Saturday, 7 January 2017

Wisdom from the stable

Even though we will be celebrating Epiphany tomorrow as a congregation, yesterday was the official day. As a consequence, with the Christmas season now over, Glen and I finally pulled down all of our decorations and retired our tree to the basement for one more year.This also meant putting away the nativity scene, not unlike this one below.


As I wrapped the figures in tissue paper and carefully stored them away, I was reminded of RHUC's worship service on Christmas Day. Going by the assertion that December 25th on a Sunday is a "Christmas Day that just happens to be a Sunday" rather than a "Sunday that also happens to be Christmas", I generally resist the impulse to have a Christmas Day service when on other years the worship services are just on December 24. But that is not the tradition in Richmond Hill so a small group of us gathered on Christmas morning.

Knowing I would be preparing a sermon for the evening before, we opted to make the portion that would have been a sermon a time for personal reflection instead. I set up several "stations" where people could ponder the Christmas story. There was a table to reflect on poetry, another with copies of the text where people could meditate through lectio divina, and another on which was set a globe and people were invited to write prayers on post-it notes. There was also a station to light candles as well as a partition on which I had placed several paintings of the nativity from around the world.

One station was the congregation's nativity scene. I had set out pages of reflection questions, inviting people to decide which nativity character they were and why. That was my first stop and for some reason I felt drawn to the camel.

 
As I pondered her I was struck how excited she was to be part of the journey. She wasn't entirely sure where her magi was taking them but she was caught up in the hope and expectation. That seemed fitting. The journey of faith is like that. I'm not entirely sure where I am going but I know I need to be part of it nonetheless. The same is true of being in a new congregation. As a newbie, I don\t yet know where the journey is going to take us as a whole, but I need to be part of the caravan. As I pondered why I was the camel, I realized it is because she has internal resources. I was being reassured by the Spirit that I have been equipped with the gifts needed to be part of this congregational journey.

I moved on to the lectio divina station and prayerfully considered Luke 2:1-16.  As I read through it I was moved by one line: "...the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place'..." I felt a stirring inside of me to go deeper in my spiritual life. The resources that I am going to need will come not from me but rather a deeper relationship with Christ. I need to take time to go to my own inner Bethlehem.

This idea was reinforced as I went to one more station, the wall of images from around the world.


As I looked at an image of children playing with nativity figures, the message was clear. I cannot be a bystander to the story. I need to be a participant. And the only way to do this is to go deep in prayer, to take time each day for meditation, for contemplating scripture, for listening to the still, small voice of the Spirit inviting me into the heart of divine love. It's an invitation to take more time simply "being" rather than to spend all my time "doing".

I still hope that when Christmas Day lands on a Sunday again we won't have a service. But I'm thankful for the insights I received this time around.


Sunday, 4 December 2016

Lessons from the Forest, Part II

Let me begin my thoughts with a caveat for my more northern friends. The pics I am including in today's post are from a couple of weeks ago. The weather has turned cooler and the leaves on the ground are decidedly less crunchy, more on the "slowly turning into humus" side of the equation. Hopefully it won't be long until they're covered with snow. With that out of the way, let me begin.




As you will recall from my last post, Glen and I take Finley for regular walks in the forest, sometimes together but more often alone. I enjoy these walks. They are a good time to connect with Spirit, to be upheld by the Earth which sustains us, and to ponder life, the universe, everything. Filed under the category of "everything" is ministry and how do we go from where we are as church to where we need to be. It's in these ponderings that the forest once again offers me lessons.

There are a number of trails in part of York Regional Forest closest to our home. Fortunately the various trails are colour coded. I've gotten in the habit of mixing and matching the trails to create longer walks. One I particular like I have dubbed the "rainbow route" because as I traverse the path I move from red to blue to purple to yellow and finally green before returning to red (the access road) which leads me back to the parking lot.



The volunteers who maintain them have conveniently marked the paths by painting circles every so often on the trunks of trees. There has been many a time that I have been grateful for those markings, especially as the paths themselves have become increasingly covered with fallen leaves.


As I walked along considering the gift of these marked paths, I was struck how much that is like walking the path of ministry, especially in these days of great change. We need to walk a new path but sometimes we are unsure where to go. We have a sense that we should be going somewhere but the path is littered by what was, by the way we used to do church, especially when those approaches were successful in the past. We know too well that is no longer the case and yet we hold, obscuring a way forward. Every time someone says "We tried that but it didn't work," "That won't work here" or the infamous "We don't do it that way" is like leaf litter covering the path ahead.

And yet we have the circles to guide us. They remind me that our generation is not unique in facing a major shift as church. Our ancestors along the Way have faced similar transitions. One sainted forbear who came to my mind is Francis of Assisi, According to legend as he passing a church during a meditative walk he heard a voice saying "repair my house, which is falling into ruin." Like many of us he misunderstood his task and literally set about repairing the church of San Damiano.

   
As the above picture illustrates, we can set about holding up the church that was, or we can do what Francis eventually did and establish a new community of people who were committed to living the Way of Jesus in the world.

Now the world we live in is not 12th century Europe. And yet there are people in our communities that want to hear about the transformative path of Jesus, and not just hear about it but commit to it as they seek to repair the world in which we live. Our task as his followers is to go out into the community rather than sit in our sanctuaries holding on to the church as it was.

It sounds easy, of course, but it's not. And as we forge a way along this path, there will be times like on the trails I regular walk, when it will seem like we aren't getting anywhere, when the trail seems to be switching back on itself, going in some convoluted circle. But eventually the way straightens and we realise we have moved forward after all.

May we trust that the same Spirit that led Francis and other spiritual ancestors is leading us as well.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Lessons from the Forest, Part I

Since moving to Keswick, Glen and I have discovered the York Regional Forest. We both like to take Finley for long walks along the trails. It's beautiful and very restorative, especially at this time of year. The autumn is always a very spiritual time of year for me. There is something powerful about the transition from the fruitfulness of harvest to the long death-like sleep of winter. The smell of leaf litter on the ground, the wind rustling the bare branches, the crunch of dry leaves underfoot. There is a thinness to this time of year where I feel more open to spiritual insights. This year is no exception and the forest has offered me some important teachings. Or more to the point, Finley in the forest offered me a teaching.


On these walks in the forest, Finley likes to chase the ball, as well as to wander off trail. He also seems to know where he is going. Perhaps it's because Glen had taken him on a particular route or he could smell the way back to the car, but on one occasion I had my trail map out and was set to go one way but he was pretty insistent going another. I smartly followed and we ended up where I thought my route would take me. If I had gone my way I would have added a good half hour to our trek.

As I walked along it struck how important it is to follow your animal guide. Which got me thinking how important it is to follow your spirit guide. One thing I have yet to share on this blog is that in my ministry I spent many years living and working among Indigenous people, especially among the Cree and Oji-Cree. It was in those years that I began participating in traditional ceremonies and absorbed their spiritual teachings into my own. At one point I was given a spirit name which connects to the eagle. This spoke to me because it fits with my personality. I am a long range vision person, although some may say I'm a bit of a dreamer. In ministry I often have a clear sense of direction, of where we need to move as a community of faith. This is not always a good thing because I generally want to get there sooner rather than later. Patience is not my strong suit. As much as the eagle connects to my approach in life and ministry, that grandfather is not my guiding spirit. No. It is grandmother mouse.


When I first realized she was my guide I was disappointed. "But my name refers to the eagle," I argued to myself. "That may be, but the eagle is not your guide. Listen to mouse's wisdom." And she is very wise. One of the gifts of grandmother mouse is that unlike the eagle who looks far into the distance, the mouse only sees what is around her. She is focused on the moment and pays attention to what is close at hand. She also nests, tending to relationships and ensuring her family is strong. 

Over these last few weeks in a new faith community I have of course been channeling the eagle. I am dreaming big, seeing all kinds of possibilities for us. But the eagle is not my guide. I need to pay attention to the mouse. And she is reminding me to slow down. I need to be attentive to relationships, to listen to the needs of the people that Spirit has placed on my path. I need to take time to discover their gifts, listen to their hopes, grow a spirit of trust with each other. Together we will dream big and follow a vision into the future. But at this minute I need to learn about who they are right now more than who they will be. 

Thank you grandmother mouse, and Finley, for an important teaching.    
 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Settling but unsettled

Given that you're reading this post, you know that the title of this blog is "Reflection from the Road: a progressive Christian minister's musings on life, spirituality and following the Way of Jesus." If you've been reading my most recent posts, you will know that my musings have been decidedly tilted toward musings on life. Understandable given the huge transition we have recently made in our lives.
 
Fortunately things have started to settle down for us. 95% of boxes are unpacked at home, 100% at church. Most of our paintings are on the wall. I've settled into the groove of commuting 35 minutes to the church on a busy highway. I'm getting used to schedule of RHUC and will slowly get used to the congregational culture. I've even got into a rhythm of driving up to see dad after church on Sunday, bringing him some meals and then going out to dinner with him before heading home.


You know things are settling when you see snow on the lawn before Hallowe'en and you say "This feels like home now." Ironically the same statement tells me that I'm not really settled yet, still betwixt and between, Only an Edmontonian feels a sense of comfort when it snows before November. Every one around us was pulling their hair out that it had snowed already and were feeling very relieved when the temperature went up again and all the snow melted. It reminds me that I'm missing Alberta, missing the northern vibe, the landscape, and of course the friends I've left behind. The lack of a new friendship network is a good part of why I'm feeling unsettled. Glen is here, of course, and I can share anything with him, but it's nice to have others to talk to about my experiences so far. And he certainly doesn't want to be the only person I share with. There's only so much the strong and silent type can take from a Chatty Cathy like me.

And to be honest, I need a listening ear because I've had some unsettling experiences. For example, it was great my second weekend to go see my dad (Glen stayed home), make sure he was well, chat about a few different things, check in to see what he thought of our plan to bring him meals. It was nice to talk about life, especially for my dad to share about when my mom died, to share his memories. But the next weekend we cycled through many of the same topics, including things he shared about my mom, many of the things he said were word for word repeats of the phrases he used the Sunday before. As I pulled away I knew I'd be going through the same thing tomorrow. And that realization brought a sinking feeling into my chest. "Can I handle this?" I wondered.

That unsettling feeling was compounded when I drove to Barrie for a church meeting. As I drove along the 400 and passed various road signs I was brought back in my mind to living there as a boy, and of course the experience of losing my mom. This was amplified when at the end of the meeting someone was introduced to me and without missing a beat he looked at me and said "You're Alan's son. You look just like him." It turned out the person I was introduced to had been in medical practice with my dad. We started to chat about my dad, questions asked about how he is doing, and memories shared about happy times, and of course the sadness of my mom's death. "Is that why I'm here? Not just to minster with the good folks of Richmond Hill, not just to help my dad, but to process through some of my own memories?" As I drove back to Keswick my eyes filled with tears and I wondered again, "Can I handle this?"

In the end I know I can, but it was a shock to think about this additional layer of work. It will be unsettling, I'm sure, but needs to be so that I can become settled.




Friday, 7 October 2016

A new sunrise

With the dog stirring to say it was time for his morning nature break, I roused myself from sleep. It was a couple of days after moving in to our home in Keswick and our things were still in suitcases and boxes (to be honest many still are). Moving can be very stressful. Nothing is familiar. You can't find anything. You're missing what used to be home, maybe even questioning the decision to relocate in the first place.

With all of these feelings in the background I got out of bed and my mouth dropped open. The sky was a picture of grey clouds and streaks of orange and yellow. It was a brand new sunrise as pretty as any I'd seen in the last 24 years in the West. Everything was going to be okay.


I should have known. I was told as much on a walk in Fogo Island, NL. Glen and I were touring as part of our visit for the 85th birthday of my Nan-in-law. There is a herd of caribou on Fogo and in the hope of seeing some we set out along the coast following a hearty breakfast at the B'n'B.

We wandered along the shore, over a stream, through a grove of trees, across open field, up and down rocky hills, skirting bog. We walked and walked but no caribou was to be seen. But along the way I saw beautiful wildflowers in the foreground of stunning ocean vistas. We were visited by a pair of ravens and a robin. I noticed berries in the undergrowth and as we headed back toward the car we passed several bushes of labrador tea, a traditional medicine I was taught to use by my OjiCree friends in St. Theresa Point.



As I looked about me a voice welled up from within. "Everything you need is here." I recalled an elder teaching me that Creator gives us everything we need to survive. We need to be attentive to the environment, to learn what can be foraged, which plants are medicines, how best to hunt the animals of the area. "Everything you need is here."

I realized that my move to Ontario would be okay. The resources we'd need would be at hand. We'd meet the people who would offer us wisdom. We'd nurture new relationships and forge new ministry partnerships. And we shouldn't discount the personal gifts we were bringing. I may be disoriented for a time but we'd be more than okay.

In these first few days it's become clear that the message I received on that Newfoundland walk is true. We've been welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. There are lots of people who are eager to offer their gifts in our shared ministry. Ideas and insights are bubbling up within me. A new day has clearly dawned.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

No more prairie sunrises

I awoke at my sister in law's home in Waskada to a beautiful prairie sunrise. Orange sky stretching across the seemingly infinite horizon. Crescent moon hanging in the darkness above.


Realizing this was one of my last prairie sunrises, I felt a wave of sadness. I've been feeling more than a wave lately. On Sunday it was a tsunami. As I preached my last sermon I kept my tablet handy, knowing I'd need to resort to reading parts of it if my emotions got the better of me. 

I haven't felt this overwhelmed on leaving a community since I was moved from St. Theresa Point to The Pas. The definitive word there is "moved." As a priest at the time I really had little choice. Though I felt I had much more to offer in STP, Wassagamack and Garden Hill, my bishop had other plans. In the end he was right. I did significant work as rector of the cathedral and pastor of 4 additional parishes. Heading up the lay leaders training team was a joy. I loved my years in The Pas. It's there I learned the importance of cultivating community partnerships. But I left a piece of my heart in Island Lake.

I realized that the circumstances with this move are similar. My dad's decision not to come West to stay with my sister forced my hand. I knew would not come to Edmonton either. The words "I've lived in Ontario for 50 years" said it all. Plus until we know the cause of his memory issues, we can't risk a major move. I've seen too many seniors deteriorate more quickly when moved involuntarily to unfamiliar surroundings. I had more to offer St. Albert, Edmonton Presbytery and Alberta Northwest Conference. But family comes first. My dad needs support and Glen and I have an opportunity to strengthen a relationship with him in his final years.

And there are others with whom I can share my gifts. Like the move to The Pas, I know this next chapter of my life is Spirit-led. It feels like doors have opened easily. I'm excited by a new opportunity in a new community. The folks in Richmond Hill are doing good work and exploring new possibilities for ministry. I'm looking forward to jumping into the fray. Plus there will be opportunities to work with colleagues in Living Waters Presbytery and Toronto Conference. This move is the right move for both me and Glen.

But those prairie sunrises are an important part of my story. And I will miss them.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Transitions

It is a disorienting experience to see all of your worldlies boxed up and piled into a couple of transport cubes. It is even more disorienting to realize that you will be homeless for three weeks, having to vacate your home of ten years before you are actually leaving the city for your new digs thousands of kilometres away. But that's what happens when you up sticks.



Of course we haven't actually been homeless. Family rises to the occasion in times like this and my in-laws offered to host while Glen and I were in limbo. Overall the experience has been good. Barb and Ralph are very caring people, wanting to make sure that Barb's firstborn and his mate are looked after. Sometimes they care too much, wanting to be sure I eat, even if it means needing to wolf down because I am still working and have commitments.

That experience highlights an interesting dynamic, that is how rooted we all are in how we do things. Glen and I have our habits, and Barb and Ralph have theirs. One of those habits is having supper promptly at 6 even if your son-in-law needs to be downtown half an hour later, and insisting he has something to eat because he needs to stay healthy. It's sweet and frustrating at the same time. They are very tidy people. Which initially meant having to hunt for my sandals because they'd been whisked out of site. I eventually figured out where they were. Further, they aren't used to having a dog around which meant the sudden appearance of air fresheners in our temporary bedroom and the family room where Finley spends most of his time. And yet they have mentioned more than once how well-behaved he is. I chalk it up to their wanting to reassure us that Finley is welcome despite their not being used to having a four-legged housemate.

One of the interesting things about living in a new location temporarily is that I had to find a new commuting route. I was used to traveling to St. Albert just on city roads but now I head to work partly on the highway. My first time doing so I giggled to myself. "I guess this will help me get used to my new reality in Ontario."



That experience made me realize that these weeks have been a gift. I am reminded that I will have to get used to more than just a highway commute. I have my ministerial habits. Richmond Hill United Church has its own ethos and culture, just as St. Albert United does. Like my in-laws with their eating times, tidiness and unfamiliarity living with a dog, the good folks at RHUC will have their patterns and habits, their comforts and uncertainties. I in turn have mine. We will need to learn about each other, to accommodate each other and grow to appreciate each other's habits and perspectives.
This time with my in-laws has at times tested my patience. I have definitely tested theirs. When we test each other's patience at RHUC, I will draw on the memories of these weeks and recall how they were always wrapped in love.