I was ready to vomit. The contents of my stomach—a brown bag meal— were moving upwards. I feared an eruption. These dizzying moments were precipitated by the steady, endless sway of the bus. Back and forth … and forth. It was nauseating. Literally. I was on the second level of a double-decker coach. To be precise, it was a Megabus and I was in England, en route from Oxford to see a friend in Winchester. Because the bus had been oversold, we were packed in like sardines. The atmosphere was muggy. My deodorant had long since expired, thus allowing my body to make its own unique contribution to the already malodorous air.
I remember this unpleasant experience so well because of what happened next. I got a nudge from the Holy Spirit. At least that’s how I perceive it now (sometimes you can’t be sure of these things until you have the advantage of hindsight). Actually, I got several nudges. They came over the next few days. Mind you, I don’t say this lightly. After all, I’m from Presbyterian stock. They joke that when you venture into a Presbyterian church, your heart gets strangely cooled. But occasionally even Presbyterian types get tapped on the shoulder by the Spirit. I think that’s what happened to me.
The memo was simple: ‘Roger, I want you to make an inquiry about a new church plant—not yet even in existence—that I’ve got planned for the city of Vancouver’.
I had heard rumours of this undertaking. It had a welcoming name, something involving a “fireside.” And about a year before, I had briefly encountered the vision-carrier, a guy called Alastair, when he’d preached a sermon at my (former) church in Vancouver, Grace Presbyterian. I attempted to speak to him afterwards but he jetted before I had a chance.
Until that hot and sickly Megabus moment in England, I hadn’t thought again—not in the slightest—about staying in Vancouver, much less to help with a church plant. In fact, my sights were set elsewhere. I’d recently graduated from Regent College and, as with others training for ordained ministry, was actively seeking a congregational role. Because I was from the States, I was looking south of the border. As it turns out, I did eventually receive a call from a church in Irvine, California (AKA Orange County). That post would have brought me into much closer proximity to two of my sisters and a brother-in-law, all residing in San Diego.
If you’d asked me in June of 2013 where I’d be by September, I would have answered, ‘southern Cal…suffering for Jesus in the sunshine and surf’. Less than two months later, however, my answer had decidedly changed. A new course opened up: remaining in Vancouver to assist with the launch of what’s now known as St. Peter’s Fireside. That’s what resulted from the nudge. You see, when I returned from England, I tracked down Alastair’s email. I sent along a brief note. We met for coffee. A conversation started. Of course, I asked him which hair product he used. We also chatted about more trivial matters. One thing led to another. It culminated with me join the pastoral team about a month before our first regular service at Robson Square.
It’s been quite an adventure. I originally committed for at least three years. By the time of our departure in mid-September of this year, I’d been around for four. I have no regrets. And I’d do it again. Not only did I get to play a part in Christ’s work of creating from nothing (God likes to do that!) a fantastic community of faith in the heart of Vancouver, I also met my wife along the way. Cindy was there for our first regular Sunday service (November 3, 2013). She joined my community group in January. Some friends set us up for a date in the mid-Spring. Somewhat scandalous, I know! After 364 days, we became engaged. That’s how a boy from rural South Carolina found a French wife. Yes, miracles do still happen. They happen at St. Peter’s. The Lord is most certainly at work in our number. I’ve seen it time and again during my time as a pastor in your service.
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You may have inferred by now that this blog is a brief account of my life & times at St. Peter’s Fireside these past years. As Cindy and I prepared to move to England this September (I just can’t seem to stay away from the UK!), Alastair asked that I reminisce in written form about my stint at St. Pete’s. I was happy to receive this invitation, though its proved to be a somewhat intimating task. There is so much I might say. There is so much I’d like to say. There are many things I probably ought to say.
But say it all I can’t. I’ve had to be quite selective.
To this end, I want to begin with a few words of gratitude and celebration. I want to name some of the reasons that St. Pete’s is one of the best churches I’ve ever called home.
After this, I want to mention several key things that God’s taught me along this church planting journey.
Lastly, I’m going to wrap up by offering several words of pastoral encouragement (or exhortation). They are spoken by a parish pastor. They issue from the abiding love that I hold for our community. They flow out of a desire to spur St. Peter’s further into its God-given, collective vocation to bear witness to the glory and reality of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
You hold a special place in my heart, and I thank you for making room for me and Cindy in yours.
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As I sit at my new desk in Cambridge, reflecting on the years in Vancouver, I am incredibly thankful. I’m thankful to have been a front-row witness of Christ’s power to call a community of faith into existence in a culturally post-christian city. The very existence of St. Peter’s—as a church that continues to grow in size and depth—defies what I formerly thought possible.
I am grateful to have served with a fantastic staff team—caring, prayerful, faithful, courageous, sacrificial, and joyful. A team that valued inter-personal maturity, grounded in the way of life Jesus invites to enter. And I have learned so much from the vision and leadership of Alastair. I wrote to him recently that serving at his side was, as I see it, a bit like earning an MBA in church planting. Perhaps the bishop will give me a certificate?
Moreover, I should mention that my working relationship with Alastair has been marked by the pursuit of an emotional health that is highly uncommon both inside and outside the church. This is a legacy which I will most certainly take into future church service. If I may speak frankly: what Alastair and I were able to achieve in this arena makes me mourn for many of my pastor friends who work on staff teams crippled with emotional and interpersonal immaturity. If you’ve read some of Peter Scazzero’s books you’ll have a sense of what I mean.
I am deeply appreciative of the trustees that Christ has raised up these past few years to serve on the Parish Leadership Team. It has been a privilege and a joy not only to deliberate church business with these faithful women and men, but also to pray and worship with them (which we do at our meetings). Shebaba: “How Great Thou Art, Lord!”
My delight also encompasses the committed, teachable, and servant-hearted interns I’ve had the privilege of supervising during my tenure. The fact that one of them has been called and selected as my replacement is a source of tremendous personal gladness. I revel in Preston’s transition to becoming a full pastor at St. Pete’s. This will most certainly be to the gain of the community.
On the other end of the age spectrum (that might be called the ‘golden end’), I am grateful to Don Lewis for the personal care he consistently displayed towards two younger pastors planting a church in the heart of Vancouver. We need prayer and support as much as anyone. Don extended this in generous measure. It was a gift of incomparable value. And there was also the invaluable presence of the energetic, faithful Russell-Jones, who agreed to plug into St. Pete’s at my request. Iwan and Amanda even moved downtown for several years so as to be in the geographic parish area.They have an Anglican background from the UK and, out of this, bequeathed St. Pete’s with important insights on worship and liturgy as we made our start.
Lastly but not least, there are the community groups that I’ve helped lead and all the closer friendships that have developed within. Even now, my heart aches for your physical absence. Its given new meaning to St. John’s words: I so look forward to our next visit, where we might ‘talk face to face, that our joy may be complete’ (2 John 1.12).
To sum up everything I’ve just said, the greatest object of my gratitude from the years at St. Pete’s is its people. It’s you! Jesus talks about shepherds knowing the names of their sheep. I tried hard to do this to the best of my ability as a pastor. And I have certainly felt seen and valued by our community. All of this love, I think, is a foretaste of our ultimate destiny in the household of God.
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Serving as a pastor at St. Peter’s has been an occasion for on-going, substantial discipleship in my own life. It’s been a time of deepening reliance on God. Of learning what it means to abide in some of that (often elusive) peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7). Of getting a better taste of joy in the Spirit and confidence in Christ.
To flesh this out a bit, there are three things I’m driven to highlight on this occasion.
Firstly, I have learned more fully the meaning of God’s name. In the Old Testament, God is called by a variety of names. These names—which have been likened to “holy nicknames”—are tied to things that God does. One of these names, as transliterated into the English language, is Jehovah Jirah. It literally means ‘the God who provides’. During my years at St. Pete’s, I’ve learned that this is indeed God’s name.
By way of backstory, when I accepted an invitation to join the pastoral launch team, I also accepted a challenge of sorts. For my role to be tenable (in a practical sense), I’d need to fundraise for my stipend. We’ve all got to eat! The same was true for Alastair—not only for his living wage but also for the church’s initial program budget (a tall order, to say the least). If I remember correctly, in July of 2013 I committed to “test the waters.” I sent letters to friends and family—far and near—to see if they’d like financially uphold my pastoral service for a church plant in a city they’d never visited for people they’d never likely meet (‘til the new heavens and earth at least).
There was a period of waiting and uncertainty. While I had a robust desire to plug into the church plant, it was a desire that I held lightly. Not everything we desire—even good and godly things!—lines up with God’s plans.
By the time September rolled around, it had become clear that I would receive sufficient support. This was an exuberant moment: open-handedness in a world filled with a spirit of scarcity is close to miraculous. The material sufficiency that enabled me to start my pastoral role endured over my duration as pastor. While I didn’t always have that type of financial certainty that we humans crave, as I look back, there’s has always been enough—and more.
All of this was something that the Lord made, because I firmly believe that it is the Spirit of the Living God that moves humans to generosity for the sake of the church. Much more than eloquent requests and even the worthiness of a cause.
Who is God? Jehovah Jirah. Or, to echo St. Paul’s words from Philippians 4: ‘And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’.
My own story of fundraising to help out with St. Peter’s points to a larger story that has continued to unfold: God provides. Time and again—in ways that defy what I would have otherwise imagined—provision has come. Christ has been active in supporting the good work for which He has brought our church into existence. There was the multi-thousand dollar gift to run Alpha that came at a moment when there was no money to start our second season. There was a cheque from a distant admirer—someone with whom we had no personal connection—that helped us shore up budget deficits at the end of our first and second year. There was an unexpected rebate from our landlord. There was our office space, itself a gift that resulted from another divine nudge, this time on an airplane (that’s a riveting story, too). The list goes on. Our church is a place of gifts. And those gifts have enabled us to share Christ, both in our city and with each other.
Bearing witness to God’s provision for St. Peter’s has solidified my faith in God’s capacity to advance his purposes in the world. This is a major truth of Scripture, of course. But now, through my time at St. Pete’s, it is a truth that has been “inwardly digested,” to put it in Prayer Book speak. Or I might say that it has been ‘pressed into my bones’—to echo the idiom of the Old Testament prophets.
Does this mean that I am no longer prone of moments of fear about financial provision? Hardly. But I am less anxious about money than in year’s past. There is more peace. There is amplified joy in generosity. God has been at work. As we all stare into the uncertainties of this life—and the challenges of worshipping God in a place like Vancouver—I pray that this little testimonial would instill hope.
Secondly, during my time at St. Peter’s, I have learned that ‘home is not where you’re from so much as where you’re wanted’. This, too, is great theme of the Gospel: Jesus is the ultimate home-maker. Coming to grasp this more firmly has been an important element of my spiritual formation these last few years. Here’s the thing: if I’m candid, I’ve often struggled with Vancouver. I’ve never felt overly at-home in our “destination” city. As to the reasons why, I’m not altogether sure. Perhaps it’s my southern upbringing or east coast intellectual/cultural orientation. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t accustomed to so much spandex. Might it be that I wasn’t quite fit enough to display myself confidently at Kits beach? Or is it simply the lack of soul food (which southern Americans relish!) to be found? Who knows!?
Whatever the case, from one angle, I see Vancouver more as I place to which I was called than a place to which I instantly gravitated. Many pastors have this kind of story. This is not to say that there aren’t elements of our city that I relish. There are. But over my nearly seven years in Cascadia’s premier urban space, I’ve had my fair share of “Jonah moments”—not wanting to be where I was reasonably confident God had called me. I didn’t feel at home.
I’m being quite honest now. Perhaps too much so. But the same honesty that spurs me to name a recurrent struggle I’ve had with being in Vancouver also requires me to name another truth: I came to love Vancouver. I came to yearn and pray for its well-being. This happened chiefly as a result of my pastoral service. It happened as I was woven into the faith-filled, warm, and beautiful community that is St. Peter’s. For me, our church became a place of loving and being loved. It became a home—allowing me to feel settled and attached. And as I found at St. Pete’s a home away from home, my sense of Vancouver as my home expanded.
I think that’s often how God works. He’s a gatherer. He reconstitutes the family. This doesn’t negate the importance of our birth families, but it certainly relativizes them. And it means that for those in Christ, a home can be found in all sorts of places. Not simply the places we’re from. I was aware of this promise when I started in Vancouver. Now I’m familiar with it. It is an on-going pastoral prayer that all who settle at St. Peter’s would have a similar experience. Jesus yearns for it (Eph. 3. 11-12)!
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Now that I’ve talked a bit about a few of the personal, spiritual gains I carry away from my season at St. Pete’s, I want to shift gears. I want to speak a bit about my longings for you all—as a community. Here too there are several brief points I put forward by way of encouragement and exhortation.
Before saying more, let me add an important qualifier. Nothing that I say below should be read as a call to pursue things that do not already exist in the St. Pete’s community. In truth, everything that I wish to commend already finds some measure of expression! Holding this in mind, my goal is simply to spur you to “fan into flame”—to strengthen and amplify!—certain beautiful traits that presently manifest in our church as evidence of God’s grace. Nourish these traits, that they might grow and flower!
Commit to one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Do life together—deeply, with vulnerability and in hope. There are infinite forces in our culture that militate against forms of relationship and community wherein we can truly know and be known. We’re all aware of how much Vancouver suffers from this—its why our city is a “lonely city.” Yet nobody in Vancouver has to be lonely or isolated. God creates the church to challenge this sad state of affairs by embodying another reality. So do it! Do it by committing to community, which is just another way of saying commit to one another. Commit to being present. Consistently. Fully. And in a context of prayer and worship, for our greatest bond is one that must be established by the Holy Spirit.
This type of radical commitment, of course, requires sacrifice. It entails the relinquishment of some of our autonomy. At the same time, it carries a great promise, because there is nothing more liberating than love cloaked in commitment. In other words: there’s nothing more liberating than knowing you have a group of friends who would do anything for you. People you can count on—being in a community that sticks together.
This is the community Jesus wants us to be. It can only happen, however, if everyone is limiting their individual freedom—making and keeping commitments to one another. Its hard; then you get inside and discover a more profound freedom. Friends, this is a quality of community already on display in St. Pete’s. But it’s a quality that is constantly under threat from the individualistic, isolationist tendencies of modern western culture. So labor to strengthen it every day. With each choice. Commit to one another. Reflect and pray on how you can each take this commitment to a new level. Some of Dorothy Day’s words are apropos here: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that comes from community.”
Be guided, in the first instance, by the counsels of God which are found most clearly in the testimonies of Scripture. Be guided by these more than by your personal experience, your personality profile, the norms of your family of origin, the force of habit, or anything else that might vie to govern the nature of your existence or your sense of identity. To acknowledge Jesus as your saviour is to treat him as your Lord—don’t let anybody ever convince you otherwise! And given that Jesus is our Lord, he rightfully speaks direction and purpose over our lives. Sometimes we won’t like this (That’s why I often wrestle with Jesus!), so we have to remember that Jesus is not a harsh or exploiting Lord, but rather a loving one. Everything he does is for our best interest. From where we stand, of course, we can’t always fathom this. Which is why we must trust that if we knew what Jesus knows, then we would always be in agreement with his will for our lives.
Think this way. Pray this way. And let this truth shape the practices of your life. Concretely, this means that we must continually cultivate the habit of submitting our dreams, aspirations, desires, proclivities, habits, and everything else bound up with our sense of identity to Christ. This is the way of life that can properly be called Christian. We don’t have to be perfect at it (yours truly most certainly isn’t!). We just need to persevere in it. And the Holy Spirit is given to us do just that. So ask Him to strengthen your determination and patience and faith and hope to die to self and live for Christ more and more with each passing day. All of this is about becoming a human fully alive. God understands what that looks like—what it entails!—better than us. Jesus knows us better than ourselves, you might say. This is why Eugene Peterson once wrote: ‘I will try not to run my own life…that is God’s business’.
Practice the generosity of Christ. This is something that St. Pete’s does well already. But in a society where greed is common, avarice is rewarded, and fear of the ‘unknown future’ can lead us to clamp our wallets closed, a generous spirit can easily erode. I see it in myself! It is all too easy to forget a great truth from Jesus’ lips: that it is better to give than to receive. Along these lines, I pray that you will never lose sight of the importance of generosity in witnessing that you are children of God. Further to this, I urge you to remember that liberality with your time and resources is a true sign that the divine life has come into your heart. It is not “natural” for humans to be radical in giving —this is a work of the Spirit, who transforms desires and changes the habits of our existence. For this reason, to be a Christian is to be generous. Put another way: how does Vancouver know that we belong to Jesus? By our giving—in terms of time, perspective, and money, among other things. Again this is something that is already part of the spiritual culture of St. Pete’s.
As a pastor, I can’t tell you how encouraging it was to know that a huge percentage of people who call St. Pete’s home give in order to support our parish and the common vision we share. And many of you give beyond, to other charities and individuals in need. Yes and amen. At the same time, there are still so many areas of our lives where selfishness prevails. Where our priorities are dominated by self-preservation and the pursuit of more personal pleasure at the expense of all else. May we let the Lord conquer these areas, too. To the degree this happens, the name of Christ will be lifted higher and higher. Many Vancouverites may not understand our faith, but they will marvel at our generosity. The Christian church, as I have said in past sermons, transformed the brutal Roman world in part through a spirit of astounding giving. In Vancouver, St. Peter’s, together with the wider Christian community, carries this same potential. So be intentional, prayerful, and joyful (God will enable this!) in taking part in the generosity of Christ.
Savour the worship culture of St. Pete’s. In the older Anglican parlance, what I’m talking about is the form of “churchmanship” in our parish. As many of you will know, St. Peter’s has quite a unique ethos of Sunday worship. For starters, we’re liturgical. Our liturgy isn’t overly “high” nor does it dominate the Sunday service, but it is robust. We’re unapologetic about this. At the same time, St. Peter’s is expositional: we carry a commitment to solid, thoughtful, studied, and bold biblical preaching. A third core characteristic of our worship culture is a concerted receptivity to the dynamic, present ministry of the Holy Spirit of Christ. While it’s easy to take these three central features of Sunday worship for granted (especially if you’ve been with us for a while), we shouldn’t lose sight of how unique this is.
Cindy and I have had just such a reminder since arriving in England. Over here—at least where we are—if a church is liturgical, there’s not often a robust preaching culture or much sensitivity to the dynamic work of the Spirit. If a church exhibits a solid preaching commitment, liturgy tends to be quite minimal and there’s not generally much space for lingering worship. A sort of “polarization” seems to exist. This is quite different from St. Pete’s, which has always tried—albeit sometimes imperfectly—to approach Sundays with an eye to all the varied elements of Christian worship/spirituality as reported in the New Testament.
In mentioning this, I simply wish to celebrate how special St. Peter’s is. Our way of worshiping—our “churchmanship,” to use that older term again—is governed by a Scriptural vision of worship rather than conforming to any particular set of personality preferences. Put another way: the worship/spiritually ethos of St. Pete’s labors not to conform to any one or two Myers-Briggs profiles. As some of you will know, we set this up deliberately.
It’s why St. Peter’s is a parish that encourages folks to use the Daily Offices (from the Book of Common Prayer) while at the same hosting events such as a 2016 retreat titled “Anglican and Charismatic.” It’s why we are a Eucharistic congregation that also champions solid expositional preaching. We hope this ethos keeps St. Peter’s from being homogenous in terms of personality types. Our unity is in Christ. Not in adopting a particular way of worship at the expense of other important aspects of worship, be they liturgical, expositional, or charismatic. I encourage you to nurture and honor this culture. You have no idea what a treasure it is. Having now left, Cindy and I do.
We continue to pray God’s very best for all of you, as individuals and especially as a community. We miss you and feel the pangs of our separation each and every day. At the same time, we carry assurance in God’s direction and calling over this new season of our lives. And we continue to carry confidence in the story of Jesus as it is being told through St. Peter’s. It was a tremendous privilege to have a part to play along the way. And it continues to be a joy to pray for your sense of purpose and vision, as well as your faithfulness, in the days ahead.
May the Lord keep you in faith, hope, and love.
With all fondness and affection,