Category Archives: 2015

A most beautiful sermon (from a young disabled man)


A couple of weeks ago I attended one of Edward’s recreational programs called Friendship. It’s hosted at a local church and staffed by a group of humble, loving, and deeply commited folks who know the meaning of life. My hope was to drop Edward off and head out to a coffee shop for some reading, but I ended up having to stay, which ended up more than okay.

After the opening welcome and some robust group singing we headed off for our small group bible study. Whenever Edward comes home from Friendship he always has an animated bible story coloring page in hand. So I knew what to expect from this next part of the program.

Only what played out was so much more.

I heard from the teacher afterward that when she was practicing her dramatized bible story earlier that evening (with a big hand puppet playing one part of the narrative) a young disabled man walked into the room and immediately took up the ‘Jesus’ role in the narrative. He knew the story well and was clearly a bit of actor. And so, without hesitation, the teacher invited the young man to play the Jesus part when she would later tell the story (without a rehearsal!).

So there we sat, about to hear the story of Zacchaeus first meeting Jesus. By this point the young actor had found a suitable Jesus-robe to wear and the teacher had hoisted the Zacchaeus puppet up into a fake tree. And then she started into the story, “Zacchaeus was a very rich tax collector who stole money from a lot of people…  he desperately wanted to see Jesus, but because he was so short he had to climb a tree to get a glance… when Jesus came to the tree he looked up and said…”  Then the young jumped in, right on cue, and shouted, “Zacchaeus come down!”.

Now according to the gospel account, Jesus then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, where Zacchaeus then confesses to all of his treachery and offers to make things right causing  Jesus to say, “Today salvation has come to this home…” (Luke 19;9, NIV).  But in the FDV (Friendship Dramatized Version) the story moved more quickly. No sooner had the puppet Zacchaeus come down out of that fake tree, then Jesus walked right up to him, looked him full in the face, and said, “I forgive you Zacchaeus… (PAUSE FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT)…  I love you!”

It was the added ‘I love you’ that undid me. So genuine, spontaneous and second nature. So heart felt and beautiful. It made me think about how natural it must have been for Jesus to love others and forgive them. And how his love freed people to be their true selves – an ancient Palestinian tax collector, a disabled young man with no inhibitions, a Christ-imaging teacher who’ll invite anyone to play a part (even the unpracticed), and 53 year old preacher with so much yet to learn.

And I think that that retelling of the Zacchaeus story was the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard or seen.



Why does this make me cry?

inside out

Again I find myself bawling at the epiphany, at the sacred God-with-me place, the moment of co-illumination where God’s truth in a film meets God’s truth in the bible meets God’s truth in me. This time it happened at the end of the film Inside Out. As I was wrapping up my message – about how real life is found as we image a God who mysteriously carries both joy and sadness – and watching the closing scene of the film – that part where a runaway girl repents and comes home to her parents – the words from Revelation 21:4 came to mind.

And then, from somewhere deep inside, out pour the tears.

And I find it so beautiful how the words of Revelation come alive – ‘they’re his people, he’s their God’ – when put beside the home-coming feeling as its so sensitively portrayed in the film. And when those two words touch my soul, one that longs for that kind of embrace, to arrive safely home, to experience those joyful tears, I am undone.

Again it all seems so perfect. God speaking everywhere so that everyone can find their way.

A course on how to preach two-book sermons

two books   Yesterday I had a great meeting with Ambrose Seminary and they are interested in the possibility of me teaching a two-book preaching course (full semester) for their new preaching certificate program (some day perhaps ‘preaching institute’).

They’ve asked me submit a proposal outlining the nature/content of the course. And this is where I need some help. Many of my preaching, theologian, teacher friends have worked through/engaged/attempted/participated-in-researching/done two book preaching in the past…  and so my questions are these:

1. What have you learned about two-book preaching that others would need to know?

2. What have been your biggest challenges in engaging this homiletic approach?

3. What do you wish you knew more about this preaching method?

Your answers to the above may range from worldview challenges to the smallest pragmatic details. I’d love to hear it all. So if you have any thoughts, please comment.

Thankful for how it all fits

Picture1As I watch Edward head out to his cab en route to his day program this morning I am struck by how perfectly everything fits. This only works if Fran and I have jobs that are as flexible as they are – me working from home, her working five minutes down the road. There is no way we could care for a disabled adult unless this were the case. At times the turns are tight. Twice a week I make sure I’m home at 3:00 for Eddy’s 3:15 drop off so that when Fran gets home at 3:20 I can run off to teach my class. And it always seems to work.

I’ve noticed the ‘fit’ in other parts of my life as well. I would not be able to write were it not for the fact that I preach. Everything I’ve ever written into books was birthed in a sermon. Sunday, after church, someone noted that I seemed to leave a lot of sermon research unused. “You just can’t fit it all into a 22 minute message,” he said.  I told him that I just saved that material for the next chapter of the next book. “You could actually write a whole book on that topic,” I said.

Many times this fall I’ve experienced a triune kind of synergy, with preaching, writing and school work all coming together. Earlier this semester I assigned the watching of an old Supertramp sermon to my class (to teach them about how God can speak through music and to introduce them to a part of my life story). Then the whole Roger Hodgson thing plays out two weeks ago, leading me to write a blog post that gets shared over 1400 times, which I then get to share with my students as an example of how engaging God’s revelation in the world can be an effective way of church witness. The fit felt perfect!

It happened a few months ago as well, when I preached on the Toronto Blue Jays. We were in the middle of seven week merger/discernment process with Hillside Church, doing Sunday services together, and then this big media response to the sermon hits. An article in newspapers/websites ran across the country and all three major networks did news stories (that’s never happened before!). One of the interviews had to be squeezed in just before a Tuesday afternoon class. So I did it in the lobby of the university and then we talked about it in class. A week earlier I’d written a piece on the theology of playoff baseball for @ThinkChristian which greatly shaped the research process. And it all fit together perfectly. What a great way to introduce Hillside to what we’re all about and to teach a timely lesson to my class (and get to watch baseball for weeks under the guise of sermon research)!

I’ve been noticing how things have fit a lot this fall. I suppose it’s a foretaste of a one day life where all things will fit together perfectly all the time, all imaging a God who – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – fits together perfectly.

Sometimes I wonder if life is fitting together way more than I ever notice.







A Roger Hodgson (formerly from Supertramp) shout out!

Roger Fran and I


“This next song is for a wonderful man, Pastor John Van Sloten…”

When Roger Hodgson said those words at his Calgary concert last night I was floored! My only response was, “Ohhhh shit!”.  And as he went on to sing Hide in your Shell, a song that saved my life as a teen, I just sat there overwhelmed; singing along, tears pouring down my face and overjoyed at a God who would do this!

Four years ago I preached a sermon entitled, “How God used Supertramp (Roger Hodgson) to Save my Life”.  In that message I spoke at length about the healing influence of Hide in your Shell and other Hodgson songs. A few weeks after preaching that sermon CBC reporter Russell Bowers brought it to Roger’s attention during an interview. Then he took this photo of Roger holding an iPad with a screen grab from the sermon of me preaching on him.  roger hodgsonA few weeks later I got an email from Hodgson’s manager letting me know how much he appreciated listening to the message, along with an invitation to come to Roger’s next Calgary concert.

Last night!

Not only did we get to go to the concert, but we were also given backstage passes. After waiting in the fan photo line up, I walked up and introduced Fran and myself and Roger gave us this huge smile (he’s such a gentle, loving man… everyone felt it at the concert!). He asked if we could stay and talk after he was done with the photos. Then his handlers ushered us to his dressing room.

While we waited, his manager (Linda) spoke with us (she is as loving as Roger is) and again thanked me for the sermon. She said that the reason the concert started 20 minutes late was that Roger was re-watching the message!

And then after five minutes Roger arrived and we talked.  Again, he thanked me for the sermon. “I’m not much into preachers, but you’ve got it right… keep spreading the love.” After gushing like a teenager for a few minutes I told him about what was going on in me as he played that song, “When I was a kid I didn’t know that God was saving me through your words. When I preached that sermon four years ago I named that fact for the first time. And as you played it tonight (once the shock faded) it felt as though I heard God’s voice in behind your voice, in real time!”

The whole time in his dressing room we were hugging. Roger kept rubbing our backs and embodied such a humble, loving and thankful demeanor. “I’m the one who’s been blessed,” he said. “I don’t even really write those songs… I just receive them when they show up.” We talked about how important ‘getting out of the way’ is when it comes to divine inspiration.

The whole time we’re there Fran and I couldn’t believe what was happening. It felt as though God was putting his imprimatur on our ministry and our calling to listen for his truth everywhere; affirming again, in dramatic fashion, his everywhere presence in our lives. I told Roger that I’m now inspired to preach for the next 15 years!

And I am.

This morning Fran and I are still shaking our heads. What a beautiful parable God has spoken; “The parable of Roger Hodgson’s otherworldly impact on an unknown (yet fully known) Canadian kid.”




Engaging Culture – Where do you draw the line?

After showing up for my class yesterday without lecture notes (worst teacher nightmare ever), I felt the need to send my students an email summarizing what I was trying to say off the cuff.

We were at the point in the course where we were exploring the problem of sin and asking how far one enters into the culture in the search for God’s truth.  For many in the class, who come from a holiness tradition that keeps church and world quite separate, the question of lines is a very important one.  This is the email I sent;

“When it comes to the question of how far we step into a less-than-holy world we need take our direction from what Jesus did via the incarnation.

If a perfect and holy God could go as far as he did – taking on a mortal frame, touching the unclean, becoming a friend of sinners – then couldn’t we do the same? But we’re not Christ! But Jesus did say we’d ‘do greater things’ than him because he is going to the Father (Jn 14:12). But we fall short and are more susceptible to temptation. But Jesus was just as susceptible to sin as we are, wasn’t he? He was fully human and tempted in every way just as we are (Heb 4:15). The reason he didn’t sin was because of his perfect connection to his Father (not because he couldn’t sin). Jesus didn’t do a thing apart from the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38) and it was this ‘will-alignment-submission’ that kept him in a safe, confident and connected place thus enabling him to engage the unholy without fear… no, better than that, with perfect love.

So then, it begs the question, “Is the reason we’re afraid to enter into unholy places an indictment of our lack of connection to our Father?” And what does Jesus’ ability to go anywhere and touch and talk to anybody, say about the humility and dependence we’d need to do the same? Sometimes I wonder if Jesus carried a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ as he engaged broken people and circumstances. And could it be that living into a constant awareness of ‘there but for your grace go I” is exactly what we need to engage a broken world; and even conquer our own sinful natures? What if being an incarnating presence in broken places, being as totally humble as Jesus was, in perfect submission, ever aware of your susceptibility to sin, but trusting God anyways, is the only way for us to gain a foothold over our sinful natures? What if the bigger risk to our personal holiness is not engaging?

Of course, none of us can do that perfectly (in all circumstances). But what if, as we began to discuss in class, we collectively can? Maybe that’s the answer we need to consider when it comes to drawing lines. What if each of us has been given freedom and liberty to engage different parts of our broken world, but none of us has the freedom and liberty to engage them all? To some the gift of bringing light to Gangsta rap, to others the gift of reaching out to Game of Thrones fans, to another the gift of… It seems to me that this might be God’s best way to reach out to all, while still honouring our call to be holy.”