A GREAT GIFT
We could never say enough about the great gift our children are to us! It used to be said that children are the church of tomorrow. But the truth is, they’re the church of today. Their active presence in our midst enriches us all.
Throughout this Lenten season we have been exploring ways to celebrate a more positive message than sin, repentance and self-denial. These themes have their place in Christian spirituality, but they are adult themes and therefore a hard sell to children. We wondered if we might rediscover the blessings of Lent by approaching it through their eyes.
So each week we have explored with our children, “Where is God?” We looked inward and celebrated the many ways our bodies are “wondrously made”. We considered how seeds, when they are buried, produce magnificent results. Then the children led our worship with a reminder that each of us has been given gifts to share with the world.
Last week and this, they have helped us look outward into our world to find God in the cosmic game of Hide and Seek, where the “Good News’ often lies hidden within the bad news.
This year our children have drawn us back to the basics of our faith: that we are all wonderful creations of God, loved and filled with purpose. And they have proved that they are indeed a vital part of our church today! Our thanks to them all, and to Kathleen Howes, their guide on the Excellent Adventure.
Looking for a Sign
Back in the day, churches displayed the times of their Sunday services on their outdoor sign … and called it advertising. In an age when most people went to church, and when most of them already had their denominational affiliation, there was nothing else to say.
Now, in an age when almost no one goes to church, and when most couldn’t tell you the difference between an Anglican and a Baptist—nor even the difference between a church and a synagogue, telling the world who we are has become more complicated. Most of those who find us today have done so through our web site, or our Facebook page, or through word of mouth. To these folks the outdoor sign serves only to confirm that this is indeed the place. It also lets our neighbours know we are still alive and kicking inside our fortress walls. We are looking for some enterprising church members to help us let the world know who we are.
We have someone—Chad Dudley—who works on our web site for us, and who posts updates on our Facebook page. What we lack at the moment is a vision and a strategy to keep our communications current and to seek new ways of being “out there”.
Is this you? Do you have a passion for St. Stephen’s? Do you have your eye on the social media? Would you like to help create our new “sign” for the world to see? If so, let us know.
How would you feel if you could look your assailant in the eye? What would you say? Would it be an opportunity for vengeance? Or would it be a time for compassion, perhaps even forgiveness? We’re about to find out.
Our church was broken into five times over the Christmas holidays—all, apparently, by the same intruder. Thankfully there was no vandalism. But there was damage, and there was theft. Six hundred dollars in cash was stolen, along with a computer and some cheques received as Sunday offerings. Our repair bills ran into the thousands. The staff was left feeling nervous and insecure. So we are now beefing up the security of our buildings, a project that will cost us over $15,000.
The intruder was caught and arrested. He was well known to the police, his face showing up on the after-hour surveillance videos of several local businesses, and his rap sheet including (we are told) upward of fifty previous convictions. He will have his day in court and then, presumably, he will be back in the hood.
Some of us are exploring what it would be like to make it personal, to meet our thief, to ask him why he did it, and to offer him a restorative relationship. Once we better understand the process, we are considering making a victim impact statement that would include the possibility of our being part of his rehabilitation. What do you think about that? How does it feel? What would you say?
Every week people in need call our church or knock on our door. They need bus tickets to get to medical appointments, or a food voucher to tide them over until their government cheque comes through, or help with their rent. Sometimes they’re scamming us. Sometimes they just need someone to hear their story of bad luck and hard choices. And sometimes we can help. But a church is not well suited to be a social service outpost. We have limited resources to offer—of both time and money—and nothing but common sense to guide us. We can offer emergency support, but often the circumstances are complex, and they will not be significantly altered by whatever help we provide. So Clara King and Dariel Bateman have been preparing a strategy to make our outreach more effective. First stop—the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS), which has the trained staff, the financial resources, and the information technology to respond effectively to people in need. Second stop—the four other churches in our neighbourhood who, like us, receive weekly requests for help. Clearer communication and better cooperation means we can do more effective intake at the door and get people to CUPS or other agencies who can provide assistance. This leaves us with the role we ARE well suited to play: pastoral support, and a faith community to assist with the healing of wounded people. We will still offer tangible help, but now only as part of a deeper supportive relationship.
IT’S ABOUT GOOD NEWS, NOT BAD
It’s not about sin. It’s not about being bad, or flawed, or guilty. It’s not about a God who is angry with us, or who judges us, or who wants to punish us. It’s about being human (with the same root as humus, ie. of the earth). It’s about grace, about a God who loves us and who is highly invested in our health and happiness. It’s about Good News, not bad.
How did we get here? How did Christians settle on a worldview so dark, so ominous, that modern people ran away from it as soon as they could, scattering to other religions, or to no religion at all? Did we really think that a message of sin would hold people, like deer caught in the headlights, transfixed by their approaching doom? Did we really think we could then mollify people’s fears (fears we ourselves planted in their minds) by providing the “fix”—their acceptance of Jesus as their saviour, their obedience to him as their lord, and their unquestioning loyalty to the church as his representative?
Lent is a time when, traditionally, the church has cultivated our sense of guilt and unworthiness in order to offer the Good News of our salvation at Eastertide. But what if we use this time, not to rub our noses in our humanity, but to rejoice in it, to thank God that we are “wondrously made”, that, in truth, it’s all about grace? That’s what we’ll be doing here at St. Stephen’s.
At the close of 2014, St. Stephen’s was broken into five times in a two-week period … and all by the same person! He got away with several hundred dollars in cash, an old computer, and some cheques he couldn’t cash (but then, neither could we!). He is now behind bars, but he left us with thousands of dollars in repair bills and a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of our buildings to intrusion.
Lynn, our Parish Administrator, spent the better part of January hearing presentations, receiving quotes, and preparing a full report that the rector and churchwardens reviewed last week. From a long list of possible upgrades and installations they have assembled a plan to make the church more secure without, at the same time, making it Fort Knox. The plan features strategic lighting and video surveillance, a new keyless entry system, and various other specific improvements.
All this will cost in excess of $15,000—for which there is no provision in this year’s budget. So the new security plan, of necessity, will launch a special fund-raising campaign. In the weeks to come the churchwardens will be sending out a letter asking for your help. Please give generously when you receive it, as this affects all of us who take pride in our church.
No building is completely invulnerable to malicious unwanted entry. But here at St. Stephen’s we can make our buildings stronger, and our staff safer. It is exercising good stewardship—and common sense—to do so.
THE HEALTHY PARISH AND MONEY
We approach our Annual General Meeting this year with a worrisome projected deficit in excess of $30,000. It is not unusual for churches to carry deficits, but if it becomes a trend it jeopardizes many of our hopes and dreams for the ministries and outreach that are important to us.
What’s gone wrong? Givings are certainly up, the parish is lively, we enjoy a positive profile in the wider community, and new members continue to find their way to us. Expenses have risen since the renovations, especially for the additional care required for our new space, but we had anticipated that with increased rental income. So we don’t know exactly.
But Parish Council, even as it approved the budget for presentation to the AGM, committed itself in the coming year to addressing this issue and finding solutions. In fact, Parish Council identified two concerns to tackle in the coming year: the deficit, and also the prospect of a sudden turnover in staff in a few years.
So sustainability and succession planning have emerged front and centre on our agenda. It is forward-thinking leadership to identify a trend while it is still manageable, and to correct it before it begins to manage us!
The members of Parish Council—which includes its six elected members, the lay delegates to Synod, and the rector and churchwardens—are assured our prayers and support as they help us find a way through. Together we will work to build a healthy parish for years to come.
GROWING AND CONNECTING
As happens often around St. Stephen’s these days, last Wednesday evening was a beehive of activity. The meditation group was quietly praying up a storm in the sanctuary; the “I Love You” kickboxing class gave way to the Tillicum Al Anon group who gathered to share their personal stories down in the Memorial Hall; the young people from the community chess club was deep in cogitation in the Creation Space; and in the Canterbury Room it was standing room only as members of the neighbourhood vied for a patch of this year’s Community Garden.
The Garden, outside the doors to the Memorial Hall, was the result of conversations last year with Carmen Marques, the City’s community social worker assigned to our area. (It was also Carmen who facilitated the chess group.) Evenstart, the pre-school children’s support agency, had left us, which meant that the small area allotted for their outdoor playground was left fallow. A community garden would meet a number of local needs, providing yet another connection between us and our neighbours.
Then Ian Newman—a member of St. Stephen’s who is active in our local community—stepped forward and offered to build the planter boxes. One weekend he arrived with lumber and a few willing workers and—presto!—there was our first community garden. To which he then added a community library box. This year we are doubling the size of the garden to include the patch on the other side of the walkway. Our outreach is growing!
THE PATHS WE CHOOSE
We, all of us, in the modern world, have taken religion into our own hands. Gone are the days when we simple do what we’re told by religious authorities. We go to church on a given Sunday … or we don’t. We believe in the virgin birth … or we don’t. We choose.
Some would lament this development as an inflation of the human ego, some as contributing to social chaos. But no one would deny that we have entered an age of tremendous religious freedom, where we can forge our own spiritual path, with or without the help of organized religion.
For those of us who take comfort and inspiration from the Christian religion, our spiritual life remains tied to the story of the Bible and, specifically of course, to the story of Jesus. Yet even within this story there are rich avenues to explore, deep wells to uncover. What traditional beliefs are meaningful to us? Which spiritual practices are helpful? How do we find a way forward?
This Lent we will be exploring our individual faith journeys through Thomas Moore’s “A Religion of One’s Own”. In an age of religious freedom and secular choice, Moore considers the various dimensions that make for a spiritual life: naturalness, depth, the body, the arts, intuition, and community.
You are invited to join us for a lively exploration of “A Religion of One’s Own” every Tuesday evening through Lent, February 24 to March 31, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the sanctuary.
SEEKING A WAY FORWARD
This past week, our bishop, Greg Kerr-Wilson, met with our Parish Council to discuss same-sex blessings. In a respectful exchange of views, it became clear that we are at an impasse.
The members of Parish Council spoke clearly and passionately about the reasons they were in favour of same-sex blessings. Some spoke from a concern about a younger generation for whom this is no longer an issue. Some spoke from a concern for basic justice and equality. Some referenced the core values of the Christian tradition. All told personal stories that made their concerns personal.
The bishop shared some of his own personal stories and then spoke of a complex of philosophical and theological insights that underpinned his beliefs, insights he was reluctant to unpack in detail due to the limited format of our conversation. But he offered that, while he was opposed to same-sex blessings, he was actively pursuing pastoral rites and prayers that could be used in support of same-sex relationships, prayers that would stop short of actually blessing such relationships.
The bishop also made clear his disappointment in the haphazard way the wider church has approached this issue. He hoped we would honour the episcopal nature of the Anglican Church and not proceed on our own, the strong vote at our general meeting not being reflective of Anglican views across the diocese or across the country.
Clearly, we at St. Stephen’s disagree. Along with two other congregations in the diocese we continue to seek a way forward.