A week in the life

People sometimes ask me what pastors do all week. Let me tell you about this week.

Although this is an unusual week in that (a) I don’t have to preach this coming Sunday so the six hours I normally spend in sermon preparation was freed up for other things (thank God, as you’ll see), and (b) because of various factors I haven’t really done any visiting this week. Ongoing projects I’ve been working on at my desk all week include preparation of reports for our Annual Meeting, preparation for ‘Spaghetti Church’ (see below), and preparation for a funeral this week (also see below).

Monday was my day off. Tuesday I was at the church for Morning Prayer at 8.30, then worked at my desk ’til about 11.00. Drove home, caught the train downtown for a lunch with the bishop to talk about a program we want to start in the Diocese of Edmonton. Had a meeting of the bishop’s advisory council 1.30-3.30 and another meeting with a clergy colleague 3.30-4.40, caught the train home, grabbed a bite to eat, then went out again about 6.15 for a meeting of the planning team for our Lenten Anglican-Mennonite dialogue. Home around 9.30.

Wednesday I was at the church for Morning Prayer as usual at 8.30, worked on some preparation until 10.15 when a couple of Earl’s family members came to see me to plan his funeral (he is a long-time member of our church who died of pulmonary fibrosis last week). That meeting lasted until about 12.30. Home for lunch, then in the afternoon I did some more preparation work. Marci and I enjoyed a quiet evening at home.

Thursday at 7.00 I met with our men’s Bible Study group, then drove down to the church for Morning Prayer. Spent the morning at my desk in various preparation tasks. Home for lunch and a little break, then at 3.00 a meeting with a couple who I am preparing for marriage. Home around 5.00. Back to the church 7-9 p.m. for a meeting of our Planning and Building Committee, back home 9.30ish and a bit more funeral preparation before bed.

Today I was at the church 8.15 or so for Morning Prayer, am just tidying up a few things now before I leave. The funeral is at the Faculty Club (unusually), and begins with food and drink around 11. I expect the service, what with all the tributes and other stuff the family have added, will last from noon to 2.00, followed by another reception. Probably home 4.00ish.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be at the church around 2.30 to set up for ‘Spaghetti Church’, our monthly opportunity for families with small children to pray and play and learn and eat together; we are expecting about 55 people. Cleanup afterwards probably means Marci and I will get home about 6.30 p.m.

Sunday we have our two services at 9.00 and 10.30. We’re glad to be welcoming Autumn Ballek from World Vision to speak at both services; we’ve been doing some fund raising for them this past year and we plan to present her with some cheques and hear some ideas from her about what we could do in 2012.

And that’s my week.

Purpose and Grace

I am a big Martin Simpson fan. Together with Kate Rusby, he got me started in traditional folk music, and he also fired my enthusiasm for alternative guitar tunings.

This new album arrived in the mail two days ago.

Too soon to write a review just yet, but it seems very strong to me. Traditional songs, covers, original tunes. Collaborations with the likes of Dick Gaughen, June Tabor, Jon Boden. Wonderful.

This song is on the album. Enjoy:

Apologies…

Life is very busy right now. I should learn never to start series of blog posts, because I rarely finish them, and then I feel guilty about it…

But, for those of you who didn’t see it on my Facebook page, here’s the view outside St. Margaret’s church at 4.50 p.m. yesterday. The days are starting to get a little longer!

Reluctantly sent to the whole world

The book of Jonah isn’t just a fanciful fairy story about a guy who got swallowed by a fish and then got burped up alive three days later. This is a story about a God who isn’t just ‘our’ God, but the God of our enemies too. It’s a story about a missionary who was told to go and spread God’s word to his enemies, but who chickened out and ran in the other direction instead – a reluctant missionary who eventually did as he was told, but then was angry when those enemies repented, because he was looking forward to seeing God wipe them out. I think you’ll agree that these themes are rather relevant to our world today. That’s why the book was written, and that’s why we read it as part of our Scriptures today.

There’s one question I’m going to set aside right at the beginning, and that’s the question of whether or not this story ‘actually happened’. This can be quite controversial, and people who are interested in the Bible often have strong feelings one way or the other. On the one hand, people point out that it’s impossible for a fish to swallow a human being and for them to stay alive for three days inside its belly. They also point out that there’s no historical record that the people of Ninevah ever turned wholesale to the God of Israel as this story says they did, nor is it true that Ninevah was a city that was so big it took three days to go from one side to the other. This story, they say, reads like a folk tale, and that’s what it is.

On the other hand, those who believe the story is literally true point out that if God can raise Jesus from the dead he can certainly make it possible for Jonah to stay alive in the belly of a fish for three days. They also point out that Jesus talks about Jonah in such a way as to give the impression he believed Jonah was a historical character.

I’m not going to take a position on this issue today, because I don’t think it affects the total message of the story. After all, we all know that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was a parable and never actually happened, but it can still speak powerfully to us about what God is like and what the Gospel is. And if it turns out that Jonah is also a parable, this still leaves us with the question of why this parable is included in our Scriptures; what is the Holy Spirit saying to us through it? So I will take the story as it stands in our Scriptures, leaving aside the question of historicity, and simply ask what God wants to say to us through it.

The story begins with God commanding Jonah the son of Amittai to leave Israel, go hundreds of miles to the northeast to the great Gentile city of Ninevah and try to drum up a revival by telling the people, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4). Ninevah, by the way, was not just another Gentile city; it was the capital city of Assyria, one of Israel’s deadliest enemies. Assyria was the nation that eventually destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and took its people into captivity. Imagine God sending a prophet from occupied France to Berlin in 1941, with the message that if the people there didn’t repent, God would overthrow their city – that’s the sort of commission that God gives to Jonah.

But Jonah went in the opposite direction – he took a ship across the Mediterranean Sea for Spain, trying to put as much distance between God and himself as he could. Apparently he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the call to be an overseas missionary. God responded by sending a storm to slow the ship down. Eventually the storm got so bad that the sailors began to talk about religion: “Whose god have we upset?” They did a little survey of the passengers and crew to find out about everyone’s religion, and when they got to Jonah and discovered that he worshipped Yahweh, who he claimed was the one who created heaven and earth, they got really nervous. “What have you done to annoy him so badly?” they asked, and Jonah told them he was running away from God’s call to be a missionary.

The sailors didn’t really want to harm Jonah, so they went back to their oars and tried hard to fight the storm, but when it became obvious that they were losing they came back and asked him what they should do. “Pick me up and throw me overboard”, Jonah replied; “It’s me he’s after, not you”. So they did, and down Jonah sank into an increasingly quiet ocean. That’s the last we hear of the ship, the sailors, or the storm.

Jonah probably thought it was the last of him, too, and when he saw an enormous fish approaching he must have been even more sure that this was the end of his story. But in the next few hours Jonah discovered an amazing new truth about God: God didn’t want his death; he wanted his obedience. And somehow, in an entirely supernatural way, in the belly of a fish, God saved Jonah for one reason and one reason only: so that he could have a second chance at the job he’d run away from the first time: taking the Word of God to the enemies of Israel.

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish and we can imagine that he did a lot of praying there (his prayers are summarised for us in chapter two of the book). The writer of the book makes it clear that God was in control of how long Jonah stayed in that dark and unpleasant place; presumably he waited until he was sure that Jonah’s repentance was genuine, but at the end of chapter two we read that ‘the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land’ (2:10).

We can imagine how happy Jonah was to see the light of day again, but we can only guess at his feelings when the word of the Lord came to him a second time: ‘Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’ (Jonah 3:2). But Jonah had learned a thing or two about God, and so off he went to Ninevah, walking up and down in the streets and calling out “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4).

Then an amazing thing happened: instead of lynching Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and they repented and turned to the God of Israel. The king ordered everyone to fast and pray and wear sackcloth and even the animals had to join in the fast – involuntarily, no doubt! And the Bible says that ‘when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’ (3:10).

Was Jonah pleased that the Ninevites had believed his message? He was not. He went off in a huff. “I knew this would happen!” he railed at God.  “You’re such a wimp! You always come out with these big threats but then as soon as people say they’re sorry and turn from their sins you turn into a pushover! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish in the first place; I knew you’d make a liar out of me!” And Jonah sat down on a hill outside Ninevah with his nose in the air.

After a while it got very hot sitting there in dignified disapproval, and so God (who was no doubt watching and having difficulty controlling his laughter) made a bush grow up to give Jonah some shade. Jonah was happy about that and eventually he had a good night’s sleep under the bush. But the next day God commanded a worm to eat the roots, and the bush died. When Jonah complained about what had happened to the bush God spoke to him again. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).

And that’s the question with which the book ends. The author leaves it hanging in the air, because that’s the big issue he wants to raise. Is God only concerned for his chosen people Israel, or is he concerned for other people too – even the deadliest enemies Israel has ever faced? Is he their god too? And if he is, what should Israel do about that? The author of Jonah proposes two radical answers to these questions.

First, he is quite clear that God is not just our God; he’s also the God of everyone else – even the people we hate and fear the most. This is a revolutionary idea today, and it was revolutionary in Jonah’s time too. At the very beginning, way back in the book of Genesis, when God first chose Abraham, he said to him ‘…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Unfortunately, by the time of Jonah the people had forgotten this call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth; they had come to believe that God cared for the Jews and the Jews only, and that he had created the Gentiles for the express purpose of feeding the fires of hell. That’s why, when Jesus sent his apostles out as missionaries to preach the Good News, they had such a difficult time with the idea that it wasn’t only for the Jewish people. To them the Gentiles – especially the Romans – were still the enemy and the oppressor; God should judge them, not save them.

Luke tells a significant story about how that attitude changed in Acts chapters ten and eleven. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had become a believer in the God of Israel and had begun to practice the commandments, but had not gone the whole way of circumcision. One day he was praying in his room when an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa for a man called Simon Peter who would tell him what to do next. At the same time, Peter was having a nap on the roof of a house in Joppa. In his sleep, God sent him a dream to direct him not to call anything unclean when God had made it clean. Immediately afterwards, the messengers from the Gentile Cornelius appeared, and Peter concluded that the dream meant he was to go with them, back to Cornelius’ house.

This was a brave step for Peter to take – he was going to the house of the Roman enemy, the oppressor of Israel, and he was doing so, not with the hand of judgement and death, but with the gospel message of Jesus and his love. When he got to Cornelius’ house he began to share the gospel message, but almost immediately the Holy Spirit filled the Romans who were listening, just as he had filled the Jewish disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter and the others were amazed, but Peter said, “I guess we’d better baptize them, then!” And so the gospel first crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile.

God sent Jonah across the barrier between Israel and Assyria to preach to the people of Ninevah. God sent Peter across the barrier between Jews and Romans, to share the gospel with Cornelius and his family. And today God is still calling us to cross barriers and build bridges across the divides between people, so that we can share the gospel story. I wonder which barrier he’s calling you and me to cross today? Is it a racial barrier? Is it a barrier between warring political ideologies – left and right or, as our American friends would say, red states and blue states? Is it about gay or straight, or rich or poor, or white collar and blue collar?

The first revolutionary idea is that God is not just our God; he’s the God of all people, even our enemies. But the second idea is revolutionary too. God did not say to Jonah, “I love the Ninevites, and they’re quite okay worshipping their own gods because those gods are just a different way of speaking about me”. No the book of Jonah is clearly teaching us that there are some ideas of God that are more accurate than others, and there are some ways of following God that are more faithful than others. Jesus obviously believed this too, because he sent his disciples out to spread his message around the world, to go to people who already had their own religions and their own ideas about God or the gods, challenging them to turn from their previous allegiances and become followers of Jesus. All the biblical writers are agreed that idols are a lie, and it is not an act of love to tell people that believing a lie is okay.

But before we get on our high horses about other religions, let’s look a little closer to home. What are our own ‘false gods’? What are the popular idols in our culture – the things that people prize the most, the things they sacrifice time and money and health for, the things that they use to make sense of their lives, and that they turn to when the chips are down and they are desperate? What about the false god of money and possessions? What about the idols of success, and popularity with others? What about the false god of nationalism, ‘My country right or wrong’? What about the idol of ‘the economy’, that one absolute value on whose altar so many governments are prepared to sacrifice so many other things – things that might just be more important to the one true God who Jesus revealed to us?

To be faithful to the book of Jonah means coming to see our own idolatries and turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. It means being willing to reach out across barriers of race and culture and economic status, and even to reach out to those we fear and hate. It means coming to recognise that each of them is made in the image of God, and is important to God. And it means learning to share the Gospel with them, the good news that God has sent his Son to live and die and rise again for us, so that we can find forgiveness and healing and hope and new life in him. May God give us grace to be faithful to the revolutionary message we find in this wonderful Old Testament story. Amen.

(A sermon for January 22nd)

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, anyone?

I can’t help noticing an intriguing disparity in interest in two stories reported over the past few days at Thinking Anglicans.

On Thursday they noted the release of 2010 church attendance statistics for the Church of England, which note a continued declining trend; Sunday attendance was down 2% in that period, while ‘weekly attendance’ (i.e. total attendance at all services held within a given week) was down slightly less. David Keen, who has been following these things carefully, notes that average attendance in the Church of England has declined 10% in the ten year period 2000-2010, and asks the perfectly reasonable question, ‘At what point is this a wake up call, or will we just hit the the ‘snooze’ button again until next years stats?’

This story has been up for two days at Thinking Anglicans and there is one – only one – comment.

Today, Thinking Anglicans posted a story about a Church of England report on ‘C of E relations with ACNA’ – that is, the Anglican Church in North America, a group which has broken away from the US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada over a number of issues, but mainly homosexuality. Some conservative people in the Church of England want their church to recognise the ACNA as a full member of the Anglican Communion, and the report deals with this issue.

This story has been up for less than twenty-four hours and already has nineteen comments (most of them rather belligerent).

I’m just saying, that’s all…

As a footnote, I’m interested that the C of E approaches attendance statistics differently than we do in the Diocese of Edmonton. When we say ‘average attendance’, we actually mean ‘average of the whole year’ – including both the high seasons at Easter and Christmas and the low months during the summer. They, however, base their statistics on a four-week period in October. I wonder what effect this difference in methodology has on the statistics?

SUNDAY UPDATE:
We’re now at 42 comments on the ACNA story and 2 on the Church Attendance story…

‘the wind boisterous’

Yesterday Earl died. He and his wife have been members of our church for over a decade; we all loved Earl’s mischievous sense of humour and his ready willingness to help out when our parish was serving at the soup kitchen at St. Faith’s or the Bissell Centre. Earl was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis four years ago, and his last few days were spent on a respirator. Many people prayed for a miracle, but it didn’t come. His wife and children and grandchildren are going to need a lot of prayer now, and a lot of love.

Marci and I are in that middle stage of life where bits of our bodies are starting to wear out and cause trouble. She goes in for ‘minor surgery’ today (it involves full anaesthetic, but it’s minor…???). In and out without an overnight, so they say.

And meanwhile there’s Joe, recovering at home from surgery for colorectal cancer that left him without much of a bowel system any more, and there’s Terry, travelling down to the Mayo Clinic with her husband to see if the doctors down there can do anything about the headaches that have flummoxed our doctors here. There’s my Dad and Mum, dealing with the challenges posed by Dad’s Parkinson’s disease, and Erika’s Dad, recently diagnosed with lung cancer.

And did I mention that our church is looking seriously into the face of a $1.8 million building project? We need to do it to serve a growing congregation and a growing community, but it’s a step of faith, to be sure! A bit like Peter being invited by Jesus to walk on the water. That was the New Testament reading at Morning Prayer this morning. The challenge was for Peter to keep his eyes firmly fixed on Jesus who had called him, but it wasn’t easy to do. I love how the King James Version puts it:

‘But when (Peter) saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me (Matthew 14:30).

‘The wind boisterous’; yes, we’ve had a lot of that lately, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Give us grace today, O Lord, to keep our eyes on you, and when we don’t (for one reason or another), reach out your hand to save us.

Jesus Christ, Inc.

I haven’t had time to do the research for my third post on lay-presidency at Holy Communion. However, I was delighted by John Richardson’s fine post on the theology of Holy Communion. Here’s how he concludes:

So when the ‘one bread’ of the Lord’s supper is broken and distributed, it is not eaten by individuals. Rather, like food going into our mouths, it feeds the organs and limbs of one body.

The message of holy communion is therefore not just that Christ died for us individually (though of course it is that) but that Christ thereby ‘incorporates’ us into himself and thus joins us to one another.

I cannot therefore make ‘my’ communion. I can only join with making ‘our’ communion where the one Body feeds through the Head on the healing fruit of the true ‘Tree of Life’.

Read the whole thing here.