Tag Archives: ministry

The moveable feast of Christmas – Pastor Thoughts

Though it is hardly December, we are quickly moving through Advent this year. Sunday was the 2nd Sunday in Advent on just December 4th. 

I was sitting at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet again this week, chatting with parents while casually checking emails. The topic of Christmas came up and as a pastor, non-religious folks sometimes take the opportunity to ask about my work. One of the parents asked when the Christmas busy-ness ramps up. I replied that it isn’t in November like most of the world, but that Christmas doesn’t technically start until December 25th and it is 12 days long ending with Epiphany on January 6th. 

Right now the church is observing Advent, which looks like Christmas with wreaths and lights and trees, but is more about preparing and waiting, more about being small and contained than the over-the-top celebration that is Christmas. I also noted that this year is what some of my colleagues call “Pastor’s Christmas.” 

Normally, there is less than a week between the 4th Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve. In fact, the 4th Sunday can be as late as Christmas Eve morning. This means Advent 4, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services all fall within the span of 24 hours. Three different sermons, three different services in succession. 

Even still, Advent 4, with Christmas Eve on Tuesday or Wednesday, means a few days to prepare for Christmas services and only a few days after for the first Sunday of Christmas. 

But this year, there is time. Luxurious time. Christmas Eve isn’t until Saturday night leaving an entire week following Advent 4 to prepare. Christmas Day falls on Sunday morning, meaning that there is a full week until the first Sunday of Christmas. 

Yes, Christmas is always December 24th/25th, but it feels more moveable than Easter (which is called the moveable feast). Easter’s date may change, but it is always on Sunday, Good Friday always on Friday. The experience of timing is consistent during Holy Week regardless of the date. 

But our experience of timing in Advent and Christmas can be widely different every year (next year the fourth Sunday in Advent will be on Christmas Eve morning!).

And maybe this varied experience of Advent and Christmas each year is connected to the theme of the season. The quirky realties of dates and days of the week and how they align to create different experiences speak to what it means to wait and watch. 

In Advent, we begin our waiting and watching for Messiah, we remember the people of Israel longing and hoping for Salvation. We consider people going out into the wilderness – where time can get fuzzy – to find good news. We journey with Mary as she receives the news she is pregnant. An experience that is largely not in control of the one who is pregnant, where the ones who are waiting for the new child must live on the child’s timing.

The timing of Advent, the beginning to our liturgical year, reminds us that we are not in control but that we live according to the divine timing. And God doesn’t check with our calendars before initiating God’s plans for creation. Like anyone waiting for a child to be born, things happen on a schedule that is not our own. 

Advent teaches us to live waiting and watching for God, to expect God at any moment and that God will come when God comes. 

But more importantly Advent carries with it a promise – God is on the way. Messiah will be here soon. 

All Saints is hard, All Saints is beautiful -Pastor Thoughts

Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
~ ELW 422 For All the Saints v.  4

The older I get and the longer I have served in ministry, All Saints Sunday becomes more and more meaningful to me. As we remember those who have gone before us in faith, it is natural to also look back at our own lives and experiences. As more and more years go by, the more poignant the themes and images of All Saints Sunday become. 

I haven’t counted the total, but I think I have been a part of around 100 funerals as a pastor (which is neither a little not a lot in 13 years). For perspective, there are about 50 Sunday and festival worship services to preside at each year (that includes Sundays on holidays). So in 13 and a half years of ministry, I have presided at close to two extra years of Sunday services made up of just funerals. 

In my early years as a pastor, that made me an oddity among my friends of a similar age (other than my pastor friends). Many of my grade school friends hadn’t ever been to a funeral or just a very few in their mid-twenties, while I was helping families plan and presiding at funerals regularly. 

It is still a strange thing to experience regularly something that so many tiptoe around, to know funerals inside and out when most people find even thinking about them uncomfortable. 

Funerals often come in bunches as there will be periods of time when months and months go by without having any to preside at. Then all of a sudden there will be three funerals over the span of two weeks. Death is unpredictable and there is never a way to truly be prepared for it, no matter how many times you have walked the path before.

There is quite a bit of All Saints artwork that portrays the great crowd before the throne of God as a faceless crowd more numerous than can be counted. After praying over urns and caskets, standing at gravesides and praying with families in mourning, the great crowd of Saints gathering before the throne isn’t just a bunch of faceless people anymore for me. I can picture many of the faces in the crowd of Saints that I have personally helped to usher into the Kingdom, and an even larger crowd of loved ones, family and friends attached to that crowd. Faces as old as 100 years and as young as two years, those who have died of natural causes, and those who have died because of accident and tragedy. Each All Saints Sunday brings with it a growing crowd of the faithful departed that sticks out in my mind. 

Often when death is portrayed on TV and in the movies, the big moment is the dying. Main characters, whether villain or hero, will prolong their death with powerful last words. Friends and family will pack a hospital room to be there as a character slips away, lingering on with sad but knowing faces in the final moments. And then the scene will cut to a brief funeral or to a glimpse of a headstone. The last moments of life linger, but grief slips by in a moment – at least in Hollywood.

In real life, that time after a loved one dies, those minutes, hours, days and weeks, months and years of grief can feel long, heavy and drawn out. The days before a funeral can feel like an eternity of planning and preparations. The weeks following can feel empty and hollow and meaningless. There is a discomfort that we have with grief, even as our culture has a fixation with death. How it is that our navigating the messy and complicated path of grieving does not hold the same dramatic appeal as life and death stories do? 

Walking the path of grief is hard and lonely. All too often those at the centre of the grieving are left alone, while those around them gradually decrease their care and support. The week before and after a funeral, there can be a flurry of cards, phone calls and casseroles. Even six weeks or six months on, the grief and sense of loss can feel as deep as ever. Yet, there can be an unspoken expectation that it is time to move on and stop being sad, even from the most caring and well-intentioned support networks. 

All Saints Sunday is our moment to attend to that grief outside of the raw emotions of a recent death and funeral. It is an opportunity to grieve collectively, even as we each grieve our losses differently. All Saints Sunday helps us to put in context the life AND death of a loved one, into the grand story of the lives and deaths of God’s people but also into the story of death and new life found in Christ. 

All Saints Sunday helps us to place all of our grief on the table. Our grief for loved ones gone before us, our grief for lives that did not go the way we expected, our grief for all the losses experienced in this life, all the other kinds of death that we deal with each day: change, failure, broken relationship, illness, addiction and so on. 

And finally All Saints Sunday reminds us of a day when we can hopefully hear it better; that all the grief we bring to the table, all the losses and scars we bear, that all the ways in which life breaks us down… that all of this is held by God. All of this is not too much for God to carry. God holds us and all creation until we are ready for new life. 

The Odd Observance of Reformation Sunday – Pastor Thoughts

A Mighty Fortress is our God…

I am in a Facebook group for young(er) Lutheran and Anglican clergy “born after 1973.” By the world’s standards we are decidedly middle aged. (I had to explain to my kids the story of Come From Away or 9/11 this week and it made me feel old). But in the Church we still seem like children to many colleagues and lay folk alike – so we still think of ourselves as young, despite the fact that many of us have been serving 10, 15 or even 20 years!

Anyway, each year right around Thanksgiving, one or another of the Anglicans will post a question about when All Saints Sunday is being observed. All Saints is always November 1st, and in years when it gets pushed back to November 6 or 7th, it can run into Remembrance Day observances. So the question is whether to have All Saints Sunday on the Sunday before November 1st or after. 

Since the group is about 10% Lutheran and 90% Anglican, I usually find myself chiming in with a reminder that for Lutherans, the Sunday before November 1st is Reformation Sunday and it is kind of a big deal for us. So All Saints is always on or after November 1st. Mostly my reminders go unheeded and probably sound like I am speaking Greek – or maybe German – to our Anglican siblings (whom I still love dearly).

It doesn’t help that Martin Luther chose to post his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st, the first of a 3-day string of festival days – All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. 

It also doesn’t help that Reformation Sunday is an odd and difficult-to-observe day to begin with. Is it a celebration? Is it a commemoration? Are we happy to be Lutheran? Are we sad because of the wars and division caused? Are we bold to confess our faith? Are we humbled by our need of God’s mercy?

As is often the case with our historical observances, especially in recent years, things are more complicated then we always know how to handle. We know that Martin Luther stood up for the things that he believed were right: against injustices taking place at the hands of the Church, against the attempts to sell salvation by the Pope and the Church, against church leaders keeping control of the Word and the Sacraments. But there are also the hundreds of thousands of people who died in revolts and war directly inspired by Luther’s stand against Rome. There is the long-lasting division and splitting apart of churches who disagree with one another that it still going on today. 

The Reformation was a transformative moment for the Western world. The combination of the printing press and Luther’s writing made it one of the most significant events of the past 1000 years. But 505 years on from Martin Luther nailing his list of grievances to the door, what this all means for us today and how we move forward are still being unpacked. 

We are a Church born in a time of tumult and change, and we are still a Church in the midst of tumult and change. Yet, along the way the reminder that God’s faithfulness will lead us through is the same. And ultimately, Martin Luther’s reason for posting his 95 theses was to make sure that God’s faithfulness is the foundation and centre on which we stand. 

A mighty fortress indeed!

Being church in liminal space – Pastor Thoughts

We are living in liminal space. 

I don’t know exactly when I heard the word “liminal” for the time, but it has become a word that I keep coming back to since. For those that may not know, the “limen” is the space between things. The frame of a doorway is the limen between rooms. Threshold could be another word for limen

A liminal space is then the place or time in between things. 

Experiencing liminal spaces or times can be as simple as walking through a doorway, or it can be as long and complex as re-training for a new job or moving to a new city or being in palliative care. 

Two people engaged to be married are experiencing a liminal time. Seminary was a liminal experience for me. Puberty is a liminal space. Being on the road or travelling is a liminal experience. And as people of faith we believe death is liminal time. 

One of the key characteristics of experiencing a liminal space is that you have to give up parts of who you were before, and you take on the burdens and responsibilities of who you are becoming, without yet receiving the benefits, advantages or authority. 

An engaged couple, for example, relinquishes the freedoms of the single life, while (maybe truer in days gone by) has to wait for the benefits of marriage. A seminarian ceases to be a lay person, and takes on many of the responsibilities of being a clergy person, such as preaching and teaching according to the dogma of the church, conforming to a certain standard of ethics and a certain lifestyle. But they must wait until ordination for the authority and ability to serve a congregation independently and preside at the sacraments.

As we have been talking about for a long time, the Church is – we are – in a liminal space. We are transitioning from what we once were in some big and transformative ways. The relative stability of what churches and pastors looked like between 1950 and 1999 is falling apart. The bustling hubs of community that many congregations once were, with full pews, overflowing Sunday schools, strong choirs and much beloved Luther League youth groups is no longer possible or likely to return. 

But we haven’t arrived at what we might become next. This means we haven’t discovered the benefits and advantages of the new thing yet. We carry the burdens of doing Church together in smaller and more resource-scarce ways, but we haven’t yet realized what the good things are or the upside of this new thing we are becoming. 

As we gathered for our visioning meeting last Sunday, I could see that we are bearing the burdens of this liminal space. We are recognizing that things are changing and Church won’t be the same going forward. But I also saw hope and excitement for opportunities that might come. “What could be” is still uncertain and hazy, but there seems to be promise and possibilities.  

While it seems that promises and possibilities aren’t a lot to go on, they are the core of the stories of faith that we tell week after week and year after year. Because with God, a promise means everything. God is a God of promises, whose word brings us hope and who has travelled the pathways that we walk.

Wherever we end up, I am looking forward to navigating this liminal space with you – together. 

Why do churches do visioning? – Pastor Thoughts


It is a word that gets used a lot by church leaders, and I am sure by those in the business world and public sector, too. 

The first Visioning event I attended was for the Mulhurst Lutheran Church Camp Board on which I was serving at the age of 22. We had a facilitator provided by the Province of Alberta (free to charities!) who came to help our board work through the process. The camp had been floating along in a middling way for years, if not decades. They could only afford a part-time director, their weeks of summer camp were never completely full, and their ideal property with picturesque cabins and dining hall overlooking Pigeon Lake just 35 minutes south of Edmonton could never quite live up to its potential. 

So on a mid-winter Saturday we sat in the dining hall and tried out the Visioning process. Right away the questions that we were being ask sparked my imagination: 

    What is the most important thing we do as a [community of faith]? 

    Why do we exist? 

    What is our purpose? 

    What are our values? 

    Who are we as a community? 

I loved stepping back and contemplating the big picture. My mind was set alight by pondering these questions, helping me to sort through just what the camp and our job and role was in the ministry of Lutheran churches in the Edmonton area. 

At the same time I could see that other board members were struggling. They seemed frustrated by having to step back from their usual modes of serving. The facilitator kept having to pull them back from trying to make concrete decisions and action plans. The struggling board members in this case were faithful old German-Canadians (men mostly) whose commitment and service was expressed in hammering nails, fixing things with their hands and putting in their time and energy for the camp. It was difficult to step back and ask about the identity and purpose of this place they had spent years and years caring for and serving. They didn’t want to ask ‘why?’ They didn’t want to interrogate their motivations or priorities. They wanted to remain in a world where they could believe everyone was on the same page about that stuff. 

Of course, they weren’t on the same page and that was the problem! The camp had had a succession of directors come and go. They wanted to add to their facilities, but could never raise enough money. There were conflicts about what was most important and for which projects or staff they should use the available resources. 

Though it took some hard work together to unpack what our Vision for the camp actually was, once we slowed down to understand our values and priorities, we were then able to have much more focused conversations about how to use our resources. In the years that followed (with more Visioning and strategic planning), the camp was able to build new or upgrade facilities, have longer-term directors and staff, and grow in some important ways. 

Does that mean that Visioning is a magic cure-all for the challenges that we face? Certainly not. 

But what Visioning does is provide a venue to have important conversations about who we are as a community, about what our values are, about where we are going and about where God is calling us to go. 

Visioning can be hard work, especially if you are the sort who prefers hammering nails, fixing things, making things or staying behind the scenes. It can mean questioning our past and our decisions, it can mean realizing that we need to change our present choices in order to move into a vibrant future. Visioning is discerning work, it is important work. It is the work of following God’s call for our community and living together faithfully. 

Now is an era for Visioning. Now, as the world changes rapidly around us and as we struggle with how to use our limited resources, coming together with a common Vision will be essential for us, as it is becoming for every church and faith community. It is hard work but holy work