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Our home church of First Baptist London has launched a new congregation based on contemporary worship and meaningful community, called Maitland Street Church. It has been a massive undertaking, and since the launch in November has enjoyed a great start.

This should be a major cause to celebrate. In spite of this, I find myself asking – why bother?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been part of online discussions with other Christians/theologians around the church’s stance on LGBT, and have been deeply troubled by what I have encountered – ranging from perspectives such as “what science teaches us about sexuality doesn’t trump the fact the Bible says homosexuality is sinful” to appeals to “natural theology makes it clear homosexuality is wrong”, with one person saying the idea of a homosexual Christian is something they hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and they find very confusing.

Yikes.

There’s absolutely no way to persuade someone if (their interpretation of) Scripture comes before everything else. Modern psychology and genetics teach that sexuality is not a choice, which to me would indicate to me that the entire sexual spectrum is intentional, yet so many in the church continue to refer to it as a “sinful lifestyle”. The longer the church holds onto these beliefs, the further it drifts into irrelevance.

What does this have to do with Maitland? Very little. But as part of the global church it is part of the massive upheavals happening across the world in respect to Christianity, and religion in general. CBC posted an article today called “Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend”, reporting on the rise and fall of churches in Canada and the demographics behind it. As well, NPR posted this article, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam”. CBC reports:

“…in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.”

I found this interesting, especially reading it in conjunction with the NPR article, which reports how a non-religious church is gaining attention by giving people a place to meet, dance, sing and have fellowship without religion. This is how they describe it:

It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It’s a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.

But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there’s a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.

Churches across North America (and elsewhere) are tackling the massive question of how to keep people interested in going to church, and especially how to draw back the many people that have “strayed” – most churches see about a 1/4 rate of retention from youth to young adults/adult congregants. Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor suggests in the CBC article “…many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance. Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,”.

To me, these kinds of suggestions skate over the fundamental issues plaguing the church by making it sound like something as simple as shaking up Sunday School is the solution. As a young adult in the church, I’ve heard many snide remarks from senior congregants ranging from bemoaning “the moral laxness of this generation” to how the entire world is going to Hell via the unbelieving heathens. Not new sentiments, but one that young ears are sharp to pick up, especially when pointing at issues youth tend to care deeply about – issues like LGBT rights/equality and reproductive rights. Why would we put up this?

I know that by stepping away from an organization I am stepping away for opportunity to add my voice, and only contribute to the monoculture with my absence. But, I find myself starting this year wondering if I am really changing anything by being in church, and if it would be better to step away from it, even temporarily. I have been a hesitant Christian/churchgoer ever since I started about 7 years ago, but I seem to be finding especially few reasons to go now.

Not that there hasn’t been liberal movements inside the modern church. Pastor Mark Sandlin has been instrumental in creating The Christian Left and The God Article, which among other movements have provided a liberal perspective in what is otherwise an oppressively conservative culture. Pope Francis has shaken the world since becoming the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Time’s Person of the Year as he has challenged the Catholic Church to move in the world with compassion over condemnation, breathing fresh air into the church. Despite maintaining the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Advocate LGBT magazine named Pope Francis their “Person of the Year”. From the CBC article:

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown “a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors”. It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

I’m grateful to have met other liberal Christians through resources like The Christian Left. I shouldn’t expect to surround myself only with like-minded people, but at the same time, it has been an enormous relief to find a wider of community that have similar struggles to me. And they have helped me continue to see the value of being part of a church community, though there are times like this that I still wonder.

So this is what I continue to struggle with. Should I keep with church and attempt to be a progressive voice, or decide that my energy, time and sanity are better invested elsewhere? I hope to remain and to be a positive influence in the church, and to challenge myself to read scripture, research further and work to expand my understanding of different theologies/philosophies in and outside the church. I believe that scientific and spiritual inquiry can and should work together, and I hope to find ways that this can work, and explore methods others use.

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Previous Post: Staying Together

In my previous post I laid out the problems and opportunities facing our church, and the possibilities for our future.

One of the possible solutions out there is a church plant from the contemporary service with a very specific focus on mission and community work. This church would be somewhat modelled after ideas like those proposed in the book “Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now” by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. This new church would be lead by one of our pastors and a group of congregants interested in forming this new church. They would most likely be from our contemporary service, focused on being a part of the community around the church, and working deeper to connect with the communities where we live as well.

Recently, our entire church had a congregational meeting lead by an outside moderator to discuss the different strategies that we could use to move forward. They were:

  • Do nothing for the present, take time to heal
  • Another attempt at a blended service
  • Sharing the upstairs sanctuary space, with two distinct services
  • Launching a church plant from the contemporary service

Regardless of which direction we decided to move in, it was quickly decided that doing nothing really wasn’t an option, as the problems we face would probably only get larger the longer we leave them to fester.

Before the meeting started, both our pastors spoke from the heart to share their perspectives on everything happening. Here are some of the main thoughts that came from their messages:

Senior pastor:

  • Our church is being tested. Many in the congregation are asking why we can’t simply pull together, make concessions, and continue has a united family. There are challenges ahead for all of us as we imagine what is best for our church community and the city of London.
  • Many are meeting-weary and exhausted. Many are feeling frustrated and discouraged, feeling they’re not being listened to, valued or respected. Many different perspectives are being shared at our meetings, and it’s difficult to find common ground and build together.
  • There are many questions of which move is best for us and the community. What would be healthiest for us, and enable us to work in the community? Would a new church plant be a better extension into our city, or would it only see our current projects wither? What happens to those currently projects supported by the church?
  • Are other churches doing things like this? What other projects are happening elsewhere? What can we learn from them?
  • Quite shaken up by the possibility of a new plant, opportunity but also very painful. Loves everything about our church (community, staff, the downtown, the Karen community from Burma/Myanmar, diversity of beliefs/nations/worshipping styles), doesn’t want to see it all fall apart. But, also sees the passion and energy of those working towards the plant, what can we do but bless those seeking this new way, and set them free?
  • This shouldn’t be seen as a split. Our church has had several healthy church plants in our history, and would maintain a strong connection with this new church should it go forward.

Associate pastor:

  • Read the book Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter 5 years ago, and since then have tried to follow this method. Teaches how to fixate less on worship time as the primary focus, and how to really “do” ministry. Less talk, more serving.
  • Goal of “TK” ministry is to work more in relational networks, and do tangible work in our communities. Many people mourn the loss of the neighbourhoods they grew up in, this returns focus on being there for one another, get to know your community, being good neighbours.
  • Important not to do work with motives (ie. end goal getting neighbours to join your church etc.), but because it is a good and fulfilling thing to do. Be a positive force in our communities, see our city transform for the better.
  • Has shared vision with others in the church association, there seems to be a lot of excitement and potential support for a plant.
  • This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to how things have been going, has been contemplating such an action for years. Ever since starting ministry, has dreamt of leading this kind of project, think that the time has come.
  • Maintaining a strong connection to mother church is a must.
  • There is a fear that all the young congregants/families will be leaving, but this isn’t the case. Each person/family will have to choose what is best for them, and many have said they want to part of this new adventure, but many want to remain as well. There is a very good mix.
  • This church plant would be a “win-win” for everyone. There is a church that would be willing to host the new plant close to the downtown, and the existing church would be left with a large reserve of money and a prime downtown building.
  • We need to make clear judgements, know that we are making right decisions for right reasons. Hope that this new plant and mother church will only strengthen and grow together as we go our own directions, see each as extension of other.
  • There is great excitement to be “blessed and released” by our church, hope that this project can happen, and others can see that this is positive for everyone involved.

In my next post, I’ll look at the different perspectives shared at the meeting, and share some thoughts on how we can move forward. I hope to continue to consider and develop an understanding of what might be best for our church, as well as the larger global community. This is a time of great difficulty, but I hope, also a time of great opportunity to be a greater force for good in our communities.

Next post: Moving Together?

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Over the past while (days/months/years) of our church, we’ve struggled to find a way to move forward for the benefit of everyone, including (and hopefully especially) the entire city of London. Our church is like many others across North America. Upstairs in the sanctuary with the choir, organ, hard wooden pews and hymnals the congregation is shrinking. Meanwhile, the basement space we use for our contemporary service (I’ve been a member for about 5 years now) with comfortable moveable/stackable seats, coffee and treats served, a worship band and a terrific sound and projection system is almost at capacity every Sunday now. In fact, in an area of Canada that is among the most difficult places in North America to foster a church, we have the rare reality of a church seeing good overall growth.

This is both our strength and our dilemma.

We want to see more growth, see more people join our community, more people come to faith, see more work done in and through the church in our downtown community and throughout the city. But how do we continue to expand our services?

We’ve attempted several solutions over the years. At one time we had two different service times, but the children’s ministries found it difficult to find enough people to care for the children all morning, so we now have both services at 10:30. However, because of this, we can’t have both services in the massive upstairs space. Another difficulty with proposing sharing the space is that many of the traditional service congregants didn’t want the sanctuary “tampered” with, in that sound, projection or instruments/equipment should be added.

An 8 week trial period for a blended service was attempted last fall culminating in Christmas, which attempted to blend both contemporary and traditional service styles. This has worked very well in other churches (Sarah’s church in Stoney Creek had a great service in this style since the mid-90’s), but though some seemed to think it struck a good balance, many from both groups seemed to prefer remaining in their own services, despite the constrictions facing the contemporary service.

At the end of the trial period early in the New Year, a congregational meeting was held to discuss the blended service, and to vote on whether to adopt that style of worship going forward. With a 2/3 vote needed to pass to move to the new style, the vote was 64% yes.

Many left feeling disappointed, not only for the decision, which would take us back to the drawing board and to our own services until something new was put forward, but also for what it signalled. Clearly, we are a congregation divided.

There has also been bitterness seeping into the relationship. From the contemporary perspective, the traditional congregants don’t see them as equal partners, or respect the hard work and dedication they put into the church and community. From the traditional side, they tend to believe they are the main financial support to the church, and that the younger generations are steamrolling them despite the decades of service they’ve given the church.

Lots of valid thoughts and beliefs on both sides, but how to find a common solution, especially when perspectives are so different and varied? Suggestions have been made to attempt another joint service or use by both services of the sanctuary, but there is fear that both continued connection would only bring more friction. There is also concern that having the two groups further separated wouldn’t really be solving the underlying problems.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time as we work through this process, and hope to share fairly everything that’s been happening to everyone involved, and convey the spirit of what’s in everyone’s hearts and minds as best I can. With so many conflicting perspectives and emotions running high, it’s hard to capture the essence of the issues we’re having. I also wonder if seen from an outside perspective, if these issues seem as terribly minimal and petty as I fear they are.

After the vote failing, the two services have returned to the way they had before, with the contemporary service continuing to push the space constraints of the space downstairs, and the traditional service in the sanctuary slowly declining. A week ago, a congregational meeting was held to discuss what action (if any) we should do to find a solution.

One of the possibilities put forward was a church plant from the contemporary service with a very specific focus on mission and community work.

Through all of this, I keep wondering, where is God in this? How do we move to start addressing what really matters?

There is so much work to do, and a lot of healing that needs to happen. I don’t want to diminish that at all. But in the end, we need to find the directions that lead to working in unity towards strengthening our city, especially as it struggles. We need to fix ourselves before we can consider helping others, but that should always be the goal we keep focused on.

I worry that as we bicker and argue and get bogged in excruciatingly small details, we only give those outside the church more reason to scorn us. With pervading perspective on the global church as a navel-gazing, insular, isolated, irrelevant, hypocritical and overall unattractive part of society, are we not only hurting our own congregation but the greater global community by helping confirm those suspicions? As we work through this, there are many times I think of how much easier it would be to be completely dismissive, and walk away from it all.

But I believe there is always great strength and potential in the church, despite my own personal misgivings. We are a diverse and complicated family, but that curse is also our strength. Only by sticking through these issues, by teaching and learning together do we grow individually and as a group. Despite it all, I want to find a way to work with my community in and out of the church, find ways to aid our city, and hopefully for ways that we can improve ourselves too.

Next post: Working Together

Easter Sunday

Today is Easter Sunday!

Today is the day that we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, his resurrection. Today we look back on the terrible events that lead up to this day, and rejoice that they are over, that the doubt and fear of Holy Saturday has become the light of Sunday morning. In the resurrection the ancient promise of the messiah is fulfilled. We celebrate that Christ not only returned from the grave, but that when he rose again he raised us up with him, restoring us from sin, something only he could do for us.

Today we remember how the disciples and followers of Jesus doubted as he lay interred, only to be bewildered at how he came to reveal himself to them.  It is told this way in John 20:1-18:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have take the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead).

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my  Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Though Christ went to the grave alone, all of humanity was raised out of sin when we ascended.

We may never truly grasp the enormity of this single event.

Instead, we can only celebrate God and what he has done for us, and refresh our hearts and souls for the year ahead. When we next take the communion cup, may we remember again for the first time what it means to be in community together, to be part of a global humanity saved through God’s grace. Let us carry the meaning of Easter with us everywhere, remember in the darkness of the soul that the most devote disciples had doubts and fears, and carry the light of the message that God rose again, for us all.

Let us remember the disciple Thomas, who even after all he had seen and done while he travelled with Jesus, and the words of the other disciples that had encountered the resurrected Jesus, could not believe that he had truly returned to life. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” (John 20:25) Only when Jesus met him, and let him see and feel with his own eyes and hands did he cry out “My Lord and my God!” Let us renew our faith in God, knowing that all that he promised has been fulfilled.

He is risen!

Holy Father, thank you once again for the wondrous gift of your one and only son, who walked among us, lived with us and died for us. Today we rejoice that you are a living God, that your grace and compassion are available to us every moment. May we keep this blessed truth close to our hearts every day, and with that knowledge, be through our words and actions reflections of your mercy. Though we are made mortal and tempted to sin, may we live in compassion and grace, as you have for us. Thank you once again for the cross, and all that it represents. May it shape our hearts and minds, so we may be more like you every day. In Christ’s glorious name, amen.

Holy Saturday

Today we mark Holy Saturday. This is the day Jesus remained interred in the tomb after the crucifixion. Today we think of the doubt and fear of the disciples and followers of Jesus as they considered their experiences and the promises made by Christ. Little is said about this time in scripture, though services today dwell on the disciplines’ situation as Jesus lay dead in the tomb, and some consider what Christ may have had to do to overcome death and rescue us from sin.

This is how the burial of Christ is told in Matthew 27:57-61:

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61)

Although there is little New Testament scripture on the day we call Holy Saturday, the Book of Lamentations is often used in Holy Saturday services, as an illustration of Christ’s suffering, and faith overcoming:

He has made me dwell in darkness, like those long dead.  He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked (3: 6-9)

I remember my afflictions and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hopes are in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (3:19-26).

This Holy Saturday, let us consider what Christ’s first followers went through; the fear and doubt that wracked them as they waited after his death. Jesus promised that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days by his hands, yet they could not imagine that the temple was his body, broken and renewed so that we may be set free. We mourn Saturday knowing Sunday is coming, but though they were his most devout followers, they questioned everything that had come before, and questioned if Christ was truly the saviour they had believed him to be.

Let us remember their doubt, and let it remind us of how fragile our faithfulness can be.

Holy Father, this Holy Saturday, let us remember you, and the struggle of your followers as they were mocked for their faith, as you laid in the tomb. Dismayed at your death, unable to believe that you were dead, and filled with terror of what may come next. They waited to see what would happen, though in the darkness of their hearts, even after your wondrous works, they imagined you were merely mortal after all. May we remember today the weakness in us all, and remember how quickly the rejoicing of your followers turned to anger, how quickly the devotion of your disciples turned to doubt and fear. This Easter, may we prepare to face the cross, examine our sins, and reignite our resolve to follow you. May we find the places where fear and doubt continue to reside, and strengthen our resolve to follow your mission of compassion, generosity and forgiveness. In Christ’s name, Amen.

good-friday

Today is Good Friday.

Today is one of the most important days of the Christian calendar. It is a day of terrible, conflicting emotions, as we mark the day that Jesus was mocked, scorn, beaten, whipped, and finally nailed to the cross, and yet simultaneously look forward to the time he was resurrected and restored to Heaven. We remember how the people that surrounded him as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to cheers and cries of “Hosanna!” now brandish swords, the words on their lips now “Crucify him!”

It is a memorial of the suffering he subjected himself to for us, the torment people inflicted on him. It is a time to remember the disciples that were shown many signs of his power and compassion, yet in this dark hour still fled, and the one that betrayed him.

His last hours are told in this way in Matthew 15:33:

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now, leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

The power of the act of sacrifice for us is almost beyond description or comprehension. Everything in the Old Testament tradition lead to the fulfillment of God’s covenant with humanity, from the early laws laid out for God’s exclusive people, to the salvation promised for all mankind. However, hopelessness and despair reigned as the supposed Son of God and king of salvation was put to horrible death by the oppressors the people had imagined Christ had come to rescue them from. Today let us contemplate both exactly what God has done for us through the cross, and what the disciples and followers went through as Jesus died for them.

Holy Father, we cannot imagine the depth of your suffering, as you were subjected to terrible punishment and abuse, before finally being put to death on the cross. We remember the sacrifice you made for us, even as we struggle to comprehend just how much it truly means. Though we sin, we are saved by your grace. Today we hold in our hearts the knowledge of all you have done for us, and work to better be your hands and feet in the world around us. You came to earth so that we may be saved, may we work to be the light in the world in your absence, until we may see you again. In Christ’s name, Amen.

*This year, our contemporary service is trying something very different with our Good Friday service. Instead of a congregational service, we’re meeting in home church services across the city in our local neighbourhoods. Sarah and I will be hosting our local home church, I talked about it in this post and hope to write more about the experience afterwards. A little nervous, but excited for the experience!

communion

Today is Maundy Thursday.

Today we mark the day Jesus met with the twelve disciples in the Upper Room, and shared what is now called the Last Supper with them. It is also the time that we remember Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives, and his anguish knowing what the next day would bring.

It is from this meal that we take the tradition of Holy Communion, a meal of fellowship and remembrance. Christian cultures across the world have many names for it, including Eucharist, Sacrament of the Altar, The Blessed Sacrament, and the Lord’s Supper, yet the act of sharing a form of wine/grape juice and bread in remembrance of Jesus is nearly universal.

In it, we remember the act of Jesus offering his body and blood to the disciples, as he would the next day for all humanity. It is both an extremely personal act, and one that binds all of humanity together. When we practice communion together, we search our hearts and prepare ourselves to take the sacred offering. We also practice a communal meal, where we are reminded in each other’s presence that we are all equally broken, and all equally saved by God’s grace.

This is how the event is told in Luke 22:14-21:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Afterwards, (Luke 22:39-44)

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Countless depictions of the Last Supper have been made, endless commentaries on all the meanings of this event, and many different forms of the ceremony across different Christian cultures and beliefs. In this time of Easter, let us reflect on what this meal means to us, and the sacrifice it represents. And let us remember what the disciples went through when Jesus offered the bread and wine to them, foretelling that his body would be broken, his blood spilled to fulfill God’s grace and redemption for us all.

This grace is new every day, Jesus’ sacrifice poured out for our sins. As another year goes by, and we mark our Easter older and more cynical than the year before, it can be easy to practice this sacred rite with wooden hearts, to think of an event that happened over two thousand years ago, instead of a reality that is just as fresh now as it was then.

Whenever we practice communion, may we endeavour to have our hearts as open as the first time we took the cup and bread. Let us prepare our hearts, minds and souls for God’s grace, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning. (Lamentations 19:22)

Father God, let us remember today the meal you shared with the disciples, and your suffering and doubt as you faced what must come in the day ahead. Let us remember that each day we are refreshed in your grace and mercy, and hold in our hearts the knowledge and truth of the greatest sacrifice you have made for us. May we meet together in Holy Communion, remembering you, and what it means for us to share together our faith in you, and faithful community in one another. In Christ’s name, Amen.

palm sunday

Every year, I find Holy Week comes with a flurry of activity, meetings and gatherings, without time to truly contemplate all that it means. As we move through this Easter season, I’ve worked to meditate and pray over the terrible, miraculous reality of Easter. My goal has been to write about the meaning of each day we mark during Holy Week, but I have continued to struggle to truly sink into a time of devotion and contemplation, to consider Easter itself more deeply.

Easter is a strange contradiction of both mourning Christ’s death and celebrating His resurrection from the grave. In this busy time, with so much demanding our attention of what is directly in front of us, it is hard to consider the true, terrible, miraculous realities of Easter. In writing about it, I hope to bring my heart closer to the centre of the season. As we enter Holy Week this year, my hope is to consider and write through the week, and welcome you to join me in this contemplation of God’s compassion, grace and redemption through the cross.

Today we mark Palm Sunday.

This is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem, as foretold in Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus was greeted by throngs of people, eager to throw their cloaks onto the road for his donkey to ride over, and cut down palm fronds to place on the road, and wave in celebration. Jesus appeared to be entering the city in triumph.

This is how it is told in Matthew 21:1-11:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Church services today often have an air of celebration, as we remember those that greeted Jesus with seemingly all their hearts.

But there is a bitter side to this celebration. Today we mark how the people surrounded Jesus, and sing as they did, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But we also remember the fate of Jesus less than a week later, when the same crowd surrounded him again, trading palm fronds for swords, the cries of “Hosanna!” changing to shouts of “Crucify him!”

It is a day to remember the fickleness of human nature, a terrible potential inside all of us.

It is also a reminder of how our goals for this world can corrupt us.

Jesus had been traveling extensively for years, healing, praying, mentoring and preaching, collecting the twelve men who would become his disciples, the ones who answered his call to drop everything of their former lives and follow him. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people that surrounded him dreamt of an earthly ruler, a strong leader of the rebellion to cast off the oppressive hands of the Roman Empire and install himself as the new leader, a true, just king.

The people’s dreams turned to ash when Jesus soon revealed that the kingdom he spoke of wasn’t a kingdom on earth, but that he promised everlasting life in the next, true freedom from the shackles of sin, much more than earthly freedom. It was the promise he came to fulfill, but not the freedom they wished for. Within the week, one of his own disciples betrayed him to the authorities, another denied ever being a follower, and the rest ran away.

Are we so very different today?

Father God, let us remember today the fickleness of human nature, and work to examine ourselves for you, and find places where envy, anger, hate and pain continue to take root. Let us remember that we are human, and though we know we will always be imperfect, strive to be more sincere in our words, actions, and in our hearts. May we look to you for our inspiration and our motivations, and work to be your hands and feet in this world, even as we know that you have prepared our way to the next. In Christ’s name, Amen.

home church

This year, our contemporary service is doing something very different for Good Friday. Instead of meeting at our central church for a congregational worship, congregants and friends are invited to join a “home church” in their neighbourhood, with a member of the congregation opening their homes to anyone interested. We’ll be one of the houses holding this home church, something we’re very excited about!

There is a long tradition of small church meetings happening in homes, often called “house church” or “home church”. Indeed, the first church meetings came together this way. Early Christians were persecuted for their belief, as they were perceived to be deniers and breakaways from the Jewish faith. Many Christians believe that the home church model is Biblically-grounded, and even that the first home church gathering was presided by Jesus, when he brought the disciples together in the “Upper Room” for the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39 John 13:1-17).

The Last Supper shared by Jesus and the twelve disciples is the foundation of the Christian ceremony of communion. Communion comes from the Latin word communio, or “shared in common”. The corresponding Greek word is κοινωνία, often translated “fellowship”. For Christians, communion then has many intertwining meanings, usually close relationship, though between Christians, community of spiritual fellowship, and a relationship with God. It is through the acts of communion as well as community that we connect with our saviour, and participate in fellowship with others, emulating the relational nature of God with each other. In meeting and making our houses a place of worship, we invite spiritual community into our homes, bringing private life and public worship together.

Scholars point to other passages of the New Testament to show that early Christians met together for fellowship in homes, including:

“You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20)

“Greet also the church that meets at their house” (Romans 16:5)

“Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” (Colossians 4:15)

Even today, in many parts of the world, house churches are held.

For many years all forms of religious meetings in communist China, including Christian church gatherings, were completely forbidden, forcing those that would meet to do so in secret in small gatherings in homes. Even today, the Chinese government has only allowed churches to exist under the strict regulation of the government, with liturgies and messages set out that honour and revere the government as much as God, if not more so. Because of this, many continue to meet in secret, in what is often called the “underground” or “unofficial” church.

Of course, many countries without persecution practice a form of home church, either as a primary congregation or as a way of practicing small group meetings and/or worship, as we will on Good Friday. Models like this are held up as a way of making church more relational, natural in conversation and fellowship, and an excellent way of building community. In this way both regular attendees and others interested in participating may do so, in a more comfortable and less formal setting. This location is also ideal for those who find a traditional church setting a trigger to old scars, or find a church an environment that they do not wish to embrace.

This type of worship will be entirely new to us; though I have been interested in the process I have never participated in this kind of fellowship. I am excited to be able to host others in this way, particularly as we meet to worship and contemplate the miracle and contradiction of Good Friday, a truly horrible day in history, but also the day of redemption.

As we move through the Easter season, I’ve worked to meditate and pray over the terrible, miraculous reality of Easter. Every year, I find Holy Week come with a flurry of activity, meetings and gatherings, without time to truly contemplate all that it means. I hope to be much more deliberate in my reflections on Easter this year. As we enter Holy Week, my hope is to consider and write through the week, and I welcome you to join me in this contemplation of God’s compassion, grace and redemption through the cross.

sunburst

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” – Udanavarga 5:18 (Buddhism)

“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.” – Galatians 5:14 (Christianity)

“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” – Confucius (Confucianism)

“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behaviour is due to selfish desires”. – Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Hinduism)

“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” – An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13 (Islam)

Across cultures, languages, faiths and philosophies, a variation of the Golden Rule is found. Western cultures often frame it in the way it is found in the Bible’s Book of Matthew 7:12, “Do to others what you would have them do to you”.

Despite such foundational teachings, we often not only come up short, but across history have written a story in blood of destruction, revenge, conquest and oppression. What do we do with such a terrible history? And about the history we continue to write today?

In the book “unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity… and why it matters”, authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reveal research done to see how the North American church is perceived from the “outside”. Their findings were anything but encouraging. Words like homophobic, bigoted, judgemental, irrelevant, hypocritical, insensitive and cold were some of the top answers.

And yet…

One of the most familiar passages of scripture is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It is believed Christ was God in human form, without sin. He lived a life of grace and compassion, and surrendered to horrific death for our sins. It is a story of unimaginable pain, but also of sacrifice, redemption, love, and hope. This is the central tenant of belief in Christ, and the foundation of the Gospel, the “Good News”. When Christ invited the disciples to the Last Supper, he is also inviting us, to remember Him, and taste salvation.

Jesus often depicts salvation as a wonderful feast. In Matthew 8:11 “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The familiar parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) ends in a great feast, echoing the feast promised by God at the end of history.

There are many reasons why Jesus describes feasts. In the book “The Prodigal God”, author Tim Keller writes “Jesus does so because there is no better way to convey vividly what it means to live out a life based on His saving work.” Jesus’ salvation isn’t cold, impersonal, austere. We are told that Jesus brings salvation the way a host welcomes honoured guests to a great feast.

So, with belief in miraculous salvation, with a relational God of love, how is it many Christians throughout the world are such a source of aggression, pain, fear, and oppression?

In the end, churches are made of people. People are human, and humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), yet can be just as much darkness as light, or even more. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12), bringing compassion, warmth, understanding to the world in Christ’s name. Despite this, we often resemble something more of a nebulous creature of sharp teeth and poisonous, scathing claws.

What do we do?

Ultimately, we must re-focus ourselves, through self-discipline, prayerful study of scripture and turning to God for help. We must also turn to each other, and be able to trust in each other, and know that we will be there when our brothers and sisters ask. From there, we can begin to truly be a light in our world, and be the kind of people God calls us to be.

How can we do that?

We must truly become loving, not only to those that it comes easily to, but those we do not know, or feel great attachment or enmity towards, but even those that we may consider our foes.

There are many devotionals and different religious and spiritual texts that discuss living a more centred life. In “How to Expand Love: Widening the Circle of Loving Relationships”, HH the Dalai Lama writes practical instruction on how we may accomplish this. He writes:

“…pure compassion is not biased or partial; it is thoroughly imbued with equanimity and encompasses both friend and foe.

Without a sense of equality, unbiased love and compassion cannot even get started. Once you have generated an attitude of equality toward all, then it will be possible to view not just friends but neutral beings and even enemies with great endearment. This is not easy. It is difficult to develop a sense of closeness to everyone. Reflective meditation is needed.”

This is a terribly hard challenge, but one I hope we can all take up. May we come to see all people as truly equal, and offer everyone the love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness we crave for ourselves.

Father God, may we become each day more like You. May we strive continuously to understand the path you have laid for us, and truly understand what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made by Your hands. May we hold close to our hearts the understanding of your divine promise and grace, and walk into the world every day projecting the love you promise to those around us. May we be a light in the darkness of the world, and shine warmth and compassion into a cold world. May we only do to others as we would have them do to us. In Christ’s name, Amen.