What are your earliest memories of church?
I grew up in Ontario, with family roots in Nova Scotia. I also grew up in the church.
Our family sat in the fourth pew from the front on the left side of the church. My younger brother sat on the end next to my dad. My other two younger brothers sat in between my mom and dad. I sat next to my grandmother at the far end of the row. It was a great seat: my grandmother wore a Persian wool coat and it was great to cuddle next to her. And, when the sermon started, my grandmother would pass me a lifesaver or a mint! Outside of church, too, I watched her read her bible each morning and pray.
The second memory of church is associated with hockey. I played in a church hockey league on Saturday mornings and went to a kids’ club on Wednesday nights where we played floor hockey. Hockey was a door into the church for me—we need to find more doors like this today.
As a teenager, I was hired along with three other young people to run an eight-week day camp program for the church. All four of us are now in full-time Christian ministry. At St. John’s, Bradford we have been hiring young people each summer to provide support for children with special needs to attend church-based VBS and day camp programs in York Region and Simcoe County.
All of these experiences from my childhood led me as a minister to ensure that church is for the full family, intergenerational, active and with lots of opportunities for people of any age to get involved.
What two or three verses of scripture do you return to and find especially formative and sustaining?
“Call unto me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” Jeremiah 33:3.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths” Proverbs 3:5–6.
What book(s) do you wish everyone in the PCC had read or was reading?
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I read a review of it in the early 90s that said it was one of the best books on the nature of call and being the person God created you to be. I bought it and couldn’t put it down. Recently, I attended an evening with John Irving in Uxbridge, Ontario where he talked about the process he undergoes as he writes his (often bizarre) novels.
Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. This helpful and accessible book provides an introduction to a number of spiritual disciplines (prayer, study, solitude, etc.). During advent 2019, about 40 of us at St. John’s, Bradford joined the Presbyterians Read program. Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance, reminds me of one of the disciplines that Foster, a Quaker, encourages—the discipline of celebration. We have much to celebrate.
Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) by Pope Francis. A couple of quotes caught my attention: “Let us listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word.” And, “Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.”
Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth is an explanation of the Apostles’ Creed as a series of lectures delivered in the semi-ruins of the stately Kurfursten Schloss in Bonn at the hour of 7 a.m. to theologians and other students. It’s an accessible and careful example of how to do theology in the midst of tough times.
What is your image and vision of the church at its best?
The images of “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” from the Sermon on the Mount resonate the most with me. These are two metaphors that have grounded my work in our church—from our attempts to reach out to the community through community meals, to our work creating a seniors’ housing community, to programming for young people.
As I walked into the church this cold January morning, the reassuring crunch of salt on the sidewalk reminded me of the power of each tiny crystal. Salt, though small, prevents me from falling but it also preserves and flavours. The Church brings this guidance to our world when it extends the love of Christ. We protect, enlarge and bring meaning to all that is in the world when we rightly demonstrate God’s love.
Likewise, the Church is a shining light in a darkened world. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” but He also says “you are the light of the world.” As we reflect Christ’s light, the world will notice we are different and we offer something more meaningful. However, Jesus went further and said that we should “live such good lives…that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” This difference must always direct attention to God, not to us or to the church.
What would you say are the most important features of faithful discipleship?
A disciple is the pupil of a teacher or an adherent of a particular outlook or philosophy. In the New Testament, there were disciples of the Pharisees (Mark 2:18), the ancient Jews considered themselves as disciples of Moses (John 9:28), there were followers of John the Baptizer (Mark 2:15; John 1:35) and then the disciples of Jesus.
Although Jesus (like John) was not an officially recognized teacher, he was popularly known as a teacher or rabbi and his associates were known as disciples. That is, the disciples of Jesus referred to all who responded to his message and being a disciple was based on his call to follow. It involved personal allegiance to Jesus, expressed in following him and giving him exclusive loyalty. In at least some cases it meant literal abandonment of home, business ties and possessions, but in every case readiness to put the claims of Jesus first, whatever the cost demanded. Such an attitude went well beyond the normal pupil-teacher relationship and gave the word “disciple “a new sense. Faith in Jesus and allegiance to him are what determine the fate of humans at the last judgement (Luke 12:8f). Those who became disciples were taught by Jesus and appointed as his representatives to preach his message, cast out demons and heal the sick; although these responsibilities were primarily delegated to the Twelve, they were not confined to them. According to Luke, the members of the early church were known as disciples. This makes it clear that the earthly disciples of Jesus formed the nucleus of the church and that the pattern of the relationship between Jesus and his earthly disciples was constitutive for the relationship between the risen Lord and the members of the church. Indeed, as Jesus ascended to his Father in heaven, he urged his disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’ by “baptizing” and “teaching.”
As a result, I would say the most important features of faithful discipleship are learning of and from Jesus, responding to his message and call, faith in and allegiance to him, and a commitment to teach and baptize others. And, like Jesus, a disciple makes disciples as one goes throughout life.
What would you say is the core calling of the Church in Canada today?
At St. John’s, Bradford we like to say our core calling is to “share the love of Christ.” As ones who are recipients of the love of God revealed in Jesus, we feel compelled to share that love and not keep it to ourselves. Recognizing we can’t do everything, we committed to share the love of Christ primarily through three means.
The first is worship. We decided to invest significant time and energy into our regular Sunday services of worship. As a minister, I am tasked with ensuring that the word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered. Someone said that worship is our most powerful evangel. I think there is truth in this. There is something quite winsome about a community called by God, hearing from God, responding to God and then returning to share the love of God in Christ in their homes and workplaces.
The second is education. Christian education is not just Sunday School but a necessary aspect of all followers of Christ at whatever age. And so this education can take place in a variety of ways (Children & Worship, Sunday School, Youth Groups, small group studies, special lectures, etc).
The third is service. In Bradford West Gwillimbury, St. John’s church has been serving the community for 200 years. We provided the first school in Simcoe County, founded the first daycare in the community, offer support to the food bank and community meals and recently responded to a pressing need for seniors’ housing and built a retirement home.
So, I would say the core calling of the church in Canada today is to share the love of Christ, through worship, education and service.
What area of public life do you believe the PCC should be more involved in than it currently is?
In preparing for our 200th anniversary at St. John’s in Bradford West Gwillimbury, we wanted to provide a series of lectures by various prominent Canadians on famous Presbyterians. There have been many notable Presbyterians involved in all areas of life—for example, politics, writing, education, relief and development, etc.
One area of public life I think the PCC could be more involved in than it currently is to provide means by which Canadian Presbyterians can live out their Christian life in whatever task they might be called to serve. We focus primarily on the call of ministers of word and sacrament but often forget that others are equally called of God to serve in their own way as doctors, lawyers, engineers, homemakers, first responders, teachers, human resource specialists, etc.
Sure, there have been many prominent Presbyterians throughout the history of Canada and some have kept the fact that they are Presbyterians quite quiet. However, it would be great to encourage Presbyterians today to follow Paul’s advice: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it to the glory of God.”
What concern of the church’s internal life and ministry should be a greater part of the PCC’s focus?
Churches across the country are faithfully responding to Christ’s call to serve their communities. We’re good at organizing, good at programming, and good at preparing reports. Someone recently said, “you Presbyterians are so competent it seems that you might be in danger of thinking you don’t even need God.” And, so the concern of the church’s internal life and ministry that I think should be a greater part of the PCC’s focus is prayer. We can easily become bogged down by these reports, committees and to do lists and neglect our time with God in prayer. Prayer is the key—the glue that holds it all together not only the way to start a meeting or thing we do as a last resort.
In preparing a training session for new elders at St. John’s recently, a seasoned elder suggested a primer for new elders on prayer. That’s a good start. I think we, including me, could use that primer and encouragement—ministers, presbyters, members and adherents. Like James said, “the prayers of righteous ones are powerful and effective.”
Understanding that congregations are a key place where the continuing ministry of Christ is dynamically lived out, say a bit about what are, in your understanding, the most important features and principles of faithful congregational ministry?
Like in any sport,practice of basic skills is the key to success. In competitive swimming, as I did as a young man, that’s focusing on your strokes (fly, back, breast and freestyle), starts, turns and lane position. In ministry, there is no need to search for the novel way of doing things (though websites and social media are part of how churches operate). We should just practice and practice the same basic skills of study, preaching, praying, visiting, listening, organizing, and leading.
Years ago a professor told me you really don’t do any ministry until you’ve been in one place for twenty years. Now that I’ve been in one place for more than twenty years, I am beginning to understand a little bit about what that mentor meant. Long residency in one congregation means you need to be able to work with people through the good the bad and the ugly. It requires forgiveness, good communication and patience.
One of the objectives of the PCC’s Strategic Plan is “Visionary Leadership.” What is visionary leadership to you?
One of the things I learned from the best selling management book Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t by Jim Collins was the need for a BHAG—a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. Visionary leadership requires having that kind of thinking (“walking on the moon” kind of thinking).
I’ve been involved in a couple of BHAG projects.
The first was the construction of a new church building. In the fall of 2000, the Presbytery of Oak Ridges stepped off a yellow school bus into a cornfield and dedicated five acres of land to the glory of God and for the future home of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. A new church building was constructed in 2004 and a retirement home in 2017. A second phase extension construction project for the church building is underway and a new separate memory-care facility is awaiting site plan approval. No one thought it could be done and it was a big, hairy, audacious goal.
The second was the establishment of an Ontario College of Teachers accredited Bachelor of Education program while I worked as Academic Dean at Tyndale University College. Again, no one thought it was possible to have a teacher-training program at a faith-based university that would educate and equip faith full teachers to serve in public and separate schools. But we did it.
Visionary leadership requires a strategic plan to be sure. However, that’s not enough. The next step is to articulate a strategic operating plan with measurable goals, strategic drivers and timelines. And, the ability to hold people accountable for the completion of the goals—that’s not always easy in a church setting that relies so heavily on volunteers. In this context, I’ve been helped by the work on social entrepreneurship entitled Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed by Francis Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Patton. (The cover of the book says: “This book is for those who are not happy with the way things are and would like to make a difference. This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that will create extraordinary outcomes. This book is about making the impossible happen.”)
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?
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he talked a little about renewal. In the twelfth chapter, he urged the church to no longer “conform” to the world, but to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.”
For me, then, spiritual renewal includes a dimension of renewing of my mind. I need to do this daily. If I look at the amount of screen time I have each day as recorded on my iPhone, I recognize, like most of us, that a lot of things are entering my mind each day (email, websites, texts, etc). Rather than trying to reduce the amount of technology, I’ve been trying to utilize it to help me in the renewing of my mind. For the past number of years, I’ve used a lectionary app to help me with my daily Bible reading. The app uses a different version of the Bible than I have been familiar with. As a result, I read and saw things differently. I’ve switched to another app this year to help me read through the Bible in a year. Plus, I have pre-selected podcasts that I will listen to while driving.
As a denomination corporately, it would be good to be able to share “life hacks” that people are finding effective in their hope to “renew their minds.”
What do you understand the Moderator’s role to be during this time when the PCC is discerning the mind of Christ on the matter of sexuality?
I’ve been moderating discussions on the matter of sexuality for more than 20 years in the church, at Tyndale University College and in my family.
In a course I taught at Tyndale in the early 2000s, I included a discussion of a variety of issues facing the church and the world, one of those issues was the church’s response to homosexuality. I encouraged the students to understand both a progressive and traditional approach. For the last two years, I’ve taught a fourth-year undergraduate capstone course entitled “Christian and Culture” in which I have included an Oxford-union style of debate on various subjects. Students debate issues related to human sexuality and I serve as moderator. As a professor, I understand the complex needs of my students when emotionally charged discussions like this arise and work to establish a safe environment where all are heard and dignity is upheld. We all come to this discussion with preconceived thoughts and judgements; the role of the professor, like that of a moderator, is to make space for all to be heard and valued.
As a moderator, I see the role—after opening a session with prayer—is to encourage lively discussion allowing individuals to speak of their lived experience and their conceptions of truth. Sometimes that discussion needs to be calmed down (moderated) when someone becomes too impassioned or moves into personal attacks, and other times that discussion may need to be turned up (moderated) to ensure more timid or reserved voices are heard. In the classroom, I do not force my opinion, rather I encourage students to hear and understand my and one another’s perspective and to reach their own conclusions.
I understand the role of the Moderator of the General Assembly to be similar. The moderator begins the sessions with prayer and moderates the discussion and calls for a decision. As a moderator, of course, I am located and have my perspectives regarding human sexuality, but my role is to help the court, guided by the Spirit, come to its collective understanding of God’s will. That collective understanding may be in accord with my own understanding or it may not be—the goal of the discussion is for it to be led by the Spirit of God, not by the moderator’s opinion. Indeed, the moderator’s personal opinion should not enter into the discussion in any way. And, as the court completes its deliberation, the moderator only conveys and communicates the collective decision.
Who are some of your most treasured and formative Christian thinkers and writers and why?
H. Bavinck was a missionary to Indonesia with the Dutch Reformed Church. ut of his experience there, he wrote a couple of books that have been influential in my thinking. The Church Between the Temple and the Mosque and An Introduction to the Science of Mission. He makes the case that there are five magnetic points in all religious systems and that ultimately the gospel of Jesus Christ is the means by which things are set right. In our Canadian context, where the church is often, quite literally, between the temple and the mosque, I think Bavinck’s insights are particularly germane.
As a child, my mother read to me, and my brothers, the Chronicles of Narnia. From there I read The Screwtape Letters on my own. While in grad school in British Columbia, I joined a Friday morning reading group that met in a professor’s home at 7am. Each week we read works by various members of the Inklings. As a result, I was introduced, not only to Lewis and Tolkien, but Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams. The fictional worlds created by Lewis and Tolkien continue to fascinate people. The movies based on Narnia and the Lord of the Rings have, in our secular age, been able to introduce many to these great stories that speak of a “deeper magic.” As gospel communicators today, we might learn from Lewis, Tolkien—and even J. K. Rowlings (Harry Potter)—about the value of story to describe the death of one for many.
As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to Gustavo Gutiérrez and his Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Since that time, I have been intrigued by his emphasis on God’s preferential option, mission priority or bias for the poor and broken-hearted. More and more, as a church, we need to heed the words of Isaiah and echoed by Jesus “to preach good news to the poor and to set at liberty the captives.”
And, then, in a similar vein, I have been drawn to the Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori who wrote a Theology of the Pain of God. Drawing from the prophet Jeremiah, Kitamori reminds me that God suffers with God’s people. Within and without the church, there are many hurting and suffering people. They need to know that they are not alone.
Where do you see signs of hope for the world and the church?
Christianity is going south: literally, and not as some think in a theological sense. Toward the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the realization that the church of Christ has grown exponentially in the global south has become apparent. By some estimates, there are more Presbyterians in Ghana, West Africa than in Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia—combined. It is not just West Africa though. Look at Korea too. Immigration from both Ghana and Korea has brought vibrancy to the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Demographers are suggesting that within a short period of time the People’s Republic of China might be the world’s most populous Christian nation. I’ve been to each of these countries and I’ve seen it. That suggests a sign of significant hope for the church.
And, when it comes to the world, there are also signs of hope. Diseases are being eradicated. Issues, such as maternal mortality (which I know about firsthand through my work as Managing Director of Save the Mothers as we expanded in North America and Africa), are being addressed.
What is your prayer for the church?
In Roman North Africa in the fourth century, the so-called Donatist controversy occurred. As a result of external pressures and persecution, the Donatists were concerned that some in the church handed over the sacred scriptures to be burned and they gave those who handed over the sacred scriptures a nickname that is similar to our English word “traitor.” In their pursuit of purity, the Donatists wanted to remove the “traitors” from their positions of leadership in the church. St Augustine was called in to address the situation. His recommendation: handing over the sacred scriptures was not right, but splitting the church was also wrong. He used the various parables in Matthew 13 (wheat and weeds, dragnet, mustard plant, yeast, etc) as a way of reminding the North African church, that in the Kingdom there exists wheat and weeds until the end. As a result, Augustine argued that the greater problem was the breaking up of the church. Unity was the priority. I like that.
So, my prayer for the church is the same as the prayer Jesus prayed, that the church be one.