Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Beginnings mean Endings

On our return back from Newfoundland, Glen and I stopped for a few days in the GTA to look for a house. It was exciting looking at various properties for lease, especially given that just before we left Newfoundland, we sold our home in Edmonton.

That image which our realtor sent us meant that we could focus on house hunting with one less stress point back home. It also meant we really were moving. We looked at a number of properties for lease in an area north of Richmond Hill. We want to be partway between my new congregation and the town where my dad is living. After all it is in large part to offer him additional care and support that we chose to leave Alberta at this time.

The day we were to look at properties we got a good taste of what is on the horizon. We decided to visit my dad pre-house-hunting. He'd been calling my brother a lot in the lead up to our visit, letting him know he'd looked on Kijiji at properties, offering advice as to possible neighbourhoods, wondering if he could come along with us in our search. Clearly he wanted to help and a visit would help him feel involved. It was also an opportunity to help him catch his cat which had to go to the vet. It was in the vet visit that things started to go off the rails. Without going into details suffice it to say he annoyed the staff, had an emotional outburst, complained about being sidelined had trouble remembering important information. I thought to myself how out of character all this was with the dad I knew growing up, but how it was increasingly the man he was becoming. It underscored why we were moving, but I also felt a huge wave of "buyer's remorse" - could I handle what was coming.

That became clearer still a couple of days later. We had found a house to lease, signed the appropriate documents and dropped off a cheque with the first and last month's rent. We were on our way.

But I woke up at my niece's in a wave of concern about housing costs and utility rates in Ontario, wondering if we should have looked at more properties, worried we were biting off more than we could chew. It wasn't until later that day that I realized what was really going on. With the housing issue dealt with we could relax a bit and go visit my nephew who was doing some training in Prince Edward County. We decided to visit a cidery, do some tasting and go to some artisanal cheese shops.

But it was standing in an artist cooperative gallery that I realized what was going on. I had been enjoying the scenery on the road up, reflecting on how it was so familiar to what I grew up with compared to the last 25 years in Manitoba and Alberta. 

But then I as I looked at a photograph of a farmer's field with a big sky (similar to the one above), I realized how much the landscape of Canada's west have seeped into my soul. I'm going to miss the big skies. I'm going to miss the rolling fields of wheat and canola. I'm going to miss up north as well with its lakes and forests and rock. What I was feeling was the beginning of grief.

As much as I embrace the future of this journey, it comes with the realization that moving along a path also means walking away from somewhere. 

That part is bittersweet.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A New Journey

Those of you who have read my blog from the beginning may recall that at the beginning of my sabbatical at this time last year I stated that I was open to whatever the Spirit had in store for me. That as you know unfolded in many unexpected ways, including my father-in-law having a serious injury while riding his bike in Corner Brook, many of my arrangements in the UK needing to be massaged a bit, sometimes quite a lot. I was being invited to let go of control. I knew that in my heart and the reality is that continues to be the something I'm experiencing.

Case in point, before I left on my sabbatical, the plan was for my father to move out to Alberta where I live at present and my sister had just returned to be closer to her children. By the time I returned all of that had changed and my dad was clear that he didn't want to move having spent 50 years of his adult life in Ontario. I couldn't blame him. But as the one sibling without children, and having a career where moving is very doable, the die was cast.

The upshot is that Glen and I decided that the move we had planned a few years down the road was going to come sooner rather than later. And so now begins another journey, this time as we sell out house and head east to Ontario where I've accepted a call to Richmond Hill United Church. 

As we begin this adventure I'm both excited and sad. I've lived in Western Canada for nearly my entire adult life, and so I am feeling a bit like my dad. This is the part of the country I've come to know and love, half spent in Manitoba and the other half in Alberta. It's in the West that I grew as a minister (or priest for the first half of my vocation). It's in the West that I began working with Indigenous people and felt deeply connected to their culture and spirituality. It's in the West that I plucked up the courage to leave the priesthood and become a minister with the United Church of Canada. And that was possible because in the West I met Glen, fell in love, married him and set down roots. I owe so much to this part of the country.

It's also in the West that I began exploring new ways of being church, which is where my excitement comes in. My sabbatical had been all about deepening my understanding of Fresh Expressions and Emergent forms of church. It's what I've dabbled around in terms of my work in Presbytery, and that I've wanted to explore more deeply in my ministry in St. Albert. And I've begun to do that a bit since coming home. We now have a monthly coffeehouse style worship and we've launched a Forest Church for the warmer months with the hope that the colder months will be an arts based worship. But my move to the GTA will afford me a whole new opportunity. When I was looking for possible churches, the position in Richmond Hill jumped off the page. They were looking at redeveloping their property. They knew that they needed to change. They were open to exploring new ways of being church. As I interviewed their openness to something new was clear. I'd found a match. 

So begins a new journey. Stay tuned for more reflections from the road.   

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

An epic journey comes to an end

This past week as I drove into Calgary, my epic journey was coming to an end. I had flown from Edmonton to Newfoundland and on to the UK, traveled around the UK by train, car and on foot, flown back to Canada and drove close to 15,000 km from Edmonton to Ontario, down to San Diego via Minneapolis and Denver, and home again. I visited with 10 ministries/churches/clergy in England, Scotland and Wales and more than 30 ministries/churches/clergy/organizations in North America. It ended up being so much more than I had planned, as each visit opened up the possibility of yet another conversation or visit. As people suggested different books to read or websites to check out I now have a list of some 25 books, webpages and blogs to explore. It was epic, exciting, sometimes exhausting, but always enlightening.

As I visited with the good folks of Hillhurst United Church, I came full circle in my journey, having begun my time away with United Church leaders at General Council, one of whom was Danielle Ayana James who is now in ministry at Hillhurst. At General Council a group put on a series of skits, one of which likened the United Church to the Titanic. At times it can feel like we are on a sinking ship, the reorganizing exercise we're engaged in a rearranging of deck chairs. And yet there are amazing places like Hillhurst in Calgary that remind us that church decline is not an inevitability. With attendance quadrupling over 7 years, they are poised to begin a third worship service. With Radical Hospitality, Social Justice and Spirituality as its touchstones, this congregation emulates some of what I saw in the new and thriving ministries I saw on my sabbatical: we need to be willing to take risks and sometimes fail, be intentional about welcoming newcomers and helping them feel at home, practice true hospitality of everyone, regardless of orientation, gender identity, race or status, invest in ministries with children, youth and young adults, talk less and be open to incorporating ritual elements in worship, be less churchy in music and language and open to what gifts the culture can bring to our life together, and commit to living out our Sunday in day to day justice and outreach.

As I sat at Danielle's table enjoying dinner the conversation shifted from what's going on at Hillhurst to what else I learned on my sabbatical. Here are some things that I gleaned:

1. The Way of Jesus still draws people.
I visited ministries that are mostly twenty and thirty somethings. They gathered to pray, to be inspired, to be part of a community that wants to  transform the world. They heard Jesus' radical message of justice and love and wanted to take that message seriously. We can take Jesus seriously and still be open to other faith traditions. We can preach Jesus without the constraints of conservative theologies of atonement, etc.

2. What doesn't draw people is top-down institutions.
The ministries with the largest percentages of younger people were flat in their structure and permission-giving in their culture. In a variety of ways they ensured that people felt their voices mattered. It may have been divying out the various parts, having people pray for each other in small groups, having a more conversational preaching style, including lay preachers on a regular basis, the list goes on. The common feature was a more democratic, participatory approach to church.

3. Community is important.
People spoke most positively of ministries where they felt at home. They were hugged. They were welcomed as they are. They were part of a small group where they were both affirmed and challenged. They shared meals and laughed together. They felt supported in times of crisis. For some, this means living in intentional community, either together in one house or by meeting regularly to pray together, share

4. So is cultural context.
One of the challenges of traditional Christianity is our tendency to hold on to inherited patterns without critical thought. We use language that carries theological baggage. We use churchy words that no one really understands and so create an "us" and a "them". We can reframe what we do in the sub-cultural contexts of our post-modern world. There is music in popular culture which speak more deeply of Spirit than many hymns. People want to feel their lives are affirmed, that who they are is valued. This means more than embracing technology. It means expressing the gospel in indigenous language and ritual - be it Cree, Creole, goth or geek.

5. We are bodies and so worship needs to be embodied.
Protestant worship tends to be very heady. We talk a lot. We fear too much silence. Rituals are suspect. And yet where I saw the largest numbers of younger adults, the worship was embodied. Evangelicals sharing communion every week. People bringing symbols from their lives to share with others. Candles and incense and icons. Body prayers. Anointings and the laying on of hands. Art and dance. Going outside and lying under the branches of a tree. Listening to the heart of the earth.

6. We need to raise the bar rather than lower it.
It is important to create a space where everyone is welcomed. But that doesn't mean we water down what it means to follow Jesus. We walk his way 24/7. We pray for the world and more than that get our hands dirty responding to the hurt of the world. It may be bleaching needles for safe-injection sites. It may be finding ways to give gang members viable job skills. It may be living simply, eating locally and buying ethically. It may be finding ways to honour creation. Whatever the expression, we need to take seriously what it means to be a disciple. And we do it in community, offering both challenge and encouragement.

7. We can't invite others to follow Jesus unless we are following him ourselves.
The United Reformed Church in the UK very wisely decided not to be a partner in Fresh Expressions until they had embarked on a course of adult education. They understood that one of the prime barriers to being a more outward-focused, missional church is lack of confidence as people of faith. One of the assumptions of planting a new ministry is that as we grow in relationships, people will start asking about Christ. What do we say when asked? We have created a professional class of Christians, with churches as lecture halls where laity come to be told what to do. Instead, churches need to be hospitals where we heal from our brokenness and labs where we ask questions and explore faith for ourselves. Then when we go out t work with others in the world, we can share why we follow the way of Christ at a more personal level.

These are just a few thoughts about what I've learned. The experiences I've had and the insights I've received can only deepen over time. In many ways the epic journey I've been on has only just begun.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

More than just on Sunday, on Sunday, on Sunday

On Monday I returned to Canada, travelling from Seattle to Vancouver. As has been the pattern for my sabbatical my planned visit with two communities turned into visits with three communities, lunch with a colleague and drinks with your clergy and students anxious to be church in new ways.

My first stop was to First United Community Ministry. It's a going concern. The sanctuary was converted into drop-in space, the balcony made into shelter space for men and the former Sunday School reconfigured into the women's shelter. Like Broad Street Ministry, FUCMS offers meals, a postal address, toiletry supplies, and storage for personal items. A couple of doors down they run a thrift shop and connect to social housing down the street. It's an amazing place, effectively the Bissell Centre working with a much larger population. Having become a street ministry, in recent years they have committed to being a church again. Now by this they don't mean to gather on Sunday, but rather to be clear that Jesus is in the centre of what they do. And so they now have a community minister who facilitates worship during the week, offers pastoral support to guests and staff alike, keeps Christian values at the centre of their work.

Also located in the area is a Salvation Army college which also facilitates a Boiler Room, an intentional prayer ministry intended to spiritually hold the needs of the community before G-d. Part of the 24/7 movement, the 614 Boiler Room were at one point praying around the clock for the Downtown Eastside. They've since scaled back abit but students and staff and others in the community set aside time to pray (no particular type of prayer required) and beyond that make outreach and justice work in the community a constant concern. Many live in the neighbourhood and share accommodations with folks on the edge. When I suggested that what they are doing feels a bit like the prayer ministry of medieval nuns and monks, Melina and Nicole readily agreed. They were praying for and with the community but more than that were offering hospitality and love in a very broken neighbourhood. Inspiring work.

Across the inlet in North Vancouver, Mount Seymour United Church runs a thrift shop, has an open "cafe space" and recently started a spirituality centre where people gather during the week to explore different spiritual practices. Near the Kitsilano neighbourhood a congregation is running a justice-seeking, queer inclusive, loco-vegan cafe. Intentionally partnering with neighbourhood groups they are creating an everyday community space for people of all faiths. Both congregations understand that "being" church is more than "doing" Sunday worship.

This is something that we all know in our guts but sometimes struggle to make happen. And yet there is a younger cohort of ministers and theology students who hunger for church to be more than traditional Sunday worship. One colleague has created a Christian yoga practice called Yoga Chapel, combining the biblical narrative with the physicality of yoga. Another is part of a group who worship outside as they explore what it means to be more just in our relationship with the environment. Another wants to establish an intentional community of young adults committed to seeking transformation in their neighbourhood.

There seems to be a growing desire to go beyond Sunday. For me that yearning is a sign of hope for the church. We are remembering that Jesus' core purpose wasn't to form a church. He galvanized a movement committed to living into his message of G-d's saving justice and love.  The communities which formed spent time in worship on a Sunday as a way to be nourished in their day to day living of the kingdom. Our future will only be as bright as our holding onto that memory.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Ancient Future

As part of my pilgrimage in the West, I had the opportunity to visit with two communities that are rooted in the liturgical tradition but are so in a fresh and engaging way - House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and Church of the Apostles in Seattle.

Founded by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber, HFASS describes itself as "a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient-future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination." They are just that. It was November 1 when Glen and I visited.  As we came to the church door you knew something good was going to happen. Along with the sandwich board announcing that this  progressive Christo-centric liturgical community was gathering, there was a black velvet painting of Elvis propped at the door welcoming us in. As people arrived, several went to makeshift "altars" to place on them memorabilia of loved ones. On one was a bobble-head Martin Luther and on another a pencil sketch of Dorothy Day. The liturgy began simply with a rung tone of a singing bowl. After Nadia and Reagan welcomed everyone, the very diverse crowd of mostly young adults rose as we joined in the "Litany of the Saints", shared some brief prayers and then processed into the hall (their usual worship space) to "When All the Saints" where the liturgy continued with readings, sermon, a time of "open space" where people could participate in an activity to help them integrate what they'd heard, and the eucharist.

Also founded by a Lutheran pastor, Karen Ward, COTA is an ecumenical community supported by the Episcopal Church along with the ELCA. They too are predominantly a young adult congregation, exploring what it means to be as they call it "ancient faith - future church". When I visited with them in Seattle last Sunday I was struck by the similar energy to HFASS. The space was dim and reflective. A band played cool music in the background as people gathered. Then Ivar (Karen has moved one) welcomed everyone and invited people to light a candle and any point in the service as a sign of solidarity and expression of lament for the bombings in Beirut and Paris. COTA generally share original music and that night was no different as we joined in a poignant version of Psalm 16, expressing a deep yearning for protection in a time of distress. Like HFASS, there is a time for "open space" after the message followed by a sharing in the eucharist. I opted to spend time praying at an icon of Christ and lit a candle. As it turns out Nadia visited COTA when she was founding HFASS so it's no surprise there are resonances.

As I shared with members of COTA during a potluck after worship, the "open space" time is an important way for people to connect with G-d and explore the message at a deeper level. It honours an important value of COTA (and I suspect HFASS), namely a truly inclusive spirit, not just in terms of affirming LGBTQ folks but also affirming people's spiritual journeys. It names the fact that no one's relationship with the Holy is the same and that we all need to be able to explore what that means for ourselves. It creates space for people to be authentic and vulnerable and in that a true sense of community is born. The open space time varies from week to week. That inclusiveness is also expressed in fairly flat ecclesial structure and leadership style. Both communities take very seriously the priesthood of all believers and honour it by sharing the parts of the liturgy as broadly as they can. At HFASS they also read out the prayers that people have written down as part of open space.

Another important part of these communities is the reclaiming of ancient practice. Be it singing the "Litany of the Saints", lighting candles, having icons, walking the labyrinth, chanting together, there is a desire to be grounded in less cerebral, more physical prayer forms. "There is a need for this in our world," Ivar mused as we chatted together. "Because the world is changing so much, people are looking to ancient practices as a way to feel rooted again."

He may well be right. There is clearly something about both communities that is speaking to the hearts of twenty and thirty somethings. Perhaps before we write our eulogies for the church, we need to look to our past as a source of energy and inspiration for our future.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Tales of Two Cities

En route north between Los Angeles and Seattle, I stopped over in San Francisco with Mark Scandrette, who with his spouse Lisa, run discipleship labs, extended times of critical engagement with faith and life. An example maybe seeing your neighbourhood with new eyes and so participants will commit to exploring their neighbourhood and intentionally meeting people, trying new foods, engaging in conversation. Or it may be disconnecting from media and so committing to no Facebook and TV. They do these experiments in supportive community, always with an aim to growing as followers of Jesus and bringing more love and peace into the world. I'm not giving justice to how amazing these labs are.

As part of my visit Mark and I went for a walk in the Mission neighborhood and he took me past an alley of murals, one of which captures Mission in two phases of its life - as a predominantly Latino neighbourhood rife with issues of poverty and racism, and then as a hipster neighbourhood with cool coffee shops and boutiques. Mark told me that the neighbourhood is transitioning again into a gentrified area as Silicon Valley-ites move in. Mark Zuckerberg has bought a condo up the street.

Anyhow, the mural captured for me a consistent reality I saw in this West Coast leg of my pilgrimage. I spent a couple of days in LA with friends, staying just north of Beverly Hills and Bel Air. We toured around, taking in the sites, even driving through some of the posh neighbourhoods. I was struck by the privilege that I saw. Media moguls and celebrities driving their fancy cars. Large houses and well manicured lawns. Then as we drove east the landscape changed. Things got a bit rougher around the edges. At a light a couple of young men rolled down the car window and asked for directions to the Interstate. "Did you notice the three tears tattooed on his face?" J asked? "That means he's killed three people." We were definitely not in Beverly Hills anymore.

The next day I took a tour of Homeboy Industries in downtown LA. Founded by Fr. Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries is a gang intervention agency, providing work experience, education and social support for men and women in the inner city. Our tour guide was a thirty-something year old man who'd been convicted as a juvenile but treated as an adult. After serving 14 years, F had turned his life around through Homeboy Industries. His face and neck had been covered with tattoos but through the tattoo removal program he was a clean slate. He is in college preparing to be a psychotherapist. I was blown away by his courage and conviction.

As I headed north towards San Francisco I passed through the arid mountains and into the Salinas Valley fields made green through irrigation. As I listened to Spanish radio and noticed the clusters of houses like I'd seen before in Mexico I couldn't help but wonder about the conditions of the farm workers. How are they treated? How many are undocumented? How do they feel about the anti-immigration rhetoric on Anglo radio? From there I stopped in Carmel-by-the-Sea, drove past Pebble Beach and visited Cannery Row in Monterey, a tourist destination in what was once the sardine factories written about by John Steinbeck. As I headed back toward Salinas in the dark and on to San Francisco, I noticed a truck in the field illuminated by light. Field workers were processing vegetables and would likely be doing so late into the night.

Salinas is a short drive from the coast, less than half an hour, but it is worlds apart. Like Beverly Hills and East LA, Monterey and Salinas are two very different cities. They are separated not so much by distance but by privilege and racism. The world we live in is a long way away from the kingdom that Jesus preached and gave his life for, despite all of the so-called Christians living in enclaves of wealth and buying food processed by workers just up the  road.

I may not be driving a fancy car but I know that I'm  privileged too.  Which makes the discipleship labs of Mark and Lisa all the more important.  As followers of Jesus, we have spent too much time justifying the world we've created and not enough time living into G-d's kingdom of love and justice. Perhaps it's time to give real discipleship a try.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Three national parks

On Halloween day, Glen arrived to accompany me on part of my journey. After a couple of days in Denver we ventured west towards Phoenix and beyond. As part of our grand road trip we decided to take in three national parks. Each park was amazing,  not just for the natural beauty but for the insights that came from the experiences.

Our first visit was to Arches just outside of Moab in the desert of southeastern Utah. We arrived with only 2 hours before sundown. It was beautiful to see the sculptural forms of Balancing Rock, North and South Windows and the Fiery Furnace in the waning light. The following day we visited Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, a park which preserves the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people. Unfortunately due to safety concerns with the rock face, we couldn't go into Spruce Tree House, but we could see it quite clearly. We also took the Mesa Loop and visited various sites, seeing the evolution of dwellings from pit houses to pueblos to houses built into the cliffs and hiked two miles to see petroglyphs carved into cliff. It was amazing to think how people farmed on top of the mesa and lived along the cliffs, climbing rock walls as if they were sidewalks. The final visit was to the Grand Canyon, an "experience" not just because of the breathtaking grandeur but also because of the weather.

It had been snowing in Flagstaff when we left but there was a fortunate break in the cloud cover when we arrived at the Grand Canyon. Aware of our weather "window" we started with a "short" hike into the canyon. We didn't want to go too far down, aware as well that for every minute you descend it takes you two to climb back out. Glen was a trooper, hiking down the trail for a good 45 minutes. But as we looked down towards Mile and a Half Resthouse and then back up at the long trail back to the rim he'd reached his limit and we slogged our way back out. We followed that up with a hike along the rim. That was spectacular. Each turn brought another extraordinary view. We could also see the storm clouds rolling in. As we sat down to lunch our luck finally gave out. With snow falling around us we looked out to see only cloud and fog. We went to explore the visitor centre but with no cloud breaks decided to go. The snow continued as we left the canyon and by the end of the night the region received a record breaking snowfall.
These days of national park visits were truly amazing. And insightful, about life, church, the universe. Here's what I learned:

1. Always be prepared.
2. Try looking at something from a different perspective.
3. People are incredibly adaptable. We can create life-giving communiities in the most unexpected places.
4. You can't control events and that's OK.
5. Trust your driver.
6. There's more than one way to reach your destination. It may present new challenges (like going down rock stairs more easily gone up) but you'll get there in the end.
7. What you experience won't be what you pictured in your head and that makes it better.
8. Don't only look at the big picture. If you don't watch your step you may step in mule dung.
9. You can only go as fast as the group. There's no point plowing ahead if you're going to end up standing there alone.
10. Listen to the needs of everyone.
11. Always expect the unexpected. You may think there's nothing more to wow you. You'll be wrong.
12. Be open to what unfolds. There's beauty in the storm clouds.