The struggle of my life

I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.

I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.

I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.

The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.

Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.

My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.

I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.

I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.

As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”

Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.

Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.

The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.

Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.

Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.

We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.

Stewardship and other spiritual disciplines

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Tofield AB, June 3, 2018
Texts: 1 Sam 3:1-20; Mark 2:23-3:6

How many of you remember Sunday January 17, 1982? Not too many? I didn’t remember the exact date, but I worked it out based on one scripture reading, which we heard this morning from I Samuel, the story of Samuel’s call. It turned up in the lectionary at a time when I was wrestling with my own sense of vocation.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

These words spoke volumes to me then. They led me into the discipline of discernment through prayer: paying attention to God’s call, a practice that led eventually to seminary, ordination, and 26 years in parish ministry. Without hearing that scripture reading, I might well not be standing before you today.

Hearing the call is one thing. Following it is another. All of us are called to ministry through our baptisms, but not all follow that call. For the boy Samuel, his call was the beginning of a lifetime of serving the Lord, playing a pivotal role in the history of Israel. We remember him as the person who anointed first Saul and then David as King of Israel. We don’t know a lot about his life between hearing the call and the rise of the monarchy, except that

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

We are told that the demand for a king did not come until Samuel was old and his sons had proved unworthy. Samuel’s response to the people who wanted a king was to do what he had first begun to do so long ago: he prayed, seeking to listen to the Lord. It seems to me that this had to be the result a life-time of following the call, hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord. It was no accident, but the consequence of years of following the discipline of prayer. We can easily picture Samuel through long years of service in the holy place, attending to ritual day after day, and always taking the time to listen.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

He listened!

Discipline bears fruit. How do great musicians achieve excellence at their art? They practice. [Old joke: A man gets off the subway in NYC carrying an instrument case. He asks a bystander, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, man. Practice!”] How do great athletes become star players? Same answer! It does help if you have natural talent, but if you haven’t heard the call to disciplined exercise of your talent, your inborn gift will never flower fully. The more you practice, the more the exercise of the gift becomes second nature: it becomes truly a part of who we are.

Samuel’s calling led to years of disciplined service, and ultimately to the recognition that he was the one called to lead God’s people into a new way of being.

In our Gospel today, Jesus points to the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping, a practice commanded in the law. He is breaking the law, at least in the eyes of his opponents. They focus on the legalities, but Jesus’ interest is more on the underlying spirituality of keeping sabbath:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
 and not humankind for the sabbath.

Writing in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long recalled how as a youth he heard this saying as permission to go and do all the things he liked doing on Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by his parents and his home church. He realized as he grew older that he was mistaken, coming to understand that sabbath-keeping should be undertaken not because you must do it, but because it’s good for you. The sabbath is a gift from God, calling us to take a day of out every seven to do things that draw us closer to God and each other. In her 1989 book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn identifies four key aspects of keeping the sabbath:

(1) ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction.
(excerpt of a review on Amazon.com)

What I want to emphasize here is that keeping the sabbath takes intention and discipline. To truly keep the sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us, we need to keep practicing. That doesn’t mean just not doing stuff, like the old Sunday rules. It means taking the time every week to turn our lives over to God’s purposes: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

Finally, another spiritual discipline. I came here today because I claim to have some knowledge and experience in the matter of stewardship. Please don’t call me an “expert,” which just means someone with a briefcase more than 100 km from home!

I was glad to give your Rector some suggestions about how to approach the matter of stewardship. Will they bear fruit? I hope so, and the pledges that will be received today will begin to tell that story. But let’s be sure of this: stewardship of our possessions is not a matter of a “once and done” campaign, but rather a question of a life-long spiritual discipline.

Like Samuel’s discipline of listening to God, and Jesus’ call to sabbath-keeping among his disciples, the discipline of stewardship takes practice. Stewardship is born out of the insight that everything we have is gift, and that these gifts are stewardshipgiven for a purpose beyond our own needs. That means that stewardship is very much about money, but before it’s about money, it’s about how we use our treasure to move forward in our participation in God’s mission.

Spiritual disciplines are gifts from God, Spirit-led responses to God’s call.

We are called to discern God’s call. We respond in the Spirit by turning our hearts in prayer, seeking to know God’s desires for our lives.

We are called to turn our lives to God’s purposes. We respond in the Spirit by setting aside one day in seven to focus on those purposes—which then gives a Godly focus to the other six.

We are called to use our material gifts for the furtherance of God’s mission. We respond in the Spirit by dedicating a portion of our possessions, our time, talent, and treasure, to the work of God’s church—which then gives a holy focus on how we use what we retain.

May all our lives be lives of dedication to God’s purposes, lived out in the joy of holy discipline.

Amen.

Doing it again

Today I had the privilege of preaching and presiding at the Eucharist at Holy Trinity (aka “HTAC”). I had been scheduled to preach for a while, but other commitments took both our Rector and our Assistant Priest away from the parish. So…

Yours truly got to do what I used to do most Sundays for a quarter of a century. They say that riding a bike is easy once you learn how to do it, and once you have learned, doing it again is simple. You just get in the saddle and pedal.

That’s rather how today felt. HTAC is not “my” parish, at least not in the sense that St. Matthew’s Cathedral and St. Augustine’s-Parkland were. There, I was the Rector, expected to be present and available every day, and to do what had to be done at pulpit and altar most Sundays. Most Sundays at HTAC, I’m sitting in the back row of the bass section in the church choir, and happy to be there.

Today was different. I prayed with the choir before the service as usual, but today I led the prayers. I sang the psalm with the choir, but today from the presider’s desk. I proclaimed the Gospel and preached, and then went to the altar to preside at the sacrament.

These things happen every Sunday at HTAC. But today I assumed roles that other people usually take. And (I have to confess) it felt good.

Readers of this blog may have intuited that I wasn’t really ready to retire in 2013, but rather that the situation was forced on me. Today reminded me that I still feel most alive when I’m ministering in the pulpit and at the altar. I still believe that this I what God made me for, but I recognize that other people have similar calls, and that I have to let go as I am able.

I am truly grateful for today’s experience. I hope that my ministry today helped at least someone. That’s all I can expect, and all any ordained person can hope for.

Thanks be to God for this day. I have posted the text for today’s sermon under “Sermons and theological discussions.” Read it HERE.

Holy_Trinity_Anglican_Church_Edmonton_Alberta_Canada_01A
View from the Northwest – 100 Street and 84 Ave.

Is it about you?

Last night, at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton, Bishop Jane Alexander ordained three people to the priesthood and seven (!) to the diaconate. If I’m not mistaken, it was the largest ordination in this Diocese since at least 1986. The Cathedral was almost full, and there was a large turnout of the diocesan clergy. Some of us had speculated about how long the liturgy would take, and we were agreeably surprised when it came in at about 2 1/4 hours. I didn’t hang around too long afterward.  Bun fights in tight spaces make me a bit anxious, and my hearing issues (hypersensitivity to crowd sound at voice range) make it difficult to function in that kind of noisy environment. Nonetheless, I did have time to greet one of the ordinands, a person with whom I have had a long and special relationship.

I don’t ever recall being at an ordination service for so many people. Most of the ordinations I participated in during my time in the Diocese of Brandon were for individuals. I have no problem with the church celebrating the new ministry of a person who has been raised up for ordination. What has often troubled me is that these celebrations often become about the individual. Ordination should not be about a person having “made it,” but about the church renewing its leadership.

Last night’s service filled me with joy. I knew three of the ten ordinands personally, one better than the other two, but that’s not really the point. I saw ten (count ’em – 10!) people being affirmed in ministries that we prayed would be of benefit to the church and the world. It wasn’t about any one of them, but about the church engaged in the continuous and joyful renewal of its leadership. It was wonderful! I give thanks for the privilege of being present for all ten, even if seven of them were previously totally unknown to me except as names on a list.

On Holy Cross Day, our preacher recalled for us the love displayed and exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s okay. The ten who were ordained last night will share in proclaiming that truth, in their lives and their ministries. (Is there really any difference?)

Today, I welcome three people to the fellowship of the Holy Priesthood and seven people to the company of Deacons. May they continue to proclaim the love of God at all times and all places.

Finally my question to anyone who may be considering ordination in the church. Is your call about what YOU want to do, or about what GOD needs in the world. Is it about the church (God’s people) or about you? I pray that you may be able to answer that question prayerfully and honestly.

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.

On bishops and other callings

bishop-mitre-h-87A good friend and colleague recently disclosed that he had been chosen as one of the four final candidates in an election for Bishop. (Read about it here.) It put me into a reflective mood, recalling the occasions when I had a brush with episcopal office.

The first time was in 1997 in the Diocese of Edmonton, my home and current diocese. I had been serving as an Archdeacon for a couple of years, and for the first time had had some significant interactions with people in other parishes. Out of that came a request from someone present in one of those events that I allow her to put my name forward in the upcoming election of a new bishop. I was quite daunted by the idea, even though I admit to being flattered by the request. After some thought and prayer and discussion with my wife, I decided to let it happen.

The search committee asked each candidate to submit a fairly large bundle of material, including a detailed CV in a particular format, and a personal statement about ministry, and my sense of the episcopal office and how I might fill it if I were so called.

Assembling the CV was a good exercise: it was the first time since my ordination that I had put all of my work history down in one place. The document turned out to be much longer than I expected, considering I had only been ordained for 10 years. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I re-read it after finishing.

The statement was quite another matter. I sweated blood over it, reading, thinking, praying, writing, tearing up, writing again, finally telling myself that it wasn’t going to get any better. It may be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the years since, I have returned to it often, to check up on my continuing sense of vocation, and where my ministry is headed.

At the electoral synod, I was seated with the rest of the clergy, as required for voting. My wife was sitting in the observers’ seats at the back of the Cathedral, along with some other people from my parish. The preliminaries having been taken care of, we proceeded to vote, and then to sit and wait for the results. I wasn’t dead last in that first ballot, but pretty close, with 2 clergy and 3 lay votes. I knew who the clergy votes came from (me and my proposer), but to this day I have no idea who were the 3 laypeople who felt I was the best choice for bishop. On the second ballot, it was down to 1 clergy and 2 lay votes, still not the very bottom, but it seemed like a good time to drop out and stop wasting people’s time. The folks from the parish said they could all hear my wife’s sigh of relief when my withdrawal was announced.

That day, the diocese of Edmonton elected the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews as the first female diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada.

The second time I found myself on an episcopal election slate was for the Diocese of Qu’Appelle in 2006. I had been quite astonished to get the call from their search committee asking me whether I would accept the nomination. (My proposer had not contacted me first, as should have happened.) I asked for some time to consider it, coming as it was more or less out of the blue. My wife and I talked about it at length, and I  consulted my Bishop of the day. I was less than 3 years into a new ministry, and it hardly seemed the time to leave.

Nonetheless…
A call like this did not seem to be one that could be ignored — it might well be of the Spirit. My bishop suggested that the only real way to determine that was to let my name stand. And so I did. It felt quite different from Edmonton in 1997. For one thing, I would be moving to a completely new city, working with people I did not know at all. For another, that Diocese is a land of wide-open spaces, and many small multi-point charges. As bishop, I would likely spend much of my time in long-distance driving. The final thing was that I was nine years older and more experienced, and had a much better sense of my own capabilities and what the office of Bishop entailed.

The documentation they required was much like that asked for in 1997, so had most of it more or less ready to go, after another revisit to my personal ministry statement.

The results of that election were somewhat more gratifying. There were six candidates, and I ran a solid third until the third and final ballot. My good friend Gregory Kerr-Wilson was elected that day, while I sat at home in Brandon with my phone handy, waiting for results of the ballots.

That’s the story, although there’s an epilogue of sorts. I was approached to let my name stand in another election a year or two later. After considerable thought and prayer, I concluded that I did not hear the call to episcopal office, and did not let my name stand.

The formal processes I went through were quite different from the one my friend is in. Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that the internal process of seeking to discern a call to ministerial office is much the same however it may be externally structured. The writing of my personal ministry statement was an important turning point in my own ministry, and the document became one of the touchstones of my continuing vocation.

I learned, particularly in the 1997 election, that vocation must be heard within, and that requires intense prayer. My understanding of prayer is that it begins with listening, not with telling God what you want God to do. That became abundantly clear in 1997, in 2006, and then when I declined nomination.

Did I ever want to be a Bishop? I don’t know. I do know that some people say that anyone who really want the office shouldn’t get it — but probably deserves it. The office is almost impossible, but some people of my acquaintance have managed to make it look easy. I know that’s not true. I am also quite sure that, had I been elected, I would probably have managed to make it look very difficult!

Thanks be to God for all who let their names stand for Bishop.
And thanks be to God for all Bishops who serve Christ in His Church.

 

What’s Missing?

I haven’t posted much in the past year, ever since passing the 1st anniversary of my retirement. Some, maybe most, of the issues that were on the top when I first left full-time ministry have evaporated, or at least receded into the background. It’s now two years since I retired, and I’m feeling more in tune with what a newly-retired colleague once said: “I have discovered that God made me for retirement.”

I have several places to serve in the community, plus frequent-enough opportunities to preach and preside at worship. There’s not a lot of pressure in my life, and that’s just fine with me. My health is pretty good, we have enough income to live on, and we have reasonable reserves for the future. All told, life is pretty much OK.

And yet…

It feels like there may be something missing. Many days I accomplish almost exactly nothing that anyone else might consider useful. I’m going to take more time in the next while to think and pray about where I’m headed. I know I need to read more: there are several books on my shelf with bookmarks in them, mostly pretty near the beginning. That’s a start.

Home? And home again.

 

My spouse and I went back to Brandon this past weekend for the first time since I retired last June. It was a very quick trip, squeezed in between commitments here in Edmonton, but it was not a short trip. Our total road time was over 25 hours, somewhat  inflated by poor weather in Saskatchewan on Monday morning.

JourneyThe purpose of the trip was to attend a wedding. The bride had joined the choir as a choral scholar at St. Matthew’s Cathedral three years ago, becoming in time not just a paid singer but an active congregant. Her fiance came with her in the second year. It was a joy to be asked to celebrate their marriage with them and old friends.

On the Sunday morning, we decided that we had to go to church at St. Matthew’s. There is something of an unwritten rule that departed clergy should steer clear of the previous place for a while, but we really wanted to see some people. Besides, the parish is still between rectors, so I was hardly stepping on the toes of my successor.

I left a happy, healthy parish, and I found that not much had changed. A few people had left, but there were also a number of fresh faces in the pews, along with (hallelujah!) a substantial contingent of children. Most things were much the same, with a few things now done a bit differently, but the folks we talked to were still the same great people whom we had come to love over our 10½ years there.

DSCN0165A big difference for me was sitting in the congregation for a Sunday for the first time ever, realizing just how long a building it is, and how far away is the celebrant at the Eucharist. It might have helped my ministry there if I’d taken some time to sit in the pews — but that’s history now. That parish was home for a decade, and the people there still hold a big piece of my heart. Nonetheless, it is clear that we have moved, both physically and spiritually. Holy Trinity is becoming home, for which we are very glad.

Some people wanted to discuss parish issues with me, but I was quite able to say, “That’s not my problem.” That ended the discussion, but not the conversation. The relationship is different now — simply as friends, not as pastor and congregant. For at least one person, that seemed to be a relief! And indeed, it is a bit of a relief for me too, because I don’t have to be “on,” as clergy always have to be in public. Today I can go to coffee time after worship and see the stipendiary clergy having serious conversations with various people, and I can think, “That used to be me,” and then I can smile.

We went to our previous home, and then we came home again.

Five years — a very short time

It’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and a lot has happened in the past few months, giving me good grist for the mill. But something got in the way every time I thought I might post. (Yes, I know;I’ll quit procrastinating tomorrow…)

What energized me out of my torpor was reading some preacher friends’ posts about their sermon work for this coming Sunday (February 23). The lectionary Gospel text, from the Sermon on the Mount, is Matthew 5:38-42,  Jesus’ teaching about the law of retaliation. We read there the exhortation to “turn the other cheek,” a message which some people have use to deride Jesus and his people as wimps, or to characterize Jesus as completely out of touch with human reality.

What particularly grabbed me about this was the realization that five years have now passed since the lowest moment of my 26 years in full-time stipendiary ministry. The details of the event do not need to be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that I found myself under attack within my own parish, culminating in a very unpleasant congregational meeting. At the end of the meeting, a vote was taken, which went in my favour. That was all to the good, but it left me in pain and confusion, and not a little anger at those behind the issue. I was tempted either to 1) lash out, or 2) to run away and hide. People would have understood either response, but something within me said “No. Stay the course. Do your job. Hold your head up.”

And so I did.

The ensuing months and years taught me a huge lesson about Jesus’ wisdom. “Turning the other cheek” does not mean allowing the other person to continue walking all over you. Rather we should see it as an assertion of one’s true person-hood: “I am worthy of your respect as a fellow child of God.” Either fight or flight would have given credence to the tactics and words used against me. By taking the high road and doing neither one, I believe I was able to bring healing into the parish in a way that would not otherwise have happened. I believe I took Jesus’ way in this, and for that I am glad. Much prayer and reflection went into that time, a new wilderness experience for me.kramskoy-christ

Five years have passed, and I am now retired and a long way away from the scene of this story. Nonetheless, I still bear the scars of the pain it caused me, and of the immediate damage it did to the congregation. I would not willingly walk that way again, nor would I wish such a thing to happen to anyone else. But…

Out of the ashes of that painful time came a stronger person and a stronger congregation. We learned together what it means to follow Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Five years on, I believe I am a better person because of this experience, hard as it was, and I became a better priest to my parish.

Maybe I had to get past this anniversary before moving on with some things. I am now an Honorary Assistant Priest at the parish where we chose to make our church home. I’m on the preaching schedule and am preparing to lead a Bible Study group during Lent. My life has more shape than it did at the time of my last post, and I am really looking forward to the months and years ahead.

Thanks be to God!

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.