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ADVENT 1

An Advent Narrative

As we prepare again to hear the message of Christmas, perhaps you might appreciate excerpts from Walter Wangerin Jr’s short story, “An Advent Narrative,” which imagines God contemplating how to reach out to his child (humanity) and restore her.

    I love a child
    But she is afraid of me.

I want to help this child so terribly in need of help. For she is hungry; her cheeks sunken to the bone; but she knows little of food, less of nutrition. I know both these things. She is cold and she is dirty; she lives at the end of a tattered hallway, three flights up in a tenement whose landlord long ago forgot the human bodies huddled in that place. But I know how to build a fire; and I know how to wash a face.

    I love a child.
    But she is afraid of me.

Then how can I come to her? To feed and heal her by my love?

    Knock on the door? Enter the common way?

No. She holds her breath at a gentle tap, pretending that she is not home; she feels unworthy of polite society. And loud, imperious banging would only send her into shivering tears, for police and bill collectors have troubled her in the past. And should I break down the door? Or should I show my face at the window? Oh, what terrors I’d cause then. She would not receive my love, but might likely die of a broken heart. I’ve called from the hall. I’ve sung her name through cracks in the plaster. But I have a bright trumpet of a voice, and she covers her ears and weeps. She thinks that each word is an accusation. I could, of course, ignore the doors and walls and windows, simply appearing before her as I am. I have that capability. But she hasn’t the strength to see it and would die. She is, you see, her own deepest hiding place, and fear and death are the truest doors against me.

Then what is left? How can I come to my beloved? Where’s the entrance that will not frighten or kill her? By what door, can love arrive after all, truly to nurture her, to take the loneliness away, to make her beautiful, as lovely as my moon at night, my sun come morning.

    I know what I will do.

I’ll make the woman herself my door — and by her body enter in her life. How could she ever be afraid of her own flesh, of something lowly beneath her ribs? I’ll be the baby waking in her womb. She’ll have the time this way to know my coming first before I come. Time to get ready, to touch her tummy, touching the promise alone, as it were. When she hangs her head, she shall be looking at me, thinking of me, loving me while I gather in the deepest place of her being. And then, when I come, my voice shall be so dear to her. It shall call the tenderness out of her soul and loveliness into her face. And when I take milk at her breast, she’ll sigh and sing another song, a sweet Magnificat, for she shall feel important then, and worthy, seeing that another life depends on hers. My need shall make her rich!

Then what of her loneliness? Gone. Gone in the bond between us, though I shall not have said a word yet. And for my sake she shall wash her face, for she shall have reason then. And the sins that she suffered, the hurts at the hands of men, shall be transfigured by my being: I make good come out of evil; I am the good come out of evil.

I am her Lord, who loves this woman. And for a while I’ll let her mother me. But then I’ll grow. And I will take my trumpet voice again, which once would have killed her. And I’ll take her, too, into my arms. And out of that little room, that filthy tenement, I’ll bear my mother, my child, alive forever.

    I love a child.

    But she will not fear me for long, now.

    Look! Look, it is almost happening. I am doing a new thing — and don’t you perceive it?

    I am coming among you a baby.

    And my name shall be Emmanuel.

-Joe Welty

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Looking to…

“Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

-Hebrews 12:2

What we “look to” matters. A lot. If you ask two witnesses to describe an event or two referees to call a game or two travellers to describe what they see, it matters that they are looking at the same thing. It matters what they are looking to or looking towards.

In the same way, for anyone who is on this journey with Christ together, it matters immensely what we are looking to. It matters immensely that we are looking in the same direction. After all, what we have in common is not simply a shared culture or background. It is not simply shared family ties or personal histories or political or intellectual or artistic points of view. We all come from diverse points all over the geographic and demographic maps. But, while our starting points may be different, what we hold in common as Christians is that we are all looking to the same place. We are all “looking to Jesus.” 

And this matters. A lot.

This matters because, if we aren’t looking in the same direction, we will find ourselves getting turned around and lost along the way. We will find ourselves mistaking what is good with what it best, what is important with what is ultimate, and what is a means for pointing us to Jesus, who is our “end,” with the end itself. We will find ourselves turned around and heading in the wrong direction, mistaking the wayside and road signs meant to give us rest or point us towards our destination for the destination itself. And this confusion leads to disagreements as we take our eyes off the ‘why and where’ we are heading and focus on the ‘what’ we are doing and ‘how’ we are getting there. It leads to disagreements because the focus shifts from Jesus, who we share in common, to personal tastes and preferences, which are as diverse as we are. And these disagreements that are a challenge to our unity can give way to open fighting which is a challenge to our love and to our mission. Looking to the same place – looking to Jesus – matters. A lot.

But when we look to Jesus, all these other things fall into place. There becomes room for a strange prayer or a strange song or a strange preacher at the pulpit or strange plate at the potluck because we aren’t looking to these things. Instead, we are looking to Jesus. And seeing Jesus as he is, helps us to see everyone else for where they are too.

-Joe Welty

Cultivating Leadership

Rob Ogilvie became the Executive Minister of CBWC in 2017, and when he first took the position, he encouraged the denomination to pray with him in a structured way in order to establish ministry priorities for the denomination for the next while. People were asked to pray in triads, consistently, and were guided in Scripture readings and time for listening and response. After the responses were gathered, three ministry priorities rose to the top; Cultivating Leadership, Investing in Relationship, and Engaging in Mission. Cultivating Leadership is primarily about developing the next generation of Canadian Baptists. Investing in Relationship consists of providing resources for our churches and clergy to maximize their health and effective ministry. Engaging in Mission is about growing our CBWC family through fresh expressions and intentional implementation of the gospel.

One of the outcomes of this has been the development of a Gap Year Program called Kurios. Peter Anderson has headed this up, and we anticipate a start up in the Fall of 2020. Steve Simala Grant will be giving leadership to the group, and I’m excited about Steve doing the work, because I’ve known him for a lot of years and have seen his various skills and talents at work. I have no doubt that Steve will genuinely love the students, challenge them, and disciple them in their relationship with Christ. Many around the CBWC are excited about this new ministry.

In my mind, the interesting piece about this “new ministry” is that in some ways, it’s not new at all. It is a variation on other leadership development ministries that the CBWC has supported in the past. Interestingly, as I visit churches, as the other Regional Ministers visit churches, it is often very clear that the leadership in our current churches has been influenced by past CBWC leadership experiences, such as the Baptist Leadership Training School (BLTS). That is, many current leaders attended BLTS or something similar, and are continuing to lead in our churches today. Perhaps, then, Kurios is a return to something we’ve known to be true for a long time.

Of course, this means that I am thankful for the leadership ministries that we’ve relied on in the past. Even though we live in a new era for ministry, I am hopeful that Kurios will serve to prepare our young people to serve Christ in their churches, workplaces, communities and homes. Please invest in Kurios especially by way of prayer as the foundation for this ministry continues to be laid over this next year.

-Mark Doerksen

The Power of Conscience

Recently Netflix released a documentary titled, “The Great Hack”. It details the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, a company at the centre of a debate about how our online personal data can be used for purposes far beyond what we understand. It is a fascinating journey into the digital age, the shadowy world of online data use, and the distorted world view some craft to justify their personal drive for success and riches.

At the centre of the controversy was the misuse of personal data from millions of Facebook accounts. Cambridge Analytica used the data to provide clients with the ability to influence specific issues in one direction or the other via social media. Brexit and the American elections are two examples. When Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds came to light it set off a worldwide firestorm of accusations, inquires and eventually criminal charges. It is a complex story which takes Netflix almost two hours to unravel, something I will not attempt to do in a few short paragraphs.

This is not the first time that global misdeeds regarding the internet have come to light. There will be more in the future. In this case though, what captured my attention was the documentary’s attempt to focus on one person who played a key role in the downfall of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser. She was the former Business Development Coordinator for the company.

People transform into “whistleblowers” for numerous reasons. Sometimes it is a matter of conscience, that deep persistent voice from within that simply cannot be silenced. Some have thrown suspicion on Ms. Kaiser’s motives. However, as I watched the documentary it was evident that as one commentator put it, “she seemed to be looking for redemption.” In other words, looking for a way to silence the deep persistent voice.

As the documentary un-folded I was struck by the power of one person’s conscience. Ms. Kaiser’s testimony at hearings and in public, along with another whistleblower, Chris Wylie, provided investigators with plenty of material to eventually expose and bring down Cambridge Analytica. Two people, two small voices in the shadow of power, politics and great wealth. Never underestimate the power of conscience.

Jesus said as much, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14, NIV). Although this passage is not often associated with conscience, conscience is central to understanding its message for our lives. I believe that sometimes we underestimate the power of our own conscience to impact the conscience of others in the world around us. When I worked as a chaplain in the federal prison it would not be unusual to walk onto a cell block and hear the most colourful of language from either staff or inmate. On occasion, either staff or inmate, suddenly recognizing that I was there would quickly say, “Oh sorry chaplain. Didn’t see you there.” I would joke afterward that it was okay, I had heard my fair share of it. It was a small thing, yet it wasn’t. In offering an apology there was a recognition of who I was, what I represented, and most importantly who I followed.

In the sermon Mark brought to us last week he made this passing comment, “In our present culture just going to Church on Sunday is saying something to those around us.” There are numerous seemingly small things we do in our lives as Christians that are powered by our conscience. We act, speak, engage, care, forgive, seek forgiveness, sometimes challenge and pray for others because we listen to that deep persistent voice from within that simply cannot be silenced.  As Christians we are expected to bring light to the world around us. In numerous ways, the most effective way to do so is to listen to that deep persistent voice and remember the power of conscience.

-Hank Dixon

Why So Angry?

Do you know why supermarkets put all the things you usually buy at the back of the store and all the things you rarely buy at the front? What about why some stores don’t put mirrors in change room stalls so you can only see what the clothes look like on you while others are watching? Or why do some stores call themselves “outlets” and put inflated “retail” prices on their tags right beside the much more realistic “our price?” The answer is obvious: It is to get us to buy more stuff and spend more money in their stores. It is to use our psychology against us so we do what they want us to do. When we step into a store, we understand what they are trying to do and, by understanding, it helps protect us against unnecessary and even unwanted purchases.

But what if stores aren’t the only ones who are doing this?

In recent years it has become common to speak of the “anger epidemic” that is not just gripping American or Canadian culture but has become something of a global phenomenon creeping into all of its many corners and even creeping into us – the Church. Many have tried to explain this rise in anger. They point fingers at root causes like economic and cultural pressures, globalization, social and political fragmentation, or just a decrease in the ability to demonstrate empathy. I am sure all of these things play a part. And, what if there is also something more going on? What if it is also like the stores that we shop in? What if it is some who are also trying to use our psychology against us to get us to do what they want without us realizing what they are doing?

In his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday talks about the radical shift the media industry has experienced since the advent of electronic and now social media. In addition to talking about the manipulative way in which news becomes news in the “blogger” era, he also talks about how much of what we now consume as news is intentionally, emotionally manipulative as well. Internet news sites are driven by the number of views they can generate, as their number of views and advertising revenue are directly linked. He cites stats that show how articles written with overtly happy or sentimental headings are viewed 40% more than ones that are simply informational like the media we grew up used to. But if that heading is an angry, hostile, or potentially fear inducing one? It will generate, on average, 300% more views. So, if you promise people heaven, you increase your profits by 40%. But if you scare them about hell, you increase it a full three times. So which do they choose? Well which would you choose? As a result, we find ourselves bombarded by angry, threatening, fear-inducing messages that are meant to get us to do what they want us to do – click on their articles – regardless of the overall impact of their actions. And so we find ourselves angry. Angry about the things we hear. Angry about the things that are going on around us. Angry about what So-And-So just said or did or didn’t say or do. And we keep clicking and viewing and doing what the writers want us to do for a fraction of a penny per view, never mind the personal and social fractures it may be causing.

So why are we so angry? There are plenty of things that worth getting angry about. Earning a blogger at the Huffington Post or Buzzfeed or even, increasingly, a more traditional news agency that fraction of a penny hardly seems worth it considering the personal and social cost involved. But, maybe, if we understand what they are trying to do, it can also protect us against unnecessary and even unwanted anger and make the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves a little easier to do.

-Joe Welty

Power, Love, and Self-Discipline

For God has not given us a spirit of fear or timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.

1 Timothy 1: 7 (NLT)

You sit down for a job review. Your supervisor goes over a list of nine things you do well and one thing you need to work on. Which one do you remember? What is your overall feeling about the review? Was it “good” or “bad?” A “positive” or a “negative” one? I could begin this next sentence with a line like, “Psychologists tell us that …,” and include a long list of footnotes from peer-reviewed studies that talk about how we tend to remember the negative and to be motivated out of fear rather than comfort or confidence. But you don’t need me to, do you? We know how this works firsthand. We know how we tend to focus on what we don’t have or don’t do well enough. We know how we tell others that we do this positively out of a desire for constant self improvement. And yet we also know ourselves and how we tend to experience these moments negatively as the desire to avoid failure, embarrassment, or shame.

Why do we do this?

I heard someone recently explain this phenomenon as a matter of cost versus reward. He said, “If your ancestor imagined there was a tiger hiding behind a bush and there wasn’t, what was the cost to them? Nothing except a little unnecessary anxiety. But if your ancestor imagined there wasn’t a tiger hiding behind a bush and there was? Well, you would have no ancestor. We learned very early on that the potential cost of being afraid more than we should be is less than not being afraid enough. So we learned to be afraid.”

But we didn’t just learn this in our far distant pasts. We learned this in our very near presents. We learned it in school when we were called on for an answer we weren’t prepared to give and we were embarrassed for it. We learned it at work when a supervisor showed up on our break and berated us for not working hard enough. We learned it in our finances when a crisis hit and we didn’t know how or if we could ever meet it. We learned it in our families and relationships when we thought everything was okay and then that other person lashed out at or rejected us and hurt us so badly. So we tell ourselves we won’t let it happen again. That we won’t be caught off guard. That we will always be prepared. Which is another way of saying that we will always be afraid.

But the effects of this fear can be crippling. It can be crippling to us personally as we experience the physical and emotional consequences of living in a constant state of fear that will not let us physically relax. It can be crippling to us relationally as we find ourselves feeling unable to drop our guards and feel safe and secure that we are loved and that we can love the other person fully, albeit imperfectly. And it can be crippling to us spiritually as we find ourselves constantly aware of how far short we are failing to measure up and, in anger, we beat ourselves up over it rather than, in love, responding with joy and wonder.

But we have been promised that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity.” But instead, a spirit of power, knowing we don’t need to be afraid of whatever might be lurking behind that physical or emotional or relational or spiritual “bush” because God is stronger than whatever it may be. And He has given us a spirit of love, knowing that perfect love drives out all fear and gives us a far more secure standing and confidence than whatever our own performance might earn us. And a spirit of self-discipline, knowing that we do not need to be afraid that we are being asked to do something that we are unable to do because He has given us the strength to meet all this and more.

So how about you? Do you know this fear? Would you know this power and love and self-discipline that is ours even more?

-Joe Welty

The End of Peace

In the early 1900’s, Europe found itself unravelling towards war on a scale it had never seen before. The governments and old alliances that had maintained a relative peace for nearly a century seemed powerless to stop its approach. In response, a major peace movement began that was advanced by writers and preachers and activists and politicians. It was funded by churches and unions, the most vocal of socialists and the wealthiest of capitalists. It led to two major international conventions planned and attended by world leaders to establish a court for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. It was picked up and advanced by the Second International, an organization of socialist and labour parties that represented the millions of workers on all sides whose manpower would be necessary to make war possible. It seemed like war had never met such strong opposition as the peace movement was prepared to throw at it. And then? It failed. For all the time and money and rhetoric that was spent, the movement appears to have made no discernible impact. The war still came with the same speed and the same ferocity.

So why did it fail?

In her book, The War that Ended Peace, Canadian historian Margret MacMillan asks a similar question and then offers an answer that is best summed up as national self-interest. When push came to shove and hard decisions and sacrifices had to be made in the name of peace, each person on every side found themselves unable to make them. Each person found themselves choosing what was in their best interests and in the best interests of their families and neighbours and cultural group. Each person wanted peace, but only on the terms that they and those on their side of the border thought best. In the end, each person uttered noble sentiments in the cause of peace. But the movement as a whole failed because no one was willing to pay what it cost.

Now, you might be thinking, this is very interesting, but why would I spend my time or yours talking about something that happened over 100 years ago?

The answer is because we face the same pushes and pulls of self-interest and it is just as deadly to the cause of Christ that we are united in. We each carry around the biggest and noblest of all desires for peace – that those around us might find peace with God and, through Him, with each other. We talk often about welcoming the stranger and inviting people into community and sharing this life of faith in Christ and love for one another. And what is the biggest obstacle that can stand in our way to achieving this? Ourselves and our own self-interests. It is our wanting to experience this life in Christ together but on my terms and with my interests, preferences, history and culture in view. Instead, the Gospel calls us in a different direction. The Gospel calls us in a direction that helps us see what we now have together in Christ as far greater than whatever we have on our own. It calls us in a direction that says, if there is a cost that must be paid either in money or pride or surrender of personal preference, then let me pay it so that those who are far from Christ might feel welcome to come near. And it calls us in a direction that makes peace, real peace, between us and each other and God himself possible.

The Idiot

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Isaiah 53:2b

In his book, The Idiot, Fydor Dostoevsky asks a compelling question, “What would it look like for a truly good person to step into our world today?” Or, to put it more in line with his Christian faith, he asks, “What would it look like for Jesus to step into our world today?” It is a compelling question whose answer is equally so.

In the book, the title character, Prince Lev Myshkin, is introduced into late 1800’s Russian society. The Prince is described as an uncomplicated individual, returning home to Russia after an extended stay in a Swiss sanitarium. Throughout the book he demonstrates the virtues of simplicity, generosity, humility, forgiveness, and love – virtues that stand in stark contrast to the vanity, extravagance, deception, and social climbing of the society who receives him. One after another, the Prince finds himself bumping into the full range of the Russian social spectrum from the very wealthy to the ruined and bankrupt, from the ambitious to the vain, from the virtuous to the fallen, from the deeply religious to the deeply antagonistic. Each person finds themselves drawn to the Prince, even coming to love and admire him in their own way. And yet each person ultimately finds themselves rejecting him in some way for being too simple, too naive, too weak, or too child-like. However ideal his virtues may be, they are neither valued nor even understood in our less-than-ideal world. So, he is treated as a simpleton, a fool, or, in the language of the day, an idiot. Perhaps the most poignant example of this rejection is the character Nastassya Filippovna. A fallen and scandalized woman, the Prince offers to make her his bride and to love her in spite of how others might see her. She, perhaps more than anyone else, is drawn to this love and can see the Prince for who he is. And yet, she ultimately rejects him fearing the purity of his love would be too painful, choosing instead to run away with a despicable character who she is certain will eventually be the death of her. In short, she chooses the devil she knows and can understand instead of the Christ-like one she can’t.

So, what would it look like for a truly good person … for Jesus himself … to step into our world? Would we recognize him? Would we be attracted to him and value what he has to offer? Or would we, like the people we meet in Dostoevsky’s novel or in the Gospel story itself, be drawn to him yet ultimately write off or reject him? It is a compelling question. And it is a question we do well to think about for a while before answering.

-Joe Welty

At Rest

This past month has been more than a little unusual for me. It is not just the surgery – I have experienced surgery and have felt pain and navigated crutches before. And it is not just the time away – I have had breaks of similar length over the years. Instead, it is the pace at which I have been experiencing life for these past few weeks. I don’t know that I have ever had to work so hard to do so little. Day after day have been spent on a sofa, my world limited to just our main floor. My major outings have consisted of travelling as far as from my back door to the car door, and all the while with Ang and the kids opening doors, carrying things, and treating me generally like I am made of glass. It has been more than a little unusual. And it has taken more than a little to get used to it if there ever is any getting used to it all.

I don’t know about you, but rest doesn’t seem to come that easily for me. It is not that I don’t like it or want it or don’t take it when I can get it. But it is hard to slow down. It is hard to work against inertia and not just keep on going or squeezing in “one more thing.” And it is hard to feel like it is okay to come to a complete stop. It feels like rest is something we are supposed to earn. After all, shouldn’t a good night’s sleep be the reward for a good day’s labour? And there are the nagging fears that if you stop completely, will you ever be able to get going again? And there is that uncomfortable sense of indebtedness. Here I am on the receiving end of so many other people’s care and hard work as they pick up the pieces I have dropped whether figuratively or quite literally. It happens again and again without the sense of being able to pay them back in that moment in the usual ways.

It has been a humbling kind of month. It has been humbling to recognize my limitations physically. It has been humbling to recognize the limitations of my own importance within the world, our community, and even my family. After all, the world has kept spinning as has our community and my family with it. And it has been humbling to be on the receiving end of so many little gifts from friends and family members whether it was a friend dropping off a meal or a family member picking up something that I dropped or, in a strange reversal of roles, turning off a light. And yet that is the nature of a gift. Gifts are things that are given not earned or demanded. To be on the receiving end where all you are able to do is open your hands to receive the gift and open your mouth to say, “Thank you,” is simply humbling. So it has been a humbling kind of month.

And for all of it challenges, it has been a refilling kind of month as well. The one thing that I have had over this past month, which I haven’t had for a long time, has been time. Time to read. Time to be quiet. Time to pray. Time to look back and to look ahead beyond that next meeting or appointment. Time to let my soul catch up to what my body and schedule are demanding. Time to remember the audience of One that we are ultimately playing to and listening for. And for this I am grateful as it brings rest in the midst of so much inactivity.

Thank you to everyone who has extended care to me and my family over the past month. Thank you also to those who have picked up the extra pieces and cared for our congregational family in this time and made this time of recuperating possible.

I look forward to seeing you again soon,

Joe Welty