Respect, part 2

The primary goal of this blog has been to reflect on the experience of retirement. Some recent posts may have seemed to go off on tangents, but they were really about things that have grabbed this (retired) priest’s attention. When I was in full-time parish ministry, things that attracted my attention as a person tended to get noticed in my preaching. To be honest, I enjoyed having regular access to a pulpit from which to address matters that seemed to be to be important. There’s always some tension in the practice of preaching. There’s a constant challenge to the preacher to be fully engaged with the congregation, the text, and the world around, while at the same time refraining from being too personal in viewpoint. As a former colleague once said, “If my parish knew my real political and theological views, they’d run me out of town.”

But on with the topic of respect…

In my previous post (Respect, part 1), I offered some reflections on respect in the context of the residential schools issue, and the hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I was writing, I began recalling times in my ministry when I felt that I was not being treated with respect — and also times when I did not treat others respectfully. I have already blogged about one of themand I don’t feel any need for further comment on that event.

There’s no need to rehearse old hurts, especially when some of them go back 25 years or more. I have striven to forgive people who have hurt me, and have sought to seek forgiveness for hurts I have inflicted. The past is past: let it be. As it has been said,

Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. One of the things I have learned in parish ministry is that parishioners don’t all deal with clergy in the same way. Some see clergy as “the help,” there to do the parish’s bidding, endlessly available to do whatever people ask. At the other pole are the people who put clergy on a pedestal, deferring to them as holy people with hotline to heaven. Neither position is truly respectful, seeing the cleric only in terms of the office, without really seeing the person in that office.

Clergy who are seen as hired hands become dispensable in their people’s eyes. When things aren’t going well — toss the chump! I’ve seen this happen to a number of colleagues. Everyone gets hurt, church and cleric alike, because the motivation is power, not love and respect.

Clergy on pedestals can only do one thing, and that’s fall off. We are human, and no human can ever fully live up to the exalted standard that others project on him or her. Clergy who allow themselves to be thus exalted are only setting themselves up for a fall. The fall can be long and hard. Again, I’ve seen this with some colleagues, some of whose egos and forceful personalities did not allow them to see that they could do any wrong.

Can we say that clergy who persist in either of these behaviour patterns respect neither their congregations nor themselves?

respect yourselfA healthy congregation-cleric relationship is based on mutual respect: valuing everyone’s gifts, acknowledging legitimate authority, accepting each other for who and what they are. The church’s prime message is one of love, God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) as in the  Hebrew Scriptures, agapé as in the New Testament. We do best by each other, both lay and clergy, when we live what we preach.

 

 

 

Respect, part 1

respectIn the Spirit which draws us into honest engagement with one another, including those who may be very different from us in various ways, God calls us to wake up and learn how to love and respect one another, period.

 I. Carter Heyward

I spent two days listening at the Alberta National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was hard. I heard a number stories much like those I had heard from various people I encountered in Brandon, but the cumulative effect of the hearings was overpowering. It’s taken me almost two weeks to begin to process what I heard there, along with reactions from the media and a number of people I have spoken to personally.

One word sticks in my mind from the TRC: “respect.” I heard it used many times in a variety of ways by people speaking to the Commission. It is clear to me that the Residential Schools were born out of a lack of respect for our aboriginal peoples, and also that those peoples continue to struggle in our society with a continuing lack of respect. It is also clear to me that many of the survivors have struggled throughout their lives to regain some measure of self-respect. Perhaps the most moving stories for me were accounts of how individuals won that victory.

As I listened to the speakers, the thought kept going through my head that “Children learn what they live.” (That’s the title of a 1972  poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. Read it here.) Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the people working in it may have been (as I have heard some argue), the residential school system as a whole taught its students that their way of life, their languages, their very beings, were substandard, even evil. Churches participated in it out of a belief that they were doing the Lord’s work. By the standards of the day, that position might have been defensible, but in today’s post-Christendom world, I cannot see that it can be defended with any integrity.

For many centuries, the church was aligned implicitly and explicitly with the rulers of this world (See a good blog piece about that subject here.) Our involvement with the residential schools was a direct consequence of the assumption that preaching the Gospel necessarily entailed converting people from “savage” ways to something like European civilization.

It is — or should be — a matter of shame that Christian churches participated in a system that treated human beings as people undeserving of respect. At the heart of the Gospel is the assertion that we are all created in God’s image, all children of the same Creator, all equally deserving of one another’s love. The second great commandment, as Jesus taught it is “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” which begs the question “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus answered it by telling the story of the Good SamaritanThe story pushes the boundaries of the idea of neighbour. To be a neighbour has less to do with where we live or how we are related than it does with the recognition that all other people are worthy of our love and compassion — our respect.

Treating aboriginal people without respect has stained our country with a legacy of racism, discrimination, and social and physical ills. It took many years for us to get to this place in our history, and it will take many years to find our way to a healthy and positive relationship between our various peoples, aboriginal and settler alike, a relationship based on realistic and hopeful mutual respect, as beloved children of the living God.

For what should we hope? Surely for the peace which Jesus came to give. So let us pray for that peace:

O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Book of Alternative Services, p. 677)

A Most Wonderful Weekend!

I have spend most of this weekend doing one of the things that I love best — singing. I often tell people that I joined my first choir at age 7, and have missed only about 5 years of my life since then singing in some choir or other. At the moment, I am a member of two choirs, Vocal Alchemy and the choir of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton. I have lost count of the choirs I have belonged to in the intervening years, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is: I sing!

There is a famous saying, probably originating in Orthodox Christianity, that the one who sing, prays twice. I believe that with all my heart. Singing, especially choral singing, demands everything of a person. It involves the body, the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. If one is truly singing, the whole person is involved. If one is singing in community (i.e. in a choir), it also extends the person beyond the individual to become truly a part of a community.

A choir director once said that we needed to be able to hear the person next to us. If we couldn’t hear that person, we were either singing too loud, or we  (or the other person!) were dead. That’s a good metaphor for community in any setting, but it works really well in a choir. No individual voice should be heard, rather one should hear the voice of the choir. A truly fine choir sounds like one voice, but also sounds like no voice in particular. A real community is dominated by no one person, but finds its voice when individuals join in chorus, hearing each other, and responding to each other. The individual is not lost, but is part of thwhole, contributing to the voice of the whole.

So: this weekend…
I spent it singing! Vocal Alchemy’s spring retreat was held yesterday. The morning was for the women, and my spouse went to take part in that. I joined back in for lunch, and then we spent the afternoon singing as a full choir. After an evening of relaxation, we headed off this morning for the morning events at Holy Trinity, which for us means choir practice at 9:30 AM, followed by the the 10:30 AM service of Holy Eucharist. We usually stay for coffee hour, but not today, because I had to  be at the Vocal Alchemy men’s workshop by 1 PM.

It was great afternoon. I sang in a men’s choir for 10 years in Brandon MB, and came to love making music with other men. Today reminded me of the great times I had with Prairie Blend. I am so grateful for that experience, and so grateful that I can continue to sing in other contexts.

I sing.
I pray.
I live.
I cannot easily distinguish between these three facts.

Thanks be to God for a wonderful weekend! May there be many others.

I am an Anglican

I am an Anglican. It’s a historical faith, born out of the strife of the 16th century, committed by that strife to reach out to all people, bringing them into the reach of the love of God. We follow Jesus of Nazareth, who embraced the whole world by his death on the cross, and redeemed all humanity by that ultimate act of love.

In my early years in the church, I learned to love its ways — liturgy, scripture, prayer and service. In my latter years, I have come to question its historical identification of the Gospel with a particular cultural and ethnic orientation. Even though my forebears in this church have made errors, I stand with those today whose commitment to a new and Christ-like way of being are calling this Communion into God’s future.

We are a Church that has been in constant Reformation for almost 600 years, as we have striven to open our doors to all people in the name of Christ. Sometimes that has been successful, sometimes not. Sometimes the work we have done has borne appropriate witness to our Lord, sometimes not.

We are human, and like all humanity can only seek to follow Jesus in all or humanity.

This a warts-and-all church. Thanks be to God.

 

Another year come and gone

Today is March 25, 2014. In the calendar of my church and many others, this is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, telling her that she would bear the Son of God. It’s 9 months before Christmas, hence the date. At one time, Europe observed the day as New Year’s Day: e.g., March 24, 1213 was followed by March 24, 1214. In traditions that emphasize her, it’s a day of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

annunciationIt’s a special anniversary for me. Twenty-six years ago, on a Friday evening at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton, two colleagues and I were ordained to the priesthood. It was an eventful weekend. The very next day the Synod of the Diocese of Edmonton met to elect a bishop — Ken Genge, who retired in 1996. Sunday was Palm Sunday, a big day in church life in any year, and the occasion of my first celebration of the Holy Eucharist. On Monday, I celebrated my first Requiem Eucharist, a service delayed by a week so that I could preside at the kind of rite that the deceased had requested.

I remember much of that weekend with almost startling clarity. Other events in my years in ordained ministry may have faded into the muddled mists of my memory, but not those four days. Something special happened then. All these years later, I believe I can honestly say that my ministry bore fruit, sometimes in the way I had hoped — and sometimes God surprised me! There are things I regret, of course. (Can anyone truthfully say that all we have done was to the good?) Nonetheless, the tumult of those days in March 1988 stands for me as a sign of what the rest of my ministry was to become: busy, committed, mostly fruitful, and always striving to be faithful to the promises I made that night.

Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?

Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the holy scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more able minister of Christ?

Will you endeavour so to minister the word of God and the sacraments of the new covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received?

Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve, labouring together with them and with your fellow ministers to build up the family of God?

Will you do your best to pattern your life (and that of your family) in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?

Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others, and offering all your labours to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?

Today I recall those promises, reviewed so many times in the succeeding years, and give thanks that God has given me the grace to keep them to the best of my ability. At times it was very hard — and those are the times I recall as giving the greatest growth. As I reflect on this day, I find in it a deep connection of Mary’s call to a unique ministry to my own call to ministry. I am also reminded that ministry is grounded in human life, as Mary’s ministry was grounded in the totally human activity of giving birth to Jesus — the Word made Flesh.

Thanks be to God!

Set free, in a way

When I retired and moved to Edmonton, I brought with me a file of documents relating to a pending court case. It was very likely that I would be called to testify at any future trial. The Crown Prosecutor had advised me to retain the file, and to make sure that they knew where to find me. I have been watching the agonizingly-slow progress of the case ever since, anticipating that some time this year I would have to return in response to a subpoena. It’s been rather a lead weight on my spirit ever since.

Things changed this week. The Crown withdrew the charges, to give them time to do some ground-work that really should have happened last year. It is very likely that the charges will be reinstated at some time, but the details of that eventuality depend on many things. The effect for me is to put everything back by a year or so (frustrating — I’d really like this to be over!), but probably changing the nature of my relationship to the case. If the ground-work pans out as expected, the kind of evidence I might be asked to give will be quite different, and the testimony less onerous.

All this means that I can keep the file in my bottom drawer, and only take it out to read it when and if I am required to. In the meantime — let’s get on with life, for the near future without this burden!

Back to the future?

When I was in full-time parish ministry, I had a regular routine of preaching preparation. I preached most Sundays, and my week was structured around my discipline of sermon-writing. It began on Tuesday morning, when I would read the scripture selections for the coming Sunday and jot a few notes. On Wednesday afternoon, I would return to the notes, and do whatever exegetical work seemed to be called for — consulting commentaries and other references, in recent years more on the Web than through books. (Thank you, textweek.com!) Sometime on Thursday, I would try to sketch some general ideas for the actual sermon. On Friday afternoon, I would close the door and begin writing. I usually had a working copy done by 4:30 PM. I would do a final set-up of my stuff for Sunday, and go home to enjoy my Saturday day off with my spouse. On Sunday, I would re-read the text before services, correcting any obvious egregious errors, and then I was ready.

That was the essential structure of my week, something that became not just a way of organizing my vocational life, but the heart and soul of my spiritual life. I believe the essential discipline of preaching is “engaging the scriptures,” to use Thomas G. Long’s felicitous phrase. If the preacher has been immersed in the text, and has been seriously engaged in exploring its depths, it can not help but show in the pulpit.

Because I no longer have that scriptural framework for my week, I have been forced to re-discipline my spiritual life. That’s another story for another time — it’s actually still in formation.

The change in the rhythm of life has changed how I prepare for preaching. When I was a pastoral intern at St. John’s Cathedral, Saskatoon in 1986, my supervisor gave me preaching dates long in advance. I had the luxury of extended preparation time, and each of the sermons I gave there was pretty polished — perhaps too much so! I became aware that it was a little too easy to edit out spontaneity and feeling.

When I entered into full-time parish ministry the next year, the shock of weekly preaching forced me to develop the disciplined approach I already described. No-one told me how hard that would be at first… and no-one told me how much I would come to rely on it.

I’m preaching again, three times in the next two and a half months. I began working on the first of the three this morning, a date more than two weeks away. The long horizon reminded me of my internship, and the careful prep. that I did then. I pray that I will not be over-prepared for these dates, but will be free to speak spontaneously from the structure that my written text will give me. We shall see.

My internship was 27 years ago. I am certainly not the same person today as the rather nervous student who first stood in that pulpit in Saskatoon, Pentecost, 1986. And I’m not the same as I was on June 23 last year, when I last preached at St. Matthew’s in Brandon.

Things come in circles. I have the luxury of preparation time, and I also have the advantage of years of experience. All I pray is that I will be given the grace to be an effective minister of the word for the people of Holy Trinity.

Settling In

This past weekend was a great time, divided between two commitments. On the community front, my spouse and I had the great pleasure of singing with Vocal Alchemy, the community choir we joined last fall. The major work on the program was Schubert’s Mass #2  in G Major, a lovely piece with some very special vocal challenges. (It’s what sopranos and tenors call a “screech”!) I had the privilege of singing the bass solo in the Benedictus, which was a very wonderful experience. A great experience, no less than some of the concerts we sang with the Richard Eaton Singers in past years. One of the interesting aspects for me was standing in the back row, right up against the organ. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung a concert with a pipe organ right behind you!

View from the Northwest - 100 Street and 84 Ave.
View from the Northwest – 100 Street and 84 Ave.

That was a great experience, but the highlight of the weekend for me was a celebrating the Eucharist at Holy Trinity. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this part of my life until I put on my vestments on Sunday morning. I fluffed a few words in the Great Thanksgiving, a sign to me that I was more keyed up than I had really allowed myself to admit. After the service, quite a few people complimented me on, which felt good and also a little odd. After all, I was only doing what I had done almost every Sunday for 26 years!

In my early years of ordained ministry, I often found myself in the same kind of situation — being complimented for something that I was doing out of my sense of vocation. It took me a while to learn simply to say “Thank you,” and then move on. Yesterday’s experience took me right back to those days. One of the things that my early years as a priest did was help to confirm my confidence that God had in fact called me to this ministry, and therefore the Church had not made a huge mistake, regardless of what various people around me had said throughout the process. This weekend was much like those early days in some ways.

(In case you hadn’t figured it out before, I have long suffered from intense self-doubt and the self-criticism  that follows from that.)

Anyway…
It was a wonderful weekend, receiving affirmations from different directions, and confirming my sense that we are where God has called us to be. Our move to Edmonton was primarily motivated by selfish needs: this is the one place we have regarded as home for most of our married life, and our daughter and grandchildren are in this area. That made the choice of place quite clear, but recent events have helped to tell me/us that this is not just a place to live, but also the place where God has called us — into a ministry that is beginning to unfold in exciting ways.

So… what is coming?

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday. Before heading off to a Vocal Alchemy rehearsal, we eat at Holy Trinity’s pancake supper, which I have been asked to open with grace.

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. At 6 AM (egads!) I am scheduled to be at the Central LRT Station, participating in the Diocese of Edmonton‘s “Ashes to Go” program. Afternoon — the first session of a group study of Matthew’s Gospel. Evening — singing in Holy Trinity’s choir for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Thursday: church choir practice.

Sunday: for Lent 1 Holy Trinity has one of its very infrequent Sung Matins services. I have been asked to celebrate Eucharist in the chapel afterwards for those who really desire the sacrament — a great privilege!

So…
I am settling in, finding myself a place in this city which I know and love, and in a faith community which I am coming to love deeply, even after only a few months.

The future looks more and more exciting all the time. I have come home to where God has called me.

Thanks be to God!

Five years — a very short time

It’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and a lot has happened in the past few months, giving me good grist for the mill. But something got in the way every time I thought I might post. (Yes, I know;I’ll quit procrastinating tomorrow…)

What energized me out of my torpor was reading some preacher friends’ posts about their sermon work for this coming Sunday (February 23). The lectionary Gospel text, from the Sermon on the Mount, is Matthew 5:38-42,  Jesus’ teaching about the law of retaliation. We read there the exhortation to “turn the other cheek,” a message which some people have use to deride Jesus and his people as wimps, or to characterize Jesus as completely out of touch with human reality.

What particularly grabbed me about this was the realization that five years have now passed since the lowest moment of my 26 years in full-time stipendiary ministry. The details of the event do not need to be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that I found myself under attack within my own parish, culminating in a very unpleasant congregational meeting. At the end of the meeting, a vote was taken, which went in my favour. That was all to the good, but it left me in pain and confusion, and not a little anger at those behind the issue. I was tempted either to 1) lash out, or 2) to run away and hide. People would have understood either response, but something within me said “No. Stay the course. Do your job. Hold your head up.”

And so I did.

The ensuing months and years taught me a huge lesson about Jesus’ wisdom. “Turning the other cheek” does not mean allowing the other person to continue walking all over you. Rather we should see it as an assertion of one’s true person-hood: “I am worthy of your respect as a fellow child of God.” Either fight or flight would have given credence to the tactics and words used against me. By taking the high road and doing neither one, I believe I was able to bring healing into the parish in a way that would not otherwise have happened. I believe I took Jesus’ way in this, and for that I am glad. Much prayer and reflection went into that time, a new wilderness experience for me.kramskoy-christ

Five years have passed, and I am now retired and a long way away from the scene of this story. Nonetheless, I still bear the scars of the pain it caused me, and of the immediate damage it did to the congregation. I would not willingly walk that way again, nor would I wish such a thing to happen to anyone else. But…

Out of the ashes of that painful time came a stronger person and a stronger congregation. We learned together what it means to follow Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Five years on, I believe I am a better person because of this experience, hard as it was, and I became a better priest to my parish.

Maybe I had to get past this anniversary before moving on with some things. I am now an Honorary Assistant Priest at the parish where we chose to make our church home. I’m on the preaching schedule and am preparing to lead a Bible Study group during Lent. My life has more shape than it did at the time of my last post, and I am really looking forward to the months and years ahead.

Thanks be to God!