Please provide some background on your involvement in The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
I have been an Interim Moderator nineteen times, including being named Interim Moderator at the Presbytery meeting held the day after my Recognition Service in Flin Flon, my first charge.
I was on the Committee on History 7 years, Church Doctrine 9 years (3 as a Corresponding member), and am completing my 5th year on the Pension and Benefits Board. I edit Presbyterian History and am lead for the Reformation @ 500 events.
Together with the Rev. Dr. Christine O’Reilly, I have led workshops training lay people to lead worship and preach – we have led events from the Peace River County to Cape Breton Island.
I started writing about The PCC and Residential Schools in 1992. I served on the planning committee for the “Remembering the Children” event in Winnipeg in March 2008, and was involved with the Church Tent at the first of the TRC’s National Events in 2010. I had the humbling honour of being asked to speak words of apology on behalf of the church at Treaty Three’s commemoration and dedication of the marker at the two Cecilia Jeffrey School sites.
The Presbytery of Winnipeg, responding to the presence of the World Christian community in Winnipeg, has started or nurtured four non-Euro-Canadian congregations which are part of the Presbytery. Recognizing the need for on-going connection and support, if such congregations are going to flourish, I serve as the Cross-Cultural Liaison for the Presbytery, interpreting Canadian Presbyterianism to these congregations and these congregations to the Canadian Church.
What are your earliest memories of church?
When I was 4 ½ we moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where we lived until I was 9 years old.
On Sunday mornings we attended an English speaking Church with the congregation sitting on folding chairs and the Sunday school space being in a rabbit warren of rooms above the sanctuary. I still remember a sermon illustration I heard in that church more than 45 years ago.
We lived on the third floor of an apartment building – and two floors down on the main level an Arabic-speaking church had rented an apartment as their church space (the living-room/dining room was the sanctuary, bedrooms were the minister’s study, Sunday school and meeting space). Sunday nights my parents attended this service and became friends of the Arabic speaking pastor.
What three verses of scripture do you return to over and over and find especially formative?
I Peter 5:7 – I was 5 years old when the Six-Day War happened. We had to dye the lightbulbs in our house and put dark construction paper in the windows so that the bombers would not be able see any light from our apartment. We were eventually evacuated by the Canadian government. It was scary time and this verse was very important.
Proverbs 3:5,6 – The theme verses for Camp IAWAH, the Christian camp that had an enormous impact on my life from age 15 to 24.
Jeremiah 29:11 – This verse is often quoted with little reference to the context. Yes, God is going to bring about the restoration of Israel – but not for 70 years – not in the lifetimes of the first readers of Jeremiah’s letter. Even though God’s restoration seems slow in coming, it is sure, it can be trusted.
What is your favourite hymn?
It changes over time. At times, it is the lyrics that matter even if the piece is unsingable, and at other times I want a tune that shouts hope.
At the moment, I am moved by Sylvia Dunstan’s hymnody – especially “You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd” which so beautifully expresses the paradox of Jesus Christ.
What are you reading for pleasure these days?
I have been on a Sue Grafton kick for most of 2016, having read some 12 of her Kinsey Millhone
“alphabet” mysteries. I found M is for Malice particularly interesting theologically.
What is your image of the church at its best?
I tell the following story without reference to a specific place since this will be posted on the internet, giving the specific location may put people at risk.
My parents spent 5 years in a Middle Eastern country during the time I was living in Flin Flon. Debbie and I visited them, and one Sunday we went to the church my parents attended. This international church met in a store front, which they were renting. The preaching was in English with translation into at least three other languages taking place in various parts of the sanctuary. When the service was over my mother led Debbie and I downstairs to the basement where the Sunday School was just wrapping up. The Sunday School time ended with the children singing “Jesus loves me” simultaneously in three languages – English, Arabic, and a third language. Here refugees from the Gulf War, Palestinian students studying away from home, and ex-pats from Europe and North America were the church together – across the language barriers, the cultural differences, and the economic disparity. This remains for me one of the most powerful pictures of the church at its best – a foreshadowing of the church in Kingdom of God as described in Rev. 7:9,10.
Who are some of your heroes? Why and how did one of these people reform your understanding of life and faith?
Ian Munro – A mentor to me when I was in Iran.
James Robertson – A visionary Presbyterian during the last 3 decades of the 19th century
Anna Ross – First Principal of Ewart College, Bible Teacher, and Activist for the rights of Immigrants to Canada (particularly the Sikhs).
Ian Rennie – A Canadian Church historian with an ability to mentor young Christian scholars. I took two courses with him, but it was the reading course that was the most formative. He taught me that I could be both a pastor and an academic. What some people today call “Pastor Theologians” or “Ecclesial Theologians”. Ian insisted that parish clergy could and should speak to and engage with the ivory tower of the academe. That is was not a one-way street of the academe speaking to the parish clergy – it was a two-way street where the academe listened to the thinking and theological insights of parish clergy. While it took nearly five years into my first ministry for me to figure out how to do that, Ian’s voice of encouragement helped me stay engaged in being unabashedly a pastor and unabashedly a researcher and scholar.
What makes for excellence in faithful discipleship?
Richard of Chichester is hard to improve on:
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.
The prayer was modified by Stephen Schwartz in Godspell (1971):
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day
What would you say is the core calling of the Church?
To worship of the Triune God of grace – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – everything else – mission, evangelism, social justice, community, pastoral care, ethical living – flows from the worship of the Triune God of grace.
What does it mean to be a Presbyterian in Canada in 2016?
Presbyterians are Christians with a Reformed flavour:
- The Sovereignty of God. God acts freely. We do not say: “My God acts this way and not that way” – for God is independent of us. In God’s sovereignty God cannot deny God’s love, God’s faithfulness, or God’s justice.
- God in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is God in the New Testament. God is not about Law in the Old Testament and Grace in the New Testament – in fact Grace and Law are present in both.
- The church-state relationship is much debated in Presbyterianism. The church is not subject to the state; nor do we believe in the separation of church and state; we affirm Jesus Christ as the only King and Head of Church and as such the church is called to be the conscience of the state.
- Collegiality: Through attentive listening to the voices of all leaders (ruling and teaching elders) at each level of the church (Session, Presbytery, Synod, and Assembly), God’s voice is heard. We came to these conversations open to hearing God speaking in the dialogue.
- We recognize a big Christian tent – not just United, Anglican and Lutheran; but also Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational. Not only will we dance with mainline churches, we engage in dances, awkward though they be, with anyone who declares: Jesus Christ is Lord.
- We have good news to share about the Triune God of grace, as we speak we point to Jesus Christ who is the revelation of God to human beings.
What area of public life do you believe the PCC should be more involved in than it currently is?
The church in North America, which includes the PCC, must find effective ways to address the toxic impact of Consumerism. Consumerism is destructive of community, ridicules self-giving, undermines collective action and commitment, feeds environmental destruction, and disrespects the poor. Consumerism also impacts the life of the church, moving focus away from God and shifting it to the felt-needs of the members.
A colleague highlights this challenge saying many funerals have moved from being “To the glory of God and in memory of the deceased” to being “To the glory of the deceased and in memory of God.”
Tom Bandy, a United Church pastor and church turn-around consultant, was asked: “What is the one thing that all the turn-around churches you have been involved with had in common?” To which Bandy replied, “They were lead by pastors who loved Jesus more than they loved their pension plans.”
Addressing the destructive aspects of consumerism will lead the church into conversation about the environment, living more simply, and the affirmation of community and neighbourhood decision-making and development. All of which brings us into conversation with those in our society who feel something is wrong at the heart of present-day economic realities and are seeking for an alternative voice and alternative community.
What do you believe the next significant issue the PCC should be addressing within the denomination?
To paraphrase Bishop Mark MacDonald’s question, a question that haunts me:
Can The Presbyterian Church in Canada allow fully recognized (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating) congregations that the poor can afford?
Our present model of Presbytery allows only clergy who are employed by the church 51% time to have a vote at Presbytery; and many congregations can not afford the cost of even a 51% time minister. The sub-conscious assumption within the Presbyterian Church is “real” congregations are able to support their own full-time minister. This assumption makes it virtually impossible for congregations attended by those who have limited economic resources to be “real” congregations.
Addressing this issue will require confronting our built-in prejudices against the poor, including the rampant paternalism and maternalism present in our relationships with the poor. As I stated in the answer to the last question, the consumerist approaches that have infiltrated the church will need to be rooted out. It will require fundamental changes in the structures of the church and in the ways in which church thinks.
Understanding that congregations are one of the key places where the continuing ministry of Christ is most dynamically and dramatically lived out, could you say a bit about what is key, in your understanding, as the most important features of faithful congregational ministry?
The church is not called to be more entertaining than Hollywood, nor is it to provide better music than Nashville, nor is it to be more exciting than watching sports, The local congregation is to talk about what no other group in society is talking about – living the spiritual life by following Jesus Christ and engaging in spiritual practices that deepen that following.
A congregation does this through:
- Corporate Worship which involves everyone in the congregation in the praise and worship of God, fulfilling the highest purpose of human beings: To Glorify God and to Enjoy God forever.
- The Reading and Preaching of the Bible. Through reading and hearing the Word of God the congregation is formed into the people of God, the followers of Jesus Christ who bear the power of the Holy Spirit into the world.
- Prayer for the world and for the community around the church. In prayer, the congregation brings the surrounding community to God, holding it up for God’s blessing. In prayer, the congregation confesses the brokenness of the community in which the church is located, bearing that brokenness and sin to God for forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Mission which is both Evangelism and Community Outreach. The good news of Jesus Christ which the church believes invites us not only to be thankful for the gift, but also to tell the good news to others and to do actions which are examples of the coming reign of God and the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
One of the objectives of the PCC’s Strategic Plan is “Visionary Leadership.” What is visionary leadership to you?
A Visionary Leader models the truth, “I must become lesser, so God can become greater.”
A Visionary Leader points people to God’s vision, not the leader’s vision.
A Visionary Leader knows the fulfillment of God’s vision often requires the death of the
leader’s plans and dreams.
A Visionary Leader is able to accept criticism, in order to discern what God is saying through the
voice of the opposition.
A Visionary Leader passionately proclaims the good news of the already-but-not-yet (the present
and coming) kingdom of Jesus Christ.
One of the goals of the Strategic Plan is to pursue spiritual renewal and faith formation as the basis for transformation within congregations. What does pursuing spiritual renewal look like for you personally and what could it look like for the denomination corporately?
I find it odd that neither question related to the Strategic Plan mentions the place of evangelism in the plan. (Evangelism is mentioned twice as is spiritual renewal; faith formation is mentioned only once.) Evangelism – as Living Faith says, “in the spirit of humility, as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to life in Christ.” Surely a reclamation of evangelism is part of the transformation needed in congregations.
Spiritual renewal is a combination of (a) being open to the unexpected and unpredictable actions of the Holy Spirit (the spontaneity of the Spirit) and (b) taking up the practices of spiritual disciplines. Like an athlete who depends on both (a) in the moment of creative action and (b) hours of practicing moves, so the individual Christian and the denomination as a whole must do both.
The disciplines of Bible reading and reflection; prayer; generosity; silence; accountability; service and so on, become habits shaping us individually and collectively making us open to recognizing the surprise of the Spirit. The call is for congregational leaders to take up spiritual disciplines and encourage the members of their congregations to do the same. The disciplines move us from merely talking about spirituality, to making spiritual renewal a concrete practice in our lives.
What do you see as the role of the Moderator during the time we are discerning the mind of Christ regarding sexuality and the church?
The Moderator is called to:
- Seek to moderate the conversation so while passionate is respectful.
- Ensure voices not being heard are given space to speak and are listened to.
- Remind the church to root the conversation in Biblical/Theological Anthropology (who and what are human beings understood Biblically, within a Christian worldview).
Climate change has implications for all aspects of our lives from the energy sources that power our daily lives to relationships between countries in the Global North and Global South. What is your vision for The Presbyterian Church in Canada and for Presbyterians in Canada as people who seek to honour creation as God does?
The conversation needs to move from political advocacy to congregational and denominational action. The response to climate change requires concrete action.
- The Assembly Council needs to exercise prophetic leadership by making 50 Wynford Drive and the “Missionary” Apartments energy passive buildings.
- A special fund needs to be established to assist congregations reduce their carbon footprint. Such a fund would provide grants towards replacing lightbulbs, providing exploration funds to develop solar panel projects, etc.
- The denomination should negotiate with a manufacturer of electric cars to assist clergy in multi-point charges purchase electric vehicles at a reduced rate.
- The denomination should seek out strategically located congregations with parking lots where the building of charging stations would benefit the wider community.
The denomination needs to exercise concrete leadership, putting money and effort where its mouth is on the Climate Change issue. In the process, the denomination will gain the credibility to mobilize congregations to move on these issue.
I note the Presbytery of Winnipeg, of which I am a part, sent an overture to the 2016 Assembly containing a call for such practical action and leadership.
Where do you see signs of hope for the world and the Church?
The biggest sign of hope is the continuing rise of World Christianity. I have had the privilege of serving as the Cross-Cultural Liaison for the Presbytery of Winnipeg which has brought me into contact with Korean, Filipino, Indigenous, and Arabic-speaking faith communities. The vibrancy of faith, the commitment to spiritual disciplines, the desire to share the whole good news (for these communities have not divided evangelism from social action and vice versa) has given me much hope.
That is only what we are experiencing in Winnipeg. The expansion of World Christianity is the hope for the world, for God’s mission has a church and it is on the move.
Who are some of your most treasured Christian thinkers and writers?
What should the Church make more time for?
The Euro-Canadian church needs to spend time listening to the voices of World Christianity.
The question is asked, “Does a fish feel wet?” To which the answer is, “They don’t know what wet is because they are in water all the time.” In the same way in the Euro-Canadian church, we see things from only one cultural viewpoint, and we are unable to see our cultural blind spots.
I have had the privilege of teaching two courses at the Carey Institute (a distance education arm of Carey Hall, Vancouver) in Winnipeg. The students are from various African nations and some Karen people from Myanmar. This dialogue has opened my eyes to see Canada and the Canadian church in new ways.
We need to stop telling the World Christian community how to go about the Christian life long enough to actually hear what they have to tell us about the ways in which we are cultural blinded. What they have to teach us about forgiveness, prayer, putting evangelism and social action back together again, self-giving, community, keeping one’s word (treaties), and so on will leave us humbled and rejoicing in God’s gift of World Christianity.
I find the Africa Bible Commentary (ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo) helpful in moving me away from Euro-Canadian interpretations and applications of the text, to listen to the voices of World Christianity in my sermon preparation.
What book(s) do you wish everyone in the PCC had or were reading?
I mean this in all seriousness – The Bible.
I dream of a day when Canadian Presbyterians fall in love with the Bible. To read it slowly, carefully, to ruminate upon it. Week by week as I prepare to preach, I am amazed by its elegance and beauty. I am caught up anew in its narrative. I find myself stirred to deeper commitment, to joyful celebration at the love of God evident in Jesus Christ, and to the examination of my following of Jesus. For me understanding Scripture means “standing under” Scripture, letting it read my life, listening for the voice of God.
What is your favourite flavour of ice cream?