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?

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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?

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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.