Thursday, December 6, 2012

Missed Opportunity

I am feeling a little defeated. Waves of regret lap up against me like the rising sea. It isn’t guilt that I am wrestling with. It is feelings of disappointment.

Last year at this time I was at COPS17, the UN Climate Change Forum in Durban, South Africa. The hope then was to increase the number of Canadian Church Leaders who would attend COPS18 this year in Doha, Qatar. But to my embarrassment not one church leader from Canada has been able to attend. We asked the church representative from El Salvador to carry our voice of concern.

I feel like we have allowed good intentions to erode into lost opportunity.  I can still hear the pleas from last year. ”We have no more time,” expressed a delegate from Nigeria. “If we cannot agree on a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol, let us lay it aside and prepare ourselves to die.”

The task remains. We still need to find solutions to decreasing our negative impact on creation. Church and civic leaders must give voice in asking governments for real change to our corporate systems of consumption. I applaud the recommendation issued this week:

Recommendation of African Leaders on the occasion of the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate:

We can not continue with the same models of development , economics and amoral conduct in the global system of governance  and multilateralism.  Not only must we address the evident causes of climate instability, its impacts, and support those most vulnerable - we fundamentally need a model of living which is anchored in good faith, compassion, respect for nature, an adherence to the scriptural guidance of our role as stewards and custodians, not of consumers of the Earth's beauty and abundance.... Success in  the climate negotiations must speak directly to the well- being and sustainability of the least developed countries.

- South African Council of Churches

I am grateful that the church is still actively present at the negotiations in Doha. I am grateful that El Salvador agreed to carry our voice. But I can’t shake the feeling that we have requested others to do what we should be doing.

I’d love to hear your responses, your thoughts, your comments and observations of how churches should engage this pressing matter.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Creation Care and Worship

It is fruitless to get caught up in a discussion about the credibility of climate change science. This debate will continue for some time. Yet faith communities do need to be engaged in discussions of creation care.
I am beginning to realize that creation care is naturally lodged within a theology of worship. True worship, encompasses generosity, restraint and compassion. These values are critical to creation care. Indeed it is their opposites – greed, recklessness and apathy – that threaten the health of the earth and its inhabitants. It is people of faith, especially Anabaptist faith, conditioned and committed to live lives of worship by loving God and their neighbour that are most logically positioned to lead the way in seeking climate justice and creation care.

Anabaptism, with its focus on discipleship and service has always resisted a one dimensional understanding of worship. Menno Simons wrote; “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, binds up that which is wounded.”

Such an understanding of faithfulness to God will naturally lead us to express commitment to the other. It is an alignment to the directive expressed by Jesus in Matt 22. When asked which the greatest commandment of the Law is, Jesus replied by saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you follow this directive it will be impossible to ignore the compassionate imperative of creation care.

According to a report by Willie Reimer and Bruce Guenther at the 2012 Mennonite Central Committee Canada annual general meeting, every night one billion people – one sixth of the world’s population – goes to bed hungry. The growth of global undernourishment can be largely attributed to the increasing number of people affected by environmental disasters such as drought, flooding and storm surges. An estimated 250 million people are affected by climate related hazards in a typical year, according to Reimer and Guenther, and that is projected to grow by 50% to an estimated 375 million people a year by 2015.

It is difficult to worship God and ignore these dynamics. If there is even a chance that our Canadian lifestyle patterns contribute to the suffering of global neighbours, our adulation and reverence to God will compel us to seek correction and express compassion.
The developed countries of the world hold 25% of the world's population, but consume 75% of all energy, 85% of all wood products, and 72% of all steel produced. (
Canadians are consuming at a pace that is 2.5 times greater than the average global citizen. (
Our love for God obliges us to express generosity, restraint and compassion.
Generosity: because with the Spirit of God in us, we can’t help ourselves from being generous. Restraint: because we yearn for greater surrender to God not a defeat to self-indulgence. With the Spirit of God in us, the discipline of restraint is joyfully embraced. Compassion: because disregard for others is intolerable. Inaction is unacceptable. With the Spirit of God in us we cannot help but push aside apathy and become engaged.

Creation care is neighbour care. And neighbour care is a vital expression of our love for God.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Looking for the Essentials

When I was a pastor, going to the church office on mid-week mornings was always a risky thing to do. I never knew how much time I would have before someone stopped by to chat. I was my own receptionist, so a visitor was an unavoidable interruption.

One regular visitor would always inquire what I was working on. However, my answer of “working on the sermon,” would result in a response of ‘good, then nothing important.’ I was never quite sure if there was a touch of sarcasm in this response. Nonetheless, the visitor would then sit in my office and begin a lengthy conversation. As irritating as it often felt back then, I am beginning to wonder if it is somewhat prophetic.

Despite recognising the importance of lay involvement, worship services still place a lot of focus on the message. Indeed other aspects of the service usually support the theme of the sermon. The sermon is considered the main instructional component to the worship experience.

As I continue to try and understand the future we are living into, I am beginning to wonder if the sermon will have less importance in a church’s worship service. I am not suggesting that the instructional purpose of the sermon is to be rejected, but rather when, where, and how that happens may need to change.

In a recent meeting of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), each denominational leader was to bring along a young adult. This made for some rich table conversations. A survey released earlier this summer by EFC revealed that young adults do not place a high value on sermons when choosing which church to attend.

One of the researchers described visiting a congregation that is attracting young adults. The worship was similar to most other contemporary services, and the sermon didn’t stand out either. When asked what made this congregation so attractive, the young adults responded by saying, “the authenticity.” The leaders of the congregation did not hide their personal struggles or their short-comings. This honesty was not only refreshing, it also positioned pursuing faithfulness as a common pursuit, rather than an exceptional endeavour of the spiritual elite. It is something that everyone struggles with, but that anyone can participate in. What a wonderful invitation to Christian discipleship.

Another congregation intentionally met with young adults who had left the fellowship of the congregation. The pastor was openly seeking to learn what they could have done differently. The pastor asked what programs would have helped keep them in the church. Finally one of the young adults responded, “I didn’t want a program. I just wanted to go out for a coffee with you.”

This is not to suggest that pastors determine whether or not young adults stay in the church. But the church in the future will probably be less programmed, and the sermon may not be a central feature of the gathered community’s worship experience. However, these are two aspects of pastoral ministry currently requiring a lot of time and energy.

As I look back at my years as a pastor, I wonder what it would have been like if I didn’t have programs to maintain and sermons to prepare. I certainly would have had a lot more time for informal and unscheduled conversations. And that would probably have been a good thing.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It’s The Right Thing To Do

The choir travelled 50 kilometres on foot. When they entered the church compound they burst into song. They came with nothing, but with it made the most beautiful music. Their rich harmony filled the air. It was a symphony of souls, and it gripped my heart. 

No better salute could be given to the 100th anniversary of the Mennonite Church in Democratic Republic of Congo. There was no need for instruments, sheet music, or worship CD’s. The number of choirs that came to celebrate was dizzying. To celebrate this way was simply the right thing to do.

This scene epitomises the experience of my African summer, a journey that took me to DR Congo, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Kenya. In each setting I connected with the global Anabaptist church and celebrated the church in solidarity.

I grew up in a time when the relationship between the churches in the global north and the global south was modelled on a needs-based relationship. But my African summer revealed to me something different – something I already knew, and yet continue to understand.

In most Christian expressions today, the church in the global south is larger than the church in the north. This is also true for the Anabaptist church. Church planting is now as common in Africa as Sunday morning worship – a ministry often sustained by entrepreneurial pastors who use small businesses as a natural and necessary way to fund their ministry. The Anabaptist church in DR Congo is 225,000 strong (compared to 31,000 in Mennonite Church Canada). In Ethiopia it will soon be reaching 500,000. It’s too easy to measure success by numbers alone, but neither can such growth be discounted. We in the west are no longer needed in the same ways we once were. 

I am not suggesting that our relationship be halted. Our generosity is still incredibly important. But it does require reconsideration. We are no longer needed in the same way – but we are wanted. Our solidarity is still important. Our recognition is significant.

This maturing relationship with the global church in the south reveals areas of growth still necessary in us. While we are no longer needed in the same ways, I fear our North American faith expression requires need to motivate us. Generations in the global north have for decades understood the church in the south as one in perpetual need. Our sense of call has been nurtured in need. Generosity was awakened by need. Will our faith find expression if no longer motivated by need? Is a completely needs-based generosity a healthy and faithful foundation on which the church can build a future? Or can we be generous simply because it is the right thing to do?

Thankfully, a mature relationship of equals fosters other motivators. Strong relationships understand mutual responsibilities. Healthy relationships embrace joyful and loving duty. As global brothers and sisters, we have responsibilities. As part of the global family of faith we have duties: a duty to share, to seek and express global justice.

We express love and solidarity to our global family of faith because it is the right thing to do. We evaluate our lifestyle choices because that is how God’s people behave. We embrace sacrifice as an expression of our spiritual worship. Need no longer drives us. The overflow of God’s love and our love for God propels us. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A lost cause?

I don’t think I am delusional, but as the leader of a national church, I sometimes feel as though I am romanticizing a lost cause. I serve a collective within the context of individuals. I depend on the communal while appealing to the private.

Rather than dismiss the disengagement I encounter, I seek to understand it. There is often great wisdom within the expression of disillusion. Disappointment reflects a loss, discontentment a cherished hope. And so I welcome these gifts. I ponder the future, as mysterious as it is. I consider the past as selective as it is recounted.

Such a gift was given to me recently. The following statement was included in a quite supportive and encouraging email:
I would be like most people in our church and have a love/hate relationship with conference.  We love the idea of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and speaking with one voice and sharing common theological and ecclesiological ground.  But we find quite a large disconnect between what goes on in the offices and what goes on in our daily congregational life.  And because of that disconnect, I end up not trusting what comes out of the office.  I just smile, roll my eyes and ignore what’s being said and sometimes snicker to myself how people think they’re being relevant (please forgive my snarkiness). 

Another email conversation offered the following:

As it relates to this conversation - I think distrust and disconnect might come from just not knowing/not being in relationship with anybody from MC Canada.  I don't think we otherwise have ongoing trust issues with Mennonite Church Canada.  If anything, we might feel indifferent because Mennonite Church Canada has little-to-no impact on our lives as a church.

I treasure these comments.

At a recent event, Stuart Murray, the British author of The Naked Anabaptist, told of entire denominations in Europe planning for their discontinuation. These leaders have even identified the dates. When I heard this in the company of many pastors and leaders, I wrote them down. One of the pastors saw me writing and asked; “What date did you write down?” I laughed at the witty comment but grimaced at the conjecture.

I understand the common dilemma of pastors in a context where few people are interested in denominational identity. I remember it well. But still something feels restless within me.

Intuitively, individualism and isolation feels wrong. But practically, it seems preferable. We warn against it from our pulpits, but prefer it as congregations.

I am not interested in defending an institution. But I am interested in nurturing a historical movement. While some congregations are distancing themselves from Mennonite/Anabaptist identity, other new emerging leaders are discovering Anabaptism and yearning to recover its expression.

I look forward to more conversations so that together we can discover what God requires of us as a collective community of faith that is striving against the principalities and subversive powers of individualism and privatization. May God grant us the wisdom and strength we need.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Disturbed by what I have heard

It is difficult to listen to the impact statements I heard at recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission events. To learn of such painful abuse endured by children at residential schools is disturbing – especially when those behaving abusively were representing the church.

One set of impact statements I heard in Toronto have deeply penetrated me. A sister and brother took the stand together to tell their story. The older sister detailed how life was good before they were taken to the residential schools. As most children they had no idea what was going on and that their childhood was being stolen from them. She described how she was routinely punished for waving to her younger brother. She was not allowed to even acknowledge her little brother. Despite the beatings she felt responsible for her little brother.

After multiple punishments she was awakened one night at 11:00 p.m. and told to quickly accompany the teacher because her little brother was ill and needed help. She responded immediately but was led into a room and blindfolded. Instead of being taken to her brother she was sexually assaulted by a male teacher.  As the older sister told her story her haunting eyes gazed across the room. Her little brother sat beside her wearing dark sunglasses and a baseball cap.

“Eventually I started feeling something grow in my stomach,” she explained. “So once again one night at 11:00 p.m., they came and took me to the hospital and removed the baby.” She gazed the room, eyes filled with pain, “they told me the baby was dead, but I think she is alive. Sometimes I hear her cry.”

The younger brother told his story, with equally disturbing detail. He explained how another little boy had become sick with a high fever. However at lunch time, the sickly boy was still forced by a teacher to eat. The little boy vomited into his soup bowl and onto the floor. The teacher came over and repeatedly slapped him, making him wipe up the mess on the floor. Then as she left the room she grabbed the boy and said; “And you better finish eating everything in your bowl.”

The brother paused and said; “You know you grow close to the other children in the school. You knew they were not to blame. We were all suffering the same abuse.” Then from underneath his baseball cap and behind dark glasses, he explained how the boys silently passed the bowl among themselves and each took a spoonful until the bowl was emptied.

I choked on my emotions. What a contrast of brutal cruelty and gentle tenderness. I begged God for forgiveness. I felt ashamed of those who misrepresent God’s love.

In her closing summary, Commissioner Marie Wilson said; “We have heard some harsh truth. We have shared what we have shared. We have heard what we have heard. This day should mark us all. We can never back away from this honesty.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Telling The Story

A lot can happen in a day. Recently the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offered to fly me to North Carolina to join with other denominational leaders to speak into a new evangelistic initiative being considered for 2013. Then less than 24 hours later, I was sitting around the table at the Interfaith Conversation meeting in Toronto.

These two back to back meetings took me from one end of Christianity’s faith expression spectrum, to another. One emphasized conversion, the other collaboration.

I have been intrigued by these opportunities. Both are valid for being church in our current society. How do we learn to respectfully share our personal conversions and faith perspectives in a multi faith context?

There may be more similarities in the two conversations than I first realized. Both meetings invite us to tell our story. Both initiatives require respectful exchange with others. Both proposals are promoting the peace of others.

Canada is both a secular and interfaith context. This has resulted in a growing hesitancy to converse about matters of faith. Our fears range from disinterest to rejection. Both are experienced but neither is inevitable.

Within an interfaith environment, we must be able to tell our story as Christian people. It is not offensive to speak of your own experience with God through Jesus Christ. It is not offensive to express deep gratitude for your experience. In fact this is expected by other religious people. It is offensive however, not to reciprocate and also embrace the posture of a listener. In fact the ability for different faith perspectives to respectfully express their passions to one another is critical in a growing secular society. Nothing discredits faith more than religious conflict.

Within a secular environment, we must also be able to tell our story as Christian people. It is a near universal human trait to resist coercion, to react negatively, to feel disrespected. But there is nothing offensive in sensing the right time and place – the opportunity – to sensitively and sincerely share the deep fulfillment and meaning found in one’s personal experience of faith in Jesus Christ.

Our hesitations about sharing faith in some circumstances can serve a greater good, but hesitations need not become a general posture for all situations. If we are afraid of being arrogant than let’s not be arrogant. If we are afraid of being disrespectful, then let’s not be disrespectful.

The story of God’s passion and grace is a good story. It is a welcoming story. It is a story that can be shared respectfully, humbly and honestly. An authentic personal story can make one’s Christian faith journey that much more real for the listener.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hungry Hearts

You can call me, text me, message me, inbox me, Skype me. I can see your face, hear your voice and see your words, but that doesn’t make you with me.”  (13 year old Facebook friend)

In my travels across Canada I have seen church buildings turned into theatres, restaurants, art galleries, dance studios, museums and homes. This is evidence of the post-Christian context in which we live. It can feel a little disconcerting.

The Church has lost much of its influence and respect in Canadian society. Although not totally disregarded, it is being increasingly overlooked and unnoticed. Institutional religion has become unsavoury with fewer people interested in sampling what faith has to offer.

While this may cause concern, it is also a reason to celebrate. In post-Christendom, faith has the potential to become disentangled from institutional religion. Jesus has the potential of being rediscovered. That which gave birth to Christianity can once again become an emerging movement. The hunger of the human heart has not changed, but that which religion offers no longer has appeal. The appetite for meaning, fulfillment, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation – is still alive. This is what excites me. The core of what the Church offers is still very attractive to a post-Christendom society.

I was speaking with a Mennonite Church Canada pastor who worked previously in retail sales. In light of the retail sales experience, I asked; “What tag line would you use to advertise your congregation?” Following a brief moment of reflection the following response emerged: “A place to get involved in something big”.

This is an appealing invitation. People do want their lives to mean something. It is a result of the image of God in us stirring for greater release. And this is something the Church still has to offer.

The other human yearning is for more community. People will always want to belong, as displayed in the poetic utterance of my 13 year old Facebook friend. Technology is simply another way of belonging but it has not replaced the community offered by the Church.

Even in the midst of historical paradigm shifts the Church remains aligned to the core longings of the human heart.  Unfold the table. Set the meal. We have what a post-Christendom society hungers for.

Friday, March 9, 2012


One of the highlights of my role as Executive Director of Mennonite Church Canada is the annual marathon of attending Area Church Assemblies. I enjoy this opportunity of connecting with individuals and congregations across Canada. I always am enriched by the conversations.

During one of the congregational visits this winter I was asked by a person new to the Mennonite church why we are known as “Anabaptists”. It seemed to be a term that implies being against baptism.  I explained the origin of the term as a derogatory term given by opponents of the 16th century radical reformation movement. The explanation did not satisfy. To be identified as a negative movement seemed unhelpful.

Others in the conversation agreed. Some suggested we might be better associated with being against other things, such as greed or war. “We should have ‘ana services’ to discern the things we are really against”, someone suggested.

This has prompted some thinking for me. Why have we continued to accept a label developed by historical opponents? What term would we suggest to define the radical reformation movement?

The Greek meaning of Anabaptism is more accurately associated with re-immersed or rebaptism. However, the act of rebaptism was an affront to the 16th century church and the state. Rebaptism was viewed as a negative practice and was not supported.

Maybe we should be identified as “Levobaptists”- a movement that supports the practice of baptism. The Latin term ‘levo’ means “support”. Leaders of the historical 16th century movement placed high value on baptism. Their issue was not baptism but that baptism was being conducted for the wrong reason. Because the church and state were one, baptism was legally linked with Swiss citizenship. Baptism was a way for the government (and church) of the day to keep tabs on its citizens. For the originators of the 16th century movement, baptism was a spiritual designation, not a political one. They wanted to be baptized to become disciples of Jesus Christ.

It is not practical to envision renaming a historical movement. However the discussion does generate a conversation of identity. What should be the defining characteristics of our family of faith? What are the values that define us?

Our current Anabaptist context is one of attraction. Young church leaders are rediscovering the richness of historical Anabaptism. This may not be a time to rename the movement, but it might be timely to identify the key elements we consider foundational in defining the movement. This seems as important when people are being attracted to Anabaptism as it is when opponents are reacting to it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Can humility become distasteful?

It’s hard to imagine that humility could become distasteful. Meek people are friendlier. They are unpretentious and accommodating; generally nice people. Yet humility can have a negative underside.

For instance, humility can sour into self-loathing. It is difficult to enjoy a dinner with someone wallowing in self-deprecation.  

But humility really becomes distasteful if it dissuades appreciative acknowledgement of others.  When humility is unable to compliment others for fear of inducing pride, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

My own experience with humility is varied. I am thankful for the repugnancy towards pride that has been distilled in me. At best, it keeps me grounded and realistic about who I am and who I am not. But it has also made it difficult to celebrate accomplishments. I have vivid memories of my father’s stern acknowledgments of my achievements.

“You have done a great job, but don’t let it go to your head,” he would say with furrowed brows. It made me feel as though I had done something bad – bit into a forbidden fruit.

As a community of faith, our discomfort with pride can produce a discomfort with success.  Accomplishments become suspect. When this happens, a community quietly and even sub-consciously pushes successful people aside. Achievements are hidden – pushed to the back of community engagement like expired salad dressing in the fridge.

I remember as a young adult when a Christian musical talent signed onto a secular label. Rather than acknowledging the achievement and celebrating the potential of having a positive influence on secular music, the Christian community abandoned the artist. Labelled as a selfish apostate, the artist was discarded and ignored.

Let’s be the community of faith that rekindles a proper understanding of humility. Humility is not opposed to achievement. It is opposed to thinking more highly of yourself than you ought. When a community of faith celebrates their people, who have accomplished much, a sense of indebtedness and responsibility is produced. Success is held more accountable by embrace than it is by rejection.

When we acknowledge God’s embrace of grace and mercy, and celebrate the good things that God has done with us – we are empowered to celebrate the good things that God is doing in others.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Happy Endings

I like movies. I like movies with unexpected plots. I like movies that make me ponder. But if I am really honest I like movies with happy endings – the kinds that are best experienced when watching alone. That is, unless you are my son.

My son is expressively uninhibited. During a happy ending he is unabashed in expressing glee. Arms are pumping; cheers of delight fill the room – every director’s dream.

As much as I like a happy ending my enjoyment seems repressed. I feel foolish giving in to the experience. “It is only a movie,” I hear myself say. And so I don a reserved smile, nod my head approvingly, and take a deep breath. But as I look across the room at my son, I can’t help feeling like I am missing out on something.

Celebrating happy endings should come much more naturally for me. I am a person of faith. I believe in a God who specializes in happy endings. Although suffering and sorrow is an inescapable feature of life, my faith speaks of a God active in that sorrow, moving circumstances towards good.

Stepping into this New Year compels me to gather together all the shards of hope I can. Ominous clouds seem to be filling the forecast. There is deep economic uncertainty and anticipated global unrest. Yet even in this context we can be people of hope. Our confidence rests on God’s passion to restore and redeem; a passion that is unrestrained and uninhibited. We can have a sure hope.

I want to be disciplined this year. I want to cling to a confidence in God’s passion. This confidence must be evident:
As we seek to understand and embrace our responsibilities in climate change
As we continue in our Being a Faithful Church process
As we envision new ways of developing Anabaptist faith communities
As we reengage the spiritual discipline of sacrifice
As we strengthen our joyful embrace of stewardship for the work of the church

As in any year, there will times of weeping. There will be times of anxiety. But as a discipline of faith, I want to give in and experience the hope that is offered to us as God’s People. In fact, I might even join my son in some uninhibited celebration whenever we watch a movie together.