Pastor John Van Sloten's Blog 2001-2007

John Van Sloten's Blog 2001 - 2007


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greener grass

Apr 28, 2007


This week I’ve been noticing that my neighbour’s grass is a lot greener than mine. I think I notice this kind of thing way too much in life.

Earlier this week I was playing the same imaginary game with my career. I create this fantasy scenario where we sell our – hot Calgary real estate market, equity gains up the whazoo – house, move to Europe, and spend a year writing the book I’ve always wanted to write. It seems that with every text I read nowadays, the urge gets stronger. Often I wonder if writing is that bigger, better, more important thing that I ought to be doing; that I was made to be doing with my life!...
Looking at my current circumstance I continue to think, “There’s no way it can happen here; too many day to day responsibilities in this job. I’d need way more space than current circumstances could ever legitimately afford.”

I spent most of last Sunday thinking this way. Then on Monday I read a story from the book of Genesis; the one where Abraham and his cousin/nephew Lot arrive at the promised land and have to choose which piece of real estate they want for themselves. After praying to God, Abe decides to let Lot choose first, and Lot, not surprisingly, chooses the greenest portion of the property.

It must have been hard for Abraham to give up his right to what seemed to be the best property. Who knows how God met him in his time of pre-parceling prayer; perhaps he was told, “Let Lot choose first!”

Regardless, Lot ended up with what seemed to be the prime cut. Only, a few chapters later, things ended up being a lot less green than he ever might have imagined. Lot’s land ends up being attacked and taken over by a few neighbouring kings. Lot and his family end up as prisoners of war.

Who could have ever forseen that?

After reading that story, I walked to the local supermarket to pick up some groceries for dinner. The whole while I pondered Lot’s difficult lesson... “Right now things are so good in my life... family is near perfect... health and economics are strong... why would I ever think of moving on to something totally unknown – no matter how green it looked? Maybe this is the greenest place possible for me right now?”

Then my heart jumped a little bit and I thought, “All I really want is more of you God... to know you more... want you more... just like Abraham obviously did in his prayerful disposition.” Sometimes I forget that that’s what’s most important in life, no matter where you live, or what you’re doing.

By the time I got home with my groceries, my house was looking pretty good. The hedges were coming in nicely, the new garden was starting to bloom, and our big blue spruce majestically towered over the entire scene.

As I made my way up our front walkway, an old man beckoned me from across the street. I gave him a wave and then he waved back again, obviously wanting to ask something. As he crossed the street I figured he was probably lost and needed some direction.

As soon as he got close enough, he grabbed my hand, and, in a thick Greek accent said, “This is my house! I am Chris... and this is my house.” “Oh no,” I thought, “He’s deranged!” He went on, “I am Chris and this is my house... and it is a good house, a beautiful house!” Then I realized that this guy was the former owner of the house! “You used to live here, before us,” I said, “Yes, it is a very good house... a very good house.” Christof and Maria Somethingopoulous; I remember their names from the legal papers, an elderly couple that moved to Greece for their retirement.

Chris told me that he was back in Canada for a visit. I guess he wanted to take a stroll around the old neighbourhood, remember all the good times he’d had in this foreign land.

Strange timing, bumping into me when he did; a parable.


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heaven

Apr 23, 2007


The more I think about the “idea” that we’re living out in this church, the more I begin to see it in an ever expanding theological context.

This morning the thought of heaven found its way into the picture. Heaven is this perfect place right?... where God is God and everyone knows it... where all that is done is what God wants done... It’s a place where the truth of God is fully known, understood and lived by; where his self revelation is wholly clear. Heaven is where things finally are as they should be.

Heaven is the big picture, the final goal, the glorious, eternal end and beginning of it all...
Within this larger eternal context, other theological concepts are at play. One of them is what Jesus often called the ‘Kingdom of God,’ or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ (yeah... kind of confusing with the use of the heaven word again! Perhaps this is no coincidence!) This concept has been explained to me as being something akin to, “the realm within which the will of God is reality.” ie: when something happens and it’s totally in tune with what God would want to have happen, then this happening is a ‘Kingdom of God’ happening.

It seems to me that KOG occurances are simply glimpses of the heavenly reality; prophetic lightning strikes, circumstantial foreshadowings.

And then, probing more deeply, I wonder about those revelatory KOG moments. I think that they are the same as the ‘seeing God at work in the world’ moments that we’ve been tripping upon as a faith community.

Are the glimpses that we feel we’ve been getting, in actuality, God truth moments that are occurring with the realm of kingdom of God, which is then occurring within the larger context of heaven?

I think this idea has got to be a chapter in that future book (if it ever gets written). Given the breath taking, eye opening, heart shaking intensity of those ‘seeing God in his world’ revelatory moments, I‘ve got to think there’s some truth in this.


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Faith v. Science?

Apr 22, 2007


For months I've felt a bit of trepidation regarding this editorial. I didn't really want to stir the pot. But the partisan, camp mentality, crap that I've been reading in the news as of late got me to the point where I couldn't hold back any more. This one was published in this morning's paper.


"False Dichotomy (defn) - “a situation in which two alternative statements are held to be the only options, when in reality there exist one or more other options which have not been considered...” Wikipedia


I’ve never understood the dispute between “faith” based creationists and “fact” based scientists.


It seems to me that the entire debate rests on the unquestionable assumption that God and science are mutually exclusive.


Who came up with that formula?...
Is it not possible that God chose to create everything via the amazing, adaptive, creative, means of evolution? What if that part of the faith story where Adam had his dust based genesis was actually a process that took millions of years? What if this way of creating was the best and most brilliant system God could come up with?


I’m not saying I know this was the case. But what if it was? How is God diminished? Is the Divine any less as a result?


This same logic can be applied to the more fundamentalistic thinking that resides on the atheistic side of this debate.


Just because things can be empirically proven and demonstrated doesn’t mean God couldn’t have been, or wasn’t involved, in the process. Knowing how something works is certainly not a definitive rationale for the denial of God’s very existence.


Those who explore the scientific edges of our material reality know, probably more than most of us, just how much mystery there really is out there; whether plumbing the infinite depths of our DNA or the ever expanding reality of our universe, the fact is there is so much that we do not understand - that we need to accept in faith.


Incomprehensible mystery is probably most experienced and best understood by those in the scientific research world. And I’ve got to think that, at some point in their research, many scientists become mystics.


Besides, think of all the faith being exercised in our scientific pursuits. Any honest scientist would admit that she has to proceed on faith in most of her hypotheses – think about it, the basic premise of science is a faith based initiative; prove what you believe to be true.


I’m not saying that these facts prove that there is a God out there, but they certainly do leave a divine door open. We can’t prove otherwise.


Is science any less because of this?


So then, why can’t all of the truths of science and all of the truths of the faith reasonably co-exist?


Why can’t fundamentalist Christian believers admit that the bible was never intended to be a science text? Why not embrace the truths of science and see them as yet another way to better know and understand the mysteriously brilliant nature of the Divine? Might science not offer us more to love and understand God with?


And why can’t fundamentalist scientists admit that the ways and means of the natural order do not, and can not answer all of life’s questions. Empirical evidence proves that what we actually know about our universe is negligible when put along side what’s actually there. Scientists, more than most of us, know what we don’t know; think quantum physics or chaos theory!


Can’t we be honest about what this might mean?


Let’s face it, extremism in this debate has not been all that helpful. This ‘either you’re for us or against us” kind of approach has over simplified, and dogmatized a hugely complex and important question.


Why can’t all science be God’s? The synergy might be quite illumining; on both sides! Quite humbling as well.


Award winning physicist-theologian, Dr. John Polkinghorne, has done a lot of fascinating thinking in this area. One of the major sticking points in the ongoing dialogue is the perceived problem of God’s supernatural involvement in a fixed formulaic universe. How do you allow for the possibility of providential influence, while still holding on to your law based, naturally ordered understanding of reality?”


Big question! You obviously can’t have both, right? Or can you?


Polkinghorne, rather matter of factly, makes a rather simple point that a scientist - doing his experimental work in changing, manipulating, and evolving the natural order of things – is probably the best argument imaginable for this possibility.


“...if creatures can act as agents in the world (a capacity that human beings directly experience but which itself is not, as yet, well understood in terms of a scientific account of detailed process), it would not seem reasonable to deny the possibility of some analogous capacity in the Creator.” Page 5, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality


“Of science and the human heart
there is no limit...
love and logic keep us clear
reason is on our side...”
Bono, in U2’s song, Miracle Drug





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Einstein's God

Apr 19, 2007


I just read an interesting quote from Albert Einstein. In response to being asked about his belief in God he responded,

“I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws...” quoted in TIME, April 16th 2007

Reading these words I couldn’t help but recall a few other quotes...
“John Calvin notes…that ‘wherever we cast our gaze’ we can spot signs of God’s glory, disclosed in ‘the whole workmanship of the universe.”
Dr. Neal Plantinga in Engaging God’s World, p27

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.”
The poet in Psalm 19:1-3, NIV

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12, NAS

"I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom. What's more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me.”
Jesus in Matthew 18:2-5, MSG

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
John 21:25

When Einstein was asked about his believe in the (literal person of) Jesus he said, "Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. He personally pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."

Hmm... I feel the same way about Jesus' presence as it pulsates in the universe.



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Technology in Calgary Churches - CBC News Calgary

Apr 18, 2007


CBC News Calgary did a little feature on the use of technology in Calgary churches, see what is happening at New Hope and what John had to say on the topic.


Quicktime Link to video






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nose hill

Apr 16, 2007


I decided to go for a walk up Nose Hill this afternoon. From the parking lot it’s nothing but this muted tan, sere, knoll chronologically stuck somewhere between winter’s deadness and spring’s hope.

It was only as I started to make my climb that I noticed the life that was springing up all around me. Crocuses dotting the entire landscape; unseen from a distance, ubiquitous up close...
When I got to the top of the hill I noticed the shimmer of water 500 m. away. This little shallow pond was the obvious remnant of a winter’s worth of snow. After standing there for a few minutes a man and his energetic dog made the scene. This canine started running back and forth across that pond none stop. Jumping and leaping and playing. Stopping every second or two to see if its owner was watching. Tongue hanging out about as far as it could. It must have played there for half an hour! Soon another older dog showed up. He slowly walked down to the pond; sniffed it for a minute or two, looked around a bit. ‘Young and alive’ dog kept running by and beckoning him to join in. He didn’t seem all that interested. Eventually he did slowly enter the water... stood there for 30 seconds and walked out again.

Great scene. A good reminder of how I want to choose to live my life.



“There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.”
Psalm 104:25-27




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cold spring rain

Apr 10, 2007








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Easter: Stranger than Fiction

Apr 08, 2007


Following is an Easter editorial I wrote for the Herald (published this morning)...

“Sometimes when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies, and fortunately when there aren’t any cookies we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or a subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys, and nose plugs, and uneaten danish, and soft spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things; the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days are in fact here for a much larger and nobler cause... they are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it so happens to be true.”

Karen Effiel, The fictional author in the Hollywood film, Stranger than Fiction

In the Hollywood film, Stranger than Fiction, protagonist Harold Crick’s life was devoid of meaning. He didn’t know it at the time but he’d lost his sense of touch. He’d forgotten who he was, why he existed, and what life was really all about. You know the feeling....
Sure he was organized, efficient, precise, calculated, controlled and safe, but his existence was also utterly aimless, sterile, boring and predictable. Every day was painfully ordinary and somehow devoid of meaning. Work was work, relationships – where they existed at all – were shallow, and his passions were as muted as the grey suits he wore every day.

According to the story’s narrator, “Harold wasn’t prone to fantasies.” He didn’t have the imagination.

Until that fateful day when everything started to change... Something happened that woke Harold up.

One morning while brushing his teeth, Harold heard a voice, a literal voice that appeared to be narrating his life. For most of his existence this voice had gone unheeded and unheard, but now, for some strange reason, it had become mysteriously audible. He wasn’t going crazy. There really was this larger reality at play. For the first time ever he realized that perhaps there was something more to life; that maybe he was part of something bigger, a literal story –with a plot, a purpose, meaning and direction - that was being narrated by some unseen, god-like author.

Harold had to figure out who this mysterious narrator was. He had to know what kind of story he was a part of and, most importantly, he needed to know how it was going to end.

Overhearing the narrator speak of his immanent death added a huge urgency to his existential search. There’s just something about knowing you’re going to die that wakes you up, makes you check your watch, makes you see both the beauty and brevity of life with different eyes.

Throughout the film, Harold seeks out counselors to help him find his way. A psychotherapist recommends medication. A literary scholar - who’s a bit more helpful - tries to help Crick discover the kind of story he’s a part of; whether it’s a comedy (where you end up “getting hitched”) or a tragedy (where you end up dying). Like Crick, this scholar is convinced that knowing his narrators’ name is the key to understanding.

Who’s authoring all of this? What is he or she like? What kind of stories does he or she write? How is this life really going to end?

Well, eventually Harold does meet his author and discovers that he is indeed scripted to die (aren’t we all?). At first he tries to convince her to reconsider. “You’re asking me to knowingly face my death?” he asks. But then he changes his mind. After reluctantly reading the script for himself, he discovers that he really does have to die, that this really is the best way for the best story to play out.

Reading the script helped him know the author’s heart; her intent and her wisdom. The beauty of the larger story gripped him and he found peace, contentment, meaning and purpose.

The next morning - as he headed out to engage his fate – ended up being the most meaningful he’d ever lived; he saw life clearly, everything made sense, and there was an inexplicable peace attending his every step. And, as a viewer, you’re struck by the nobility of it all; someone willingly walking toward his own end, all for some greater good and beauty.

It’s only as you later see him lose his life while saving the life of a small child, that this mysterious confidence and contentment begins to makes sense.

Selfless love really is this beautiful.

Losing your life for another... willingly laying it down for a friend... doing unto another as you would have them do unto you... loving your neighbour as you love yourself... doing it all on script; these things are what life and death are really all about.

These are the truths that embody the Christian Easter story.

When we enter into a story about a human being sacrificially laying down their life for another, we encounter something true that we all long for. Through the story of Christ, God’s voice is made audible.

Selfless love is what that voice is all about. It’s powerfully exemplified in a divine willingness to sacrificially suffer for the sake of another (as in the movie’s plot, both author and protagonist suffer immensely in the Easter story) and it reaches it zenith in the strangest of fictions; the possibility of a resurrection.

Turns out that even Hollywood couldn’t avoid a little re-writing of the end of its tragic script. Instead of Crick losing his life, the author changes the ending and gives it back.

Her rationale, “If the man does know he’s going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, then... I mean, isn’t that the type of man you’d like to keep alive?”

God’s thoughts exactly!

Link to John's Easter message


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Just before Good Friday

Apr 05, 2007


This morning I read the story of Christ’s crucifixion from the Gospel of Matthew. In his account Matthew notes that that part of the story where Judas betrays Jesus for 30 silver coins - where those coins end up getting used to buy a burial ground - was actually foretold by the prophet Jeremiah 600 years earlier,

“Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me." Matthew 27:9-10, NIV

Seeing Matthew connect the dots, I had to wonder how exciting it must have been for him to first make the correlation. I would imagine he was pretty stoked to see that ‘this old story’ of Jeremiah had this direct connection to ‘this new story;’ “This is that... and that is this!” Must have been quite an epiphany.

This kind of Old Testament/New Testament connecting math happens all over the bible. And I think it happens today...
Just this morning I was telling my wife about the beauty of a scene in the movie “Stranger than Fiction.” In this part of the story, the main protagonist, Harold Crick, makes a decision to willingly give up his life for the greater good; for a larger, more meaningful beauty. Seeing the knowing, gentle, confident peace that he possessed at that moment, and connecting that feeling to what I imagine Christ having felt (following the exact same path), I couldn’t help but be moved.

The passion story isn’t just a story that happened once. It happens. And in this particular film in a wonderfully revealling way. It had me in tears.
I’m sure Matthew had tears when he connected the dots. Truly amazing that God’s story is that big.

(oh... and if you want to get ready for this weekend's messages you can do two things; Read MAtthew's passion account, and watch the movie, "Stranger than Fiction")


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My top 5 experiences at Princeton

Apr 02, 2007


#5 – Responding to the New Jersey shuttle bus driver’s question about where I lived, “Calgary, Canada,” I responded. (Seemed as though leaving the Alberta part out would create less confusion) “Oh yeah,” he says, “That’s cowboy country isn’t it?” Willing to play the stereotype I said, “Yep it is...” He then went on to ask, with all earnestness, “Do you have any malls near your home... or do you have to travel a distance to get to one?” Yeah.
#4 – Sitting in the Miller Chapel of the Princeton Theological seminary listening to a leading scholar talk about neo-Kuyperian theology, and having the thought, “Boy, what my – now deceased – grandfather wouldn’t have given to sit in the very chapel where Abraham Kuyper gave his infamous Stone Lectures way back in 1898.” A few months ago my dad, hearing me go on about what we’re doing at our church, told me how much my ‘Pake’ ate, slept and drank this theologian’s worldview. I felt a deep connection to history sitting in that pew.

#3 – “Created but fallen” vs. “Fallen but Created” Dr. Richard Mouw cited this succinct summary of the difference between his view of the world, and that of an opposing theologian. One stressed the original goodness and value of the created order, and the other focused on the falleness of that order. Both realities exist, we’ve just chosen to accentuate the positive.

#2 – Three great questions - “What is God doing in the world? What can the church do to get on with what God is doing? How can church leaders best be instructed in ways of leading the church so that it can get on with what God is doing?” The citing of these three questions, in one of the lectures, was the only reference made to the fact that God is already at work in our world. I know that all the other speakers assumed this, but only one mentioned it, almost in passing. All this talk, all this thinking, about his huge worldview, and the core idea in behind it all received mere lip service. I don’t get. All that matters, in the end, is the knowing of a God that is doing things in this world. Everything else is a response.

#1 – Flying over Rochester N.Y. at night en route to Toronto – At 15,000 feet it felt like a bit of a God’s eye view of this upstate town. 15 years ago I met all those Down Syndrome people there, God showed me his face, and then called me into the ministry. Having just left the conference, with my head full of thoughts about God’s providential movements in the world, I couldn’t help but ponder the immense divine perspective that he possesses; flying at an elevation quite outside of time and space. Looking down, in retrospect, on that old story from my life, all I could do was smile.

God must smile a lot.





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princeton

Mar 29, 2007


Just spent a beautiful sunny afternoon walking the campus of Princeton University. The feeling of excellence in education was palpable. Knowing that the school was founded on the idea of glorifying God through higher education also caused me to smile (ergo the statue of Jesus).

It's kind of funny though; with all the beautiful architecture and all the history, I still found the flowers and trees to be as magnificent...



Tonight, I attend a lecture by Dr. Richard Mouw on the thinking/teachings of Abraham Kuyper (too complicated to explain the guy, but his worldview is what underscores a huge part of what we do in our church!). Tomorrow there's an all day conference on the same topic.

I feel like a kid.








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young eyes

Mar 24, 2007


“God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell.
As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from the ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
Now a cliff covered with vines,
Now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
Till one day it cracks them open.” Persian Mystic Rumi

I love seeing through those cracks. They usually present themselves when we approach the world with child-like eyes. Anne Lamott talks about writers needing to be this way in order to write. Same goes for preachers, and anybody else who’s got half an interest in seeing the face of God...

My wife often grows sick of my propensity to stop; stop to bend down, to stare, to listen, to take a photo, to smell something. I just quoted Lamott’s assertion to her... I think I may have bought myself some time – next time.

Over the past few years there have been many times where I’ve felt as though I’m growing younger. I pray for that. Often. There’s a verse in a psalm where it talks about God keeping the psalmist young in his old age. I love that verse. I claim it as my promise too.

“He forgives your sins—every one. He heals your diseases—every one. He redeems you from hell—saves your life! He crowns you with love and mercy—a paradise crown. He wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal. He renews your youth—you're always young in his presence.”
Psalm 103:3, MSG

He wraps us in goodness – beauty eternal – all over the place, all the time, in every nook and cranny. The image of all of this is so world embracing, so eye opening and spacious, so sublime. It’s an antidote. It keeps us from becoming so destructively myopic, and so inordinately self centred, that we lose ourselves in our selves.

Lamott says it – characteristically – best...

“Mostly things are not that way, that simple and pure, with so much focus given to each syllable of life as life sings itself. But that kind of attention is the prize. To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass – seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.” (Bird by Bird, page 102)




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