Breakfast with Bikers

I sat down with my breakfast tray full of rubber eggs and a stale croissant and smiled at the leather clad bikers all around.  How did I get myself into this situation?  I was in Calgary this past weekend to preach at Grace Presbyterian Church and lead the Elders after worship in a Session retreat.  I arrived Saturday night and was met by my friend Rev. Dr. Jean Morris.  Over a great pasta dinner in a trendy part of town we caught up on life and ministry and went over the various elements of worship and learning set for the next day.  I checked into my hotel room at the Best Western hotel downtown (3 blocks from the church) and reviewed my sermon for the next day – Luke 15…parable of the lost sheep.  You know the one.  Jesus has just finished offending the Pharisees in Chapter 14 at a fancy dinner party giving them the old, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” line.  Then we roll into Chapter 15 and Jesus is eating with “sinners” and the Pharisees are disgusted.  Jesus reminds them that every time one sinner repents a party breaks out in heaven.  Of course, for the so called 99 “righteous” their self-assurance means they appear to be without need of God’s soteriological gift of grace.  Funny that.

So, the next morning I go downstairs for the free hotel breakfast and the entire room is full of bikers.  Apparently I was the only guy in town not there for a biker convention.  Nevertheless, in my “preacher’s suit” I sat down at the one free spot in the eating area, surrounded by bikers.  I greeted them warmly and noted that the guy beside me had a “BC Chapter” logo beneath his skull and crossbones.  “Hey, I’m from Vancouver!” I said to the large, hairy man beside me.  This could go either way, I thought to myself.  “Me too!” the man said with a warm smile.  I was introduced around the table as I met guys from various motorcycle branches across Western Canada.  “What’s with the suit?” one guy asked me.  “I’m a preacher,” I said, “I’m preach’n a couple of blocks away at Grace church.”  “Cool.  I believe in God,” the biker said in response.  This started a long conversation around the table.  I couldn’t help but think of the bible verse I was going to preach that morning on Jesus keeping “mixed company.”  After the rubber eggs and stale croissant were consumed, I bid them farewell and God bless.  “God bless you,” they said as I waved goodbye.  Later that morning, I told the congregation in the Sermon time that God is full of surprises in the company that we keep and that I had even just had “breakfast with bikers.” I think Jesus would approved.  Somewhere, beyond the stained glass sanctuary, I think I heard the roar of a motorcycle engine…

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall and Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership, Vancouver.

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Grace and gratitude

We usually don’t get to thank the people who’ve made our lives possible.

Think of the schools you’ve attended, the camps that marked your childhood, the hospitals that have nursed you to health, the congregations that show life in its depths. Their founders, if their names are even known to you, are long gone. There may be dusty plaques or the odd eccentric historian who knows who they were, but you can’t go shake their hand and say “thanks.”

It was a rare gift then that I got to do that recently. The Rev. Laura Butler and her late brother the Rev. Ralph Butler and his wife Wanda gave the money for the endowed chair I hold at Vancouver School of Theology. She’s a feisty 95, bright as the morning sun, and someone without whom I would not be where I am. I got to shake her hand, look in her wise and lively eyes, say “thanks,” and pray with her. It pleased her I think. It certainly pleased me.

Her life has been remarkable. Her father, for whom the chair is named, the Rev. Ralph Butler, was a Canadian Methodist before the merger that made the United Church of Canada in 1925. The youth group at one Westmoreland Methodist in Toronto (a town once called the Methodist Rome) raised money to send a minister to help Methodist churches on the west coast of Canada as a summer intern. Ralph loved the place as soon as he got here. He also loved the daughter of the older minister who came to hear him preach, encouraged him, and invited him over for dinner. He asked if he could “correspond” with her when he returned to eastern Canada. She said she would like that. The property in Victoria he later purchased would grow in value as others discovered a similar love for British Columbia. It would fund the gift that their daughter would give that would bless my family and, hopefully, many others through and after me.

This year is the centennial anniversary of a big year in Ralph Butler’s life in 1915. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in Canada. He married that elder minister’s daughter with whom he’d corresponded, one Elisabeth Letitia Baker. And in case that wasn’t enough for one year, he also received his first appointment in the Methodist Church, to a parish in the appropriately named town of Mission, BC, then leagues from Vancouver, now becoming an outer suburb. He later served a three point charge in Washington state, encouraging his children Ralph and Laura to preach along with him. This meant young Laura was preaching in her early 20s in the early 1940s not far removed from undergraduate work at the University of Washington. I asked several different ways if it wasn’t exotic or objectionable to some to be a young woman pastor in the early 1940s. She ignored the question first, then shot back, “Only the people interested in hell objected.”

She was more interested in heaven, and in building outposts for it here, which is what institutions are meant to be. Her conference asked her to build a new church in a neighborhood in Seattle near a Boeing plant going full blast for the war effort. She went door to door asking folks if they wanted to be part of a new church she was starting. “`Sure, we’ll help!’ some said. ‘Hell no!’ others said.” She started a women’s group in one home. A youth group in another. A men’s group followed. A Roman Catholic layman started a store and offered its use to the fledgling congregation (“I thought that was impressive from a Catholic in those years”). She built a building from two previously existing buildings, one a quanset hut, the other an army chapel. She had walls and pews and church accoutrement, but no floor. Cement was hard to get in wartime. When it came, the day the volunteers would pour, the weather looked rainy. The smart thing would have been to cancel. Laura prayed. “And I don’t believe in praying for the weather,” she said, but she did that day. And the day dawned beautiful and cool. It worked. Church planters: don’t try this at home.

By the time she got to Boston University School of Theology to study for her seminary degree she had already served a three-point charge and built a church. Her professors were unimpressed. “Forget everything you think you know about the church,” faculty said. “We’re going to re-form you.” She was the only woman preparing for parish leadership in her class (others studied Christian education). Her first year on campus was Martin Luther King’s last (“We never met,” she said. “He wasn’t quite as well known yet,” she adds charmingly). The great Howard Thurman was the chaplain. Laura is proud that communion was only served by black and white hands together.

BU seems not to have wiped the slate clean with Laura’s ministerial identity. But it did shape her love for theological education.

Upon graduation Laura returned to Victoria, where she served Metropolitan United Church for 31 years, outlasting a handful of senior ministers, taking the parish away to a family camp regularly, preaching and teaching and leading and marrying and burying. I told her she looked like she could bounce out of her chair and preach right then. “I gave up preaching when I turned 90,” she said. She has also graced camps with her largesse. I told her many ministers count Christian camping as formative in their vocations, myself included. “It’s a good start,” she says. “What was Jesus doing with the disciples in the wilderness?”

I’m struck by the goodness, and sturdiness amidst uncertainty, of the institutions that the Rev. Laura Butler has blessed and by which she has been blessed. The goods of parish, of seminary, of camp, and the deep goods of human life made possible by them without which life isn’t worth living: friendship, the ability to spot grace and name it, gratitude, and worship. The goods inherent in church planting, in braving new places as a pioneer, in bringing God’s good news to those who otherwise would be without it despite obstacles and with prayer and joy. The parlor in which we met was right out of the Victorian era (appropriately enough, meeting in a town named for Vicky). Images of her minister ancestors grace the walls. “I come in here and say ‘hello family!’” It’s not a bad start to a day for any of us—to thank the family that’s made our life possible even if we never met them.

On the other hand, the danger of getting to thank those who’ve blessed you is that you realize just how heavy the mantle is they’ve placed over you. I’ll wear Laura’s parents’ names around while I work and live in Canada. Their love of place, of one another, of service to the church, will be heavy. Yet they wore them with joy, so I can too. And they’d agree the real yoke we wear is given by one who promises that it will be easy and light.

My visit in her home with Laura’s ministers Allan and Megumi Matsuo Saunders of First Metropolitan United Church was just concluding with prayer when there was a surprise phone call. It was Laura’s sister-in-law Wanda, who also had helped create my position. Another chance to say “thanks.”

Deo gratias.


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What is really being kept from “people in the pew”

Someone recently told me about a workshop conducted by John Shelby Spong. After a couple of days of hearing Bishop Spong’s thoughts about the Bible, a little old church lady got up and said, “What I want to know is – why have you ministers been keeping this from us?”

That is one of the mantras of Bishop Spong and the so-called Progressive Christian movement of which he is a leader – that fear and fundamentalism have kept the laity in ignorance. Everybody should be given the tools to debunk the Bible for themselves and to leave behind the “Sunday School Christianity” so they can finally grow up spiritually and theologically.

“Progressive” Christianity is one of those grab-bag terms that encompasses a wide spectrum of belief and practice. But essentially, it’s a contemporary expression of the Enlightenment tradition which has permeated the West for 250 years. The Enlightenment tradition subjects everything to the light of critical reason. But, as Lesslie Newbigin and others have pointed out, the Enlightenment tradition is a lot better at questioning the assumptions and prejudices of others than it is at critiquing its own. We need to remember that our modern, rationalistic convictions are also faith-based beliefs, not self-evident truths. Those beliefs also need to be examined, not simply uncritically accepted.

The Progressive Christian creed says that individual religions divide, exclude and alienate; and that the authority of religious texts like the Bible is the authority to oppress and exploit. Religions, including Christianity, need to give way to an all-encompassing tolerance and inclusivity.

There’s more than a grain of truth in this. But I find some Progressive Christians can be quite blind to the implicit intolerance, judgmentalism and exclusiveness of their own attitudes. Without even being aware of it, they can be quite intolerant of forms of belief other than their own and exclude anyone who does not share their own ethical, social and political worldview.

My hope is that Progressive Christians, especially preachers and clergy, would consider what they are keeping from people: for example, that the biblical narrative is a powerful alternative vision of creation healed and restored; that the Christian analysis of sin and redemption both illuminates our human predicament and offers hope; that the traditional doctrines of Trinity, incarnation, atonement and last things still speak powerfully if we will only make the effort to engage with them.

My difficulty with Progressive Christianity is not that it is critical of Christian tradition but that it rejects something that it barely knows. This may be an unfair generalization, but I hear Progressive Christians routinely dismiss vast areas of Christian faith with a wave of the hand: “Atonement theology? We don’t believe that stuff anymore.”

“It’s not what you believe, it’s how you live that counts.” Progressive Christians say this all the time, and they keep from people how incoherent a statement it is, because action is always grounded in belief.

I have trouble believing that mainline Protestant churches are full of people who have been kept in the dark about biblical criticism by their autocratic pastors. But I know that what is being kept from people is the possibility of a lively engagement with the faith that has been handed on to us; and that amounts to a squandering of a rich theological, spiritual and moral inheritance.

Paul Miller is a United Church of Canada minister from St. Catharines, ON, and Presbytery Support Minister for Waterloo Presbytery.

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Does orthodoxy matter?

Orthodoxy means ‘right teaching’ – in the sense of true, correct, in alignment (think of what orthodontists do to teeth).

Orthopraxis means ‘right action.’ Action, actions, ‘doing’ – – – in alignment with that which is right. Can such ‘right’ action be unravelled from that which is right in se (right in itself)? I would say, no. They are closely linked, perhaps even wrapped around each other.

Now then: do I have to agree with that which is right, according to my society or community? No. Do I have to obey? No. Are there consequences if I do not? Usually.

‪So, for example, I might decide that red traffic lights should mean ‘speed up.’ Unfortunately, this puts me in disagreement with community norms, and indeed, with the law. How shall I respond? How the law will respond if I fail to stop is not in doubt.

In The United Church of Canada, we have tested and enforced orthopraxy many times (e.g. sexual misconduct leads to removal from ministry).

The UCC has not had its orthodoxy (right teaching) tested lately, however. We have been fairly broad in our interpretation/application of it – and many of us are very happy that this is so.

Now we are faced with the question: in the Christian community called the United Church, is there a limit to ‘right’ teaching, beyond which it is ‘wrong’ teaching?

We are not at this moment testing this in terms of members/adherents’ beliefs. To hang around with the UCC, you can pretty well believe or not believe whatever you like. But the denomination is now testing the convictions of one minister, seeing if some ‘limit’ has been transgressed. And yes, this creates a precedent for doing so with other ministers.

Should we do so? That is altogether another question.

What do you think?

Rob Fennell is an ordained minister of The United Church of Canada and teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS.

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Walking the Camino Nova Scotia

I have just returned from my second adventure of walking the Camino Nova Scotia. After the first one last July I had a profound sense that this is a small reflection of our greater pilgrimage through life on our journey towards God. But why do it again?! I am not quite sure of all the reasons, but the Camino beckoned and life and all its responsibilities made room for me to experience a second Camino.

How does one explain what it is like? It is a challenge, both physically and mentally. It caused me to face several of my fears and triumph over them…I did not die on the trail! Yes, that was one fear that I did not voice the first time until I arrived in Halifax! I did not “fail” whatever that means. I tend to be an introvert and find it hard to meet new people, but that turned out to be one of the best experiences of the Camino, getting to know the other pilgrims.

It is a special time of having no other responsibilities in front of you other than to get up, eat breakfast, make your lunch, pack up and walk. And as you walk you have time to ponder, time to pray, time to make new friendships with other pilgrims, time to enjoy the beauty of the Nova Scotia trail and shoreline, time to push yourself physically to do more than you thought you ever could.

At 64 years of age walking that last 31 kilometers into Halifax this year was an amazing accomplishment for me. And if you have experienced the fun of sleep overs as a kid, this is the adult version as each person finds their nest for the night in the Church hall or sanctuary. Only unlike the kids, we are early to bed and early to rise.

And there is the comfort of knowing that others are caring for you. There has been a tremendous amount of planning and preparation for this journey. After we leave they are packing up the van to carry our luggage to the next destination, preparing our dinners, supplying everything that is needed…all we have to do is ask, and yes, picking us up when the challenge is too much…sore backs, feet that have had enough and refuse to go further or just a sense that a rest is more important than doing that last 10 kilometers.

Personally I am in a place of discerning God’s call on my life and facing the temptation to want to hide or be like Jonah and go the opposite direction. I received encouraging confirmation from other pilgrims of the path that I think God wants me to go. I awoke at St. Luke’s Anglican Church on the morning of our 8th day where for some reason I had chosen to set up my bed opposite to my normal way of doing things to see the morning light shining through the Gethsemane window. Lord, not my will, but thine. Grant me grace to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Buen Camino and God Bless!

Shirley Kitchen lives in Milton, Ontario, and completed Camino NS twice, in 2014 and 2015.

Learn more about Camino NS here.

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Lord, have mercy

Back in the days of regular preaching, I loved to say to the folks gathered for worship, “isn’t it strange and wonderful that we are here?”

It is so strange these days that Christians come together – at all!

It is strange that we forego leisurely breakfasts and crosswords and running and sleeping on Sunday mornings. It is strange that we make ourselves vulnerable to the Word. It is strange that we are open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might transform us … little by little, or in great leaps.

It is strange that Christ calls us together to be his body, his presence, despite our uncertainties and fogginess and failings. Gathering for worship shapes us as a people.

And how wonderful indeed when our beloved preacher and our liturgies remind us of these things!

How wonderful when the songs we sing remind us of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. How wonderful when we see in one another the opportunities to love as Jesus loves: overcoming boundaries and obstacles that divide us from each other. How wonderful when we join in common cause to feed, build, nurture, embrace, advocate, support, protest, and hope against hope that this troubled world will one day be redeemed and healed.

And yet …

The news from Charleston, SC, about the murders of Bible study members by one who was welcomed and sat among them before opening fire is so terrible and horrifying that it leaves me speechless. We can only pray for those who survived, the families of those who died, and the young man whose heart had become so twisted.

And then we must rise to work for a better world.

How strange and wonderful it is that the surviving family members are already expressing forgiveness toward this young man.

An ancient prayer:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Rob Fennell teaches at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS.

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A Latchkey Ministry

I was a latchkey kid.

BILLARD Rob F Picture

Mom was a Registered Nurse, and Dad worked away teaching at community college in Port Hawkesbury. To be honest, I liked coming home after school when nobody was there. I had my own brown key. When my mom worked backshift, I would sneak in, drop off my school bag, and sneak back out, and come home a few hours later, just in time to eat.

It’s not much of a surprise to me, then, that I landed in a profession where someone gave me a key to a church and said, “Welcome.”

And that was it. No “Intro to Churches 101”. Just, “Here’s a key to everything we have valued for hundreds of years. Our buildings and our hearts. Please don’t mess it up.”

Yet, I’ll be completely honest. Sometimes the key was taken away, mostly because of miscommunication. But, sometimes, the key was taken away because I challenged a matriarch or patriarch of one of the churches on my pastoral charge. I used to argue endlessly with the oldest member of one church, an eighty-year-old man with a Scottish accent who had never been to Scotland. That’s how deep it went.

Yet, a definition of ministry as “latchkey” is quite liberating. Even if people don’t tell you things right away the door is open in front of you. Even if you have to keep knocking. Even if you have to keep reminding them that you’re not a previous minister. Even if you have to remind them that you’re not there to hurt them. Even if you just want to love them. Even if it takes years.

I once did a funeral for a man named Chris who died from a drug overdose. I was told it was a “partial embalming” due to the risks to the funeral home staff because of disease. He was a well-known drug dealer who was buried in his football jersey and sunglasses, and in a cloth casket. There were RCMP present at the wake and the funeral. In the front pew sat a different mother for each of his children, and his grandmother.

Yet, I was at a loss. I had no access. No key. It took sitting down with his blue-haired grandmother; it took sitting down with each of the women in his life; it took sitting down with his friends; it took sitting down with his kids. And that’s when the door creaked open. That’s when his current girlfriend said, “He loved Pink Floyd.”

And within a few conversations, the opening hymn changed from “In the Garden” (his grandmother’s favourite) to “Comfortably Numb” (more appropriate.) To this day, it holds the record for longest opening hymn for a funeral that I’ve ever done. But, we all needed to abide in the healing love of Dave Gilmour’s guitar solos.

And then, when we were all honest, we celebrated, and lamented, his life. The one thing I do remember is that his children didn’t cry.

Because it was winter, we buried Chris later that spring. When I arrived at the cemetery, there was no grandmother, no former girlfriends, no children: just me and two funeral home directors. I was told, “Just a heads up. The body has turned.” When I arrived at the grave, I finally understood what that meant.

That’s when it struck me that the keys we are given actually belong to God. That all we do is in the name of the sacred and the divine. And I took with me that somehow, in this moment, all was not lost. All was not lost for Chris; and all was not lost for the rest of us, who would be in the grave in our own due time.

There was a certain holiness to the aroma of death (though it stuck to the insides of my nostrils) and to the reality of life.

So, I opened my book and I said the prayers for committal; and I made a mental note that sometimes they keys of ministry open the doors to that bring us to the grave of a drug dealer with no one left to mourn him.

Ram Dass writes, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I believe that.

So, the next time someone hands you and me the key to a church, it’s always good to remember and be reminded: they are giving you the keys to their spiritual lives in a world which desperately needs to hear that goodness and love are pursuing us, and not the other way around. It’s an awesome task, to be sure, but it’s one that we accept when we open ourselves to discernment, theological study, and ministry.

And we do these things in Jesus’ name.

Aaron Billard serves in ministry at St John’s United Church, Moncton, NB.

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