Tag Archives: Pastor Thoughts

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.

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.