Category Archives: Pastor Thoughts

This pandemic likes to remind us it isn’t over – Pastor Thoughts

After a couple of weeks away on holidays, it is good to be back – well, sort of.

As some of you may know, our family ventured west for the first time since June 2019. It had been nearly 3 years since our family had made our pilgrimage to see extended family across the prairies. It was incredible to see just show much our kids loved seeing various relatives. they marvelled at all the people they were related to. At 8 and 5, I think they felt like they were meeting many folks for the first time.

The purpose of our trip a this time of year was to attend an important family funeral, but the opportunity to see family was something we all needed after 3 years of staying home.

After two weeks of visits, of recreating missed birthdays, family dinners and just spending time together, our hearts were full of something we had been desperately missing. It almost felt normal at times, being around people we love and have missed so much.

Finally, close to the end of the second week, we began the long drive home.

In the weeks before we set out on this holiday, in the midst of Holy Week and Easter, I did my best to keep up on the pandemic situation. I knew that COVID was spreading widely, but seeing family, particularly because of this family funeral, was important at this point.

In the middle part of the second week, we began feeling some symptoms: Runny noses, coughs, plugged ears. While there were stories of COVID cases all around us, we initially attributed it to seasonal and pet allergies (so many dogs and cats!). But still we took rapid tests, we were always wearing masks in public, and compared to a normal whirlwind family tour, we reduced contacts and limited household visits substantially.

Still, we were feeling pretty crummy as we came home. Before going out into the world once home, we decided to rapid test again.

And after a week of symptoms, our tests finally showed two lines.

We were positive for COVID-19.

The thing that we had been working so hard to avoid for over 2 years had finally made its way into our house all the way from across the country.

We let our family and anyone who visited us know.

For us, it has been very hard to be so far from family during this pandemic. But I also know it may have been one of the things that has kept us safe from infection. If we lived closer to family, I am sure we would have been gathering and visiting when the public health orders allowed. I am sure our contacts would have gone way up.

And looking back it is easy to see why we were infected with COVID-19. In two weeks we were in more homes, and spending more time with people unmasked and close contact than we have in the two years previous. We thought we were careful enough, but every visit was a risk.

It is a reminder of just where this pandemic has hit us hardest. It speaks to why we are all so beaten down and struggling. COVID-19 has robbed us of the most important activities that help us stay healthy and grounded. Gathering together with the family and friends who are most important to us. Two years of FaceTime and Zoom calls every other day was nothing like just once sitting around the dinner table with those that we love.

The pandemic is far from over. We continue to balance finding ways to connect with and be close to those people who are most important to us – family, friends, neighbours or siblings in Christ – with staying safe, preventing illness and disease.

And I cannot help but come to the realization this is our new world. The realities that we are struggling with today are not going anywhere anytime soon, and so we continue to struggle together. We continue to follow God’s call together. We continue to adapt and change and seek out ways to be community, to care for each other and to walk together in faith.

So far COVID-19 has been like a bad head cold for us… and hopefully I will start testing negative soon and be able to re-join our local community not long after that.

Practicing faith over our days, weeks, seasons and years – Pastor Thoughts

This week I am bending the rules of worship and preaching ever so slightly. I am switching the gospel lesson that we normally hear on the 2nd Sunday of Easter for a different story. Instead of the story of Thomas, we will hear the Road to Emmaus – the gospel appointed for Easter Sunday Evening and the story that comes immediately after the resurrection gospel from Luke that we heard last Sunday.

I am sure you are thinking to yourself that Pastor Erik is quite the liturgical rebel… that is if you haven’t fallen asleep reading already.

Pastors often gravitate towards particular areas of ministry more than others. Some are excellent counsellors and caregivers. Others have the gift of the gab and work a room like a politician. Others are great organizers and administrators. Still others are great with seniors or youth or families or 12 step groups or other kinds of program ministry or small groups.

One of my retired predecessors revealed one of his gifts after I asked him to preach at the 60th anniversary of the congregation I was serving at the time. For the first 5 minutes of the sermon he had the congregation in stitches – clearly one of his gifts was stand-up comedy!

Anyway, I am sure you have surmised by that worship/liturgy and preaching are a couple of the areas of pastoral ministry I am quite passionate about.

When I first arrived at Sherwood Park, a change that I made right off the bat was to switch us from the Narrative Lectionary (NL) back to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The Lectionary is the schedule of appointed readings that we hear in church each Sunday.

The RCL includes the First Reading from the stories of God’s people, a Psalm from the hymnbook of Israel, the Second Reading from the letters of encouragement and exhortation of the early church and a Gospel reading from the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The NL was created as a response to a sense that the RCL included too many readings and that people in the pews were unfamiliar with the bible, and so the NL is usually based on one longer reading and makes it way through different books of the bible chronologically to encourage Biblical literacy.

While there is lots to debate regarding the merits of either lectionary, the RCL is designed to fit and serve the liturgical calendar whereas the NL is more suited to bible study. So if your worship is crafted around the liturgical or church year, then the RCL will serve worship better. But if worship is more about teaching and educating folks in the faith, the NL is a good alternative.

Again, you can probably see where my sensibilities lie.

Worship and therefore preaching are meant to help us walk through the story of Jesus’ life and ministry that we tell throughout the church year. Beginning in Advent and until Pentecost we hear the story of Jesus’ life. And then after Pentecost until Christ the King Sunday we hear about Jesus’ teaching and ministry.

So going all the way back to where I started… it might not seem like a big deal to change the gospel reading on a particular Sunday, but for me it is. While the RCL is technically only about 40 years old, it is based on the lectionaries and traditions of Christian worship that go back almost 2000 years (and even beyond into the Jewish tradition). The church year and stories appointed to Sundays and Feast Days have been used by Christians throughout the centuries to help tell and re-tell the content of our faith. In particular to pass on the faith to the next generation.

As we hear these stories year after year, and start to learn them by heart, like:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Caesar Augustus…

This my Son My Beloved…

Jesus was led in the wilderness by the Spirit…”

There they crucified him, and with him two others..”

Early on the first day of the week

We can start to bring these stories home, we can start telling them not just at church but in our family gatherings and holiday (Holy-Day) traditions. The biblical stories that accompany our days and years graft themselves into our lives this way, even if we don’t know exactly where to find them in the bible (Pastors and google can always help with that).

It isn’t an accident that the Gospel lesson I am borrowing from Easter Evening is the Road to Emmaus. Emmaus is a microcosm of our life of faith.

The disciples meet Jesus on the road, he opens their hearts and minds to the word, Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread and then he sends them out with a story to tell the world. Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending.

The way we worship, the way we observe our days, weeks, seasons and years, and the stories we tell along the way all serve to help faith grow in us. And as these things begin to take root in us they become central in our lives. The stories of faith help us understand ourselves and God’s purposes for this world. They connect us to all the faithful who have gone before us, all the faithful on the journey with us and to those who will follow after us.

And like those disciples on road, we are not left to sort it all out on our own, rather God meets us again and again in Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending. Week after week, season after season, year after year. And God brings us into God’s story; one told by peoples and communities from time immemorial and around the globe.

A story given to us on the road and journey of faith.

Easter Expectations vs Easter Reality – Pastor Thoughts

Unbelievably, this is our 3rd pandemic Easter. Remember back in 2020 at the beginning of all of this when we thought that we might celebrate Easter together but just a few weeks late?

Now we have done a whole lectionary cycle of Matthew, Mark and Luke, all shedding new light on this world we are living in. And I will be honest, there is no small measure of disappointment that I am carrying this year. Not in anything in particular, but more generally a sense of loss at how much of a struggle and slog it is to navigate something that should be a grand celebration.

As a pastor, I have learned to temper my expectations about many things. I have learned that every congregation I serve has its own little quirks and idiosyncrasies that I just need to accept. I have learned that making changes to Christmas traditions, like when we sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, may as well come with my resignation letter. I know that pulling that beloved picture of Jesus off the wall of the church basement might result in a special congregational meeting.

But I have also learned that there are other places where there are all kinds of freedom to shape and create as I see fit: Holy Week and Easter being one of them. The breadth of traditions from between Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday often carry with them the sense that these things ought to be done in the ways that Christians have been doing them for centuries. Sure there are particular traditions here and there, but often congregations have been very open to Holy Week and Easter ideas.

For example:

On Palm Sunday there is a palm procession, even though it is a bit awkward. And if we can awkwardly do that with a neighbouring congregation, even better!

Maundy Thursday it is often an opportunity to gather around the table and delve into the richness of the Lord’s supper…  and maybe even try foot washing!

On Good Friday there is often a procession the cross, long expansive prayers, long solemn psalm chants or the solemn reproaches and sometimes even the chance to reverence the cross. 

And for the really adventurous, Holy Saturday might include the Easter Vigil with its gathering around the New Fire, its 12 readings and 12 psalms and then a whole communion service to conclude!

And of course on Easter Sunday people have gathered early for Sunrise services, cooked Easter breakfast, shouted “alleluia” on command, dance in the aisles  and more.

And the thing about many of these traditions (unlike Silent Night which was written because one congregation’s organ broke on Christmas Eve and so the organist wrote a carol for guitar) is that they are rooted in scripture or in the ancient practices of the early church.

Which brings me back to my disappointment. I wish the past 3 Holy Weeks and Easters were more about all that other stuff I listed above than about pandemic and snow storms. I wish our biggest concern had been about how to gather and tell the Passion and Resurrection stories again and anew in our community… and not whether it was even safe to gather in-person.

And then I hear the Easter gospel anew.

Particularly Luke’s Easter story. One of my personal heresies about Luke is that I think the writer of the gospel was actually a woman.  Luke has a particular insight into those who occupied the bottom of social ranks, those who lived on the margins. The way Luke tells the story of Mary (rather than Matthew who tells Joseph’s story) as she receives the news that she will bear God’s child. Rather than Matthew’s spiritualized beatitudes, Luke’s beatitudes focus on physical needs: Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the thirsty. Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son (Loving Father) and the Good Samaritan.

And Luke’s resurrection story is messy and chaotic. Matthew has Jesus meet the women. Mark has the women run away in fear. John has Jesus meet Matthew and then Thomas and then the disciples several times.

But the women only see the empty tomb and then rush back to the disciples only to be disbelieved.

It makes sense. All along the way, Luke tells the stories of people who are struggling, who don’t have it together, who make mistakes, who are victims of life, who are often overlooked by the powerful.

And Luke’s Easter is no different. It is messy and real and still connected to the real problems of our world. Just as Jesus has been throughout.

And maybe that is the reminder that we need, that I need. An Easter where our only concern is how nice we can make our Holy Week experience is a blessing. But Easter that comes to us with all the messy and hard parts of life, with all the struggles and failures and suffering that are a part of things right now… Well that is how the first Easter was. And why we need Easter in the first place.

So despite all the things Holy Week and Easter won’t be this year, and all the things I wish it could be….

Easter and the Risen Christ will be all that we need.

Changing how we practice faith or practicing faith to change us – Pastor Thoughts

I  have always found the juxtaposition between Lent-Holy Week and Spring a little odd-feeling. 

Lent walks us through a somber and solemn season toward the darkest point in the Christian story. Meanwhile our season is changing as winter ends, snow melts, days get longer and, if we are lucky, the greens of spring start to appear. Mid-week evening prayer services in particular start out in dark evening settings but often by the end of Lent and because of the time change are taking place in full daylight. 

Now this is a particular feature of the Northern Hemisphere, as our Southern Hemisphere siblings experience Lent and Easter through fall into winter (and Christmas in the middle of summer!). For my seminary cross-cultural component, we travelled to visit CLWR projects in Peru. It was odd to arrive on January 1st – the middle of summer – to Christmas Lights, Santa displays and many, many nativity scenes and Feliz Navidad signs during the 12 days of Christmas.

The way that our local contexts impact our experience of faith can change how we practice being church together. Most church folks don’t really notice however because you have to move from church to church to see it. 

My first congregation in a rural farming community told me that the best time to have bible studies, meetings and other programs was after harvest in November and before seeding in April. 

With all the cottagers here in Manitoba, I know some churches have just cancelled summer Sunday worship altogether or tried mid-week services. 

And of course these past two years, the way we have practiced our faith has been deeply impacted by the pandemic and all the measures we took to keep one another safe. 

This week while reading an article about pandemic faithfulness, some of my own thoughts were clarified by this article in The Christian Century entitled ”My spouse is also my pastor (it is not about pastor-dynamics ). Here is an excerpt:

I began to realize this after almost a year of worshiping online, sometimes attentively chatting and liking and humming along, sometimes watching on my phone while Arsenal FC flickered on the big screen, sometimes listening while riding my bike. I wasn’t worshiping; I was going through the motions. I began to realize that my pastor was no longer a mediator but more of a proxy. As long as she was doing the work, I didn’t have to.

I wonder if this is one of the scars or fears or possibilities COVID has laid bare. Stripped of the presence of people, we are left to ask questions of what we believe and do and are beyond the simple act of showing up at a building on Sunday.

Because I pre-recorded worship for much of the past two years, I was also watching worship in my PJs with a coffee on Sunday mornings. Even though I was the one presiding and preaching, I could feel that watching worship was missing the essential element of being active and engaged. That person on the screen was doing my faith for me. 

(Don’t hear this knocking down online services. They were essential during the past two years and continue to be essential means of making church accessible in ways that we weren’t before). 

Without an ounce of judgement, I also know that as a pastor, becoming a proxy for faithfulness has been happening for years if not decades. I know that the line between helping people grow in faith and practicing faith on their behalf has been an ever blurring line. Reading the bible, praying, serving the community and telling people about God’s love has been shifting from something that pastors help people to do into things the pastor does for people. There are a lot of complicated reasons behind this, from the clericalization of the church to a world that doesn’t know Christianity as it once did. 

The result is that even as life-long church goers, it is becoming more and more difficult to make space and room for the practices of our faith to shape and form our lives. Because there is this other direction that things can and should go on this two-way street of faith. Yes, things like geography, history and culture, local traditions and community affect how the church goes about its day to day, season to season ministry. 

Yet there is also the way in which the rhythms and patterns of our Sunday to Sunday lives, our season to season journey of faith changes and shapes how we live the rest of our lives. Whether it is finding time to read the bible, pray or watch a devotional on YouTube each day. Whether it is giving something up for Lent. Whether it is joining a small group, signing up to give rides to church, volunteering to bake cookies for the Urban, or to be a sponsor for the splash program. Incorporating faith into our day to day lives takes on many shapes. 

But there is also the way in which our faith reminds us how God’s loves makes us worthy, God’s grace and mercy reconciles us, God’s Kingdom has room for us, the Body of Christ needs us. And that this changes how we are in the world with family, friends, at work, in the neighbourhood and beyond.

We are in a place of destabilization and deconstruction as individuals, as a society and as a church. As the structures that undergirded our lives are stripped away, we are left to start again building up our world and our lives. And that begins by understanding anew who we are – our identity. 

In Christ the foundation of our identity is assured – beloved children of God. Now figuring out what it means to be beloved children of God in this Northern Hemisphere, spring has sprung, zoomed out, extremely online, pandemic weary world as Winnipeggers (or people from wherever you are from) trying to live this life of faith together in 2022 and beyond. 

I am excited to find the answer to where God is leading us together. 

Recency Bias and Future Planning – Pastor Thoughts

Human beings have this habit of thinking that the things that just happened will keep happening forever. The official name for it is called recency bias.  (Forgive me if I have talked about this before.) 

Your favourite sports team wins the first game of the season and you feel like they will go 82-0 the rest of the season. 

Gas, housing prices, inflation etc… goes up and we think they will go up forever. 

Peace breaks out in substantial parts of western world, and we think it will endure forever. 

Then the sports team loses, the stock market crashes, prices change and fall, war breaks out and our recency bias is disproven – often causing consternation.

We know the best strategy is to buy low and sell high, yet we keep selling low and buying high. 

And so too it is the case in the church. For close to 50 years churches followed a steady trajectory of growth. The population boom of the 1950s and 60s turned into a frenzy of church planting and building, into growing staffs and budgets through to the early 2000s. But then things start to level out, some congregations even started to shrink a little. 

And it seemed impossible. After seemingly endless growing, of adding more and more staff members, calling additional pastors, renovating church spaces to hold more people and allow for more programs, adding worship services to accommodate growing crowds, churches who were planning for more of the same were not prepared for something to contradict their recency bias. 

If you went back in time to 1962 to a church and told the folks then that within their lifetime churches would age and shrink and begin to seriously struggle, they would have laughed at you!

But here is the thing. If you took a 1962 person back to a church in 1912 and described the church of 1962 to that 1912 person, they would laugh too! In 1912, you would likely find a hastily constructed barn serving as a church on the corner of a farmer’s field. There might be a pastor who was riding a wagon or train around the countryside preaching at several congregations a Sunday, being paid in eggs, milk and chickens. Churches would be struggling to keep up, putting out herculean efforts just to gather together for worship. That person from 1912 would recognize the church of 2022 more than the church of 1962. 

Christianity and local congregations have been enduring boom and busy cycles for hundreds of years, and what we are living in now has been more of the norm for most of history. The golden ages of the middle 20th century was the blip. 

Now, if someone from 2052, maybe even 2032, had shown up in our pews in 2019 and told us that the church of the future will be lively and vibrant and growing in surprising ways, we would have laughed at them too. 

But today in 2022 with the world in as uncertain and topsy-turvey as it has ever been in most of our life times, maybe a vibrant future church doesn’t seem entirely out of the question. If the Ukraine way keeps escalating and further threatening our own safety, if (when) another variant of COVID-19 emerges causing widespread illness, hospitalization and death, if our economic troubles create even deeper hardship, if climate change continues to streek our infrastructure… it is easy to imagine people turning to religion for hope and support.

Change is upon us, and what has just happened to us is extremely unlikely to continue on forever. In fact, knowing what we know about the cycle of history, a vibrant and growing church in 2032 is more likely than a church that fades completely into nothingness. It is hubris for us to think we are going to be the last generation of the faithful. But our recency bias is often so strong that we cannot believe it – more of the same decline “feels” like our future. 

However, the church of the next 10 to 30 years will be a church dramatically changed from even what we know now. As different as my grandfather spending Sundays riding the train across the country side in 1948 to 1951 to preach at small rural congregations to growing multi-pastor, multi-staff program corporate churches of the late ’60s to early 2000s. 

This week we will hear the story of the Prodigal Son which (spoiler alert) is not so much a warning against dissolute living, but a story about undoing expectations. The younger son expects condemnation and the older expects vindication. Neither gets what they expect. Instead God provides something else entirely. 

I don’t know what the church of the next 10 to 30 years will look like (I have lots of ideas!) but I do know that it will not be what we expect. Instead, at the guiding of the Spirit, we will be transformed for this new and changing world again. God has always been changing and making us ready for the world we find ourselves in, even when we have no idea what that will look like.