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Month: June 2017

Ezekiel 34: A Message for Leaders

Ezekiel 34: A Message for Leaders

Regine and I have moved from Winnipeg to Calgary last week. The movers are delayed in delivering our furniture. We are living in a house that looks attractive from the outside but is cold and empty on the inside. There are none of the usual things that make a home feel warm and inviting. I wonder if this is a symbol of what is happening in our communities, regions, and countries. There is a strong current of withdrawal from public life and a reduction of vision to simply caring for ourselves and our families. The outer walls remain intact but we are losing the warmth of communitarian values and compassion for those who are different.

The current period is difficult to navigate for those in leadership positions. Many pastoral leaders struggle to understand declining congregations and changing values in the post-Christendom age. They recognize that their church communities must find new models of worship and witness in a fragmented social context. However, the way forward is anything but clear. International mission leaders are working with reduced budgets and increased pressures to respond to massive population movements, civil violence, areas of hunger, and environmental destruction. Those who lead service ministries to people on the margins are discovering a growing mean spirit in our social networks. We blame the poor for their poverty and immigrants for their desire to build a new life in our neighborhoods. There is more than a mistrust of local and national governments. There are also suspicions about anyone who articulates a message of compassion, justice, and creation care.

The words of Ezekiel 34 were addressed to political and religious leaders in Israel. The historical context was complex, contested, and confusing. The prophet reminded leaders of their responsibility to be shepherds dedicated to the well-being of the sheep under their care. In all probability, these leaders would have rejected any comparison of their positions with those of humble farm workers that lived in the fields with their animals. Ezekiel reminded these leaders of the outcomes that were important for God:

  • The weak are strengthened.
  • The sick are healed.
  • The injured receive medical care.
  • The strays are brought back into the community.
  • The lost are found.

We can re-phrase these description expressions for our own time and places. I think it would be a good exercise for leadership groups and boards. The text invites us to re-center our leadership goals on building stronger communities in which wounded and vulnerable people are welcomed with compassion and care. God holds us accountable to move our organizations in these directions.

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Spiritual Disciplines of Boards and Committees

Spiritual Disciplines of Boards and Committees

Spiritual practices can nurture groups as well as individual followers of Jesus. However, when it comes to boards and committees, it often seems that “the devotional moment” is a formality or a distraction before we get down to the real work. Accordingly, we may rush through a reflection and prayer with a certain impatience waiting for the time when we can deal with the real reason that we are gathered.

I submit that too often the inadequate content of the quiet period before God is to blame for the feeling that we are spinning our wheels before dealing with the issues of the day. The words and prayers may feel disengaged from the reality of the challenges we face and the emotions of our hearts. And so we waste an opportunity to collectively stand before the Lord, to listen, to confess our sins and limitations, to ask for a renewed vision, and to offer our lives in service. We miss the chance to pray for one another and for those whose lives our touched through our work. We fail to invite the Spirit to guide and direct our motivations, our deliberations, decisions, and actions.

This week I was privileged to participate as an observer in a board meeting with 30 representatives of fifteen Christian denominations. At least 25 other people were present drawn by the common concern for hungry people in the world. The board members and other interested individuals were connected in one way or another with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The group members represented diverse professional backgrounds, a common faith commitment, and a shared passion for vulnerable people in areas such as South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Northern Nigeria.

The official agenda had urgent matters for discussion and decision. Board members had been given over 250 pages of reports and other documents. Budgets. Auditors Statements. Convergent Level 3 Emergencies. Rick Factors. Local Capacities. Field Reports. Global climate change. Conflict zones. Gender and Development. Changing government policies. Public opinion surveys. Fundraising and Communication options. People in the room were aware that human lives were at stake. Two days of meetings did not seem like enough time.

I was struck by the fact that over one hour was given to Biblical reflection and prayer before the items on the agenda began to be considered. James Astleford, an Adventist leader, drew attention to a Biblical passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 2 Kings 6 soldiers from a foreign army are captured and brought into Jerusalem. The ruling monarch is keen to kill them as an example of what will happen to the nation’s enemies. However, the prophet Elisha demands that they be invited to a banquet and then sent home to their families. These actions lead to a time of peace. Astleford encouraged the group to consider that generosity with food and nutrition is a way of building peace without the violence of bombs and armies. Feeding the hungry is an alternative foreign policy of the church.

Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Foodgrains Bank, used his report to lead us in a reflection of Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” He reminded the room that millions of hungry and desperate people today are screaming similar words to God and to the world. They feel forsaken and abandoned. Cornelius noted that the spirit of our age is to withdraw into the safety of baseball scores, barbeques, and times at the pool. The cross of Jesus stands before us as a symbol of a radical and sacrificial love of the world.


The vocation of caring for hungry people exposes the organizational limitations and vulnerabilities of each of the fifteen denominations of the Foodgrains Bank. There were hard discussions ahead. Astleford and Cornelius brought us together before God and established a context in which our business could be considered.

Other groups have their own unique mission and purpose in the world. I think of local congregational councils, youth groups, urban ministries, refugee organizations, and seminary boards.  Together they bear witness to the wide nature of God’s love and grace among those who feel wounded and abandoned. Our moments of reflection and prayer before moving into the agenda of a meeting have the potential to create a context in which God can speak to our hearts and minds. We dare not waste them.

Here are a few quick suggestions:

  1. Do not rotate the leadership of the opening reflection and prayer. Choose someone who will have a word from the Lord.
  2. Keep it real. The “devotional moment” should capture something of the agenda, the mission, and the people who are served. The challenges ahead should be brought into the content of the reflection and prayer.
  3. Invite God’s Spirit to speak to each participant and to guide the discussion. Later, do not be hesitant to stop at certain point in the agenda and offer the problems and challenges to the Lord.
  4. Keep it tight. Do not waste the time of others with stories and comments that are unrelated to the task ahead. Astleford and Cornelius commanded the moment because their words and prayer were related to the mission of the people gathered in the room. There were neither jokes nor cute tales.

I find that many meetings drain my energy and passion. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank Board Meeting provided a setting for God to speak to the room in a way the renewed our faith and vision.

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A Canadian’s Perspective on America

A Canadian’s Perspective on America

We deal with personal issues in the larger context of our particular community, nation, and the world. The violence of terrorists, the crisis of hunger, the tragedies of addictions, the mass movements of people, and the uncertainties of political leadership create unease and anxiety on the big stage of the world. As a response, there is a constant temptation to focus attention on personal well-being, family, and friends. These more immediate relationships provide most of our joy and meaning. Among family and friends we can make a difference.

But our small lives are lived in corners of the bigger stages – our communities, nation, and the world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. He did not reduce the scope to our kinship groups and close acquaintances. Jesus also told us that more is required of the ones to whom more has been given. This teaching is a constant reminder that, because of our privileged position, many of us bear a larger responsibility in addressing issues of global injustice and suffering. These gospel sayings can be used to shape the way we view the issues of our day and bear witness to God’s love and grace.

“Put America First” and “Make America Great Again” are slogans that contest the teaching of Jesus. Under Donald Trump, they point to the consolidation of power and wealth in the USA to the exclusion of those on the margins in the global community. Trump stands for the abdication of the kind of global leadership that many of us have come to expect from the best presidents of America.

The rejection of the Paris Accord on Climate Change surely caught no one by surprise. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and thereby entered into a strange alliance with Nicaragua and Syria as non-participants in this global action to preserve creation. There was no contrition that the USA was the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Neither was there recognition that coal fired generators are particularly harmful to the environment nor that more employees work on solar energy projects that in the coal industry in the USA. Likewise, there was no concern expressed about the rapid loss of biodiversity in the USA and the world (think about songbirds and butterflies). Many of us were outraged by Trump’s rejection of helping countries in tropical and semi-tropical areas to adapt to climate change. He characterized this assistance as giving money to competitors rather than of offering assistance to poor people threatened by rising oceans, intense storms, and prolonged droughts. Few people will have confidence that Trump and Scott Pruitt (chief of the Environmental Protection Agency) will provide leadership for a higher standard of creation care. Actions to date point in a different direction.

Over the last months, Americans have watched Trump insult their traditional allies including Angela Merkel (Germany), Sadiq Khan (mayor of London), and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“the worst president of Canada”). Strangely, Vladimir Putin has escaped criticism and angry invectives. America’s strong tradition of a free and independent press is under attack by accusations of false news and the offering of “alternative truths.” Lies and half-truths seem to be acceptable. I had developed almost an addiction to news about Trump because it is so bizarre. It seems like a fictional drama.

Many Canadians are now reluctant to travel to the USA. Our neighbors to the South seem less hospitable and friendly. Some fundamental change is taking place in America that we do not understand. We also fear (not respect) Donald Trump. I expect that less Canadians will spend time in the USA.

I am perplexed that the so-called evangelical voters have not called America’s leadership to a higher standard. I think that they have retreated into the small world of families and friends. I hope that they will attend again to the teaching of the gospels. Before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah engaged in symbolic acts of protest against her monarchy, the elite, the priests, and false prophets of his time. Like many others, I pray that Christian leaders in America will find ways to protest and to demand that the mantle of leadership pass to people that are wise, just, and compassionate. Congregations will need to become places where people can learn again to openly discuss issues and embrace a faith community that allows for respectful differences in engaging with the world. Those of us outside of America should be praying for Christian leaders that offer a prophetic critique of Donald Trump and a new vision of righteousness.

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