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“A Mind-Boggling Sensuous Pleasure”

This past week an article was published in the National Post with a title I couldn’t ignore. It was titles, “When Going to Church Sounds Like a Mind-Boggling Sensuous Pleasure.” I love that. It was written in response to the ongoing shutdown as a result of the corona virus outbreak. From where I sit right now, working from the same home that doubles as my children’s school, home, and recreation centre, I have to say I agree with the title’s sentiment. The thought of being in a room full of people with their different voices, stories, handshakes, and hugs does seem like a mind-boggling sensuous pleasure. I look forward to the time when that will once again seem like the mundane norm and time to myself will seem like the sensuous pleasure.

I look forward to this, but with one exception: What if, as a result of this, we stop thinking of the church as a place that we go to and, instead, experience more deeply that this is what we are?

For most of us our default setting is to think of the church as a noun. That is, to think of it a a place that we go to and a set of experiences that we have when we get there. For many of us we follow what is often called the Reformed definition of the church, even if we are not Reformed or don’t even know what it means to be. The Reformed definition defines the church as the place where the Scriptures are rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. These are two very important functions of the church, but these are not all the church is. Instead, the church is something that is so much bigger. I isn’t a place that we go to and experience, but rather something that we and do. Jesus describes the church as “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name,” a community of people that are called out, empowered, and sent – not just as a witness to, but as the tangible demonstration of his presence in the world. Likewise, the rest of the New Testament picks up on this and describes this loving, serving, worshiping and witnessing community that is defined by who it serves and what it is and does, rather than by where it meets. In fact, when the New Testament itself was written as a collection of letters, the mailing information wasn’t a building’s address, but people’s names. The church always has and always will be a people and not a place – something we experience less like a noun and more like a verb.

So no, right now we don’t get to “go to church” for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean the church is on hold. Instead, this is an opportunity for us to explore what it means to be the church. How we can be the church at worship in the quiet of our home around an open bible or in prayers whispered over a cup of coffee or united around our computer screens. How we can be the church in action and witness over the phone or internet connections with neighbours and loved ones or even in how we ship or wash our hands or make decisions about where to invest our time and resources. And how we can be the church in our hearts, responding to the opportunities around us out of faith and hope and love, not fear and anger and self-reservation.

Yes, going to church dies seem like “a mind-boggling sensuous pleasure” right now. But maybe you will get a glimpse of how much more being the church can be.

-Joe Welty

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An Updated Message to You Regarding COVID-19

I am sending out this note in regards to Covid-19.

Beginning on Sunday, March 22 we will be worshiping using an online format that will be available on this website. Meanwhile all other midweek gatherings will be postponed until further notice. We will continue to follow the guidelines put out by our health officials and will do our best to communicate any further changes that impact our community as we are able.

Continue reading “An Updated Message to You Regarding COVID-19”
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The Journey

Alister McGrath is one of the most respected, most read, and most published theologians alive today. Among his many accolades are his tenure as a long time professor of theology at Oxford, his three doctorates including one in molecular biophysics, as well as his publication of 50+ books including the most widely used theological overview in print today (in other words, when it comes to theological study, he literally wrote the textbook on it). A former atheist turned believer, he writes with the piercing clarity of a biophysicist and the passion of a minister and disciple. Of all the books he has written, however, the one that has been the most helpful for me is not one of his top selling or top awarded ones, but perhaps one of his least. It is a short little personal reflection of a book titled, The Journey.

In it McGrath offers what he has found to be the most basic frame work of the Christian life. He acknowledges that there are many images that can be used for the Christian life, but the most dominant image that runs through out Scripture is that of a journey. As Christians, we recognize that we are a pilgrim people. We recognize that we are people who are on a journey.

We are people who have started somewhere, but are heading, travelling, running, and sometimes plodding and wandering to somewhere else. We are heading to our new and true destination. He suggests we are not doing this without a map. Instead, the map we have been given is the Exodus. As he says, for the believer the Exodus is not just the story of a great event in the past. Instead, it is our story. He writes,

Each of us has a personal journey to make, from our own Egypt to our promised land. We have left something behind in order to make this journey. We have had to break free from our former lives in order to begin afresh. We were in Egypt. We were delivered from bondage. We are in the wilderness, on our way to the promised land. The story of the Exodus involves us – because it is about us. We can therefore enter into that narrative knowing that it is our story. We belong in it, and it belongs to us. It is all part of the history of our redemption, of which we are part.

So we are on a journey from one place to the next. We are on a journey that begins with creation and moves through exile to redemption and consummation. We are on a journey that involves the wilderness experiences of doubt and failure and fear and suffering. And we are on a journey that involves the oasis experiences of refreshment and rest and fellowship as we look ahead to a feast. We are on a journey that is made possible by the acts of remembering and anticipating and resolving­. So we remember what God has done in the past. We anticipate what God will yet do in the future. And we resolve to deepen our commitment and the quality of our faith as we journey through this space in between.

We are on a journey. We have not yet reached our destination, but we are not where we began either. So remembering what lies behind us, we press on after Christ, trusting that he not only lies before us, but is walking alongside us as we go.

-Joe Welty

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A Familiar Scene

It is a familiar scene. The hero or heroine is in a moment of turmoil. In those last fleeting moments before facing their great crisis, they pause for a moment of quiet solitude. They kneel at the altar, there at the front of a great cathedral or hastily thrown together chapel. There in that moment they pray, asking for deliverance or guidance or strength or whatever else their time of crisis calls for. Then, after they pray, before the camera has time to pan out, they open their eyes. They look up. And what do they see? What is the first image their prayers are met with?

A cross – a quiet response to their quiet or not so quiet prayers.

When we think about prayers in moments like these, we tend to focus on what they will do for our circumstances. That is, we tend to focus on how God will answer them by bringing the deliverance or guidance or protection that we so desperately want or need. But what does that moment do for us? What if the beginning of the answer is already being given? What if it is already being given in that first moment when they open their eyes? What if it is already being given in the cross?

There the hero or heroine is… there we are … in that decisive moment. We are in that moment when the time has come for us to open our eyes and commit to our course of action. And as we do this, we see the cross. We see in that moment a tangible reminder of what true greatness looks like. How it looks like love not hatred. Mercy not anger. Humility not pride. Forgiveness not revenge. Sacrifice not self-preservation. We see in that moment a tangible reminder of where redemption and reconciliation and renewal and rebirth are found. Not in the greatness of our muscles or minds or imaginations or manipulative skills to bring about the ideal we imagine. But it is there in the cross. It is there in the way of the cross.

This is a familiar scene in movies and on television screens. And it is a familiar scene in our life together. We ask for deliverance or guidance or strength. We ask for God to change our circumstances. And then, when we open our eyes, we see the beginning of his quiet answer to us. We see how God changes us in the midst of our circumstances and points us in the way through them. It is through the loving and humble and redemptive way of the cross.

-Joe Welty

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A Vision of Life Together

“God hates visionary dreaming”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is a stark sentence that stands in stark contrast to many of the ways we are used to talking about vision both inside and outside the church walls. We talk often about the importance of having a compelling and transforming vision for our lives and organizations. Likewise, we see the negative effects that a lack of vision has on us and others. Church leaders commonly point out how this is reinforced by passages like, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). So how can we say, “God hates visionary dreaming,” when it seems like so much seems to hang on it?

This sentence comes from the German pastor and Confessing Church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Banned from public teaching and preaching as Germany careened towards the madness that was World War II, Bonhoeffer became the head of an underground seminary at Finkenwalde for pastors whose consciences would not allow them to serve in Hitler’s official and “updated” church. At Finkenwalde, and then later in what became his “seminary on the road,” Bonhoeffer and his students lived in close community as they worked, studied, prayed, played, ate, and slept in close proximity to each other. In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer sets out the theology of Christian community he taught and reflects on the lessons he learned from living in such close proximity to his fellow Christians for so long. One of the lessons he comes back to often has to do with what he calls “visionary dreaming.” He points out how often Christian communities spring up from “wishful dreams” of what that community might look like and “very definite ideas of what life together should be.” We think that, if only we should look and act and sound a certain way, then everything will be different … better … perfect. We throw out words to these dreams like contemporary or traditional, young or old, conservative or progressive, family or teaching or outreach or justice or community-focused. We fall in love with these visionary dreams. We fall in love with, not what might happen, but what we are convinced will happen when we all get on the same page and “sing” from the same proverbial hymn book (or screen or smart phone app).

But, as Bonhoeffer writes, “God hates visionary dreaming.”

God hates it because when we do this we are falling in love with a dream or an illusion over the person who is actually sitting there in front of us and the reality that this called the Church that we are a part of actually is. These dreams, he writes, make us proud and pretentious as if it is our dream and vision that holds us together. And these dreams make us angry or disillusioned with each other when our dreams inevitably fade or are shattered. He writes how these failed dreams then turn us ultimately into accusers of each other and accusers of God for failing to live up to our vision for them and not God’s vision for us.

“God hates visionary dreaming.” This is not to deny the importance of us having a common, compelling, and transformative vision. But it is a strong warning to make sure that the vision we are united in and the vision that Christ is pointing us to are the same thing. A vision of a called out people made up of every race and language and gender and skin color and economic and academic background who are all being knit together and built up and reconciled to God, and he continues to reconcile us and transform us together. What does this look and sound like? Well, we get to find that out together along the way.

– Joe Welty

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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