Hiding in plain sight

Reflections on Joseph of Arimathea

Today at the “Saints Eucharist” at Holy Trinity we remembered Joseph of Arimathea. He is mentioned only once in each of the four Gospels (Matthew: 27:57-60Mark 15:43-46Luke 23:50-55John 19:38-42), but all affirm that he gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus. There are various post-Biblical legends about him, including a trip to Britain, where he is said to have planted the holy thorn tree that grows at Glastonbury. He is also said to have taken the Holy Grail with him, and hidden it somewhere in that vicinity. (Holy Grail: the cup used at the Last Supper.)

We had a short discusstombion about this before beginning the Eucharist, focussing on the question of why people thought it necessary to remember someone for things that very likely did not happen, glossing over the one solid piece of evidence about his life. Giving a tomb for Jesus’ burial was an act of devotion and generosity that had profound importance in the Gospel story: why can’t we be satisfied with that? Joseph isn’t alone in this. There are other New Testament figures about whom various legends grew up, mostly without solid attestation, often imputing miraculous lives to these individuals.

The speculation we entertained was that people are often not satisfied with “ordinary” events as a medium of seeing God in action. If we can ascribe super-natural acts to someone, it may be a more obvious way to see the divine at work in human life. We have trouble understanding something as simple as giving a grave for someone’s burial as an “Act of God“. Insurance companies understand that term as something mostly unpredictable and entirely outside human control. But surely Joseph’s simple deed was divinely inspired, advancing the story of salvation history in a small but vital way. No burial = no death. No death = no resurrection. No resurrection = no salvation.

I believe that God is at work in ordinary human lives in ways that most people have trouble perceiving or articulating. Having a cup of tea with a lonely senior is just as much an Act of God as a hurricane. The Kingdom of God — how things ought to be — can be seen in the very small and (apparently) very ordinary. When we see it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, revealing what was there all along for us to see — hiding in plain sight.

Being one of “the saints” should not mean being somehow superhuman and supernatural. It should rather mean being a person whose life displays what God intended for human life — sometimes apparently very ordinary, but touching other people in a way that makes God’s ways visible. If we look with the eyes of the spirit, we will see God at work in all sorts of people around us, not necessarily in the supernatural kind of miracle (whose existence I am not denying), but showing forth God’s love, mercy, and grace in many different ways in daily life.

We are all called to be saints — to make visible what God intends for this world. Many who are working out their salvation “in fear and trembling” are all around us. Look for them. They don’t have halos. They don’t always glow with otherworldly radiance. But they reveal to all who will see what holy living is all about.

Joseph of Arimathea did a holy thing: he was a holy person. We remember him for this one special deed.

Look around you today. Who is doing holy things? God’s saints are hiding in plain sight everywhere we care to look, everywhere we turn the eyes of our spirits. See them. Pray for them. Give thanks for them. Love what they do, and do what they love.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

heartofholiness

 

4 years — and not counting

number4_PNG15034Tomorrow is the 4th anniversary of my retirement. I left my last parish on June 23, 2013, taking 5 weeks of accumulated vacation time before the mandated date: the first day of the month following one’s 65th birthday. So, August 1 is the date I left the employ of the church and began collecting the various pensions that continue to support me and my wife. Four years have gone by remarkably quickly, although as I look back, the first one seemed very long. I wasn’t really ready to quit, plus I had some “unfinished business.” Some time into the second year, I realized I had finally let go of the stuff that had been occupying my mind, and I was able to relax and enjoy my freedom.

The freedom of the retired person is the freedom to choose how you’re going to spend each day. I can listen to the traffic reports most mornings, and feel grateful that I don’t have to be anywhere in particular. The clock isn’t running, and the telephone is no longer my master. Not that I’m sitting around doing nothing — I have several activities I have chosen to do — but it’s my choice, not an employer’s dictates.

I am grateful to be in good health. To be sure, I’m a step or two slower than I used to be, and I do have the occasional “senior moment,” but my doctor said that everything looked good after my last physical.

Four years into retirement, and I’m enjoying myself. Again, it’s not that there weren’t times of great enjoyment in my time in parish ministry, but there were also some very “interesting times,” which I would not choose for myself (or anyone else for that matter). I don’t need to dwell on those experiences again.

For the moment, I’m as busy as I want to be. There’s plenty of time to do crossword puzzles, read novels, and play hearts online. I’ve been thinking about picking up my guitar again after a long hiatus. There are projects still waiting for me to get to them — digitizing many of my 300+ LP’s, scanning and saving many of my film-based photos. There’s over 10,000 of those, so it’s a big job just deciding what to preserve. I think about it from time to time, but it should be done: they hold a lot of stories. When my mother died, many of her stories died with her. Her photo albums had very few captions.

I have some commitments outside the house: the condo board, two choirs, Education for Ministry, occasional Sunday supply at other churches, Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity. Plenty! And all of my own choosing.

Life is good. Thanks be to God.

round tuit

 

 

Honesty isn’t the best policy…

It’s the only policy.

I’m in my first year on my condo board. I said when I retired and we moved in here that I would never do this: condo boards deal mainly with finances, building issues, and complaints, the three aspects of church vestries that I found most tiresome. The missional aspect of church life helps to put these matters in some perspective. Not so in a condominium.

Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to this service, in part because I felt that things were not altogether right in how our building was being run. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I’m enjoying the work, or I was, until this week. Back-story: earlier this year we embarked on a project to revitalize a common lounge by the main entrance. After some months, and an expenditure of a reasonable but not huge amount of money, the project was finished, and many people commented on how much better it looked now. But — boom! — we received a package of 11 letters of complaint at this past week’s meeting. The writers didn’t like what was done, and they didn’t like the way it was done. I can accept that some mistakes were made. I also know that you can’t please everyone in matters of taste. People are entitled to their opinions, and if some feelings were hurt, as seems to be the case, some kind of apology could be made.

Dear_Sir_formal_letter_iStock_000004683049XSmallExcept…

Only one of the letters was signed: the property manager had removed the other signatures at the writers’ request. They apparently didn’t want to be open to recriminations, wanting to keep the building peaceful. For me, this just makes things less peaceful, because anonymous complaints make any kind of meaningful response and reconciliation impossible. It’s a matter of community building, which requires openness, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings.

In one parish where I served as Rector, we had a spate of critical anonymous letters, very often placed in the collection plate. They bothered me mightily until I realized that I could not respond to them without being in dialogue with the writers. The trouble was less the (sometimes valid) content  than the one-sidedness of the process. I announced a policy of refusing to acknowledge anonymous communications, inviting people who had concerns to come and see me in person. Over the next several months, I had a number of very worthwhile conversations with parishioners. The dishonest communications stopped and the parish never looked back. We discovered the benefits of openness and honesty.

Why would I call anonymous letters dishonest? Simply because they allow the writer to hide behind a veil, covering up any other matters that might pertain to it. The letter may be the truth, but there is no way of knowing if it’s either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Lies of omission disrespect the recipient, and are every bit as dishonest as lies of commission.

In another parish, I encountered a more straightforward kind of dishonesty. A parishioner had donated a couple of buckets of soup for a church lunch. Somehow, someone had set them on the back steps, where they were forgotten for long enough that they went rotten, ruining the ice-cream pails they came in. A group of people came to me to ask what they should do. What should they tell the donor, who had a sharp tongue and a habit of holding grudges? They wanted a plausible story which would save everyone’s face, but they were rather taken aback when I suggested they simply tell the truth and suffer the consequences.

It worked. The doPrintnor was annoyed about the waste of her gift, and also about the loss of her pails, but the fact that her friends gave her the respect of the truth served to smooth the waters. Trust had been damaged, but if a lie had been told, further trust would have become impossible.
In the church, even more than in a condominium, we are concerned about the building of community. Let’s remember that true community can only be built on trust, and trust can only be built on honesty. And, of course, dishonesty destroys trust.

Jesus said “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 

 

 

On the journey to…

A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.

The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.

The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.

That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.

The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.

This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.

Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.

In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”

I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…

Visiting: ministry for all

Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“You said…”
“You didn’t say…”
“You weren’t there…”
“You were there…”

Whatever they do (or don’t do), clerics have to expect that someone will be  annoyed with it.

sell ice cream

When I was in parish ministry, the thing I was most often criticized about was visiting. The model of ministry which I grew up with, and that most of my parishioners expected, was that the clergy would spent the largest amount of their time visiting their flock, in times of need and in almost every time. Just dropping in was totally acceptable.

Except…

When I started out, there were some people for whom that model worked, but far more for whom it didn’t. The folks for whom it worked were mostly older, very settled, and accustomed to receiving guests at the drop of a hat. Others? Younger folk had busier lives, fuller schedules, and were often not open to just welcoming someone into their home, even if they had nothing else on.

There’s a generational divide at work here, of course, but also a divide in lifestyles. My first parish was largely farm folk, for whom hospitality was a way of life. My second parish was mostly double-income families, at least one of them commuting. Commuter-suburb ministry turned out to be hugely different from farm-town ministry.

I have clergy friends who still regard visitation as the heart and soul of their work. That ended for me over 25 years ago. The change in my situation forced me to begin asking what parish ministry was really all about. Did it still mean that the pastor had to spend most of his/her time running around trying to find someone at home? Or did it mean that more time was spend building up the community so they could care for each other. and so be better equipped for mission?

I hope by now it should be no surprise that I decided that the latter was the appropriate course.

A community which is dependent for its existence only one person is no community at all. On the other other hand, if that one person has worked to enable the community to thrive through all sorts of tribulations and joys through the graces it possesses, that person has done something truly wonderful.

I didn’t do much visiting at all in my third and last parish. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all! But I do feel gratified that I worked to  build up a team of people who were committed to reaching “in” to care for the people within the community, building up the Body of Christ in ways that one person like me could never do.

Visiting people is important. Read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 25:31-40:

 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

This is not a call to a specialized group of people, but to all of God’s people.Don’t guilt your clergy about who they haven’t visited. Rather, ask yourself who you have reached out to.

Guns or love?

I feel sick at heart. In some ways, I should be rejoicing: a major issue for which I have advocated for years has taken a huge step forward in our church. A big issue in the choir in which I sing and serve on the executive is very close to resolution. My personal life is placid, calm, full of blessings.

And yet…

I picked up this week’s issue of Maclean’s Magazine, to which  I’ve subscribed for many years, and was immediately discouraged by the cover headline: “The Republic of Fear.” I browsed through it, and promptly threw it to one side. So many of the stories had something to do with how badly things are going in today’s world. I may pick it up again and read some of it, but tonight it only served to remind me of how troubled I am about what is going on today:

There are so many violent incidents in the news: NiceBaton Rouge (twice), Minneapolis, Turkey, Dallas, Calgary, ISIL, just to name a few. Guns seem to the rule of the day, and for the life of me, I just don’t understand the gun-ownership mentality of

There are so many leaders preaching negative thoughts: in the wider world I thinkof Trump, Clinton (somewhat less), Teresa May, Putin. Locally, I read my newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, and see so much negative thinking in the people who write in it and to it, with the exception of Paula Simons.

The reaction of some of our church’s bishops to the big issue, whether our church will allow clergy to officiate at marriages of same-gender couples, has been very depressing. They feel disrespected and abandoned by the rest of the church. I am sorry for that, but the language in which these statements have been made makes me feel disrespected

I could go on, but what’s the point? The world sometimes seems to be so full of negativity these days, when all I wish for is that people could love each other, care for each other, treat each other as beloved children of our God. And what I see is more and more hatred

Where is this leading? I don’t know, and sometimes (like when I tossed Maclean’s aside tonight) I don’t want to know. What I know is that God calls us to live in the love God has declared towards all people.

“Love your neiggood_shepherd-7135901hbour.” Yes!
And the lawyer asked , “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus’ answer (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is basically this:
“Who is not your neighbour?”
We don’t get to choose who to love.
The only choice is whether or not to love — and that’s no choice at all.

Brothers and sisters, let us learn to love each other as God first love us. Without that, there may be no hope for the human race. For those who see guns as the answer to all the problems of the world, I can only say: “I love you.”

 

 

 

The Cross—From the Other Side

Notes for a Good Friday sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona
Edmonton AB, March 25, 2016

3 crossesWhy did Jesus have to die?” is a very common question, arising from believers and sceptics alike.

St. Anselm’s simple answer, known as “substitutionary atonement,” was that this was the only way to pay the price for our sin. It has become the dominant answer in much of Western Christianity. The early church did not have the doctrine and the Eastern (Orthodox) churches have never embraced it, but almost every hymn in the Holy Week section of Common Praise shows its influence.

The doctrine found early roots in the High Middle Ages, a troubled and turbulent era, when many theologians emphasized the wretchedness of human existence. Its influence continued into the Protestant churches, finding fertile ground in the teaching of John Calvin and his followers.

It works on a kind of quid pro quo economic system: Everything has a price, so somehow someone has to pay the price of sin.

However—it’s a very troubling doctrine in many ways, depicting God as vengeful, demanding blood sacrifice – of his only Son! Some have called it “divine child abuse.”

Under Anselm’s system, the Incarnation (God taking human form) was necessitated by the need for the cross. Jesus’ ministry was almost by-the-by. Our creeds don’t help us in this respect: both Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds contain “the great comma,” sliding directly from Jesus’ birth to the passion.

As one writer pointed out in a recent blog, the whole thing could have been accomplished much more quickly if Jesus had perished with the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

There are other problems, but let’s not spend much time on them. Let’s instead try to look at the death of Jesus of Nazareth through the teaching of another medieval saint – Francis of Assisi, who turned the whole equation around, only a century after Anselm.

Francis held that God’s fundamental act of redemption and salvation was the Incarnation. By entering into human life, God blessed and redeemed all of human existence. God loved humanity enough, that to step into our midst, and pitch his tent among us. And the Incarnation led inevitably to the cross.

What do I mean by that? Simply put: when the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, “flesh” included and assumed all of human existence. Jesus had to die because Jesus was human – and human beings die.

This human being differed from all others in his pre-existence as the Word (Logos), but as a human being he lived into the failings, all the limitations, all the frailties of ordinary people like you and me.

This human being – God incarnate – came to his own people – and “his own knew him not.” He was rejected by those who should have known him, religious leaders who accused him of blasphemy, people who looked for a human solution to their oppression and found Jesus wanting, leaders of the nation who were prepared to sacrifice one man for his supposed sedition to keep the peace, disciples who were drawn to him but could not hear the fullness of his message.

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

He came to bring divine light into this world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Jesus came to open the doors to eternal life. And what does that take?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

This is the action of a loving God – who desires that all his people should share his divine life, which is what eternal life means.

Jesus offended the blinded leaders of his nation by his words and actions. He made their lives uncomfortable, making it expedient to have him executed.

Crucifixion makes an example of the offender. It did so in this case, but ultimately not in the way his accusers could ever have imagined. Jesus died as one of us, taking with him to the cross all our triumphs and defeats, all our joys and sorrows, all our gains and all our losses. He died the most shameful death his age could give him. He died a criminal’s death, turning that death into victory, shaming those who wielded the lash and drove the nails, triumphantly proclaiming at the last “It is finished!”

He took the worst the powers of this world could muster against him, and turned it against them through the power of love.

In his birth, in his life, and in his death, God in Jesus took upon himself all that it means to be human.

When we rejoice, remember how Jesus rejoiced over his disciples.

When we weep, remember that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb.

When a child is born, remember that Jesus also was born of a woman.

And when we meet death, remember that Jesus also knew its pains.

Today we remember that God loved us so much that he gave us his Son to lead all people to eternal life. As we look to the cross, let us see not a sign of shame and suffering but the throne of the King of Glory. Our King is crowned with thorns, his face streaked with tears for the people who would not receive him as their king, and handed him over to the powers of this world.

Today and every day, Jesus weeps for us.

Today and every day, let us weep for him and with him.

But finally let us remember that today is not the end of the story. We will tell the next chapter over the great 50 Days of Easter, as we rejoice in the fullness of God’s salvation of the world.

[repeat John 3:16-17]

Thanks be to God!

On Earth as In Heaven

Notes for a sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.
Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Recent world and local news has given me occasion to give thanks.

Two weeks ago, my spouse & I were at a family gathering, which included a BBQ on a beach. No incoming artillery threatened the crowd enjoying the BC sun. Thanks be to God.

This week, we will travel by air to Vancouver Island. We can be quite sure that no one will aim a surface-to-air missile at our flight. Thanks be to God.

The reports about the condo fire in SW Edmonton made me grateful that we live in a building with a full sprinkler system and a non-combustible exterior. Thanks be to God.

None of these—or any other bits of dire news—point us toward God’s Kingdom, except in a negative sense. This is not what God desires for his people. For that, we turn to the Gospel—the Good News!

That gospel passage we just heard could almost make us a bit dizzy, with its repeated refrain “The kingdom of heaven is like…” We hear it five times, associated with five very different images: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a net—images with no apparent connection with each other—they are just piled up together. The closing comment about the scribe trained for the kingdom adds another layer.

We’re talking about parables here, most of them coming without any explanation. As Fr. Paul Fromberg said from this pulpit last Sunday, explanations actually go against the nature of parables, which are less like object lessons than Zen koans: they just sit there, challenging us to find meaning in them.

The theologian Sally McFague says that parables open “cracks in reality,” to allow us to see things freshly.

As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Jesus uses parables to open cracks in our carefully built world-view, challenging us to see things in a new light. He takes the stuff of ordinary life, and gives it a twist, and all of a sudden new light is streaming!

He asks his disciples if they have understood, and they answer “Yes.” I recall a saying of Albert Einstein:

If one is asked “Do you believe in God,”
the answer least likely to be understood is “Yes.”

Even the shortest parables have multiple layers and shades of meaning.

Recall that Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven,” a term found only in Matthew, generally in contexts where Mark and Luke use “the kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of this term is widely believed to be a circumlocution: Jews avoid misusing the name of God by avoiding talking directly about God. It is one of the reasons many scholars believe this Gospel was written for a church composed mainly of Jewish converts. The two expressions mean the same, so it is important not to assume that “heaven” points to something entirely beyond this world. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom:

Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

God reigns in heaven—he always has and always will—but our prayer is for God’s reign to come in its fullness on earth. God’s kingdom will be fulfilled when the holy will is done in all of creation—on earth as in heaven.

When will that be? How will we know it? The five short parables have one thing in common—they all involve action, as people do things that point to what life looks like when we seek to allow God’s will to govern our lives. Let’s take a look at just the first two of them, beginning with the mustard seed.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It has a “standard” interpretation, stressing how the very small becomes the very large. That’s correct, as far as it goes, but if we end there, we’ve missed the point. Mustard gives useful seeds and oil, but it is actually a weed—a fast-growing, invasive plant that is almost impossible to eradicate once it is established. What sane person would sow mustard in a field, where it crowds out the wheat, and provides shelter for birds that eat the growing grain? So why does Jesus liken the kingdom to such an apparently counter-productive action? The people who first heard this parable would surely have sat up straight, and scratched their heads at such a suggestion.

And so? The kingdom of heaven is like… well, it’s not always what we expect it to be.

A mustard plant in the middle of a wheat field may be unwelcome, but it can’t be ignored. It is urgent business. The kingdom Jesus announces can also at times be unwelcome, as he challenges us:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matt 4:17)

The urgency of God’s business puts demands on us: action, commitment, sometimes extreme behaviour, as we work for the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Mustard seeds remind us that even the simplest and seemingly most insignificant actions can have big consequences—sometimes unexpected, even undesired. What about yeast? Same thing! The yeast used in ancient Palestine wasn’t the nice domesticated stuff we are familiar with. It was more like what we today call sourdough starter, kept over from the previous batch of bread to leaven the next one. It goes bad or dies very easily, and must be refreshed from time to time. If proper care is not taken, you can produce a loaf of bread laced with poison.

Just so, small actions can produce very large and very negative results, not because people mean to do evil, but more often because they do not take the proper care and attention. This past week, a single cigarette butt caused $10M in damage to a west-end condo, and made 400 people homeless for months or years.

Jesus invites us to be part of that kingdom which has come near. The invitation is a challenge—to us individually, to the church, and to the world around us. The call to follow Jesus can mean being a nuisance like the mustard bush—sometimes unwelcome, but unavoidable in its urgency.

However urgent it may be, the call to follow Jesus is not a call to act blindly or rashly, but to take care in what we do, seeking always to do God’s will, seeking to be good yeast in a world that critically needs God’s leavening.

Far be it from me to suggest that these interpretations are anything more than an opening of a crack—how do YOU hear?

We do have urgent matters before us. Let us therefore seek to know God’s will, through prayer, study, and worship—and then in the holy action—God’s Mission!—that arises from these disciplines. Let us be wise and diligent in attending to them, and may our lives reflect our prayer:

Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

Holy Week … rediscovered

daliFor many years, this week has been the most intense, the most emotional, and the most stressful time of the year. For clergy in Catholic tradition, the observance of Holy Week is at the same time the ultimate spiritual experience and professionally the most demanding few days one can imagine.

I used to be responsible for making sure that a whole week of services happened, from the “light into dark” of the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy through the gathering darkness of the week to the blackness of Good Friday — and then to the new fire, and the glories of Easter Day. One of the secrets of clergy life is that Holy Week is never complete until the priest has completed the final act — the liturgy of the Holy Face Plant!

I rejoiced to be a part of this for many years, even as it was so exhausting physically, but spiritually fulfilling.

This year is different. I am not responsible for anything except for a few assigned roles. The pressure is off! That’s a good thing, to some extent. Except… I am feeling this lack of pressure rather keenly. Holy Week seems a little emptier this year, and I have to realize that this will be the case in the future. This year, for the first time in a quarter-century, I skipped the Maundy Thursday service in favour of family commitments. I am happy to be with my family, but I look at posts of pictures from services, and I know what I am missing.

Professional or vocational responsibilities are one thing. My spiritual life is another. The years ahead will help me find a new balance, when the one that is now so much less has probably outweighed the other in the years past.

I will be part of the rest of the paschal liturgies: Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and the glories of Easter Sunday. That will be good!

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.