Thursday, 15 June 2017

ON TURNING SIXTY




Earlier this week, a momentous and somewhat traumatic event occurred in my life: I turned sixty years old! The weeks leading up to this date were surprisingly emotional for me at times, fraught with various and sundry feelings, from depression and anxiety to elation and anticipation. Part of me wanted to squeeze the last few “drops out of my fifties” during the remaining days I had! My sixtieth birthday celebration was held one day before my actual birthday, and I wondered aloud whether it was actually a celebration of the last day in my fifties! Waking up on the morning of my sixtieth birthday felt a bit like the morning of Y2K back in the year 2000. We were all wondering then if the world would end, but we woke up on January 1 to find that everything was still the same. On the morning of my sixtieth birthday, I went for a five kilometre walk and jog to Trout Lake. My limbs, bones and muscles felt the same as the day before – a little bit sore, but still working! 


The Significance of Milestones

What I have noticed about this sixtieth milestone, in comparison to my fortieth and fiftieth milestones, which were special and sobering in themselves, is that there has been a special sacredness and reverence I have felt about this one. Milestones in some ways, are like the odometer hitting the 200,000 kilometre mark on your car. There’s a whole lot of zeroes that get your attention, but there’s very little difference in your car from the previous kilometre to the next! So, it is with milestones to do with our age. They get our attention because they are an invitation to slow down and to take notice. I have been aware of this sense of “noticing” in myself, and I have also been aware of it from those who are closest to me, including my wife and family, and my dearest friends with whom I walk in this journey. I noticed with deep gratitude that they wanted to slow down, and pay attention, and bear witness to this milestone. This has been very special and humbling. It has been deeply moving as I’ve read and re-read the cards, the texts, the Facebook messages, savouring the words that were written. In it all, I have felt a holy reverence, and a deepened gratitude for me, and for my life. Can I say that? 



Ageing and Promise


One thing that has come to mind in all of this was the recollection of an experience that occurred when I was 30 years old, yes, now half my current age! At that time, in early 1988, I suffered a severe illness, a breakdown in my body, mind, and spirit, and for the first few months of that year, the pain and darkness was of the magnitude that I honestly didn’t believe that I would live to see the end of that year. It was during that time as I desperately turned to the Scriptures daily for hope, wading through lots of verses of “gloom and doom,” that I came across these words in Isaiah: “I have upheld you since birth, and carried you since you were born. Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:3-4). As I read those words in what was an indescribable darkness, I felt that I heard these words whispered to me, “Gordie, one day you will grow old; one day you will be a grandpa…” 

These words seemed too good to be true and they were very difficult for me to believe. My son, Christian, was eight years old at the time and my daughter, Danielle, was five. I clung desperately to that promise for dear life, and of course, as everyone close to me well knows, this promise came true a few years ago. It was a significant day for me when my first grandchild, Samuel, was born to Danielle and Markus here in Vancouver on July 26, 2004, and his three sisters, Annalies, Hannah, and Elina followed over the next few years, bringing indescribable joy. They all were in our house to celebrate my sixtieth birthday this past weekend. 


Probably the greatest impact of that event for me was that since that time, growing old and ageing has become more about hope and promise than about dread. I sometimes review the obituary columns in the morning paper and I am often struck by how many people pass away at a much younger age than me. Without in any way diminishing the preciousness of life regardless of how long it is lived, nor the reality of life beyond death, these obituaries have impacted me with how much each day I have on this earth is a gift 

My “Top Ten Things about Turning Sixty”


Nevertheless, there is grief and loss with ageing as well, let’s not be in denial here. To help me grieve, I now resort to some humour. In the tradition of David Letterman, whose “top ten things” used to be one of my favourite segments of late night comedy, I now share my “top ten things about turning sixty…”


Number Ten: When you can’t find your eyeglasses, they’re almost always on your forehead! 


Number Nine: Your failing eyesight is nature’s way of softening the blow every time you look in the mirror!


Number Eight: Your pants creep upward as you age and by the time you’re 60, you’re a pair of pants with a head! 


Number Seven: Your memory is so bad you can plan your own surprise party!


Number Six: You know your way around but you don’t want to go anywhere. 


Number Five: You can’t walk by a bathroom without thinking you may as well pee while you’re there! 


Number four: When you have a party, you don’t even wake up the dog, let alone the neighbourhood! 


Number Three: (my high school graduating class of 1975 are all sharing this trauma with me this year…) The best thing about being 60 is you did all your stupid stuff before the internet! 


Number Two: Birthdays are good for you, it’s been scientifically proven that the more you have, the longer you live!


Number One: The candles on your cake set off the sprinkler system! 


Oh, and one more… Number Zero: You’re so old that when you walked into the antique shop, they sold you! 


Well, as I journey through my sixties and beyond, God willing, I hope that I do not lose the ability to laugh at myself, especially as I am increasingly confronted with the realities of my limitations. 


The Vow of Stability


This past Monday night at a wonderful party that was held for me in honor of my sixtieth birthday, I shared with the festive gathering at a restaurant near Commercial and 1st in East Vancouver how that celebrating my sixtieth at that place and time was so special to me. It was 26 years ago this September that we pulled up a few blocks away from that very spot in our little K-car, having just driven from Alberta. We got out of the car and started a new life. I was 34 at the time. We moved into a little apartment around the corner, with Christian and Danielle who were 11 and 8 at the time, and Gordie Guiboche whom we knew from Calgary days. 


I have since lived in this neighbourhood longer than any other place in my lifetime, all within walking distance of where we first got out of our car that day. I have stumbled onto something very special. Kathleen, my beautiful life partner and best friend has been with me all the way and this December we will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Our daughter Danielle along with her husband Markus and our four grandchildren just recently moved back to Vancouver and are living next door. I have formed so many deep friendships by being a part of the same worshiping community here in Vancouver all these years. It is an indescribable treasure to be in a community of faith that is comprised of so many of your closest and dearest friends being a faithful presence together in this city we love so much. This treasure can only be the fruit of what St. Benedict of Nursia called “the vow of stability” when he was establishing his monastic orders. Having turned sixty, I have experience a taste of this treasure and as such, I am blessed beyond all measure.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Wrestle for "What is the Gospel?"




Good Friday Worship, East Vancouver, 2017


A few months ago, I signed a letter that represented a significant number of churches in the Greater Vancouver area. The letter voiced concern over the selection of Franklin Graham as keynote speaker at the Festival of Hope, a city-wide Christian outreach event held in early April. This event had been promoted as a unified effort by Vancouver churches to proclaim the Gospel, or the "Good News"[1] of Jesus Christ to the city and region. In fairness, “Festivals of Hope” are an initiative of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, (BGEA), a para-church ministry founded by Franklin’s father, Billy Graham, that seeks to partner with the whole church in any given city in sponsoring events such as this. As such, BGEA has a significant say in who the keynote speaker is. In this case, there were alternative options, including other members of Franklin’s family who were proposed by some on the committee, but BGEA and the majority of the local organizing committee were resolute that Franklin be the keynote speaker. That said, I know that I speak for my pastoral colleagues who also signed this letter, that the decision to do so was not easy. Indeed, it was painful, not only because of a desire for a unified witness as the church in the city, but, as the letter stated, we, the signatories, held high regard for the Graham family and Billy Graham’s legacy of bringing the Good News to hundreds of millions of people around the world with integrity and credibility. We also expressed great respect for Franklin’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, which continues to provide relief and development to some of the world’s most impoverished areas. Signatories of the letter represented a surprisingly wide spectrum of church denominations, including Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. 

So Why Risk the Sacred Gift of Unity? 


So what was at issue, and why did we sign the letter? For me, it was an issue of conscience that began a year or two ago when I was initially invited to be involved with Festival of Hope. When I read in the invitation that Franklin Graham was the keynote speaker, I made the decision to decline involvement and to do so quietly, hoping that would be the end of it. While I respected the members of the organizing committee and supported their vision and goals, I believed that Franklin had made statements that would cause harm to the Christian witness in Vancouver which had been cultivated by communities of believers being a faithful presence in the city over decades. In my view, Franklin had made some statements that represented a posture that was not congruent with the Good News


Months after making the decision not to be involved, I was surprised to discover that there were a significant number of other pastoral colleagues and leaders in the city who had similar concerns over Franklin being the Festival speaker, some of whom were on the Festival organizing committee. It grew into a conflict which, after it was unfortunately leaked to the press, went public. With no seeming resolution on the matter, some on the organizing committee resigned,[2] and a letter voicing the concerns of those dissenting the choice of Franklin as speaker was published just prior to the Festival which you can read here.  It was felt that the stakes were too high to be silent, and the disagreement needed to be communicated publicly, but respectfully. The letter voiced support for the Festival’s organizers and for their vision, but expressed concerns over the choice of Franklin as keynote speaker and its impact on the Christian witness of the Good News in the city. It was with this in view that the letter was written, signed, and published.   

In spite of the controversy, the Festival was peaceful and well-attended with Roger’s arena packed each night of the celebration. Estimates range between 1900-2700 people who responded to the Gospel invitation, many for the very first time. To my knowledge, none of the dissenting signatories actively boycotted the event, nor did they discourage their congregations from attending. Some of the signatories attended, as did their congregants, who gave good reports. In spite of the controversy, in some ways it was a “win/win” in that many people were influenced towards Christ while important concerns were voiced. In this regard, ongoing dialogue and working together for the “shalom” of our city will be critical long after the Festival has ended. 

The Heart of the Matter

As you can imagine, there has been plenty of discussion within pastoral and ministerial circles following the Festival. Some ministerial groups are split between those who signed the letter, and those who supported Franklin as Festival speaker. Concerns and emotions have been voiced, and some conversations have been difficult and, sadly, pain has been caused and incurred on both sides.  Sin has not been absent with the need for repentance and forgiveness. In spite of that, there is a commitment for most leaders to continue to walk together in unity, with a new understanding that unity does not mean that we agree on everything, and sometimes those disagreements are deep and painful, indeed, perhaps they are the greatest test of unity.


U2 championing courageous women of history
One issue that emerged in all of the discussion was a basic disagreement over what constitutes “The Gospel.” At risk of generalizing and over-simplifying, what seems to have emerged is that those who supported Franklin’s presence would regard the Gospel message being, in essence, the Good News of God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and our response of repentance and faith in Christ’s finished work for eternal life that begins now and continues forever. Fair enough, and I’m sure that all those who signed the letter would be in full agreement with this. However, we would argue that this understanding of the Gospel does not go far enough. Yes, the Gospel provides for personal reconciliation with God. However, the message of the Gospel also includes reconciliation with one another and God’s “shalom” between all human beings, including race, gender, and class – that is, social justice, and reconciliation with all creation, including environmental stewardship. Those supporting Franklin as speaker would regard these things as important to varying degrees, but not “the Gospel,” as such, but simply the “fruit of the Gospel.” This is possibly why some who were uncomfortable with some of Franklin’s incendiary statements, were assuaged by assurances that he would stick to the “simple Gospel” while in Vancouver. However, many pastoral leaders believed that it would be impossible to separate statements Franklin had made elsewhere from the “The Gospel” he would bring to Vancouver as they believed his statements represented a posture that was not congruent with the Good News. One striking example of this in Scripture was Paul’s public confrontation of Peter when Peter’s actions were “not in alignment with the Good News” in Antioch.[3]


U2 depicting a Syrian refugee camp, on the Joshua Tree tour
Growing up, my understanding of the Gospel was that God had sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life with God in heaven. Yet, the more I looked at the first four books of the New Testament the books we call, “Gospels,” the more I noticed that there is so little about that. The focus of Jesus’ life and ministry was about God’s end goal of bringing heaven to earth, that is, the kingdom of God, and his concern for the reconciliation of all creation, summarized by how we were instructed to pray, “Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven…”

The Fatal Hairline Fracture

I have observed that most on either side of this conflict agreed that it is not an issue of “either/or,” but “both/and,” but we disagreed on what constitutes the pure Gospel. Are we quibbling about words here? It seems that there is only a hairline fracture between “the Gospel,” and “the fruit of the Gospel.” However, in my humble view, when you allow this hairline fracture to occur, it has the potential to take us worlds apart. It can lead to a dualism[4] that focuses on preparing the “soul” for heaven, but at best, diminishes, or at worst, ignores, injustice towards others, as well as environmental irresponsibility here on earth. For example, someone can worship in church on Sunday, yet engage in unethical business practices on Monday. It means that you can have a country like Rwanda in the 1990’s that was supposedly 90 percent Christian, where millions of Rwandans were slaughtered by each other, and Roman Catholics and Protestants were condemned by human rights watch organizations for their complicity in the genocide. It explains why white Christians were able to co-exist with segregation in the American South as well as apartheid in South Africa, even finding biblical justification for these racist systems. It also explains why, in the name of Christ, hundreds of thousands of First Nations and Metis children were forcibly removed from their families and communities into Indian Residential Schools in order to “kill the Indian in the child.” When we allow this hairline fracture between the “Gospel” and the “fruit of the Gospel,” to occur, such dualism can result in a toxic and distorted religion causing damage that takes generations to undo. Today, in Canada, we are all still recovering from the damage inflicted by the Indian Residential School system.

U2 celebrating Indigenous people, Vancouver 2017
What I am not saying is that these issues of social and environmental justice constitute “the Gospel” on their own, without the essential message of reconciliation with God made available through Christ’s coming, death, and resurrection. If this were the case, then the church could just blend in with the many social agencies and humanitarian organizations that are working together to make the world a better place to live. Certainly, like Bono of U2, (images on this blog from their recent Joshua Tree tour launch here in Vancouver)  we may find common ground with many of these organizations and causes that are not distinctly “Christian” as such. Even here, we need the help of the Gospel to protect our hearts from becoming patronizing, or “helping” in a way that is actually harmful, and from struggling for justice in a way that is vengeful and unjust. However, the church is first and foremost about God and reconciliation with God, with the declaration that God exists, and that God is good.[5] Without Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there is no hope for the human race, full stop. So it’s not “either/or” but “both/and.” The Gospel of Christ’s life, death and resurrection cannot be separated from social and environmental shalom and justice. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Of course, words are important, but he was addressing our propensity as Christians to contradict our message by the way we live. 



Conclusion: Embracing the Diversity of Unity

So, while my preference would have been to keep silent about Franklin Graham speaking at the Vancouver Festival of Hope, I felt this was an important enough issue to speak out on for the sake of conscience, and for the sake of generations to come. Many of my colleagues believed the same. I know that by signing the letter, I hurt some friends, who may even have felt betrayed. I received at least one letter from a fellow-minister, accusing me of “opposing the Gospel and our brother in Christ.” I took time to respond personally to him, because I am committed to unity and ongoing dialogue as well as to a continued relationship of respect, even if we disagree on issues. Indeed, I am committed to ongoing unity, but it cannot be a false unity that ignores the plight of the marginalized. For example, I am looking forward to One City, One Message Sunday, on June 11, where many churches, Catholic and Protestant, will focus on the theme, "Welcoming the Stranger: I Was a Stranger and You Invited Me In." I am supportive of other unified initiatives in Vancouver such as the upcoming Voices Together worship event on Canada Day, July 1, at Roger’s Arena. This event will bring together churches of many denominations to worship Jesus as we celebrate our country’s 150th milestone of confederation. As such, I will be promoting this event in our church. Yet, I am cognizant that this celebratory day can cause pain for many of Canada’s First Peoples whose history is clearly ignored by the very declaration that Canada became a “nation” 150 years ago.[6]  This is the tension and dilemma of our times which we must struggle with in order to become a truly unified body of Christ which consists of different people groups and varying perspectives. The days we are living in and the days to come will continue to confront all of us with new issues and challenging dilemmas, requiring us to engage in the continual wrestle for, “What is the Gospel?”





[1] “Gospel” is an old English word, meaning “Good News.” I will use these terms interchangeably.

[2] For example, see Ken Shigematsu, Pastor of Tenth Church, in Christianity Today, Franklin Graham’s Global Fallout.
 [3] See Galatians 2:11-14. Some will argue that this confrontation was “behind closed church doors” but no one can deny the public nature of this conflict. It was a bold and clear confrontation in front of pre-Christians, new believers, and more mature believers because for Paul, the stakes were so high.   

[4] Dualism is an ancient worldview that assumes separation of the physical from the spiritual world, something that the church has had to combat right from its beginnings.

[5] Thanks to Beth Wood who observed that these two points are what we are contending for as believers in our culture, on a recent Vineyard Canada national webinar. Also see Hebrews 11:6, which asserts these two points as a summary of what constitutes active relational faith in God.


[6] I have appreciated efforts I have observed in past similar July 1 events to engage Indigenous worship and arts in the past, and pray this will continue and increase.  

Thanks to Richard Shorty, Joy Fellowship, for carrying the cross (first image) in front of our East Van interchurch Good Friday worship pilgrimage in Hastings Sunrise with VEV, Ward Memorial Baptist, Longhouse Church, and Joy Fellowship.This provided me with such a powerful image of Gospel contextualization for our times.