Tag Archives: Pastor Thoughts

Finally looking forward after 2 years of pandemic immediacy – Pastor Thoughts

At some point this winter, as we came out of the Omicron shutdown, I realized that I had been planning only from week to week for two years. For two years we had all been planning our lives only a few days, or a few weeks ahead. Last Christmas Eve was the harshest reminder of that, as we made plans that ended up being cancelled at the last minute.

When we began planning our family trip out west months ahead, I had to come to terms with imagining how something three months away might go. I had to force myself to be okay with looking into the future and believing that things wouldn’t be upended by a last minute pandemic development.

As it happens, planning for that trip was my gateway to thinking about the future again, both in my family life and at church.

Back in the “before times”(pre-pandemic), I had become a future planner. It took me a few years of ministry, but I eventually learned to plan for fall programs in late spring, to begin Christmas planning in September/October, to start thinking about Lent and Easter in Advent, to begin thinking about late spring and summer after Christmas.

But even more than that, our somewhat predictable “before times” world allowed us to plan years ahead. I have been writing my Council reports with my successor in ministry in mind, even as I began new calls in new congregations with no intention to going anywhere. When I was in the Interlake, the view of our future that we adopted for shared ministry was a one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year and 25-year outlook. Our hope was to create a ministry that had long-term generational viability, not just extending the runway by a year or two.

This spring my one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year, and 25-year thinking has resumed for the church. Even though most of my three-and-a-half years here have been focused on week-to-week decision making, I know that it is time to begin thinking about the longer term.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic is over or the next variant won’t send us into another season of adapting to restrictions. This doesn’t mean that unforeseen realities like the war in Ukraine, inflation and recession, the climate crisis or other things won’t sideswipe us.

But it does mean that we have a future to meet, and so it is time we start planning for it.

Our Congregational Council invited the Assistant to the Bishop from our Synod to come and meet with us, to help walk us through the first step of this future-planning conversation.

I have done these kinds of events before and I have led these kinds of events before. But the difference this time is that the world has changed and the challenges that we are facing have changed.

Over the next few weeks my hope is to reflect on some of the things that I took from that visioning session and to get us thinking about having the visioning conversation as a whole congregation.

We were reminded often that Assisstant to the Bishop wasn’t there to give us all the answers and that one conversation wouldn’t figure much out. But she did say that she hoped that, by the end of the day, we would know that our next step was to have more conversation about who we are as a community, about what and how we want to be together and about where God is calling us to go.

And in the end, that was what we needed more than any five-step, foolproof plan to make all of our problems go away.

I am ready to start planning for the future again. I hope you are, too. Because God is calling us to move into the next step, for us, for the Church and beyond.

Playing Church on different teams – Pastor Thoughts

When I was in grade school there were three things that filled my extra-curricular hours: church, music and sports. I never felt like I an odd kid, in fact I moved pretty easily through social groups from the band geeks, to the video game nerds, to the Young Life group (evangelical club at school), to the jocks. But I knew that I lived an odd extra-curricular life. I don’t recall anyone else playing in the band and playing varsity sports. 

It isn’t just that music and sports attract different sorts of people, they demand teamwork in very different ways. It can be challenging to go from after-school basketball practice to evening orchestra rehearsal.

I started playing in an orchestra in grade 4 and continued through to grade 12. I played in school band from grade 7 to grade 12, then found a semi-professional community band to join through my university years. I also played in a variety of church groups during that time. There is something incredible about playing music in ensembles like that, when all the parts fit seamlessly together to make a unified and beautiful sound, there is nothing like it.

In Junior High, I played basketball and then switched to football in Senior High. (I am sure no one is surprised I played football.)

As I said, sports and music teach teamwork in important ways. There is a similar beauty of a perfectly executed pass and goal to that perfectly in tune chord.

And though I managed to become a fairly accomplished cellist and euphonium player while also being a good basketball and football player, I didn’t really fit either mould. But on some level I usually played the part of musician better than that of athlete. In fact, I kind of played sports like I played music. Playing in orchestra and band teaches you how to intensely focus on what you are doing in the moment and how that fits in with every other part, all while staying in time and following the director.

It was a skill I could bring to sports. When the whistle blew, I could summon an intense focus and awareness of what I was doing and what my teammates were doing. I think that is what allowed me to play on the top basketball and football teams at my school. But it was also something that infuriated my coaches, because they didn’t get what I was doing.

During an orchestra rehearsal, if you play your part correctly, you might be able to get in a few minutes of cracking jokes with your seatmate while the director rehearses the 2nd violins again. As long as we were quiet enough, the director didn’t care. But goofing off between repetitions on the football field infuriates coaches to no end. There is a culture and expectation of being constantly engaged. And in football, there is an expectation of acting like an angry meathead; I mean bringing emotional intensity, during games.

“Angry meathead” was not my style. So while it was a very difficult decision, I choose to turn down a number of offers to play university football after high school. I think a part of me knew that I just didn’t have the temperament to keep playing football.

Besides, even while I dreamed of one day playing in the CFL during those years, it was usually in the context of being a football-playing pastor.

Now, what does this all have to do with church?

Well, coming together as a community of faith is also a kind of teamwork. There are times where a certain emotional intensity is required, as we care for and grieve with those who are suffering or mourning, as we rejoice and celebrate with those who are happy and joyous. There are other times when we need to be in tune with one another, all playing the same song–in worship, in serving our community and in discerning God’s call for us.

There are times when we are working toward a common goal over the long-term, like winning a championship or undertaking a large project.

There are other times when we are simply joining together to make a beautiful sound of praise in the moment, which disappears as quickly as it arrives, but transforms us forever.

And there are times when being together in community creates moments of beauty and awe, allowing us to see something more incredible than we could ever have imagined.

It is clear that there are many challenges in front of us, probably more challenges needing to be dealt with imminently than the Church has faced in a long time.

But as we move into the future, there is also hope to be found in working together. Recognizing that as we come together and strive for the common purpose of following God’s call, the things we can do are by no means small. Instead, the work has already begun and, despite all we have been through these past few years, God has been working through us. The ministry we have already been doing shows that, together and with God’s leading, we will make it through.

The Different Languages of Church – Pastor Thoughts

Easter is a strangely long season of the church year. It isn’t quite the 25 Sundays of green that we get through the summer and into the fall, but at seven weeks, plus Holy Week, it is about double that of Advent or Lent. 

So here we are coming to 50 days or the 8th Sunday of Easter, which we call Pentecost Sunday. The Sunday on which we hear the story of what happened to these disciples who first met the risen Christ and then were called to take that good news into the world. The Holy Spirit descends on them in tongues and fire granting them the ability to preach in all different languages to the varied crowds of foreigners in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. 

One of the things that has been reinforced to me over and over again is that preaching the Gospel in different languages is about more than the difference between English, French, Spanish or German and so on. Sometimes “speaking in a different language” can be the way we communicate differently between generations, between people with different levels of education, between urban and rural contexts, between where people land on the political spectrum, between backgrounds and histories, etc….

The first congregation that I served as a pastor taught me this lesson over and over. The quaint rural congregation set in the middle of a farming community holds a special place in my heart. For me, they were like nothing I had experienced before.  I grew up in the suburbs of Edmonton. I lived near, went to school with and attended church with people straight out of “The burbs.”

But my first call to that farming community church was otherworldly to me. They were the inspiration of my blog’s tagline: An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. The realization that we spoke different languages, though all in English, came fast and hard. 

In my first few weeks, one of the members invited me to attend the upcoming ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Women) meeting.

“Excuse me?” I said. 

“Well, the pastor usually comes to our meetings and leads the Bible study.”

So, I went.  And pretty soon I looked forward to each monthly meeting. They were a group with whom it was a joy to gather. 

But as someone who had spent the previous eight years attending university and then seminary, I had to learn how to lead a Bible study with many people who had only completed grade 8, maybe grade 12, and just a few with further education. 

I learned that while Canada has a literacy rate in the high 90s, about 45% of the population is only functionally literate. Meaning that people are technically literate, but often rely on context clues and images found in magazines or newspapers or restaurant menus. Close to half of Canadians might find it difficult to navigate a textbook or novel. Or Bible. Or hymnbook. 

I also learned that rural communities could have strong roots in oral tradition. And while some folks might struggle with some reading materials, they could also relate lengthy in-depth oral histories of their community to me. I learned how to speak the language of weather and seeding and harvest. I was taught how to navigate and bridge the divide between folks rooted in their past and a pastor born into, educated in and moving into the future. 

I would do little social experiments to see if putting an announcement in the bulletin but not giving it verbally made a difference. It did. No one came to Bible study the month I did that! (I have also since learned that folks not reading the bulletin was a reality in almost every congregation!). 

Most of all I learned that how we communicate with each other and how I communicate with the people I serve is not always straightforward and easy. Instead it takes work and practice. It takes work to get across the message you want people to hear.

And because of all this, it also shows us that the spirit of Pentecost that pushes the disciples into the streets to preach to people in their own language is a much richer and deeper story than we might imagine. The many languages of Pentecost are not just formal ones. Rather, through the Spirit we are called into relationship and community, and only then can we begin to talk with each other. 

The tension point of pandemic hybrid community – Pastor Thoughts

Last week I shared with you reports from our family trip out west to visit family and to attend the funeral for Courtenay’s aunt (who was like a second mother).

Along with all the much needed visits with family not seen for years, we managed to also pick up COVID-19.

It has been a powerful insight into how this pandemic has hit us right where some of our most important relationships and activities are. As human beings we need to have time for community. Family gatherings, Sunday morning worship, coffee with friends and neighbours, time at the gym, breakfast club, serving on that volunteer board, playing on sports teams… so many of the things that we do to keep sane, the the relationships that make us feel grounded and known, the keep us going day to day, week to week.

So many things that zoom or Facebook Live streams, or phone calls can only do so much to emulate.

Last week, I said that this new world we are living in is going to keep looking like this for quite a while. COVID-19 cases are surging everywhere (again). 2nd Booster shots are being recommended. And there always looms in the background the possibility of another variant that could make our lives more difficult.

Before our family trip, I would have said that we just need to accept these new ways of connecting with community. But now I recognize how important being with those that we love truly is.

So rather than accepting, I think we need to, are being called to, adapt. We are being called to change. The world has changed and so must we.

The thing is that we don’t really know what we are adapting to or changing to quite yet. But I do know that prioritizing the health and safety of our community while also making space and opportunity for that community to come together in a variety of ways is important.

And that is something we are not so used to doing, prioritizing so obviously competing and contradictory things: Being together is a risk and our need to be together.

Thankfully, we DO come from a tradition and community of faith that includes many examples of living in tension. We boldly declare that we are sinners and saints. We confess that Jesus is both Human and Divine. We receive bread that is body and wine that is blood. We proclaim that we are people who die to sin in the waters of baptism, only to be raised to new life.

And we will figure out how to be people for whom being together is a public health risk and who need to gather for our health and sanity. Something tells me that God is already way ahead of us on this and has been calling us into this place all along (more on that next week!).

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.