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)

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.

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.