christmas eve preaching

After thirty-five years of preaching on Christmas Eve I am not spending the days before Christmas sweating over a sermon. It was always a struggle, one that I enjoyed even as I fell short of the challenge. The challenge included a packed house, many young and excited children, much music and little time for a sermon. In fact, some wondered if a sermon was really needed or desired. Yet on the occasion when the church gathers to wonder that the Word became flesh it seemed strange not to name the Incarnation of the Word with some honest words. So I imagined the sermon as a short form offering in the midst of the children dressed as angels and shepherds around Mary, Joseph and the infant (always the youngest baby in the congregation that year). The results were mixed, given the noise levels of the children and my capacity to find words fit to host the Word.

Looking back I see that the Christmas Eve sermons preached after my diagnosis with myeloma seemed more crucial to me. Perhaps because I knew that my time as a preacher was now limited. I dared not leave the message unspoken even if the kids were noisy and the evening was filled with carols. The Word needed to be proclaimed.  Here are five of those Christmas Eve sermons ...


pomalidomide (cycles nine, ten & eleven)

This week I began the twelfth monthly cycle on pomalidomide, dexamethasone and cyclophosphamide. Yesterday was in to see my hematologist for a regular visit. The good news is that there is nothing new to report since my last visit in August. All is continuing to go well. My blood reports show that the free light chain count has remained below 100 (going as low as 35, rising to 95, currently at 58). This means that the amyloidosis and myeloma is being well controlled by the trio of drugs. It also means that I continue to experience the side effects of the dexamethasone. As you know, it is not my favourite thing! But it is a necessary part of the treatment and the treatment is working.

Perhaps you have not heard the news that four new myeloma drugs have been approved for use in the United States this year. It is an unprecedented number of new drugs, with more on the way. It will likely be some time (perhaps a couple of years) before the drugs are approved for use in Canada. Once approved it is not certain that they will all be funded. While these new drugs hold great promise they are also very expensive. I hope that I will be able to have access to one or more of them in the future if, and when, I may need them. In the meantime, I feel very fortunate to be living with these diseases in the golden age of myeloma drug development.


advent trouble, newness, life

The new Christian Year begins this coming Sunday, November 29. With this in mind it was a delight to recently be interviewed by the Ancient Future Faith Network about the ancient and future practice of keeping time through the Christian seasons. You can find the interview here.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season of Advent here are the opening paragraphs of three previous posts that explore Advent trouble, newness and life as we have lived it over the years at University Hill Congregation. Click on the link at the end of each paragraph to visit the original post ...


salt of the earth: a christian seasons calendar 2015/2016

Good news - the 2015/2016 edition of Salt of the Earth: A Christian Seasons Calendar is now available. This unique venture had its beginnings in 1999 as we at University Hill Congregation imagined a calendar that begins with Advent and turns with the Christian seasons. The calendar continues to grow year after year by word of mouth.

You can find the calendar at the Christian Seasons Calendar website where you can view sample pages, read reviews 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 people purchase in bulk and then give the calendars as gifts or make them available in congregations at a reduced rate.

We are grateful for your assistance in spreading the word about Salt of the Earth: A Christian Seasons Calendar 2015/2016 to friends and colleagues, near and far.


pomalidomide (cycles seven & eight)

I was in to see my hematologist today for a regular visit. The good news is that the addition of cyclophosphamide to my treatment (in addition to dexamethasone and pomalidomide) has resulted in a significant reduction in my free light chains over the past two months. In June the free light chains were at 225, in July at 111 and this month at 80. We have been aiming at getting the number below 100 so this is very good news. It means continuing with the three drugs for the foreseeable future. Since the main side effects of this treatment come from the weekly dose of dexamethasone my doctor suggested that I try taking a half dose. I am hoping that this, along with more exercise and watching my diet, can help me cope with weight gain related to the dex. It is not guaranteed that I will experience a lessening of the side effects but it is worth a try. In any case, it is good to know that living with side effects of the medications is worth it ... that the drugs are having the intended effect on the myeloma and amyloidosis.


looking back, looking ahead

Thirty-five years after my ordination as a Minister of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral care in the United Church of Canada I have come to the end of active ministry ... in other words, I have retired. It is hard to imagine Saturday nights without anxiety about the sermon and Sunday mornings without the responsibility and privilege and joy of presiding. When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and amyloidosis four years ago I feared that illness might prevent me from departing from ministry on my own terms. Now, twenty years after arriving at University Hill Congregation, it is the right time to stop and to begin a new life on the other side of congregational ministry.


to the other side

June 21, 2015 was my final Sunday at University Hill Congregation after twenty years as its Congregational Minister. Thirty-five years after my ordination I retired from full-time congregational ministry. Here are the notes for the sermon I preached on the occasion.

Mark 4:35-41

Today we find ourselves at the end of twenty years together. For me it is the final Sunday in the pulpit and at the table thirty-five years after ordination. How appropriate that the lectionary brings us to this miraculous story on the sea … a story that has functioned as a root gospel narrative for the church. When memory fades, when communal amnesia takes hold and we forget the gospel we can return here, to the story of the stilling of the storm.

pomalidomide (cycle six)

I am concluding of my sixth month on pomalidomide along with dexamethasone and more recently also with cyclophosphamide. My latest blood results reveal that the treatment is holding my free light chain count steady (currently at 225). The flu-like symptoms (soreness & fatigue) I had been experiencing have recently faded and are less bothersome. I am hoping it stays this way! All things considered, the news is good as I head into retirement.


pomalidomide (cycle five)

This week I am completing the fifth twenty-eight day cycle on pomalidomide and dexamethasone. In the middle of the month I had my regular blood work which showed that the free light chains had dropped for the first time in a few cycles. They are now at 214. While this is good news the number is still higher than my hematologist would like in order to lower the risk of organ damage due to amyloidosis. He advises that we add cyclophosphamide to the treatment. This is in pill form, taken once weekly. I will receive a low dose and should not experience any additional side effects. I received cyclophosphamide for six months while being treated with bortezomib (Velcade) in the fall of 2013. The hope is that this will increase the effectiveness of the pomalidomide (Pomalyst) and dexamethasone. By the way, pomalidomide is now being funded by the BC government's cancer agency. Good news! In my case, I will continue to receive it through the compassionate access program of its manufacturer, Celgene.


following with humility

Recently I was asked to participate in a series of online videos being produced by the British Columbia Conference of the United Church of Canada. They are short (75 second) conversation starters about leadership in the church, part of a larger initiative in the Conference called "Leadershift." To date five videos have been produced, including this one in which I speak about the place of following in the life of a leader - Following with Humility.


philip & the ethiopian eunuch

Here is a sermon I preached fifteen years ago (May 21, 2000) at University Hill Congregation on the texts in the Ecumenical Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday, May 3 - Acts 8:26-40 & John 15:1-8.

The Bible is a familiar book in this place. We’ve been reading it together for a lifetime and longer. Yet, as the folks in our ‘Disciple Bible Study’ have been discovering this past year, the Bible is full of forgotten surprise. Take this morning, for example. We find ourselves deep intothis season’s Eastertide readings from the Acts of the Apostles where we come upon a peculiar little story ... the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’. This is a little known and often ignored passage. Not one that was talked of often in the Sunday School classes of my youth. I  suppose that the teachers must have feared the inevitable question: “What’s a eunuch?”.

Nonetheless, I have come to believe this week that there may be no more important story for our congregation to consider at this time in our life. So this morning there are no hidden agendas ... all of the preacher’s cards are on the table right from the beginning. Simply put, my intention is to convince you that Acts chapter four, verses twenty-six through forty is not some odd, inconsequential ancient story but is, in truth, God’s living, breathing Word here and now.


pomalidomide (cycle four)

Yesterday I had my regular appointment with my hematologist. I am now nearing the end of my fourth twenty-eight day cycle on pomalidomide (two cycles at a low dose of 2mgs/day, now on to my second cycle on the regular dose of 4mgs/day). I have not had any of the signs of a bad reaction to the drug (which is related to lenalidomide, the drug that I could not tolerate in the spring of 2012). So far the blood tests have shown that the free light chains are staying fairly stable. While they have not dropped significantly (i.e.: below our goal of less than 100) they have also not gone up significantly (they are between 140 and 240 at this point). My doctor says that while he would ideally like them to be lower this is still a good result (given they were at 1600 when I was diagnosed and have been back up as high as 700 during the past few years). We will continue to monitor the free light chains and continue with pomalidomide so long as it can hold the free light chains relatively stable. The main concern is keeping the amyloids as low as possible to prevent amyloid disease from affecting my organs. Amyloidosis is a hidden disease that does not show itself until there is obvious organ damage. I am fortunate that we discovered this before any damage has been done as it has has given us the opportunity to undertake preventative treatment. It turns out that because amyoidosis affects so few people it is an orphaned disease in the research community where there is little incentive for researchers to invest time and resources into understanding and treating it.

I am to see my doctor again in three months. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the free light chains with monthly blood tests. I will stay on pomalidomide (daily for 21 out of 28 days) and dexamethasone (steroids every Monday). The main side effects continue to be the weekly roller coaster ride on dexamethasone, along with weight gain. While I am not thrilled to be living with steroids I am grateful that, along with pomalidomide, the steroids are controlling the production of amyloids in my blood and that this is lowering the risk of suffering organ damage that would bring with it much worse symptoms.


ecce homo

(A Good Friday sermon preached at St. Anselm's Anglican Church on April 3, 2015)

At the heart of Christianity is a tragic, traumatic story that turns out to be the source of healing and redemption. The story of the terrible suffering - the Passion - of Jesus Christ dominates the gospels. The eight days of Holy Week take up an inordinate number of verses, as if the rest of the narrative is an elongated introduction or prologue to the originating event, the primal memory, of the church. Today we find ourselves at the shocking centre of Christian faith – Christ crucified. The Messiah lynched. God Incarnate rejected, humiliated, violated, abandoned. The Apostle Paul says that the story we tell today scandalizes the religious community and sounds like utter foolishness to everyone else. It doesn’t matter if one is Jew or Gentile, churched or un-churched the first thing to say is that when it comes to God a cross is the last thing we expect. We expect religion to present a God who is appropriately civilized. We want a religion to teach our children proper values. Instead we weave palm fronds into the shape of an instrument of torture (think water boarding) and teach our littlest ones to wave them in the air. We imagine that the purpose of spirituality is to teach us practices that console and comfort. Yet when the “spiritual but not religious” arrive they find the church deeply rooted not in a sensible spiritual practice but in a history that must be described as terrible. Redemptive, yes. Salvific, absolutely. But certainly also terrible.


notes on first peter four

When we gather on Thursday evening we will read the fourth chapter of the First Letter of Peter. Come with your questions and insights. Here are some questions to consider as you read …


fifteen hundred sundays

I have been preaching most every Sunday for thirty-five years. It means something like fifteen hundred Sundays by now ... and fifteen hundred sermons. Counting the sermons in Holy Week that are coming up I think there are fifteen sermons to be preached before I step out of the weekly rhythm that I have been in for three and a half decades. I find myself thinking back to my first weeks and months as a preacher when this all seemed so strange and new and difficult. Now it feels so familiar and habitual and ... difficult!


notes on first peter three

When we gather on Thursday evening we will read the third chapter of the First Letter of Peter. Come with your questions and insights. Here are some questions to consider as you read …

pomalidomide (cycle two)

First off - for those who can catch it later today the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation is live streaming the concert "Cancer Blows" from Dallas, Texas. Here is the link. Ryan Anthony, Dallas Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet and former member of the Canadian Brass, was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma last year. This concert brings together many trumpet players in raising awareness about the disease as well as fund-raising for research into treatments for multiple myeloma.

On more mundane matters, I am coming to the conclusion of my second twenty-eight day cycle on pomalidomide and dexamathasone. Cycle three begins this coming Monday ...


on being a catholic church

On a recent Sunday in worship I could not help but notice how very catholic our singing has become. A gathering song by Fanny Crosby, blind author of over eight thousand gospel hymns and songs was followed by an opening hymn of praise from Ambrose of Milan, the fourth century doctor of the church who introduced hymnody to the western church. The Singers (our choir) offered the contemporary hymn “In the Quiet Curve of Evening” as a haunting and inviting choral introit. There was a sung Kyrie from the intentional Christian community at Iona and the “Asithi Amen” from Africa. The chorus of the traditional French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” provided the Gloria. A hymn by Joachim Neander rooted us in the Protestant Reformation while a setting of Psalm 91 by Michael Joncas connected us with twentieth century liturgical renewal in the Roman Catholic church sparked by Vatican II. Our children led us in singing the Lord’s Prayer with embodied actions. The text for the day from Isaiah 40:31 brought to mind a popular chorus – “Those who wait upon the Lord” – and when it was sung we told the story of its author, Stuart Hamblen, the once famous singing cowboy, among the first of Billy Graham’s converts, whose transformed life surprised and confounded many in his time.


filled with the holy spirit

At Pentecost the church is scripted into its startling identity. Here the miracle of our existence as a people is retold with wonder. As Peter says: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (I Peter 2:10). To our continuing surprise the life of the church is not a product of human ingenuity. It is, instead, the gift of God whose divine energy inspires a new community into being. The power of God to reconcile and make new, to bring life out of death and to form a people who live to God’s glory is what we name the Holy Spirit. This is not just any spirit. When we describe the Spirit as “holy” we are saying that it is the odd, unique, powerful Spirit of the God who is met in Jesus.

It is the Holy Spirit that sweeps over the primordial waters of chaos, giving life to a world that is very good (Genesis 1). It is the Holy Spirit of the Lord that brings “good news to the poor and release to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). At Pentecost, it is the Holy Spirit that fills the entire congregation with the capacity to proclaim God’s “deeds of power” in every human language.

The Holy Spirit is central to the life of the church. Yet, at times, we shy away from naming the truth that we owe our existence as a people to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is as if we are content to let others in the Christian family make this their focus, leaving us to other pursuits. Perhaps we are not confident that we, too, are filled with the Holy Spirit.


in the woods

It is Lent and for Christians it is a reminder that Jesus spends forty days of temptation in the wilderness before he begins to witness to the nearness of God's realm, God's kingdom come on earth as in heaven. For a biblical people the wilderness is rich with memory of fleeing from oppression and longing for the land of milk and honey. Here in British Columbia, the wilderness means the forest. Those of us who live in and around Vancouver are all too familiar with the regular news reports of travellers who go for an afternoon hike on one of the local mountains and do not return. We are constantly reminded that just out our back door is a wild and dangerous back country full of steep terrain in which cell phones have no reception. It is easy to imagine that the wilderness is held at bay by contemporary comforts and protections. But, then, it turns out that the woods are very close at hand ...

notes on first peter two

When we gather on Thursday evening we will read the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter. Come with your questions and insights. Here are some questions to consider as you read …


call for submissions - christian seasons calendar 2015-2016

Artists are invited to participate in the upcoming issue of "Salt of the Earth ‑ The Christian Seasons Calendar for 2015/2016." This unique calendar follows the distinctive seasons of the Christian year and is distributed worldwide. View a sample of the current Christian Seasons Calendar online at thechristiancalendar.com.

Interested artists are encouraged to offer artwork that interprets scripture readings and themes within the Christian Year. A list of the scripture readings used in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary can be found at lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu. There is one page available for an image for each of the following seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week and Easter. There are five pages available for art in the Season after Pentecost. On these pages we seek images that portray Pentecost, All Saints Day and the Reign of Christ as well as images particular to biblical texts included in the lectionary readings during this season of growth in discipleship.


notes on first peter one

During Lent we are hosting a weekly evening gathering with a meal, prayers, hymns and discussion of the First Letter of Peter. As we do not own a church building we are meeting in the home of one of the members of University Hill Congregation. This is one way in which our experience as a congregation parallels that of the early church addressed by this letter. In preparing for our time together I send a few questions to the group, hoping to stimulate their own questions as they read. Here are those questions for week one, chapter one ...


2015 lenten daily devotional online

The season of Lent is just around the corner. Ash Wednesday, that marks the beginning of Lent, is on February 18 this year (Lent's dates change from year to year since Easter is a lunar festival and, therefore, varies each year). Once again this year University Hill Congregation has created an online daily devotional and invites us to join in the daily discipline of hosting scripture in our lives and life together.

Here is the introduction to this year's Lenten Devotional ...

"Welcome to University Hill Congregation’s fourteenth annual Lenten Devotional. Here you will find forty-seven daily scripture readings, each accompanied by a response offered by a member of our community. We invite one another to welcome scripture as a holy guest, offering each text hospitality in our midst, listening with curiosity for a living Word from God to our life here and now.

We find that this annual practice is one of the ways in which we are recovering our memory as a Christian community. The youngest contributors in this year’s devotional are in their first decade of life, the eldest contributor is in her tenth decade. Some live close to our worshipping home on campus at the University of British Columbia, others have moved as far as Sweden and Taiwan. We include university students and professors, retirees and workers of all sorts, some new to Christianity and some steeped in the faith. We share in common the hope that, through scripture, God is re-scripting our lives and life together so that the strange, new world of the Bible becomes the real world in which we live.

The forty-seven texts included in this year’s devotional are derived from two sources. First, we have included all of the lectionary texts from the six Sundays of Lent and from Easter Sunday along with lectionary texts from Ash Wednesday and nearly all of the lectionary texts from Holy Week. Second, as the Lenten Bible study at University Hill this year is an invitation to host the First Letter of Peter, we have included a number of passages from this formative letter.

We invite you to join us in the daily practice of hosting scripture and, in doing so, in listening for God’s living Word today. We encourage you to consider developing this practice in your own congregation. We have found this to be a rich experience in which we rediscover scripture and one another. We wish the same for you."


pomalidomide (cycle one)

My new treatment regime is underway. Yesterday I began the second twenty-eight day cycle on pomalidomide (Pomalyst) and dexamethasone. I had been scheduled to begin in December but asked my doctor for a reprieve until after Christmas. He agreed and this allowed me the freedom to carry out my Christmas duties as minister and grandfather without worrying about side effects from new medications. Speaking of side effects, I have only noticed one caused by pomalidomide - a very itchy scalp for a few days during the first week in the cycle. Other than that, the side effects I have been experiencing are the familiar roller coaster ride that results from taking 40 milligrams of dexamethasone on days one, eight, fifteen and twenty-two (I take pomalidomide daily on days one through twenty-one). Those ten steroid pills every Monday morning lead to two days of manic energy followed by two days of bleary fatigue. My best days are on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is good to be feeling better on the weekends and especially good to know that I will be at my best for worship. It will take a while to determine if this dosage of pomalidomide will work to lower my free light chain count. We have begun the treatment with half of the usual dose (2 mg instead of 4 mg) because of the bad reaction I experienced when taking lenalidomide (Revlimid). As the two drugs are related it is possible that I could have a similar reaction once again. However so far, so good. If all continues to go well we will watch the monthly blood tests in order to determine if it is wise to try raising the dosage. In the meantime, my family and my congregation and I will continue to adjust to my weekly ride on steroids. I am grateful for everyone's patience with me through it all. And I am doing my best to be patient with myself as well.


an oath of allegiance

(This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, falls on February 18. At University Hill Congregation we are actively preparing our fourteenth annual online Lenten Devotional with forty-seven daily reflections on scripture to take us through to Easter Sunday on April 5. It will be available online here. Following are some thoughts about the role of the sacraments in Lent.) 

The season of Lent has its roots in the preparation of candidates for baptism. Lent culminates at the Easter Vigil and on Easter morning when these apprentices in the Way of the Cross and Resurrection die to their former life and rise to new life in Christ. Over time Lent has become a season in which the whole congregation, baptised and not yet baptised, renews its communal baptismal identity.

In the early church the very name given to the community identified its members as those who had pledged their lives and their deaths to Jesus. According to the book of Acts followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26). In Greek it means “belonging to Christ” in the same way that a slave belongs to an owner. The name Christian connotes not so much choosing to be a follower of Jesus as it does being called - drafted - into the service of the Anointed One - the King in the coming reign of God.


naramata centre - a chapter in our history comes to a close

It is a time of transition in the church. Yesterday we received the sad though not unexpected news that the board of Naramata Centre of The United Church of Canada has announced that the centre will cease operations and close immediately. Naramata Centre (originally the Christian Leadership Training School) was founded in 1947 by my uncle Bob McLaren along with my aunt Alleen Searcy and a group of lay and clergy dreamers who envisioned a place of Christian formation. That vision had a big impact on my father George, Alleen's younger brother, who experienced a call to ministry through his experiences in the early years at Naramata. It is not too difficult to trace the direct line between Naramata Centre and my call to ministry. I find myself giving thanks for that history even as this chapter comes to a close.


do not hold back

A sermon preached on Sunday, January 18, 2015 at a Memorial Service for Verna Marie Huffman Splane (November 23, 1914 - January 10, 2015). 

Psalm 23, Psalm 121, John 14:1-6,18-19,25-27; Isaiah 54:2

What more can be said than has already been said. We have gathered here to thank God for the one hundred years of Verna Huffman Splane’s life. We remember her fondly, in awe of her accomplishments, grateful for her kindness and grace. What more is there to say? Well, Verna has left us with more to say. She has given us verses from scripture - literally, a script for us to enact, to perform, to live: Psalm 23, Psalm 121 and John 14. These, said Verna, are to be the texts for this day, the script for this company of actors. Which makes me, the preacher, akin to the director of the theatre troop gathered backstage for a read-through noting motivation and character and plot. Before you go onstage, before you head out to play your part, take note.


university hill congregation ministry vacancy

With my impending retirement applications for the position of Congregational Minister at University Hill Congregation are now being received. We are spreading the word to those whose gifts and experience may lead them to consider a call to University Hill Congregation. Would you pass this information along to those you know who may be interested in exploring this possibility? Here is the invitation:

University Hill Congregation of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver, BC seeks a Christ-centred, compassionate Congregational Minister as together we strive to rediscover the way of Christ for the sake of the world. Interested candidates are invited to view our congregational profile.