Tag Archives: Ancaster Village

It’s more than a sign: ecumenical reflections for today

Church Sign

We put up this sign a while ago.  It tells all those who drive by that Ancaster Village Church gathers at 5pm on Sunday evenings in St John’s Parish Hall.  But for me it represents so much more.  I see it as a reflection of something far greater which is on the move these days.  In simple terms our church rents this space from St John’s Anglican Church.  But for both of our churches this is more than just an exchange of money for the use of space.  We see this as hope and mission.

This afternoon I spent an hour in prayer with the priests of St John’s Anglican.  Praying for this great city with them is positively inspiring. The comedy of me, a sacramentally deprived rebellious Protestant, being welcomed into relationship with them is why, in the words of the Roman Catholic JMR Tillard, I believe, despite everything.

There is something in the ecumenical air these days.  I’m hearing more and more stories which confirm this.  We — as in the Church — are finding partnership, relationship, common purpose, worship, and mission around the highest common denominator.  This is different than my understanding of some past ecumenical dialogues where the commonality was found in the lowest common denominators.  Where the conversation was once founded on the understanding that we couldn’t agree on the big things, so instead we’d look for unity in the small things, we are now realizing that it’s in the biggest thing (person) where our unity is found.  We’re standing around the Table of Bread and Wine with a look in our eyes that says, “this is all we’ve got.  Him.”  In some cases we’re still not comfortable enough to break the bread with each other, but we’re looking at all of those things that exist around that Table of Bread and Wine with a different, more gracious, understanding of each other.

My hunch is that the fall of Christendom has graciously led us to this place.  For that reason, among many others, I welcome our place as the church in exile — the church on the fringe of culture.  Exile helps us remember who we are.  And as we’re remembering who we are, we’re looking around and realizing that we have so many sisters and brothers who might dress a little differently but are on the same team.

A few weeks ago I was honoured to lead communion/Eucharist for a group of ministers and church leaders who reflected at least a dozen different denominations and traditions.  It was Ephesians 4 in real life.  It was beautiful.  We came to the Table together, prayed for each other, and were sent out in mission together.

In three weeks I will once again administer the elements alongside my Anglican friends in their gathering to which they invite our church.  We find commonality at the Table.  It’s incredible.  All of our respective bells and whistles, although they matter and are (mostly) beautifully unique and distinctive, are simply reflections of the one who brings us together and unites us.

There are few things these days which excite me more.

We’ve got a ways to go.  Lord knows there are those within my own tribe who think we ought to tighten up the ecumenical guidelines lest we get too comfortable with those guys.  But whatever.  Redemption is here.  Redemption is coming.  And I’m convinced that one of the greatest ways this world will experience hope is through the church, in and with all her different flavours, coming together as one.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

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Your church will die.

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Drive down the main street of the city in which I live and you’ll see them: big, old, church buildings.  There are at least a dozen of them that sit either completely empty, devoid of all activity, or inhabited by congregations of less than 50 people looking quite scarce in their cavernous sanctuaries.  A few have “For Sale” signs on their lawns, a few are condemned, a few are being used by smaller churches paying minimal rent (which is great!), and even one is being turned into a high-rise condo.  There were days when these buildings were packed.  Those days are gone.

Someone, somewhere along the line, felt compelled to rally people around a fund-raising project and to build big.  Thankfully in those days, the majority of the buildings were constructed with theology and beauty in mind.  Yes, sometimes at the expense of function, but what we have now are at least buildings that, from the outside, add to the look of a city.  100 years from now I can’t imagine that the same will be said of the mall-style churches that are built these days out in the suburbs or warehouse districts.

But whether it’s a century-old beauty or a brand-new mall-style building, there is an unavoidable and obvious truth: buildings don’t last.  They fall apart eventually.  They don’t get better with age.  They demand upkeep and a whole lot of money to maintain infrastructure.  Millions of dollars are spent on maintenance let alone the amount spent to originally erect the facility.  And where does that money come from?  Usually the people who make up the church congregation.

I’ve worked in a money-sucking church building.  It was one of those projects that was undertaken at the height of “success,” only to go through the inevitable shrinking of its congregation.  It became an 1,100 seat auditorium hosting a congregation of 300.  When the numbers went down, the building became a heavy weight around that congregation, doing more than just demand money; it deeply affected the psyche of the congregation.  The building and its issues became to define the church.

Unfortunately my experience is not uncommon.  In my denomination alone we have several of these stories.  But here’s the kicker: we just keep doing the same thing.

I presume that in many cases the early days of all big-building projects and capital campaigns are exciting.  No doubt some buildings have been constructed for less-than admirable reasons, but generally I’m sure most have been built because people were coming to the church or settling in a neighbourhood in such numbers that a structure to facilitate the group needed to be created.  And in those moments, I wonder, where many people asking this question: “Who is going to pay for this in 20, 30, 60, 100 years from now?”  I bet that question isn’t asked very often because in the midst of the excitement, it likely feels like whatever this is, it will never end.

But it always does.

For 2000 years there have been local church congregations.  And for 2000 years every church that has been birthed has eventually closed its doors.  The Church will last forever.  But Scripture does not give us any indication that the local church will do the same.  Every church that builds will someday be tasked with figuring out how to maintain and sustain their infrastructure while dealing with dwindling congregations.  History suggests that this is an inevitable outcome.

So why do we not pay attention to our past?  Why do we continue to raise millions of dollars on a particular type of infrastructure that has shown itself to be unsustainable?  Do the ends justify the means?  Does facilitating current excitement and growth justify hamstringing future generations with all the problems that come with big infrastructure?  Why build big instead of building small in multiple locations — forming new contextual outposts of the Gospel in new communities and neighbourhoods?  Why build big and new instead of investing in existing structures and helping to solve the problems of brothers and sisters in Christ who are saddled with deteriorating buildings?  I believe that building big and raising the money to do so should be an absolute last resort — the idea at the bottom of the barrel.  There are better options.

I appreciate that infrastructure of some sort is needed to facilitate local churches.  We need space and that’s not a bad thing.  What I’m suggesting is that we don’t do a very good job of stewarding, creating, and using the right kind of space.  We too often fail to ask the right questions.  Instead of giving future generations within our churches the blessing of appropriate infrastructure, we saddle them with the types of infrastructure that make maintenance and the constant need for money the defining aspects of their church.  Instead of an infrastructure that is agile, low-maintenance, and ready for the constant shift in both our churches and culture, we leave them anchored to something that will end up driving their values and daily discussion.  I have yet to meet someone from a large church turned small that is saddled with a big building where the burden of the building has not become the thing around which all other conversations are centered.

I am convinced that the direction and movement of our Canadian culture demands that we evaluate our building habits.

Right next to the hall in which our church gathers and where my office is located is a cemetery.  It’s an old one (by Canadian standards) containing the resting places of a few people from as far back as the war of 1812.  I often walk the path through the cemetery on my way to appointments or when I’m just out for a stroll.  Cemeteries are odd places.  You feel sorrow, pain, death, and suffering.  As a Christian you also feel hope, resurrection, and a sense that this is not the end.  Either way, though, walking through a cemetery is a good way to remember something very important: you will die.  It’s a great way to regain perspective.

I hope that this post is a bit like walking through a cemetery: a pause in which we may find perspective.  Because your church will die, or at the very least it will get smaller someday.  You may disagree with the perspective I’m presenting.  That’s okay.  But the pause may be beneficial none the less.  Perhaps God has something else to say to you while you think on your (church’s) eventual death.

Feel free to comment.

 

Tulips

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Today is February 7.  One year ago on this day my wife received news that a mole which had been removed from her skin and biopsied had returned positive for stage one melanoma.  In the grand scheme of cancer diagnosis, this is not that big a deal.  The cancer was less than 1mm deep into her skin and we were immediately assured that this sort of thing had a 99% positive prognosis.  So you’d think we’d be able to move on, be thankful for the early catch, and forget about it.

Not so.

One year ago today began a journey that is hard to put into words.  Both Shalene and I fell deep into a world of serious anxiety, fear, depression, doubt, pain, and questioning of our faith.  There were several times when I almost left this faith which has defined me for my entire life.

To put our whole journey into words would require a book, not a blog.  But today, on February 7, I want to share with you one of our stories.  To tell this story properly will require me telling you several preface stories.  Eight to be exact.

Preface story one.

My family moved to Ancaster to start a church almost two years ago this week.  Ancaster is a white collar city: educated people, professors, lawyers, CEOs, and that sort of crowd.  This is a city with an intense radar for BS — where people won’t get duped by slick sales jobs.  So if you’d asked me two years ago why I thought God directed my path towards Ancaster, I would have responded with a level of foolish pride in my answer.  I would have suggested to you that the fit made sense; that I fancied myself a well-read, educated, sort of guy.  And that we were going to do church in such a way that it was going to convince people in a way they’d never heard before that this Christianity thing made sense (my fingers tremble even writing such nonsense now).

Fast forward to November 2012.  I remember sitting in one of my favourite Ancaster hangouts with a member of our church’s leadership team.  Something had been building inside of me and I shared it with my friend.

“I’m pretty sure that the only way that this church is going to work is if Jesus shows up and starts doing some crazy things — stuff we just can’t explain.  I think that’s all we’ve got.  And I’ll be really honest with you; that scares the shit out of me.”  My friend looked at me.  He began to tear up.  And he said, “I absolutely agree.”  And in that moment I knew that that’s what had to happen.  But I was a skeptic.  I grew up believing that Jesus was powerful, able to do the miraculous, able to heal — all that kind of stuff.  But in that moment I knew that I only believed those things on paper.  I had serious internal doubts.  What I wanted was something I wasn’t sure that I could believe in.

Preface story two.

I serve on the Ancaster Ministerial.  Around the same time as the previous story took place, the Ministerial had a meeting wherein we were deciding what to do for the 2013 Lenten Lunch series we host and run in the city.  For seven weeks during Lent we host a lunch and provide a short Lent-themed devotional.  About 80 wonderful senior citizens from the community show up each week.

We distributed the dates that we were each going to lead a devotional and decided that the series would focus on the seven miracles of Jesus from the Gospel of John.  I received my date and plugged it into my calendar.  I received my text and put it in a folder, not to be thought of again until a few days before I had to speak.

Preface story three.

Shalene’s favourite flower is the tulip.  And here’s something sad: I didn’t know that until this past year.  Chalk one up for the husband of the year.

Then came February 7, 2013.

As I mentioned, we fell apart on this day.  Days turned into weeks turned into months, in most of which you would have usually found us crumpled in a ball in front of our fireplace, in bed, or barely getting through each day.  We were in counseling.  We had a steady flow of amazing people coming to care for us.  I lost 30 pounds from not eating.  Our kids were suffering.  We had so many questions.  We spent hours in tears, prayer, and journaling (these were often the only times we felt peace).  Some of my worst moments included contemplating driving our vehicle, with my family in it, into oncoming traffic.  Yes, it was that bad.

Preface story four.

On the night of February 7th an amazing couple from our church came over to be with and pray for us.  As they prayed, they felt compelled to tell Shalene that somehow in the midst of the journey ahead, God was going to help her realize just how much he loved her.  This was pretty significant for Shalene.  Shalene feared God.  And not in the healthy way, but in the “He’s out to get me” way.  Her getting cancer seemed only a validation of this deep internal fear.  Accepting Jesus and the Spirit was easy for Shalene.  But Father God was not someone to be trusted.

Preface story five.

During several of our journaling times, both Shalene and I felt like Jesus was telling us that the coming of spring had something to do with our healing.  This puzzled us, but we clung to it.

One morning during a time of journaling, Shalene began to think about our circumstances as a time of trial, testing, and intentional shaping.  She felt compelled to count the days between her diagnosis and the first day of spring.  It just so happened to be 40 days.  She mentioned this to me and I responded with an intrigued but casual shrug of the shoulders.

Preface story six.

Several weeks after her diagnosis, Shalene was reading through the Gospel of John.  She read John 9:1-7.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”  Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

Reading her own sickness into the story, she read the story aloud for me and then asked what I thought.  I said this: “I’ll tell you what I think.  I think it’s stupid.  If God wants to make us sick just so that he can show up and make himself look good, then he can keep his goodness to himself. I don’t ever want to hear that story again.”

And that was that.

Preface story seven.

A couple of weeks later I remembered that I had to speak at the upcoming Lenten lunch service on March 20th.  I wasn’t doing much of anything work-related, but I was trying to keep up with some responsibilities.  I went into my office, picked up my Ministerial folder, opened it, and found the passage on which I was to speak: John 9:1-7.  Are you kidding me?  I was angry.  Really angry.

I sat down, pulled out some commentaries, and began to read.  Slowly my eyes started to open to a teaching that I hadn’t grasped upon first reading.  We all want to know why.  Why does crap happen?  The disciple’s question is often our question.  Did I do something?  Is this a consequence for something?  But Jesus doesn’t even really respond to that line of questioning.  His response is concerning what he’s going to do right now.  When Jesus says “this happened,” I think he’s referring to what he’s about to do.  He’s about to show his power, love, and presence by intervening into the brokenness of our humanity and doing something crazy.  He’s about to give people a story — a story that will demonstrate to the world that The Light of the World is in our midst.

I began to get excited.  Still incredibly anxious and depressed about my own circumstances, but I could find hope in this story.  And hope was something I found hard to come by.

Preface story eight.

The night before I was to speak at the Lenten lunch was a bad night.  Shalene and I put the kids to bed and then collapsed (again) on the living room floor.  Our anxiety was through the roof.  We cried and cried.  And then I did something I’d never done before.  As I knelt on the ground I began to pray.  “God, I need something I’ve never asked for before.  I need an angel.  I need you to send someone to tell me that everything’s going to be okay.  It was really great of you to send an angel to tell those around Jesus’ empty tomb that it was going to be okay.  Well I need the same thing.  I’m so desperate.”

Of course in my mind this angel was to be large, wearing a bright white gown, and ideally with a flashing billboard over its head reading, “I’m an angel.”  Trumpets would have been nice, too.  To be honest, I had little expectation of this sort of prayer being answered.

And with that, we made our way to bed.

The story. (Finally)

The next day I got ready for the lunch.  It was a cold, snowy, and blistery day — the kind of day that makes a bad mood even worse.  As I was getting ready, Shalene reminded me of something: today, March 20th, was the first day of spring.  I guess I knew it, but I didn’t want to think about it much because I was pretty convinced I was going to be let down — that it was just going to be like any other day: a day filled with worry, anxiety, depression, and doubt.  But so it was, the first day of spring.  A snowy, cold, blistery, crappy day.

I arrived at the church in which the event was being hosted.  I went and sat down at a table awaiting my time to go up and speak the message which I’d prepared.  A little old lady came and sat down beside me.  We exchanged names, though for the life of me I can’t remember hers.  I didn’t think anything of this new acquaintance and when my time came to speak, I got up and instantly forgot I’d even met the woman.  I shared a bit of our story since Shalene’s diagnosis, my first run-in with the text from John, and then my understanding of the text upon doing some research.  And although I shared how the text gave me hope, I didn’t shy away from saying that I was still filled with worry and anxiety.  I finished speaking and took my seat.  When I returned to my table I didn’t even notice that the little old lady wasn’t there anymore.

When the service concluded I was greeted by several well-meaning people who came over to give me a hug and offer their prayer support.  I admit that all I wanted to do was get home and go back to bed.

Then it happened.

The little old lady returned.  She stood behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around and she placed into my hands a large bouquet of flowers.  Tulips, to be exact.  She looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to give these to your wife.  Tell her spring is coming and everything is going to be okay.  I have to go now.  Someone is waiting for me.”  Then she smiled and left.

“Where on earth did she get these flowers from?” was all I thought.  I left the church and returned home.

When I got home I gave the flowers to Shalene and told her what the lady had said.  Neither of us thought much of it except that it was a little bizarre that this lady had a bunch of tulips on hand on such a cold and crappy day.

Later that day we’d planned to have some friends over, and it just happened to be the same couple that was with us the night of February 7th.  As we sat down in the living room for coffee they asked us how our day was (knowing that most of our days were pretty awful).  I began to tell them about my day: the speaking, the little old lady, the flowers…  and then Shalene stopped me.  “Aaron, do you remember what you prayed about last night?”  We both looked at each other stunned — like what the heck just happened here?  And slowly we began to remember all of the prefacing stories that I just shared above.  One by one we reminded each other of the moments along the journey: the conversations, the journaling, the connecting dots — all of it.

Our friend’s eyes lit up.  “Don’t you see it?” they asked.  “He’s chasing you; he’s wooing you; he’s revealing himself all around you; he’s answering you with angels.  He gave you flowers!

Our eyes filled with tears.  We still had the anxiety, the questions, the doubts, and our journey was far from over.  But on that day — the first day of spring — God brought us tulips.

He’s all around us.  He is so good.  He is so loving.  He is with us.  And the same Jesus who said, “this happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him,” is still at it.  He’s still doing his thing and giving us stories to tell.

All we have are our stories.  Looking back to that conversation with my friend in the coffee shop, I believe now that the only way God could use me to lead a church where the unexplainable could be a part of our story, was to walk me through the unexplainable so that I could live it firsthand.  Now I have my stories.  I have a testimony of God’s loving presence that I never had before.  And now I expect the unbelievable.

Some will read this and call it simple coincidence.  Maybe they’re right.

Some will read this and think I’m nuts.  Maybe they’re right, too.

But for me, and I pray for you, this has deepened my faith.  This has turned a skeptic (which is an exhausting way to live, by the way) into a believer (who still has more questions than answers).

We are doing much better these days.  Shalene is in the clear health-wise, though we have a monthly routine which includes mole-checking and doctor’s visits.  We have both learned all sorts of things about the human battle with fear, anxiety, worry, and depression.  We continue to get help for these powerfully debilitating mental health issues.  Our journey with this isn’t over; it will likely never be over.  And this isn’t the sort of thing we’d wish on anyone and we pray we never have to walk through this again.  But we are so thankful for our time in the valley.  It changed us.  It’s made us into something better for one reason: God met us in the darkness so that we could know his light.

Today, on February 7th, I brought tulips home for Shalene.  They’re sitting directly in front of me as I type this.  They represent far more than just flowers on what is another cold, snowy, blistery day.

May you recognize that God is all around you, walking with you, and constantly wooing you into his presence.

May you receive your tulips.