Why Bother with Reconciliation?

Some people have asked me why I’m bothering to undertake this church crawl.  The further I go into this journey, the more I realize that reconciliation, especially between Christian churches, is absolutely essential.

Because if we don’t reconcile, the result will look like this:

Watch that video.   When Christ was born, the angels proclaimed “peace on earth”. But today, at the birthplace of Christ, those who are supposed to be his representatives are hitting each other with brooms because they can’t agree on who should sweep a patch of floor.  Seriously.

If we can’t resolve an issue of housekeeping in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, how will we present ourselves as agents of reconciliation in a broken world?  If we are still divided by arguments that date back a thousand years or more, how can we claim to be being transformed into the image of Christ?

Reconciliation is not something that can be ‘put off’ until later while the we get on with the mission of the church.  Reconciliation is the mission of the church.


Church 16 – House Church

I wasn’t quite sure what to call this post, as the group I had the privilege of visiting this past Sunday doesn’t really have a formal name, structure, or building.

But they certainly do have very comfortable sofas, and plenty of time for discussion, worship, prayer and eating together in a relaxed family environment.

A couple of things really stood out to me.  The first was the inclusive nature of the meeting.  In one church I was in recently I was carefully guided to a back pew and reminded of my ‘observer’ status.  But at the house church I was invited into the family living room, and actively encouraged to join in the discussion.  Everybody’s input was expected and welcomed.  This was a pleasant change to passively listening to an hour-long lecture!

The other thing that caught my attention was the focus on discipleship.  This might be a small gathering, but there is actually a reason behind that.  We talked for a while about the fact that it’s humanly impossible to disciple, pastor, or coach large numbers of people simultaneously.  Even Jesus focused much of his attention on a small group of 12 followers.   Perhaps four or five individuals is the most that it’s reasonable to expect one person to be able to effectively disciple.

And so rather than adopt the common pattern of having many people gather together once a week to hear a teacher speak from the front, this church has deliberately chosen a model that allows intense, personal interactions between the leadership and members.  I think this is an idea that’s definitely worth exploring.  I’m convinced that the purpose of the church is the transformation of people towards the model of Christ.  But I’m not at all sure that all of our church models are very good at achieving this.  So I’m very interested in any approach that tries to create better environments for this transformation to occur.

This was also by far the longest ‘service’ I’ve been to.  I arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon and didn’t leave until 10:00 that evening.  But while I can’t imagine sitting in a pew for 6 straight hours, this felt far more like hanging out with good friends, and I was in no hurry to leave.

I’m glad I found this little group.  They may have no official title or building, but they showed me that there are some good things happening under the radar in Barrie.


Church 15 – Salvation Army

Having run the Santa Shuffle yesterday in aid of the Salvation Army, it seemed fitting to visit Barrie’s Salvation Army church this morning.

A couple of impressions hit you as soon as you walk in the door of a Salvation Army church.  The first, and most obvious, is the very heavy use of military style dress and terminology.  Easily half of the attendees this morning were dressed in a formal uniform.  The church is known as a ‘Corp’ or ‘Citadel’.  The leader is referred to as ‘Major’.  And the music is lead by a brass band.

I have mixed reactions to this.  Having spent time reading and thinking about the Anabaptist position, with its strong emphasis on peace and non-violence, it seemed weird to be in a church that was so keenly embracing a military style.  But on reflection, I suspect that the Salvation Army is trying not so much to adopt militaristic imagery as redeem it.  This army does not exist for the purpose of extended political power through the means of lethal force.  Rather it quite clearly exists, in their own words, to ‘be a positive transforming influence in the world’.

In fact the I came away with the impression of a church that has a very clear sense of purpose, and a very disciplined approach to achieving their goals.  The Salvation Army is well known in the city for its work among the poor and homeless downtown through the Bayside Mission.  And unlike some of the more isolationist groups that I’ve visited, these programs are run in collaboration and cooperation with several other city churches.

I also got to talk after the service with a member who’s involved in the church’s justice and prison chaplaincy ministry.  He made a very interesting point about the ‘other victims’ of crime – that is, the family and dependants of prisoners.  This is something that Rupert Ross talks about a lot in ‘Returning to the Teachings.’  The effects of any crime spread outwards through a community like ripples on a pond.  As well as the immediate perpetrator and victim, there are many others who feel the consequences.  Not least those who may lose a breadwinner if the perpetrator is incarcerated.

I’m very glad that the Salvation Army exists and is taking practical steps to address these kinds of issues.  I don’t think I’ve yet visited a church that has so clearly integrated its understanding of the gospel with a robust, outwardly focused ministry.


Santa Shuffle Race Report

One reason I love running so much is that even something as simple as a community 5k can contain all sorts of drama, tension and excitement.

I’m in my off-season at the moment, patiently putting in the miles to prepare for next years ultra-marathon goals, which means that most of my runs are of the ‘long-and-slow’ variety.  However, once in a while it’s nice to shake things up a bit, and this morning provided the perfect opportunity.

My plan was to run from home to downtown Barrie, a distance of about 9 or 10 km, in time to run the annual Santa Shuffle.  I’d do the race, and then run home.  A 25k total would complete this week’s distance goals.

The last few days have had very unpleasant weather; the temperature has hovered around zero and a mix of snow and rain has left a slushy surface on the sidewalks that’s nearly impossible to run on.  Fortunately, this morning was bright and sunny and the paths were mostly clear.  I loaded up my hip sack with water and snickers bars and started off downtown, an hour before the race was due to start.

I took the run downtown very gently, taking the opportunity to fuel up as I went.  I even managed to resist my usual urge of racing any other joggers that I encounter.  Down at Heritage park was big crowd, significantly larger than last year.  Mayor Jeff Lehman, who somehow manages to attend every community function in the city, gave some brief words of welcome and congratulated us on our healthy example and the thousands of dollars that had been raised for the Salvation Army through entrance fees and donations.

The one-kilometre run went off first, which meant hanging around rapidly losing body heat.  I’d planned to arrive just minutes before the race, but that didn’t work out so well.  But I’d had the forethought to bring a space blanket, which did a surprisingly good job.

Then the 5k race start was announced and I had my usual panic to find a place to dump my water bottle, take off my jacket and fight through the crowd to the front line.  I made it with a few seconds to spare, remembered to reset my stopwatch, and then,  “3-2-1 GO,” we were off.

I always feel bad just before a race, nerves and power gels combine to make my legs feel shaky and unsure of my ability to actually turn on the speed when needed.  So this time I simply yelled ‘charge’ and sprinted the first hundred metres from the start line.  Immediately I was off the front of the pack, but as soon as I settled in to my pace a couple of other runners were right with me.  A few more hundred yards and they were already pulling away from me.  I let them go; my plan was to not kill myself in the first half of the race.  I’ve gone out too hard twice already this season, and this was just meant to be an extended training run anyway.

After the first kilometre, the shape of the race was already becoming clear.  Number One, clearly a serious runner by the fact that he was wearing shorts on a snowy day, was pulling steadily away from us.  Number Two, wearing a green shirt with a ‘Cross-Country’ slogan on it had already been dropped by him.   Although he was a hundred metres ahead of me, he looked like he might already be flagging.  If I kept to my plan, maybe I’d haul him in.

There’s a slight hill at the halfway mark, which I went up carefully, trying not to blow up.  By the time I got to the top, Number Four had come up from behind and joined me.  We stayed neck and neck for a while on the way back, and even chatted a little.  Like me, he also does triathlon, and like me is planning on racing Ironman Muskoka next summer.  He also cheekily claimed that if he stayed with me to the end he’d beat me in a sprint finish!

Now it was time to get serious, I only had two kilometres left to catch up with Number 2.  I switched up from ‘hard training’ pace to ‘serious racing’ pace, and started eating up the distance.  But Number Four stayed right on my heels the whole time.  When I finally got to a few paces behind Number Two, I decided that a short sprint might be enough to catch and drop him.

Not quite.  I ‘burned a match’, and caught up to his shoulder, but that was all.  He responded immediately and pulled forward a few paces.

Ok, plan B.  Stay loose, focus on style and turnover, breath easily, let your body do what it’s trained for.

That actually worked – as soon as I relaxed I found myself drawing next to Number Two, and we were heading into the final turn.  Number Four seemed to have finally been shaken, so the silver medal was in reach.

I love it when I get to the end of a race and still have a sprint finish in me.  One of my heroes is Simon Whitfield, who seems to always be able to pull out a devastating sprint went it really matters.  And it’s gutting to get to the last stretch with nothing left, and watch helplessly as runners go past you as your body refuses to respond.

Timing is also important.  Too soon and too late can both wreck a carefully planned race.  Today I got it perfect.  In the final hundred metres I kicked into fifth gear, and got the jump on Number Two.  Even that wasn’t enough though, as he also had a fifth gear apparently, and was right back on my heels at fifty metres.

Today was my day, though, and for once I had a sixth gear right when I needed it.  Maybe it was the aerodynamic ‘Angry Bird’ hat that my talented wife had made for me to wear.  But my legs responded perfectly when I asked, and I crossed the line with a personal best on this course of 18:51.

To a serious racer that would just be a gentle training pace, no doubt.  But for me it was a chance to show that I can come back from injury and frustration, and with careful planning and training I can get my body to reach the goals I set for it.

So, then I collected my medal, shook hands with the guys that had spurred me on and made it such a fun race, and enjoyed the complimentary hot chocolate from the race organisers.

And then I turned round and ran home.

Profiles of Hope – Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington I’ve mentioned Chrissie Wellington on this blog before, but I think she deserves a mention in my ‘Profiles of Hope’ series.  Chrissie is one of the outstanding athletes of our generation, comparable in her field of Ironman triathlon to Lance Armstrong in cycling or Michael Schumacher in motor racing.

She has won the Ironman world championship four times, so far, and in fact has won every single iron-distance race she has ever entered.  This fall her win in Kona came just two weeks after a serious bike crash that left her with major road rash and a torn pectoral muscle.

But Chrissie inspires me for more than just her athletic ability and determination.  She spent several years working in international development before becoming a professional athlete, and even since turning pro she has frequently used her fame to draw attention to the under-privileged and those caught up in conflict.

“It is my passion, and has been for a long time. Poverty, conflict, violence, crime, exclusion and so forth are not givens. They happen for a reason. We have the power to change things. And sport is one vehicle for doing so. It has the power to build bridges, to empower, to teach, to heal – this is what triathlon and every other sport should be about. I hope that I – together with the rest of TeamTBB – can, in a small way, help to inspire people to take up sport, realise their own dreams and their full potential.

– Chrissie Wellington, http://www.chrissiewellington.org/blog/world-ironman-championships-beyond-my-wildest-dreams/

Church 14 – Barrie Gospel Hall

Some of the churches that I’ve visited on my ‘church crawl’ have given a lot of thought to the new visitor’s experience.  Redwood Park creates a cafe style environment in the foyer.  Connexus uses the familiar environment of a movie theatre to make newcomers feel at home.  Barrie Free Methodist has a welcome centre to introduce you to the church and explain what to expect on a Sunday morning.

At others, like Barrie Gospel Hall, it’s assumed that you know what you’re doing. As I said in my previous post, I’ve had some experience of the various expressions of the Brethren movement, so I had some idea what to expect.  A complete newcomer might find the experience a little confusing, however.

The first thing that strikes a visitor to Barrie Gospel Hall is the clear separation between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ sit in a square around the communion table, and ‘outsiders’ are gently guided to a secondary row of chairs at the back of the room.  It’s very important to folks in this church to draw a distinction between participants and observers of the service.

This is a small congregation, with 17 or so adults present this morning.  The first half of the service was a set of five-minute meditations given by various members of the congregation.  These were delivered in the form of prayers, and mostly couched in what sounded like 17th century English.  Interspersed with these meditations were several a capella hymns sung very well, if a little slowly.

Although the language was sometimes hard to follow, it was clear that all the meditations and hymns focused on Christ’s passion and crucifixion, and this focus culminated in the celebration of communion.  The bread and wine were passed around the ‘insider’ group, carefully avoiding  those of us in the ‘outsiders’ row.

The service wound up after a short sermon and announcements.

Fortunately, in common with all other churches in the city, Barrie Gospel Hall believes in sharing coffee and Timbits after the service.  I got to meet and chat with a few members of the church, and once more ask my favourite questions about what God is doing in the city and what the mission of this particular church is.

Once again, these turned out to be hard questions to answer.  The mission of this church is, apparently, to witness to the gospel and make disciples.  I feel that they may have some hard questions to ask themselves if after 70 years of following this mission they have a mere 14 members.

I was also left with a strong impression of ‘exclusivity’.  I was told very clearly that there is ‘One True Way’ of doing church, that Barrie Gospel Hall is getting it right, and that all the other churches in the city, by implication, are not.

It saddens me to hear this.  I’ve been thrilled to get to see over the past few months some of the different expressions of Christianity in the city, and the diverse ways in which people are encountering Christ and celebrating their faith together.  To be told that all the people I’ve met so far are misguided is not something that sits well with me.

My sincere hope is that the churches in Barrie can transcend their boundaries.  As Greg Neuman at Big Church said when I visited, “God is calling the churches of Barrie to compliment, not compete with each other.”


Profiles of Hope – Sebastian Castellio

John Calvin may have disagreed with nearly every aspect of Catholic faith and practice, but there is one area that he and the Inquisition stood in total agreement on.

Heretics should be executed.

Michael Servetus was a 16th century scientist and theologian who had the dubious distinction of being condemned as a heretic by both the Catholic and the Protestant authorities.  He was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition in France,  and sentenced to death.  Although he managed to escape, he made the mistake of then travelling to Geneva, where he was promptly arrested again, this time by the Protestant authorities, under the leadership of Calvin.

Although Calvin had split with the Catholic church many years previously, and had denounced the Pope as the Antichrist, he was in complete agreement with it that heresy should be punished with banishment, torture or death.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27th, 1553.

In contrast to both Catholic and Protestant leaders who believed that religious truth must be promoted by the full force of the state, one man stood out as a voice of reason, compassion, and freedom of conscience.

Sebastian Castellio.

In his own words, “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.

At great personal risk to himself, Castellio argued strongly and publically against the persecution of ‘heretics’.  To him, a heretic was anyone who disagrees with another on a religious matter.  Given the differences of opinion between religious authorities, everyone is a heretic by someone’s definition.

We might take freedom of religious conscience for granted these days.  Unlike the tumultuous 16th century,  I can live in peace with my Catholic friend or my Muslim neighbour or my atheist colleague. But the ideals that make it possible for our diverse Canadian society to flourish in many ways can trace themselves back to the pioneering teaching of Castellio.

As he said,  “We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace.”

General Assemblies – A Lesson in Patience

This evening I had the privilege of attending a General Assembly for Occupy Barrie.

Much of the media attention for the Occupy movement has focused on public protests and the aggressive way that some jurisdictions have responded.

However to me the most interesting aspect of this movement is its decision making process, which centres on the idea of consensus.  For someone used to board rooms, or company meetings, or parliamentary votes, this process must appear slow, unfocused and repetitive.  There is no ‘show of hands’, no chairman, no binding rulings.  Any individual can speak, and everyone is listened too.  A few basic mechanisms exist to ensure order, and a set of hand singles are used to indicate points of order, agreement or disagreement, and speakers running over their allotted time.

It became very clear this evening that ‘efficiency’ and ‘consensus’ are two very different goals.  This is not the way to quickly and decisively take action.  But I suspect that that is not the point.  I have a feeling that if the Occupy movement has any lasting legacy, it may well be that it introduces an entire generation to this alternative method for making group decisions.


Profiles of Hope – Rupert Ross

The first person I profiled in this series was a Christian monk.  The next person I want to talk about, strangely enough, is a criminal prosecutor.

His name is Rupert Ross.

During his work with Justice Canada, Ross examined and experienced the Aboriginal approach to ‘peacemaker’ justice.  In contrast with a justice system that focuses simply on identifying and punishing criminals,  this is an approach that addresses the full set of connections between the perpetrator of a crime, the victim, and the wider community that they find themselves in.

In his book ‘Returning to the Teachings‘, Ross describes a Native American approach to restorative justice called a Healing Circle.  This is a tool that gives a voice to everyone affected by the crime – the victim, the victim’s family, the offender and their family, and community representatives.

The ultimate goal is not merely punishment, but to break the cycle of crime, in part by bringing the offender to a point of recognition and accountability for the effect their actions have had.

Just as Brother Roger devoted his life to reconciliation between different branches of the church, practitioners of restorative justice such as Rupert Ross are dedicated to bringing reconciliation and healing to broken individuals and communities.


Profiles of Hope – Brother Roger of Taize

I’m starting a new series here, called “Profiles of Hope”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hope.  It’s one of my key values.  And yet I find that hope can be a very esoteric concept.  It’s not something I find easy to define.

With that in mind, I’m going to start writing about some people who’s lives have inspired me.  People who have acted as if it is possible to make a difference in this world.  People who have used what they have to affect the situation they found themselves in for the better.  People who have creatively imagined a better way of living.

I’ll start with the fellow on the right, Brother Roger.

You can’t spend a long time in the Christian world without noticing that sometimes we don’t get on all that well with each other.  Since the Great Schism the Orthodox and Catholics haven’t exactly been on speaking terms, and since the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics have been refusing to play nicely together.

We are forbidden by our leaders from sharing communion together, and have been for hundreds of years.

Except for one man.  Brother Roger, above.  He founded the Taize community in France, and spent his life working towards Christian reconciliation.  His work was so impressive, that despite being a Protestant he received Catholic communion from two Popes.

Every year Taize hosts thousands of young people who want to reach across cultural and denominational boundaries, and many thousands more have been blessed by the music and simple liturgical style that the community inspired.   In the words of the current leader, Brother Alois:

“In Christ we belong to one another. When Christians are separated, the message of the Gospel becomes inaudible.

How can we respond to the new challenges of our societies, notably that of secularization and of mutual understanding between cultures, unless we bring together the gifts of the Holy Spirit placed in all the Christian families? How can we communicate Christ’s peace to all if we remain separated?”

The need for reconciliation is becoming clearer to me as I travel around the Barrie churches, and I can think of no one who embodies this ideal better than Brother Roger.

“Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”