JNAP Reflection – Sunday September 17, 2017

 

Good morning.  For those of you who do not know us, this is Clara Freire and I am Bob Richards.  We are members of your Joint Needs and Assessment Process Team.  The other members of the team are Janet Currie, Jim Wignall, Norm Moore who is vacationing in PEI, Ruth Sword who is preaching in Elgin today and Julia Duffy who is attending her mother’s 70th birthday party.  Beth Sweetman is our rep from the Ottawa Presbytery.

 

Our JNAP Team was created by your church Council after Bev announced her retirement and Stephane that he had been called to Emmanuel United.  Our mandate is to facilitate a process to help you identify our collective needs for paid ministerial staff, as we move forward.  Once approved at our Annual General Meeting in February, a Search committee will be formed to fill the recommended position or positions.

 

In early May we started meeting to review the prescribed Joint Needs Assessment process.   Based on that we could simply make a list of the activities that we want ministry personnel to undertake, such as worship, pastoral care and administration.  Instead we hope to describe a rich position or positions that embody a presence of ministry through which together we explore and live our faith. 

 

Like the Israelites leaving Egypt to search for the promised land, we are also embarking on a journey.  We invite you on this journey to become more engaged with our Christian roots so we can be radically and extravagantly inclusive, as Jesus called us to be.  

 

To start, it is important to understand that in 1959 the United Church opened four new congregations every week – we now close 1 church every week.   All of the mainstream protestant churches in Canada have declined steadily for over 50 years, starting in 1964.  Congregations did not do something wrong.  Instead the world changed dramatically around them and now they need to respond to these changes if they are to survive. 

 

At Kanata United, we face significant challenges – declining attendance, recurring deficits and the ageing of our most active volunteers and largest financial contributors.  We also have many blessings. We have an extremely successful Children, Youth and Family ministry.  It is unheard of to have 40 children at Children’s’ time.  They bring life and energy to the church and they bring their parents.  As a result, half of our congregation is now less than 50 years old, again unheard of in the United Church. We have a very successful music program.  We have a vibrant intergenerational community with musicals, Habitat for Humanity and youth mentors.  While we initially thought the sky was falling in with all of the staff leaving, we now have a new engaging music director and inviting, meaningful worship services.

 

We do not expect to make radical recommendations for change.  Rather we see focusing on how we can go from good to great.  What is Great?  That depends upon why do we exist as a Christian church. What do Christian churches do that no other organizations do?  They teach about Jesus.

 

Many congregations have lost their grounding in the teachings of Jesus – teachings that are about love, grace, humility, acceptance, hospitality, inclusivity.  Teachings that this world longs for.

 

These teachings are contained in scripture.  The challenge is to bring these stories alive in us.  As part of our journey of renewal we will together use spiritual practices to hear and share scriptural stories.  This is not about saying I believe this part of the bible or I do not believe that part.  This is using our imaginations to enter the teachings of Jesus, and the roots of his beliefs, to consider how they apply to us as individuals and as a faith community in this time and place. 

 

Leonard Sweet, an American theologian wrote a book entitled The Gospel According to Starbucks.  In it he talks about the Starbuck experience.  Starbucks is not just coffee and morning sandwiches, it is an experience.  Worship is not just a sermon and prayers, it is a spiritual experience.  Thinking of worship in this way, leads to more why questions: why do we worship?  Why do we worship in this fashion?

 

Leonard introduced an anacronym for worship and other church events – EPIC – Experiential, Participative, Image-rich and Community building.  (repeat) EPIC worship can be delivered in many ways – loud and soft, showy and contemplative.  Bev and Josh have been experimenting with these to give us different spiritual experiences.  It is important that we provide them with our feedback.

 

In October, the JNAP Team will facilitate a workshop at which we will help you explore your meaningful church experiences. 

 

Jesus did not call us to sit in the temple and have coffee with our friends.  He called us to go forth and love our neighbours as our ourselves.  We have good news to share, to evangelize.   A scary concept for us in the United Church.  But it doesn’t need to be.  It starts by sitting down over coffee with community leaders to talk about what is happening in this neighbourhood.  It means reaching out to our Friends, those people who support us by volunteering at the book sale but never come Sunday morning, for example, to ask them what their Kanata United experience is.  It means volunteering with others to learn what motivates them.  Some of these new friends will support our ministries with their time and treasures, some will join us Sunday morning and others will help us to develop new ways to explore their and our spiritualty.

 

Over the next couple of weeks we will provide you with more information on how you can get involved.  But first of all, please write us a letter in reply to the letter of invitation that we wrote to you.  The letter and instructions are contained in your bulletin.   Please use the card given to you this morning to tell us about what is important to you about Kanata United.  Bring your letter next Sunday and deposit it in the collection plate.  And as noted, you can email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or even talk to us, at any time.

 

Clara would like to share with you, her JNAP experience.

 

I was asked to speak about why I joined the JNAP and what my experience has been so far.

 

For me, church is a source of spirituality.

 

For the past while I'd been feeling something missing in my church experience.  So, when I saw the announcement in the Bulletin about the forming of a JNAP. I thought I might want to do it. 

 

And then, Bev cornered me in the hall.......well what else can I say....

 

Bev, notwithstanding, I wanted to contribute to the process, to bring a bit of myself, my experiences (my work at the City focuses a great deal on community engagement and promoting equity and inclusion in our services and practices) to the task.  I have worked in UC sponsored social services, I have two children in CYM, and a passion and my desire to help make things better.......etc.

 

When we started going through the JNAP Profile 1.  With questions (that we will explore with you), questions about Our People; Our Pastoral Charge; etc.   I started and then got stumped on a question.  The question was about vision.   I couldn't answer it.  Question choices like: a) we are clear about our vision and purpose; or b) our congregation is changing and it's clear we cannot keep going as we have been....etc.   I could honestly say that I had no idea what our KUC vision was.

 

It turned out, I was not alone...this motley crew of committed church members couldn't clearly answer the question.  Funny thing is, the more we talked, reflected, shifted, breathed, prayed, the clearer things became.  We slowly shared experiences of feeling the spirit, of sensing Jesus in our midst.  Our eyes became animated, Jesus showed us and will show us, Jesus is the reason for us, Jesus is our foundation, what grounds us, from which we can build our vision.  With every challenging question and discussion so far......the process has been the same...we return to Jesus as our foundation.

 

I had the fortunate opportunity to travel with a group of our youth to Rendezvous in Montreal last month.  (You'll hear all about it next week as the youth share about their experiences.). I'd like to take a moment to share an experience of mine.  Each day at Rendezvous opened and closed with a large group worship.  We sang, danced and listened.  The whole thing, youth oriented thing was focused on Jesus' teachings.  No one was afraid of naming him as the cornerstone of our Christian Church, our United Church.  We were challenged to speak humbly, but to act boldly.  I was moved to tears.  I had been thinking about leaving the UC, and this experience restored my faith and energy.  No one pushed it, no one evangelized, no one was excluded, everyone was included.  

 

I came back to the JNAP with a renewed hope in our process and ability to create a vision for KUC that could carry us through the next 50 years.  

 

This JNAP process is not about filling in a form, it's been about peeling the layers of the onion away to the centre of who we are to be; who we hope to be.  We have a tremendous opportunity before us and we need your help to make the JNAP work. 

 

Lastly, I wanted to share another story.   A few weeks ago my mom came to visit.  (For context, my mother has hearing deficits and her first language is not English).  It was the Sunday when we walked out to the labyrinth.  After the service my mother said to me, "something's different here." I said "what do you mean, ma?"  "Something's different since the last time I was here.  Something's different in here (pointing to her heart).  "There is a meaningfulness now that wasn't present last time". My mother, a relative stranger to KUC noticed......this is our tremendous opportunity, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 3, 2017

 Exodus 3:1-15

 

I watched The Prince of Egypt six times while in high school. Somehow, in a Catholic school it made its way into the curriculum every year. Despite having been out of high school for some six years, I still manage to watch it at least once a year (though usually more). I listen to the music on my iPhone. I watch the clips on YouTube. And when I used to debate with my pastoral colleague in Dallas, I referred to the Exodus story as a defense for every line of my reasoning. You might say that I’m obsessed.

There was a time not too long ago when it was the Exodus story and not the stories of Jesus that defined faith, belief, spirituality, and religion for me. But the truth of the matter is that it was The Prince of Egypt adaptation of the Exodus story that was doing the defining. An adaptation that captures the wonder, the awe, and the ruthless power of God. That gives us insight into the characters, into the workings of their minds. And adaptation that is also something of a trap, because, in many ways, it answers more questions than it asks.

In the past weeks — and in the weeks to come — you may have noticed the inclusion of hymn texts not found in Voices United or More Voices for that second hymn, the one preceding the readings. We’ve made an intentional choice to engage the scriptures before they are heard, using the voices of poets to add another dimension of meaning to the words we read and hear. Some are more faithful presentations of the texts, while others seek to “wrench” us into thinking in a new way. Perhaps in doing so, we risk clouding how we interpret the scriptures, but the greater hope is that through musical text you will find images to grasp and wrestle with, some new perspective that you had not seen before.

The hymn this week is “In the desert, on God’s mountain,” by Lutheran hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien. Known to us in the United Church for her hymn “O Blessed Spring,” Cherwien is the author of numerous other texts, many of them richly sacramental and all of them concerned with uncovering the oft-forgotten truth about love and its role in binding us together.

This hymn, just like The Prince of Egypt, poses a problem. If you recall the scene in The Prince of Egypt, the overall sense is one of pure wonder. The colours are pastel and mystical. The music is serene and beautiful. The voice that calls to Moses is a gentle whisper, the wind that blows across the ground is a murmur, and yes God does cry out and throws Moses to the ground, but then Moses is lifted up in the spirit of God and weeps with the joy of the wondrous moment. Listen to the hymn’s language: “heard the crackling call his name,” “felt the pulsing of God’s presence,” “felt the message searing.” We call this poetic device hypotyposis, the use of vivid description to paint a realistic and experiential scene. It gives you a sense of Moses’ experience: the raw power of the flames, the roiling jolt of God’s presence in the ground, the bowling-over sound of God crying out, and Moses’ utter terror in the face of all of it. It tells us what it was like in a way that the biblical text never does. There’s nothing wrong with this, except when we stop at this place, when we allow the interpretation — whether film or hymn — to define our understanding. Susan Cherwien described to me why she rarely writes hymns that versify the biblical text so closely:

I don’t like to explain biblical stories... I would much rather that we all ask questions, because that means we are thinking. Wondering. Pondering, Contemplating. A story once explained is a story rarely considered again. That which we think we understand, we rarely again contemplate. Including God.[1]

           

 

 

If we go into the text then, we faced with relatively few tangible details but a great of possibility in how we understand the meanings (plural) within. First, we see that Moses notices the burning bush. Then, God calls out to him and identifies Godself for the first time as the God of your father, of Abraham and Isaac, etc. So Moses is afraid. Then God says to Moses “I have heard my people crying and am going to take them out of Egypt. You’re going to do that.” So Moses is afraid, and asks God some questions to try and get out of it. So then God identifies Godself for the second time and says “I will be with you.” So Moses is afraid again and decides that he needs to get rid of this bothersome God and so he challenges God again and asks: “Well, who are you?” And so God identifies Godself for the third time and says “I AM WHO I AM.”

            Now, if you look at the bottom of that page in your pew Bible you’ll notice at that “I AM WHO I AM” has a few alternate translations. There’s “I AM WHAT I AM.” There’s also “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” In the ancient world, names held immense power. This question that Moses asks God is potentially an attempt to gain the upper hand over God, to limit God through the name. The problem is: God doesn’t actually answer the question. God’s answer is fluid, circuitous, and indeterminate. God resists being limited to any defining characteristic, resists being reduced to the status of an idol.[2] And, if you translate the Hebrew as “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” or “I SHALL BE AS I SHALL BE” you discover that the name holds a great deal of possibility. God IS nothing. But God could be everything. Catholic theologian Richard Kearney describes as the crucial moment in the story, one where God ceases to be a god (lowercase G) among the many gods of the ancient world and becomes God (uppercase G): one who is radically different from what God has been before.[3] It is the possibility of who God is that thoroughly transforms God’s presence in the world. And it took Moses’ question to make that happen.

The point in all this is that God is thoroughly bound to a relationship with humanity. You might call that a covenant. Just as the Caananite woman in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark profoundly transforms the recipients of Jesus’ ministry[4], so too does the encounter between Moses and God galvanize the future of the relationship between God and the Israelites. Without humanity, there is no Exodus. Without us, God is not transformed. Without us, God can never be a possibility.

pause. Then, gently:

The hymn is about transformation. Cherwien brings us into the immediacy of experience not to define how we understand the story but so that we, too, may “wonder” and “notice” and “pause” and “hear.” The last two lines of every stanza are a prayer of transformation, one in which we parallel Moses’ experience with our own, and allow the hymn writer “to remind [us] of what [we] already know to be true, to call [us] to remember what [we] may have forgotten or mislaid, to help call it forth from the depths of [our] being.”[5] The name of God is an ethical mandate to us. For as we do it, so too does God. As a congregation, we are all ministers of this church (little c in these walls, and big C out there). The story of the burning bush forces God to be at work in the world because it demands an ethical response from us. We are called to notice the bushes that burn outside in order that we might understand who we — and thus who God — might yet be.

 

 

During the Hymn of the Day:

God is always calling us to freedom

But we forget that we have a part to play in our own liberation.

We want to settle back and let a magical God whoosh us out of Egypt.

But God said to Moses, not “Poof!,” but “Go.”

Four excuses by Moses, four rebuttals by God

and Moses went.

 

Moses said to the people, not “Whoosh!,” but “Go.”

Complaints, hesitations, grousing, accusations

And the people went.

 

Moses could have remained.

The people could have stayed.

But liberation lured

and muddy feet slipped across the Red Sea

to dry land

to beginning

to covenant.[6]



[1] Susan Cherwien in personal email to me, discussing “In Deepest Night,” March 3, 2016.

[2] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 27.

 

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28.

 

[5] Susan Palo Cherwien, “With Mind in Heart: Wholeness in Hymnmaking,” Cross Accent 13, no.1 (2005): 22.

[6] Susan Palo Cherwien, Crossings: Meditations for Worship (St. Louis, MI: MorningStar Publishers, 2003), 154.