Moving along…

It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. The whole season of Advent and the twelve days of Christmas have come and gone. Advent has been a struggle for me for some years, and this year was no different. But here we are in the season of Epiphany, and I’m feeling more positive, and vastly more energized for the months ahead.

Things are developing. I am feeling very much at home as a member of the Holy Trinity Choir. At the same time, my status as clergy is becoming clearer. I was invited to preach on Jan. 5, my first opportunity to be present to the congregation in a vocational fashion. Things went well, and some more permanent relationship seems to be a real possibility. That would be good.

I have taken the liberty of posting my sermon from that day here.

Three Kings-PattayaMagi and Mystery

Texts:  Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12; 

Contrary to popular notions, we are still in the season of Christmas, on the last of the “Twelve Days.” The celebration of the Lord’s Nativity ends with Epiphany, officially tomorrow, January 6, but also observed here as in many places on the Sunday before. The focus of the day is the visit of the Magi, recounted in Matthew, one of the stories unique to this Gospel. It is a story shrouded in mystery, a story which has acquired many layers of oral and written tradition.

The Rector observed on Christmas Eve that the Nativity story from Luke is notable for what it doesn’t include: there are details “missing”, which church and other traditions have inserted through song, story, and art. The story of the Magi is much the same. There are a myriad of embellishments to the story. A good example is the carol “We Three Kings,” which would be well-named, except that the visitors were probably not kings, and there may or may not have been three of them.

The account in Matthew is maddeningly sparse. The visitors were wise men or “magioi” (a Greek word translating a Persian one, from which arose eventually our word “magic”) who came to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews, bringing gifts fit for a king. The text gives them no names and no place of origin except “the East.” They make the obvious mistake of going to the king in power to find the child. Herod may have been in power, albeit under Roman backing, but in no way was he or any child of his the rightful King of the Jews.

The Magi get scripturally-based directions from the religious authorities, and then make the short journey to Bethlehem—it’s only about 8 miles as the crow flies.[i] After paying homage to the child presenting their gifts, they leave by another route, prudently ignoring Herod’s wish that they bring the news back to him.

That’s all. They ride into the story, becoming the first people in Matthew to greet the Christ child—and then they ride out. They are never mentioned again, and there are no other references to Magi in the New Testament.

Questions:

  1. Who were they? (Names? Number?)
  2. Where did they come from? (Persia the best guess…)
  3. What was the star they saw “at its rising” which led them to Bethlehem? (A UFO?)
  4. Why were these people even interested in the King of the Jews?

We might have other questions to ask the text, but let’s leave it at that: there are no fully satisfactory answers to these ones. If Matthew was interested in these details, perhaps he might have included them—but he didn’t, leaving us with a bare-bones story of great mystery. Apparently he saw no need to add anything other material. That’s frustrating, isn’t it? Why didn’t he fill in the blanks? Matthew wasn’t writing for a modern mindset which tends to be fixated on details and facts, and thereby misses the big picture—and the truth!

I would suggest that the story’s mysterious nature is integral to the truth that Matthew is seeking to convey. Think about it: the first people to greet the Christ, the one born King of the Jews, are mysterious people from far beyond the bounds of the Jews and their beliefs about God’s covenant with them.

In this one astonishing and mysterious event, the bounds of God’s covenant people are pushed back, even shattered. Salvation is not just for Jews, but comes through the Jews to all humankind. The great mystery of God—the depths and riches of the Gospel—to which Paul refers in Ephesians, is now revealed to all people.

The key word here is “revealed.” This is not something that happened because people figured it out, or because someone decided it was going to happen. It is not a question of human agency, but rather divine.

The various interpretations and embellishments of the story of the Magi underline our human need to avoid or to solve mysteries. We tend not to like loose ends or unfilled blanks. We want to know the answers and the details, perhaps more so in this “scientistic”[ii] post-Enlightenment age than ever before in human history. We tend to believe that everything has an answer, that everything can be solved and tied up into neat little packages.

I used to believe that. When I was in my twenties, I resolutely upheld the power of reason, logic, and objective analysis, and rejected many of the things of faith. I made my own limited intellect the measure of all truth. (Oh, the arrogance of youth!)

But something happened, something not of my own reasoning or volition, something that could only be the action of God in my life. I’m still working at it, sure in the knowledge that the mystery will remain just that—a mystery—as long as I am on this side of the veil. But that’s the beauty and wonder of the life of discipleship: there are few if any quick and easy answers, only a lifetime of living in the wonder of a relationship with God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s the mystery that keeps me going—and indeed the whole church, as Paul reminds us. We live out our lives as Christ’s disciples in faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

To live into the holy mysteries of God means to be always prepared to accept partial or hidden or even seemingly-contradictory truths. It also means to be prepared to receive revelation—the Word of God for us—wherever and whenever God chooses to give it. God speaks in many varied ways, often unexpected and surprising.

Surprise! God spoke through foreign magicians.

Surprise! God spoke through the birth of a child to Palestinian peasants.

Surprise! God has spoken to people throughout the ages—the poor and the rich, the learned and the simple, the old, the young, far and near.

Surprise! God is not finished with us, but invites us daily to live into the mystery of his riches, revealed through the child of Bethlehem, announced by a star, and proclaimed through the lives and witness of those who have heard the call.

Let us continue to live the mystery, to follow the star, and to seek Christ in all his glory at all times and in all places.

The Rev’d Robin Walker
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
January 5, 2013


[i] About 18 km by the shortest route today, subject to check-points and security barriers.

[ii] sci·en·tism n.
1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists.
2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.                http://www.thefreedictionary.com/scientistic

Both Fish and Fowl

After four Sundays taking services at St. George’s, Devon, I will be back to the choir at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (HTAC, for short) this weekend. I really enjoyed doing the services, but I also missed being part of the HTAC community for those weeks. The folks at Devon were kind enough to say they wished I could stay, but other arrangements have been made, and I really want to be able to worship with my wife during Advent and Christmas.

Will I take another such assignment? Very likely, if it is feasible. We shall see what the future brings.

Last Thursday I attended a diocesan clergy day, led by the Rev. Dr. Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute. For the most part I enjoyed the presentation, but I came away from the day feeling a bit down and anxious. That may have been partly because I was dog-tired, but there had to be something else. After a few days’ reflection, I have come to the realization that events like this used to stimulate me because I was always looking for something to take home to my parish — and I no longer have that focus. Future ministry in the Diocese may give an outlet, God willing.

While in parish ministry, I was constantly looking for ways to improve things. I am an incurable reviser, never fully satisfied with a piece of work. That’s how things get better, I do believe. Learn from your failures and shortcomings — it’s the best school going! [check this out!] I would do (e.g.) an Advent Lessons and Carols service one year, and then ask myself “how could it have gone better?” If I had received the material from Eric’s presentation two years ago, I know that it would have shown up in some way in my ministry.

So what do I do with it now? In my current situation, it’s an interesting concept, but of no immediate utility. Time was, that would not have bothered me. Much of my early educational career was taken up with studying pure mathematics, which is subject to the same assessment. But more recently… let’s just say I found the need to focus myself on my part in God’s mission, and I have tended therefore to study things which seemed to be leading somewhere practical.

The other thing that happened last week was that I didn’t go the parish conference at HTAC, also led by Eric Law. It would have been interesting, I’m sure, but I was very much of two minds about attending. When we first started there, most folks accepted me just as another body in the pews, but as I have met more people, and they have found out I am ordained, I have sensed them responding to me differently. To be sure, that may be from my wearing a clergy shirt when I came to pick up J. from HTAC. Nonetheless, it has made me conscious of being in a liminal state: neither fully one thing nor the other, but on the threshold.

Am I a person in the pew, or am I clergy? Or is it both/and?
Am I …

Neither Fish nor fowl?
Or
Both Fish and fowl?

Stay tuned.

A hallway not of my choosing

hallways are a bitch

Last Sunday I took the first of four Sunday services at a small church in a commuter suburb. It was the first time I had functioned as clergy since my last Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. I wasn’t at first sure I wanted to do this, because I was really beginning to enjoy being a person in the pew. However, in order to find out if this kind of work is what I may be called to do in the future, it seemed reasonable to take the gig — it’s the only way to find out!

Well, as it happens, things went well, although I had to contend with the first real snowfall of the year. The weather meant that a substantial number of parishioners stayed home, including both pianists. So we sang a cappella, which was mostly OK, except I nixed singing the service music, because I was unfamiliar with it. At any rate… I had fun. It was good to preside and preach, once again doing the things that have dominated my life for the previous 26 years. I don’t believe I lost my edge in four months, and things were well-received by the folks.

But that got me to thinking: I left full-time ministry on a high note. I believe that my work in my last year was the strongest in my career. And then I hit the magic 6-5, and it was all over — more or less arbitrarily. The fairness of mandatory retirement has somewhat unexpectedly come back to me as a major question. There have been court cases challenging the practice in several fields of work, most of which I believe have upheld it as a reasonable limitation on freedom. In general, I tend to agree with it, but in specific, it is not so easy to live through. I wouldn’t want to work until I dropped, but in some ways I would have preferred to have the option of working longer if conditions warranted it. “Are you still able to fulfill the role?” would be a reasonable question.

There’s a sense in which I am repeating history. When I was seeking ordination, the Bishop of Edmonton at the time asked me if I would go “wherever God called me.” How could I say no to that, even when I knew that it would probably mean going to a small town. I grew up in a smaller place (Drumheller AB), and I well knew what small-town life was like — that was one of the reasons we had settled in the city! At any rate, my first charge was in a town smaller than my home town, a place that I had real trouble adapting to. My mentoring priest challenged me on this: “You knew you would have to do something like this. Why are you complaining now?” My response, not unlike my present feelings, was that it is one thing to know something in your head, and quite another to live through it.

Am I complaining now? I don’t think so. There’s much about my present existence that I like, and there’s much about my prior life that I don’t miss. (Please don’t ever ask me to manage a heritage building!) But I really found last Sunday that I felt good about what I was doing — leading worship is for me fundamentally life-giving and life-affirming, and I had been missing it. So I am left wondering if we couldn’t somehow manage this business a bit better, not just in the Church, but in society as a whole.

I’m still in the hallway, but I know that there are doors opening ahead. And that’s good.

What is past is past

I spent two days last week in the company of most of the active clergy of the Diocese of Edmonton. After several weeks of doing not very much (and frankly mostly enjoying it!) I got around to sitting down with the Bishop to discuss what the future might bring. Some thoughts came out of that meeting, about which more later as they become more concrete. The Diocesan clergy were meeting a few days later for two days with the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu. Having received assurances that I would be welcome at the Clergy Days, I put on a clerical shirt for the first time since June 23, and toddled along.

It was an interesting experience. I was welcomed warmly by quite a few old friends, but also regarded with some curiosity by the large number of new-to-me clergy, more than half the gathering. A diocese can change dramatically in 11 years! I enjoyed the presentations and discussion, the chance to worship with colleagues, and especially the opportunity to get a sense of what had been happening “on the ground” in my home diocese while I was serving in Brandon.

The thing I didn’t expect, which has taken me a week or so to unpack, was my emotional response to watching diocesan business being conducted all around me, and realizing that I was no longer a part of this, either here or back in Manitoba. For more than a quarter-century, I was deeply involved in the business of the church. There is much about that business I don’t miss at all, but even if some of it was negative, it was still very much a part of me and my life.

That’s gone. It’s over. Something new is taking shape, but at the moment there is for me the hard fact that the things that got me out of the house at 8 AM for all those years are done with.

That’s a loss, and any loss, positive or negative, can be the occasion for grief. And rather to my surprise, I believe that’s what I experienced last week at the clergy day. Facebook posts and e-mails from friends at St. Matthew’s have evoked similar feelings.
I didn’t expect to feel this way, but perhaps Joni Mitchell’s words from 1970 say it as well as it can be said:

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

 

Betrayal?

1-DSC_0035

Just like the disciples at the Ascension, we are caught between heaven and earth.

My friend Marion has written about betrayal. It happens in families, it happens in politics, both local and geo-, and (yes it does!) it happens in the church. I am reluctant to post specific examples. Does that make me chicken? Maybe it does, but so be it. I don’t want to hurt people unnecessarily. (OK — so is there such a thing as a necessary hurt?)

My life in the church has created wounds in myself and in the Body of Christ. I am responsible for some of those wounds. Others must take the blame for other hurts.

What is clear to me is that the church has a huge potential for hurting people. Not because it is dedicated to doing so, but precisely because of the opposite: the church is dedicated to preaching and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, the kingdom in which all are reconciled, all are healed, all are brought into God’s peace.

But that’s the problem: it is incredibly difficult to live what we preach, and the expectations raised by our preaching put the Body of Christ on a pedestal. The only thing one can do on a pedestal (except to vegetate like Simeon Stylites) is to fall off.  Instead of living on a pillar, we need to live in the world, rejoicing in all that God has given us. Diana Butler Bass cited Hildegard of Bingen thus:  “The truly holy person welcomes all that is earthly.”

The church is a reflection both of the world and of the kingdom. If at times we feel betrayed, it is only because we are caught in the gulf between the two. My life in ordained ministry in the past 26 years has mirrored this.

Stay tuned…

Coming from… where?

Being retired begs the question: what did you retire from?

DSCN0697

I could just post my Curriculum Vitae, which lists every major piece of work I’ve done since childhood. I compiled it in this format for a specific purpose, now long past. But there it sits on my hard drive, a reminder to me of where I have come from and what I have done. I never expect to need to print it again.

CV’s are nuts and bolt documents. They tell a story in institutional/organizational terms, but they don’t really tell you who the person is, what he or she is really all about. Just stating a title and length of tenure doesn’t really tell anything about the work and the worker.

I was a parish priest for twenty-six years, a life which was at times both

heartbreaking and joyous,
frustrating and fulfilling,
dully routine and surprise-filled,
mundane and deeply spiritual.

My last 10 1/2 years were spent in Brandon MB, where I served as Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral and Dean of the Diocese of Brandon. It was a very challenging position for all sorts of reasons. My previous 15 years in two parishes and a variety of diocesan roles in the Diocese of Edmonton were in some ways excellent preparation, and in other ways no preparation at all. It took several years to get the previous situation out of my head, and truly to be in a position where I could accomplish something.

That should tell me something now: it’s very hard, if not impossible, to just “drop everything” and be and do something completely different. (Aside — makes me think of Monty Python…)  The presbyterate (to use a better and more ancient term for the priesthood), if taken with appropriate seriousness, is an all-or-nothing proposition for an individual. For all those years, my life was consumed with following the call that first came to me in my teen years, and was later renewed in my thirties. The expression of the call and how I followed it changed, sometimes almost daily, but the central fact of my life was my ordination and the institutional, liturgical, administrative, educational and pastoral roles and tasks that came to me.

Life is different now. I have time to read, to sit and listen to music, do crossword puzzles, go shopping when the stores aren’t busy. And the phone isn’t ringing. We are in a new home in a different city (back in Edmonton), and are just starting to reconnect with people, and to make new friends.

The past is past. Let it be.

Easing into retirement

Retired? Do priests retire? Well yes, at least in the Church in which I have served for more than a quarter-century. The calendar cannot be denied: turn 65, and the very next month you start collecting your pension. The ordination rite doesn’t mention this explicitly, but suggests that this vocation is a life-long calling. Once a priest, always a priest: so how can a priest just stop?Image

That’s a very good question. I’ve been wrestling with it for several years, as my 65th birthday loomed closer and closer. I spent one particularly difficult retreat working through the terror the idea of retirement provoked in me. The terror was subdued by a realization that I could see retirement not so much as an end but as a beginning. This could be the first time in my life when I would be free to undertakeministry without the institutional demands of parish life. The question is then, “What will this ministry look like?”

Now I’m past 65: retired and relocated. My last Sunday in the parish was June 23. It’s now September 14 (Holy Cross Day, if you’re interested), and we are now beginning to be settled here in our new place. It’s time to turn my attention to what my calling will be in the next months and years. One thing is clear: I don’t want to make any snap decisions. It would have been possible to jump right into an interim priest-in-charge role, but it seems necessary to take time to learn how to be retired. As an interim, it would be more of the same kind of thing I have just left. Do I want to do that? Time will tell, but at the moment, I feel no urge to be in charge of a congregation.

My dearly beloved and I have decided to worship at a parish church with a good choir, giving us the chance to sing together inliturgy for the first time since my last year at theological college in the winter of 1987. The choir director says I’m “hiding out in Holy Trinity Choir.” Maybe so!

Over the coming months, I intend to use this blog to reflect on the process of retirement, from both personal and corporate viewpoints. The exercise is largely for my own benefit, but if any of my ruminations hit a chord, either positively or negatively, I would be glad to hear of it.