I am inviting you to give up some ignorance (not an insult, we all have it) and choose to take up a seriously fun practice for Lent.

 

Have a blessed 40 days!

 

Paul

Interfaith Harmony Week Challenge

There are many opportunities to participate during the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week, too many to engage all of them. However, it is important to try! The challenge is to find at least one event to attend even if it means cancelling something else. This is important! And even better if you can fill your passport with stamps. A list of events is available at https://www.calgaryinterfaithcouncil.org/world-interfaith-harmony-week/

 

Unfortunately this Sunday at Living Spirit won’t be one of those opportunities, but not for lack of trying. The idea was to have a pulpit exchange and we were matched with B’nai Tikvah, our neighbouring synagogue and former home of Riverview United. Scheduling difficulties ruled this weekend out though. All is not lost however as we will be working out another weekend and, hopefully, our congregation will be able to attend a service there as well as hosting their congregation on a Sunday morning. I really don’t want it to be just a clergy swap! The plan is to have it happen before summer, so we will let you know when we have the details. Stay tuned!

 

Our focus in worship this Sunday will still be Inter-Faith harmony, so please consider being a part of our struggle in overcoming brokenness, finding our strength and humanity, and taking another few steps toward harmony with our sisters and brothers in faith and peace in our world.

Let’s Talk About… Communion

Communion and Baptism are the two sacraments that are celebrated in the United Church of Canada.

In our Song of Faith we affirm:

To point to the presence of the holy in the world,

the church receives, consecrates, and shares

visible signs of the grace of God.

In company with the churches

of the Reformed and Methodist traditions,

we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:

baptism and holy communion.

In these sacraments the ordinary things of life

—water, bread, wine—

point beyond themselves to God and God’s love,

teaching us to be alert

to the sacred in the midst of life.

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

we are born into the brokenness of this world.

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

we are surrounded by God’s redeeming love.

 

… Carrying a vision of creation healed and restored,

we welcome all in the name of Christ.

Invited to the table where none shall go hungry,

we gather as Christ’s guests and friends.

In holy communion

we are commissioned to feed as we have been fed,

forgive as we have been forgiven,

love as we have been loved.

The open table speaks of the shining promise

of barriers broken and creation healed.

In the communion meal, wine poured out and bread broken,

we remember Jesus.

We remember not only the promise but also the price that he paid

for who he was,

for what he did and said,

and for the world’s brokenness.

We taste the mystery of God’s great love for us,

and are renewed in faith and hope.

 

Here is a brief church history lesson: from the time of Union in 1925 to the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, most United Churches celebrated the sacrament of Communion four times a year. These were considered special occasions. In many congregations lay “Elders” would make home visits to members of the church in their Elder’s district to hand deliver their ‘communicant’s card’ that would allow that member to take part in the sacrament. This practise, while positive in making sure all members of a congregation got a home visit from their Elder four times a year, did reinforce the idea that only adult church members were welcome to take part in communion. The value of having an ‘open table’ at communion became more and more important, where all persons present were invited to participate in communion… including children. The frequency of communion was another topic of discussion as many congregations moved from having communion only four times each year to having it monthly. There was considerable discussion across the church about both Baptism and Communion and what membership in the United Church meant through the 1980’s until the first decade of the 2000’s. It turned out that the church did not make concrete policy changes about these issues, but the practise of congregations certainly did shift significantly. Now, most United Churches intentionally practise having an open table at communion, and many churches practice monthly communion with children taking part. These new practices were reflected in the Song of Faith in 2006.

Living Spirit United Church has started celebrating the sacrament of Communion once a month. I am not sure if this is returning Living Spirit to a previously held practise of monthly communion or if this is a new practise for this faith family. For those of you who have been a part of this congregation since your amalgamation, and before, I would love to hear your history of communion practises.

Frequent access to Communion changes us. Coming to the Table of Jesus Christ can help bring healing to a community that has suffered deep grief or divisions. There is abundant grace available to the church family that meets together at the Table of Jesus Christ in the same way that both body and soul are nourished when friends and family come together around a dinner table to share a meal. In this Interim time of healing in this church family, we will come to the Table of Jesus Christ frequently to take full advantage of God’s grace through the gift of Communion. I look forward to seeing you at the Table!

Shannon Mang

Tempest in a Coffee Pot?

Some Tim Horton’s Ontario franchises seem to be giving us a lesson in how not to do business, especially when Canada’s economic recovery is strengthening (although not as much in the East as in Alberta). The optics alone are so bad that their parent company refers to (dismisses?) the franchisees as “a radical group”. How can it look good when an employer makes employees pay for their own raises by cutting pay for breaks and adding charges for previously free uniforms. But then the corporate bosses that criticize their own franchisees are really just trying to deflect from their refusal to allow price increases to cover the wage increase. And they certainly don’t want the workers increase to cut into their own hyper-inflated salaries (2000% over the last 10 years for CEOs), or the massive, billion dollar returns to HQ. Shareholders (including pension plans) would demand executive blood were that to happen. I do receive a non-governmental pension so I have a smidgen of sympathy for those shareholders.

Still, the Tim Horton’s fiasco brings home the brutality of our increasingly dysfunctional economic system, where everyone at the top of the financial pyramid expects and demands their perceived entitlement of increasing salaries, perks and profits every year, no matter what impact it has on those at the bottom. And that impact is about the only thing that “trickles down”.

Capitalism works somewhat better when the marketplace has some ethical controls in place. Currently those at the top of the corporate elite seem incapable of moral and ethical decision making. The “free” market has become free of ethics and morality. “Maximizing profit”, the holy grail of the market, is a morally bankrupt principle that dictates that financial decision makers must focus only on having increasing profits every single quarter. Family and community are minimized or ignored, except when there is a good PR opportunity. To squeeze the most out of the system individualism and productivity are glorified and in the end, most of us will be working 18 hours every day for pathetic wages, with only enough time off to ensure survival and the production of new workers. Don’t believe it? Look around. The point of unchecked capitalism is to create an empire that funnels all wealth to the top.

Community is the counter to this dysfunction. When families and communities are strong people band together for their own interest, form worshipping communities to pass on the value of the person and persons beyond person hours for the corporation, governments to pass legislation to keep the workplace humane and healthy, and educational and cultural institutions to speak to and uplift our humanity. Can you see how this might aggravate those who only see us as individual worker units? A functional form of capitalism would honour people as persons, and what we have today is simply not working for too many.

As a minister I believe the church has to become aware of its complicity in our economic dysfunction. We are too easily co-opted by an individualism that says our job as Christians is simply to get ourselves into heaven by going to church, weekly or weakly, and assenting to a list of dogmas whether we understand them or not. Social justice and community building are no longer our strong suits and we are losing our impact on a society that sees us as increasingly irrelevant.

So, if you are interested, let’s have a sacred conversation about it, especially if you disagree with my point of view. I am open to being shown how wrong I am and I hope you are too. Let’s meet over coffee or a meal and see where it goes. You can reach me through our church office, or talk to me after church – we are open Sundays for your worshipping convenience.

Let’s talk about… Intentional Interim Ministry

“Interim Ministry is a way for a congregation to take an intentional ‘time out’ to seek renewal and make a significant change in its organizational structure, its mission, or its pastoral life.”

Introducing Interim Ministry A Process of Change for Congregations Copyright © 2010 The United Church of Canada

 

We have started our Intentional Interim Ministry time here at Living Spirit United Church. I will sometimes use the blog and newsletter space to talk about different aspects of this unique journey that we are on together.

 

Intentional Interim Ministry is all about walking through a time of change, or transition with our eyes, and our hearts open to God’s guidance. There are lots of different circumstances in churches that suggest that an Intentional Interim time would help:

  • a pastor has served a congregation for a long time, especially pastorates of 15 years or more.
  • the missional direction or financial viability of the congregation is unclear.
  • there are major changes in the demographics of the congregation or in its surrounding community
  • the congregation is struggling to deal with the loss of a beloved minister
  • there is a boundary violation on the part of the pastor such as an incident of sexual misconduct or financial malfeasance.
  • disagreements and tension permeate congregational life and block effective decision-making

This is not an exhaustive list. When any one or more “complicated” circumstances are a part of a congregation’s life and these result in a minister leaving, the congregation’s natural desire is to just hire their next minister as soon as possible and “get on with it”. The set of “complicated” circumstances may seem to leave with the minister, but if a congregation does not take an intentional time out, the next one or more pastoral relationships often fail, with new ministers and congregations ending up living through painful un-intentional interim periods. Choosing to take an intentional time out gives the congregation the space to work through their “complicated” history.

 

Here is what we can expect to gain from an Intentional Interim Ministry time:

  • a renewed sense of itself and the relevance of its mission
  • new energy, plus the knowledge and skills to make decisions about its future
  • discernment of God’s call into new life, and renewed faithfulness and confidence to follow it
  • an understanding of the congregation’s identity within the wider United Church community

 

Intentional Interim Ministers are specially trained in:

  • facilitating and enabling change
  • restorative justice: resolving conflicts and healing old issues
  • being a listener, a consultant, a teacher

 

The Intentional Interim Minister does not do this work “for” the congregation- she/he works in “partnership with” the congregation. The most important leadership for the Intentional Interim Ministry time comes from the congregation’s Transition Team, that is made up of members of the congregation, a representative from presbytery, and the Intentional Interim Minister to achieve agreed-upon goals during the interim period. Please start thinking and praying about who you want as members of the transition team, and pass along their names to me so I can talk with them about this important work.

 

Shannon Mang

Epiphany – A bright dawn, Are you Woke?

After celebrating Jesus’ birth and the beginning of a new calendar year we should be in a different space than simply tired and possibly hungover. As people of faith, having revisited the beginnings of the Jesus Movement two millennia past and facing a new year with its uncertainties and possibilities, we don’t look for a crowd to follow – we look to the light and the lights that have led us and lead us not to becoming the best we can be in a quest for idealistic perfection but to become more fully our true selves, all that we were created to be. This is one reason I like to spend some contemporary time with ancient scripture. In light of today’s realities what light shines for us in the dark of night or the brightness of a new day. This week I have “mulled” Isaiah 60: 1-6 with this in mind.

First, Isaiah 60: 1-6 from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

 

 

Now, Isaiah 60: 1-6, Mulled:

Wake up, God lover, Jesus lover, life lover

Roll out of bed

Yawning

stretching

Salute the sun

The rising sun

Greet its warm glow

With all the earth

With all the earth

You slept in darkness

Deep darkness

Holiness rises on you

In you

A new day

A New Year

Gathering everyone

reconciling

Heads up

Opportunity knocks!

Reunification

Possibly

Likely

Globally

Cosmically

From places you fear

Countries you dread

Bringing gifts

Beyond imagining

Praising God

With different names

A great round up

Of strange gifts

Offerings aplenty

Delighting holiness

Splendor.

 

For this first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, I have worked my mulled version into the worship service. I hope you can be there as we, like the Magi of old, enter into the work of worship, fermenting, spicing, tasting the tangy savouriness of life in a new light as together in this time and in this place we journey home a different way.

 

Paul

An Advent/Christmas Eve Day

Christmas this Sunday is both not yet here and here! For many this Sunday is simply Christmas Eve, and that is well and good. For the church though, this Sunday is the Four Sunday of Advent first and Christmas Eve later. To be a little more clear our 10:30 am worship service will mark the last Sunday of Advent by lighting the first three candles (Hope, Peace, Joy), then lighting the fourth candle and lifting up the theme of Love. HOWEVER! Because it is also Christmas Eve Day our Sunday School and any children and adults who want to help, will present the Christmas Story (the one in the Bible) using Puppets! A wonderful story and a good time. And yes, there will be carols and lots of music.

Then, because it is Christmas Eve, we will be celebrating Christ’s birth at 7:00pm with carols, communion and candle lighting. A quiet service of beauty, remembrance, and peace.

We hope you can participate in one of these services, or perhaps both. Each will offer an experience of the holiness of the day, with the added zestiness of good company and eager anticipation.

Although it is infrequent that Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it has its own flavour – Not yet here and Here! In the darkness of the longest nights, when it seems morning will never come, it arrives with a ray of light blossoming into full blown sunrise. So in life it can seem like the night will never end, then suddenly we realize, often in mysterious ways, that we are not alone and that the light has always been there and always will be.

Whether you are able to attend our services or not this year, on behalf of the staff and congregation, I wish you all the spiritual goodness that is Christmas, and a New Year of happiness for you and all those you love.

 

Shalom,

Paul

Mary and Elizabeth: Wombs of God

Fred Craddock, a teacher of preachers, has this to say about the story of Mary and Elizabeth:

“The two women, [Elizabeth and Mary] not only kin but drawn by a common experience, meet in an unnamed village in the Judean hills.  The one is old and her son will close an age; the other is young and her son will usher in the new.  Even the unborn John knows the difference and leaps in the womb when Mary enters.”**

Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, has the honour and responsibility of closing out the old age.  Mary’s baby, Jesus, the Christ, has the scary and ground-breaking task of inaugurating the new age.   It is not a gradual change, the birth of one child ends the old age, the birth of the other child begins the new age. For both Elizabeth and Mary, the news of their epoch-shaking pregnancies was delivered by an angel visitant, but the responses to those visits were as different as the children they would bear.

The announcement and birth of John the Baptist was delivered to John’s father, Zechariah, a priest.  As a trained, professional religious guy he fell into the trap that a lot of us trained, professional religious types fall into: he figured that his own experience and intellect trumped what God was trying to tell him. When Zechariah was visited by an angel while performing his duties at the Temple, who announced that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child who would “go ahead of the Lord” (1:17) and “bring back many of the people of Israel to their Lord their God” (1:16), Zechariah could barely suppress a scoffing laugh. To the angel, Zechariah “mansplained” that the news was nonsense: Elizabeth had been barren all her child-bearing years and now was well beyond the capacity to become pregnant.  Lesson alert!! Don’t try to mansplain to an angel!! The angel did not waver from the original message, but did take away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the child was born – if Zechariah could not respond to a visiting angel bringing amazing news with words of faith, he would not speak at all.

The Gospel of Luke also has the story of the angel arriving to announce to Mary God’s invitation to be the woman to shelter and grow God’s beloved child in her womb and to bear the chosen One into the world.  Once she got over the initial shock of an angel visiting her, Mary uttered these unforgettable words (1:38) as recorded in the King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. Unlike the response of Zechariah, who put reason before proclamation, the young, frightened Mary was able to literally open herself to God’s possibilities, whatever that would entail.

Mary and Elizabeth: too young and too old, both women who were too unlikely to be God’s choice in bearing the child who would end an age, the other who would bear the child who would being the next age. Once again, our God is a God who chooses the last and least: the most unlikely of candidates to bear the Word into the world.

Mary and Elizabeth, our mothers of the faith, model for us the way to respond to the Good News that we, who are also the last the least, continue to be bearers of Jesus Christ into the world. We are always on the cusp of the old age passing away and a new age about to begin. The Good News of Christ is that we are continuously invited to let go of the things in our past that are no longer life-giving, but carry those things from our history that enhance our lives, and the lives of others into the new age that is forever opening before us.

As we approach the old/new story of Jesus’ birth, consider what God is bringing to birth in you, today.

Shannon Mang

** Luke: Interpretation; A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, ©1990