Now what?

Text for a sermon preached on Good Friday, 2020, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton

Once again, we have heard the story of Jesus’ Passion and death. Once again, we have used texts from Scripture to try to comprehend this perplexing event that plays so profound a role in our faith. Once again, we have ended the story by laying Jesus in the tomb. And once again, we will go from this time in anticipation of the day that we believe will come.

The philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Just so, we experience the Passion story backwards. From our post-Easter perspective, we can only know it through the lens of the Resurrection, striving to see it as the Evangelist does, not as a defeat but a victory—a mysterious one to be sure, but nonetheless a victory. As we remember the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday 2020, we have the benefit of 20 centuries of hindsight and insight. Those who witnessed his death, received his body, and buried him did not. For them, the master was dead, his body wrapped in linen cloths, lying in a cold stone tomb. For them, everything that Jesus had represented and stood for went to the grave with him.

They might well have asked “Now what?”

We might be tempted from our privileged post-Resurrection perspective to reproach Jesus’ disciples for their lack of understanding, but even the first witnesses did not understand. Comprehension and belief took time. On that day before the Sabbath, as they went to their homes, all they knew was that Jesus was dead. All they could do was grieve—each in his or her own way, as is natural and normal.

Then came the Sabbath, that day when the earth stands still, and the people of God take their rest. For Jesus’ disciples and friends, that first Holy Saturday must surely have been a day of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, even denial, things that we can understand as aspects of grief. As we hear of Jesus’ death and burial, we are invited into this same grief, to make it our own, and to live with it for a while. Grief is part of life. It is the normal human response to loss—any loss—and it cannot be pushed aside but must rather be lived through and dealt with.

The hours between now and our Easter “Alleluias” are hours of sharing the experience of the disciples, knowing their grief, living with the loss of all that is life-giving and life-restoring, not knowing what is to come next. We may call times such as these “Holy Saturday” experiences, times when one door has closed, and the next is yet to open. They are significant times in human life, and yet we often do not acknowledge them appropriately, if at all. Nonetheless, I believe if we are truly to experience the Real Presence of Christ in the Church and its sacraments, we must walk through this shadowed time of Real Absence.

Some years ago, I was called upon to mediate a conflict within a group of close friends. They had been almost inseparable in the years when their children were growing up, and all were deeply involved in the life of the church. Times change, people find new interests and vocations, and long-standing relationships become strained. As we sat together that night, one of them turned to another and said, “I know that our old friendship is dead, but I do hope for a resurrection.” As things turned out, new life was eventually possible among them, but it took time, and the new relationship was unlike anything any of them might have expected. They had to let the old one die, and to live with its loss for a time.

People are all experiencing a jumble of feelings during the COVID-19 emergency. It seems to me that as church, city, country, and world, we are living through a Holy Saturday moment. We have lost much: jobs and income, mobility, social interaction, public performances, sporting events. We have no way of knowing when this will end, nor what the world will look like after it does. Many are left to sit at home and ponder in grief. We don’t know what’s coming.

Kierkegaard was right. We can only live forwards, just like the disciples, who had no idea what was coming. The stone had not yet been rolled away, and all they could do was live through the loss of their Teacher.

Good Friday is about experiencing death. Holy Saturday is about living with that loss—the empty day of the church year, the day of “real absence.” We walk with Jesus’ disciples in this time, sharing their grief, and looking to the unknown future that God has prepared.

Easter will come…but not yet. That message is for another day.

Christ has died. Jesus’ body lies in the tomb.

Now what? God knows—and so shall we, in God’s own time.

May God who gave us his only Son give us comfort in all our griefs.

Amen.

NMP & Holy Saturday

I started writing this in January, and am only now revisiting it on Holy Saturday, a day of very special significance in the Christian calendar, but which is typically ignored &/or misunderstood. More about that later…

When my spouse and I were about to retire, she and I attended a retirement dinner given by her employer. One of the other guests, who had retired a year or two earlier, said that the best advice she could give to new retirees was for them to remember that most things henceforth would be NMP:

Not. My. Problem.

For those who have been in administrative or supervisory roles, that’s a hard lesson to learn. For clergy, it can be even harder. We develop relationships with people, and establish ways of operating in our charges that create emotional bonds with people and places. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be doing the work we are called to.

However…

When we leave a place, we have to leave behind all the pastoral and administrative relationships that we developed in the years in that place. That’s a hard thing to do, for both us and the people to whom we have ministered. Some do it well, some not so well, but there will always be people who are hurt by the process.

An  example:
During the first year in one charge, a parishioner whom I had only met in passing at that time came to talk to me. His wife had told him that their marriage was over. He had had a very close relationship with my predecessor, who still lived in the community while employed in a different ministry. The man was deeply bereft, not just because his wife was leaving him, but because his former pastor had told him to come and see me. He told me, “I thought that X was my friend, and he told me to go away.”

It’s easy for people to confuse pastoral relationships with ordinary friendship. When the pastoral relationship ends, as it inevitably will, does the friendship end?

My predecessor had done what he and I both knew to be the right thing by referring a pastoral issue to me, but the parishioner could not see it that way.

When clergy leave a place, the situation is reversed. Some people slough off the relationship like they do an old coat. “That priest is gone, now we’ll start to connect with the next one.” Others — like the man above — find it harder to disconnect, because the relationship has become entangled.

My predecessor knew for himself that that my parishioner’s issues were NMP.

I’ve tried hard to hold to this, and have mostly succeeded. I do confess to having failed a time or two, because something hit me hard and I reacted emotionally. It’s very easy to do this in real life, and even easier to do it via social media. I have asked forgiveness on at least one occasion, but it would have been much better for all concerned if I had never had occasion to do so.

Everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone learns from their mistakes. When something is NMP, please don’t try to make it yours all over again.

Back to Holy Saturday…
This is the day when the Church recalls that Christ lay dead in the tomb. It comes between the profound shock of Jesus’ Crucifixion and the astonishing joy of the Resurrection. It is a day of emptiness, of grief, and of waiting. To be sure, looking through the lens of Easter tells us what we await. But let us remember that Jesus’ disciples grieved on that day without knowing with any certainty what the next day would bring. All they knew was that their Master was dead, and they could not see the future.

Leaving a place or a career can often be very much a “Holy Saturday” experience. It is disorienting. It brings grief. It leaves us longing for a lost past and hoping for an unseen future. And as in every grief process, the griever can make wrong decisions while the future reality unfolds.

 

Remembrance Day 2015

Red-PoppyOur parish church is the regimental church of the Southern Alberta Light Horse. Their retired colours hang in the ceiling of the nave; a regimental memorial display sits at the rear of the south aisle, below the WWII Roll of Honour; and every November 11, we host a Remembrance Day service, beginning with prayers at the Church, followed by a procession to Light Horse Park on 104 St., where wreaths are laid at the cenotaph. I have participated in many different events for Remembrance Day, but the practice at Holy Trinity is special, bringing together in a highly explicit way the Christian faith and the public commemoration of our war dead.

Today’s service was better attended than any in the past, because Premier Rachel Notley attended and took a special role, reading a lesson from Micah, and a “Commitment to Service” at the end of the church prayers. It was standing room only. Ms Notley had attended our service for some years as the MLA for our area, and many of us had expected that she would be at one of the larger events around the city. Instead, she chose to continue her commitment to her constituency. I congratulate her for that. It’s too bad that the media mucked up the time, in one case announcing the service for 10:45 — we began at 9:45.

Another special element was the inspired preaching of our Rector. I have rarely seen him more passionate in the pulpit, delivering a truly heart-felt message of calling us to remember until the age to come is fully upon us.

It was a very good service, and many people commented on it. However, the thing that made it special for me was something very personal. My brother (the family historian) managed to find our grandfather’s service record on the website of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. Grandpa Jack died one month before the Armistice in 1918. Our grandmother kept much of the story to herself: a very private person, for the rest of her life she grieved privately for the husband who had left her with three young children and a fourth on the way. A few years ago, my brother tracked down the location of his grave in France. We had hoped to visit it in 2013, in conjunction with a trip to a conference in Paris, which did not come to fruition. It remains on my bucket list.

His death had profound implications for our family. Granny moved from the Lake District in the north of England to Eastbourne, on the English Channel — about as far away as she could get and still be in England. My mother grew up with a horror of war, which I first really realized at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. She took to her bed for days, terrified that war was coming. Her feelings about war conflicted with my father’s sense of duty, contributing to my own very mixed emotions around this day.

We didn’t have much more than a few sketchy details about the circumstances of Grandpa’s death. The entry on the regimental website explains much that I didn’t know before, including a wonderful testimony to my grandfather’s character. What this gave to me this morning as I watched wreaths being laid, as we stood in silence for two minutes, as the piper piped the lament, was a focus to my thoughts I had rarely had before. William JackI found myself asking all kinds of “What if’s” What if he had not died? He would have returned to his medical practice, my mother’s life would have been vastly different. She would probably never have met my father — and I wouldn’t be standing here today.

The death of Cap’t William Boyd Jack in France on October 11, 1918 is in that sense one of the defining moments of my own life, even though it happened almost 30 years before I was born. How many others standing around that cenotaph had similar stories to tell? My Grandpa’s death seems at the same time heroic and futile — but utterly and profoundly important 97 years later.

Remembrance Day will never be the same for me again. I will always seek to remember, and to ask “What if?”

One Year In

Yesterday was a significant date for me, and I almost let it slip by. One year ago, on June 23, 1013, I handed in my keys, and ended my tenure as the Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the Dean of the Diocese of Brandon. It seems very far away now, but as readers of this blog may realize, it took some time for that distance to take shape.

A lot has happened. Much of it has been good, but there have been some bumps along the way. I spent a lot of time in the fall re-living and re-thinking my time in Brandon, until my dearly beloved challenged me (gently!) to let it go. She’s a wise woman. It’s not healthy to live in the past, as I told many people over the years. Still, it’s one thing to counsel people through grief, and quite another to live through it yourself.

And that’s what I now recognize this past year to have been: it has been a grief process. All the standard aspects of grief (aka response to loss) have been present — except perhaps for denial. It was hard to deny the reality of the change when we were living 1,200 km away from the scene of our previous life. But all the rest were there, including most recently some depression. There have been days in recent months when I have woken up saying to myself “…another b****y day!”

But…
Things change, and indeed things have improved. I have come to recognize in myself the prevailing pathology of clergy: the need to be needed. That thirst hardly needs to be slaked when you’re the Rector of a busy parish, but when I spend most days at home, it became almost overwhelming. Solving the problem simply meant finding meaningful things to do in the church and the community.

That’s happening now, with involvement in leadership or supportive  roles in Vocal Alchemy, the Memorial Society of Edmonton and District, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, and Education for Ministry in the Diocese of Edmonton. That should keep me busy, and involved with people as much as I need. We’re glad to be in Edmonton, part of a vibrant faith community, close to our family, and with time to do the things we really want to do.

Now… when am I going to find time to start writing that book?