Archive for May 2012

Civility in the public square

A Doorway to Hospitality ?

“Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love. Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it! Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them.”   
Hebrews 13: 1 – 3 (The Message)

These days it seems as if there is a foul mood that has infected debate in the public square. Here in Canada, for example, questions for the Government receive responses that can be seen as attacks on the integrity of the person asking the question. This behaviour frequently results in a counter-attack by the questioner, and the cycle of verbal violence continues.

One example of this behaviour is the “debate” about Bill C-31, which has the short title of, “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act.”

Dialogue on this Bill seems to have been replaced by name-calling and the labeling of groups of people. There seems to be little recognition that, aside from aboriginal peoples, nearly all of the people who live in Canada have family trees rooted in other parts of God’s world. Most of us are either immigrants, or descendants of immigrants. We are all worthwhile individuals and children of God, not to be slammed for holding views that others find disagreeable.

My understanding of scripture, in the Christian path, is that all people are of sacred worth; all people matter to the God who loves us. Some may even be angels!

We can choose to treat each other with respect – as if they were angels!


Posted May 22, 2012 by allanbaker in Uncategorized

Unexpected Hope: The Vocation of the Church

Unexpected Hope: The Vocation of the Church

Editor’s NoteSojourners’ CEO, the Rev. Jim Wallis, delivered the following commencement address Thursday morning (May 17, 2012) at Virginia Theological Seminary.

I feel very honored to be invited by this class to give this commencement address, and I asked about the make-up of your class. Most of you, I am told, are going right into the church, or are already there— to ordained ministry and other missions of the church.

So I want to speak directly to you about the vocation of the church in the world. Let me start with a baseball story. I have been a little league baseball coach for both my sons’ teams over many years. And I’ve learned that baseball teaches us “lessons of life.”

Just a few weeks ago, our 9-year-old’s team was down 5-0, and we had already lost our opening couple of games. It didn’t look good. But all of a sudden, our bats and our team came alive; and all the practice and preparation we had done suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order with our weakest hitters. Two kids got on with walks and our least experienced player went up to the plate. With international parents, Stefan had never played baseball before and you can tell he doesn’t have a clue. But somehow he hit the ball; it went into the outfield. Our first two runs scored and he ended up on second base. Being from a British Commonwealth culture, he began to walk over to the short stop and second baseman and shake their hands! “Stefan,” I shouted, “You have to stay on the base!” “Oh,” he said, “I’ve never been here before.”

Inspired, other kids who had never got hits before either also got them now, then the best hitters started to hit, and we came back to win 11-6. In a long team meeting afterwards, the kids couldn’t stop telling each other what they had learned. “We didn’t give up and came back!” “Our rally started with the bottom of the order.” “Sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.” “We all just kept cheering for each other.” “Everybody helped us win today.” Finally, our star player said, “This just goes to show you, you can’t ever give up on hope. We always have to keep on hoping no matter what.” Lessons of life. Most importantly on that day, we became a team; and have won our games since.

I think this is central to our vocation in the churches: to offer unexpected hope.

Because our mission is to the kingdom of God—“thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That is what we pray. And while the kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus, and the New Testament, it has faded as ours. Finding salvation to heaven is part of the message, getting closer to God is part of the message, but the heart of the message of Jesus was a new order breaking into history—to change everything about the world, including us.

And that’s why we can offer such hope to the world. The church is supposed to be saying, and the church is supposed to be showing, that our life together can be better. In our shallow, superficial, and selfish age, Jesus is calling us to a completely different way of life. He called it the kingdom of God—as very different from all the political kingdoms of this world. But that better way of living wasn’t just meant to benefit the Christians, but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

Christianity is not just a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of everybody else. Rather, it is a call to a relationship; and one that changes all our other relationships. Jesus calls us into a new relationship to God; and he says that also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. You don’t always hear that from the churches. But that transformation of all our relationships, when lived out, has always been the best thing for what we now call the common good.

Since we have lost the common good in our community and public life, and especially in our politics—on both sides of the aisle—it’s time to listen again to an old but always new vision which could, and is supposed to, change our selfish behavior—and make us happier too. “Happy are those,” Jesus said, who live by the beatitudes of his kingdom.

The summary of ethics and the religious law, said Jesus, was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And that most fundamental teaching of faith flies right in the face of all the personal and political ethics which put myself always before all others; my rights first, my freedoms first, my interests first, my tribe first, and even my country first—ahead of everybody else. In other words, selfishness is the personal and political ethic that dominates our world today; but the kingdom of God says that your neighbor’s concerns, rights, interests, freedoms, and well-being are as important as yours are.
That is not only radical, it is transformational; and it is essential if we are going to create a public life not completely dominated by conflict, but one that actually can articulate what might be in the interest of the common good and even some common ground between us all. Win/win and not just win/lose. It is also essential to religion finding any credibility again. Otherwise, the next generation is just going to move on from religion. The “none of the aboves” are now the fastest growing group on religious survey’s.

But when people see that kingdom of God being actually lived out, they are first surprised by it, and then attracted to it.

Like when a huge and successful church in a midwestern state’s suburbs decides to take on the renovation of dilapidated and failing public schools in their neighboring urban area. Or like when a church in the Southern Bible Belt puts up a sign welcoming the Muslim cultural center that had just moved into their neighborhood and befriends those who were afraid of being attacked; and when that story of Christian/Muslim friendship on CNN changes the hearts of angry men in Pakistan. Or when a graduating seminarian, like many of you today, decides to start a church made up of homeless people and, after ten years, most all of their congregation’s leaders literally came from off of the streets.

When a Christian family farm business builds day care centers and houses for their migrant workers, provides college scholarships for their employees’ children, gives millions of dollars to Africa and Haiti, and still has the most successful orchard in their region, it attracts attention. When conservative southern California Anglo churches get deeply connected to Hispanic churches in their own communities, come to know each other’s faith and families, and then seek to fix a broken immigration system, it gets the attention of policy makers in Washington. When a famous evangelical mega-church in Chicago sends its people to the Middle East and starts speaking up for beleaguered Palestinian Christians, it challenges foreign policy. When another one in Ohio doesn’t just righteously proclaim itself to be “pro-life” but quietly takes in hundreds of low-income pregnant women every year to help them carry their child to term and settle into a better life, people feel helped and not just judged. And when faith-based organizations and denominations who might vote differently in elections make it clear to both Republicans and Democrats that they must not balance their budgets and reduce their deficits by increasing poverty and must draw a circle of protection around the poorest and most vulnerable, it breaks through the self-interest politics of both parties.

All these are true stories. And they are all about the unexpected and about bringing hope to hopeless times.

So my advice to you, going into the church, is to never be content with what is predictable, to never become cynical about change. Don’t be satisfied with a church whose lifestyle and behavior you can predict by just looking at everybody living around them. Your job is to pastor and lead faith communities whose vocation is to be unpredictable and to be able to offer hope where nobody else does.

That’s because you leave today, not committed to the kingdom of any culture, class, or racial group, or the kingdom of America or any other nation state, or even to the kingdom of any church, even the kingdom of the Episcopal church; but rather to the kingdom of God, which is meant to turn all the other kingdoms on the head, to break open the unpredictable, and bring new hope to lives, neighborhoods, nations, and even the world. So God bless you in that wholly unpredictable and so needed ministry of hope. And as we should all say at the end of every commencement: “Play Ball!”

And may the Lord be with you.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

His website is:

The Prosperity Gospel

And then he prayed, “God, I’m asking for two things
before I die; don’t refuse me—
Banish lies from my lips
and liars from my presence.
Give me enough food to live on,
neither too much nor too little.
If I’m too full, I might get independent,
saying, ‘God? Who needs him?’
If I’m poor, I might steal
and dishonor the name of my God.”

Proverbs 30: 7 – 9 (The Message)

“Poverty and luxury alike enervate the will and degenerate the human material for religion. Both create the love of idleness, vagrant habits, the dislike of self-restraint, and the inclination to indulge in the passing emotions. Ethical religion calls for precisely the opposite qualities.”

Walther Rauschenbusch

Endings and beginnings at Newtonbrook United Church

Dorway to ... ?

Dorway to … ?

The following item is published in the “Reflections” newsletter of Newtonbrook United Church. For the full newsletter, go to:

Beginnings and Endings

by Rev. Allan Baker

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens

Every ending is a new beginning. This is the time for me to write my final submission in “Reflections” as I will be retiring as of July 31, 2012. This season of journeying together in ministry with Newtonbrook United Church is ending.  A new chapter in our stories is beginning.

Beginnings and endings involve change, which is difficult for most of us, both emotionally and intellectually. All of us, I think, wish to have stability in our lives. It may be true that the only people who like change are babies with wet diapers.

As I look ahead to a new chapter in my life, and the unknown changes involved, my spirit is fed by a poem that was written by Bruce B. Wilmer. It is called, “New Beginnings”.

“Each chapter that is ending

leads us to a new beginning.

The past that we are leaving

means a future that we are winning.

Each change that fills the present

sets the stage for our tomorrow,

and how we meet each challenge

helps determine joy or sorrow.

In every new beginning

Spirit plays a vital part.

We must approach tomorrow

with a strong and steady heart.

So as we turn the corner,

let all apprehension shed

and fill our hearts with confidence

as we proceed ahead.

When I arrived at Newtonbrook United Church on January 1, 2008, I had little idea how much transformation would happen in this congregation over the succeeding four years – and how well the congregation would cope with these new ways of doing things. You are a people who are blessed with the ability to realize that when one door closes, another one, or two, open. The metamorphosis of Newtonbrook into a new congregation, through the process of amalgamation with Northminster United Church is just one example of the way in which this renewal process is happening. I hope that it will be a resurrection process!

Of course, not all of our dreams have been accomplished in the past four years. There have been opportunities that have come our way that we did not anticipate – such as providing sanctuary for a refugee. This has been a ministry of radical hospitality, and of seeking justice. Newtonbrook, I have learned, is a congregation that lives a transformational faith; reaching in, reaching up and reaching out in faith, hope and love.

There are many, many words that could be written about this journey together, and about ministry that has been done, and left undone. Rather than create an epistle, let’s reflect on the following prayer from Bishop Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.


The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.


We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying

that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.


This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that they hold future promise.


We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.


We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation

in realizing that. This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,

but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.


We may never see the end results, but that is the difference

between the master builder and the worker.


We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen!

As I prepare to close the book on this chapter of my journey with this vital and thriving Christian ministry that you share here at Newtonbrook, there are sic additional important words that I wish to share: Thank you! You are a blessing.

New Wine in new wineskins

He (Jesus) told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.  And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’ Luke 5: 36 – 39 (NIV)

This image is compliments of Wikipedia.

Man with Wineskin by Niko Pirosmani.

The process of amalgamation for the congregations of Newtonbrook United Church and Northminster United Church is something akin to creating a new wine. The new congregation will not be “Newtonbrook”, nor will it be “Northminster.” It will be a new congregation with its own “personality”; mission in ministry, and quirkiness. Like any new wine, it will have a different taste than wines with which we are familiar.
How can we best create new wine that will quench the spiritual thirst of our neighbours? As the people of these two congregations work together to create a “new” Christian congregation in Willowdale, there is much wisdom to be gained from this parable of Jesus. After all, parables were shared as teaching tools.
The biggest challenge that I find in this parable is in verse 39: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
This is a challenge for all of us who seek transformation in our lives: we cannot live transformed lives and still have everything from the present.