Thursday, 20 April 2017

Rising into new life

It has been a while since I lasted posted, the gap coincidentally aligning with Lent. Okay, not coincidentally. Lent is a busy time in churches and Richmond Hill United Church is no exception. Add to this that it has been my first Lent flying solo in many years and you can see why I haven't posted. 

It has also been a rich Lent. Earlier in the year I joined a centering prayer group. Along with our group sits we have been reviewing over Lent a DVD from the Center for Action and Contemplation comparing the wisdom offered by Jesus and the Buddha. Learning about the false self and the importance of letting it go to discover what is true has aligned beautifully with this season. I've been reading Richard Rohr's recent book about the Trinity, discovering the dynamic flow of love that is beyond and yet within all things. Add to this that as part of a learning cohort with colleagues the facilitator led us in a conversation about being our authentic selves. Like I said, rich.

But Lent is over and it is time to rest in the gift that is Easter, special this year because being in Central Ontario for Easter means all of the snow is gone and the world is bursting into new life. A prime example is the forsythia in bloom at the parking lot door of the church. Spectacular. This sense of new life has been mirrored for me over this past week. It is recovery week for me and I have opted to take time off to review a CAC webcast on the Trinity. Along with the sessions has been lots of time for centering prayer and other contemplative practices like meditation walks. It was in such a walk that everything over the past six weeks came together.

So as you know if you're a regular reader is that I have found a thin place to go for walks close to our home. This morning I took Finley for a walk in this forest but decided to be very meditative about it, to be attentive to my body, to the wind, to the energy of the space. So I started walking, throwing the ball occasionally and just being attentive. It was magical. Everywhere the forest is bursting into life. I even discovered a patch of trilliums that will soon be in bloom. 

I decided to follow a path that cuts back and forth across the main access path. I was in the moment, feeling the wind, hearing the birds, and as I crossed the main path I was struck by how much this following is my true self and not the false person I've been taught to project. I was meandering along where the land begged to be walked and not through the straight shortcut. As part of the webcast Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack) had spoken about the art of making a violin. The artisan doesn't force the wood based on an ideal violin but works with the grain and allows the best violin to emerge. The wood shapes the violin maker more than the other way around. He used this image to speak about Trinity, about how this relational G-d doesn't force us along a path but draws out of us what is there and empowers us to walk along the path that is most life-giving for us. Trinity draws out from us what is true and authentic.

This was mirrored at the learning cohort. As a visual focus the facilitator lit a floating candle. Over the course of the days I noticed how a new candle always floated with most of its mass below the water. But as it burned more and more of the candle would be exposed. It felt like that was happening in our session as we each felt more free to be ourselves.

This is something many of us struggle to do. We are shaped by the world around us, by the values of our culture, including those that are in opposition to the gospel. But over time we can lay them down. I saw this strikingly as part of our Good Friday service. Each year RHUC youth help lead the service, presenting symbols to help us focus during the readings. I was using the template of my predecessor, adding some of my own symbols, including a Roman Imperial staff. I didn’t realize how powerful it would be until I watched as our youth place the instruments of empire at the foot of the cross. It captured so beautifully what I've been experiencing these past weeks, laying down what is false in favour of what is true and authentic. It is only through the letting go, the surrendering we see in the cross that what is true, authentic, life-giving can be revealed.

So rich, so true, so life-giving.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hugging Trees

I'm a tree hugger. Literally. I have been known to actually hug a tree or two. In fact when I was wrapping up my sabbatical and heading north from San Francisco to Seattle I stopped in Redwood National Park and did my best to hug one. I realise it may sound flaky to some but it offered me energy and strength. I received it gratefully before continuing on my journey.

Consequently I was very pleased a few weeks ago when I was asked by our Women's Spirituality group to come out to their retreat weekend and share some thoughts about nature connection, and especially Forest Church, which I've blogged about previously. For more information check out It was easy to say yes given that the retreat was being held a few minutes up the road from me at Loretto Maryholme in Keswick.

They were gathering just before Candlemas or Oimelc in the Celtic calendar. This is the beginning of spring (the equinox is mid spring by Celtic reckoning) because this is the time of year that the sun is noticeably stronger. This is a celebration focused on light so  it was a nice coincidence that they had made lanterns from tin cans the evening before.

As I sat in front of the fire I offered them my thoughts about nature and how Spirit offers us wisdom and insight. Inspired by the work of Noel Moule (his website is, who I had the privilege to meet when I was at the Greenbelt Festival last time, I shared with the group about Christian animism, the idea that everything is alive, sacred, connected, has a spirit, should be nurtured and respected, and how if we are attentive to the gospels we can see these ideas in Jesus' teachings and actions. Hearing Noel speaking in those terms had been so affirming of my own spiritual experience and I was glad to offer something of the same. 

I also shared with them the practice of sensio divina which I'd been taught by Bruce Stanley at the same Greenbelt where I met Noel. A bit like lectio divina, sensio divina is a practice of listening attentively to a place or thing or event in nature, experiencing G-d speaking through it. Just as you would do when approaching a passage in the bible, you begin by centering in the present moment with mindful breaths, and then appreciating the scene or object as a whole before becoming more aware of details. Again like when reading a passage you move from that to a more imaginative process, becoming less an observer and more of a participant, attentive to the insights that come. It's an amazing practice which continues to speak to me and I was pleased that so many wanted to go outside even though it was chilly. 

For those who preferred not to go outside I had spread out magazine photos of nature and invited them to write a psalm (this is again a practice I learned from Bruce, this time in his book about Forest Church. I chose that option for my own reflection. 

As I looked at the various photos I kept feeling drawn to one from an old edition of National Geographic I clipped out many years ago. I felt drawn to the verdancy of the misty scene of a brook and cedar trees seen below. 

There was something about the image that spoke to my spirit. When I had first picked up the photo I thought the child in the foreground was lying on a stone slab, but then I suddenly realized he was laying on a log, not unlike the log in the background covered with saplings. In that moment I knew what I wanted to say. I offer you my psalm:

Blessed are you mothering God.
A majestic cedar with roots sunk deep into the ground,
you lean against the soil, creating space for new life to grow.
You lay down your life that I may live;
you give yourself freely that I may be nurtured.
I give thanks for the gift of your strength and nourishment.
Beneath the shadow of your trunk I find shelter;
in the security of your womb I find comfort.
May you continue to uphold me
as I sink my roots in the foundation of your love.

You never know how people will receive an unfamiliar teaching so I was thrilled when everyone returned and they shared experiences of deep connection, how they regularly experience G-d in nature, how they had received inspiration from the experience.

When I said I wanted to start hosting Forest Church in Richmond Hill, I received an enthusiastic response. I'm clearly not the only one who hugs trees.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

It takes time to let go

One of the realities of a new pastoral relationship is that it contains not only the excitement of a new beginning but also the grief of an ending. And though we often think of it in terms of how members of the congregation are feeling, there are actually two grief processes going on at the same time.

I became aware of this recently when a couple of different people commented on my preaching. The feedback has been positive but there has been the occasional "what we're used to is..." Initially I found myself getting defensive. I have generally been complimented on my sermons and I was reading it as negative feedback. Of course, that's not what the commenters were saying. They simply said "what we're used to is..." Focusing on the "..." I wanted to review my sermons to see how I wasn't doing enough "..." or talk to Glen and see if he felt I did "..." or look a the sermons of my predecessors to see how they were doing more "..." And then the penny dropped. I was focusing on the "..." when the underlying feeling is carried in the "what we're used to".

When there is a change in pastoral relationship there is an understandable time of making comparisons. As a minister I don't come into a new congregation in a vacuum. There is a history that needs to be honoured, relationships that need to be celebrated, a way of doing things that needs to be affirmed. People miss my predecessors. It's understandable.

Also understandable is that an incoming minister is also doing some of their own grieving. This became real to me recently in a committee meeting. I found myself saying "what I'm used to doing is..." I wasn't trying to say that "..." was done better in my former congregation than in my new one, even though that was how some people in the circle heard me. What I was really saying is "I'm getting used to a new context" as well as "I'm missing what I'm used to". It's not a judgement and on my new congregation. I love this community. These are amazing, warm-hearted, generous, loving people. They have made me feel welcome and appreciated. I hope they feel that I love and appreciate them. At the same time we are all feeling a bit lonesome for friends and mentors.

It takes time to grieve. It also takes time to get to know new people. We can't rush the process of letting go and embracing something new. In the meantime we give each other the benefit of the doubt, knowing that when we say "what I'm/we're used to is..." the focus isn't really on "..." We are really just saying "I miss ..." And that feeling is both real and holy.    

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.