Living Now with Eternity in Mind #9: Living as the Community of Jesus

Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing.

For the one who wants to love life
and to see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit,
and let him turn away from evil
and do what is good.
Let him seek peace and pursue it,
because the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against
those who do what is evil.

1 Peter 3:8—12

What does it mean to be the church these days? And when I say church I don’t mean the building. I don’t mean the Sunday morning worship service. I don’t even mean the programs we run throughout the week. When I say church, I mean the people who claim to follow Jesus. I mean groups of people committed in faith to the person of Jesus. What does it mean to be us these days? How is God calling us to follow him here and now? What does discipleship look like?

I think we’ve depended on a certain set of structures and traditions—ways of thinking about church and ways of doing church—for so long that we’re often unable to distinguish these things from the good news itself and from what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And rather than be discouraged, can we also not see the present as an opportunity? Is it possible that what some churches are experiencing as decreased attendance and other issues is a God-ordained moment to take a closer look at who we are and why we’re here? How is God trying to speak to us? And are we willing to listen?

In our passage, Peter concludes his version of the household code, how Christians in the culture of the Roman Empire were to relate to one another. And rather than simply repeat what the Roman versions say, his version of the household code is subversive—it begins to challenge cultural assumptions. To this point he’s addressed slaves and masters, husbands and wives, and now he turns to the church. By putting his discussion of church relationships into a section with the household code, Peter is suggesting that Living as the community of Jesus means becoming members of a new family.

When we look at the first verse in our passage, Peter is addressing the relationships in the church. He says: Finally, I want all of you to agree with one another. Be understanding. Love one another. Be kind and tender. Be humble. In the ESV it reads this way: So all of you should live together in peace. Try to understand each other. Love each other like brothers and sisters. Be kind and humble.

What kind of community does this sound like to you? What would it be like to be a part of a community like this? Honestly, deep down isn’t this what we want?

He says Love each other like brothers and sisters. And, of course, he’s saying this to people who are being mocked and mistreated by those who are not Christians. He’s saying this to people who might well be experiencing division and difficulties in their families because of their allegiance to Jesus.

It also makes me think of people whose families are not loving places. I think of young people whose homes are places of conflict and confusion. Imagine how much it means to find a place where you are loved for who you are. Think about the many refugees who have found homes and families, safety, security, and community by coming here to Canada. Think of the witness so many churches have had by being at the forefront of this movement.

When churches become places where people are brought into a loving community, they become a source of supportive, caring family relationships. Living as the community of Jesus means becoming members of a new family.

In what way have you experienced church as family? How have you met Jesus through your experience of church family?How can our church grow as a family?What difference does being a family make when it comes to showing love to our neighbours?

I was talking to someone recently whose church has grown significantly over the last year and a half. And it has nothing to do with programs. It has nothing to do with money. It began to grow when people began taking time to get to know one another. They even have a coffee break in the middle of their service. Nowadays people share testimonies, share what’s going on in their hearts, and people are growing in the Lord. Before this began to happen, they had fewer people than we do.

I really like how the ESV puts this part of our passage: Try to understand each other. Isn’t that a big part of becoming a community, of being a family? And how do we try and understand one another? We talk. We listen. We ask questions. We have actual conversations about life. We open up. It seems to me that Peter is talking about people who are in close relationships. I think this was a community where people could be themselves, be honest, talk about their struggles and problems, pray together, break bread together. Admittedly, it can be easier not to do this. Opening up means admitting stuff maybe we’d rather avoid. Fear. Doubt. Sin. Struggling to trust God.

Scholars estimate that most first century NT churches had no more than 50 members. Some may have had 20—30 members in one house church. Now, I’m not saying we don’t want to grow numerically, but by this measure we’re the same size range as a NT house church. So, numbers can’t be a reason why we can’t be a healthy church! We can become a healthier church with who and what we have!

So, what does this have to do with Jesus? Well, I think it has everything to do with Jesus. Because having a relationship with Jesus is supposed to be about becoming more human, more loving, more accepting. And this means being honest about who we are in front of one another. I think it’s in that kind of space that Christ seeks to transform us, to shape us, to continue healing and saving us.

I’ll put it this way: Living as the community of Jesus is how Jesus heals and transforms us.

Growing as disciples and followers of Jesus involves all of life. There’s nothing that Christ cannot redeem. There is no dark corner where his light cannot shine. There is no heart that he cannot heal. And this is why he brings us into community—it is in community that he seeks to do his work in our hearts and lives.

I think most of the people around us who don’t go to church – our neighbours, family members, classmates, friends, co-workers – have genuine spiritual questions and a genuine hunger for meaning. Why don’t most of them want to come to our churches? I know there are probably lots of reasons, but maybe for some it’s because they want a place where we can wrestle and talk openly, be ourselves, and, yes, even be vulnerable. But they think this is a place where they’re more likely to be judged. I think it’s in such a space that the Holy Spirit of God is free to move. I think people are looking for honesty and authenticity. I think they want truth that speaks profoundly to their heart’s deepest longing. And the church should be precisely the space where this can happen.

Why are honesty and authenticity important in a church family? How can we make it clear that this is a place where we can be ourselves before one another and God? Where do we need Jesus to bring deeper spiritual transformation?

Peter also tells the believers in Asia Minor how to respond to people who are not believers: Don’t do wrong to anyone to pay them back for doing wrong to you. Or don’t insult anyone to pay them back for insulting you. But ask God to bless them. Do this because you yourselves were chosen to receive a blessing. 

I don’t know about you, but there’s not a lot of people who insult me or mistreat me or make fun of me because I am a follower of Jesus. We live in a culture that is different from the culture in Peter’s day because ours has a lot of residual Christianity. For the most part, people who aren’t Christians feel able and inclined simply to ignore us. We’re not on their radar. Still, it’s good to ask: what is our attitude towards people who are not believers?

Peter cites some of Psalm 34 to reinforce his point about how believers should respond to those who are not believers. He says: “If you want to enjoy true life and have only good days, then avoid saying anything hurtful, and never let a lie come out of your mouth. Stop doing what is wrong, and do good. Look for peace, and do all you can to help people live peacefully. The Lord watches over those who do what is right, and he listens to their prayers. But he is against those who do evil.”

Part of what I see here is that our individual behaviour and attitudes reflects back on the church. If people see me doing wrong, being unkind, and not helping my neighbours, what will they think of my church?More than that: Ask God to bless them, Peter instructs. Do good, he tells them. Do all you can to help people live peacefully, he says.

This makes me think of the situation the people of Israel found themselves in when they were exiled to Babylon. In Jeremiah 29:7, they are told this: Do good things for the city I sent you to. Pray to the Lord for the city you are living in, because if there is peace in that city, you will have peace also. See that? God calls his people actively to seek the peace and prosperity of their neighbours. Do good things for Barrington. Do good things for Port La Tour. Do good things for Villagedale.

Living as the community of Jesus means seeking to bless our neighbours. Do you know anyone who has been hurt as a part of a church? Do some of these people stay away from church now? How can doing good things for our community help us live out the gospel?What are some things our church can do to bless our neighbours?Living as the community of Jesus means becoming members of a new family. Living as the community of Jesus is how Jesus heals and transforms us. Living as the community of Jesus means seeking to bless our neighbours. We began with the question: What does it mean to be the church these days? We could also ask: Who is God calling us to be?What is your answer to that question?

The Melanson Christmas Tree 2021

The Melanson Christmas Tree 2021

Here is our Christmas tree that we just decorated this afternoon. What I love about it is that it’s very eclectic.

Here you can see Santa and Rudolf, the Peanuts gang singing from a choir loft (though poor Linus is broken), and the nativity. Note the “Our First Pandemic 2020” ornament given to us by our sister-in-law!

A repurposed Star Wars Millennium Falcon keychain!

Star Wars has pretty much nothing to do with Christmas.

Shouldn’t every Christmas tree have a Spider-Man ornament that lights up?

Almost everyone in our family loves a good superhero movie. I grew up reading Spider-Man comics. Even some of our assorted pop culture faves make it onto the tree.

I love the church ornament that lights up from within!

When we began pastoral ministry way back in 2002–2003, my wife’s Mum gave us this church ornament. It’s one of the many ornaments that remind me of loved ones.

Here’s an ornament given to Ella for her first Christmas. She may not specifically recall getting it.

Ditto for the boys.

So that’s some of the decorations on our weird and wonderful Christmas tree! One of my favourite things to do during Advent and Christmas is to sit in our rocking chair and enjoy the lights, the decorations, and the occasional quiet, perhaps with a good book and a beverage.

I hope some of you out there also enjoy and are blessed by some of the things that come along with Christmas.

Music to My Ears

During the two COVID shutdowns in our province, when we couldn’t gather in our church building for worship, my family live-streamed a worship service from our living room. Last year we did it live on Facebook and this year we’ve been going live on YouTube. We’ve been calling it “Homemade Worship.” We play songs, say prayers, read Scripture, and share a message of biblical truth to teach and encourage those who watch.

One of the blessings of “Homemade Worship” is having everyone in our family play an instrument. My wife usually plays piano or ukulele. Our boys often play various percussion instruments, like the cajon, boom-whackers, and egg shakers. One of our sons sometimes plays a little bit of violin. Our daughter will alternate between boom-whackers and ukulele. I play guitar (more or less). Dogs occasionally bark. 

Tomorrow (Sunday, June 20) may well be the last time we have “Homemade Worship.” The COVID guidelines have changed and we will be returning to our building as a congregation the following week. When we do, we will take a little bit of “Homemade Worship” with us since we will bring a bunch of our instruments to the church with us. 

And, honestly, it’s been our times of lockdown that got us playing together more as a family at home and at church. I’ve really enjoyed it. Practices aren’t always smooth. There are occasional creative differences. Not everyone brings the needed enthusiasm each time. In the end it more or less comes together. While never perfect, being able to do this as a family has been music to my ears.

“Homemade Worship” for Mother’s Day

During today’s “Homemade Worship” my beautiful wife Alisha shared some thoughts on 1 Samuel 1:1–17, where we meet Hannah. Her thoughts are based on notes her late mother wrote in the margins of her Bible, which makes it extra special. I share some thoughts on 2 Timothy 1:3—6 and 3:14—15.

What really makes “Homemade Worship” special is that it involves our whole family. Even if you can’t see them! So when you hear boomwhackers, shakers, or other kinds of percussion, that’s usually one or more of our kids playing off camera. So while it’s a little messy and imperfect, keep in mind that we’re not professional YouTubers (which, yes, is really a thing in case you didn’t know). Our present technology has its limitations. In fact, the video below lacks sound at the beginning because, well, I forgot to set the mike up properly. And I didn’t take the time to edit the video to take that bit out. Maybe later I’ll try doing that. But despite all the flaws we have fun and hopefully those who watch are blessed.

Because our province is in lockdown until the end of May, we will be doing “Homemade Worship” for at least the rest of this month. We go live on YouTube Sunday mornings at 11:00am on the YouTube channel for Temple United Baptist Church. You’re welcome to join us.

Mother’s Day

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also praises her:
“Many women have done noble deeds,
but you surpass them all!”

Proverbs 31:28-29

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

And for many Mother’s Day gives rise to a mix of emotions. One emotion is sadness. Because some of us mourn the loss of our mothers. My Mom passed away of cancer in June 2011–nearly ten years ago. I miss her. There are so many things I wish I could talk to her about or ask her. So many questions. And my kids–especially my sons–never really had the opportunity to know her.

And my Mother-in-Law passed away in December of 2014 of cancer. She was amazing, and she and my wife were best friends. She was also extremely close to our daughter. Our sons still miss her very much too. She was also a confidante of mine.

Losses still near enough to have a very real affect on us in the present. No doubt many of you feel the same way.

At the same time, Mother’s Day is also about joy. I am married to a wonderful woman, who is also a wonderful mother to our three children. So we get to celebrate her. Our kids make homemade Mother’s Day cards. We make a special meal. Give her a few gifts. We do our best to make sure she knows she’s loved and appreciated. Without a doubt, she deserves more than we can say or do.

For my wife, being a mother has had its share of challenges. During the second trimester of her pregnancy for our daughter, she experienced a very serious depression. With our twin sons, she had to have a caesarian section two months before their due date because she had developed hellps syndrome. After the delivery, she was in ICU for a few days. Her condition was quite serious for a time. Not to mention that our sons were in the NICU for 7 weeks and that there were some moments of touch and go with them too.

Now our daughter is 16 and our sons are 12. Those years hold a lot of memories, history, and emotions. As a mother, my wife isn’t perfect. But she needn’t be. No one is. And yet I still think she is the strongest, smartest, most committed mother I know. No one has cried harder or laughed louder because of her kids. In my eyes, she is a hero. I am in absolute awe about how our lives have been knitted together into the crazy, never-dull family that we are. And she is at the center of it all.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day is very much to reflect on life, our lives, and to experience both joy and sorrow, gratitude and loss. Mother’s Day is a reminder that each of us has (or have had) important people in our lives who are (or have been) there for us, who shape (or have shaped) us, hold (or who have held) us, and who cry (or who have cried) with us and for us.

So I am grateful for my Mom, for my late Mom-in-Law, and now, and most of all, for my wife. While many women have done amazing, wonderful things, for me she surpasses them all. Could I ever think otherwise?

Happy Mother’s Day, Alisha.

Joy and Thanksgiving


Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever.

1 Chronicles 16:34

Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and announce his works with shouts of joy.

Psalm 107:22

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

Philippians 1:3-5

Joy and gratitude are cousins.

That is, whenever I feel joy because of my blessings, I find myself feeling grateful to God. Thank you, Lord!

When we find ourselves experiencing joy, we should take a quick moment to pause and offer thanksgiving to God for what gives us joy. Because, as James 1:17 puts it, Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 

Not only that, but when I intentionally stop to thank God for the many blessings in my life, joy often wells up in my heart. If I want to experience more joy, then I ought to take time, as the hymn says, to “count my blessings.”

After I spent time praying this morning, it’s this joy-thanksgiving connection that came to my mind. One leads to the other; they are two sides of the same coin.

For me, as for many of you, my biggest joy in this life is my family. When I stop and give thanks to God for my wife, two sons, and daughter, I experience joy. Or whenever I find myself feeling joyful because of my family, I should stop and give thanks to God.

Because truthfully my family is a gift. They are signposts of God’s love and grace in my life. I have no idea what my life would be like without them. I don’t even want to think about that.

Instead, I receive what God has given with joy. I give thanks to him for he is good.

Like I said, joy and thanksgiving are cousins.

What gives you joy? What are you thankful for? Take time out to reflect on these things. Allow the blessings of your life to direct your heart to the one who poured them out on you.

Family is Messy

Have you ever had a pile of laundry on a hallway, bedroom, or bathroom floor? You know, for days?

Actually, I once took a picture of our twin sons when they were three or four and had fallen asleep on a pile of dirty laundry at the end of the hall in our previous home. True story.

What about several spots in need of dusting? I know, for instance, that our family is quite adept at cultivating the ideal environment for daddy long-legs. (Honestly, it’s like they emerge ex nihilo). We aspire to dust, but our actions don’t often reach our aspirations.

Or what about stacks of books that you can’t fit on the bookcase? I mean, seriously, you don’t get rid of books just because you’ve gotten a few more. Right? Please tell me I can keep my books.

Maybe for you dishes are left soaking too long in a sink of tepid water. A rarity for us, thanks to a dishwasher given to us as a gift years ago. If it stops working, there might be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I could very well end up anointing myself with ashes.

Clutter is certainly an issue in our house. Stuff we shift from one location to another without really cleaning up. My wife has actually been listening to e-books on minimalism. Notice I said e-books.

Maybe most frustrating, once you’ve cleaned up, it’s usually not long before you’re busy at the same tasks again. It’s like the instructions on a shampoo bottle: rinse, repeat.

Home life is messy.

Our home life is messy because there are five of us (plus two dogs!) sharing a home, using bathrooms, going through clothes, pilfering from the fridge, not putting stuff away, avoiding using the broom, WetJet, and mop as much as humanly possible, and adding to the wear and tear of the house we live in.

Homes are messy usually because people are messy. Families are messy. Life is messy.

Left to myself, my living environment would probably be much neater, straightened out, and orderly. But frankly I’ve had to let go of some of that tendency for the sake of sanity. Only if I were single and childless would there be much hope in my having a picture perfect home.

(Though if my Mom were still alive, she might have cause to disagree since she knew what my room was like as a teenager.)

But you know what? It’s in the mess of our family life that we celebrate a weekly Sabbath, pray for one another, say sorry for a word unkindly spoken, sit around reading together when there’s cleaning to do, play silly board games, tell bad jokes, help one another, do homework, and, occasionally, work on putting laundry away together.

As aggravating as life with family can sometimes be, more often our relationships with one another are deep wells of grace. And since life in this world can leave me quite thirsty, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Not even if it meant having a perfectly clean house.

My Story Part 13: My Mom

I began this series of reflections on my life by pointing out that I am the only child of a single mother. Perhaps in a way second only to being a child of God has this reality shaped who I am. No doubt every one of us could say likewise about someone–but probably most often a parent, a mother or a father, the ones most responsible for bringing us into the world and caring for us. Is there a more formative, early (as in from conception!) relationship than that of our parents or those who raised us?

Truth be told, if I had more concrete memories about more of my past, I could post an entire series of reflections on this subject alone. Alas, much seems clouded by time. Both by time’s distance and by how time shifts and toys with our recollection and perspective. Sometimes it’s fair to ask ourselves: Is this my memory of what happened in my life or my memory of someone else telling me about it? Of course, I’ve never been one to have a detailed sense of recall–unlike my wife! On more than one occasion I have asked her about things that have happened in the two decades or so we’ve known one another that are vague in my mind but resoundingly clear in her own. Actually, it astonishes me.

I should also say that any post of this sort will also be woefully incomplete. There will be gaps, intentional and otherwise, in what I recount. The bits and details I share are consciously selective; other things might be left by the wayside because I have forgotten; and even what I do share I share through the filter and acculumation of 48 years of living. Memories are both historical and also emotional. There are events that we leave behind and there is also how these events leave us. And when it comes to the most significant relationships in our lives, emotional truth is as important as historical, factual truth. We’ve all been indelibly stamped by our experiences.

So I say this all as a prelude to reflecting on my Mom, because, truly, what I share will be a mix of recounting actual circumstances and how such experiences have shaped me. But how such experiences have shaped me–or how my relationship with my Mom has shaped me–can also have a retroactive effect on how I remember them and subsequently attach words to them.

That, and some of what I share will be what others have told me about my Mom.

So here we go. Fair warning, this is a long one.

My Mom was the youngest of six kids by 11 years. By the time she was a young child, some of her siblings had married and left home. Apparently my Mom had “bad nerves” from a young age. This was code for anxiety at a time when people knew almost nothing about mental health issues and didn’t want to talk openly even of what they did know. From what I understand, my grandmother often didn’t know what to do with her. In fact, for a period of time Mom lived with her sister and her family in Ontario. She wasn’t like her brothers and sisters. She had issues. Her issues created issues for them. What’s a little less clear is why she had these issues. Later in life she came to believe certain things about herself and her growing up that could provide some measure of explanation, but those matters are deeply personal and so I won’t go into detail about them here.

The thing to say here is that my Mom had to deal with mental health issues in a particular family culture in a specific point in history that at times exacerbated the issues themselves. Noting this is not at all to pass judgment but to recognize that none of us lives or grows up in a vacuum. Thankfully, for example, although my daughter has similar issues as my mother once did, we live in a day when we can more openly address them without shame or embarrassment.

As a young woman, it seems as though my Mom simply wanted a life that was independent of family. Maybe she wanted to prove herself. Maybe she just wanted to get away from them. Other than that, her direction or sense of purpose was much less defined. We all live to some extent in response to how we grew up, and that was true of her. And then she became pregnant with me. By the time I was born, she was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a way that is difficult for me to evaluate, I think my arrival into her world was a tectonic shift in her life. I was unexpected, if not unplanned. She was on her own, having made the choice for the man who was my biological father to stay away. Yet, there I was, demanding to be taken care of and nurtured and loved. If I may say so, I believe that my presence in her life is what gave much of her life stability and meaning. My reason for thinking this is that once I left home for university, it seems as though her life destabilized significantly.

In a strange sense, it’s also as though having to raise me and see me into the world put her life–or how she saw it–on a sort of hold. I remember, for instance, this odd conversation between me and Mom when I was in my late teens (perhaps during the year I stayed home from university). Now, let me say that I was almost universally unimpressed with all the guys that my Mom dated while I was growing up. I’ll put it bluntly: they seemed like losers. I realize that this was my issue–who is this guy taking my Mom away from me? But usually at the time I felt that she could do much, much better. Like most anyone, she wanted a relationship, and it could be that both her options (as well as her choices) were poor. So when she told me that she needed to start focusing on her life now that I was older (which in this case meant pursuing a specific relationship), I think she must have thought that I would be immediately resentful of anyone who came into her (and therefore my) life. To be honest, I don’t even recall how long the relationship she was in at the time lasted or if I even met the dude. But that she felt the need to have that conversation speaks to me of our relationship, of how much she had invested in me and how she had done all she could to provide for me.

You see, one of the results of my being the only child of a single mother was that Mom and I had an especially close relationship. So much so that by the time I was in Junior High, there is a degree to which we were friends. Or at least that’s how I came to think of it. She was my closest confidante. I think of the many times before we had a car and we went walking to go get groceries or do other errands. Walking meant talking, and we walked a lot. I think there was even an extent to which as I got older that she began to ask me advice or care what I thought about this and that. My memory is of a growing back and forth, never to the point where the parent-child distinction was eliminated but maybe subtlely mitigated. Indeed, in my later university years I can honestly say that there were times when I felt the roles were reversed–or that at the very least, I was in the position of emotional caregiver. I didn’t want that role, and part of me resented it, so while there were times when I leaned into it, there were other times when I used the geographical distance as a means of distancing myself from whatever particular drama she seemed to be going through.

Looking back from my present vantage point as a parent, though, perhaps only now can I really appreciate how much my Mom sacrificed. Or how hard it must have been to raise a son all by herself. Having kids gives me a much different perspective than I had before getting married. Less self-centred, perhaps. Hopefully! Much of my internal conversation about my relationship with my Mom over time has focused on its effects on me. And while I shouldn’t overlook that stuff, only seeing that part of the story ignores the internal world that she must have had when I was growing up.

For example, I was not always a happy teenager. More to the point, I spent a lot of time at home rather than out with friends. There was that awkward period between losing one group of friends (because I didn’t like role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons) and gaining another. I often felt isolated, alone, and I wonder if my Mom must have felt responsible for my happiness on the one hand and a little helpless on the other. I know there were Friday and Saturday nights when she would go out with friends or to work, leaving me home to stew in my own adolescent angst.

I can’t imagine having to raise our kids all on my own. And I know my Mom’s story of being a single parent is so common as to be nearly ubitiquous, but not to have had the option of handing me off to a husband and father must have felt like quite a weight at times. At the very least, it must have been exhausting.

Makes me think. She must have had definite moments–maybe entire seasons (like my teen years!)–when she felt overwhelmed and that she didn’t know what she was doing. Sure, she could talk to friends, her sisters, whatever, but at the end of the day she was the one who had to do the hard work of answering my questions, dealing with my moods, and interpreting my attitudes, silences, and behavior. Yet, still, as I think about it now, she never really let on how hard it was. Despite the struggles she must have had, and that I was mostly unaware of until later, she appeared to be a strong person to me. Indeed, she was in many ways.

Considering her relationship with family over the years, it’s actually kind of amazing, as well as a testament to her wisdom and humility, that she kept church and God in her life. She always had faith, even if sometimes she had very real struggles. And I don’t know if it was having me that prompted her to stay connected to the church. I’m sure my presence made a difference, but my Mom also always had a spiritual thirst. But whatever her reasons were for continuing to go to church, and for making sure that I did, I know it was a source of strength. A couple of things in particular come to mind. First are the times when she took me (lack of babysitter?) to some sort of Bible study or adult class when I was a toddler. Apparently, I did a lot of crawling around under people’s chairs. I guess my antics were more or less welcome. Another memory from when I was older (maybe Junior High?) was of Mom trying to have some sort of family devotion time at home. I didn’t like it. It felt weird for some reason. She had some Christian records (yes, I said records, records that you would play on a turn-table) she would play, and she would light candles, and want to say prayers with me. I can’t say it lasted long. But, really, my longstanding memory is of going with her to church week after week, learning to participate in Catholic liturgy, having her teach me to pray at bedtime. And I mean, really pray–like the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be to the Father (which is now a part of the Daily Office I use), and (until I realized it was unbiblical), the Hail Mary.

Here’s the thing. Even if I am now a Baptist pastor rather than a practicing Roman Catholic, those early experiences in the church and with my Mom were formative in that God, Jesus, prayer, church, and spiritual matters all became deeply imbedded in my consciousness as being primary, foundational, necessary. And she was responsible for that. I owe to her the fact that I have almost always seen life as a spiritual journey, from a theological perspective, as only having meaning and direction if in fact there is a God who both made and redeemed me.

Indeed, it all came full circle eventually. My Mom moved to St. Stephen, NB, from Newcastle (Miramichi) back in 1996 or so when I was studying at Acadia Divinity College. The reason for this was to get away as far as possible from a relationship that had turned abusive. At first, she began attending Mass at the local Catholic Church. When there were weeks where, for various reasons, she missed Mass, she would never hear from anyone because no one at the church made any genuine effort to meet her and get to know her. Then one week on her way to church, she felt like she should instead go to church at the local Baptist church. So she did. It was like night and day. People there were warm and welcoming. And when she missed because she was sick, the pastor left a note the very next day in her mailbox. He did this a number of times. So she felt accepted and loved. She began going to this church and was eventually baptized as a believing adult there too.

By this point in our relationship, all I wanted was for her to be stable, to be taken care of, and not to feel like I was responsible for how she was doing. I didn’t want to be her first phone call in the event of a personal emergency, especially since I was living in a different province. Though to be honest, looking back, a part of me was selfishly insensitive at some of those moments. But I suppose I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility of dealing with her drama. Part of me resented the fact that she didn’t seem able to show genuine interest in what was going on in my life. And maybe it wasn’t always fair of her to burden me with some of what she was going through and what she was feeling. So whenever she took a step that brought other people into her life who could support her where she was, could even nurture her faith in Christ, and, sigh, be less of a burden on my mind, I was grateful.

Life, unfortunately, isn’t entirely linear. We take steps forward and then steps backward. My Mom actually got married back in the winter of 2000 to perhaps the only person in the world who had more emotional and relational baggage than her. In some respects, they were perfectly suited to one another, and really did love one another. But there are situations when in a marriage each person’s individual brokenness (and unwillingness or inability to deal with it) can derail what ought to be a healing, redemptive relationship. After nearly a decade together, they separated, and remained separated (though perhaps not unreconciled) until her death from cancer in 2011.

My Mom’s life reminds me that life isn’t ever neat and tidy. We can make progress, personally, relationally, spiritually, financially, only to have that progress take an unexpected kick in the pants. A turn of events, a personal catastrophe, can turn what seems to be going well in directions we would never otherwise anticipate. I guess the question is not always what we do in those times but who we are–and who are we becoming. My Mom had her strengths and her weaknesses. She had degrees of resilience. But she also didn’t always deal with adversity well. She made great strides but could also play the victim. And I say this–and hear me out when I do–not to dishonour her but to portray her and therefore myself honestly. I love my Mom. But loving someone doesn’t mean overlooking their faults or shortcomings. It certainly doesn’t mean thinking of them as perfect in defiance of obvious flaws. Yet, as the apostle Peter tells us love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). I can only hope my kids look back on me with that mix of honesty and love too.

When I began writing this post, this is not what I expected to write. I figured I would write more about how her various trials and quirks affected me. Though perhaps I have done that, I didn’t anticipate (and shame one me for this!) realizing while I was writing just how deeply appreciative I am of my Mom and noting, too, how I have been less appreciative at times than I should have been. Writing this has made me think much more about what it must have been like for someone of her background to be a single mother of an only child. She was more courageous and strong than I have often given her credit for in my heart and mind.

I also didn’t expect to end here. I’ve not gotten to the end of her story, certainly not to end of how her story is a part of mine. Maybe I’ll write more, maybe I won’t. But this has been cathartic. Reliving, if even in a small way, one’s memories of such a special relationship has a way of opening one’s heart up to deeper longings of intimacy, of knowing and being known. Such longings are never fulfilled in our lifetimes; but one day, we will know as we are known; and then by the One who has known and loved us all along.

As I do close this entry, I want to do so by saying something to my Mom. “Sorry, Mom, for not always seeing you as you were but only as I wished you were. Thank you for putting so much of yourself into my life. Often I wish you were still here–I have so many questions only you have answers for. I anticipate more conversations with you in the new heavens and new earth. Though perhaps then having the answers to those questions won’t matter to me as much. See you then.”

Wonder

I have three children; a daughter who is 9 and twin boys who are 5. Having kids is an incredible gift, and I can’t imagine life without them. The laughter alone that they bring into our lives creates the kind of joy we can experience even when life isn’t going well. I can’t even describe how their laughter makes me feel other than to say it lightens the load of life, puts a smile on my face, and gives me a little glimpse of eternity.

Being a parent is possibly the hardest job on the planet. Maybe so. Certainly it involves frustrations, heartaches, and exhaustion. It’s a 24/7 calling, and doesn’t end, from what I hear, even once your kids have grown. The responsibility of parenting is enormous. Even the most resilient adult will have their energy, patience, priorities, and wisdom continually tested.

Yet, one of the amazing things about being a parent is the experience of wonder. By this I mean the amazement and delight of watching your kids. Watching them grow, learn, laugh, play, and, to put it simply, be kids, is one of the most profound joys I have come to know.

Children are easily ignored in our culture, often because we regard childhood as a stage on the way to adulthood. In themselves, we think, they have nothing to offer or contribute. In fact, children are very nearly sheer need. Our job is to take care of them until they are independent or, in our minds, completely human. But childhood in itself is insignificant.

If that’s true, then I hardly think I’d experience such joy when just watching my twin boys playing together. Or while playing a game with my daughter. What I love about watching them play is how utterly useless such time is — neither they nor I are accomplishing anything remotely practical. And that’s ok. Not everything we do has to be about completing a task. It can be only about that moment, a moment which is all about relationship, the deepening of intimate connections.

And when it comes to kids, at least in my experience, those moments are also about recognizing the gift of life, and that we needn’t take it all so seriously. Lord help us, we’re often too serious for our own good. That’s why I am grateful for my kids who, when they’re climbing all over me, graciously free me to enjoy them for who they are. They free me for wonder.

When Less is More

“We’re not big but we’re small!”

So goes the slogan for the fictional used record store in Stuart MacLean’s radio program The Vinyl Café.

And I love it.

You see, seldom in our church culture is small a point of pride. Instead, we worry and fret when numbers are down. We hope and pray for more people to come, to participate, to get involved. I recall in my earlier years as a pastor, other pastors and people from other churches would ask me if and how much my church had grown during my ministry. Denominations tabulate baptism numbers. Ministry effectiveness gets reduced to mathematics.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am aware that numerical growth, while not necessarily important in itself, can be indicative of spiritual health, of the vitality of a congregation and the impact this vitality can have on the surrounding community. I also know that we want more people rather than fewer people coming to Christ. I simply want to suggest that vitality and numbers is a more complex equation than some think.

There are things that are true of smaller churches that can never be true of a larger church, good things, things to be grateful for. Yes, there are disadvantages. But for now I want to focus on what makes being a small congregation a positive experience.

First of all, there’s a real sense of family. Everyone knows everyone. Heck, everyone knows where everyone sits. Whatever the downside of this might be, it also means that we know when someone is sick, when they’ve been away, when their participation has begun to ebb. Since I have friends who’ve been to large churches where weeks can go by before someone knows your name, there’s something wonderful about being that much more acquainted and connected with the other folks sitting around you. You can’t drop out without being noticed.

Not only this, but in a smaller church things tend to be less formal. Our Sunday morning worship service isn’t as professional or polished as that of some large churches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we have this folksy “aw shucks!” attitude about how well things are done, and take a certain weird pride in making mistakes. But neither do we get all bent out of shape when things don’t run like a well-oiled machine. Put another way, ours is not a congregation filled with perfectionists.

New people can also make connections easier. Someone new can more quickly become a part of the congregation. They don’t get lost in the crowd. They can participate almost immediately in the life of the church. Most regulars make a real point of welcoming someone new because having someone new is such a rare but wonderful gift.

If you are a part of a smaller church, maybe you can think of other strengths they offer.

Oh, I know. Every upside has a downside. There are cons as well as pros. I could very easily describe the shadow side of all these good points. However, I think most of us know already the negatives of small churches. But since a lot of churches—particularly rural congregations—may always be smaller, it’s important to consider what is specifically valuable about being a smaller church. This is significant because without reflecting on these good things, we might always end up with this inferiority complex, this feeling that we haven’t quite made it, that we weren’t quite up for the job. Since being in a small church can actually be a wonderful and rich experience, I’d rather that we be able to say, with all the joy and gratitude we can muster, “We’re not big but we’re small!”