Till Death Due Us Part…

“…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”

It was Holy Week and I was cramming in an extra pastoral visit amid daily services and preparation for the big Easter weekend. While I usually called before making visits, one day I stopped unannounced at the home of church members who were struggling.

Bob was a successful, small town businessman. When his wife Evelyn was diagnosed with cancer the year before, however, Bob quit his job (early retirement actually) and stayed close to home to care for her. As Evelyn’s health declined Bob was called on more often to do the chores around the house like making meals, doing the laundry and cleaning the floors. It was quite a role reversal since Evelyn had kept house over the years and raised the kids while Bob was off travelling for business and building his career.

I knocked at the door around 9:30 am and Bob greeted me warmly, inviting me in to their home. “We’re just finishing breakfast,” he said, “come and join us in the kitchen.” Evelyn tried to stand up, but in her weakened condition I got to her before she could rise. I gave her a hug and helped her ease back on the chair with the special cushions. She was terribly weakened from her last treatment and it was sometimes hard to tell whether the look on her face was a smile or a scream.

“You’re here in time for our little ritual,” Bob said, “we used to do this once a month but now…now…” he said his voice trailing off, “now we do it every morning.” He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper with the date 1953 on it. Before my head could catch up with my heart, I listened as they spoke the following words:

“I choose you, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”

Their wedding vows from so long ago, first spoken in a little Baptist Church outside of Ottawa, now echoed in their large kitchen, bouncing off grandchildren’s rainbow coloured drawings attached to the fridge with magnets from all their holiday destinations over the years.

I sat there and heard their wedding vows spoken with deep, deep reverence, one to the other. It was holy week and I was preparing for the Maundy Thursday service the next day. In that kitchen I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me, hearing another vow from long ago, “A new commandment I give you, that you might love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John’s gospel (written in Greek) places the words Agape (not Eros or Storge, etc) on Jesus’ lips – a deep, abiding, self-giving love – a love that gives without counting the costs.

This Holy Week we will hear the “Maundy” or Commandment to love one another once again. It is a call to action for followers of Jesus to show deep love and compassion for others – not the carnal or cheap love that we see splashed across movie screens, tv channels or late night 1(900) commercials.

This is the deep and abiding love that Jesus shares with a servant’s heart, as he stoops down to wash the feet of his friends, taking the lowest paid household servant role and offering love and hospitality to others.

Looking back I witnessed that same kind of love in that kitchen many years ago. I sat and talked with Bob and Evelyn about the next round of treatments – their hopes and their fears. Before I left that day, we sat in a circle and reached out our hands, three and yet one, a heart-beating glimpse of the inner life of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I prayed with them for a couple of minutes and then came the Amen. As I opened my eyes, I saw tears flowing down Evelyn’s cheek and Bob jumped up and grabbed the Kleenex box. He carefully and lovingly wiped the tears away and I thought to myself I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen that with a towel and a grace filled bending towards disciples’ feet. If you listen carefully you can still hear in the distance a voice still calling:

A new commandment I give you…that you might love one another…for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…until death due us part…

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Calling (509)

Tempers flared around the room. Patience was thin on the faces of all gathered round. If you listened carefully you could hear the whistle of the kettle reaching an ecclesiastical boiling point. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember now what we were even debating. All I do remember from that moment in Ontario long ago, were the words of my clergy buddy sitting beside me in the meeting. Moments before a Presbytery meltdown, he leaned over and said with a twinkle in his eye, “If this gets any more serious I’m going to have to stand up and yell, “509 people. 509!”

I laughed and laughed out loud (which drew some disapproving stares) but “509” for us was “code speak” referring to the 509 number assigned in our Hymn Book to the song, “Here I am Lord.” The hymn is a beautiful exploration of God’s call to humanity that (at least for me) echoes the biblical testimony of Samuel’s call in 1 Samuel 3. My friend teased all the time about singing “509” in a tense moment since the lyrics and tune of the hymn seemed to calm even the most jumbled of nerves. We had been in so many meetings where whenever anything approached full combat, someone would soothe the crowd with a call for “509” and the place went still like carbon monoxide flooding the church basement.

And that was considered a good thing. Avoid tension at all costs. But I wonder about that now. Is God’s call really a relief from trouble or is it an invitation to jump into the paradigm disrupting work of the Holy Spirit in the world? I have long been a fan of John Wesley’s revival movement that began with a “heart strangely warmed” on May 24, 1738, but soon brought the Anglican minister into conflict with everyone from church officials to street mobs. No, there must be something about God’s call that disrupts our neat and orderly lives as much as comforts our jumbled nerves.

In some ways, I suppose, God’s call comes to us again and again throughout our life of discipleship. In that sense, God’s call is as important in our sanctification as it is in our justification. I think of Jesus’ call to Peter in John 21. That call comes with a clear warning about persecution quite absent in the original call from the lakeshore to “come and follow me.” Wesley’s “second call” in 1738 to an evangelical, revival ministry went against the grain of his own denomination and was quite different than the privileged first call of a “Preacher’s Kid” to study at Oxford a decade before.

I wonder a lot about call these days. I don’t just wonder about God’s call in a distant or mere philosophical fashion either. No, working daily in a seminary the language of call/vocation is often on my lips. Most students come to seminary with a “pre-loaded” story of God’s call on their life. It’s a beautiful thing to hear these stories on a regular basis. But I’m also aware that God calls more than once in our lives. Like John Wesley hearing God’s call to something radically different after a decade of Ordained Ministry, I try to imagine how best to prepare my students for God’s on going call in their ministerial life. I suppose, I’m also asking that question of myself, if I’m honest.

For example, I write this blog on the one year anniversary of announcing to my congregation that I was taking up the post of professor at our local seminary. This new call involved (like every call) a movement away from a former life and a movement towards a new one. Specifically, it involved moving my Ordination from The United Church of Canada to the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The response from friends and colleagues to this call has been – mixed. While some naturally questioned my move and upheld my steps in prayer, I have also been reminded (sometimes painfully) of the curious loyalty to denominationalism that still exists in post-Christendom Canada. What if some call moments do not involve smoothing over tension with a shout out for “509,” but rather involve a bold and risky movement for the sake of the gospel?

I’ve discovered over the years (since Christ found me as a teenager) that it’s a humbling thing to follow Jesus. It’s a humbling thing to be made and remade over and over again by our “potter like” God. God’s “Call” and our “Answer” can and will take us to the limits of our own ability…if for no other reason than to remind us of God’s Sovereignty and Election…the reminder of our need to rely on God’s grace alone. Thank God (literally) that the One who calls us to pick up our cross and follow is, in the words of Narnia, not safe but good. Next time, I don’t think I’ll call for “509” but rather I’ll call on the God revealed in Jesus Christ for courage and perseverance to follow…until the Kingdom comes.

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

God’s Green Jacket?

“Do you have a Green Jacket?”

Who will become the 2015 Masters champion and be awarded the coveted green jacket?

The Masters, one of the four annual golfing majors played each year, is a tradition rich tournament. One of the most recognizable is the awarding of the green jacket to the winner. This tradition began in 1949 when Sam Snead won his first of three Masters Championships. The green jacket, which is really a sports coat, is the official sports coat worn by the members of the Augusta National Golf Club. Members began wearing such jackets in 1937 during the Masters Tournament so that fans in the crowd could easily spot a member. What an interesting idea:- being seen to be different.

Each winner of the Masters Tournament automatically becomes an honorary member of Augusta National. The winner keeps the Green Jacket for a year after their victory. Then, when the year is up, the winner returns their green jacket to the Club. However, they are allowed to wear it whenever they return to the Club.
Do you have a green jacket, or something similar?

I love golf. I have always loved golf. I was born on the north coast of Antrim in Northern Ireland where one of the greatest courses in the world is located. (Royal Portrush GC) I think I got my first set of clubs when I was four, or even younger. I often dream about the rounds I have played, remembering the shots I hit that I wish I hadn’t, the shots I wish I had hit but didn’t, and of course the score that I wish I had shot, but probably never will, not to mention my deep unfulfilled yearning of getting my first hole-in-one. My dreams are small compared to the aspirations of my fellow golfers from Northern Ireland; Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. They dream about getting their first, of many, green jackets.

In order for them to win one they spend countless hours practicing. Rory McIlroy is perhaps one of the most ‘naturally’ talented golfers in the world but even he does not rely on sheer talent. He practices, practices some more and continues to practice every single day. The only way Rory will hopefully win a green jacket is due to his preparation, his practice.
Should our life of discipleship be any different? Should we consider our hope to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ any differently from the necessary process of learning to play golf, hoping to one day win the green jacket? To succeed as a golfer, like Rory, takes years of hard work, hours and hours of practice, time after time of listening to those wiser than you giving you advice and teaching you, and then you need to put all that experience in to more practice. Perhaps we have far too easily accepted a Gospel message that is centred around Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross without giving any thought to what he taught, what he did, and what he called us to do in order to follow him.

At the end of his incredible Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commends the wise man. Why? Because he listened to Jesus’ words and put them in to practice; lived them, daily!

Can any of us really expect to be awarded a green jacket, to be invited in to true membership, if we merely listen to our Lord’s words and for all intense purposes ignore them?

Personally, I want a ‘green jacket.’ I want to hear my Lord say to me one day, “good and faithful servant, enter in to your master’s joy.” I yearn for the day when I am invited to remain in the presence of my Lord rather than being ushered away from him to ‘live’ without him. Don’t you? I dream about the day of wearing a green jacket in the presence of the Lord. Don’t you?

So I think I might plan in to my busy schedule to get on that range everyday and practice. Any one else coming?

Rev. Martin Baxter is the Pastor of St. Andrew’s/St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in North Vancouver, British Columbia and serves on the Senate of Regent College.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Faith Looks Like…

Recently I have received a reminder of what faith looks like – not how it feels….the “blessed assurance” that we are children of the living God, but how it looks in our lives every day. My faith community is gathering around and lifting up a much-beloved brother who is dying, and the compassion, support, honour, and love shown to him and his family do much to remind me of how faith operates at the “ground zero” of human pain and suffering.

Faith is not something we do in solitude. Faith is how we do community. Praising, praying, planning, reaching, touching, and embracing. It’s what binds us to countless people over thousands of years. Faith looks like gender and status equality in the first-century Roman Empire, and martyrs sharing visions of the Kingdom, and Puritans opening a new frontier. It’s a candle in a window on the Underground Railway, and a high school converted into a hotel in Gander, NL on 9-11.

Humanity is a strange and wondrous thing. In high-stakes life-or-death situations like those I mentioned above, faith is easy to see, because it’s actively shaking up the numbed order of everyday life. But do “in-between” times really exist? Or have we fallen prey to the bait-and-switch perpetuated by the media, intent on pointing to crises elsewhere while whitewashing the pain and suffering evident in our own neighborhoods? As long as God’s Kingdom is unfulfilled, we have a responsibility as Christians to live out our faith in consistent, compassionate action. Ground zero is around every corner, as near as the person next to me, and as extensive as my brother or sister on the other side of the globe.

Through faith and in faith we are all part of the communion of saints. Bound by our conviction to “do” faith in the world, we offer our very lives as a gift to Jesus, who, through His life, death, and resurrection, shows us living faith. I am humbled to be numbered among the countless generations who have chosen Jesus, and inspired to be their hands anew in this time and place, doing faith.

Janet Taylor is a Certified Candidate in the Presbyterian Church in Canada and a 1st year student at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Good Night Gorilla Missiology

The challenge of being a third born child in the family is almost everything you get is a “hand me down.” My two year old daughter Sadie has inherited clothes, toys and books from older siblings and family friends. One of her favourite bedtime stories is “Good Night Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann. When I reached for this book the other night it almost fell apart in my hands. The binding of this little board book was broken, and corners of its pages were chewed off earlier by siblings in their toddler years. As I opened the story and began to tell Sadie the familiar tale of the Zookeeper who says “Good Night” to the animals only to have the Gorilla come along and let them all out, Sadie pointed at something I hadn’t noticed before. Page after page her little finger pointed out a red ballon that appeared in different places. At the beginning the ballon was near the ground. With the turn of each new page you could clearly see this ballon floating higher and higher in the sky. Even at the end of the story when the Zookeeper’s wife returned (most of) the animals to their cages, Sadie pointed to the little red dot with a string illuminated against a full moon in the bedroom window. I was amazed. I could not tell you how many hundreds (if not thousands) of times I’ve read that book over the years to my other children and not once did I (or anyone else) notice that red ballon. It was a reminder of what on going revelation looks like…

I’m writing this blog from the Atlanta airport after a productive and inspiring meeting of the Forum for Theological Exploration’s Board of Trustees. FTE (formerly called the Fund for Theological Education) has blessed countless individuals and congregations by helping to notice, name and nurture young adults call to ministry since the 1950s and fund those vocational dreams, including doctoral students from minority backgrounds. I’ve been a longtime supporter and partner of FTE. Now as a Board member, I am particularly aware of how important it is that Christian leaders are committed to a theology of mission that lives with an expectation of revelation when it comes to what God is doing in the lives of our youth and young adults. This should not be a surprise given the biblical examples of the times and places where God shows up and calls young people to leadership. From Gideon to Naomi to Samuel to Esther to David to Mary to Timothy and more our primary source of authority gives the impression that God almost appears (at times) to have a “preferential option for the young.”

We live in an anxious time in the church. While the Holy Spirit is on the move and the gospel is being preached and lived around the world – our traditional structures of church in North America are sagging and decaying. We are desperately in need of “fresh eyes” to see the “red balloons” of God’s revelation like the red flames of Pentecost so that we might join in God’s revival all around us. We need to “let the dead practices and structures of the church bury the dead” so that we can join in what God is calling us to in this new day and age. How might we live our theology of mission as the church awaiting and expecting God’s call for a new generation of leaders for Christ’s church? How might we help to notice, name and nurture the call of youth and young adult more effectively for the service of the Kingdom that is coming and, by grace, is already present in this world that Jesus died to save?

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall at The University of British Columbia.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Litmus Test of Mission

Theologically speaking, a Christian denomination’s priority should always be mission – that is, service to the world.

We could say the same thing for congregations and parishes. It is that outward-moving, creation-and-people-loving, God-honouring impulse that takes seriously Jesus’ own sense of mission in Luke 4:16-21:

When he came to Nazareth … he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day[.]
He stood up to read … the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
… ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
… [Then he said] to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

If this is Jesus’ own program for mission, and if we are also called into mission as people who follow Jesus, this pattern should be central for us. It is about proclaiming good news; seeking the well-being of the impoverished; working for liberation and healing; and announcing the goodness of God. In short, it is about serving others.

Have I missed something? Let me know in the comments.

Although there were ugly aspects of The United Church of Canada’s originating dream (for example, the totalizing and sometimes anti-Catholic discourse), the heart of that denomination-forming impulse at the turn of the 20th century was principally a missional impulse.

We need to keep the priority of mission (serving others) in front of us in the present. It will help us test how we invest ourselves. How is ‘x’ serving Christ’s mission? ‘X’ might be a favourite project, a new or continuing ministry, a committee, a gift of time or organization or money or labour.

When we answer that, we’ll know how to allocate resources, energy, time, prayer, people.

Serving Christ’s mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the litmus test for the faithfulness of our life together.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

On prizing one’s own views

In the novel The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes a scene in which a clergyman is deeply committed to his “honest opinions.” By this, the cleric means that he is sure that his own opinion is more important than understanding others’ views, and much more important that ever changing his mind!

Sometimes people say (accuse) that to go into a church service, you have to check your brain at the door. In other words, church isn’t about thinking, but feeling; or, maybe, church is for people who prefer not to be rational about reality.

As a not completely irrational person (I hope), I would say that going to worship is not about checking our brain at the door. Far from it.

But here’s the thing: worship IS about worshipping God, and not myself. Worship is about celebrating a relationship of trusting faith in God, the One whose way is the way of love, forgiveness, reconciliation.

This is a way that can be hard to follow. It takes a lot of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy. It asks of me that I surrender my own “rightness” in favour of the goodness of God. If my own opinions are my gold standard, for example, they quickly become my idols and I worship them instead of the living God. But worship reminds me I have to give them up and seek a better way.

Love, forgiveness, and reconciliation often don’t come easily, or even naturally. But that is the way of God as we see it in Jesus Christ. Good worship will coach and encourage us in the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ way.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments