earth's manifest

Given the priority of Christmas on our mid-winter calendars it is not surprising that Epiphany is muted. Advent is well rehearsed as a four candle journey to the manger. The need to rediscover the “true meaning” of Christmas is proclaimed in a multitude of sermons. But the ancient holiday of Epiphany barely registers, submerged as it is in the New Year’s festivities of the surrounding culture. We are intrigued to learn that Epiphany predates Christmas as a Christian festival. Yet we too easily surmise that Epiphany lingers as a quaint liturgical artifact when, instead, it occupies a central location on the map of our communal pilgrimage.

Since the sale of its church building in 1985 University Hill Congregation has worshiped in the Chapel of the Epiphany at the Vancouver School of Theology. This is akin to a congregation worshiping in the Christmas Church or the Easter Sanctuary. Perhaps only Pentecostal churches are accustomed to worshiping in a sanctuary named for an event on the Christian calendar. In a sense every Sunday is Epiphany Sunday for University Hill Congregation. This weekly marking of Epiphany is, over time, teaching us three vital habits of the heart.


hill christmas

They came over the snow to the bread's
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it


a heavenly host

There is no room in the inn. The baby is born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough. God arrives incognito, unrecognized, there is no reservation. This is the first thing about this night. God regularly arrives incognito, unrecognized, without a reservation. Hosting the heavenly guest means making room as you are able for all manner of guests. This is the reason that monasteries and convents have long lived by the discipline that no one who knocks at the door and asks for shelter can be turned away. Jesus arrives in the least of these visitors. But, of course, sometimes there is actually no more room. Sometimes even the stable is already filled with guests. Sometimes the monastery or the homeless shelter is simply way beyond its capacity. Sometimes your life will implode if you make room for yet another cause or worry. Then what? Then we gather here, on this night, and thank God that room is found somewhere, somehow with someone. Then we thank God that, in the end, it is not up to us to be the perfect hosts. Yes, we watch for signs of God intruding into our busy lives. Yes, we pray that we may host the heavenly guest incognito. But mainly we give thanks that the heavenly guest has found room and still finds room in this crowded world.


sanctifying time

“Time to us is a measuring device
rather than a realm in which we abide.
We cannot solve the problem of time
through the conquest of space,
through either pyramids or fame.
We can only solve the problem of time
through sanctification of time.”

- Abraham Heschel, “The Sabbath”,

The Noonday Press, pp. 96 & 101.

From its inception, Christianity has understood that the news of God’s in-breaking kingdom called for odd ways of telling time (for a helpful introduction see “Early Christian Worship” by Paul Bradshaw, The Liturgical Press, pp. 70-93). The purpose of these peculiar rhythms is to sanctify time. To sanctify time is to experience time as holy - as time lived with and for God. In an age that provides instant access to digitized chronological time it is easy to forget the biblical notion of time as the place where God abides. Like the Sabbath itself, the Christian year intends to shape a people who seek God not in the acquisition of things or in a holy place but in a “sanctuary in time” (Heschel, p. 29).


annunciate & magnify

Luke 1:26-55

When the good news comes it always arrives with an announcement. In the beginning, when all is darkness and storm, order erupts from God’s announcement: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1). When ancient Abraham and barren Sara have long given up on God’s promise of a future generation they host three strangers, angels with an odd announcement: “When we return you will have a son” (Gen. 18). Sara laughs at such folly. When Israel has been judged and found hopeless, an exiled and broken people, the first sign of newness is Isaiah’s poetic voice: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (Is. 40). The good news arrives in the form of an announcement before there is any evidence of newness. The announcement is the evidence.


a deep happiness

I have been enjoying reading a collection of Leonard Cohen's poems and songs entitled "Stranger Music". Near the end of the book I found this little poem - "A Deep Happiness" - to which I find myself returning ...


annunciation, ave maria & magnificat in one text. wow.

The ecumenical lectionary lists Luke 1:26-38 as the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, Advent IV. It also offers that the Psalm (or sung text) for either last Sunday or this Sunday can be Mary's song - the Magnificat - found at Luke 1:46-55. We will read the whole passage, beginning at verse twenty-six, carrying on through Elizabeth's greeting to Mary and then to Mary's joyful song - the first carol. I don't know where to begin. There is so much here.


transplant plus ninety

Tomorrow will be ninety days since my stem cell transplant. It will also be my first day back at work. It feels like the timing is right to head back part-time. Yesterday I attended worship at University Hill for the first time since July. It was a wonderful reunion with so many smiling faces greeting me. Doug preached a great sermon and the congregation clearly hadn't missed a beat in my absence. It was so good to simply be able to be there with everyone. There is enough hand-sanitizer in the place to keep our hands clean for a year! My need to be careful about catching a cold or flu may help everyone keep better habits when it comes to being cautious about spreading germs.


no room

Have you noticed? Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year. This puts many congregations in a quandary. In North America many do not normally hold a worship service on Christmas day. Most hold their Christmas services on Christmas Eve. This convenient arrangement allows Christmas day to stand as a time for the family to gather without the complication added by the observance of Christian worship to mark the birth of the Messiah. However, when Christmas day falls on a Sunday there is the small matter of the fourth commandment to consider. Unfortunately, the commandment does not read: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy ... unless it falls on Christmas day”.


a gospel culture

The first reading on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of the three year cycle of the lectionary proclaims: “In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains ... all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD ... that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ ... They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (from Isaiah 2:2-5).

Six weeks later the readings for the day of Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12) once again announce the gathering of the nations who bring gifts to the One who is the light of the world. The seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany open the Christian Year with the prophetic announcement of the global ingathering that will be formed into a multi-lingual gospel people at Pentecost. The story begins in a world of ethnic hostility and culture wars. The plot of the story will be the gospel drama of the world’s peoples learning war no more. It is the gospel of the in-breaking of the new human culture that Jesus both announces and embodies - the culture of the kingdom of God.


janice is still riding

Janice Love is a former colleague at University Hill Congregation and long-time friend who now lives in Vernon, BC with her husband Jim and their eight year old son (and my godson) Jameson. Janice is a co-conspirator in the creation of the Christian Seasons Calendar. She was the one who created the first prototype after I had imagined what seemed an improbable concept. Now, all these years later, she continues as part of the team that publishes and distributes the calendar. This past July Janice was inspired to begin training for the Ride to Conquer Cancer in support of cancer research. It means she plans to participate in the bike ride from Vancouver to Seattle in June 2012. It is a long ride! 


transplant plus seventy-seven

Soon these weekly post-transplant updates will come to an end as the normal routines of life resume. Yesterday I was in to see my hematologist who agrees that all is on schedule. In two weeks I will reach the ninety day post-transplant milestone and plan to return to work part-time then. I continue to feel well, with strength and energy returning incrementally each day. My blood counts look good. I have had no colds or infections. I feel quite healthy. This can all be a bit misleading as it makes me feel that I am pretty well back to normal. The doctor says that it may feel that way but that it is not completely true. He says that it takes six months post-transplant for the immune system to return to functioning the way it was prior to the transplant. And since my immune system is compromised by multiple myeloma it was not then - and will never again be - functioning at a normal healthy level. This 'new normal' will take some getting used to. But, thankfully, it will mean a relatively normal life.


tree of life

“Etz Hayim”. Those are the words that are spelled out - from right to left in Hebrew script - in front of University Hill Congregation whenever we gather for worship. It is carved into our pulpit. It means “Tree of Life”. The phrase is taken from the book of Proverbs which, when describing God’s Wisdom, says that “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (Proverbs 3:18). It reminds us of John’s revelation that the tree of life stands at the centre of God’s kingdom come - the tree whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).

As the leaves of the Bible are turned each Sunday and the words are spoken and the message is digested we receive the transforming gift of new life. But this new life does not come without ache and trouble. It is not lost on the gathered congregation that directly above the pulpit that proclaims “Etz Hayim” stands a large wooden cross - the ancient world’s tree of death. That the source of new life is found in the place of torture and death is the great paradox of the gospel.



A video from the small Yupiq Eskimo Village of Quinhagak, Alaska that was a school computer project intended for the other Yupiq villages in the area has, to the surprise of the villagers, been viewed by over one million people. To see why view it here: Hallelujah Chorus

the dove

     I saw the dove come down, the dove with the green twig, the childish dove out of the storm and the flood. It came toward me in the style of the Holy Spirit descending. I had been sitting in a cafe for twenty-five years waiting for this vision. It hovered over the great quarrel. I surrendered to the iron laws of the moral universe which make a boredom out of everything desired. Do not surrender, said the dove. I have come to make a nest in your shoe. I want your step to be light. 

- Leonard Cohen (Death of a Lady's Man, 1978)


transplant plus seventy

Today marks seventy days since I received my stem cells and began the day by day recovery to normalcy. Given that the doctors predict a return to work after ninety days this leaves just three weeks until I can likely get back to ministry with University Hill Congregation. I am fortunate that there have been no set backs along the way so far. I am feeling eager to return but know that slow and steady is the necessary course to take.


advent begins with trouble

Advent begins with trouble. This is the odd counter-cultural movement of the Christian Year. Just when the stores are in full swing, with jingling bells providing encouragement to Christmas shoppers along comes the season of Advent. Advent is the first season of the year. Its liturgical colour is blue. Advent is the season that tells the truth about the blues. It is the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family, the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.


kingdom come

The Christian Year is a living tradition. Changes to the calendar occur as the church discovers new ways to express the gospel through the narrative told in annual festivals and seasons. Some innovations become widespread and long-lasting. Others flower for a brief period and then fade. The current experiment with a Season of Creation is a case in point. On first glance this seems a worthy effort reflecting the church’s concern to proclaim the gospel in the face of global warming and the widespread extinction of species. Yet there are problems when the church begins to shape the year in response to particular crises, no matter how urgent. Soon special Sundays and months named for - and devoted to - particular injustices and issues threaten to take over the calendar. Preachers feel compelled to speak the Word in response to an issue rather than to host the Word and then to testify freely to its news, unconfined by a pre-determined agenda. The Word, which is not so much an answer to our pre-determined questions as it is a new set of questions that confront our common sense assumptions, can be inadvertently silenced as a result.


transplant plus two months

At first I measured the time post transplant in days, then weeks. Now I am measuring the time in months. Two months ago today. Another month to go until I expect to be cleared to return to work part-time. I expect that at some point soon there won't be anything to report in a weekly update. It will mean life is back to normal. That's the interesting thing. Life already feels pretty normal again. The shock of being diagnosed with an incurable cancer seems to have worn off.


the church's talent

Looking ahead to Sunday I see that the gospel lesson in the ecumenical lectionary is the parable of the talents. I remembered the struggle to wrestle a blessing from this text a few years back. It was one of those weeks when preparing the sermon was a conversion experience for the preacher. I came to see this familiar parable in a whole new light. It was as if the text broke open to reveal a hidden treasure. As Clarence Jordan was fond of saying: a parable from Jesus is like a Trojan horse - you let it in, and bam! - it’s got you. All going well, and the doctors being in agreement, I am hoping to be back preaching on the third Sunday of Advent (December 11). In the meantime, here is the parable as told by Matthew followed by that sermon from November 2002.


discipleship of the body

“The embodiment of the Easter story’s pattern in our lives means ... a new way of governing our bodies. That is how we are in touch with the story.”

- Hans W. Frei, “The Identity of Jesus Christ”  (Fortress Press, p. 171)

Where and with whom we place our bodies is the way in which we live our interpretation of the gospel. Recently I overheard a member of University Hill Congregation saying: “These days the decision to get out of bed on Sunday morning and make your way to worship to be with other followers of Jesus is a huge statement”. When it comes to bodily worship there is much to be said for expanding our capacity to sway and clap to the music, to incorporate liturgical dance and more. But first it needs to be said that choosing to place our bodies within the worshiping community is the primal way in which we embody our discipleship in worship. Getting out of bed, turning off the TV, saying ‘no’ to the invitation to Sunday morning brunch and placing our wondrous yet broken bodies within the Body of Christ is the crucial bodily discipline of the liturgy.


heart with no companion

My colleague Gerald Hobbs preached last Sunday at University Hill Congregation. Afterwards he sent along the text of the sermon. In it Gerald quoted the first two lines from the lyrics of the song "Heart with no Companion" by Leonard Cohen. I found both the sermon and Cohen's poetry powerful. Here is a paragraph from Gerald's sermon on I John 3:1-13 followed by the lyrics of the song.


transplant plus fifty

It has now been fifty days since re-booting my blood production system. The past week has been a good one, with fewer days of fatigue and more days with renewed energy. In part that is surely due to my body's capacity to continue to restore itself to health. But it is also partly the result of a return to a daily exercise regime, overseen by my old friend Mike. Mike and I became friends in 1971. Can that really be forty years ago? Over the years we lost touch until a back injury sent me looking for a good chiropractor. Enter Mike. For the past decade he has been both my chiropractor and running coach (he being an ironman triathlete as well as a chiropractor). To my surprise he showed me that my body, injured back and all, could not only return to running 10k runs but could actually complete all 26.2 miles of a marathon. That was five years ago. Since then he has helped me recover from various minor running injuries, not to mention knee surgery, always taking me through the slow process of stretching and strengthening muscles to the point where they can withstand the demands of increased exercise. But then came the diagnosis of multiple myeloma six months ago and word from my doctors that chiropractic adjustment of my spine is out for the rest of my life. Multiple myeloma weakens the bones and puts them at risk of fracture. Gone were my monthly check ups with Mike. Or so I thought.


extraordinary time

Have you noticed how the high holy-days of the Christian year cluster together? In less than half a year we travel from the first glimmer of the Advent of Christ, through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, to the fifty days of Easter that culminates in the wind and fire of Pentecost. The genius of this for catechesis is obvious. Those new to the faith – young and old – are invited to join the entire community in rehearsing the gospel every year. In twenty-five Sundays the story of Jesus Christ is retold. Do you want to learn - or relearn - the gospel narrative? Join us from Advent through Pentecost and we will relive it with you. This is a potent means of overcoming the amnesia that causes the church to forget who – and whose – it is.


transplant plus forty-three

Six weeks and counting since the stem cell transplant. The time feels like very slow progress and yet seems to slip by quickly. I expect to be back at UHill part-time in another six weeks. It will be five months since I was last with the congregation.


school for saints

Near the conclusion of the Christian year stands All Saints Day (November 1st). Few in North America mark this ancient celebration. All Hallow’s Eve on the night before All Saints has morphed into a festival of Halloween costumes and candies and parties. All Saints Day passes by forgotten. Or does it? At University Hill Congregation we are among those who are seeking to recover the celebration of All Saints Day. It begins with a recovery of the biblical definition of 'saint'. When Paul writes to his distant congregations and addresses those letters to the saints he is not singling out certain particularly faithful members of the church. When Paul writes to the saints he writes to everyone in the congregation. When Paul writes the word ‘saints’ he does not have in mind a distinction between saint and sinner. Instead, he understands that sinners who are being called into the peculiar life of Christ are, by definition, saints.


the church of the changed mind

I know that I must be feeling better. I am missing the blessing of preaching. It will be awhile yet before I am back with University Hill on Sundays. In the meantime, I am enjoying reading theology and catching up on some writing projects as I have the energy. Along the way I came across a sermon that I preached three years ago at the 100th anniversary of West Burnaby United Church. West Burnaby was the congregation where I belonged as a teen-ager. It so happened that the epistle reading in the ecumenical lectionary on that Sunday was - and remains - the key text for me in scripture. Looking back that was one of those moments when text and location came together in a providential way for me. I look forward to more occasions when text and location come together like that. In the meantime, here's the sermon from that September Sunday in 2008 ...


transplant plus thirty-five

Today has been a good news day. I had an appointment with my lead doctor at the Bone Marrow Transplant clinic at Vancouver General. It has been nearly two weeks since I was last at the clinic (and five weeks ago today since the transplant). The doctor told me that he is very happy with the way that things are going and that my body has responded well to the treatment. My blood counts are returning to normal and I have managed to get through the past five weeks without becoming ill or getting an infection. Like I say, it has been a good news day.


the gathering

When Christians gather to worship we name our collective identity in different ways. For centuries gatherings of Christians have been known in the English speaking world as “churches”. The word church comes from a Greek word meaning “of the Lord”. This is a helpful reminder whenever we begin speaking of the church as if it were our possession. Notice how quickly we welcome others to “our church”. Notice the difference when we are careful to welcome strangers to join us in worshiping with Jesus’ people. It keeps the focus on the truth that the church is a people formed, sustained and led by God rather than by our programs, plans and ministers.


amen in context

Open the Oxford English Dictionary to the word “context” and you find it sitting right next to the word “contestation”. How appropriate! Naming the context in which we live is always a risky contest of competing truths. The word context comes from the Latin meaning “to weave together”. It describes the warp and weft within which our lives, congregations and communities are located and find their purpose. Worship that is contextual seeks to locate Christian life in the real world where we live. But how do we know the truth about what is real and what is an illusion? This is the contested argument in which every worship service dares a surprising answer - an answer that evokes the courageous response: “Amen”.


transplant plus twenty-nine

Another week has passed by and I continue to get stronger, day by day. I am now officially discharged from the Bone Marrow Transplant Day Care Centre. No trips to Vancouver this week for appointments! My next doctor's appointment is a week away. In the meantime I am trying to stay away from illness - so far, so good - and doing my best to eat well and begin to exercise. My taste buds are returning which makes eating much more enjoyable. I am beginning to feel more like myself again for the first time in months. Between being on high doses of steroids in June, July and August before going through the stem cell transplant in September it seems like quite awhile since I've felt at all normal. It feels good to be returning to something like normalcy. I expect that returning to work part-time is still a couple of months away. I will learn more when I see the doctor next week. Thanks for being there, friends!


transplant plus twenty-two

Today marks another landmark in my ongoing recovery from the stem cell transplant procedure three weeks ago. The Hickman Line that has been a part of me for the past six weeks was removed this afternoon. The line has been a very efficient way of taking blood samples and giving me fluids, antibiotic, chemotherapy and my own stem cells back. It has meant that I have not needed to have an iv line inserted in my arm every trip into the hospital. Removing it means that I am coming to an end of my regular trips to Vancouver. It means that my blood counts are rising on schedule and that I will now move to weekly blood tests near home with trips to see the hematologist every couple of weeks or so. The main side effect that I am experiencing now is fatigue. I am still surprised at how tired I am. Fortunately I am free to stay home and rest knowing that all is well at University Hill Congregation. Many thanks to my drivers this week - Pat, Jocelyn, Fred and Gary. There is much to give thanks for this Thanksgiving.


practicing gratitude

The long season after Pentecost carries the church through seven months of the lunar calendar. It is marked by the colour green, the colour of growth in the faith. The other seasons of the Christian year pass quickly - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent & Holy Week, Easter. They carry us through the gospel of Jesus Christ from conception to birth to baptism to ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Near the end of this Pentecostal season of growth in discipleship comes the national celebration of Thanksgiving. In Canada it falls on the second Sunday of October, in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November. In most every nation there is a national marking of gratitude for the earth’s bounty, a reminder of our dependence upon God’s good earth for the food that sustains life. This national event provides an interpretive lens for the church’s life post-Pentecost. Or, perhaps more truthfully, it is the church’s weekly thanksgiving service within the rhythms of life after Pentecost that roots the annual cultural festival of Thanksgiving in long term practices of gratitude.


christian seasons calendar

Good news - the 2011/2012 edition of Salt of the Earth: A Christian Seasons Calendar is now available. This unique venture began over a decade ago as we at University Hill Congregation imagined a calendar that begins with Advent and turns with the Christian seasons. The calendar continues to improve in quality and to spread across the continent and around the world.

You can find the calendar at the Christian Seasons Calendar website where you can view sample pages and order online. Single copies of the calendar cost $15.95 (plus shipping and applicable taxes). There is a 20% discount on orders of ten or more and a 40% discount on orders of twenty five or more. Many of our customers buy in bulk in order to give the calendars as gifts or to make them available in their congregation at a reduced rate.

Your help in spreading the word about this mission venture to friends and colleagues is much appreciated!


transplant plus fifteen

Today begins the third week since the stem cell transplant. The last two days have brought two landmarks. On Tuesday, day thirteen, my hair fell out. Well, most of my hair fell out. It was on my pillow in the morning and falling out in clumps at the slightest touch. There is a thin stubble left. We are planning to shave it off tonight. It will be interesting to discover when the hair begins to grow back and to see if it is different when it returns (apparently it can grow back differently). While the loss of hair is the most obvious outward sign of cancer treatment I am not finding it to be a big deal. It seems a slight inconvenience given the opportunity for the promise of a number of healthy years ahead.


transplant plus twelve

The days seem to pass slowly, each one counted off, waiting for the stem cells to find their way home to the marrow. Yet, here it is, day twelve already. The medical team tells me to expect the white cell count to begin to increase from its present level of zero any day. They say that the usual time frame for this to occur is between day fourteen and twenty-one. I was in to the hospital this morning (with big thanks to drivers Chris & Es). All seems normal. My white cell count is zero (the great thing about this is that the number of cancerous plasma cells is zero). No signs of infection. I am to return to the hospital in two more days unless I develop a fever in the meantime.


transplant plus six

It has now been a week since receiving chemotherapy and six days since the stem cell transplant. All in all, I am doing well. While I felt some nausea as a result of the chemotherapy, the anti-nausea drugs did their work and held back the worst. I seem to be past that stage now, moving into the phase of living with low blood counts and waiting for the stem cells to graft on to my bone marrow. This leaves me feeling fatigued much of the time. In the meantime, I continue to visit CP6 every other day for blood work and to receive iv fluids to keep me well hydrated.


transplant plus one

It is Thursday and I am on the other side of the stem cell transplant procedure. It all feels a bit surreal since the effects of the chemotherapy that I received on Tuesday will be experienced between three and seven days after the treatment. It means that in the meantime I am living in limbo between the treatment and its effects on my body. Yesterday, while waiting for the stem cell transplant, I felt quite healthy and had to remind myself that my life was about to be rescued by a small bag of cells that had been taken from me four weeks ago. It was such an ordinary day and yet a day on which my life was about to be saved.


four days

News today from the bone marrow transplant centre that there has been a cancellation next week which means that my transplant will not have to wait until the following week. I am now scheduled to have chemotherapy on Tuesday, September 13 followed by the stem cell transplant on Wednesday, September 14. Both of those procedures will last all day. After that I will visit the centre every other day for a few weeks (unless I have a fever that will require me to be at the centre daily in order to receive intravenous antibiotics). I can expect to be at the lowest ebb in terms of white blood count on the weekend of September 18, with things beginning to improve once the stem cells graft back onto my bone marrow in the two weeks following. It is good news that we can get on with the transplant procedure in four days. I will enjoy the good weather and my good health this weekend and then buckle down to the task at hand next week.

the bright field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

- R.S. Thomas



The good news is that I have a new date confirmed for my stem cell transplant. That means that I am cleared to move forward. I am in good health. The recurrent fevers that bothered me throughout the month of August have disappeared. The effects of three months of taking large doses of steroids have worn off. I have received a ten day treatment of intravenous antibiotics to make sure that there are is no lingering infection in my bloodstream. The doctors are satisfied that my immune system can be shut down and then jump-started again without great risk. That is the good news.


another postponement

Another week that has not gone as planned. Another postponement of the stem cell transplant. Another week of waiting. Last week my stem cell transplant was postponed for one week because of a continuing and mysterious fever that showed up again on the Tuesday night before my scheduled chemotherapy treatment last Wednesday. Everything was moved ahead one week to today and tomorrow. Many tests were undertaken to make doubly sure that no bacterial infection had been overlooked. Along the way multiple blood samples were taken to see if bacterial cultures could be grown in those samples. While I was having fevers none of these samples tested positive. Alas, after the fevers had subsided (I have not had a fever for a week) two of the many cultures that were taken tested positive for a staff infection. This is a bit of a mystery since there are no fevers accompanying these positive results. My doctors suspect that these test results may have been false positives resulting from contamination. However, all agree that we must be absolutely sure that my immune system is not reduced to zero by chemotherapy when I am harbouring a bacterial infection that would then be free to multiply. As a result I am undergoing a full round of intravenous antibiotics that requires ten days of treatment. Today I completed my seventh day of daily trips in to Vancouver General to receive the regular dose of antibiotic. I keep reminding myself that this is now my full-time job and that the drive to VGH is now my commute. Once the ten days are complete and I have no more fevers or signs of possible infection I will be rescheduled for chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant as soon as a spot comes open.


becoming a patient

Well, this week has not gone as planned. The mysterious fevers that have recurred on and off recurred again on Tuesday night. The medical team responsible for the stem cell transplant wisely decided not to move forward with chemotherapy on Wednesday. Instead, it has been postponed for one week and is now scheduled for next Wednesday, August 31 with the stem cell transplant set for Thursday, September 1. In the meantime, we have gone on a search to see if it is possible to determine the source of the fever. The good news is that the fever hasn't returned again since Tuesday. The important work is to be absolutely sure that it is not being caused by a bacterial infection as this would leave me open to a serious infection after the chemotherapy destroys my immune system. It may be the lingering effects of a viral infection, which would be much less problematic. So, I have spent three long days at the hospital on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Most of the time has been spent waiting for tests. On Tuesday I had a Hickman line inserted into my chest. It is a nifty three way portal which means that I don't need to have an IV inserted into my arm whenever I need to have a blood test or receive an infusion of blood or antibiotic or fluid. The line is to remain in place for the next month or so. On Thursday I had a fascinating test in which some of my blood was removed, the white cells were spun out and and irradiated before being returned to me. Later in the day a gamma camera took pictures of my body to see if there may be an infection somewhere in my body that the white cells move to. I find out the results later today. In the meantime one of my multiple blood cultures came back as positive for infection. While this may be a false positive the medical team is treating me with antibiotics to be doubly sure. This means daily trips to the hospital right through to Wednesday's scheduled chemotherapy. Fortunately I am feeling quite well right now and so am able to drive myself to and from the city.


the props assist the house

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop 
Affirming it a Soul 

- Emily Dickinson



The days are counting down - two more days until the collection of my stem cells, then one week until chemo and transplant. It will be good to be on the other side of those procedures and to begin the journey of recovery. Yesterday I made my first trip into the Krall Centre - the bone marrow transplant day centre at Vancouver General Hospital. I phoned in the morning because of a fever that I was experiencing. An hour later we were off to an appointment with a nurse and doctor. All went well. I feel very fortunate to be living in such close proximity to such impressive care.

Word this week from Caroline Penhale that a car accident has left her with minor injuries that will prevent her from training for the half-marathon in October. She has been given an opportunity to transfer her registration and funds raised to the May 6, 2012 Vancouver half-marathon. Training for that run will begin anew in November. The fundraising goal for the Vancouver run is $1,900. Caroline has already raised $2,595 and so is already well over the goal for her run in May. Once there is an online site for contributions to Vancouver half-marathon in support of Caroline I will post it here.

In the meantime, this moves Janice Love and her participation in the Ride to Conquer Cancer in June 2012 to the fore. Janice is currently 18% of the way to her goal of raising $3,200 for blood cancer research. Your support of her ride will be a great encouragement as she trains throughout the fall and winter months. You can make a contribution by visiting Janice's Ride to Conquer Cancer site online.


off the juice

Today marks another small turning point - I am now officially off the juice. This morning I finished the last of three months of a prescription for steroids. For the past few weeks I have been counting down the days and the pills, looking forward to being through this part of the journey. The good news about high doses of steroids is that they reduce the multiple myeloma in preparation for the upcoming stem cell transplant. The bad news is that the side effects of the steroids are multiple, bothersome and grow over time. Throughout the past three months I have had regular breaks from the steroids. Each break becomes more difficult as my body "comes down" from the super-charged energy that it has been ingesting. I expect that the next week will have its share of fatigue and ache as I go off of the steroids for one last time.

In the meantime, we are back from a wonderful and relaxing family vacation with sunny weather, surrounded by our children and grandchildren. I am now into a series of medical tests and appointments in preparation for the procedures that are scheduled next week and the week following. Next Wednesday my stem cells will be collected. In two weeks from today chemotherapy will be used to shut down my bone marrow so that on the next day my stored stem cells can be used to start me up again. While I can't say that I'm looking forward to the side effects that will come as a result of the chemotherapy I can say that I will be glad to be on the other side of that event. Then it will be a case of slowly but surely getting stronger and healthier again.

Many thanks to all who have sent messages of concern and care, along with word of continuing prayer. It means much to me. Thanks to those in Crescent Beach and in Vancouver who have joined the ranks of a volunteer driver's network to help me get to and from Vancouver General Hospital as needed after the stem cell transplant. What a wonderful support network I have. Thanks, too, to those who have committed support to Caroline Penhale's half-marathon in support of blood cancer research. I see that she is now over 80% of the way to her goal, leaving her needing pledges of $605. Your gift in any amount is a big encouragement to us both.


what lies ahead

This week marks the end of the beginning of my journey with multiple myeloma. The first part of the journey was about discovery and shock and education and preparation for what lies ahead. Since I was diagnosed I have been learning about my disease with my doctors. At the same time family and friends, the congregation and many colleagues have come alongside with support, concern and care. It has been something of a whirlwind. It is certainly not what I had in mind for the summer of 2011.

The second part of my journey with multiple myeloma is the good fortune to be eligible for an autologous stem cell transplant (a transplant using my own stem cells). Preparation for this procedure began when I started a three month treatment using steroids to put the myeloma into remission. I have one more month of this treatment to complete. During the next month I have a number of appointments, tests and procedures in preparation for the transplant. If all goes well I am scheduled to have my stem cells harvested on August 17 & 18. Then I am to have a single chemotherapy treatment on August 24 (to "erase my hard drive"). On August 25 I am scheduled to receive my stem cells back. It normally takes about seven to ten days from that event before the stem cells graft to the bone marrow and begin to produce blood cells again. Amazing. I am to go through the entire procedure as an out patient of the Krall Centre on the 6th floor of the Centennial Pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital. Unless I become very ill I will not be staying in the hospital over night. Instead, I will get rides to and from the hospital as needed. I will be living at home, away from crowds and the risk of infection for about three months before being able to return to ministry part-time. Full-time ministry should follow early in 2012. It all depends on keeping healthy and getting stronger. Then my doctors say that I can expect to enjoy a lengthy remission. That is why it is my good fortune to be eligible for a stem cell transplant.

In the meantime, our family is getting away on a vacation. We are really looking forward to being together before I begin the next stage of the journey. We will be out of computer range. This blog will be silent for awhile. I will post again in August.

Thanks to so many for your support, care and prayers. It is a powerful experience that fills me with gratitude. Thanks, also, to those who have sponsored Carmen, Caroline and Janice in their runs and ride to raise funds for blood cancer research. Carmen has reached her goal. Janice has until June 2012 to reach her target. Caroline is nearing her goal but needs a boost in support to get there this summer. I encourage you to encourage Caroline and myself by becoming one of her sponsors. Today she is 71% of the way to $3,200. It means that she needs donations totaling $925. Your gift of any size gives her another motivation to train and lifts my spirits. Thank-you!


you can never be sure

"I hard hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write"

- W. S. Merwin ("Opening the Hand")


i did not know it

Yesterday (Sunday) was a big day for us. It was the last Sunday we will be together until I am able to return from the stem cell transplant. We are hoping that we will be back together on Reign of Christ Sunday (November 21) or the first Sunday of Advent (November 28). It is only eighteen weeks or so but that is a long time for a pastor and congregation to be apart, especially when it involves re-booting the pastor's immune system. But it was also a big Sunday yesterday because two infants were baptised into the community and an adult entered the congregation through the renewal of her baptismal vows. Any time that the community welcomes new disciples of Jesus into its life is a big day for the church. We could tell that it was a big day by the turn out. When we have to use all the chairs and when we run out of bulletins we know it is a big day. That is especially true when it happens on a Sunday in the middle of July when things are usually quiet and people are usually away. Because it was a big day we had planned to make a video of the service so that those who could not be with us could share something of the experience with us. And all went well - except for one thing. The battery on the video camera failed at exactly the point when the sermon began and we did not discover the problem until the moment when the sermon ended. I expect it is a message from God. Something about not being able to hoard manna in a video camera. The Word of God is meant for the moment, not for collecting. At least, that's what I take from this technical glitch. So, in place of the sermon in video or print form here are some scribbled sermon notes that take off from where I left off yesterday ...


love after love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

- by Derek Walcott


ride janice ride

First there was Carmen Lansdowne, living in Oakland, California and training to run the half-marathon in San Francisco this coming October in support of blood cancer research in my name. As of today, with the help of twenty-eight sponsors, Carmen has raised 109% of her goal of $2150 ($100 per kilometre). Way to go Carmen and friends!

Then there was Caroline Penhale, living in Vancouver, BC and also training to run in the half-marathon in San Francisco this coming October in support of blood cancer research in my name. As of today, with the help of thirty-one sponsors Caroline has raised 66% of her goal of $3,200 ($150 per kilometre). This leaves her $890 short of her target. Your help in getting her to the finish line will be really appreciated by both Caroline and myself. We are almost there!

Now there is Janice Love, my former colleague at University Hill Congregation and long-time friend, living in Vernon, BC with husband Jim and my godson, Jameson. Janice is a co-conspirator in the creation of the Christian Seasons Calendar. She was the one who created the first proto-type after I had come up with what seemed an improbable concept. Now, all these years later, she continues as part of the team that publishes and distributes the calendar from University Hill Congregation. Janice has been inspired to begin training for the Ride to Conquer Cancer in support of blood cancer research. It means she plans to participate in the ride from Vancouver to Seattle in June 2012. It is a long way! Talk about commitment. Janice is riding and raising funds in my name and in the name of Simon Higginson, the brother of Jameson's school principal, who has also been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Janice has just begun training and fund-raising. To date she has raised 13% of her goal of $3,200 ($150 per kilometre). Janice has many months of training and fund-raising to go. You can see a picture of Jameson and me when he was an infant and you can make a contribution to Janice's ride by visiting Janice's Ride to Conquer Cancer site. Your support for Janice and for Simon and for me means a lot to us all.

Speaking of my godson - Happy 8th Birthday on July 18 Jameson!


verbi dei minister

"V.D.M." These were the odd initials that followed the name of our beloved New Testament teacher on the order of service at his memorial. It read "Lloyd Gaston, V.D.M". No indication was made of Lloyd's distinguished career as an academic. None of his advanced degrees were listed, not even the PhD earned under the tutelage of Karl Barth. All that indicated anything of his vocation was the acronym "V.D.M."

During the service Lloyd's friend and colleague Jim Linderberger noted that this designation had been Lloyd's desire. It reflected a long tradition among Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in Europe where it is commonly seen on  the gravestones of clergy. In the absence of any other indication one knows immediately the life calling and work of those whose lives are subsumed in the three letters V.D.M. It signifies the Latin phrase "Verbi Dei Minister" - "Servant of the Word of God". As Jim told us this about Lloyd I remember a shock of recognition: "Yes, that names Lloyd's life ... and it also names mine".


sit down, Master, on this rude chair

a prayer for the week ...

Sit down, Master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom for ever and ever.

- Leonard Cohen, from "Book of Mercy", 1984


the soul is like a wild animal

a quote for the week ...

"How we are to listen to our lives is a question worth exploring. In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal - tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek."

- Parker Palmer from "Let Your Life Speak", pp. 8-9


lay your burden down

A new rhythm has emerged on Sundays. And, to my surprise, it feels right. It is a surprise because I never would have imagined that hosting a Bible conversation in my office for an hour right before worship would not interfere with preparation for worship and preaching. Instead, it is so obviously the needful thing for me and for us. Looking back, I am not sure that I was ready for this much earlier in my ministry. But I am now.

I arrive early. I wander over to the Chapel of the Epiphany and spend some time arranging the chairs a little here, a little there. I feel like a host getting set for guests who are coming for dinner. I like to be sure that everything is ready. That's done by eight in the morning. Then I go back across the street to the building where I have an office. I get the coffee on and the hot water for tea. I put out the dough-nuts that I bought at the Tim Horton's drive through on my way into town. Then I read the scripture that we'll be hosting in our conversation and in the sermon. At nine I hear the elevator open and people arrive. We number four or five or six or seven. There are the regulars. And there are often drop-ins, sometimes guests from out of town. We get coffee and tea and dough-nuts. We greet. We pray. Sometimes there is important news to share. Then we pick up one of a number of translations of the Bible that are on the round coffee table in front of us and we read the text for the day. Then we wonder about it. We wrestle with it. We laugh about it. We imagine what our world looks like when seen through this script. I test some directions that I imagine the sermon might go. It feels like the warm up sessions that African American preachers often have with the deacons in the minister's study before worship. It feels like a musician practicing scales and chord progressions in order to be ready to play. At five to ten we pray. At ten I leave the group to clean up the office and I walk to the Chapel. The hour has flown by. I have not had time to get nervous. Worship begins at 10:30. Just time to go and look for newcomers and visitors who have arrived early. Then time to meet and pray with the worship team.


You live at the hinge

a prayer for the week ...

You brood in the night in its fearfulness,
You dawn the day in its energy,
    You move at the edge of night
          into the margin of day.
You take the feeble night and give us strong day,
    You take our fatigue and bestow courage,
    You take our drowsy reluctance and fashion full-blooded zeal.
What shall we say?
    You, only you, you
    You at the hinge - and then the day.
You - and then us,
    from you in faithfulness,
    us for the day,
    us in the freedom and courage and energy,
    and then back to you - in trust and gratitude.

- by Walter Brueggemann, from "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth", 2003, p.5.


you have to die to enter a vocation

a quote for the week ...

"Theologically, what distinguishes a vocation from the rigors of a profession is this: you have to die to enter a vocation. A profession summons the best from you. A vocation calls you away from what you thought was best in you, purifies it, and promises to make you something or someone you are not yet."

- Richard Lischer  from "The End of Words", 2005,  p. 30


preaching from the kingdom side

Something has happened to the preaching moment we share at University Hill Congregation. In truth, it has been happening over a long period of time. Yet something quite extraordinary seems to be happening as a result of the news that the preacher has an incurable cancer. I am trying to make sense of all of this. It is early days. But the last few Sundays have been different. There is more energy. More energy in the preacher. More energy in the congregation. And not just any energy. Kingdom energy. Gospel energy. Ache is here. Truth is here. There is both grief and gratitude. There is a living word that is almost palpable. It is easy for me to receive during the week. It is almost as if the texts are plugged in to a high voltage line. I do not find it difficult to hear what the text is speaking to us directly. It might be difficult to put into words. It might be hard to say. But it is not difficult to know what needs to be said. The Word from God seems strong.

I am wondering what it is about this new situation that has made the preaching feel so electric. I am not alone in this. Many in the congregation notice that we are participating in something we have not known in quite this way before. Some of the ingredients in this mix seem clear to me.


life on rocket fuel

Today I complete the first month of a three month treatment program in preparation for a stem cell transplant at the end of August. During these three months I am receiving high doses of steroids in order to put the myeloma into remission. For some reason myeloma is very sensitive to steroids. I was in to see the doctor on Tuesday and the results of my blood tests after one month are very encouraging. The evidence of myeloma has decreased by sixty percent since I began taking steroids. Its all good.

Except. Except that taking large doses of steroids changes your body chemistry in two very noticeable ways. One, my emotions are much closer to the surface. Two weeks ago I was leading worship, reading the Great Thanksgiving prayer during the Eucharist and came across a beautiful line in the prayer. I started to cry. I mean, really. It was moving, but not that moving! The other main effect of the steroids is even more unnerving. I am constantly "juiced". I feel like Ben Johnson looked when he ran in Seoul, full of steroids. If my normal energy levels feel like my engine runs on low-grade gasoline at the pump I now feel like I am lifting off of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral all day. I am normally a pretty energetic person. Now I am that energetic person multiplied. On one level, its not such a bad side effect. I am getting a lot done. The "to do" lists at home and work get written down and they actually get done. But on another level it gets very tiresome to never have the experience of feeling tired. There is not a minute of relaxing in the day. If I sit down on the couch to rest, my internal motor is still revving on all cylinders. In a society that so values productivity it would seem a great gift to be able to go from the moment your eyes open (usually at 4:30 am these days, when the sleeping pill I have been prescribed wears off) til the moment you mercifully get some drug-induced sleep. It doesn't take long, however, until you realize that being human includes the gifts of feeling tired, of needing to rest, of being able to relax and of reaching the limits of your energy and capacity.


a life I hope is unintelligible

a quote for the week ...

"I have tried to live a life I hope is unintelligible if the God we Christians worship does not exist."

- Stanley Hauerwas


an incursion of the spirit

It is fascinating to me to notice how the biblical texts jump off the page these days when I sit down to wonder what will preach. Something about the news of my diagnosis has changed not only my life but the life of our congregation. Some of the changes are predictable in the face of the news of incurable cancer. There is shock, sadness, anger, fear and grief. But some of the changes are ones that I would not have predicted. There is an energy, a moving towards one another, an almost tangible sense of the living hope and sure faith that we often speak of and even long for. After preaching about this for three decades I am not sure why I shouldn't have predicted this. Being rooted in trust in God's faithfulness is what one would hope to have happen in a Christian community when the pastor is diagnosed with cancer. Still, it is wonderful to discover that this is what is happening now that this kind of trouble is no longer a hypothetical situation.

run caroline run

Now it is not one friend and colleague running to raise money for blood cancer research but two. First I learned that the former United Church Campus Minister at UBC, Carmen Lansdowne, is training for a half-marathon in San Francisco in October on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in my name. Now I have discovered that the current United Church Campus Minister at UBC, Caroline Penhale is going to travel to San Francisco in order to run with Carmen in my name as well. What a gift. For the past few years University Hill Congregation and the United Church Campus Ministry have been closely together to undertake ministry on the UBC campus. Carmen and Caroline have become wonderful colleagues and friends of mine. Their decision to train separately (Carmen in Berkeley/Oakland and Caroline in Vancouver) and then to run together in my name in October is a huge encouragement to me do my own training and preparation for the long distance run of slow recovery from a stem cell transplant in the fall.

Caroline's goal is $3,200. That equals $150 per kilometer. Donations in support of Caroline are made in Canadian funds and result in a tax receipt which can be used when making a tax return in Canada. When making a donation in support of Caroline the donor is given the options of allowing their name to be listed on her run web page as well as of allowing the amount donated to be shown or not. Thank you for supporting and encouraging Caroline and Carmen!

Donate in support of Caroline Penhale's half-marathon for blood cancer research.


I have felt it pass through me

a quote for the week ...

"There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don't wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages that you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It's a thing people expect of you. I don't know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature."

- Marilynne Robinson ("Gilead", p.23)

run carmen run

One of the delights of my life has been running. I discovered it through my neighbour Chris who taught me the ropes twenty years ago as we ran around Crescent Beach in the early morning hours. Then my old friend Mike coached me back from injury and onto half-marathons and - to my great surprise - a marathon. I learned a lot about life through running. I learned that slow, steady, disciplined habits produce slow, steady, real change in your body. I learned that what I had thought to be impossibly beyond reach was actually very much within reach. I learned to pay attention to pain and to take care of my body. And I discovered that I enjoyed the training more than the races (which is good, since you do a lot more training than racing). Many of those miles were spent running along the beach and into the woods with my buddy Micah - our standard poodle who died earlier this year with lymphoma. As I spend the next weeks preparing for a stem cell transplant in August and for the slow, steady recovery to follow through the autumn I find myself thinking that I am in training for a marathon journey rather than a short sprint to the finish.

Then comes word from my friend and colleague, Carmen Lansdowne, that she is dedicating her half-marathon run in San Francisco in my name, raising funds for research into blood cancers such as multiple myeloma, leukemia and lymphoma. Carmen's goal is $2150. That equals $100 per kilometre. She has begun training now in order to run those twenty-one kilometers in mid-October. Your donation will inspire her to keep at it and will encourage me in my own marathon journey.

Donate in support of Carmen Lansdowne's half-marathon for blood cancer research.


what's up

A sermon preached on Ascension Sunday, June 5, 2011
at University Hill Congregation,Vancouver, BC

“What’s Up”
Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:15-16). Sometimes Paul is frustrated with the church. Sometimes he is exasperated with the church. Sometimes he is just plain mad at the church. But not always. When Paul prays for the little church in Ephesus he is filled with gratitude for a congregation that trusts its life to Jesus and, as a result, has an abundance of love for one another. I know what it is to be filled with gratitude for a congregation that trusts its life to Jesus and, so, is marked by love and affection for one another. Three weeks ago, when the doctors confirmed their suspicions and told me that I have multiple myeloma, I was shocked and sad and grateful. The gratitude was, and is, threefold. I found myself realizing how thankful I am for a strong and beautiful family, for a wonderful country in which I am blessed with incredible medical care and for you, for all of you. I thought “I am so grateful that I am the minister at University Hill Congregation. I know how much faith and love there is in our life together. Everything is going to be all right.” Since then you have showered me with affection, concern, prayers and support. I am the recipient of an outpouring of love. This is the odd discovery of being told that you have incurable cancer. Wonderful news accompanies the terrible news. It turns out that the church is not a problem, not an anachronism, not out of touch. It turns out that the church is precious. It turns out that, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the kingdom of God is as close as hearing that life will end sooner rather than later. Faced with the news of our mortality we realize that being together today is a gift to be cherished and received with gratitude. “And for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”


there is a crack in everything

 a quote for the week ...

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in"

- Leonard Cohen (from "Anthem")

an interruption

I just noticed that my last entry on this blog was dated March 22. Hmmm. I had been thinking that I had just been lazy in posting since that day. However, looking back at my day-timer reveals that March 23 was the day when the doctors told me that some odd results had surfaced and that I would need to undergo further tests. Those tests led to a bone marrow biopsy on the morning of Maundy Thursday. Yes, I preached to myself over Easter Weekend. It was May 17 when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. So it was not only this blog that was interrupted on March 22 but also my life. I had not intended this scribbler to track my journey as a pastor who is living with plasma cancer. Nonetheless, if my first weeks in this new chapter of life are any indication it promises to be full of surprising blessings along with its share of burdens. Sundays never looked so sweet to me. I am so looking forward to being with the congregation once again to sing, to pray, to preach the word and to experience the kingdom of heaven, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.


undivided love

"What is undivided love? Love which shows no special favour to those who love us in return. When we love those who love us, our brethren, our nation, our friends, yes, and even our own congregation, we are no better than the heathen and the publicans. Such love is ordinary and natural, and not distinctively Christian. We can love our kith and kin, our fellow countrymen and our friends, whether we are Christians or not, and there is no need for Jesus to teach us that. But he takes that kind of love for granted, and in contrast asserts that we must love our enemies. Thus he shows us what he means by love, and the attitude we must display toward it."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("The Cost of Discipleship")


to keep its story straight

"Theology is the delicate art necessary for the Christian community to keep its story straight. That story consists of beliefs and behavior that are actions required by the content of the story. The work of theology is, therefore, never finished. The work of theology can never be finished not only because we live in a world of change but, more important, because the story we tell resists any premature closure. That story, the seven words of Jesus from the cross, forces us to acknowledge that the past is not the past until it has been redeemed, the present cannot be confidently known except in the light of such a redemption, and the future exists only in the hope made possible by the cross and resurrection of Jesus."

- Stanley Hauerwas ("Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words", p. 17)


the good news about life & death - session one

For the next eight weeks University Hill Congregation is hosting a conversation called "The Good News About Life and Death". We are meeting in two groups - one on Thursday nights after dinner together at one of our member's homes and the other on Sunday mornings over coffee and dough-nuts in my study prior to worship. Each week I am going to post a brief report of the conversations shared so that others in the congregation who are unable to attend either session but who are interested in the subject can have a sense of what we are learning together.

Our first session gave both groups an opportunity to share the reasons for participating in the conversation. In weeks to come our discussions will be focused on particular passages from scripture which speak of life and death and life beyond death. But our first time together provided room for us to talk about what it is that we would like to learn and to discuss. A number of people shared that their participation is primarily grounded in their desire to be in Christian community, reading scripture and sharing life together. This is one of the primary reasons for such small group study - the building up of the koinonia (the communal life) of the church. Having said that, our conversations were rich with wonder about the gospel about life and death. It was evident that a number of us come with grief and ache which longs to be heard and to know healing. Beyond this, included in our conversations was discussion about:

completely and entirely and utterly hope

"Christianity is completely and entirely and utterly hope - a looking forward and a forward direction; hope is not just an appendix. So Christianity inevitably means a new setting forth and a transformation of the present. Eschatology (the doctrine of the Last Things) is not just one of Christianity's many doctrines. It is quite simply the medium of Christian faith, the keynote, the daybreak colours of a new expected day which bathe everything in their light."

- Jurgen Moltmann ("Experiences of God", p. 11)


on dropping the "the" from church

Lately I have noticed that a number of colleagues no longer use the definite article "the" when referring to the church. In fact, at last evening's meeting of our presbytery the majority of references to the church were to "church" rather than "the church". People spoke of "doing church" and "being church" as they sought after language to express the future of the church. I am wondering about the reasons for this shift in language. What does it seek to express? What gains or losses are there in dropping the specificity that is provided by the use of the definite article?

I am no expert in English grammar but I sense that the loss of "the" from church turns the noun into a verb. It is now not a place or an institution so much as it is an activity. "Doing church" reminds me of "doing lunch". There is something about this that feels right. The church is more a social movement - a Jesus movement - than it is a location. The church is a people whose life is marked by the ways of life that it is learning to practice. Since the name for God in Hebrew - YHWH - is a verb ("I am up to what I am up to") it seems fitting that God's people would also be know by what they are up to, what they are doing and being.

Yet if there is something to be gained by this seemingly minor shift in language there is also something to be lost. I notice that when we speak of "doing church" that the word church becomes synonymous with "faith community". It feels more generic, less specific. Harder to pin down, more nebulous. Now the focus is on a way of being together and not on which particular church we are speaking of. My friend Doug reminds me that the official name of The United Church of Canada includes the word "The" with a capital "T". When we speak of "The Church" we are talking about The Church of Jesus Christ. I hunch that it is becoming fashionable to drop the definite article when referring to the church because we are increasingly uncomfortable with being at home in the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ across the generations and across divergent theological and denominational locations. We notice all of the trouble that comes with the flawed witness of the church. We hope that we can somehow escape the trouble by freeing the idea of "church" from all the problematic specificity of being the church that has a history and a location and an identity. Well, maybe I am overstating the case but, after all, it's scribbling.


the poetics of scriptural discourse

"True theology is a matter not of marshalling formal arguments more clever and subtle than those of one's opponents, but of grasping the poetics of scriptural discourse and letting it make a better person of you." 

- Brian Gerrish ("Grace and Gratitude", p. 17)


truth telling and trouble making

In yesterday's post on being radical I noted that the word "radical" comes with pre-existent positive or negative voltage and I noticed that the word often suggests either truth-teller or trouble maker. Soon two responses came - from Peter and from Lorraine - reminding me that those are not necessarily opposites but that truth-telling regularly makes trouble! Yes. Truth-tellers in families and in churches and in nations break open systems stories and secrets. In doing so they cause trouble - especially for those who benefit from the way things are and from keeping the secret.

I wonder how to know when trouble making is the result of truth-telling and when it is simply harmful. Not all trouble making is the result of truth-telling. Sometimes it is just mischievous. Nor does all truth-telling cause trouble. There are times when a troubled situation or soul breaks through from confusion to clarity when the truth is told. I see it when tears of recognition and affirmation appear in response to a sermon or a gospel word shared in conversation.

Yet the gospel never encounters us without causing trouble. I recall Will Willimon's assertion that the three point sermons of his childhood were always one point short of the truth. Those sermons followed a threefold plot: 1. You are a sinner. 2. You have a problem. 3. Jesus is the answer. But, notes Willimon, there is a final point which too often goes unsaid: 4. Now, you really have a problem!


on being radical

I am not sure what to think of the word "radical" these days. It comes up often in conversations about the church. It can mean "new", "different", "challenging", "left-wing", "progressive". Yet its root is, in Latin, literally "root". Radical surgery is not a band-aid solution. It gets to the root of the illness. A radical church may look new to those who are accustomed to a domesticated church but if its life is truly rooted in Jesus Christ then its radical attributes are actually conservative in nature. To desire to be a radical church is to engage in an act of conservation of the original root stock in order that it may come to flower once again. The question that perplexes me these days is how to tell the difference between the gold that is a church rooted in Jesus Christ and the fool's gold of a church that is rooted in false gods who cannot deliver on false promises.

"Radical" is one of those words that comes with pre-existing voltage. For some it is an inherently positive word, for others always negative. We hear "radical" and imagine either truth-teller or trouble-maker. I wonder if it would help us to unplug the voltage and to listen with more care to one another as we explore the roots of Christian community in a post-Christian society. Can we agree that we are seeking to be rooted together in Jesus Christ? If not, then we need to discover what common root we share. If so, then we are not split into camps who are either for or against being a radical church. Rather, we have differing visions of the kind of tree that grows from such odd rootstock. And to be debating what it is to find our lives rooted in Jesus confirms that we are in this rooted church together. In an age of warring ideological encampments on the right and on the left this deep familial bond is, itself, a radical way of life.

God in your own image

"You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." 

- Anne Lamott


sweeter than honey

"How sweet is your word on my tongue, sweeter than honey in my mouth." 
Psalm 119:103

People gather around a cross shaped by candles placed on jars of honey in the presentation of the Blessed Virgin church in Blagoevgrad on February 10, 2011, during a celebration in honour of St. Haralampi, protector of the beekeepers.


the toughest evangelistic task

"The toughest evangelistic task we have as preachers is not how to make Jesus make sense in a disbelieving modern world, but whether, when he meets us in our world, as we believe that he does, we will follow him or not."

- William Willimon ("Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized", p. 93)


a higher righteousness

Well, I am not sure what to think of the sermon that I preached yesterday. There is just so much in eight verses: "salt of the earth", "trampled underfoot", "light of the world", "see your good works and give God the glory", "not to abolish but to fulfill the law", "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:13-20). Sheesh. By Saturday night I realized that I had spent so much of the week wrestling with the first seven words ("You are the salt of the earth") that I risked brushing off the rest of the text. Then I realized that the children's time was a telling of Jesus' blessing of children (Mark 10:13ff). Their entrance into God's kingdom has to do with receiving it as a child. The text from Matthew closes with a call to be exceedingly rigorous in keeping and teaching the law of God (exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees). It all seems so confounding. Is the kingdom a gift to be received or a demanding new way of life that requires all our energy and skill and commitment? And how does one preach on this within the confines of a liturgy that includes a celebration of the Eucharist? Not to mention that just before the service I met four guests who were attending the congregation for the first time - university students including two from China who were in a church for the first time in their lives. It felt impossible to do justice to the text. Which, in truth, it always does.


salt of the earth

The text that we're hosting in the sermon this coming Sunday is Matthew 5:13-20. It begins with Jesus' announcement: "You are the salt of the earth". Since this is the title we have given to the Christian Seasons Calendar that University Hill Congregation publishes it seems a good time to hear Jesus out when he makes this outlandish claim. On some levels I get it. We've become a minority voice, an alternative community, odd people even if that wasn't what we imagined our future would be in the 1950's. But this odd identity still feels, well, odd. When I read the name that I gave this blog I cringe a bit at the word "holy". There's something about the word that feels like it should be reserved for the divine, not used of human speech. I remember coming out of a movie years ago and bumping into an acquaintance who bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Hey, here's the local holy man". I wanted him to be quiet, tone it down, leave me alone. Not me. Yet that is who I am - by my calling set apart for God's use. Holy. It is what Jesus is saying of all of his followers when he announces that his apprentices "are the salt of the earth"


like threading a needle

Every Wednesday morning for the past few years (how many is it now - four? five?) a group from the congregation has gathered for breakfast and bible study at a restaurant on Vancouver's west side. For an hour we chew on a chapter of scripture (and eggs) discovering that over time it, like manna, provides nutrition. This past week we finished reading the book of Revelation and decided next to tackle Genesis (yes, all fifty chapters, week by week - apparently we'll be meeting for at least another year of Wednesdays). Alongside of reading Revelation over the past twenty weeks I took the opportunity to read Eugene Peterson's "Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination". I really like how Eugene writes and what he writes. But what caught me last week was a little quotation at the beginning of the final chapter of his book. It is from Walker Percy's novel "Lancelot": "To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle." 


scribbling the gospel

I remember my first exercise book in elementary school. It was called a scribbler. We were taught to practice our printing in it with great care. Ever since then I have been frightened of scribbling. Scribblers weren't really safe places for trying things out. They were marked with red pencils when we got things wrong. This little blog is meant to be a place to practice scribbling the gospel in my own words without fear of the teacher's red pencil.