do you not perceive it

Theme Address at the “re:VIVE Conference” sponsored by The United Church of Canada in the BC Lower Mainland on March 27. 2004 at St Andrew’s-Wesley Church, Vancouver, BC

It is a rare privilege and more than a little humbling to be here today. But, to be honest, it is also more than a little terrifying. Lately I have had the opportunity to be a guest speaker at events like this outside of BC. And I am learning that there is a certain freedom in arriving from out of town. You leave the next day! I come into those situations something of an unknown quantity. And I leave town before I can get into too much trouble. But you - or at least many of you - know me. This is home. I won’t be hard to find tomorrow. It could be really terrifying to be standing here at this moment if I hadn’t come to trust you, to love you as my sisters and brothers in Christ and to know that I am safe to offer my testimony in this sanctuary. If not, I will soon be enrolling in the church’s witness protection program (By the way, does anyone know if I can access witness protection through the Employee Assistance Program?).



Because we cannot be clever and honest
and are inventors of things more intricate
than the snowflake - Lord have mercy.

Because we are full of pride
in our humility and because we believe
in our disbelief - Lord have mercy.

Because we will protect ourselves
from ourselves to the point
of destroying ourselves - Lord have mercy.

And because on the slope to perfection,
when we should be half-way up,
we are half-way down - Lord have mercy.

- R.S. Thomas (from "Mass for Hard Times")


notes on ephesians chapter six

It seems that we just began our lenten pilgrimage in the first chapter of Ephesians and here we are, already at Ephesians 6. This week we reach the conclusion of the letter. As we do so take time to go back and read the entire letter once again. I wonder if there is a particular verse or a set of verses that you want to be sure to remember and recall in future?  Listen for the Word that God is writing on your heart as you read. I will be interested to learn what it is that you discover, what it is from the Letter to the Ephesians that resonates with your heart and soul and mind.

Since last week's session included the Household Code that runs from chapter five into chapter six, we will focus our attention on Ephesians 6:10-24. That seems appropriate since verse ten begins with the word "Finally".


first communion

The motto of the United Church of Canada - “ut omnes unum sint” - is Jesus’ prayer to God that “all may be one” (John 17:21). Given so many divisions within the local and universal church we can be tempted to imagine that Jesus’ prayer remains unanswered. Yet when the church gathers to celebrate the sacrament of communion it remembers that the unity of the church is not a goal to be achieved but is, instead, a gift already given. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”, Fortress Press, p. 38)



John 12:20-33

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. These are the famous words beginning today’s scene in John’s Gospel. Well, they are famous if you are a preacher. These are the words engraved in many a pulpit. No, not facing out so the congregation can read them. I mean, carved or painted or scratched so the preacher can’t miss them when she places her notes down and reads: “Reverend, we would see Jesus.” I suppose it is the question most every first time visitor to the Christian church is asking, one way or the other. After all, visitors to Buddhist Temples wish to see the Buddha. Newcomers to Islam wish to see Mohammed. Visitors to Christian churches wish to see Jesus. It is a good reminder for preachers who often assume Jesus and then get busy talking about other things, other issues, other interesting diversions Sunday after Sunday. In a world where Jesus is otherwise regularly overlooked “we wish to see Jesus.”


what is important

“What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story of Christ on earth.”

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Life Together”)


revlimid & dexamethasone - an encouraging report

I am nearing the end of my first month on the second line of treatment for multiple myeloma and amyloidosis - taking Revlimid and Dexamethasone in combination. For the first four months of this treatment regime I am back on the same high doses of Dexamethasone that I was on last year in preparation for the autologous stem cell transplant - twelve large doses over twenty days before an eight day reprieve in each twenty eight day cycle. As reported elsewhere on this blog the side effects can be challenging.

that moment is home

"Truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it is the bedrock of life. A black man at my church who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, "God is your home," and I pass this on mostly because all of the interesting characters I've ever worked with - including myself - have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home.


called to testify

This article is about one congregation’s rediscovery of the practices of testifying to the good news of the gospel. Many congregations in the mainline church find testimony to be, at best, a problematic practice. Testifying is something undertaken in tent meetings and free churches, beyond the mainline. That is, of course, unless one is called to testify in court before a judge and jury. Both settings for testimony - in the church or in the court room - evoke fear. And for good reason. To testify under oath is to keep the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16). It means telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God”. Whatever else it means to be living into post-modernity, it certainly includes a widespread sense that the truth is ‘up for grabs’. To speak the truth of the Christian gospel in such an age is to place oneself at risk - at risk of losing friends, esteem, opportunity and more. And, if one is to be believed, speaking the truth requires living the truth that one speaks. Otherwise the spoken testimony is seen to be perjured. Yet without voices and lives that risk speaking and living as if the gospel is true who will hear and see the good news? Such is the argument of a growing body of mainline theologians and practitioners.


i am no longer my own

When I arrived at University Hill Congregation in 1995 I was introduced to the congregation's practice of renewing baptismal vows and of a corporate covenant renewal on one Sunday in the year. This is a tradition that we have inherited from our Methodist forbears. Covenant Renewal in Methodism has often been a way of marking New Year's Eve. At University Hill Congregation this annual rite of renewal took place on the Sunday in Epiphany when we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Though I had been active in the United Church for four decades when I arrived at UHill, it was all new to me. At first it felt odd. I had not integrated this ceremony into my own life or into my ministry. Now, all these years later, I look forward to the Sunday in the year when we renew our promises with God and with one another. This is what we will do this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent.

notes on ephesians chapter five

Last week's hosting of Ephesians chapter four was a rich conversation. In each of the three groups that gathered we found much to appreciate and to respond to in these verses. We found ourselves having to constantly remember that the second half of Ephesians (chapters four through six) must always be read in the light of the first half of the letter. In the first three chapters the emphasis is on God and on God's saving grace which is the source and sustenance of our life together. There is nothing we can do to earn or to create this grace. It is all gift. In chapter four we begin to read "therefore ethics" (Eph 4.1) in which the way that we live is a result of God's grace rather than as a means to God's love. There is plenty of wisdom and advice in chapter four, for example: "Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger ... Let no evil talk come out of your mouths" (Eph. 4:26, 29). Sometimes our anger does become dangerous to others, becomes captive to sin. Sometimes the sun does go down on our anger. Sometimes our speech does damage, breaks down rather than builds up. This does not negate God's grace. Nor does getting anger "right" make God more gracious toward us. Instead, once caught up in God's grace our whole lives are lived seeking to embody that grace. Such embodiment will always be imperfect. That is why grace is so crucial. Now we are on to chapter five ...


the eleventh commandment

Hidden away in the journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week to the great celebration of Pentecost is the crucial evening of Maundy Thursday. The day is so named because of the new commandment proclaimed by Jesus on this concluding night of his ministry: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In Latin the new commandment is “Maundatum Novum”. Hence Maundy Thursday is literally ‘Commandment Thursday’.

In this new commandment the life and teachings of Jesus are inextricably linked with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not uncommon to find congregations and preachers who place a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teachings of sacrificial love than on the cosmic impact of the crucified and risen Lord. Similarly, there are those for whom the earthly ministry of Jesus is little more than prelude to the central events of the Triduum (the “three holy days” of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday). But on Maundy Thursday Jesus’ radical teachings about love are given embodiment in his life-giving sacrificial death: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). This is the church’s “eleventh commandment”. When asked, however, many who make up the church are hard pressed to recall this new law from memory.


by grace

Ephesians 2:1-10

Grace. What do we mean when we say the word “grace”? We are graced by the presence of another. We fall from grace. We play grace notes on the piano. We say grace before the meal. When we put our foot in our mouth we are grateful for a gracious host. We say that a dancer is graceful. We name a daughter ‘Grace’. We sing that grace is amazing. Grace is hard to name. It almost defies language. Then Paul says “by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).

Wow. Saved. And not just from an embarrassment at dinner. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world ... following the desires of flesh and senses” (Eph. 2:1-3). Saved from a living death. By grace. We have been reading Ephesians together now for four weeks. We have been transported to the world of the early church. It is a world in which entering the little congregation changes everything in one’s life. Remember, when Paul, says “you” he is speaking - yes, you already know where I am going - he is speaking to “all y’all”. It is a plural you. “Y’all were dead ... and y’all are saved by grace ... by the grace of God”.


the work of the people

Recently I have discovered some wonderful online video resources. I first heard of them through Ryan who works with our Campus Ministry group and who sent me some links to the videos. Then, through what seemed a chance encounter (but now seems eerily and wonderfully providential), I met Steve Frost who is one of the two partners in the venture and who lives near the University (the other partner lives in Texas). Steve and I share connections with Walter Brueggemann as well as having similar theological convictions. We have only just met and begun a new friendship. It feels like one of God's gifts to me at this time. And a part of that gift is one of Steve's passions, namely The Work of the People. This is a wonderful online collection of video resources in which many of our most helpful theological voices speak to the church. You can find videos of Walter Brueggemann, Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and, well, follow the link and you will see the wide variety of faithful witnesses whose testimony is shared. There is plenty of free streaming and the subscription fee to download everything for a congregation is only $175 a year (yes, we took out a subscription for our congregation). Besides, if you aren't sure about buying there is a free online magazine - Alter Video Magazine - that you can subscribe to and visit anytime to see all sorts of good clips. At a time when many churches are bringing video resources into worship I find that much of the content that comes with the big screen is pablum. The Work of the People is a wonderful corrective to such pablum. This is spiritual milk and manna in the wilderness for the church. But don't take my word for it, take a look at the kind of thing that is available to you and to the church here -

Miroslav Volf on the Cross and Resurrection 

Stanley Hauerwas on Living with Death


to live on this earth

To live on this earth
you must be able
to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
To hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
And when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


love heals

This began as some thoughts about the rite of healing that we will participate in during worship on Sunday at University Hill Congregation. It will get there but it will start somewhere else. Things changed on Wednesday morning at our Bible at Breakfast group. Somehow in the conversation the topic of healing came up and Betty remembered the lyrics of a song that have long spoken to her about the healing that was possible for her disabled daughter. They are from a song taught by Tom Hunter called Love Heals: "Sometimes healing’s more than getting better; Sometimes it’s love revealed." Betty's memory brought a flood of memories back to me. Like Betty, I met Tom through a decade of summer weeks spent at Naramata Centre in the 1990's. He was regularly the music resource person for a week of programming while I was on hand to teach a Bible study course. Both of our families were with us and enjoyed each other's company. As summer staff we regularly ended up living next door to each other in East Court. We quickly became such good friends. And, with Tom's family living in Bellingham just across the border from our home, we met from time to time over the years for dinners and family get-togethers. Tom was a minister in the United Church of Christ whose ministry was one of song writing and of helping teachers to help their classrooms and students find their singing, composing voice. He had the most remarkable capacity to preach a sermon in between the verses of a song. He would stop after a couple of verses, speak for a couple of minutes about how the song expressed the gospel of God's love, and then continue singing. He understood that if he could hook gospel stories onto a song that it would be remembered every time the song was sung. On May 20, 2008 Tom was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease and a month later, on June 20, he died. We did not have a chance to say good-bye. I still miss Tom's bear hugs, his rich voice, his great laugh, his keen mind, his gospel witness and his companionship through thick and thin. When I imagine music in the kingdom of heaven I think of Tom teaching the saints to sing. It is "Love Heals" that I'll be singing in my soul when I participate in the rite of healing on Sunday.


the emperor of all maladies

A year ago, when I was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma and amyloidosis, I found myself with time between various appointments for all manner of tests that I was undergoing. During this spare time I would often wander into the Book Warehouse on Broadway, near the Vancouver General Hospital. There, on the best seller shelf, was a large paperback book titled "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book had an impressive embossed seal reading "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize". I flipped through its nearly five hundred pages and thought that I should probably read it. But I was not ready. I could not bring myself to learn about the story of cancer while I was still becoming accustomed to being a person with cancer. Then, a month ago, I was waiting to meet a colleague for coffee on Tenth Avenue near the University when I wandered into another outlet of the Book Warehouse. Sure enough, there it was, still sitting on the best seller shelf. This time, ten months and a stem cell transplant later, I bought the book. In the intervening period my identity has shifted. Cancer has become less a stranger, more familiar, less an outsider and more a part of me. I was intrigued to learn more about this part of me. I was not to be disappointed.


notes on ephesians chapter four

For the first three chapters of Ephesians I had some preacher's notes on file, ones that I had written previously. For the last three chapters of Ephesians I have no such notes on file. So these will be rougher, simpler, notes offered on the run - holy scribbles - as a way of inviting a rich hosting of these verses when we gather on Wednesday at the White Spot over breakfast, Thursday at Janet's over dinner and Sunday in my office over coffee and, yes, dough-nuts.

ephesians week three

Well, all three of our groups have caught up to each other and we are now half way through the six chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians. In reading the third chapter we realized again that our congregation feels a special affinity for the third chapter of Ephesians. It has been our blessing to be able to worship in the Chapel of the Epiphany at the Vancouver School of Theology for nearly three decades now. While we do not own any property we have been able to rent the Chapel of the Epiphany for Sunday morning use over that time. As a result we make a special point of celebrating Epiphany on the Sunday closest to January 6 each year. On that occasion we use the texts that are set aside by the ecumenical church for Epiphany. They are always the same four readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12 and, yes, Ephesians 3:1-12. Each year when we read these texts we remind ourselves that, if asked, we should be able to answer the question: "Just what epiphany is this chapel named for? What great insight, what great 'aha', is to be remembered whenever we enter this chapel?"


the crux

The turning point of the Christian year and the Christian life is the cross. This is the crux of the matter. The dating of the year may turn on the birth of Jesus (Anno Domino - Year of the Lord) but the life of discipleship hinges on the events of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Curiously, English use of the Latin word “crux” (literally “cross”) stems from early scientific experiments. Noting that a sign at a fork in the road was called a crux (since it took the shape of a cross), Sir Francis Bacon adopted this term to describe the crucial experiment that would either prove or disprove a theory. The drama of the gospel life is rehearsed whenever the church arrives at the moment of decision that is marked by the crux of Christ.


in the temple

Jesus Cleansing the Temple (James Weston)

John 2:13-22

Today Jesus is in the temple. For those who pay attention to such things this seems out of order. Isn’t this an event for Holy Week? Isn’t the turning of the tables in the temple the last straw, the incendiary incident that leads to Jesus’ arrest? If so, what is it doing here, on the third Sunday of Lent? Good question. For, sure enough, in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s telling of the gospel Jesus turns the tables in the temple in that final, holy week. But here, in John’s gospel, things are often different. John’s gospel is kaleidoscopic, impressionistic, operatic. In John’s gospel Jesus turns the tables in the temple in chapter two. Things have just begun. Disciples have just been called. There has been a miracle wedding in Cana, with water turned to wine. And then, suddenly, we are in Jerusalem, at the temple, with Jesus. In John the cleansing of the temple comes at the beginning of the story, not at the end.


i was dismayed

A presentation made March 8, 2012 as part of the series "Through the Valley of the Shadow: Reflections on Pain, Suffering and Life with God" sponsored by the United Church Campus Ministry at UBC

There are psalms of orientation, like the first psalm - “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked ... but their delight is in the law of the LORD. They are like trees planted by streams of water.” There are psalms of dis-orientation, like the sixth psalm: “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul is also struck with terror, while you , O LORD - how long?” And there are psalms of re-orientation, such as the thirtieth psalm: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” 


ephesians week two

Two of our groups are on to chapter three, one will read chapters two and three this coming Sunday. This is a summary of the conversations that I overheard as we hosted Ephesians chapter two. The main thing we wrestled with was the word "grace". It is a key word in this chapter. Yet we realized that it is such a well worn word in the church that it has sometimes lost its power for us. We talked about how the word is used in common parlance these days: "She is a gracious host" or "He is such a graceful dancer". We thought again about what it means to say "grace" before the meal. We sang "Amazing Grace" and wondered about what makes it so amazing. We noticed that the Greek word that is translated as grace is "charis" from which we get "charisma" - someone full of energy and spirit. It is also the source of the Greek word "eucharist", meaning thanksgiving, the sacrament of the heavenly banquet where all are fed and welcomed as a beloved member of the household of God, the great homecoming for all orphans and lost souls. We realized that grace is meant to speak of God's great power to save and heal and redeem and that this power is given freely, without reserve to insiders and outsiders alike in Jesus Christ. We realized that it is sometimes very good for us to revisit such a central and well-worn a word as "grace".


six months past or one day in

What day is it? The calendar says it is Tuesday, March 6. In one week it will be six months since the autologous stem cell transplant. That seems a long time ago now. Yesterday marked the first day of a second round of treatment which is to continue for the foreseeable future. In fact, when this round of chemotherapy ends that day will mark the beginning of a different round of treatment which will be followed by another round and so on. So yesterday marked day one of a treatment calendar that I expect will continue for the rest of my life. Yesterday also marked the conclusion of a wonderful trip to Long Beach and was the day when the sun broke out on the surf, the sand and the surrounding forest. It was a beautiful day to begin the next part of this journey.

preacher's notes on ephesians 3:14-21

The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 3:14-21. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?

Imagine a sermon in the form of a prayer. Here, in the midst of this letter to the infant church in Ephesus, Paul prays. He prays for the congregation. He knows that he cannot give the congregation what it needs in order to be sustained in the face of the struggles that lie ahead. He knows, too, that being the church is not a self-help project. The church must learn to rely upon God, not itself. Perhaps the sermon will take its shape from the shape of this text, describing the prayer that the preacher has for the congregation.


through the valley of the shadow

This coming Thursday, March 8 I am to be the first of three speakers in a Lenten series that is being sponsored by the United Church Campus Ministry at UBC. My colleague Caroline Penhale and the campus ministry program assistant Ryan Slifka have invited three of us to address a psalm through the lens of the theme "Through the Valley of the Shadow: Reflections on Pain, Suffering and Life with God". The gatherings begin at 12:30 in room 200 of the Iona building at the Vancouver School of Theology. I will offer a witness grounded in Psalm 30. My testimony is titled: "I Was Dismayed: Living with an Incurable Illness". In the weeks following two of my colleagues in the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery - Kathryn Ransdell and Bruce Sanguin - will offer reflections, one on living with mental illness and distress that will be rooted in Psalm 25 and the other on the ecological crisis as an identity crisis that will be rooted in Psalm 19. If you live within reach of VST you are most welcome to attend any or all of these sessions. If not, you will find the notes of my presentation posted here on Thursday afternoon.


the joyous cry of Christ

"Nevertheless, the sermon itself is not a personal performance by the pastor for the purpose of displaying his ability to produce something from hard texts. The sermon is first and foremost the 'joyous cry of Christ' (Luther)."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching", p. 159)


it is not a good sign

"It is not a good sign when someone says that the sermon was beautiful or moving. It is a good sign when the congregation begin to open up their Bibles and to follow the text."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching", p. 157)


wouldn't you like it?

"We can neither understand nor preach the gospel tangibly enough. A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a beautiful red apple or holding out a glass of water to a thirsty man and asking: Wouldn't you like it?"

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching", p. 16)


a strange country

"I have noticed that the most effective sermons were those in which I spoke enticingly of the gospel, like someone telling children a story of a strange country. The difficulty in principle remains: one should give milk, but one doesn't know what that means and wonders whether one isn't giving sugared water by mistake."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching", p. 12)