There is no question that women have not been seen or valued by the church in the way that Jesus saw or valued them. #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear

There is no question that women have not been seen or valued by the church in the way that Jesus saw or valued them. #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear

Wendy Thomas is one of my heroes

Often in brain-dead moments I will scan my Facebook or Twitter news feed. This morning I came across a post from Michael Frost which linked to the twitter hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, and intrigued, I clicked on the tag.

If you are not on social media you can look at this blog by Rachel Elizabeth Asproth  where 55 of the top tweets are collated. It is an interesting list, mostly of direct quotes that women report being said to them in the context of church.

Apart from the odd one (and some were very odd), the overall sentiments could be summarized as:

  • Women shouldn’t teach men (either because the Bible says so or because they are too emotional).
  • Women shouldn’t be in leadership
  • Women are responsible for the sexual behaviour of men
  • A Women’s identity should be defined by marriage and children

There is something confronting about hearing these messages put into verbatim quotes by real people. While I understand the theological position that some of these views come from,  as I hear the actual words I can only imagine how painful they would be to hear.

I work on a pastoral team with some remarkable women. One person in particular has been a mentor for me and has been a pioneer in the denomination I have been working with.

Wendy felt God calling her to pastoral ministry long before women could be pastors in my denomination, in fact its only been in the last decade where she has finally been recognized as a Pastor, and only a couple of years ago that she was officially ordained. Despite this Wendy has faithfully served the function of pastor both in local churches and also at the denominational bible school.

Wendy turns 60 this weekend and is getting ready to retire. She has spent her whole life in a system that didn’t have a way to officially recognise the obvious call of God on her life until her last few years of ministry. She doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it is obvious that it has not been a simple journey. In a culture where women were meant to be married with children, Wendy was single and exercising leadership in churches that didn’t know how to recognise what she was doing.

Wendy will tell you about the men along the way that encouraged her and made space for her, but she will also (if you ask enough of the right kinds of questions), give a little glimpse into the pain of trying to follow God’s call on her life in a world that didn’t really understand or appreciate what it meant for her.

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Good Friday is a reminder of a completely different approach to life… a life that actually produces life by being willing to die…

Good Friday is a reminder of a completely different approach to life… a life that actually produces life by being willing to die…

It’s Good Friday.

Today we celebrate the execution of a young Jewish man who made some startling claims.

Very few serious historians doubt the historicity of the death of Christ by crucifixion, and one of the peculiar things about this moment in history is that his followers came to claim that his execution was actually a victory, not only so but they also claimed that one of the most common things this young Jewish man said was that his followers were to follow his example and be ready to suffer in the same way he had.

The gospels record the 33 year old carpenter as saying we must take up our own crosses in Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 and 14:27.

Not only had Jesus suffered horribly, he told his disciples that to follow him meant also being willing to suffer.

No-one wants to suffer, and yet Jesus claimed that suffering was actually the path to life. It is hard to imagine a more counter-cultural message.

N.T. Wright, in his latest book The Day the Revolution Began (which I wrote about here) said:

The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people.

This is the strange secret of the Christian faith that I (unsurprisingly) don’t hear lots of people talking about. Yet whenever the Christian church has been at its revolutionary best, it has been full of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of love.

This kind of behaviour isn’t normal.

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The Awkward Truth about Churches in North America: lots of bonding, not so much bridging.

The Awkward Truth about Churches in North America: lots of bonding, not so much bridging.

Article published in today’s St. Albert Gazette 

As you have no doubt heard and also experienced for yourself, relationships matter. In fact the University of Minnesota published data to demonstrate that having a number of strong relationships significantly increase health, decrease crime and corruption and increase generosity and reciprocity.

Relationships are so beneficial that to almost every area of life that they are a real form of capital, in the economic sense of the word. The term “social capital” has been used for at least two decades to describe the number and strength of relationships people have.

As you would probably expect, going to church produces social capital. One study found that those who attend church on a weekly basis have 25% larger networks of relationship than those who rarely or never attend church. Those who go to church also trust about 20% more people than those who never go to church.

Robert Putnam was the social researcher who coined the term “social capital”, and he believes it takes at least two forms. The first, Bonding Social Capital, refers to the strength of your relationships and how likely people are to sacrifice themselves for you. The second, Bridging Social Capital, refers to the number of different kinds of relationships you have and the ease with which you make new connections.

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I might not love everything that Mike Pence stands for, but I’m impressed at his self awareness and choice to recognize his own limitations.

I might not love everything that Mike Pence stands for, but I’m impressed at his self awareness and choice to recognize his own limitations.

Vice President Mike Pence has been causing a stir with his strategy to maintain his committment to his wife.
Apparently Vice President Mike Pence has a policy to never eat alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her either.

Pence’s policy is very similar to one adopted by Billy Graham at the start of his ministry (which came to be known as the Billy Graham rule). The revelation of Pence’s strategy in a Washington Post story last week has caused quite a stir. The Post article was simply re-stating something that was printed 15 years ago however publications like Fortune and Newsday have slammed Pence, and, as the Atlantic pointed out some celebrities have responded very strongly.

What’s the big deal you might ask?

From time to time I listen to an Australian radio program called “The Minefield” in which two guys (usually with a guest) try to tackle some of the most complex moral issues. Waleed Aly is a Moslem and Scott Stephens obviously has some kind of Christian heritage, but they try to tackle the issues from a secular/philosophical framework.  This week they were talking about Mike Pence’s policy.

Something Waleed Aly said got me thinking. He suggested that Mike Pence’s strategy to manage risk in the area of his sexuality is so offensive because it challenges the myth that “sexual desire and even sexual behaviour is something that is entirely at the mercy of our own self control.”

Aly points out that we all know that “sex sells” and works at a level that is “pre-logical,” yet as a culture we have a deep economic interest in objectifying people and the belief that there is no moral effect in this approach to sexuality.  He suggested;

I wonder if what Pence is doing is articulating, just kind of, a radically different view of these things that doesn’t fit with the conceit of late capitalism and we don’t like it very much so we strike out against it in these kind of virulent ways.

I was fascinated by the dialogue and the insight into one of the big lies that seems to go unchallenged in our society…

What Mike Pence did in putting in a structure to avoid the possibility of temptation was actually an acknowledgement of the fact that all of us can be put in situations where we don’t make the choices we would ordinarily want to make.

The myth of self control is that a person is able to make fully rational choices at all times. We can’t, and we don’t. 

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My role in my kids lives is changing, and that’s not easy, but it is ok.

My role in my kids lives is changing, and that’s not easy, but it is ok.

Josh with my Dad, Mal, and Leeanne’s parents Robert and Martry

My son Josh will be waking up in Australia for the first time in four and a half years.

That is now two of my children living more than thirteen thousand kilometres away.

That reality certainly has had me reflecting.

I am realizing that there are two distinct phases of being a parent.

In the first phase you are completely responsible for the teaching, care and nurture of your child.

In the second phase your only responsibility is as a cheer squad, willing them to win the race of life that lies ahead of them. The problem is that there isn’t really a line you cross to say you have moved from one phase to another… its a day by day transition that happens so gradually that you don’t really notice.

As Josh waved goodbye and walked into airport security I remembered my own experience of waving goodbye to my family as I stepped onto a coach that would take me to the Australian outback town of Broken Hill.

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I need to share about what this week has actually been like…

I need to share about what this week has actually been like…

I love teaching the Foundations course but it does take some emotional energy

This is now the fourth time I have sat down to write this weeks reflection. I have been doing some useful thinking about the place of belief in shaping our behaviour, however no matter how hard I have tried, I simply cannot write about it.

Faith Reflections is my attempt to reflect on the real journey of faith, and this week in order for that to be true I need to share about what this week has actually been like…

It was a privilege to officiate at the service to celebrate Rod Hoople’s life on Saturday, and then to preach on Sunday, however with these two things mixed with the process of teaching a foundations course and preparing to move back to Australia in three months, I found myself in a bit of a daze. I must confess that I only just realized this afternoon why that was (sometimes I’m a bit slow). I was emotionally tired.

In my experience the kind of tiredness that comes after experiencing intense emotion is quite a different kind of tiredness than the outcome of sleep deprivation. When I haven’t slept, my eyes feel heavy and my whole body feel like lead. When I am emotionally tired, it is more like I am in a fog. Both are difficult to manage, however when I know I didn’t sleep, I am more aware about why I am feeling the way I am.

Often when I am emotionally tired, it can take a while to realize it, and that can be challenging both for me as I feel frustrated with how difficult I find doing things that I normally find easy, and also for the people around me who wonder why I am more emotionally distant than they are used to.

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Thank God for heroes like Rod Hoople who remind us all what the point of life really is.

Thank God for heroes like Rod Hoople who remind us all what the point of life really is.

Rod’s life stands as a challenge to us all

I, like so many others, wanted a miracle. I wanted to hear from Cheryl that Rod had opened his eyes and confounded the doctors.

It had only been two weeks ago that Rod was with us on Sunday morning, helping prepare our team who would be travelling to Mexico in late July.

Rod and his wife Cheryl are heroes in our church. Rod had been a librarian for a few decades. Cheryl had been part of YWAM, and for her the idea of travel and engaging cross-culturally was normal.

It took a while for Rod to understand his wife’s heart. He shared with me the profound impact of his first trip to Mexico and what happened when he shared his story of faith with people. The experience changed his life, Cheryl’s life and our church.

Rod and Cheryl didn’t fit the normal mould of missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (our denomination). They didn’t want to spend four years studying, they knew God was calling them now… so they went. They found a small mission organization called YUGO based in northern Mexico. They sold their house. They packed up their little family, and they moved. This was not normal behaviour in our middle class, suburban church.

It was my job as the Pastor of Community Engagement and Mission, to help the people of our church find their place in what Jesus was calling them to. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Rod and Cheryl had been doing that in our church for more than a decade.

For the past 13 years Rod and Cheryl have trekked back to Canada once or twice a year to see friends, share news and invite people to join them on the adventure of mission. Their faithful and quiet persistence  began to have a big impact. By the time I turned up at St. Albert Alliance church, a number of people had already travelled to Mexico to see for themselves why a librarian would leave the comfort of St. Albert for the very different life of a missionary in Mexico.

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is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

Last week I wrote about pornography and received a lot of feedback, some of which focussed the question of whether the church should be trying to be a moral compass.

In a world where we see different wings of the Christian church lining up against each other on  almost every issue you can name, it is an obvious question.

That question though, leads to another… what is “the church”?

I think what most people mean by “the church” is the organizational structures that are represented by personalities we see on the television or at events in out local communities. When we get most frustrated with the church, my guess is, it is that structure we are getting frustrated with… and often with good reason because the people we see representing that structure often seem to be out of touch with the reality that most of us experience on a day to day basis.

Would you trust someone who doesn’t seem to understand the reality of your life to be a moral compass?

This weekend I am preaching from the last couple of chapters of a pretty confronting book of the bible called Galatians. The author, Paul, was writing out of deep frustration because the little bunch of Jesus followers had started to focus on rules and regulations, and on systems and structures, rather than on the heart what he tried to teach them which was to live their life only in and through faith in Jesus. In fact he says “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 4:6)

My guess is that part of the reason people have pushed back against the organized expression of the church is that they have hit the kind of things Paul was hitting with that little church. Rather than experiencing a radical kind of faith expressed in real love, they experience systems and structures, rules and regulations.

One of the regulations that the religious people were trying to put in place was that followers of Jesus should have a painful operation where they cut off the foreskin of the penis off (called circumcision).  Out of complete exasperation he finishes his tirade by saying “I wish they would go the whole way and cut the whole lot off….” (Galatians 5:12) Who says there isn’t humour in the bible?

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You can have a whole life, or you can regularly watch porn. You can’t do both.

You can have a whole life, or you can regularly watch porn. You can’t do both.

I was reading Proverbs chapter 5 this week, which is mostly about sexual immorality, and it occurred to me that since I started this blog in 2010 I have never written about pornography, despite the fact that it has been something that I personally have had to wrestle with.

While I am pleased to be able to say that porn hasn’t had a hold over me for many years now, I am embarrassed to have to admit that I fell for something so stupid and directly opposed to my faith. I think that embarrassment, despite the fact that it was in my past, is why I have avoided writing about it.

I feel I need to apologize for not talking about this sooner both because I want my reflections on this site to be an expression of my real wrestle with seeking to follow Jesus, and also because I am more and more convinced that Pornography is a cancer that is having a huge impact on the Christian church.

An article in the 2016 July/August edition of Christianity today quoted a Barna study that showed that 41 percent of Christian men aged 13-24 and 23 percent of Christian men over 25 said they frequently used porn. (the figures were 5 percent and 13 percent for Christian women in those age groups).  While my experience as a Pastor indicates that these numbers may well be understated, they are numbers that are a real worry for the future of the church itself.

A recent study has found that  watching pornography significantly increases the likelihood that you will abandon your faith.  (2015 study by  Samuel Perry published in The Sociology of Religion 76:4, pages 436-458 ). Did you get that? 2 out of 5 young Christian men, and 1 out of 5 men and women generally, are actively engaged in behaviour that predisposes them to leaving the church!

While 3 U.S. states have declared pornography a health crisis, we in the church have been slow to talk about the impact it is having on us.  Porn has been around in different forms for hundreds of years, however online porn is having such a devastating effect because of its anonymity, accessibility and affordability according to this article.

Lets call a spade a spade. Porn does real damage and it really is wrong. Pornography is adultery, plan and simple. It might be adultery that you can get away with anonymously, affordably and accessibly, but it is still adultery.

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Too often we have preached a watered down, deformed kind of Christianity. Lets get back to the 6 core truths…

Too often we have preached a watered down, deformed kind of Christianity. Lets get back to the 6 core truths…

The American election revealed how significantly that country is divided, and as part of that, how significantly the Christian church is divided.

I have been left wondering whether we have had a major failure of Christian teaching and leadership… after all there must be a biblical worldview, mustn’t there?

Of course there is… it’s just that most people who call themselves Christian have a worldview shaped by all sorts of forces other than the bible.

Last November I gave a sermon called “How and Why do I read the bible?,” where I unpacked the 6 core elements of a Biblical worldview through which we could discern truth.

None of the six things were in any way controversial, and yet all of them are revolutionary in terms of our understanding of ourselves and the world.

I think part of the challenge is that as the Christian church, we have learned to give intellectual assent to these truths and not let them shape how we think and live.

The six truths of the bible basically chart the story of the bible from the start of Genesis through to the end of Revelation. They are:

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Self Sufficiency is the great lie of Alberta (and the Western World).

Self Sufficiency is the great lie of Alberta (and the Western World).

This is an article I wrote for todays St. Albert Gazette. You can see it here:

John Lennon wrote “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” in the song Beautiful Boy. It is a lyric I don’t like because it is a little too close to home.

As Human beings we really want to believe we are in control of our own destinies. Here in Alberta we place a high premium on the idea of the “self made” man or woman. We put a lot of pressure on each other in Alberta, and particularly in St. Albert.

As the poet John Donne reminded us “No man is an island, Entire of itself.” As a pastor in this city, I believe the lie of self-sufficiency is one of the big reasons that we have so many mental health challenges.

Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book “Outliers” that no-one truly is self-made. We are all a product of our experiences and particularly, the community in which we grow up and now live.

For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in Alberta, and more specifically, St. Albert, it is easier to maintain the illusion that we can control our own lives. Most of us grew up in families where money was not a big issue and our education equipped us to go even further than our parents did.

For a significant percentage of our lives we can pretend the steering wheel is in our hands, and we can look down on people who don’t have what we have, or who can’t make the decisions about their lives that we can. Too many of us living in St. Albert are living our lives in a way that is just setting us up for a painful fall.

Eventually, something will go wrong, and we will have to face the fact that our life is actually not our own. It can be a painful and disillusioning realization.

At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that we are not in control and that all of us have two fundamental needs: the need for a relationship with the God who actually is in control, and the need for relationship with others.

The bible’s version of John Lennon’s lyric is Proverbs 16:9: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” Reading the bible regularly is a good recipe for humility, and humility is a good recipe for mental health.

Another good recipe for mental health is real community. In the same way we need to recognise that we are not God, we also need to recognise that we need others, and others need us.

In this remarkable city, that is continually in the top 10 places to live in Canada, we have two antidotes to the Albertan lie of self-sufficiency.

The first antidote is that every weekend local churches open their doors to anyone who has reached a point of realization that they are not God.

The second antidote is that our city leads the world in encouraging people to get to know and build relationship with their neighbours (see goodneighbourproject.org) through block parties and other initiatives.

You are not an island. Please consider engaging with a local church and getting to know your neighbours. I promise you won’t regret it

There are 6 choices you need to make if you don’t want to be sucked in by Trump (or anyone else).

There are 6 choices you need to make if you don’t want to be sucked in by Trump (or anyone else).

I have been grateful for the chance to be in North America at this time. It feels like there is a seismic shift underway in how the world looks at the United States, how the United States looks at itself and how everybody understands truth.

I used to teach people about Public Relations. I would teach that we have “media” because they “mediate” truth. These days, while that might be the origin of the word, the reality of the function is not so simple.

Yesterday I watched one of my favourite journalists, Chuck Todd, reach a point where he declared that he no longer had the words, quoting a sports commentator who once declared “I can’t believe what my eyes are seeing.”

It seems as though the biggest question facing us over the next decade will be “what is real?”

I wonder if part of the problem is that over the last 40 years we have been lulled into a dependence on media. We have allowed them to mediate, and therefore shape our reality.

In my Public Relations classes, I would teach that “those who know how to use the media have disproportionate power.” I don’t think anyone would doubt that Donald Trump knows how to use the media.

I don’t think that Trump is the problem. I think the problem is that we have all become lazy. We have allowed ourselves to have our understanding shaped by others, rather than doing the hard work of seeking truth ourselves.

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We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started…. #TSEliot

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started…. #TSEliot

T.S. Eliot penned the words of the title of this reflection as part of his poem, “The Little Gidding.”

The words have been running around my head lately because it they capture the trajectory of our next twelve months.

In 1992 my journey in ministry really started with a journey to the top of Mt. Wellington in Hobart. I was in the city on placement after finishing Fusion’s six month bible college intensive. A friend had challenged me to consider the possibility of “digging in” in Hobart and committing to Fusion’s work for the long haul.

I didn’t want to.

I was scared.

I knew I didn’t have the answers.

So for a couple of days I avoided the question, and then I went for a drive.

The view of Hobart from the summit of Mt. Wellington

I drove to the top of the mountain and after some minutes of staring at the lights of the city, and with some sense of dread, I uttered the words:

“OK God, you’ve got me; I’m willing to accept the challenge of this city.”

That sentence changed my life.

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Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet. (So are you…)

Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet. (So are you…)

I haven’t known how to make sense of what’s been happening in American Politics

I didn’t write last week. I just wasn’t sure what to say.

I spent last Friday glued to the television and much of that time I was shaking my head trying to understand what I was seeing.

It is hard for an Australian to really comprehend the forces that shape the thinking of Americans. While Australia certainly has it’s fair share of irresponsible media coverage, divisive issues and poor leadership, the country as a whole is actually fairly whole. Pauline Hanson is not Donald Trump (no matter what she believes), Centrelink is not Obama Care and Crikey is not Breitbart. To be honest our politics is much less interesting… in a good way.

America is divided in a way that Australia simply isn’t, so I have spent the last four and a half years in North America a bit bewildered by what I see on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

This morning I heard something that was extremely helpful at a number of levels.  Since becoming addicted to “the West Wing”, one of my favourite television shows has been Meet the Press. The host, Chuck Todd, has recently started a podcast called 1947 (after the year that MTP started), where he seems to have longer form, more informative dialogues than is possible on the one hour show.

Today Todd posted a conversation between himself and President George Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Chuck was attempting to argue that the media wasn’t systemically biased, and Fleischer systematically demonstrated why he was wrong. A key insight for me was when Fleischer said:

Chuck I submit to you it isn’t intentional, it’s natural, and that’s even worse.

It’s just reflective of a worldview that reporter’s have. Where I’ve been on sets, I’ve been talking to reporters and you just see them roll their eyes, “How can anybody be for Trump?”

It’s an institutional thought that is pervasive throughout journalism and it goes back decades frankly. I think it’s hit its peak with Donald Trump because reporters find him so personally offensive and ideologically offensive, and they let it rip.

Fleischer came across  as very grounded in reality and gave numerous examples that Todd simply had no comeback for. By the end of the conversation, both of them seemed to agree that the “main-stream” media had a “left-wing” bias. At the end of the interview, Presidential advisor Steve Bannon’s claim that the media was the real opposition seemed a little less crazy than it initially sounded.

What seems to be happening is that the American media is only just starting to become aware that they are not completely objective.

I almost laughed out loud as I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper who looked shocked and hurt last night when he, and the media in general were accused of being biased. His defence was that Newsrooms were more “diverse” than ever.

For Cooper, “diverse” meant people from different ethnic backgrounds and people of different sexual orientations… however, as Fleischer pointed out to Todd, very few newsrooms have any socially conservative people at all, most of whom would not be excited by what Cooper calls diverse.

Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet.

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Only people who have suffered, grown, matured and developed real values can actually have relationships of trust.

Only people who have suffered, grown, matured and developed real values can actually have relationships of trust.

These two men seem to have the kind of friendship we all long for.

It is interesting to watch America prepare for the transition from it’s first black President to its first President with no background in either politics or the military.

I caught Obama’s farewell speech, along with the ceremony where he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Honour with Distinction, on Vice President Joe Biden. What has been interesting to watch has been the way that almost no-one has criticized the character of either man.

Obama quoted a Republican who said:

If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, you got a problem.  He’s as good a man as God ever created.

Senior Republicans have almost been unanimous in the praise of the character of both the first family and the Vice President. In the very next breath they move to talk about Obama as one of the worst Presidents America has had, but they don’t criticize his character.

It was interesting that when Joe Biden got over the shock of receiving the award, it was Obama’s character that was what he mostly spoke about:

And we’ve disagreed, and we’ve argued, and we’ve raised our voices, one of which we made a deal we’d be completely open like brothers with one another.  But, Mr. President, I watched you under intense fire.  I will venture to say that no President in history has had as many novel crises land on his desk in all of history.  The Civil War was worse, the World War Two was worse, but, Mr. President, almost every one of the crises you faced was a case of first instance — a case of first instance.  And I watched that prodigious mind and that heart as big as your head — I’ve watched you.  I’ve watched how you’ve acted.

Last September, conservative commentator, David Brooks wrote:

[O]ver the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. […]
Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

It is true that the Obama Whitehouse has been largely scandal-free, and that all the real things that have focused people’s strong feelings about him have been about policy and not about character.

I watched the movie about Obama’s early life on Netflix a few weeks ago, and read his autobiography 8 years ago. In both it becomes clear that Barak Hussein Obama has had to fight to find his identity in the face of lots of competing messages he received from society and those around him.

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