Careful what you ask for, the adage goes, because you just might get it.
Everywhere the church is praying for new life. At a United Church conference last week the same fears could be heard as at any Anglican gathering. The church is ageing, the young people aren’t coming, and the writing’s on the wall. We know how to wring our hands and shake our heads. But what happens when the new life we’re looking for suddenly whooshes into the room?
That’s what’s happening around here these days. On top of such enlivening programs as Follow Your Passion, the Midtown Mosaic, and Radio Nights, we enjoyed a shot of new life last Sunday when the Soul Food band backed an interpretive Eucharist that walked us through the shape—the soulful movement—of a typical worship service. The effect was electrifying.
The Soul Food band forms the core of our Soul Food events, gatherings where music, storytelling and meditation replace worship in the traditional sense. People who are not habitual church-goers have found a place to feel a soul connection through these events, and we have benefited from this contact with the wider community.
Now the band is being invited to take its lively music on the road with invitations from two other churches. The next Soul Food event at St. Stephen’s is a Christmas show, “Soul Food for the Winter Solstice”, on December 19. The Spirit is moving, new life is crackling in our midst. Are we ready for it?
This week, for something completely different, our worship at 10:30 takes the form of a “deconstructed musical mass”.
Anglican worship gets stuck on the words. We fight over words, whether they should be Elizabethan or modern, whether we should say “… proceeds from the Father” or “… from the Father and the Son”. As if worship is about the words.
But far beneath the words we use, something soulful is happening when we worship. We are caught up in a movement of the Holy Spirit. We arrive having lived in isolation from one another, perhaps feeling alienated from a sense of purpose. But somewhere in the course of worshiping we get ourselves back.
Anglican worship gives shape to this movement. We gather, hear the familiar story, offer our prayers in response, and end up celebrating with a meal around a table. Somehow this simple progression places us back on track and we leave empowered once again to be the people God created us to be.
Oh, about the music. Forty years ago Christian songwriter Larry Norman sang, “Why must the devil have all the good music?” Too bad for him, and for us, when we assume that music that doesn’t brandish the name of Jesus is of the devil. The mythic and universal dimensions of the Christian story—death and resurrection, fall and grace—resonate throughout popular culture. And most Western music—from Gospel to Blues to Rock to Rap—is rooted in that very story. So why not rock?!
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There are so many good things happening at St. Stephen’s these days it is tempting not to acknowledge that there is sadness too.
Many have noticed the population explosion taking place at church in recent months. Our nursery is bursting at the seams and our Excellent Adventure program is considering subdividing into two age groups. A glance across the rows of faces on a Sunday morning reveals many young adults. And many more are finding us each week through our web site.
We are grateful for this new life and the vitality it brings to our church family. But at the same time we are privileged to be accompanying several of our members who are at the other end of life, and not just seniors, but others whose lives sadly are winding down one way or another. So on Tuesday we will be celebrating the life of Lois Wirth whose ill-health plagued her for many years but whose vibrant spirit never gave up.
Between those poles of birth and death there are many others struggling with difficult circumstances, just as there are many celebrating some happy new turn of events. A church is a human community where we embrace all of life. When the going gets tough we band together and seek signs of hope. When we receive unexpected blessings we offer prayers of thanksgiving.
Church is anything but an escape from reality. We are what it means to be God’s people; we are what it means to be human.
This week we set a new course for St. Stephen’s.
After almost a decade of research into redevelopment possibilities, we are being asked to approve a $1.1 million campaign in support of the first phase of a new vision for our buildings and property.
Having concluded that “doing nothing is not an option”, the challenge has been to turn our ageing facilities into an asset, an extension of our mission and ministry. The vision sees St. Stephen’s becoming a hub of the Beltline, removing barriers and creating a welcoming and useable community centre.
Phase I focuses on a few immediate needs: upgrading the mechanical / electrical fabric “behind the walls” (something we have been committed to since 2003); completing the renovation of the sanctuary to create a more flexible and accessible space both for worship and for the performing arts; installing washrooms to accommodate large gatherings; and the construction of an elevator to allow access to all levels of our facility.
Phase II will push the vision further with improved street presence and access, enlargement of program space (both for ourselves and as rental space), and a new level of flexibility for our worship space. But all in due course.
First we commit ourselves to raising the money and completing the plans for Phase I. Later in the year we approve those plans and start the renovation. Then we revisit the vision and prepare ourselves for Phase II.
One way or another, this week we step into a new future.
Of all the saints to choose as a patron, Stephen is among the most inspiring. But he is also among the most tragic. What were we thinking?
Stephen was the church’s first deacon. That means servant. As the early church grew, our forebears learned what we now know so well. Just because someone is a caring pastor or an effective preacher doesn’t make him or her a good administrator. The Good News was being preached but the widows and orphans were being neglected. So they chose Stephen and six others to care for the needy while the apostles continued their preaching and teaching.
Stephen was good at this, and was well regarded by the community. We read in the Book of Acts that he “did great wonders and signs among the people”. He could also give a clear and compelling account of his faith when challenged by the religious authorities. But this got him into trouble.
Having drawn attention to himself by his good works and persuasive speech, Stephen came under fire by those seeking to discredit the early Christian movement. Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy and stoned to death by an angry mob. So Stephen became the church’s first martyr, exemplifying in both his life and death the pattern he followed in Jesus his Lord.
This is our patron. He inspires us to preach the Good News, but also to practice it … even if that means giving all we have. Because in the end, it’s about serving.