Category Archives: Blog

On the Pulse of Morning (Gabriel Snyman)

I am barely awake when my wife, Isabel, gives me instructions for the afternoon. I should take Steph, our son to the theatre this afternoon. He should be dressed in his Sunday best and seated on his assigned seat. I should buy a ticket for myself and Marise, our daughter should sit next to me. Eight hours later, she would have been proud of me. I remembered and complied with military precision. Steph sits on his assigned seat and me and Marise on the ones I bought tickets for and chose. I am vaguely aware that I am at the prize giving function of the Oilsands Rotary Music Festival and that Steph will receive a prize for a piano recital he practiced for hours on end at home. In my own selfish inner world, I am not quite here. I am elsewhere and nowhere. I hate prize giving functions. I have every intention of playing around on my phone until this function ends. Prize giving functions are like kid’s parties-if you have been to one, you have been to all.

But then after the usual welcome, thank you to the sponsors and how-the evening will work breakdown, something beautiful happens. A black girl of about 14 years walks on stage. Her name is Kudukwashi Simbi. She is beautiful. She stands upright, she looks at the audience intently with pride and confidence. When you come from South Africa it is hard to not be mesmerised by a young black woman with the charisma and pride she displays. Kudukwashi captivates me even before she spoke one word.

When she finally does speak, she not only captivates me but takes me with her on a journey. She recites a peom entitled “On the Pulse of Morning” from Maya Angelou.

“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.”

As she says these word, I get goosebumps all over. Sometimes words at the right time form the right person is like a spoon that stirs up flavours dormant in one’s soul and blends them into the aroma of hope. To me Kudukwashi becomes such a person as she continues and ends the poem with these words:

“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning”.

Somewhere deep inside me an “Encore!” cries out silently. I don’t want her to go but at least I am present now, so I allow her to bow out of the saviour role she just played in my life. Suddenly, I am here. Me and my soul. Being present like this opens my eyes to see many other beautiful things. Other children perform on the piano and violin and recite poetry and prose. Every one of them lifts my soul. I get to know Fort McMurray as a community brimming with young musical talent and great teachers.

A well dressed young man of barely nine with the last name Li plays a piece on the piano. It’s entitled “Water”. As you listen to him, it’s like your ears gets wetted softly and gently. The mayor’s daughter, Jeya Scott, plays a piece. Her mother is originally from China and I’ve been told she has a doctorate in music. When Jeya plays it sounds like she has one too! Had that piano had a tail, it would have wagged the whole time she was playing. Anirudh Shankar tells a funny story. Avery Rex sings a sad song about a waitress who gets pregnant and realizes that she will have to raise the baby all on her own. By the time she’s finished I need a handkerchief and feel ready to sign adoption papers.

One by one the children come to receive their awards and prize money. Raziela Odei, Victor Oganwemimo, Rita Pan, Nishka Rai, Soumannadip Sarkar, Alessandro Rizzuto, Brooke Tetreault, Krithka Venkataramadas, Vlad Stan and then my own, blonde Steph Snyman. There is not a peoples group on earth that is not represented here. Somebody recently told me that in most communities in Canada people speak 25 different languages apart from English but there are 52 different languages spoken in Fort McMurray. This must make Fort McMurray one of the most diverse places on earth. I take a look at the people around me. I see Sari’s and Burkas, tattoo’s and crosses, turbans and baseball caps.

I grew up in a racially segregated country. Somehow, I always believed what I experience tonight is possible. This is what I longed to see for many years. I often miss things and especially people of South Africa. But this tolerant, harmonious diversity is a treasure I cherish. It makes me rich.

Fort McMurray has become to me, the place where I can simply and with hope say: “Good Morning”. I am deeply grateful to be here. A wise theologian once taught me: A commitment to the God of Abraham can only be a commitment to the God of all people. To God and his people.

Gabriel Snyman
Faith Presbyterian Church, Fort McMurray

No New Normal (Charles McNeil)

Recently I had a conversation with a farmer who observed that this growing season might be akin to the 2002 season of drought.  He thought that the conditions between this year and that one seem to be similar.  And like the people of the Old Testament Egyptian experience that farmer and many other farmers have put away feed for their livestock from last year to cover any possible shortages that may come along.  Wise and prudent to say the least!

This conversation dove tailed with a series of online articles I have been following about the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly’s moderator, the Rev. Peter Bush, visiting the Cariboo region of interior British Columbia. Peter, both in words and pictures, has been conveying the devastation which last year’s fire and this year’s flooding has had on the land!  (See here for the record of Peter’s visit.)

Note land.  Not only have people been hugely effected, and certainly there has been devastation on the people but there is huge devastation on the land itself.  As if it hadn’t been enough that the pine beetle and spruce bud worms has swept through the bush of the interior of British Columbia a number of years ago and destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees thereby affecting the landscape, eco systems, and weather patterns of that part of the world.

Then came the fires last season that swept through much of the interior of B.C. affecting all creation – humans, animals, and the whole environment.  I had the privilege and gift of having lived and worked in the Cariboo over a number of years before coming to the parkland of Alberta.  I live and work in a beautiful part of God’s creation at present, and certainly lived and worked in yet another beautiful part of God’s creation in the Cariboo!

What always struck me about the Cariboo was how wild and harsh the natural conditions could be.  Extreme cold and heat.  Storms that rattled the very marrow of one’s being.  Too little and too much rain.  And so it went.

I have heard the Cariboo, described by more than person, as being a dry and thirsty land.  And a wild land.  People who live there have had to be of hearty stock and self sufficient.  Building and rebuilding over a life time.

Witness the devastation of the forests in years just past, the fires of last year, and the flooding of this year.  I suspect the people of that region are living with something akin to PTSD.  Some have lost everything materially.  Others have been spared such loss but have seen neighbours, friends, and families suffering.  Still others had the experience of having the fires burn right up to their fence lines but because of extraordinary effort their buildings were saved.

Such people are reported to have huge clean up to do: especially as they are resort owners who have a season fast approaching where they need to be ready for their returning customers.  But will the customers return?  That was the question hanging in the air from Peter’s on line report.  Clearly the burnt environment might be hardly conducive to holidaying folk wanting pristine natural conditions.

Whether in B.C. or Alberta dry conditions can be and are a fact of life.  Being proactive as neighbour, along the lines of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, can go along way in helping those are most impacted by drought, fire, flood, and whatever else afflicts.

The odd thing is that the environment may well be renewing itself through the fiery cleansing of seasons like the last one in British Columbia.  There may well be new normals which bear little resemblance to the known conditions of the past.  In fact we all may find that there are seasons that need to be prepared for that call from us greater effort and endurance. And also greater empathy for those most devastatingly affected by whatever comes.

No matter where we live.  Be it in B.C., Alberta, rural, urban, suburban, town, or hamlet the environment from time to time can act out and get our attention.  We would be well advised to pay attention, be prepared, and to help those with whatever they are facing.

Life has an odd way of turning things around.  Renewal can come in the most perplexing ways.  I pray that we can move with whatever cleansing, renewal, and transformation that comes our way!  And that we call upon God and each other to be able to meet the need and see the whole community through this and every season of our lives.

(Rev.) Charlie McNeil
for Knox and Ganton Presbyterian Churches

Taking Time (Lydia Calder)

I recently met a woman who had formed a Christian support group for widows. It was successful on many levels, but she had one major disappointment:  “I saw older widows with time on their hands, but a lot less energy and mobility.  I wanted to show them the value of intercessory prayer. I wanted them to see the impact they could continue to have in their families and churches and communities and even the world if they would commit to prayer.  I failed.  They wouldn’t do it.”

I nodded in agreement, remembering situations where I had been similarly frustrated.  “We can’t make people want to pray,” I said. “It’s sad to think that as Christians we have the opportunity to commune with the Creator of the Universe and we choose not to.”  I paused. “But that’s me too.  I don’t pray as much as I ought to…as much as I need to.”

“Same here,” she said with a sigh. “I just get so busy doing things for God that I neglect to spend time with God.”

We cannot see God the same way we see that irritable child who has waited too long for dinner to be made. We cannot hear God as we hear our spouse calling for us to hurry or be late for church. We cannot sense God’s presence as acutely as we feel our anxieties and compulsions.

God doesn’t use text messages or emails or cell phones.  Those vibrations and chimes and ring tones bother us until we respond. God will wait quietly. God has eternity.

God doesn’t use bill boards and advertisements and TV jingles that compete for our attention. God’s voice is still and small in a world of shrill and outrageous.

God doesn’t offer immediate results – sparkling teeth, micro-waved food, faster cars.  Zoom. Zoom. God calls us to lie down by still waters, to pause while our souls are refreshed.

Carl Honore, a Canadian journalist and the author of the book, “In Praise of Slowness” says, “In the headlong dash of daily life we often lose sight of the damage that this Road Runner form of living does to us.  We’re so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives: our health, diet, work, relationships, the environment and our community… We’re hurrying through our lives instead of actually living them.”

The Saviour came that we might have life… in abundance.

That means slowing down, taking time, listening attentively, living deliberately.

Submitted by Lydia Calder, on behalf of Mill Woods Presbyterian Church

Making sense of Sabbath rest in the 21st century (Heinrich Grosskopf)

One might wonder whether there is any sense in pursuing Sabbath rest in the society we live in currently. By way of a show of hands (virtually) how many of you reading this blog take a regular solid Sabbath rest?

If God says I can accomplish my work in six days, who am I to say I can’t?

While I personally endeavour to take a day out of my week to rest, I have found that my Fridays (my day-off) can easily be squandered if I don’t make the best use of this day. I am still to make the most of such a day.

Gordon MacDonald, author of among others, the book “Ordering your private world” devotes his last section of the book to Sabbath rest. I recently revisited this 1983 oldie, and found some nuggets in there.

The chapter on Sabbath rest is entitled “Rest beyond leisure.” I find three pointers in the chapter very helpful.

He mentions how Jesus didn’t spend most of his life on hours and hours of sleep, but He rather spent these times alone in conversation with God, his Father.

There might be three dimensions to this type of rest.

  1. The first could be found in looking back and doing some introspection about what I have accomplished in the last week, or even in my life so far. It is a time to “close the loop.”
  2. The second might be to look at today, at how I converse with my Lord about current things.
  3. The third is to look forward into the future, towards my mission, to what I’m about to do. What are my plans for the next six days, for the future? Where am I heading in my service towards God?

Furthermore, the day of Sabbath can have much meaning, if I use this time to make sure the important beliefs and values are acknowledged. The times of rest that God gives us, without any need for guilt about them, are cause for us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, and to make sure we know to whom it is properly dedicated.

Finally, how about considering a “tech Sabbath”, a time when all emails, social media and technology are fasted from for the period of Sabbath rest? Maybe then I will be of more help towards a world that is in such desperate need of spiritual care.

Heinrich Grosskopf
Dayspring Presbyterian Church

It’s Good Friday Morning (John Dowds)

It is Good Friday morning.  Snowy, cold, sun that is trying desperately to brighten and warm the earth.

I find this time of year somewhat difficult.  We are on the cusp of Spring, but not there yet.  We are on the cusp of sunshine that warms the ground and elevates our mood and energy, but we are not there yet.  We are on the cusp of new life, happening all around us, but we are not there yet.

And I suppose, at some level, that is what Good Friday is all about – cold, dark, and yet on the cusp of light and hope.  It is a difficult day.  And it should be a difficult day……because that is part of the story of our faith, that is a part of the story of our lives, that is a part of the story of our world – always has been, always will be…

Without darkness we would have no idea about what light is all about, without despair we would have no idea about what hope is all about, without pain and difficulty we would have no idea of what it feels like to be pain free……..

All of this is life.  Whether we like it or not is somewhat irrelevant.  It is life.   Scott Peck, in his book, The Road Less Travelled, begins his first chapter by saying, ‘life is difficult.’   One of Buddhism’s tenets is, ‘all life is suffering.’

And that is not a ‘bad’ thing.  In my work as Chaplain for the City’s 14000 employees, I spend many hours with many people in the midst of their suffering, hurt, pain and sometimes overwhelming grief.  It is in those dark, foreboding  places that they often learn so much about themselves and others, they experience depths of emotion that they may never knew they had, they come face to face with their own mortality, their own failings, they experience life in all of its reality – dare I say, in all of its abundance….

You see, I believe (more and more) that when Jesus said, I came that they might have life and have it abundantly – I think what he meant was, I came that they might live authentic lives, true to oneself lives, – lives where we are honest with ourselves about our failures and our successes, lives where we draw lines in the sand for our own care and wellbeing, lives where we recognize and understand that life can be pretty darn awful sometimes (maybe of our own making, or that of others, or both), but that things can be different, better, and that we will get there – with the help of others, with the help of our faith, with the assurance that not only are we on the cusp of light and warmth and new life – but that new life does happen, the sun will begin to warm the earth again.

Life is difficult.  No-one knew that better than the One who went to the Cross today.

Life is difficult.  But there is always hope and light.  No-one knew that better than the One whose resurrection we celebrate and who came to teach us about abundant/authentic living.

John Dowds, Lead Chaplain, City of Edmonton

About Orphans (Harry Currie)

Did you ever notice how many fictional characters are orphans, especially those who have super powers or magical powers. Superman is an orphan. Batman is an orphan. Spiderman is an orphan. Luke Skywalker is an orphan. Harry Potter is an orphan.

Why is that? It is because being an orphan resonates very deeply with the human psyche. It helps us identify with the character, because every one of us feels at time alone, and a little bit like an orphan.

Interestingly enough a number of these fictional stories about heroes seem to be based on stories in the bible. Moses was like an orphan, brought up by a princess, who is seeking his real identity and comes back to save his people, using special powers to save his people from an oppressive overlord who is genocidal. Luke Skywalker is an orphan whose sister is a princess who fins out about his real identity and seeks to save his people, using the force, from an evil overlord who has committed genocide.

Superman’s real name is Kal –El which translated from Hebrew is “voice of God” His father sends his only son to earth to be a light to show them the way. He comes and is adopted by Martha and Jonathan which sound a little bit like Mary and Joseph. Superman is based on Jesus.

Jesus is a kind of orphan. Brought up by Joseph, his adoptive father, his real father is God. At his baptism, he finds his real identity, understands how much he is loved by God, and receives his superpower, which is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of love, joy. peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control, At his baptism Jesus receives his mission, which is to share that Spirit with others.

And the people he shares his Spirit, his love, his superpowers with, is us. We too are baptized into this Spirit and we receive the same superpowers through the Spirit, the greatest of which is love.

At times we are all orphans, because we were all created in the image of God as God’s children and we have lost our way. And at times we all feel like orphans because we do not live like the children of God we were born to be. We at times feel like orphans because we know that there is another way to live that isn’t so full of conflict and drama, and hurt feelings and bad thoughts, and selfishness, and trying to get more money and get more things. We know there must be a peace that passes human understanding. We know that there is an abundant life waiting. We know we have a purpose and a destiny.

And it is simply this: to be doused or drenched in unconditional love and forgiveness. To be swamped with acceptance. And to turn around a go a new way or loving others the way God has loved us. This year we can all be superheroes and use our superpowers to love one another and share God’s spirit.

Harry Currie, First Presbyterian Church, Edmonton

What I Learnt by Being A Thief (Rodger McEachern)

When I was a young boy I stole five dollars from my parents’ dresser. I was found out and duly discipled – how, I don’t remember.

How to understand my parents’ response to their young thief?
1. They didn’t like my stealing, and they didn’t like me…
2. They didn’t have a problem with my thievery, but they didn’t like me…
3. They were okay with my petty larceny, and liked me…
4. They didn’t like my stealing yet liked me.

What makes sense? My parents either liked or didn’t like the act of my stealing, and they either liked or didn’t like me. (I am using the words ‘liked’ and ‘like’ to avoid using words like ‘hate’ and ‘love’ that often incorporate large investments of emotion, which may skew one’s thinking concerning the situation in question) So, which is it?

Well, my parents didn’t like my stealing – not from them or anyone. Yet, they genuinely liked me – they really did! To understand my parents’ response of discipline for my stealing money I think the fourth option is the best explanation for their discipline; indeed, as a parent I would have the same position towards any of my children. They wanted me to learn that stealing is not good, nor right, their discipline was oriented to help me learn that, and their discipline was grounded in their affection for me.

Okay, here is where I’m going with this. There is an idea floating around our society, and even in the church, that it is meaningless, even hypocritical, to say to another person, “I don’t like your behaviour, or act, or word, but I like you.” Yet, isn’t that what my parents were doing in response to my stealing – not liking my behaviour, but still liking me? To think otherwise is to conclude that there is no behaviour that is not acceptable or not likeable, because if there were, then “I couldn’t like you!” The idea we can’t like another’s behaviour and not like them is a sophistry; is it true that I, or another person, are incapable of distinguishing the worth and value of another person from what they do? Perhaps for some people that may be a possibility, yet it wasn’t true for my parents, nor for me raising my children, nor it is true of the people I know.

Neither is it true of the Lord. The idea that another’s actions, even lifestyle, is not acceptable and liked, and therefore, that person mustn’t be liked is to deny the witness of Scripture, and to confute the common experience of many people of faith. Two great truths in Scripture (and reflected in the Judeo-Christian tradition of western society) are first, God is love, and therefore, loving and good in all decrees and works; the second is, humanity is broken and infected with what the Bible calls ‘sin.’ This ‘sin-infection’ results in all that is wrong with me, and you, and all other people. C.K. Chesterton, in response to a letter in the London Times asking, “What is wrong with the world?”, was allegedly reported to write, “I am.” Chesterton had a handle on the clear teaching of Scripture concerning sin and its consequences. There is nothing in Scripture that would support the thinking that God likes our sin, or our behaviour that flows so easily from what Jesus described as our ‘unclean heart’. Much is made concerning how Jesus loves us, and how his love shapes his relationships, and rightly so, yet, it is fallacious to suggest that Jesus’ love for us also means he doesn’t have a problem with our sin and sinful words and acts. There is ample support in the Bible for the contrary, as there is ample support for thinking that God likes us, no… God loves us! This despite our sin and our behaviour that expresses our sin.

So, my parents didn’t like my sin of stealing, yet they liked me. Similarly, God does not like my sin, but likes me (perhaps it would be right to insert the words ‘hate’ and ‘love here?).

One final thought. If I have the love of God in me, transforming me through the work of His Spirit, conforming me to the likeness of Jesus, is it not reasonable to conclude that I don’t have to like what another person does, or even their lifestyle, but I can like that person? Isn’t this how the Lord relates to us?

Rodger McEachern, Callingwood Road

The Deacons’ Fund (Mark Chiang)

“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” Matthew 14:20

We have a Deacon’s Fund at St Andrew’s. I don’t know if we ever had deacons, but a small fund was set up in their name. It’s meant to be used in pastoral emergencies and to help the general community. But we never touch it.

It’s not that we’re not helping people. It’s not that we don’t need the money. But for some reason, our church as been shy about using the Deacon’s Fund. I can only speak for myself, but whenever I’ve handed out bus tickets or restocked the food pantry or made a small loan to a person in need, I’ve preferred to take the money out of my own pocket rather than the Deacon’s Fund. I think part of me is saving it for a “real emergency”, and I’ve been so afraid of using it up that it hasn’t been used at all.

At last year’s Annual Meeting, one member stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we spent any money out of the Deacon’s Fund? Are we not helping anyone?” The elders and I glanced at each other sheepishly. I suspect we were all doing the same thing: spending our own money in order to save money in the Deacon’s Fund.

We decided to change our behaviour. If we exhausted the fund, so be it. Receipts started pouring in, and money started flowing out. But somehow, the Deacon’s Fund remained afloat. At this year’s Annual Meeting, the treasurer was able to boast that — despite spending more out of it than we ever have before — the Deacon’s Fund had actually grown.

I imagine this is what the disciples felt when they gathered the twelve baskets of leftover bread. It’s humbling: a weird mix of feeling astounded and stupid. Why weren’t we spending the Deacon’s Fund? Why were we so afraid of running out? Why did we doubt that God would provide?

And worst still, how many times have I held back from being generous because I was afraid there wasn’t enough? The next time I find myself more filled with more doubt than faith, I’m going to remember this experience with the Deacon’s Fund.

Mark Chiang, St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Edmonton

And God comes near … (John Carr)

I have been reflecting on the role of nativity plays, pageants, and tableaux in the formation of our spirituality. Here are my thoughts.

In December 2017, as I watched the children and young adults play their various roles in the tableau written by our Session Clerk, I felt a strong connection with the narrative. I knew many of the “actors” and their families – the braying and baa-ing little children who were donkeys and sheep, the three stately and tall young men who were the magi, the teenager who was Mary, accompanied by a teenaged Joseph. And then there were the narrators – who occasionally stumbled over less familiar words but who were obviously pouring their hearts and souls into the fulfillment of their responsibility.

Getting the details of the biblical narrative “right” was not important. The problem I have, as a scientifically-informed 21st century Christian, with “virgin birth,” with “prophecy” fulfillment, and with a “star” being “over” a specific location (and with special meaning) faded into the realm of trivia.

My imagination was freed up to experience the reality that Jesus was very near for the enactors of the story. In a very real way, Jesus had come alongside each person present in the sanctuary – including me. And that is trustworthy. That is real.

John Carr, Minister-in-association at Dayspring PC, Edmonton

The Golden Boy (Ken MacRae)

The Golden Boy

A childhood friend of mine recently published a book called The Golden Boy. Grant Matheson is the son of a Presbyterian Minister. He achieved high marks in school, ran marathons, became a Doctor, got married and had children. People looked up to him. He was respected in his community. In other words he was the Golden boy. Then drugs consumed his life. Eventually the addiction cost him his job, his marriage, his health and his finances. Thankfully he got the help he needed and is now living drug free.

It was hard to read his book. I wish I had been there for him during his time of struggle. Yet I didn’t know him during that period of his life. I knew him when he was the Golden Boy. We went to church together. We were in youth group. Before paintball was invented we had pellet gun fights with other friends. We played in our weekly church floor hockey games. During university we drifted apart. He had his own set of friends and I found a different set of friends.

Sometimes we get the impression that all addicts are losers. They come from a poor neighbourhood, grew up in a bad home, or intellectually lacking in life. The reality is that anyone can become an addict to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or whatever. The good news is that addiction can be overcome. Help is available for all people. Help cannot be forced. One must want to get better. It is not easy. The temptation will always be there. One’s lifestyle will have to be adjusted. One may have to change friends. You have to learn to forgive yourself, but sadly others may not forgive you.

As a chaplain I read the book from a spiritual perspective. I kept seeing a void in Grant’s life. I have seen the same thing in many people. People who are never content. I’ve known people who are consumed with reaching the next rank level. People throw aside a marriage for another person who is more appealing. People go from job to job for the next one will always be better. Failure or remorse consumes them.

How do we find contentment in life yet positively push ourselves to reach various goals in our life? I hate to use a cliché, but in our journey through life, stop and smell the roses. Cherish what we have around us. Enjoy our friends, and family. Laugh now and again. Focus on what we have and not so much on what we don’t have.

As for that void in many of our lives, I believe that people have a spiritual void. We have a yearning for something beyond us. We may try to fill that yearning with drugs, or excitements, or bigger pay checks and bigger toys. Yet I have personally found that people who have God in their life, a real faith that goes beyond just attending a faith service, tend to be more content.

Yes, I’m aware of ministers and chaplains who have addiction problems. Anyone can lose focus in their life. Anyone can get back on track. Even a Golden boy.

Maj Kenneth MacRae, 1 CMBG Chaplain