Tag Archives: Pastor Thoughts

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.

The community built at funeral lunches – Pastor Thoughts

This week I did something that I have not done in quite a while as a pastor. I presided at a funeral proper.

I was covering for a colleague on holidays. Something that pastors do for each other in case of just such an occurrence.

The day included a viewing, the service, a lunch and interment at the cemetery. While the pandemic has mostly eliminated this kind of extended gathering, it was long before 2020 that these full funeral days were becoming less common. Cremation and memorials have changed the rhythms and patterns of these events, in addition to unchurched families planning services for churched loved ones. 

A funeral with all the traditional pieces often takes the whole day. There is a lot of lingering and waiting throughout, as the whole gathered community moves from ritual moment to moment. There are the condolences and greeting of the family at the viewing, there is the remembrance and stories in the service, there is the visiting and community building during the lunch, there is the final goodbye at the graveside, maybe even mourners shovelling dirt over the casket themselves.

The day reminded me of funerals at my first call, a rural community outside of Edmonton that I began serving in 2009, but that was still frozen in a time period of a much earlier era. 

Part of me thought back nostalgically. Funerals for many congregations and communities are about community, fellowship and connection as much as they are about mourning and grief. Funeral lunches can get quite raucous with laughter!

And for a certain generation of church goer, this a familiar pattern of life. Coming together at a time of death has a way of pushing aside everything else: all the to-do lists that occupy our time most days, all the crises in the world (that are ultimately about avoiding death). When that casket arrives, when death itself enters the room, even things like pandemics and wars take a backseat to grief. 

For much of my time as a pastor, I have been serving congregations and communities who are grieving the slow degradation and loss of these familiar rituals of community. As these once common parts of communal life together continue to disappear, building and maintaining community within the church and beyond becomes more and more challenging. 

Maybe this week for the first time, I felt that twinge of loss too. Or maybe I glimpsed just what so many folks have been grieving for a long time in the church. The generations before us used to know how to come together as a community – often with sandwiches and coffee – and support one another through the ups and downs of life. Before the pandemic it was often a struggle to pull off a funeral and lunch. Now, we may be close to losing that capacity entirely. 

Or more accurately, all the habits and skills we had for being communities of support and care are going by the wayside right at a time when we could use them the most. Being church together does not and will not just happen organically or unintentionally as it once did. 

Today in 2022, community takes work. Community takes intentionality. Community happens when we do it on purpose, it will not happen by accident. 

Yes, there is a certain comfort and nostalgia for a community that knows how to walk through a day of mourning together without a lot of planning. 

There is also a certain part of us that doesn’t like that community takes more planning. We don’t like appointments and schedules and lists. We long for the days when people just showed up without notice and neighbourly intrusions were welcomed (except when you actually do show up at someone’s house unannounced these days, and they are mortified!).

Day long funerals were and are lovely ways for communities to come together and care for each other but they are increasingly relics of times past. 

Zoom meetings, doodle polls, Facebook events, texting to schedule phone calls and limited availability are here to stay. 

Community will only happen on purpose. Community will only be built through planning and intentionality. 

As we continue our Lenten journey through the wilderness, I cannot help but see that churches and communities are walking through a wilderness of community now that is calling on us to find new ways to come together, new ways to offer that care and support for each other, new ways to be the Body of Christ for each other and for the world.

What keeps you up at night? – Pastor Thoughts

“What keeps you up at night?”

I was listening to a leadership podcast from Luther Seminary in St. Paul that asked this question. (Find the podcast here)

“What keeps you up at night?”

Once I get past Ukraine, the Pandemic, inflation and economic inequality the thing that keeps me up at night is the present and future of the church. Sherwood Park, the MNO Synod, the ELCIC and Christianity around the world. 

But lately, it has been on my mind about how pivotal this moment in history is for us. It is a moment that I have been anticipating for quite some time and a moment that I expect to be looking back at in 15 years and reflecting on the choices made and courses of action followed now. 

I say this often, so excuse me if I have written it before: In my first few weeks of being pastor, it hit me like a ton of bricks, the overwhelming sense that I would be spending my entire career in ministry helping congregations navigating change. In fact, at that time my exact thoughts were “I am going to be cleaning up the messes of predecessors for the next 40 years.”

Of course by now, I know that things aren’t that cut and dry. The “messes” have really more to do with a rapidly changing world and church than the failures of those who have served before me. 

In the same podcast, the main theme of the episode was on challenges. I talked with council this week about this idea. We usually think that we have a pretty good idea of what the challenges we face are, whether at home, in the neighbourhood, at work, at church, in our country and in our world. I asked council to quickly identify the challenges facing Sherwood Park. 

We immediately came up with financial challenges, declining and aging membership challenges, building and maintenance challenges, transition out of pandemic (or into the next phase) challenges. I named that the MNO Synod is looking at clergy shortage challenge (we have to call from outside Manitoba to fill vacancies and have few or no candidates of our own – even Courtenay and I are not original Manitoba clergy). 

But the podcast episode pushed back at the idea that we actually do know the challenges we face. We are very good at identifying surface challenges, we know what our presenting issues are. But often our deep challenges are not that clear to us. 

For Sherwood Park and Lutherans in the MNO Synod, financial problems and declining membership is the story everywhere. And we have all been chasing after these problems for a long time. The church I grew up in, with 250 attending on Sundays, 50 to 100 kids in Sunday School, 75 college and careers that also attended every Sunday…. They too in the mid-90s were convinced that they had a finances and declining membership problem!

The deeper issue we face is about our identity as a community of faith. It was getting hard to continue being a community in 2019. Today, it is just that much harder. 

The deeper challenge is whether the way we choose to be a church and do ministry still makes sense. Does Winnipeg need 14 Lutheran churches (and more than twice that in Anglican churches) all working mostly independently from one another? Our shared youth program, which is certainly the largest in Winnipeg, if not the ELCIC, suggests that there is a significant benefit to working together. 

The deeper question is how committed are we to continuing to be a community of faith, followers of Jesus together in the longer term?

When I think about our challenges in this way, finances and people stop really being concerns in my mind. Yes, the budget is tight and it is going to take work to remember how to come together again. 

But as I sat at our council meeting, I was struck by just how committed the 9 of us were to the ministry of Sherwood Park. And know there are so many others beyond council who feel the same. I know that we have the capacity within our community to meet our budget this year, to fill our volunteer roles, and to continue to provide all the different kinds of ministry and community opportunities that have been central for us. 

Our deeper challenges, about understanding and knowing who we are and what we are about as a community is the more difficult question. But it is a question that comes with an opportunity. A survey came out this week saying that overwhelmingly Canadians feel more disconnected and divided than ever. Our sense of belonging and community has been degraded during these past 2 years. 

Well, hold on! Isn’t that exactly what we as the church are best at? Being a place where people can find community? Being a place where people can belong?

As we find ourselves in the pivotal moment for the future of the church, there ARE deep challenges that we face. But challenges also bring opportunities. And I think God is calling us to step into these new places: To explore who and what we are as a community of faith; to invite the world around us into that community of hope and promise, that community of belonging. 

I thought at first that discerning our challenges would be scary. But taking the time to unpack what the challenges are that we actually face, reveals whole new ways to approach our common life together as people of faith. Things stop being scary and start becoming exciting.

God is calling us into the challenging but exciting world, with an unknown but promise-filled future. 

Why we need this 3rd Pandemic Lent – Pastor Thoughts

The season of Lent began this week with Ash Wednesday. This is the 3rd Lent to take place during the pandemic. 

There are many similarities between Advent and Lent, both are seasons of preparation that culminate with one of the two most important celebrations or feast days of the church year. 

I love Advent. Everything about it speaks to me. The shades of blue, big and small stories from the bible, images of light and dark, the hopeful anticipation in the midst of struggle. Advent is an exercise in contrasts. 

Lent on the other hand is not nearly as playful or vivid… sigh…

While Advent arrives with winter when it is new and exciting, Lent usually comes when we are ready to say goodbye to the snow. And before Lent takes us to Easter, we have to go through Holy Week. Holy Week which is intense, emotional and draining. 

Lent is less like preparing for the Holidays and more of a spiritual spring cleaning or exercise regime. 

Last year, as our second pandemic Lent arrived, many commented on how it felt like Lent had never ended. We had simply wandered in the wilderness for most of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. 

Yet today in March of 2022 when the pandemic that has dominated our attention for the better part of 2 years, it is about 4th place in terms of headline news right now.

Someone on Twitter commented that if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were in a horse race, Famine and Death would have been strong for a long time. But Pestilence made a big comeback 2 years ago, only to have War surprise everyone in this homestretch. 

With all that is happening in our world these days – war, protests, economic disaster, disease and more – it can be hard to feel like our small Lenten practices are of any impact. It is a lot easier to watch, listen to, or read the news and feel hopeless about the world. 

And yet, I wonder if taking on a Lenten practice this year might be just what we need more than ever. It can look like giving something up like chocolate, coffee, tv or meat. It can be taking something on like daily prayer and scripture reading, giving alms, or watching mid-week Lenten services (Wednesdays at 7PM on the Facebook Page). 

Having something small and out of our usual routines to focus on each day as a way to draw our attention back to God may be just what is needed these days. When the problems of the world are too much to bear, those small reminders that we do not walk in this wilderness alone can carry us through to the promise of Easter. 

In the early church, Lent wasn’t just a season to wallow in the wilderness waiting for Good Friday. Lent was (and is) the season when catechumens (essentially adult confirmation students) would finalize their preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. And usually all those already baptized would join in the preparation as a reminder of their own baptism. 

Lent and its seasonal practices are meant to provide little disruptions in our lives. Moments and practices that wake us up from the rest of life, and turn us back to God. Turns us back to the promises of God found in baptism of forgiveness, life and salvation. 

Promises that we certainly need reminding of right now, week to week and day to day. 

And so I invite you to consider what your Lent will look like this year and what it might include for you.

Pastor Erik+

Haven’t we seen this before? Pastor Thoughts on the Cycles of History.

For the first part of this week, I couldn’t shake feeling tired and worn out with a mild sense of impending doom. I am sure we have all been there lately. 

There are of course many possible reasons:

Omicron which has certainly broken us and changed this whole pandemic on its head. 

Then there were the “trucker/freedom” protests/ occupations happening across Canada. 

And the question of war that has been lingering in the air over Russia and Ukraine. 

When the news of troop movements followed by explosions and the real outbreak of war, it all started falling into place. 

I have seen this before… I think?

When I was in university, I had a predilection for two areas of study. The first was theology and Christian history, which probably seems obvious. The second was 20th Century history, particularly the two World Wars. In university I was often schlepping between theology classes and history of modern warfare classes. 

Though, I probably sounded like a raving lunatic to most, I have often thought there is a similarity between the past 20 years of history and the period between World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two. 

History can be viewed in cycles, and this 70 year period of relative economic and political peace for much of the (western) world has been an unusual blip on the timeline of humanity.

Finally this week the peace that the western world has known since 1945 was breached. There is now conflict on the soil of Europe for the first time since the Nazis were defeated. 

Our place in the cycle of history seems more assured now, and this is what I have “seen” before.

The war on terrorism and its intractability rings too true with World War One. This pandemic has had similar effects on us as did the Great Depression. And now the Russian Invasion of Ukraine is straight out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook, even down to the speech Vladimir Putin gave this week justifying his attack.

Even if western sanctions, the bravery of ordinary Ukrainian folks and political turmoil back in Russia ends this war before it spreads too far, the damage is done. The balance of our world’s order is forever altered. 

Now what does that have to do with us? With Christians about the world? Lutherans in Canada? With neighbourhood congregations?

Today, we don’t know yet. 

But I suspect it has something to do with our calling as people of faith. The world is stumbling from crisis to crisis. Institutions of governments and power are failing at providing an equitable and just world. People are on the edge. 

And as followers of Jesus, we have a message, a gospel promise that speaks directly to a suffering and dying world.

For people in need of hope, we follow a God of Hope. 

For people in need of new life, we are made alive in a God of empty tombs and resurrection. 

For people in need of love and mercy, we are called to care for a world in need.

As difficult as it is to be the church these days, the world has never needed us more. 

And so we keep following, know that wherever this world is headed, God in Christ is right there with us, giving us what we need.