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


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.

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.