Something to make you grin…

So yes, the days are a bit boring and the news grows ever grimmer. It grows hard to know what to even say. But then someone sends you something that makes you laugh, or reminds you that the world is bigger and wider than your isolation and solitude. This video was sent to me by a couple of the faithful at Graceview. So I’m sharing it with you!

It may just seem like a bit of light-hearted fun. But actually this song makes a great point. Did you know what the psalmist says:

I actually love this time of year. This is the time of year when the cardinals are singing. When you hear them, if you know their call, you can actually see them in the tops of trees, because the leaves aren’t out yet. Cardinals (despite their bright flashy red colour) are incredibly shy birds. Usually they hide in the foliage. But right now, they don’t have leaves to hide them. I used to make a game of seeing how many I could spot on a morning walk with Koski.

This is the time of year when birdsong at the breaking of the dawn begins to be heard again. My current accommodations (a condo on the 17th floor) doesn’t lend itself to hearing that birdsong.But when I lived in the manse in Brampton, I would be woken up by the sound of the birds singing. And I always sort of skirted the line between being annoyed by being woken up early (I’m so not a morning person!), and finding myself waking with a grin at this early sign of Spring.

My Dad taught me to hear birdsong as the creature praising the creator. I love that idea, even now it brings a smile to my face. I hope that you hear birdsong in the days to come. I hope it reminds you of a God who is bigger than our current storm. I hope it makes you grin.

Serving others…

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

1 Peter 4:10 NIV

As the days pass and the news continues to be grim, it can be difficult to know what to do. I admit I’ve watched more news in the last week than I’ve ever watched in my life. Watching updates from Prime Minister Trudeau and Premiere Ford and Mayor John Tory have become daily habits.

Somewhere in the midst of all that I consumed across the media platforms today, I heard this phrase: “you can serve others by staying home.” I loved that. For me, it helped me reframe the sitting-at-home-doing-nothing that has made up the past week in a much more proactive and meaningful light.

You see, followers of Jesus are always called to serve others in Jesus’ name. We are called to acts of kindness and generosity and love. Sitting at home is counter-intuitive to that call.

So seeing the ‘stay at home’ directive as one of serving others helps me understand that by staying at home, by heeding the advice of health experts, by listening to carefully (but hopefully not obsessively) to the news, I am in fact serving others. I am living out my faith and my call in this way.

I want to encourage you to do the same – serve others, by staying home, by keeping physical distance with anyone you come into contact with, by heeding the advice of our experts.

But I also want to encourage to serve others by making phone calls to let people know you’re thinking of them and praying for them, by being in touch through texting, messaging and emails. By encouraging others every way you can while continuing to maintain physical distance.

Let me leave you, dear friends with this blessing (which I found on Facebook at some point in the last few days, I am unsure of its origins, but would love to give credit – so if you know, help me out!).

Well, that wasn’t easy…

I promised yesterday to post a video sermonette. And can I just say my heart is with every pastor who is out there doing a livestream or a video sermon today? It is not easy! I went through a lot of takes, stopping the video after a minute or two when I said something weird or was uncomfortable in some way. And then decided that for better or worse, this last take would be the one I went with.

So of course, as soon as I tried to upload I had internet problems. Because that is just the way things go sometimes. And the video took forever to upload. But in any case, here we are.

A word or two: my friend Janet who I mention in this is The Rev. Janet Ryu-Chan of Morningside-HighPark Presbyterian Church in Toronto. She’s a dear friend and a wonderful colleague. We’ve made it a practice to plan Lent and Advent together since I came to serve Graceview in 2017.

Here is my video:

The Scripture I read is Matthew 23:13-28 and then 2 Corinthians 4:1-9.

A word about tomorrow…

Tomorrow my congregation, Graceview Presbyterian Church, will not gather in person for worship. This is unprecedented. But we are living in unprecedented times.

Though we will not gather together in person, I will be preparing a short video sermon to post here, and I encourage you to tune in to that, to listen and to pray. (My plan is to post it at 10:30am, which would be our normal time to begin worship, but I’m dealing with a learning curve, too, so bear with me if that doesn’t go according to plan! I promise to have it up as close to 10:30am as possible!)

We are not doing a livestream – there are many other churches that ARE doing that, and I want to share some links with you of places you can “go to church” from the comfort of your own home.

MOSAIC.ORG/LIVE Mosaic is a church in Los Angeles. Their lead pastor, Erwin McManus, has had a profound influence on my ministry and preaching. I find him interesting, exciting and inspiring. If you tune in, you may not know any of the music that they us in worship – Mosaic has a team that writes their own songs for their faith community. But I promise you your time will not be wasted if you choose to follow the link and join them for one of their live events.

themeetinghouse.com The Meeting house will be livestreaming at 10am tomorrow morning. This is a contemporary, Brethren In Christ church with many satellite locations around the GTA and beyond. I often worship at one of their satellites when I have a Sunday off during which I am not away from home.

If you are on facebook, you can check out my friend Rev. Alton J. Ruff’s livestream by following Knox Midland’s Facebook page. Alton will be live on facebook at 10:30am.

Also on Facebook you could check out St. Paul’s Nobleton’s live stream by following the Rev. Dr. Jeff Loach’s facebook page. Jeff will be live at 10am tomorrow morning.

For an exhaustive list of Presbyterian churches that are live-streaming, you can follow this link to the National Church’s website.

All of this to say, dear friends, that worship continues. It may look very different than you are used to, but God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

You have lots of options for experiencing church while staying home and continuing to follow the practices of physical distancing. I encourage you to find your rest in God, to know that you are not alone, and to trust that we will make it through these days.

More music for your soul…

Yesterday I shared some links to some contemporary worship songs that mean a lot to me. As I was working on that blog it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do another post that focused on more traditional hymns.

So that is today’s plan. Here we go!

Be Thou My Vision – this has long been a favourite hymn of mine. The familiar tune is Slade which is Irish in origin. I’ve always been taken with all things Celtic. This version is beautiful rendition of the hymn by Elenyi – a trio of female singers.

Holy, holy, holy – this a cappella version of the hymn that was the opening to most Presbyterian worship services in days gone by, features beautiful harmonies. I got chills listening to it! (And off to the right side, you should see a number of other videos of hymns by this group, Anthem Lights. Lots of good stuff to check out there!)

Because He lives – Caleb + Kelsey are a married duo (Caleb is part of Anthem Lights mentioned above) who cover different worship songs. Their voices blend beautifully. Their version of this hymn is transcendent. It’s also a great hymn for the days we are living through in this pandemic.

Again, this is just a small taste of what is available, I encourage you to spend some time listening to these, searching for others, or listening to things you already have in your own collection. Music is healing, and worship music draws us closer to God.

Until tomorrow, dear friends!

Music for your soul…

I’ve been writing a lot over the past few days about how people of faith can respond to our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. From what I can see the few times I have been out in the public in recent days, and from conversations I’ve been having with various people, everyone is feeling the stress of this situation.

Whether it is someone who feels that their place of work should have shut down already, but it has not; someone who has a compromised immune system; someone who has been travelling and has to self-isolate; someone worried about the impact this will have on their finances; or simply those of us who are starting to get bored with having out at home. Everyone is feeling it on some level.

I struggle whenever my routine is interrupted. I’m a creature of habit, and I like the rhythm of routine – knowing (within reason) what the days will bring, And my routines are not just interrupted right now, most of them are out the window.

With no end in sight – we simply don’t know what the recommendations will be in coming days – it is incredibly important to look for things to bring us hope and joy. Things to remind us of what we believe. Things that are quite simply, good for the soul.

To that end, I want to share with you a few of my favourite songs that speak to my faith. (The title of each below is a link to a youtube video of that song – click and listen and be blessed, friends!)

Is He Worthy is a song by Andrew Peterson (my favourite Christian singer/songwriter), in which he uses a question-and-response method of singing. He uses a catechism (that isa summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians) for the lyrics. The video is beautiful and it contains a lovely visual of Andrew starting out alone, but as the song builds becoming surrounded by people of faith singing with him. This song was covered by Chris Tomlin, who is the reigning voice of contemporary worship music today.

Praise You in this Storm is by the christian band Casting Crowns. This song has been meaningful and helpful to me anytime I’ve faced difficult days. I appreciate the heartache of the lyrics, but also the strong message of praising God even when the days are difficult. This is is a beautiful version that the band recorded live at the Youtube Space in New York.

We will Feast in the House of Zion is a new song to us at Graceview. A number of us went to a one-day worship conference and got to experience this song in one of our workshops that day. Our Music and Worship Committee suggested using it during Lent as a response to the Lenten Liturgies we read each week during the season. The song presents the promise of God – that we will feast in God’s house, and weep no more. Could there be a better promise to cling to in these days? This version is sung live by Sandra McCracken who recorded it on her album “Psalms.” Why not listen to this song and continue to work at growing familiar with it so that when we gather again in person, we can sing it out as a song of triumph?

This is not an exhaustive list, just a taste of what is available. If you click on the videos above, you will see other videos suggested by YouTube. You could literally fall down a rabbit hole of exploring some of the worship videos. It would be a good way to spend some time! Just playing these three songs in the background as I’ve written this blog has done so my good for my current state of mind and spirit.

I promise to blog again tomorrow friends, I’ll share some favourite more traditional hymn videos then. Until then – be encouraged, trust God, keep praying and be kind!

On prayer…

One of the things I occasionally get asked about is prayer. People are concerned that they don’t really know how to do it. That they might do it ‘wrong’ or that they have to have really articulate and well-thought-out prayers.

But Scripture says:

If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.

Romans 8:26 MSG

I find that so encouraging, because sometimes I don’t know what to pray. Sometimes I don’t have the words, or the presence of mind to put words together. Sometimes in prayer, I just imagine opening my heart to God – I imagine me lifting a valentine’s-day-shaped heart to God, so that God knows what’s in there that I can’t quite put into words. And then I trust that the Holy Spirit makes sense out of that on my behalf.

For me it takes the pressure off having to figure out how to put things into words that I’m still working on processing.

You may feel that way these days – there is so much information that is changing hour by hour, we are living in unprecedented times, how do we even know what to pray at times like this?

So I wanted to share the above scripture, but I also wanted to share with you this resource. These are prayer-colouring pages provided free-of-charge from illustratedministry.com – the same folks that provided the banner that (at Graceview) we coloured each week of Advent this year.

These pages were made with the intention of helping kids who might be having a hard time in these scary days. But since the adult colouring is still a thing, I see no reason for the rest of us to use them as well. Print them off, colour them, and trust that the Holy Spirit is interpreting even the strokes of your marker or colouring pencil as prayer to God! (And post them on your fridge or elsewhere once you are done, as a colourful reminder of God’s faithfulness even in these trying times.

A future and a hope…

The world has grown quieter. Not silent – there are still cars in the roads, people in the offices, shoppers and cashiers in the stores.

But there are fewer on the roads, more staying home, a slower pace as we try as a community to navigate this crisis and keep distance from each other.

I’ve been spending much of my time at home, but also making the effort to get outside for some time each day. Just me and Koski, out in the fresh air. I’m naturally an introvert – I live inside my own thoughts much of the time. And the call to social distancing has only increased that natural tendency for me.

I’ll admit to you that I’ve spent much of the last several days swinging back and forth between feeling really panicked, and feeling amazingly calm. What starts the panic, for me, is that I begin to ask the questions we don’t (and won’t for several days or even weeks) have answers to yet: what will the fallout be – for me, for my congregants, for my family and friend? Will we be able to observe Holy Week this year? What about the trips I have planned in May and in July, will those go ahead?

I hate not knowing. I really, really hate it.

And when I begin to ask those questions, my heartbeat speeds up, my stomach grows tense, I veer towards some pretty negative emotions.

So what to do when those moments come?

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the passage where Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil. And as I studied the passage in preparation, one of the things that struck me was that Jesus continually answered the Devil with scripture. And I made the point that we need to rely on God’s word during trying times. It was one of those things that sometimes happens with preaching: you say something in a sermon and it clings to you in the days afterward. You find yourself returning to that’s lesson or thought over and over. I had no idea then, what an important lesson this would be for me.

I had no idea then, what the next few weeks would bring.

So I want to give you a scripture to hang on to in these trying times – there are lots of them, and I encourage you to find the one (or ones!) that mean the most to you. You could treat it kind of like a scavenger hunt – hunting through the scripture for lines or verses that will strengthen you and calm you in these days. Gather them up like treasures. For they truly are.

In the meantime, here is one of mine:

‘For I know that plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster to give you a future and a hope.’

Jeremiah 29:11

God plans a good future for us, one full of hope. I can’t tell you what that will look like. I can tell you it is in His hands. I can tell you to trust these words. (I can also tell you that part of how you can participate in bringing that future about is by being responsible, following the advice of the medical professionals and being kind to others!)

Let me leave you with some pictures from the outing Koski and I took today – down to the lakeshore for a long walk (during which we smiled at many other walkers and runners from a distance, and truly enjoyed being out for a walk together).

The joy on her face is good for my heart!
Even on a cloudy day like this, the lakeshore was beautiful to explore.

Strange days…

So I’ve been feeling bad about the fact that I didn’t begin blogging at the beginning of Lent, as has been my practice for the past few years. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to – it was weighing heavily on me and as the days passed, I kept promising myself I’d get to it the next day. But then the next day would pass and my best intentions would fall by the wayside.

And then the word lost its mind. I do not mean that derisively – I just feel like we are all in a certain kind of insanity right now. Maybe it’s overreaction, but the only way to know for sure is to not take the measures that are being taken, and have the possibility of the worst happening. And no one wants that.

So we are doing the best we can in the midst of these strange days. My Mother and I keep reminding each other of that ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. It feels like this pandemic is exactly what that refers to.

On Sunday, the church where I serve, Graceview, made the difficult decision to cancel worship for the next two weeks. We are erring on the side of caution, but since we have an older demographic in the congregation, it seems like the wise thing to do. We have cancelled meetings and events – just about anything we do as a group – for the next two weeks. And it’s strange. It feels so strange to have two weeks when there will  be no worship service…so strange to not be thinking towards what hymns we will be singing, what message I will be preaching, what other preparations need to be made for the service.

But here’s the thing – we are still the church. We are the church regardless of whether we are able to meet as we usually would. We are the church no matter how strange the days become. We are the church. The church is a people – you and me, and all the other brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe.

So while our worship gathering is cancelled for the next two weeks, we need to remember that doesn’t mean don’t worship. That doesn’t mean don’t study the Bible, pray, reach out to those who might need a kind word. We can continue to do all these things, every single day, whether we are together or whether we are practicing social distancing.

To that end, I’m going to commit to blogging every day during this hiatus. On Sundays I will post a video that will be a little sermonette. It won’t be the same as our worship services, but I will do my best to provide you with some faith material – thoughts, scriptures, prayers and links to some songs that I hope will uplift your spirit in these strange days.

For today, let me leave you with this verse, which my father used as a Call To Worship every Sunday while serving Amberlea Presbyterian in Pickering (and which feels appropriate for these times, and for the fact that I’ve just return from an outdoor run):

Dear friends, do not grow weary, do not grow weak. Trust in the Lord and you will find your strength, even in these strange days. Amen.

It takes a congregation…

19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.  Ephesians 2:19-20 NLT

One of the joys for me this Advent Season has been an art project that the congregation has been taking part in each week. It’s a paper banner, filled with Advent images and scriptures, and each week as the people came into worship, they were invited to stop and colour a portion of the banner.

By this past Sunday, there were only a few spots on it that needed to be coloured in. So some of the ladies of the church and I got together and had a colouring party yesterday.

This morning I came into the church with only a rough idea of how I might display the banner. But thankfully, God showed up and gave me a great idea! It came together really easily, and within the first 45 minutes of being in the office, the banner was up for all to see this evening and tomorrow morning.

I am reminded that while in our context there is often only one minister in a church, it takes the whole congregation to make beautiful things happen, to make worship happen.

I am so grateful for the people God has given me throughout my years in ministry. The community of faith is a blessing, and has always made my life richer.

Merry Christmas!