The Faith of Our Children


The Faith of Our Children

I've just bought a book I saw reviewed in the "Christian Century". After reading the review and some excerpts from The Spiritual Child, by eminent child psychologist Lisa Miller, I bought the Kindle edition so I can read the book before I become a grandparent in May. (More about that later.) I've started reading today.

One thing that caught my attention, beyond my own interest as a prospective Grampa, was Miller's audacious claim. These words are from the blurb in "Publisher's Weekly".

In The Spiritual Child, psychologist Lisa Miller presents the next big idea in psychology: the science and the power of spirituality. She explains the clear, scientific link between spirituality and health and shows that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality:

* are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances
* are 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers
* are 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex
* have significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success.

Combining cutting-edge research with broad anecdotal evidence from her work as a clinical psychologist to illustrate just how invaluable spirituality is to a child's mental and physical health...

Whoa... Does that mean making our kids go to Sunday School works? No. Not exactly. Dr. Miller writes about "children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality". That's not the same as Sunday School or Youth Group or Confirmation Class. It's not just those things, though any of them can contribute to "a positive, active relationship to spirituality". They can't do it alone. Not without an environment where growing children can observe adults who demonstrate their "positive, active relationship to spirituality". It's not just about talking the talk, or making sure the kids walk into Sunday School. It's about walking the walk. Living a life that shows how important our spirituality is to us. It's recognizing that human beings are more than flesh, bone, and the drive to survive. We're also beings of spirit, and attending to our souls is at least as important as taking care of our bodies.

Dr. Miller believes we are designed as spiritual people; and designed for relationship with a higher power, or at least a set of values that calls us to more than just existing on this earth. She declares that the "Science of Spirituality" is the newest frontier of scientific discovery. It's worth reading the book just to find out what she has to say about that.

Dr. Miller is Jewish. In her work she makes room for Atheists, and all other religions. A Christian perspective on our humanity is pretty much the same as the Jewish understanding. We are "living souls", created in the image and likeness of God. The New Testament speaks more of us as beings of "flesh and spirit". But the two go together. We're not just flesh, any more than we are just the wet dirt or the stolen bone Genesis says God used to make human beings.

For most of the church's history the understanding of both the humanity and spirituality of children was that they weren't yet fully-formed souls. They had the potential to grow into the knowledge and practice of religion. They had to be taught and disciplined so they would grow into full personhood. But their capacity for relationship with God wasn't recognized. Churches today are still struggling to get beyond those assumptions about children. Those beliefs still shape what many adults in church believe Christian Education is for. Authors like Lisa Miller are calling parents, educators, faith leaders, and congregations of all kinds to see children in a new way.

I said I would say more about grandparenting. I'll just touch briefly on a widespread phenomenon among churches all over the world: the spiritual power, or the faith, of grandparents leaps a generation to offer children "a positive, active relationship to spirituality". This is especially true of grandmothers, but grandfathers can tell the stories and make the connections that feed children's spirits, too.

Many parents have to admit that, at least for now, their grown sons and daughters aren't interested in religion or-- more important-- being part of the community the church is, at least, supposed to be. Sometimes it's our fault, for not demonstrating "a positive, active relationship to spirituality". Grandparenting can give us a chance to try again. More often, though, our daughters and sons grew up to know they can be good people and have good lives without the church. Sometimes they can tell stories of how the people in church who were supposed to teach and mentor them treated them like... look back two paragraphs.

Scholars in our part of the world are just beginning to explore the phenomenon of children coming to the faith community under the influence of their grandparents. I think we parents who wish our adult offspring came to church can recognize some good reasons why they don't.

But, don't despair! This is anecdotal evidence. There's no study yet. There are stories of parents coming back to the community of faith, in gratitude to their own parents, because they see how much their kids love coming to church with Grandma and Grampa.

The faith, the "positive, active relationship to spirituality" of children can be contagious!

I'll let you know when I've finished reading the book. Probably around the time I tell you I'm a Grampa.


Let's Talk

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Let's Talk

January 25 offers an opportunity to start a conversation. This is a long post. Click the title to read the whole thing. Please read it and feel free to share it.

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Year-End Reflections


Year-End Reflections

This isn't a typical Christmas or New Year's message. It's more like a Minister's Letter for the Annual Reports. But there are some things I would like to say that can't wait until March.

I've been with you for just over a year now. I'm looking back and reflecting on my time so far at Glenview. I'm looking forward to 2017 and hope it will be a real first year of ministry together.

Over the last thirteen months I've been doing a lot of listening, watching, and studying. It has been, as I expected, a time of unintentional Interim Ministry. That means I've been doing work that has to be done during an Intentional Interim Ministry: observation and diagnosis.

Here are some points in the kind of initial report an Intentional Interim Minister might make.

  1. Compared to other pastoral charges in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Glenview is a generally healthy body with many strengths. Compared to memories of Glenview's past, the body is weak. When the frame is a remembered yesterday, the picture fades. When that frame is removed, and the context becomes church life in North America today, the picture is vivid, with many bright points.
  2. Within that broader context, Glenview is far from unique. Glenview is not exempt from the challenges all congregations in our part of the world are facing today. There are no quick fixes. It's hard for everyone to sustain Sunday attendance and weekday activity, and to meet budgets. We have to be quick to respond by trying new approaches to meeting today's needs. We also have to be unafraid to fail at some of the things we try. Recent studies remind us of the importance of personal evangelism. It's every church member's responsibility to invite others to come to church, and demonstrate that it's worth coming. Growing churches have one thing in common: members share their faith with their family, friends, and neighbours.
  3. One of Glenview's strengths, again compared to other Presbyterian churches, is the generational range of the actual congregation (not the one that exists only on paper or in memory). One of Glenview's present weaknesses is that the people on both ends of that range don't see enough of each other.
  4. A focus on leadership and pastoral care for those at both ends of the age range is vital. We are well aware of the number of people in our congregation who are ageing into the time of life when the need for care and support grows. We also have a growing number of families with young children. True, we don't see them all every week, but as families they identify with Glenview and find their church home here. Their children, from toddlers to teens, love being here, even if it's only one Sunday a month. If we are convinced that we need staff to provide ministry in both areas, then we have to be willing and able to pay for it. We also have to be prepared to help along the way in any way we can so we can sustain ministry to and with all ages.
  5. It's time to move beyond habits of fundraising and crisis management to a culture of stewardship. Stewardship makes mission possible. Fundraising and management, at best, support maintenance. Stewards are faithful, hopeful, and creative. Jesus actually said "wily". Stewards are realistic about the present and look to the future. Those who give out of a mindset of charity, and in response to crisis appeals, focus on the present, framed by a remembered past.
  6. We need more money. Meeting that need will include growing our accumulated resources. Our financial endowments produce income that supplements our contributions. We need more income-producing resources to support both existing and dreamed ministries. Those of us who have resources to share can consult the excellent guides provided by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, or any Financial Planner.
  7. We also need more regular contributions throughout the year. With more people coming to worship less often, that means we have to make sure our support for Glenview is consistent. We need more people on PAR. That's one, good solution. We all also have to look at the pattern of our giving across twelve months.
  8. Poor communication is the number one complaint in most congregations. Most congregational leaders are quick to point out that listening carefully, reading thoroughly, and asking questions politely before complaining loudly are all components of good communication. In this Glenview is no different from any other congregation I've known. That doesn't let us off the hook.
  9. Interim Ministers usually rely on the authors and consultants associated with what used to be called the Alban Institute. Many of their resources build on Arlin Rothauge's description of four types of congregation, based on the number of active members. I'll post a link below for hard-core readers. Most important to us are Rothauge's concepts of the Corporate Church (350+ active members) and the Program Church (150+ active members). Canadian congregations cluster at the low end of each range. In actual size Glenview is a Program Church. Many at Glenview think we are still a Corporate Church. In many ways we still try to function in Corporate mode. Two signs of this are in attitudes to me in my position, and the siloing of ministries within the congregation.
  10. The Senior Minister of a Corporate Church functions largely as a CEO, relying on staff to provide leadership to the congregation's varied ministries. The Senior Minister in a Program Church, especially in Canada, may be the only ordained person in leadership. He or she must be much more hands-on, less the executive and more the coach and facilitator. A Program Church pastoral leader shares in pastoral care, joins in planning and program development, and supports volunteers and/or staff in their ministries.
  11. A Corporate Church can sustain many different ministries that function alongside one another, each with enough staff and volunteer energy to sustain it. A Program Church can sustain several ministries, but none can exist without connection to all the others. Ministry leaders help sustain that connection.  In this article by Roy Oswald, Part II is especially relevant to Glenview. You can skip to the section called "From Corporate to Program Size Church" if you like. Working through that transition will require major shifts in attitudes and expectations.
  12. As we navigate through change we will need a thorough review and revision of our governance and leadership structures, including the Ministry Team model and our provision for ongoing pastoral care. These structures are more reflective of a Corporate Church model than a Program Church. We don't have the numbers to sustain the structures.

With all twelve points in mind I'm looking forward to 2017! A new year always dawns with a fresh helping of hope. Let's take that hope and build on it. I wish you and your family a joyful Christmas season (which doesn't end until January 6) and new light for the New Year.




Post-Election Blues and the Politics of Jesus


Post-Election Blues and the Politics of Jesus

All candidates campaign for office by appealing to our overt fears. They promise to change, remove, or prevent things that disturb us. Especially things that cause us to worry about the future. Successful candidates appeal to our latent fears. They know they have to win our hearts, or guts, as well as our minds. They offer to speak on our behalf. They say things we haven’t found words to express. They speak what we’ve been afraid to say out loud.

Sometimes this means we grasp at least the possibility of renewed hope in the future. We trust our chosen candidates to put our fears to rest, or at least help us go on burying them. Sometimes this means our deep fears come quickly to the surface. Since few of us are really emotionally equipped to face our fears, we become angry. We may not know exactly why we're angry, so we look for targets.

Trump says at the Republican Convention, “I alone can fix it!”, meaning the mess he says the country is in. One person created the mess. A crowd of people who are convinced the wrong kind of man has been in power for eight years cheer louder than ever. Clinton quietly tells supporters, every chance she gets, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” They believe everything will be lost if the other side wins, so they redouble their efforts to stop Trump. Any debate is reduced to ad hominem arguments. The goal is not to demonstrate who will be the better President, but who is the worse candidate.

Every night for the last week or so there have been protests in cities across the United States. Crowds of people have marched with raised fists and bobbing signs, shouting “Not My President!” and “Dump Trump”. If Clinton had won the Electoral College the chants would be “Not My President!” and “Lock Her Up!” Counter-demonstrators shout, "You lost. Get over it!"

If Hillary Clinton were President-elect, there would certainly be demonstrations of white rage and racism in reaction. With Trump the winner those demonstrations are cropping up every day with the energy of triumph. This isn't the backlash of the defeated. It’s celebration. There’s a sense of blessedness among the extremists whose support Trump claims never to have courted, but whose aims he never opposed.

In Canada a Rabbi in Ottawa gets up in the morning and discovers a swastika and a racial slur painted across her front door. In Alberta a female candidate drops out of her party’s leadership race after being harassed because of her gender. On a crowded streetcar in Toronto a man shouts racist slogans at another man with darker skin. Posters calling “Hey, White People” appear on lampposts in East York, inviting anyone “tired of multiculturalism” to join the Alt-Right movement. One of the candidates for party leadership in Canada is proud of her Trump-like policies and personal support for him.

In the United States up to 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This can only be because they believe Trump will uphold their chosen key values, notwithstanding the ways in which his personal morality and business ethics violate other Christian values. (The image at the top of this post is from a post-election gathering.) It’s probably also because, deep down, they believe it’s as wrong for a woman to be President as it was for a black man more than half of them insist is Muslim. They take Trump's victory as vindication and crown him Defender of the Faith. President Clinton would have been given another title. (Some Charismatic Christians gave her that name awhile before the election.

Post-Election Anti-Trump Protest

Post-Election Anti-Trump Protest

So the country is divided, as it would have been after a Clinton victory. The state of the United States affects the whole world, Canada more than any part of it. As Canadians we have to watch carefully what pours over the border every day. We also have to admit the same overt and latent fears are present among us. We can't be self-righteous, as we often are when we look across the international boundary.

As Christians we have to be vigilant. We can't ignore politics now that the election is past. This isn't a partisan, left-right matter. This calls for us to be political as Jesus was political: concerned about the polis, the people, together. Concerned about the good of all. Especially concerned about those without power or privilege. People who are labelled "others", and therefore vulnerable to the will and actions of the powerful.

The politics of Jesus don't embrace or endorse the policies of any party, left, right, or centre. As individuals we participate in partisan political process as our consciences guide us, but we cannot believe any party or leader fully embodies the politics of Jesus. We make compromises every time we vote or run for office. But vote and stand for election we must, with open eyes, for the good of the polis.

Jesus' call to us as disciples, and as the polis called church, is to enact the values of the Kingdom of God, here and now. In that kingdom there is no room for hatred, violence, or the enforced exclusion of anyone. It's a kingdom of peace, of justice that begins with mercy. It's an order in which the poor come first, until there is no poverty.

The whole protracted campaign, not just the election of Donald Trump, has brought voices and forces out of the shadows, into the open. These voices and forces will thrive in the light and air. It's up to us to stand up for Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of God. That means being engaged in our communities and neighbourhoods, prepared to defend anyone who is vulnerable, and demonstrating proactively that there is a better way to live. It isn't possible to live entirely without fear. It is possible to live without being guided by fear, acting out in anger. We can live without being afraid. Everyone deserves that freedom.

Opinions expressed on this Blog are those of the author. This Blog is intended to offer the congregation and friends a look into the author's heart and mind. It does not necessarily represent the Session or congregation of Glenview Church.


How Big is the Tent?

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How Big is the Tent?

Is any tent big enough to make room for someone who rejects its resident language? Is there room in any Christian church for a leader who says she doesn’t believe in its God?

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Changing Lectionaries


Changing Lectionaries

If the title hasn't bored you already, please read on.

"Changing Lectionaries". To begin with, what's a Lectionary? It's a list of readings from the Bible that is law in some denominations and gospel in others. In some churches there is no choice. Every congregation hears the same readings every Sunday. Every preacher must strike at least one of the readings (usually the Gospel) at least a glancing blow. In other traditions, like the Presbyterian Churches, following a lectionary is optional. It's helpful. It allows for coordination of themes in preaching, worship, and Church School. If everyone knows in advance-- up to three years in advance-- what the readings and themes for a Sunday will be it can be easier to plan and prepare sermons, music, and lessons. Presbyterian preachers often appreciate not having to choose their texts each week, while still being free to set the lectionary aside at times. A lectionary that's shared across traditions also supports Christian ecumenism. It reinforces the truth that we all read the same book and live by the same gospel. Preachers often gather weekly to share sermon preparation, as I did with a group of colleagues in Halifax for many years.

You may not even have noticed that at least some preachers at Glenview have followed a lectionary since the practice became common among Presbyterians in the 1970s. The first version was called the Common Lectionary. It's a three-year cycle of readings, based on a very old Roman Catholic lectionary. I started following it in 1983 and have been using it off-and-on since then. It has been updated several times. It's now called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) Every month in the Presbyterian Record I offer a column to preachers on one of the RCL readings.

The RCL is far from perfect. Cycle after cycle the selectivity reflected in it is reinforced and congregations never hear readings from many parts of the Bible. Especially the Old Testament and the Gospel of John. As a former teacher of preachers, I believe slavish and repeated use of the same Lectionary for many cycles can make a preacher lazy. I also have to admit that I've occasionally retreaded old sermons throughout my ministry, hoping no one can remember more than three years back! (And I've been caught more than once by very attentive parishioners!)

I've decided to change lectionaries. A new lectionary is becoming popular among Protestant preachers in North America. It's called the Narrative Lectionary. It was developed by Bible and preaching teachers at a Lutheran seminary in Minnesota. Many Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United Church preachers and congregations in Canada have begun to follow the Narrative Lectionary. They want to return to a more thorough reading of the Bible. Here's how the authors describe it:

The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.

The texts show the breadth and variety of voices within Scripture. They invite people to hear the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Listening to the many different voices within Scripture enriches preaching and the life of faith.

Four years, rather than three, means each of the Gospels gets its own year. Many more stories and themes from the Old Testament are covered than in the RCL. The Narrative Lectionary reflects the functional church year in North America, September through May. That doesn't mean the Christian calendar is ignored. We'll still celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost! In the summer the Narrative Lectionary encourages preaching on the Psalms, or on themes from familiar texts like the Lord's Prayer.

In each year there are periods with themes. Through this fall both Sunday messages and Church School classes will focus on the great theme of "Promise".

But, all that being said, the only difference you'll note on Sundays is that there may be just one reading, after the Psalm. Or there will be one longer reading and one shorter. There may be a clear thread running through several weeks of sermons. Or you may not even notice a difference! For the time being I'll continue to write about RCL readings for the Record.

This Sunday, September 11, we'll start to work with the Narrative Lectionary. We'll follow it most weeks. We're beginning the year of Luke's Gospel. Through the fall, though, Old Testament readings will be our main texts for Sundays.


After the Parade


After the Parade

What amounts to a medium-sized congregation of Canadian Presbyterians dared to show up at a major community event. We were welcome, and our message was welcome. In a world we often think doesn't care we're here anymore, we have a positive witness. We can tell the good news about God's love. More people than we might ever imagine wait to hear that from us.


Whose Opinion Is It?

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Whose Opinion Is It?

I began the reflection time for the June Session meeting with a story. I spoke of an experience from an earlier period in my ministry when I didn't just write a letter to the Editor of a regional newspaper in response to something another clergyman had written about marriage and family values. I signed the letter as minister of the congregations I served at the time. I was taken to task by one of the Sessions in the pastoral charge, and rightly so. I knew there was a lot of sympathy for the opinion I expressed. I got letters of support from the community and positive feedback from individuals in the pastoral charge. But I didn't write on behalf of those congregations or their Sessions.

I've been cautious since then.

Last Tuesday I asked the elders, "To what extent do you feel your minister represents you and Glenview in public? What are the limits, if any, on your minister's freedom of opinion on controversial issues?"

We had a good discussion. I got the sense most church folk grant their minister freedom to say what she or he thinks needs to be said. That's certainly true of preaching. The minister in our Presbyterian tradition has the freedom of the pulpit. In the pews there is freedom to agree or disagree. In public, however, most would say their minister should only claim to represent the congregation and Session when specifically authorized to do so. As an individual a minister should feel free to speak for her- or himself. The way media may spin a sound bite or an image is beyond anyone's control. There's always the risk a pastor will be identified with her or his flock without intending to do so. That doesn't mean ministers should stay out of the way and keep silent.

I also concluded that, at least for some, it depends on the issue. If there's some sympathy for the minister's position, if not explicit authorization to express it on the church's behalf, there's freedom. Even a tacit blessing. If, on the other hand, there's little support for what the minister espouses, she or he had better be careful.

There are always a few people who find it hard to accept that it's possible to trust someone with whom they differ on matters they're attached to emotionally. Ministers can offend these people without intending to, and may never find out what they've done to give offense.

Be careful. Take the temperature of the church. Read the congregation before speaking out, writing, marching. A minister's place isn't quite like walking on eggshells. More like walking on ice. Not always thin ice, but slippery nonetheless. Core strength is required.

I hope by now you know my position on the issues that are hot in the Presbyterian Church in Canada right now. In the pulpit, and in conversation I believe I've been clear about where I stand on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. As I speak and act I claim the liberty of the individual Christian's conscience that is a sacred principle of our Presbyterian tradition. That allows me to disagree with the PCC when I feel I must, in order to be faithful.

Again, it's my responsibility to say what I believe needs saying in the pulpit. It's your responsibility to think in response to what I preach, and decide for yourself if you agree or not. Outside the pulpit it's my responsibility to ensure I don't put words in your church's mouth. It's also my responsibility to follow my conscience and set an example of integrity. I hope anyone who disagrees with me can at least see that.

(This Blog is hosted on Glenview's website, but it bears my name. That's intentional. No endorsement by Session is implied. I used to have a Blog I called "Out of my mind". This Blog is offered as a little window into my mind.)

On Sunday afternoon I will join with more than 50 other Presbyterians and march together in the Pride Parade. I won't be there as a representative of Glenview. I will, however, represent many Presbyterians, including some at Glenview. The organizers have asked clergy to wear collars. That's something I rarely do, in worship, if I'm not in a gown. I haven't decided about the collar for the parade. For some it's a sign of solidarity. They tell me it's appreciated. For others the collar is a symbol of hierarchy and oppression. It's also just plain uncomfortable on a hot, summer afternoon.

I've been watching Pride Parades for years. I saw my first in New York City. Halifax's parade was much smaller. I don't like everything I see portrayed in every parade. I could say that about a lot of events I attend. The path some follow to freedom sometimes leads to excess. The important thing for me is to be there and demonstrate my conviction that God is love and God's people are called to love everyone. I also want to celebrate the gifts LGBTQ sisters and brothers-- lay and ordained, Presbyterian or not-- have been to me. I want to give thanks for the gifts I've received through them.

I haven't announced the Pride Parade or promoted Presbyterian Pride at Glenview. Perhaps I've been too careful. I've only recently been added to the email list and become part of the conversation. This is, in part, because some people feel they have to remain on the level of word-of-mouth, need-to-know in their congregations and Presbyteries. I'm angry that those on one side in the PCC advertise and trumpet their views, while others stay quiet for fear of further exclusion.

I'm pleased that Knox Church in Waterloo has taken leadership and put their name on the parade list. St. Andrew's Toronto will host us after the big event. If you would like to come downtown on Sunday afternoon and watch the parade, I encourage you to do so. The Presbyterians will be walking behind the Metropolitan Community Church and just ahead of the Anglicans. If you'd like to join in, let me know and I'll pass your name to the organizers.

If you go to the parade, watch for this sign.

If you go to the parade, watch for this sign.

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F.O.T.B. The Sequel


F.O.T.B. The Sequel


Of all my posts to this Blog my meditation on being Father of the Bride is the most-read. It has attracted more comments and "likes" (here, on Facebook, by email, and in person) than any other post. It struck an emotional chord.

So, here's another reflection on my FOTB experience. The picture captures a lot of it. Here's how the dance started. Two little girls met for the first time that day, both on the Bride's side, but not related by blood. After their mothers broke the ice for them, they became fast friends. I'm sure a lot of people thought they were related. Sophia was adopted from China. McKenna's paternal grandparents came from Viet Nam. When the music started, the girls took to the dance floor.

Their joy was infectious. It was hard to resist joining the circle, dancing to Andy Grammer's "Honey, I'm Good!" We were alive, fully in the moment, and it was good. And we were good.

In Bible stories and prophetic visions the greatest celebrations the ancients could imagine were weddings. We know hardly anything about marriage liturgies in biblical times. We know the receptions went on, for days and days. Eating together, drinking wine together, being together with one purpose and one heart was the greatest joy our ancestors in faith knew. It's not stretching things to say they sang and danced together, too. When Christians made the Lord's Supper into something more than a sacred moment at the end of the weekly pot luck, they began to compare it to the heavenly wedding banquet. What became Communion was for them an appetizer at an even greater celebration to come. What we used to think was the only Presbyterian Communion hymn, Horatius Bonar's "Here O my Lord", is all about that "sweet foretaste of the festal joy". We need to refresh ourselves in that theology, if not the vocabulary.

Last month I dared to say being FOTB gave me a window into the mystery and wonder of God's love for us. I'll dare now to say our life together as Christians, including our worship on Sundays, is supposed to help us discover the joy in God's heart. More than a look through a window. A big stride in through a door that's never closed. On Trinity Sunday I talked about the wedding dance to describe the energy that draws us close to God.

As an FOTB who's still running on the energy of the wedding reception round dance, I'm looking for more joy in my life. And in life at Glenview. I thrive on the joy that's in the congregation I'm privileged to serve. But we could survive even more joy and still be Presbyterian. I'm convinced being church together is supposed to be a lot more like a wedding reception than a wake.

Discipleship, mission, being church together... Serious business, indeed. But we can't take on the serious business faithfully if we try to do it without joy. If we're not able to celebrate being together we won't find the confidence we need to work together, especially when the going is tough and we must make difficult decisions. The energy we need to be the church together today is the energy of the dance. God's mission is urgent. We are privileged to participate in that mission. Bringing joy to the world-- even quiet, confident, Presbyterian joy-- is a big part of our part in God's mission.

Coming together for a wedding celebration gives us hope for the future. It also puts our past into perspective. Whenever families gather there's a lot of history in the room. But the relative importance of past hurts, grievances, and grudges becomes clear. If we're lucky, we'll discover we've already moved on from the past and we really can move forward together.

This summer I plan to do some things I know will make me happy. Joy means more than just being happy. The two don't always go together. I'll know joy when I find it, though, with the memory of that day in May still fresh. And the energy of the dance still alive.






After Orlando: Let us be gentle and let us be bold.

I'm not sure what to say this week, after the horrendous attack on LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL early last Sunday. So much has already been said, by people from around the world. Most of what I've read has been helpful. I've been selective. Much that has been spread across the media and on the web has been hurtful and inflammatory. I'm angry that some influential people will turn this tragedy toward their agendas. I'm wrestling with the Gospel for Sunday, the story of Jesus in Gerasa, and his encounter with a man possessed by a legion of evil spirits. Jesus wasn't afraid. I must admit I'm finding it hard not to be afraid for neighbours and friends who are LGBTQ+. And Muslims. And not just in the United States. People who I hope are no more than opportunists and egotists have already suggested Toronto's Pride Parade as a target for a terrorist act.

Today I read these words, written by the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz. I worked with Fred addressing interfaith concerns in Halifax when he was Bishop of Nova Scotia and PEI. "Let us be gentle and then let us be bold." Beautiful and powerful words.



Spiritual Foundation

Summer Reading: Grounded

If you grew up in a Presbyterian congregation and are old enough to remember the little beige book with the shiny pages, share a memory in the Comments section below this post. If you don't share the experience or the memory, that's OK. Read on! One of the first questions of the Primary Catechism was "Where is God?" The answer: "God is everywhere." As a little kid I found that both awesome and awful. It meant I was never alone. It also meant I could never hide! God could see everything I did, and hear every word I said! As an adult I have learned that God is still everywhere and I am never alone. God is far less concerned with my faults and errors than I am! And God is far more willing to forgive me than I am.

Somewhere along the way, though, most of us were taught to think of our relationship with God as vertical. We're down here. God is up there. If we want to know where God really is, we have too look up, beyond the earth we still believe God created. Some of us may even have been told we had to avoid or ignore as much of the world as possible, to keep ourselves as clean as we could, so we would have a chance to escape to go up there and be with God.

If we always and only imagine our connection with God as vertical it's easy to believe we're lost in this world. But what if we can come close to God down here, where we live and move and have our being? Can we imagine a horizontal relationship with the God who is, as some of us were taught, everywhere?

I have a short summer reading list. It's nice, for the first summer in many years, not to have text books on that list. One book I look forward to finishing is Grounded by Diana Butler Bass. I recommend it for summer reading. Bass weaves together her expert observations on current trends in religion and spirituality in North America, and a creation-based Christian theology that is both new and very old. For those of us who are more inclined to look around than up to locate God, or at least to look around first, this makes sense. But Bass has a way of provoking us to take a fresh look at what we already believe.

I invite you to join with me in reading Grounded. It will be great preparation for a conversation I'm looking forward to in September. On Wednesday, September 21, we'll begin a six-session discussion, based on Grounded, Come at Noon or 7:30 p.m., or / and participate in an online conversation.

Grounded is available for purchase in book stores or online, in print and as an e-book. It's a great summer read for the cottage, backyard, or balcony.



Light and Darkness

On Victoria Day I went to visit the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre next door, and the park in the middle. It was a beautiful day. I got off the bus just before midday. The sun was high in the sky and the whole complex shone bright and hot. I was glad to step inside the cool museum, with its controlled, diffused light and air conditioning. I had heard both buildings were beautiful. The museum is anything but ornate inside. The architecture is deceptively simple. The galleries are small. The collections are what people come to see. They are housed and displayed in peaceful spaces that allow for prolonged attention. One visit isn’t enough.

A lot of westerners say “Islamic Art” is an oxymoron. After all, it seems we only hear about the Islamist extremists who are bent on burning beauty away from the earth. “Islamic Science” isn’t a phrase most in the west have ever heard. Long before Christians drove Muslims out of Europe and tried to do the same in Palestine Islamic artists, architects, astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians were at work. Their work was centuries ahead of the Europeans. A few wise and brave western scholars, like Copernicus sought out translations of Arabic texts and quietly worked with them to lay the foundations of what we call science. The permanent collection at the Aga Khan Museum reveals an earlier foundation few of us learned about in school. It also represents later developments in a part of the world people in our part of the world said was in the dark. After all, we in the west had an “Enlightenment” 400 years ago! Weren’t we lucky?

Visiting the Ismaili Centre provides a dramatic contrast to the important history lesson offered by the museum. The centre is all about today, and the way Ismaili Muslims bring faith and tradition, rich with ancient symbols, into the present. The building is a masterpiece itself, a celebration of design and decoration, the craft of artisans, Muslim and non-Muslim. Every detail has meaning, old and new. The contemporary take on the traditional dome over the prayer room is magnificent. The whole building is filled with light.

While there I remembered that I once heard a Muslim scholar respond to a western Christian’s question about history. When did Muslims experience the enlightenment? He replied, “We didn’t need one.” Not the elevation of reason to divine status and the reduction of religion to a harmless intellectual exercise that set the course of western civilization.

I’ve heard Christians and Hindus in India say the same thing.

If we go looking for darkness, we’ll surely find it. Yes, there are elements in every society that cast darkness, not light, and fight to draw others into deep shadows. Too often, though, we only see the darkness when we look toward people who are different from us. Too often, we forget how many people look on us in the same way.

If we’re confident in what we believe, and can honestly say we live what we believe with integrity, we will have no reason to cast people who aren’t like us into darkness. We’ll have no reason to be afraid of others. We’ll find the grace to join with others in the light, and work with them for the good of all. We all need enlightenment, real enlightenment. None of us will ever find it on our own.

I’m a better Christian when I see the light that others live in. Not the shadows my certainties cast over them.

As I left the Ismaili Centre and headed out onto the sidewalk I looked across Wynford Drive at another centre of religion. It was a pretty stark contrast. Shouldn’t it be all lit up, too, as a witness to the light we Presbyterians live in?

I’d love to meet Pope Francis some day. Maybe invite the Aga Khan to join in the conversation. I know a really beautiful place to meet in. The food’s great there, too.


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Does what we believe really matter?

Last Sunday, as I read the Preamble to the service for the ordination of elders I saw some puzzled looks in the congregation. We don't often hear the recitation of our doctrine of ministry, or even the names of our statements of Presbyterian belief. They are the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation (1954), and Living Faith (1998 - the Little Green Book). Presbyterians believe what we believe matters.

Churches in the Reformed tradition are called "Confessional" or "Confessing" churches. When I begin to explain that, most people think it means we have a Prayer of Confession in every service, and we may be a little too concerned about sin and forgiveness. We don't "go to Confession", do we? It means we believe we must always be ready to confess, or profess our faith. We believe there are times that call for us to make clear statements of how we interpret the Bible, and how we understand our purpose in the world. The mid-seventeenth century was such a time in our church history. From that time we have documents that came from an assembly at Westminster, in London. The English didn't adopt those documents, but the Scots did.

In 1954, the memory of World War II was still fresh and fear of the spread of Communist totalitarianism was a powerful force. Our Presbyterian Church in Canada adopted a statement about the relationship of the church to the state, and the Christian's duty as citizen.

In the mid-eighties Living Faith was written for use in worship and in study groups. The document became so popular in the PCC that it was elevated to the same status as the older confessions in 1998.

There are parts of the Westminster Confession that we just don't accept today. It'll curl your hair, if not your toes. It's an historic document, very much of its time. We're Presbyterians. We don't throw old things away. There is still much in that document to remind us, for one thing, that God is God and we are not. The Declaration is obviously a document of the 1950s, but still a serious work of theology. It deserves to be read. Parts of Living Faith are now dated. It reflects concerns about the world as it was in the 1980s. On the whole, it's a sound summary of orthodox Christian belief, without the heavy-handedness of the Westminster. The latter comes from an age when Christians were addicted to Certainty. Living Faith reflects a slightly more open approach to things.

These words are often missed when the Preamble is read out at a minister's induction, or when elders are ordained: ...and such doctrine as the church, in obedience to Scripture and under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, may yet confess in the church's continuing function of reformulating the faith.

"Continuing function of reformulating the faith..." We believe that's part of the church's work in this world. What we believe is important. It's important to know what we believe, and to be able to tell others what we believe. It's just as important to question what we say we believe and to be open to the possibility we may be wrong. The Puritans influenced the assembly at Westminster, yet it was also a Puritan who said, I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.” John Robinson sent his friends to the Americas on the Mayflower with these words. He stayed behind to challenge the terrible certainties of his brethren. He wasn't charmed by the Presbyterians, either. He said we stopped thinking when John Calvin died! I like to think we've learned from Robinson and others, that there is more light than we can see, and more truth about God than we have yet discovered.

For each time and purpose it is important to be able to say what we believe and demonstrate our convictions in our lives. To be a Confessing church isn't just to say "This we believe, and here we stand". We can't stop there. The next words must be, "And this is what we do because we believe". It was a Confession of Faith that provided Reformed Christians in Europe a platform for their resistance to Hitler. When we act on our convictions we put them to the test. That testing often leads us to "reformulate" our beliefs. We won't see new light if we just sit still and take no risks.

Maybe the time has come for a new statement of faith for Presbyterians to celebrate, ponder over, question, and push against. It takes awhile to write one. The work that finally led to Living Faith began in the 1940s! Sometimes the journey is the biggest share in the reward. As the great Canadian Presbyterian theologian Walter Bryden put it, when the Westminster was only 300 years old, a Confession of Faith becomes dated the moment it's printed. (My paraphrase.)

What we believe matters, in the same way having footings beneath a foundation matters. We lay sound footings so we can build great things upon them. We can forget they're there at times, but we can never take them for granted.

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I'm grateful to everyone who has asked me about preparations for Maggie's wedding on Saturday. Before and after the ceremony I will be chauffeur and concierge for some family and friends. I know I'll spend the day before in my familiar role as Laurence the Camel: hauling, loading, unloading, hauling. I'm an expert at packing and unpacking our SUV. As FOTB I've dutifully paid for a share of wedding expenses. I expected and welcome all of this.

What I wasn't ready for was the emotional roller coaster ride that goes with being FOTB. As a pastor I've dealt with the emotions of many Mothers of the Bride. A MOTB can be a real handful in the days before and after a wedding, while a bride can be as cool as a cucumber. FOTBs are usually in the background, feeling things just as deeply as their wives, but mostly silent. At least until the toasts at the reception begin.

Today I saw a young father having a lunch date with his daughter, who looked to be between three and four. I saw Maggie and me and, to be honest, that's how I still see us a lot of the time. I figure that's how I'll see us on Saturday. She will always be my girl. I know not every father-daughter relationship is good and loving. I also know fathers and daughters can share a bond that may stretch but can never be broken. When she's three or four you are like a god to her. When she looks at you with love at any age, you feel like a god. When you have just one child, and that child is a daughter, it's especially hard to let her grow, and let her go to follow a path she has chosen. 

So, to everyone who has asked me how I'm doing, I have to say I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm proud, I'm afraid, and I'm already tired. I have two FOTB speeches prepared. One ends with me telling the groom he's the luckiest man in the world and we're delighted to welcome him into the family. The other speech is a warning. If he ever disappoints my girl, I'll hunt him down and... I'll probably go with the first speech. I think he already gets the second message.

Parenting offers us a unique opportunity to experience what it's like for God to love us unconditionally. If we think of the old image of the church as the Bride of Christ, then maybe we can imagine God riding the FOTB (or POTB) roller coaster of joy, sorrow, pride, frustration, rage when others hurt us, anger when we choose to hurt ourselves, forgiveness that flows like tears, beyond control. God knows the mixture of pain and satisfaction that come from letting us grow, and letting us go.

Like a FOTB God watches, mostly silent, but loving truly, madly, deeply. Seeing us only at our best. Taking us by the hand only when and for as long as necessary. But never stepping beyond our reach.

Maybe this post would be more appropriate in the week before Father's Day than now, with Mother's Day approaching. I didn't choose the wedding date.

I'll do my best to be a good FOTB. Play chauffeur, concierge, Laurence the Camel, and Rock of Gibraltar. For my little girl, who is in so many ways much smarter than I am, and in so many ways more mature than her mother and I were when we got married.



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So... What's Different (Part Two)

I've been asked what it's like to return to congregational ministry after six years of full-time teaching. Do I note any changes in the church?

One thing I can say is that denominations mean less to church members than they did a few years ago. Maybe I should say "even less", because interest and commitment have been declining for quite some time. Where congregations are growing it's because people are choosing the local church first. If they stick around, they may find out about the denomination.

I don't mean loyal, life-long Presbyterians like me don't care if we're Presbyterian any more. In many congregations attention has shifted away from the structures and concerns of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the life and needs of the local church. This is reflected in what I've called the Church Positive: congregations that are engaging in mission and partnerships that make real differences in their neighbourhoods; local churches that are working for change in the world by refugee sponsorship, and supporting PWS&D and other NGOs, often at the expense of contributions to denominational budgets. It also appears in the Church Negative: congregations focused on survival, resistant to change, closed to insight from outside, and often angry at their denominations. My extensive experience in the United Church of Canada over the past six years tells me this isn't unique to our PCC.

People in the pews and at Session tables have always asked what the denomination, or "Head Office" does for their church. Well, let's see. The Presbyterian Church in Canada, through Presbyterians Sharing...

  • supports education for ministers and other church leaders.
  • supports overseas partners in mission, keeps us informed about that work, and holds us to our commitment to be a church that is engaged with the world.
  • supports new ministries in Canada, including new congregations, and missions that are finding new ways to do their work.
  • enables very small and remote congregations and ministries across the country to continue in worship and fellowship.
  • provides educational, administrative, and problem-solving resources to congregations.

That's not a complete list, but it covers some very important things that are, or can be, of benefit to any congregation.

I'm not convinced we need all the structures that have been in place for so many years to keep on offering that support to local congregations. I'm also aware that many congregations seek and find support from sources outside the PCC. They also aim their support for mission in many directions, local and international. Some do this in the expansive spirit of the Church Positive. Some in the oppositional way of the Church Negative. Either way, they don't rely on the denomination as much as they might have a few years ago.

I'm encouraged when local congregations cooperate with nearby churches, across denominational lines. The practical truth is that Glenview has more in common with nearby congregations in North Toronto than with other churches in East Toronto Presbytery. (The same could be said about Armour Heights and Calvin, and their neighbourhoods.) I'm discouraged when congregations feel obliged to "keep it Presbyterian" and miss opportunities to share with their neighbours and friends.

On the national level I believe the time came a good while ago for denominations to share administration of all essential services. Canadian churches already cooperate in aid and development programs and avoid duplication of effort. In the end, the cost saving might not be great, but the witness to church and world would be positive, encouraging congregations to follow suit.

So... Do I care less about my denomination than I did six years ago? I am a Presbyterian by birth, baptism, nurture, education, and adult choice. If there's such a thing as a Presbyterian temperament, that's who I am. I believe our Presbyterian / Reformed witness is an essential voice in the chorus of the worldwide church. I also believe that to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical, and to be open to reforming and rebuilding the church's structures to follow God's mission in every age. I see our collective ability to carry on the PCC's business-as-usual declining, fast. I don't grieve that as I did a few years ago, when I first saw it. After all, God always has something new in store for us.

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So... What's Different? (Part One)

A longer post this week. I don't have to prepare sermons for Sunday.

Glenview folk, former students, and ministry colleagues have been asking me how it feels to be back in congregational ministry after a time out. I tell them I spent the last six years in a different kind of ministry.

It's true that I left full time congregational leadership in 2008. For awhile I was in part time interim ministry while teaching part time. Then, in 2009, I went into teaching full time. I wasn't leading a congregation. But, through my students, I had fingers and toes in up to 35 pastoral charges across Canada, and in Bermuda, at a time. (Only one was Presbyterian.)

I haven't been away from ministry, but I now see the impact of change on pastoral leadership first hand. I'm also looking back to the 26 years I was in congregational ministry before I went back to school. Some of the changes I'm reflecting on aren't recent, but I see them now in fresh light.

When I was ordained we could still safely assume the truth of those words from "Field of Dreams": "If you build it they will come." Church members put a twist on it: "We built it and they have been coming ever since." Then it became, "We have built it. Why aren't they coming?" Then we tried new programs, activated new volunteers, added staff, put up new signs. We really believed that, if we built it, they would come. Sometimes they did. For awhile.

After awhile programs aren't new anymore. The needs they once met aren't as urgent as they once were. Volunteers burn out, or take healthy breaks. Staff come and go. People stop noticing signs after awhile. Unless they have experienced deeply personal engagement with the community that initially drew them in by creating something for them, those still new to the church will move on.

The decline in membership and income all established congregations have been contending with for more than the last six years has finally reached levels that no one can deny. In 2008 a lot of churches were still hiding from the truth. Many were saying, "Let's build again so they will come." Or come back. Some did. For awhile.

We can also no longer deny demographic reality. Canada has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the global north. The core demographic of Canadian Protestant churches is ageing even faster. It's also declining, slowly but steadily, as a percentage of the total population. This has more to do with birth rate than immigration.

Churches that want to grow still dream of attracting new members who are already enough like current members to fit in. In the 1980's, when churches set goals and adopted growth strategies this was called "the principle of homogeneity". We were told to go out and introduce ourselves to people who were longing to meet folks just like them. If these new friends had specific needs, we were told to build something to meet those needs. Like a church nursery. A parenting group. A counseling centre. And they would come! Sometimes they did. For awhile.

In 2016 I see just as many established Protestant churches as there were in 2008 and almost as many as there were in the 1980s. Those churches are now competing for a shrinking population.

English-speaking, middle income families with children have even more options than they did just a few years ago. They will choose when and where to invest their time, their money, their children, and themselves. Those who choose to invest in the church are looking for something more than a structure or program that sort of does what somebody else in the neighbourhood also does. Congregations with money to fund structures and programs at a consistent level of excellence can still grow. They will come. For awhile.

My experience and study tell me that it's relationships that draw in and hold onto the folks every congregation says it most wants to attract. And that's relationships, plural. They expect to know and trust the leaders, but they know leaders come and go. Sustained relationships with members of the congregation are the real reason people of all ages come and stay in community.

Every study I've read or supervised over the last six years tells me that lots of people who used to go to church, or never went to church, still seek meaning, purpose, and community. Some come to church looking for that. They don't always find what they seek. They look carefully. Yes, they can be quick to make judgments, based on first impressions. This is especially true of those young adults every established congregation longs to have among them.

What are they looking for? A community that has a clear purpose and honestly tries to live up to it. People who walk their talk. They may seek opportunities to join in doing something that makes a difference in the world. They may watch for signs that being part of the congregation makes a difference in its members' lives. At the very least they want to feel free to be as involved in church life as they choose to be.

If the congregation has many programs, do they really help people? If there are excellent facilities, are they used well and thoroughly, in ways that help people? Is worship engaging, approachable for everyone? This question is really important to a lot of young adults: If I come back and bring a friend who is obviously different from me, and most of the congregation, will we both be just as welcome as I was last Sunday?

I used to share a widespread belief-- perhaps a prejudice-- that only one way of worshiping, one kind of music, one brand of theology could feed growth in a church. I still hear a lot of that in churches. I've learned that churches of all liturgical, musical, and theological bents can grow. Or decline, fast. What draws people in and keeps them coming back is evidence that worshiping, singing, and believing together is meaningful. It doesn't seem to matter if a congregation is open and eclectic or closely framed by one tradition. What matters is the positive difference a congregation and its members make in the world because they pray, celebrate, and learn together.

Tony Robinson is one of my favourite speakers and writers on congregational life. In a recent article for The Christian Century magazine he uses marketing vocabulary to make a distinction between being market driven and product driven. He says the church has often been market driven, focused on getting a share of a chosen demographic (e.g. young parents, "Millenials"). Congregations can't ignore any segment of the population, or their contexts. Robinson says it's more important for congregations to be clear about what they offer the world. "What is the particular understanding of the gospel and of the church that we believe in? What are we passionate about? How do we give form to our vision of the gospel and the church in the ways that we gather, worship, pray, teach, sing, and serve? What is our 'product,' and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?"

A few years ago I would have been offended to be asked what my church's product was. Robinson chooses his words to make a point, and to ask us an important question. What is our product, and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?

That begs another question. If we know what we are offering, are we willing to tell others about it?




The Church Negative and the Church Positive

Last week the Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church in Canada met in Crieff, Ontario. The Assembly Council is a group of people from across the church, some more representing various governing bodies within the denomination's structure, and staff. They do a lot of the business of the denomination between annual General Assemblies. I read the summary of the meeting and noted this report from the Moderator, Karen Horst.

Throughout her visits across Canada, she has witnessed the numerical decline of a number of our congregations. She stressed that we need to be honest about this issue. The other issue she has experienced was a surprising degree of prejudice from members in our pews towards refugees, Indigenous people, as well as on human sexuality.

She said these issues were alarming, and I suppose they are. But I'm afraid they're not surprising. I wonder if they go together. I suspect they do, in many places.

Sunday's first reading is Revelation 7:9-17, a wild and woolly vision of saints assembled in heaven to receive their reward for endurance through hard times. The celebration is led by a flock of angels and elders who fall down on their faces around the heavenly throne. The traditional reading says it's a vision of the church as it is on earth and as it shall be in heaven: The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant. All intended to encourage the church as it was, 1900 years ago, in a time of increasing persecution within the Roman Empire.

Those terms, Militant and Triumphant, survived. Even though we don't use the words much these days, they have shaped the way a lot of people still think about the church and its mission. For them, the church in the here and now is all about hard work and struggle. It's also about settling for less than the best we can be. After all, things will be perfect in heaven, or in some sweet by and by when God takes over. The saints will be rewarded for their endurance when they get to heaven. So holding on and keeping on before God finally moves us on is our bounden duty. The Church Militant will defend itself against all change. Against all comers, if necessary!

The term "Militant" used to mean totally focused on mission, and ready to give everything if that's what it takes to do God's will. The vision in Revelation 7 is of a "multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." It's pretty clear the work of the church on earth, the Church Militant, is to reach out and welcome in all comers. To be passionate about growing, and embracing all kinds of people and all the change they bring. All for Christ's sake, not ours.

The purpose of every vision the Bible gives us of what is to come is to inspire us, here and now, to live that vision and its values. Blogger Glennon Melton asks, "What kind of heaven do you believe in? Are you WAITING for it or WORKING for it?"

So, just what did the Moderator see and hear in her travels this year? I think she met a lot of tired, frustrated, even angry people who are dedicated to being the Church Militant; just like they think their grandparents were, and just like they were told past generations of saints and martyrs were. They're waiting for heaven but their vision of heaven has very little to do with life on earth.

I'm not convinced the Militant / Triumphant dichotomy is helpful to us today. I'm wrestling with the commentators as I prepare for Sunday's sermons. I do think we can distinguish between the Church Positive and the Church Negative. The Church Positive is motivated by the possibility that we can live and be in mission today in ways that reflect the wonderful vision Jesus cast of the Kingdom of God. We can live the crazy hope of a heaven where God "will guide [us and all] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear." That will give us strength and courage to do hope-filled things like feed people who might not eat on a cold winter Sunday night, sponsor Syrian refugees, join with neighbours to clean a ravine so all can enjoy public space, work to bring clean water to First Nations Communities, weep with the people of Attawapiskat, and use the power and influence we have as citizens to work so that their tears will be wiped away.

I'm sorry the Moderator encountered so many examples of the Church Negative in her travels. I'm not surprised, but it still hurts to read her report. But her words call us, at Glenview, to ask what kind of church we are and want to be. Are we still waiting for something to dawn on us? Or are we working for it?