Monday, December 5, 2016


            How do you grow a liberal church? Quick, tell me. I pastor one!

            Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) was founded in the dying months of the second world war. It started as a pure community church, but decided it wanted a denominational home. The Anglicans said that that if LPCC joined, they would have to amalgamate with a local Anglican congregation. The United Church, on the other hand, was much more lenient, and let the young congregation stick together on their own. So LPCC joined the United Church. And it grew. With strong leadership, and in an era when to be Canadian was to join a mainline protestant church, a large part of the affluent neighborhood LPCC was built in was soon sitting in the sanctuary every Sunday. Hundreds of people.

            LPCC’s programs were numerous. The music program was wonderful. The pastor was beloved. Money was never a problem. After some time, however, the number of programs declined. The music program remained wonderful, but its traditional tunes appealed to a smaller and smaller demographic. The founding pastor retired and every pastor who followed was seen as a transitional pastor (and, members now joke, will remain so until everyone who remembers the founding pastor finally dies). The church endured some big conflicts around building programs, leadership, theology. The culture became more and more secular. Kids starting playing hockey, baseball and soccer on Sunday mornings. Membership declined. Thankfully, money never became a huge issue. Those who stayed on were and remain generous.

            But there are many fewer of them now than in 1960. Maybe 125 or 140 on an average Sunday. Fewer in the summer and holidays. Many more during Advent, Christmas and Lent. Pretty typical. But LPCC would like to grow. So what now?

            Growth and decline in mainline churches has actually been in the news lately. Some scholars, reports Maclean’s, suggest that it takes conservative theology to grow a mainline church. Others, in response, suggest that what’s missing in declining mainline churches is evangelism . To be honest, I’m really simplifying their arguments, which are from top to bottom, much more nuanced.

            The thing is, I have no interest in following conservative theology, even if it correlates highly with church growth. Having grown up in a conservative denomination, and after I became a well-known leader in that denomination, I changed my mind. It was a life-changing decision after a very difficult and heart-rending process. But I feel good about it, now. So going back to conservative for the sake of church growth would be like selling my soul. I don’t think that even conservative pastors would recommend that I do that!

            So my church wants to grow, and I don’t want to adopt a “strict,” approach to church that seems to correlate with growth (though I note that correlation isn’t the same as causation). What will it take?

            I’m guessing any growing church needs at least a majority of the following qualities—perhaps more:

            ONE: Heartfelt vision or values or mission or whatever you call it. To grow, everyone in church will have to understand what their church is all about and embrace it both at home and in the sanctuary. At LPCC we’re working on that, right now, with a council led, congregation-soon-to-be-involved strategic initiatives process. I know how I’d like it turn out. I think, in their hearts, members know how it will turn out. But we’ll see. The main thing is, we have to own it.

            TWO: A focus. Not quite the same. While setting up her psychotherapy practice, my wife turned up research that suggested a focus on one specialty would be more successful than a generalist focus. This is so because such focus helps drive the therapist’s expertise, and because it is easier to explain (sell, market) a specialty to others. My wife liked this, because she wanted to do Couples Therapy. That singular focus has been good for her practice, Couples In Step. Churches need a similar focus on the right programming that fits their vision.

            THREE: Marketing. Congregational Members have to share the good news about what is happening at LPCC with everyone who matters to them if the congregation is going to grow. The second article, referenced above, is a good place to start thinking about this sort of “evangelism.” Successful church marketing campaigns need things like fliers, newspaper ads, webpages, emails—but the key is real buzz that starts in the pews and is as unstoppable as a tide or sunrise. What I mean, I guess, is that marketing isn’t going to work if the people already in the pews are not sold on what is already happening.

            FOUR: The right preacher. We’ve all had experience of standing at a grocery store checkout line where the clerk didn’t seem to know how to do his or her job with speed, or politeness, or accuracy. And we’ve all had the experience of bringing a car in for repair, and then having to bring it in a second or third time. Not everyone hired to do a job is suited for it. Sometimes they can move to another department. Sometimes not. It can be difficult.
            However, we have all had similar experiences when it comes to church. Few guests will make an effort to go to a new church a second time if they were not moved by the minister’s message, leadership and demeanor the first time. This is a very sticky and difficult issue. As ministers we are pretty defensive, even if we know in our hearts that we’re not all as equally qualified or able. As congregational members, we hardly know where to begin if we’re not being moved by the preaching but love the community.
            Still, the truth is, a growing church very likely has a highly competent, emotionally smart, excellent communicator in the pulpit. Being outgoing and charismatic helps too. Look at growing conservative churches—along with their strictness, you’ll usually find just this sort of pastor. I’m threatened by this reality, but dare not shy away from the challenge.

            FIVE: The right lay leadership. Every church needs leaders and volunteers who love the church, who are not set in their ways and willing to be convinced by new ideas. They take risks and roll up their sleeves when something new needs to be tried. Churches need leaders who are trusted by the membership, who don’t shy away from conflicts and who know how to lead councils and church staffs through tough discussions.

            SIX: Quality music. In a big city like Toronto there is an audience for every genre of music: classical, rock, folk, ska . . . it doesn’t matter. Churches should specialize here (see 2, above), and do whatever they do with panache. If you have multiple services, you should do a different genre at each service to extend your range. But always offer high quality because our culture is immersed in music like never before, and individuals generally don’t respond well to jarring notes.

            SEVEN: A willingness to continue trying things, even after initial disappointments. When you try a new recipe, sometimes it disappoints you. So you don’t use it again. But you don’t then starve; you try something else. Taking programming, staffing, music risks—always measured—is necessary for any church to grow. But when a risk fails, don’t starve yourself by never taking another! Instead, smile and try something else.

            EIGHT: No Guilt. At our church, the marketing materials say things like, “Not Married? Living Together? Welcome!” When people who don’t come very often do, and apologize for being away, I tell them, “When you’re here, we’re glad; when you’re not, we bless you.” I try, as much as possible, not to use the pulpit to wag my finger at the congregation for not giving enough or not being engaged enough on my favorite social issues.
            Ultimately, yes, there are things people should feel guilty about. But it isn’t the minister’s job to name these things and then flail people with them. Conservatives guilt people into insecurity that the church manipulates (scholars call it the strictness hypothesis). I want to challenge people to be who they dream of being.

            NINE: Joy. The flip side of “no guilt,” has to be joy. The minister has to model it, the leadership has to embrace it, the staff has to revel in it. If people are not happy in church, they are not going to come. Period. Party! Eat! Dance! Do Tai Chi! Succeed at outreach social justice projects. Drink wine. Whatever it takes, enjoy your time together. While long-term love, care and support for all members can keep a church strong for generations, it is joy that will spark growth, because visitors will see this first. The rest of it comes through experience.

            TEN: There’s more. Great worship space. Good nursery. Lots of parking. Dedicated youth and children programs. Multi-generational worship. Web presence. Great technology. You can’t do church today without most of these things, unless not doing them is (somehow) part of your unique brand or approach. But what I’m really interested in is what other features you expect to see in a growing liberal church. Besides liberal theology, that is!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

About Last Tuesday. Trump, the Dispossessed, and Us.

(A sermon preached on November 13 at Lawrence Park Community Church after Donald Trump's election victory.)

         I don’t want to be too melodramatic. But last Tuesday night, when Trump was elected, I was gob smacked. Irene and I had some back-and-forth, agonizing calls with our kids in the States. I went to bed stunned and woke up depressed. I was unable to read commentary about the election for days after. I am afraid of what is next.

         Now, personally, I don't like Trump’s trade, or tax, or foreign policies. I worry about his impending supreme court picks. Still, I also understand that among people of good repute there can be disagreement about such policy matters.

         On the other hand, too many of Trump’s policies and statements are not debatable, but immoral. In spite of the science and the apocalyptic risk he denies global climate change. His hatred of “the other,” or “the stranger,” is xenophobic. It means he wants to ban Muslim immigration and deport millions of non-documented immigrants and has no sympathy for the issues that have ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. His statements preferring Jews to blacks as employees or denying that Obama was born in America or is a Christian, his mockery of people with disabilities, and his pathetic and demeaning treatment of women, his goading of supporters to violence against protestors at his rallies—these actions are not just impolitic, they are immoral.

         Still, as the week wore on and I tried to understand, it dawned on me that I’m not the only one who is afraid. A sizeable portion—not all, but a key part of Trump’s support base—belong to a large white American underclass that doesn’t have much by way of prospects. And they are afraid too. I do not approve of this group’s decision to support Trump, but I think we need to understand them and their grievances.

         Who is in this underclass, exactly?

         These are mostly white people who are afraid that the American dream is a fantasy as far as they and their families go. They can’t keep up with the change from a General Motors and US Steel economy to a Microsoft and MacDonald’s economy. They lost their homes, or at least their equity, in the financial crisis. They can’t afford college for their kids. They are stuck in generations-long spiral of poverty. And, believing they have nothing to lose, they chose Trump as their last, best hope for somehow changing the game they keep on losing. I am afraid of Donald Trump for intellectual and moral reasons; but many of the people who voted for Trump are afraid for themselves.

        This week the New York Times ran an article entitled "6 Books to Help Understand Trump's win. Most of these books are about the white underclass and their gripes. I had already read one of them, The Unwinding, by George Packer. It is a book about how white factory workers, tobacco farmers, backwoods people and even politicians have been left behind by big changes in the American economy and social landscape. One chapter is about Newt Gingrich, and how he discovered that as far as these people are concerned, facts don’t matter anymore. So instead, Gingrich suggested that if politicians offer up political venom, true or not, anytime and they will get away with it, a lesson not lost on Trump. Gingrich "gave them mustard gas," writes Packer, "and they used it on every conceivable enemy."

          Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild explains why many poor white Americans believe that "others [that is, mostly immigrants, blacks, and women] are 'cutting in line' and that the federal government is supporting people on the dole -- 'taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.'" This is a book about the fear and loathing poor white people have when they imagine even poorer, more marginalized people are taking the jobs and benefits that they don’t have.

         White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg tells how from America’s earliest days, a white underclass has slowly grown in America’s suburbs and backwaters. Their ancestors came over on the Mayflower as indentured servants, later as slaves, prisoners, or as hated Irish or Hispanic Catholic immigrants. This underclass died for America in its wars, was always available as cheap labor in mines and on farms, and was largely ignored when it came to sharing most of the benefits of America’s economic growth.

         A significant portion of the people who voted Trump experienced a generation or two of good-paying factory jobs but now have to settle for twelve dollars an hour at Walmart. They have been cut off from welfare by Bill Clinton’s reforms. They think the system—free trade, banking, health care, immigration, the one-percenters—it is all stacked against them. They point to the brokers and bankers and CEOs who made out like bandits during the financial meltdown while they lost their homes. They resent the fact that Bush and son ran America, that Trudeau and son run Canada, and that Clinton and his wife nearly ran the United States; it suggests to them that the system is rigged to keep the powerful in power; rigged to keep people like them down.

         This underclass is not a majority. They are a small but not insignificant demographic, enough to turn the tide, and they are full of dread. And they don’t give a damn what Trump says about women or blacks or Hispanics—people they desperately need to make common cause with, but won’t. They don’t care whether he has gone bankrupt or cheated his contractors. They don’t care whether Trump deals with Putin or gropes women or says he’ll nuke the North Koreans. They just want somebody who will finally, finally feel their pain and do something about it—never mind any other historically marginalized group or ethnicity in America.

         So now what? Well, I have an old acquaintance, who wrote, on Facebook: “Don’t worry, God is in control.” To which I responded, “Why blame God or God’s plan? We made this bed, we have to sleep in it. No need to bring God into it.”

         She responded by defriending me.

         Essentially, this approach to God and to Trump as God’s crooked stick washes our hands of responsibility to do something about his poisoned politics in the USA, or similar poisoned politics when it rises—as it has and threatens to again—in Canada. In this case, faith in God adds up to an excuse to carry on as before, to baptize the status quo, especially if we are doing okay. This adds up to a weak, emasculated Christianity devoid of inspiration, direction, and wisdom.

         So I want to suggest a different approach. One that is less interested in putting God on a throne where God runs things than it is interested in inspiring Christians to be like Christ, here and now. We should not fear as they fear, says Peter, in 1 Peter 3:14. We should, rather, be Christian.

         You see, I think the solution to Trumpism—at least in the long-term—is not so much to fear Trump as it is to pay careful, empathetic, and loving attention to the concerns of all of America’s—and Canada’s—marginalized classes of people, just as Jesus sought out lepers and women of ill repute and tax-collectors for his inner circle. And in fact, the whole point of living in a democracy is that here we—whether rich or poor, influential or not—we all get to make decisions together for the common good, for our neighbor’s good. We should not fear as they fear. We should do justice and love mercy, instead. It is the Christian—and Muslim, and Hindu, and Jewish, and secular humanist—thing to do.

         The way for us to deal with our fear of the consequences of a Trump presidency, or a Mayor Ford victory, or a turn to extremism in any form has to lie in our decision—to use Peter’s words—to refuse to let our tongues speak evil or our lips deceit—no matter what the demagogues like Gingrich are screaming. We should not fear as they fear. Instead, especially for those who have been left outside the circle of our ease and success, we must redouble our efforts to seek peace—shalom—for the whole body politic.

         I can’t tell you what policies, exactly, will achieve this aspirational goal for Canada. If I were to tell you that would make me a Liberal or Conservative or NDP policy wonk instead of a preacher. But the values that drive our policy choices and voting should have roots in Biblical passages such as the one we read today, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, or Jesus’ claim that what we do for the prisoner or the hungry or those poorly clothed we do to him. We don’t have to put our fear in the driver’s seat, but we could put our compassion—for the poor who live at Jane and Finch, the First Nations in our prisons and on their reserves, for the homeless at the subway entrances, the immigrants who can’t find work that fits their training and abilities—we could put our compassion in our political driver’s seat and let that compassion drive our search for policy. This is, in fact, what you are already doing: by sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, by supporting Kenny’s work with First Nations youth at risk, and by the many other social outreach programs we do. This is good stuff.

         This is a remarkable congregation. But besides charity, we also have real influence to do lasting social good for the whole nation. This is because we are mostly well-educated. We have careers that influence who buys, what they buy, and what values our corporations are run by. We vote—and are at the table when parties pick candidates and we influence their policy. We know our political representatives personally. We hire people. We take on pro bono clients. We run non-profits. Many of us have personal resources to invest in social good and charity and culture. We are, for the most part if not entirely, utterly unlike the dispossessed who voted for Trump—or the dispossessed on the fringes of Canadian society.  We do not need to fear as they fear. Rather than cross our fingers and leave matters to God’s inscrutable plan, we actually can do great things that make a difference for all. We can, with those on the margins, help build a more lasting, more compassionate, more forward looking dominion.

         I still fear what Trump will do, but I am focused on doing what I can. Remember how Leonard Cohen put it? “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” True. We’re not perfect. We are not all powerful. There is a crack in everything we do. But we can do our part, which is not inconsiderable, to let the light shine in for all Canadians.

         We should not fear as they fear. We should, instead, be like Christ.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Walls: From Scripture to Trump

When Obama won the presidency, eight years ago, I wept. I’m sure some of you who watched the Chicago celebration also wept. My reasons, though, were very personal. I saw his victory as a ray of light for my own family. 

Election night, Chicago, 2008
My daughter, Mariya, is an Afghani. Her birth family moved to the United States when Russia invaded Afghanistan. She is Caucasian, like most Afghanis, though often mistaken for an Arab, which shouldn’t matter, but does. Her daughter, my granddaughter, Dela, is Afghani-African-American. My daughter-in-law Gillian, is Shona, from Zimbabwe. Her two children, my grandchildren, are African-Americans. I am a dual American-Canadian citizen.

Anyway, when Barack Obama won, I wept because I thought I saw a ray of light when it comes to race-relations. I dared to believe that we were making progress. I believed, hoped, prayed that my grandchildren could live the American dream, that they could be safe on American roads if stopped by the police, that they would be treated as humans in school, not as black kids in need of special discipline, as is too often the case.

That was then . . . by now:

  • Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for president. Donald Trump has been sued by the US Justice Department for systematic discrimination against Blacks who wanted to rent his apartments. When Blacks applied, they were told the apartments were no longer available; when whites applied for the same apartment hours later, they were available again. 
  • Donald Trump, who once said of his casinos, “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” 
  • Trump, denounced Mexican immigrants as, quote, “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” who has demanded that no more Muslims be allowed to enter the USA, who for months refused to distance himself from racist white supremacists. 
  • Trump, who insists that rather than take down walls, he wants to build them. 
  • Trump, who brags about sexually assaulting women, but denies that he ever did it when nine (and counting) women come forward to say that he assaulted them. 
  • Trump who says “an eye for an eye” is his favorite Bible verse (check out Exodus 21:22-25). Jesus, however, said, “You have heard it said ‘eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39).
Well, ganging up on Donald Trump is almost too easy. So easy, in fact, that we don’t pay attention to similar issues and large walls closer to home.

In Canada, for example. One day, last week the paper included a front-page story about a Black man who called 911 because he was robbed on Spadina St., in Toronto. Within minutes there were ten police there—frisking his private parts, going through his luggage, forcing him to raise his hands, scaring him half to death—even though he was the one who called 911. Here in Canada we still struggle with residential schools and their aftermath, missing and murdered indigenous women, high populations of First Nations and Blacks in our prisons, carding, unequal treatment of persons of color in our schools.

On the other hand, there is this lovely video. 

Biologically, we are one. But with respect to race, we all struggle with our personal prejudice, fears, misconceptions, and sometimes the violence of others. I do too.

But listen. When the Christian church was founded, its first leaders insisted on a huge, fundamental change in how people in their era treated other people—people on the fringes. The Apostle Paul put it this way, more or less: In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek or Black or Arab; there is no longer slave or free or immigrant or First Nations, there is no longer male or female or transgendered or gay, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In another place, speaking of how both Jews and gentiles are welcome in the church—and so presumably anyone is welcome, Paul added, “he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."

Eight years ago, it was Obama who was our ray of light. Today, as Christians, we need to remember that our religious DNA demands of us that we tear down those walls—sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia—it all has to go! Not just for my grandkids, but for Christ’s sake.

Monday, September 26, 2016

How Strong Is God, Really?

            In The Wizard of Oz, a young Kansan girl, Dorothy, and her house are both transported by a tornado to the magical land of Oz. Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, and so decides to ask the Wizard of Oz for help. On the way to see the wizard, Dorothy meets a lion without courage, a tin man who has no heart, and a straw man who has no brains. When they arrive, the Wizard promises them all they ask for, if only Dorothy can kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy does so, with a pail of water. So they all finally return to the Wizard’s throne room to claim their prizes.

            And it turns out that in spite of the fact that the Wizard seems to be, in turn, a great head, a ball of fire, or a terrible beast—it turns out that the Wizard will not deliver what Dorothy and her friends hoped for.

            Many Christians treat God much like Dorothy and her friends treated the Wizard. That God is bound to disappoint.

            What I mean is this.

            Many of us, certainly me, have been told since we were knee high to grasshoppers, that our God—if not a wizard, is sort of like an Emperor-Pharaoh-Caesar God, only better, because this God can do magic too. This God rules over every detail of our lives, sometimes answers our prayers and sometimes not, and after we die, he—God is always a “he” in this tradition—he sits in judgement over our lives too, like Caesar, offering some of us a thumbs up and some a thumbs down.

            In seminary, this God was described as—using words and concepts mostly derived from Greek philosophy—omniscient, immutable, impassible, infinite and omnipotent; God is omnipresent, of one substance, not mixed, uncreated, self-existent, self-sufficient, immaterial, perfect, and—in spite of all of these descriptive words, God is also ineffable, which—ironically—means “unknowable.”

            My professors also introduced me to Saint Augustine, who said, “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen.” John Calvin added, “God foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed they take place.” In other words, according to these giants of Western theology, it isn’t just that God permits terrible things to happen, but God actively insists that they happen.

            Finally, this God sends his son to death on a cross. This is because, according to most Christian theology, God cannot forgive us our sins unless his (mighty!) divine honor, which we have offended; or perhaps his (mighty!) divine sense of justice, that we have transgressed—God cannot forgive sins until he is appeased by blood. Which, to me at least, makes this mighty God of Western theology seem very small and very petty, because most of us know how to forgive—say our children, or our friends—even we know how to forgive without demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as forgiveness’s price.

            Look, I admit this picture of the mighty God of Western Christendom is a bit of a caricature. Forgive me. But this view of God is out there, everywhere, it seems. However, I would like to suggest another picture of God also found in scripture's pages that I find more helpful and more believable.

            This God is—surprise—not a God of power and might, but a God of weakness, a God who comes in the still quiet voice, the God who, says Isaiah, hides; the God who is about as mighty as a first century fisherman, who is so tiny and inconsequential that she lives in our hearts, as insubstantial as a puff of wind from who knows where going who knows where.

            And, with respect to all those theologians and philosophers who have important sounding Greek words to define God, remember this: just as you cannot nail down the wind to examine it, you cannot nail God down to examine her. The best we can do, actually, to describe God is to tell stories and use metaphors and similes. So Jesus said, “God is like the wind”—so also says Isaiah too—who then adds, you cannot measure this God on any scale. God is what no eye has seen, no ear has heard. God is weak, in the very best way possible, like an evening wind that refreshes after a hot day, one that caresses and rebirths us.

            God is weak. This means that as much as we would like God to interfere, fix things, answer prayers to repair Aunt Minnie’s gall-bladder or fix the US election, God will not. Such interference, like antimatter, would destroy our world and universe by compromising its very structure as a marvellous construction of cosmic law and matter, of human freedom and risk. The weakness of God is the tradeoff God accepts to give us life.

            God is weak. Jesus explains. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me. If you know me, you will know my father also.”

            Amazing. This ancient Jewish man, a poor pedestrian carpenter, says, “If you know me, you know God.”

            So if Jesus is mirror to God, this must mean that like Jesus, God does not raise her hand or lift a sword or use threats of hell to get her way.  

            If Jesus is our mirror to God, then we meet God especially in our embrace of the hungry and the refugees who cross our path, for Jesus says he is to be found in the least and the last.

            If Jesus is our mirror to God, then we must find God especially in the wisdom of parables that cannot be humanly explained, and in the humility of beatitudes that the strong in this world scoff at, for they are not at all impressed by divine weakness.

            God is weak, by her own necessary design. But God is also, says a Jewish rabbi, like a little girl who hides during a game of hide and seek, and then laughs to give herself away. And when the wind blows, if you listen carefully, you will hear that laughter, which is actually a divine invitation for us to find our true selves, to become fully human, to square our own shoulders and live as God’s own ambassadors of love and reconciliation.

            God is weak, like a gentle wind, so that we may be strong, like God.