I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Spring Rally of the MACC (Maritime Alliance of Covenanting Churches). Below is the Friday evening address I gave to the gathering.
“The Hitchhikers Guide to Nick”
Is anyone familiar with the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? Remember how the main character had a normal life, but through a chance encounter he ended up on a spaceship just before the earth was destroyed? From there his amazing adventure began. His life changed forever.
As I look back over my life, I can subdivide it into two stages. The first stage is up to the year 2000. And then of course everything since then.
Before the year 2000, everything was “normal”. I had next to no church experience what so ever. I had a couple of years of Sunday school at the local Lutheran church while I was growing up on the South Shore of NS, just outside Bridgewater. That was it. My church experience is reduced to some vague memories of being in the church hall with my friends, and the nightmares of a couple of Christmas pageants in the church.
I was a good kid though. I didn’t cause too much trouble. I wasn’t a party guy, I played lots of sports, I got along well with others. I lived a normal life.
I resisted the temptation of going out drinking and partying with my peers. I had good marks, I went to university. But things changed a bit for me in high school. I wasn’t the popular jock anymore. I seemed to have problems fitting in, finding my crowd. It made high school very tough, and my marks suffered a bit. I was a computer geek before most people understood what a computer really was. This was the early 90s, and computers were just barely beginning to take hold in society.
So I went on to take Computer Science at Acadia. But, just because I was good at it, I was never driven to succeed. I was quite happy to coast along, and my marks showed it. I failed a number of courses and spent a lot of time on academic probation.
Somehow though, I made it through and I moved with my new bride to Ottawa to begin my career at a prestigious company known as Nortel. And it was a rough start right off the bat. I joined the IT group for a small department which provided the tools necessary for the company to develop products. By small, I mean it was me and one other guy. A guy who wanted help with the job, but seemed to be unwilling to help me develop the skills to be as productive as I could be. But, because I was simply coasting along, I didn’t feel the need to change things, it was an easy job because I didn’t have a whole lot to do. It nearly got me laid off less than a year after I joined the company.
Instead, I got transferred to another department. In this new department I had much better mentors who helped me develop my skills and grow in my leadership abilities. Here we prepared for the upcoming Y2K scare as we prepared the computer systems of the company to avert the crisis.
Things were moving up. It was also about this time when my wife, the life-long member of the United Church decided she might like to start going back. So she started to attend a church with some friends of ours. I would go occasionally, but didn’t find it very interesting.
The year 2000 comes and goes with no crisis in the industry and I continue to develop as a member of the company. I grew enough to be moved to another department, this time to be their team leader and help them become more cohesive and efficient like the department I came from. I’m 26 years old, and already tagged as management material. Life was looking good and promising. I’ve even started to go to church more often since they got this new minister, a Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey.
It didn’t last long though. In 2001 the technology sector took a major hit. Nortel began a long series of lay-offs, and I changed departments a bunch more times as we were continually merged together, then tasked with cleaning up the technology infrastructure as less equipment was needed with so many fewer employees. I changed from a promising potential leader in the company who people came to for help and service to a sit at my desk job and plan projects to save the company money. My career path was now uncertain, at least from my point of view.
But all through this I’m getting more involved in the church. I’ve joined the church, I’m maintaining the church website, I’m getting involved with committees and the board. I’m also beginning to get involved with the youth group. And they have an interesting impact on my life.
In the spring of 2002 I was asked to help out with the sound system for the youth group’s 30 Hour Famine weekend. Specifically they needed me to help them set up and run the system for the band that one of the churches brought to lead worship in the morning. I was only there because the man usually in charge of this sort of thing couldn’t be there.
Yet it turned out to be a very powerful spiritual moment for me. Encountering these youth who really sang their hearts out for Jesus touched me. This is the first time I thought about ministry, in particular, youth ministry. And I thought about it very seriously. Things started to change, to the point where I went to a conference with youth ministry workshops and took in as much information as possible from those workshops and the other youth ministers in attendance.
After a busy summer, things simmered down a bit with the youth ministry idea. But that fall, things were starting to feel like change was in the air. The house that Bev and I bought just the year before, the house we planned on spending many years in, suddenly seemed temporary. Bev and I both sensed change was in the air. In fact we hid it from one another for a couple of months, when finally we confessed to one another we both felt we were not going to be in Ottawa much longer.
We began to search for work and houses in Nova Scotia, we felt the desire to prepare for a move back home. Ironically, one year after I started at Nortel I turned down a job at Acadia. And now here we were searching for work.
Then the day came when we knew it was going to happen. The day we ended up on the spaceship, and everything we knew changed.
We were lying in bed on Sunday morning, January 12th, 2003. We were debating whether we were going to go to church in the morning, or would we just go to the special evening service that night. As we debated the choice, Bev said, “Oh! We have to go, I’m reading scripture this morning!” Decision made. Off we went.
During this service, every moment seemed to be speaking to me. The prayers were touching me, the music was richer than I had ever experienced before. And during the sermon, I had a discussion with God. I didn’t hear a word Rev Bailey spoke that morning, all I heard as I watched him preach was, “You will be up there.”
All I could think was, “Really? I can do that?”
The answer was an emphatic, “Yes!”
As the service ended, I was in tears. I sat in the pew in awe, praying. On the way home I shared with Bev what I had experienced. As I shared with other people what I had experienced in the service, no one else could say they felt the same way. No one else noticed a different tone or presence in the service. Just me. From there we began to prepare ourselves to leave Ottawa. I managed to secure myself a lay-off and we sold our house and moved back.
This is where the reading from Genesis comes in. I feel very close to Abraham. God spoke to me on that Sunday morning, promising me to take me places, and I attempted to respond obediently. God was telling me I was going on a journey and to pack up my things and come along to a place He would show me.
Our lives felt very much like Abraham and Sarah’s. We felt God had big plans for us as he called us to follow Him, but we had no idea what was in store for us. We left everything we knew behind us, we started a family (not with a maid though, see Genesis 16:3,4) and just went where we felt God wanted us to go.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. I had problems convincing conference interview boards I was ready to be a candidate, it took me until 2007 before I was even named as a candidate, almost 4 years to the day after sitting in church that fateful morning.
I was attending a very liberal theological school which was focused more on finding ways to survive than producing spirit-filled ministry personnel, and the politics of the place were difficult to deal with.
But I survived. Some days I’m not sure how I made it through, but I did. It helped there were a couple of faculty who supported me through some of the tough times. I also found a couple of other students who were of a like mind and theology, and believe me they were few and far between, and also hard to find at times since speaking from a conservative theological standpoint was not always the smartest thing to do in this particular academic environment. But we found each other and supported each other.
Theological school was the hardest thing I had to do in this process. All the way through my theological stance was challenged by other students and many of the faculty. They didn’t do it to my face or intentionally (at least most the time) but to be in a place where liberal theology is rampant was very discouraging for me. I felt what I had to offer was being lost, I felt like my gifts were going to be useless as I enter ministry because no one in the church would agree with my views. I was afraid that after a couple of years I would be done and forced to look elsewhere to follow God’s call in my life.
Here I am, in an ecumenical, inclusive school, being excluded because my “patriarchal” view of God might offend someone. But if I’m offended by their overt feminist and liberal theology and watering down of the Trinity, I’m in the wrong and have to put up with it. Their inclusive club excludes me. Go figure.
There was one particular day where I was feeling quite low. We sang a hymn I enjoy in chapel. “Come in, come in and sit down, you are a part of the family.”
Was I? How am I part of a family when I feel pushed out like I’m the ugly duckling? Why can’t my theology be celebrated like everyone else’s? It was like high school all over again, “why don’t I fit it?”
There were even times when I was very close to exploring other denominations. One faculty member who supported me even offered to help me explore her own denomination if I needed to move on. She wasn’t the first to try and lure me away to other denominations.
This feeling, oddly enough comes strongly in triennial cycles. Every three years I get this strong urge to move. The last time I felt this way was last summer. The time before that, the summer of 2006. Before that, the summer of 2003. Can you think of any reason why I might feel this way? What might have happened during those summers which made me want to walk away to join another denomination? These were General Council years.
Believe me, I was tempted, really tempted. As I read through the proposals that go to each General Council, it’s like I know the writing is on the wall. It’s just a matter of time before one of these proposals passes that will force me out. Where the church will give me no option but to walk away because I cannot conform to what the growing expectation of being a leader in this church requires me to believe, to preach and to do.
But, for now, I feel God wants me to remain in the United Church. He is not ready to let me move on. God wants me to continue to share my story and my faith with the people of this denomination. He wants me to share my gifts in the church.
This journey introduced me to gifts I never knew I had. Public speaking is one of them. I also seem to have a small gift of music. I haven’t been able to develop it as much as I would like because of the lack of time required to do so. But it helped me through the whole process.
At AST I found other students, the same friends I found earlier, and we got together to play the music we needed to hear and play to meet some of our spiritual needs. We needed to praise God our Father, and music was the safest and most fulfilling way we found to do it.
Music suddenly became a big part of my life at AST. It began as a mid-week break for us just to get together and worship God through music, and to explore the experience together as we tried out new music we couldn’t use elsewhere because of the content of the music. We played contemporary music, which was often deemed not inclusive enough for AST general consumption.
We were also all self-taught musicians. And we played with passion and spirit. The next thing we knew we were being invited to play at other venues than the quiet AST chapel when no one else was around. We played for youth groups around Halifax and Dartmouth. And it was a lot of fun sharing our music with others. Including music I had wrote myself. Ironically though we were called the AST worship band, we were never asked to play at AST events.
We had to take a year off while I was on internship. When I came back it seemed we picked up where we left off. And picked up another musician, this time a trained musician who could help us develop our music further. In that year our ministry grew. We started to play outside of Halifax. We played in Berwick, we had a weekend trip to PEI, and we also played on the Eastern Shore of NS as well. Pretty much mostly in Anglican churches! God took our music and used it to help people praise God in a new way. To hear the what God offers us in song, and to explore new styles of worship they weren’t used to.
The band and my friends were what helped me get through AST. We supported each other, we reminded each other of the gifts we had to offer to God’s people and we continue to do so even after we’ve graduated.
Over this time, I was also doing some student supply at churches who were in need of pastoral support and worship leadership. Both churches were in painful states when I arrived. One had a minister on short-term disability, but also was in the midst of a battle with this minister over control of the church. It was a poor match as the goals of the minister did not align with the goals of the pastoral charge. Being part of this community was a great experience for me, and I grew a lot working with them. I learned to listen to concerns, I learned to lead worship on a weekly basis, and I learned that despite my unpopular theological stance in the academic setting, people in the pastoral charge were hungry to hear the Word.
I had another supply stint with another church who’s minister left on short notice. On the last Sunday, the minister told the congregation God had left them and they were going to hell. I started the next day. Once again, I discovered people simply wanted someone to hear their concerns and to love them. And again, they were hungry for the Word.
Where I am now, same story. A fractured relationship with the previous minister over control. They want to be loved and listened to, and they crave the Word to be preached honestly and directly. They want to deepen their faith, the want to wrestle with the issues being brought forth in scripture, they want to know God deeply and personally.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you our denomination has watered down scripture. We avoid the tough stuff, we talk more about justice and love than we do about finding a deep, life-shattering relationship with God our Father who sent His son to die for us.
I am so glad I can be here with you this weekend, because it’s good to know we can gather and remind one another we are not alone. As people who love God and love what our church has stood for and as people who want to fight to keep the Holy Spirit alive within it, we need each other.
Like Abraham, we all have a promise from God that He will show us the way to the promised land. He will protect us from harm. When times get tough, God will provide for us when we show our faith in Him. And because of our obedience, many, many people will be brought to the Lord as believers.
As a renewal group, we may be small right now. We may not have a lot of energy anymore. But we continue to love God and seek to follow His will for us and our renewal groups within this denomination. All we need to do is touch a couple of people. Abraham had one son. Yet through him millions… billions of people came to know the Lord. More descendants than grains of sand, more descendants than stars in the night sky were the promises he was given.
Abraham is an example for each and every one of us.
Abraham heard a call from God to pick up and move to a new place. To leave the old way behind and to start a new thing. Do you think, despite God’s promises, Abraham expected by having one son he could start a massive movement.
A movement that lead to Moses leading thousands of people out of Egypt and back to the promised land? A movement that lead to King David and his beautiful Psalms. A movement where the King of the world came down himself and shared his vision of love for all people, and his desire to be known by us and to bring us into life with Him?
It starts small. It can start with one person.
It starts with our desire to be close to God, the One our souls that long to be near, to be with the one who created us and the one to whom we wish to return.
It’s not about meetings, it’s not about how powerful we are. It’s about how much love we have for God and how much love we have for our neighbours. Jesus said in his final instructions to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
It begins with changing lives.
Lives like mine, changed by small encounters in a church in Ottawa by people who showed me God’s love and what it could do. I’ve been strengthened and led by God to get through the tough times to where I am today. Sharing His love with His people. Trying to help people let God change their lives too.
Tomorrow morning I will share with you my vision of the future of the church (you may read it here). Some of which will be captured in the special edition Fellowship magazine coming out later this spring. I look forward to sharing and talking with you about it.