Making and Writing History

We are creatures of habit, social creatures, creatures who crave love and belonging, connection and trust. We thrive in circles of love, we thrive when we find meaning, purpose and a mission in life. We can even endure suffering if it is lived with meaning and in love with others. Knowing our lives as part of a bigger whole grows our hearts and spirits, secure in knowing ourselves to be connected in meaningful ways with the past, the present and the future.

The current Covid-19 crisis is affecting each of these deep human needs, disrupting us at our very core. We are mandated to act together by keeping apart in every way we normally take for granted. It is a painful paradox of communal solidarity that spans the globe. The words of God as recorded in Deuteronomy resound in whispers through families and governments, through nations and the corporate world, in many tongues and in many versions: I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … I call heaven and earth (…) that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut. 30:15—20)

How indeed, do we choose life in the midst of this unprecedented global health crisis? Indeed we have a choice of life or death: to cower in fear and panic, or to reach deep into ourselves to find solid inner feet under our spirit in order to grow the splendour and beauty of the human community. Now is our moment.

What do we need in order to reach deep into our own spirits to steady the inner anchor? One way is by learning to become more self-reflective. There’s nothing like a crisis to thrust us into the deep waters of our soul and begin new habits!

If you don’t already do so, begin writing a Journal. Our future off-spring (biological, adoptive and spiritual) will be forever grateful to get to know us through the written word and to learn how we lived through this time of global upheaval. They will most certainly live through crises of their own; we can leave behind a legacy of important lessons in courage, resilience and creative community connections. We are each making history and we can do it in creative and life-giving ways for generations to come.

Here is a simple guide to begin your Covid-19 Journal. Give yourself permission to spend time alone – on a walk or in a quiet corner of your house (can’t suggest a coffee shop anymore as they’re all closed). Sit with the questions one by one, or choose only a few for each day. Don’t force your writing; choose the days that work best. Find your own rhythm, listen to the heartbeat of your own desires, fears and longings, and carve out your own story. This is you – today.

2020 Journal

Name: ………………………………………………………..

Title for your Journal: …………………………………………………………………………

Heading for each page: ……………………………………….

Date: ……………………

What is happening in my world today?

What do I need the most today?

What and who am I grateful for today?

Who needs my love and care the most today?

Who/what helps me to remain steadfast, to resist fear, and keep a generous spirit?

How is God present to me in this time of uncertainty and social isolation?

Is there a word from Holy Scripture that speaks into my fragile heart right now?

Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?

What part/expectations of “normal life” can I let go of today?

How am I getting outside today? How do I ensure adequate physical activity today?

What beauty and joy am I creating, cultivating or entering into today?

What am I learning about myself, others and about God?

A Second Death

The spiritual earthquake caused by the revelations about Jean Vanier has shaken Jim and I. Being among those who knew both Jean Vanier and Père Thomas personally (we lived at l’Arche back in the 1970’s), we are suffering a serious spiritual concussion of the heart. The 154 l’Arche communities in 38 countries broke the news to their members as follows: our founder has died — a second time* … Jim and I are shell-shocked with them, we weep with them and with all who feel shaken, betrayed and horrified. Because once part of l’Arche, always part of the l’Arche family, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.

Biological death is a natural part of life. It is expected, even though we are never ready to embrace it. Biological death at a ripe old age after a rich life, as Jean Vanier’s appears to have been last May 2019, can even be a true celebration of thanksgiving. Now, nearly 10 months later, both the church and the world are in shock. This second death, caused by grave sin, is unexpected, shocking, and worse, way worse, especially in the wake of the radiant, global, life-giving movement that l’Arche has become since it began in 1964. Already universities are revoking past awards, schools are considering name changes, publishing companies are ceasing publication of his books. The effects of the news are devastating, far-reaching and far from over. There will be more … oh my God, there will surely be more.

I too feel the effects. Not even a recent harrowing drive home through a snow storm affected me the way this news has. My writing and my ministry are being sucked bone-dry. Grief is exhausting. I’m guessing there won’t be many blog posts for a while. I’m grateful for guest preachers in my parish over the next couple of Sundays. From here on I will let the words of others speak their own painful truth (see the links below), while aching for healing and understanding, for mercy and reconciliation in and with all in the l’Arche family. And we cry out to God in prayer:
If you, oh Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?
(Psalm 130)
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80)

l’Arche International Letter
Scroll down past the letter to find more important links

L’Arche International Coordinator Stephan Posner on French TV (English subtitles available in Settings)

Michael Higgins in the Globe & Mail

Ian Brown’s article in the Globe & Mail

The Sinner and the Sin in Convivium

When Saints Fall by Thomas Reese

Krista Tippet reflecting on the revelations

CBC Radio Interview on The Current

Ron Rolheiser’s column

* From Irene Tuffrey-Wijne’s account of a shell-shocked l’Arche community

A deeply thoughtful reflection by Rhonda Miska on Living Lent

Former Irish President of Ireland Mary McAleese wrote to Pope Francis

Winter in Church

My move from the Roman Catholic fold to the Anglican branch of the Christian family has been surprisingly smooth sailing. I’d like to think that several factors played a role in this ecclesial transition. While my reflection on these factors is articulated in previous blog entries, let me simply summarize them here.

One, the move was motivated, not by negative reasons away from Rome, but by clear positive reasons of sensing a deep call into the Anglican tradition. While I was drawn because of the possibility of fulfilling my priestly vocation, this was by no means the only motivation. It had better not be, for there was no guarantee that the Anglican bishop and the Anglican vocational discernment processes would recognize my calling as valid and suited for Anglican priestly ministry. I vividly remember realizing that my spirit was ready for the stretching and growing that the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship would afford me. The past nearly five Anglican years have only confirmed this.

Two, because of the above, I made sure that any negative ecclesial baggage was left behind or at least dealt with. The last thing Anglicans need is an angry, frustrated and resentful RC woman joining their ranks. What we do not allow God to transform, we transmit in unhealthy ways. It is one thing to experience righteous anger and frustration, but it is quite another to keep tapping that negative energy as a habitual way of life. I know other women who took their unresolved pain and anger with them into another denomination. While some may have good reason to do so, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for me.

Three, I was very intentional about sharing my denominational transition as an internal move within the Christian family of God instead of treating it as a family rupture. It is for this reason that a public liturgical ritual was celebrated to mark the denominational move, with an affirmation of our common baptism, and a ritual of “handing me over” to the Anglican family. I remember preaching at that liturgy, saying that, referring to Jesus’ words in John 14:2, I was only changing rooms in the Christian household, I was not leaving the house.

Finally, I have discovered that, while the institution no longer considers me a card-carrying Roman Catholic, my Catholic heart is alive and well. All the best and the finest of the Catholic tradition has gone with me in my spirituality, my theology and even in my ministry. I would be remiss to leave out the gifts and lessons learnt from intimate engagement, to this day, with our Lutheran siblings as well. In fact, the profound sense of ecclesial union/communion in my heart and mind tells me in unmistakable ways that I have not “left” anything or anyone. On the contrary, the Anglican move has expanded and deepened my Christian discipleship while I continue to drink deeply from the spiritual wells of my ecclesial family of origin.

So now, here I am, fully ordained and ministering happily in a rural community on the Canadian prairies. And the news broke a few months ago that this Anglican room in the Christian family home is rapidly emptying out, with its parishes in a major numerical free fall. What is it like to be a spiritual leader in a church that could see the lights go out in about 20+ years?

Well, I can honestly say that it is fascinating to be a part of a spiritual family that is told from all sides that its days are numbered. As for the causes of this numerical free fall, there are plenty of speculations out there, all vying for first rate attention. I feel no need to add my two-cents worth to this chorus, so I will simply limit this reflection to my own personal musings and spiritual experience.

First of all, church and ministry is about real people, real lives with all the joys and sorrows. Yes, my two parishes are small, unable to afford full-time ministry services even between the two churches. But in those small church families life happens, folks. And where there’s life, there’s love and hate, there’s joy and grief, there’s hardship and accomplishment, there’s hope and despair. Recently I celebrated with a 94-year old parishioner who still drives her own car. I delight in our 4-year old parishioner who, at every hymn we sing, steps un-self-consciously into the centre aisle and loses herself in a spontaneous and unique liturgical dance, much to the awe of all present. I attend to the sick and visit the lonely, bringing Christ’s holy food of communion and God’s mercy. I lend a listening ear to those overburdened and struggling with challenges too big to bear. I preach and preside at the Holy Eucharist, an act that fills me with reverence and awe every time. To feed God’s people with holy food and merciful words, to bring Christ’s gaze of love into hurting hearts, to pray the Holy Spirit into lost souls and lives — that holy work continues even in seasons of decline.

Second, there is a strange refreshing wind that begins to blow in seasons of diminishment and loss of influence. The wind of decline is pushing us on our knees, forcing a spirit of humility and self-examination. This honest knee-bending scrutiny is quite easy to avoid when we can take comfort, however false, in numbers and importance, whether that’s our parish, our theology or our tradition. In fact, humility retracts into the shadows when self-righteousness, superiority and pointing fingers assert themselves. We are reminded quite starkly that this is God’s church, and not our project for self-glorification. Given that we follow One who suffered death on a cross, we should not be surprised to suffer a similar lot. It is in fact quite biblical to become the counter-culture instead of being part of the culture that calls the worldly shots.

Three, there is a sense of moving closer to the early church, when Christians met in homes to break bread and share the Word of Life. The Christian community originated with very small beginnings; I wonder if becoming small again might allow us to recover what we lost when we grew too big. There is a sense of being pushed into one another’s ecclesial arms for sheer necessity. I think here of the many Catholic religious orders who are living their own diminishment, a diminishment that for some looks to become the end of their witness in church and world. The Anglican Church is not alone — we’re in this together. The sooner we admit this sober fact the sooner we can allow God to show us the way into the future.

The other thing to remember is that this numerical decline in institutional Christianity is not uniform across the globe. In fact, all mainline churches are experiencing significant growth in developing countries, which we refer to as the Global South. The Anglican Church is no exception. It is primarily in western cultures that Christian witness is waning. Guess what — we are not the center of the universe, far from it. Keeping the global view in mind helps to put our own diminishment in perspective; it might even raise different questions for self-examination than might otherwise appear.

In this sobering moment of organized religion’s decline in the western world maybe Christian unity might now get a fair chance, provided we are willing to carry burdens together (Gal. 6:2), to learn from one another, to confess our sins together before the cross of Christ, seeking mercy together. The most recent Anglican—Roman Catholic Document Walking Together on the Way considers us fellow pilgrims journeying at the summons of God’s Word. … Walking together means that, as traveling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness (Par. 21).

Asked how we should pray for the church, Canadian Anglican Primate Archbishop Linda Nicholls replied, “Pray for the Spirit to blow through the hearts and minds of everyone, and open our eyes to see where Jesus is calling us to be at work. It’s not that God isn’t there in the community already. And it isn’t that God isn’t calling us—sometimes we’re just expecting God to be in a different place, and so we don’t see God where God actually is. Pray for us to be flexible and open in how we express the gospel. And pray for that deepening of discipleship in us that will lead us there.

So, on our knees, let us pray, together, for one another, and for the world. Pray that we will be open to new wine in new wineskins, and in the process be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:32

Ship-wrecking Disputes

Imagine receiving a letter from a past parish priest/pastor in our community. Imagine it saying the following:
“I’ve heard that the church is full of conflict and cliques these days. Rumours about this trouble have made it all the way back to me, and I’m horrified! I hear that some of you are even associating yourselves with different leaders, both present ones and past. And I was absolutely shocked to hear that some of you are suggesting that I come back because you like my way of doing things best.

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen! And I thank God that I baptized none of you … And it really doesn’t matter who I baptized, or who I prepared for membership, or who I worked with on Vestry or Council, because it’s not about me, or any other particular leaders. It’s about Christ Jesus! I want to say this in no uncertain terms: Do not claim allegiance to me or any leader other than Christ. I just will not allow it!”

In my own words, that’s pretty much the gist of what Paul was telling the Corinthian Christians. Quarrels had been reported to him, with some saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Instead of claiming their unity in Christ and doing their best to work out differences and disagreements, the Corinthians spent way too much time and energy on arguing and dividing; Paul was anything but impressed.

We might think that Christians in the early Church got along so well and were so unified. Acts 4 indeed describes that earliest Christian community as one in which everyone was together in one place and held everything in common. They shared possessions, took care of those in need, and lived, worshiped, and served together in peace and harmony. But that idyllic picture of the church (if it was ever real) didn’t last long. Churches such as Corinth were already experiencing conflict and division, a problem that only increased and intensified over the centuries.

After several little break-ups in the first millenium, around the year 1000, the Church suffered the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Then came the Reformation divides of the 16th century, followed by more and more divisions between varieties of Protestant Churches based on different doctrines, different practices, different cultures and experiences. The comedian Emo Philips told a story over twenty years ago, which bears repeating today:
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”

I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “I do, too. … Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “I’m a Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! …Protestant; or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! …What branch?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …Northern Baptist; or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”
I said, “Oh, darn. Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

And it has ever been thus, including now the outrageous online sparring between Christians on social media. Yes, great strides have been made in the past century in shedding old prejudices and biases. Yes, significant ecumenical dialogue and agreements have been written and published, and even endorsed by the highest ecclesial authorities. But much of these ecumenical milestones are still rarely shared, embraced and acted upon by both clergy and the people in the pews.

Instead, we continue to hang on to divisions as cherished identity markers. A new book was published recently on the subject of transubstantiation, a thorny subject between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim transubstantiation as a firm identity marker (without really understanding its history and original meaning/ intent), and Protestants have an allergic reaction at the sound of the term. What is really sad/tragic is that this book’s sincere efforts to explore this thorny term in the service of Christian Unity and its startling conclusion that we are in fact agreeing, agreeing (!) about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist will likely never reach the minds and hearts of most baptized Christians — bishops, superintendents and clergy included…

Today, we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. What began in 1908 in one person’s heart, Fr. Paul Wattson, has become a global event endorsed by all mainline Christian churches, including the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation, and in Canada the Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Baptist Alliance.

That development definitely deserves to be noted and celebrated. But even this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity still does not include many churches and faith communities, either by their own choice or through sheer ignorance of the occasion. I wonder why this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, addressing directly the disputes and factions in the church, has only ever been the focus for this Week of Prayer …. once… Could it be because Paul’s words are too sharp a rebuke to us all? Could it be that Paul’s challenge to find our unity in Christ alone, and to let that unity guide how we work through divisions and disagreements, is more than we dare to commit ourselves to? Maybe we would rather say, with a certain smugness:
I belong to the one true church of … Martin Luther;
I believe in the Pope and in transubstantiation;
no, the Book of Common Prayer is all that matters to me.
We only baptize adult believers who mean what they promise;
I believe in the gift of tongues as the hallmark of the Holy Spirit.
And I … believe … in angels and … the universe.

Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we follow the One who has made us “fishers of people.” But it can certainly be said that, rather than setting God’s fire of love ablaze in human hearts, we have instead created institutions with membership cards and rules of conduct. Is it any wonder that our fishing nets, tattered and torn from all the bickering and dividing, are not holding together well in this secular, post-Christian world?

At last count, there are over 30,000 different denominations, a number that continues to rise despite all efforts in dialogue. Now, in fairness, some claim that the growth of denominations in fact allows for greater peace and harmony in the Body of Christ. Yet, more often than not, in reality it is perceived as fragmentation that has in fact been breeding contempt, distrust and prejudice towards “those others” in the Body of Christ. While we all claim Jesus as the light in our darkness, as the compass of God to orient our lives towards, we have allowed this Christian light to explode into a million factions, like bright fireworks into a darkened sky, now rapidly losing our shining quality. I often wonder how much our in-house quarrels have contributed to the erosion of credibility in the Gospel of Christ in our contemporary world.

Claiming our unity in Christ does not lead to abandoning our denominational colours. Quite the opposite — claiming our baptismal unity in Christ calls for a deep embracing of all that is good and life-giving in our own tradition without putting down others, and more even. Claiming our unity in Christ enables us to recognize and honour all that is good and holy and life-giving even in other spiritual paths and traditions.

Besides, we cannot share with others what we do not first experience, claim, cherish and love. We claim our particular tradition not as a weapon to hit others, but as the gift we bring to the ecumenical table of the Lord. Secure in who we are in Christ through our denominational belonging, we become free to seek and find unity with sisters and brothers everywhere. I think here of the wise words of Michael Ramsay,
former Archbishop of Canterbury:
Let it be made clear that ecumenism includes every part of the healing of wounds between races and nations… Every breaking down of barriers which divide humanity
—social, racial, economic, cultural—is part of the ecumenical task. The ecclesial aspects of ecumenism
must be seen in this larger context. When they are so seen it is clear that ecumenism is no hobby for church-minded people; it is a task of divine and human reconciliation in which every Christian man, woman and child can have a share. (Also see Nostra Aetate, 1965)

Christian unity for the sake of the world is not easy. The ecumenical quest is not without pain  — there is a lot of hurt and suspicion to overcome, a lot of misunderstandings to clear up still today. It is a good thing that none of this depends on our human efforts alone. It is a good thing, a totally undeserving and merciful thing that, despite ourselves, God hasn’t ditched us yet but remains the ever faithful One. Despite ourselves, despite out tattered fishing nets and online sparring, Jesus keeps calling out to us: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.

It is not too late to be God’s united light in the world. Later this year, the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Ukrainian bishops of Saskatchewan will invite us into a new and bold initiative called the LAURC Covenant. While not limiting this Covenant, the bishops nevertheless want to begin by committing their own traditions while leaving space in the Covenant for other churches to join. This Covenant will urge a deeper concrete partnership among our varying Christian faith families through mutual learning and sharing, through ongoing joint praying and serving those in need. Some of this partnering is already borne from sheer material need and numerical decline. Yet the bishops wish to transform these negative-sounding reasons into positive witnesses of unity for Christ’s own sake.

So, for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, we are compelled to continue mending our fishing nets and tying them together. Jesus himself prayed for our unity, Jesus himself will be our light, Jesus himself will be our glory, and in Jesus lies the hope for all the churches, and indeed, for all of creation.

Homily preached on January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23   

  • Heartfelt thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Amanda Currie, for the initial inspiration for this sermon.        
  • Thanks also to friend and colleague Rev. Scott Sharman for lifting my ecumenical spirit with his reflection.   
  • The blog title is inspired by this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Acts 27:18 — 28:10 which features St. Paul’s shipwreck experience on the Island of Malta.
  • A poignant reflection on the numerical decline in our churches in western countries, linking this decline to our continued divisions which undermine the message of Christ Jesus. Much food for thought here.

Two-way Traffic

Last month Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Ashenden was well-known in the Anglican world, including in the world of public television and media. His years as Chaplain to the Queen (2008–2017) added to his fame. I am happy for him, truly. I know what it is like to come home to God through the church. It takes courage and spiritual honesty to follow the Lord’s direction, especially when it involves twists and turns that we are unprepared for. But when we arrive in a good place, a deep peace, clarity and joy flood our heart, mind and spirit.

I hope and pray that former Bishop Gavin’s euphoria as a new Roman Catholic lasts. I hope and pray that his decision is solidly grounded in feeling called towards Rome for the right reasons. Some of his publicly stated reasons for crossing the Tiber make me wonder just a bit. He seems convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is the one, true Church that can withstand today’s forces of secularism, of identity politics and of political correctness. He claims that all these forces are currently undermining the Anglican Church’s Gospel-witness in the world. In this analysis, he claims Saint John Henry Newman as his support and example.

He might be right, and he might not. I hope for his sake that his religious certainty is going to hold up. While the Holy Father has not changed core doctrines, all of which the Anglican tradition holds in common, Pope Francis is in the process of changing pretty much everything else. If allowed full implementation, the Roman church will look and sound radically different. Last month, on the eve of Ashenden’s reception into the RC Church, in his annual Christmas message, Pope Francis addressed the Curia as follows: What we are experiencing is not simply an epoch of changes, but an epochal change.   We find ourselves living at a time when change is no longer linear, but epochal.  It entails decisions that rapidly transform our ways of living, of relating to one another, of communicating and thinking, of how different generations relate to one another and how we understand and experience faith and science.  Often we approach change as if were a matter of simply putting on new clothes, but remaining exactly as we were before. 

Like Gavin Ashenden, I know well the movement of the heart and its role in discerning the spiritual path that leads to fullness of life. It is a deeply personal and intimate discernment, but in the household of God it is never private. We need to be extra careful how we move and speak in the Christian family, especially as a public figure, lest we contribute to the Church’s failure to witness to Christ. Ashenden claims that the Anglican Church has profoundly compromised its ability to stand firmly on the Gospel of Jesus when it comes to condemning certain cultural and social trends in today’s world. In one of several interviews Gavin Ashenden has given about his move to Rome, he cites as one of the reason the RC ban on women clergy. He considers this ban in keeping with the biblical and apostolic revelation. He also claims that many in the Catholic Church have been corrupted by the spirit of the age.

It is one thing to feel called to change rooms in God’s holy household (John 14:2) for reasons of love and service; it is quite another to trust one’s own criticism of the religious room we leave behind and to voice this publicly. Faced with this temptation, humility and prudence deserve front seats. Who said that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak? It doesn’t mean that we remain silent in the face of injustice, sin and error. But it does demand of us a gentle spirit, an aching for God’s truth and a rigorous self-examination steeped in God’s love.

I have been around the ecumenical block long enough to know that every Christian family has its skeletons in the closet and its shadows, its shortcomings and failures. In the past several decades Rome has been suffering a beating of its own making, showing off its share of institutional failures in shocking ways, much of it forced by secular media and legal powers. So is Gavin Ashenden jumping from the frying pan into the fire, or have I by moving in the other direction? Not necessarily. Every Christian church family in every age falls short of the Lord’s command. I see plenty of things wrong with the Anglican tradition. However, just as God called me into this church for his greater glory and for the full flourishing of my priestly vocation, God has equally called me to bear this church’s shame, confusion and errors. When carried in and with Christ, the cross of suffering can become light.

While sin abounds wherever humans run the show, every Christian family is equally graced with the presence and guidance of God through Jesus Christ. To change denominational allegiance because the grass might stay greener on the other side is an illusion and a recipe for disappointment. In reality, we merely exchange one set of sins for another, while we might even be surprised at their similarity.

In a previous post, I claimed Saint John Henry Newman as my guide and example, just as Ashenden is doing now. I could make this claim based on Newman’s teaching on the primacy and freedom of conscience, a teaching wholeheartedly embraced by Vatican II. The Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions are akin to identical twins — so similar that the differences are hardly noticeable to outsiders. I have written about the differences in another blog post.

As my own bishop has stated, even in this season of church decline, there’s still a fair bit of traffic between our two traditions, and the traffic flows both ways. In our Anglican diocese there are a fair number of clergy who have their spiritual roots in the Roman tradition, and they are not all women. And if my own pastoral experience in my prairie community is any indication, our ministry still brings God to the people and the people to God through Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. It is a privilege to exercise this priestly charge; not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with awe and wonder, with humility and deep gratitude.

I pray for each person who experiences the call to change ecclesial households; I pray for the grace to surrender such spiritual/religious decisions to God’s will, that such moves may be steeped in our desire to increase our discipleship for the greater glory of God in Christ Jesus. I pray for Gavin Ashenden’s continued faithfulness to the Lord’s call to him. And while we each make our journey with God in the universal church, let us together keep in mind some important words from Pope Francis:

We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 244)

God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new.” A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”! (Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)

  • The following reflection by Rev. Geoffrey Mackey captures similar and more insights than the above. Sharing it here with deep gratitude.

What Star?

Christmas has come and gone for another year. The music that filled shopping malls and radio stations for weeks on end is hushed. Many have already stored away the decorations for another year, unless you’re lucky to party with the Ukrainians tomorrow. *

The world’s moving on, at lightning speed. But in the church we are only just beginning to live the story, the story of Mary and Joseph, of their newborn in a manger, of the angels and the shepherds. As the God of love entered our human existence in Jesus, another story began to flow from this holy birth. The Magi came from the east and began to ask questions: Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have followed his rising star and we have come to give him honour. (Matthew 2:1–13)

King Herod, shaken by it all, convinced the Magi to help him locate the child. Indeed, the strange foreigners find the child. Overwhelmed, they fall on their knees in worship and praise and adoration. Like the shepherds on the hillside, they begin to realize that something new is happening, that a new world is being born: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, says Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love … (Ephesians 1:3–12)

It is a wonderful story, full of emotion and intrigue. Throughout the centuries it has inspired art and music, poetry and song, discipleship and saintly living. But somehow now, in this modern day and age, this star of the magi, and all that it signified for so long, seems to have lost its lustre. The particular ways we have understood God, the blessings that our Lord Jesus Christ bestowed on us, on the world and on the church, are breaking apart. Change is accelerating at a speed we hum ans have trouble following and processing, integrating and understanding. Political, economic, and climate crises succeed one another faster than dominoes can fall. The sets of meanings and values we have used to make sense of reality , the spiritual fuel that has inspired dreams and visions, are all crumbling like weeks-old, dried up cake. Against this backdrop, what do we make of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy about the light shining in the darkness of the world? Does the birth of Jesus and the peculiar story of the mysterious strangers, the magi coming from nowhere, from the east, still speak to the hunger of today’s seekers and spiritual wanderers? Can Christ Jesus still be God’s blessing on today’s world?

This month’s edition of the Anglican Journal is filled with the news of our diminishing church. What we already know as a reality here in Watrous is now officially verified by extensive sociological studies. The Christian church is fast becoming a mere shadow of its former glory and influence. And every Christian church family, including the RC Church, is affected by this monumental historical shift. As Pope Francis said this Christmas to the Roman Curiawhat we are living through is not simply a time of change but a veritable change of a historical era.” Francis added that we can “live change by limiting ourselves, by putting on new clothes but remaining as we were before.” But, citing a popular Italian novelist, Francis said, “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect. (Saint JHN) This does not mean seeking change for change’s sake, or to follow the latest fashion, but rather, in Pope Francis’ words, “to have the conviction that development and growth are characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the centre there remains the stability of God.” And this is hard for us humans, really hard. It’s hard, really hard, to see the divine hand in the decay and disintegration. Because if we humans are good at anything at all, it’s to be comfy in our own nest, curling up in a massive illusion of security. But this security turns out to be false, and risks setting limits on God and on our own freedom.

The Christian life, in reality, is a journey, a pilgrimage, not unlike those magi long ago, who left their comfy nest and security, to follow a bright light, spurring them on into a new discovery. The entire Biblical story is a journey, marked by starts and restarts. So it was for Abraham, for the people of Israel, for the shepherds and magi, and for all since the days 2,000 years ago in Galilee who set out to follow a peculiar itinerant preacher called Jesus. Since then, the people of God—the history of the church—has been marked by departures, moves, changes. The journey, obviously, is not linear or geographical, but above all it is symbolic and spiritual. The journey of the Christian life invites us to discover the movement of the heart that, paradoxically, needs to start afresh again and again in order to remain faithful and true. The mystery of God animating the human heart in every age is a mystery that requires change so as to remain faithful and alive, new and fresh.

The star … that star … as a guiding light … A light in the dark sky of life … an anchor, a compass … A light in darkness fuels motivation and hope. A light in the dark lightens our path us, revealing obstacles and traps. A guiding light attracts us and gives direction in the stream of life, revealing a goal to reach for. The star guided the magi from afar into a new path. Recall that Matthew tells us they returned via a different road. When we truly find the Divine guiding light that creates and animates, sustains and fuels hope-love-joy-peace-mercy we too continue life via a different road.

Hear again Isaiah’s clarion call:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
(Isaiah 60:1–6)
Can Christ still be this light to the nations? While everything around us is changing at lightning speed, can the Christ-child still comfort and heal us, providing the foundation for love and mercy that stabilizes and accompanies us in the dark? Yes, even as the Christian church loses worldly influence, Christ Jesus himself retains that spiritual power. Christ Jesus is the same, always and everywhere for everyone. Jesus’ teaching and example can still help us discover and face obstacles, lighting the path that leads through the chaos of our times into God’s fullness and life. Christ Jesus can still bring meaning and value to human history, indeed to all creation, especially as we urgently need to face the many crises of our time – climate change, refugees and displaced peoples, economic disparity, illness and epidemics, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and an enormous crisis of meaning and purpose in the young.

Matthew shocked his readers right from the start. He writes women into Jesus’ genealogy, as we noted on the first Sunday of Advent. Now he features the magi, foreigners from faraway. Whoever they were and wherever they were from, Matthew’s point is that they are not from here; these are not our own kind, not the hometown folk, with hometown values, and hometown upbringing. These were odd folk from some foreign land – not our kind. And yet, it was these foreigners, these weird strange magi, who were instrumental in saving Jesus from being killed by the forces of evil, personified in King Herod.

It is thanks to these star-obsessed strangers that the message of universal salvation has come to us. In this stark and shocking way Matthew reminds us that the saving word of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is not for some, but for all, even still in our crisis-ridden time and place. Not for men only, but also for women, for the old and the young. Not for the apparently perfect only, but for those whose lives bear the scars of unspeakable human pain. Not for the hometown crowd only, but for those on the other side of the tracks. Not for those who believe exactly as we do, but also for those who are struggling to believe anything at all, or those who have lost their faith. Because as the crucified and risen Lord, Christ still goes before us in all things. So even in betrayal, suffering and death, the star, in the shape of the cross, shines brightly in the resurrection, the joy of Easter. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor surmised in this month’s Anglican Journal: the church may shrink but will survive in our secular age, but it will look very different from what we have known. Religion is not disappearing, but it is taking different forms.The young are definitely on a spiritual quest, according to Taylor, yet reluctant to join churches which claim to have all the answers.

In this year’s Christmas message from another church leader, Lutheran Bishop Larry (Alberta Synod) echoes both Pope Francis and Charles Taylor when he wrote: The star comes and rests over the place where the infant Jesus is born. Keep your eyes on it. Gaze at the star. Focus on it. Fix it firmly in your mind. Because in time you will discover that the points of the star will stretch themselves into the form of a cross; it will no longer rest over the place where the child lay, but will come to rest in a new way over our lives and in the world we inhabit. (post on Lutheran Theological Seminary FB page)

Pope Francis concluded his message to the Roman Curia with these words: “Christmas is the feast of the love of God for us. Divine love inspires, guides, and corrects all change, thus defeating the human fear of leaving the false security of the present and instead launching out into God’s eternal mystery of love.”

The real journey of Christmas is only just beginning. In this new decade, 2020, will we let God cast out human fear, will we grow the courage of the magi by leaving all false security, in order to creatively face the crises of our time and grow much-needed spiritual 20/20 vision? Don’t be afraid to follow the star, be open to wherever it might lead in this new year. AMEN

Homily preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1—6; Ephesians 1:3—12; Matthew 2:1—12

  • Special thanks to Lutheran Bishop Larry Kochendorfer from the ELCIC Alberta Synod for the initial inspiration to this sermon whose reflection was posted on the FB page of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.

Of Despair and Holy Babies

“On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” ~ Michael Gerson, Washington Post, December 5, 2019

This is not the Christmas reflection I planned to write. But faking joy is not in my tickle trunk. I might be heading into a full-blown crisis of faith. Being a priest, that’s a very risky thing to confess, especially in this jolly season. But even us professional believers don’t have a corner on trusting God in all things. Christmas cards have been arriving in the mail (yes, snail mail cards are still popular) with lofty lines such as “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World” and “God Became one of Us.” These sweet words fall on deaf ears in an ever darkening world, and not just because of the natural darkness in the northern hemisphere at this time. Against the backdrop of the world’s evil forces small and big, the well-intentioned greetings sound hollow, making a mockery of the meaning of the season.

The daily news cycle of doom and gloom for way too many good people is chipping away at my dreams and hope and desire to keep working for a world where it is easier for more people to simply be good and healthy and happy. The other day my morning prayer featured the account of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary she would give birth to Jesus. In the story the angel says: “Nothing is impossible for God” (Lk. 1:37). I usually love this story. But this time my cynical thoughts twirled into: if nothing is indeed impossible for God, then how come God doesn’t relieve the suffering of the undeserving multitudes? Then I read the Psalm which says, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor, blessed is the Lord” (Ps. 34). Really, do you, Lord? You’ve got to be kidding me. “The Lord answers those who call upon him” (Ps. 145) Oh, tell that to the millions of displaced people running for their lives. Tell that to the multitudes who scream to the heavens for mercy and deliverance because their suffering is beyond endurable and certainly far from noble. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Ps. 19). Well, they won’t be much longer if we do not curb the accelerating climate change crisis. And on and on it went.

Every holy word, every Christmas greeting card, every spiritual thought brought an onslaught of doubt and skepticism, of despair and disbelief. My spirit spiraled into an abyss, making me wonder if it’s time to leave the planet (metaphorically, not suicidally). The world I thought to help build does not seem to have materialized; time to check out. As far as I can see, God has abandoned us to our own devices, and it shows. Or have we abandoned God? Maybe we deserve to feel the consequences of our own reckless behaviour.

How did we manage to create such a global monster? The kind which pits people one against the other, the kind which allows climate change to drown island nations and burn up land with fierce wildfires and soaring heat, the kind which allows greed and lust for power to increase the mass migration of refugees and displaced peoples, drowning either in the Mediterranean or on land in misery? And the young seem to spend more time on cell phones and social media than with grandparents and extended family (many of whom are living in their own unhealed brokenness). The young, those fresh shoots of life full of passion and zeal, of dreams and visions, are meant to carry the torch and embody the hope of the old. Instead, they seem to be drowning in an unprecedented epidemic of depression and eco-anxiety, with a good measure of identity confusion and growth-stunting life-choices thrown in. Having lifted the anchor from the wisdom of ancient traditions, the young seem lost on an ocean of unlimited possibilities.

I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, and who leads you into fullness of life (Is. 48). Now I could imitate some of my friends who have made a conscious decision to fast from the daily news. But that comes with other risks, most notably one of creating an increasingly tiny island of what matters, eventually fostering tunnel vision and uncaring. But I do understand why some opt to keep their world small, shutting the ears and eyes of their hearts to the pain and agony of others. In this age of social media and global communication, the flood of information simply gets too much, overwhelming our little brains with impossible processing demands. The same goes for opening our hearts unreservedly to the pain of the world; we risk feeling flooded and might drown in the agony of suffering, humanity’s and all of creation’s.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. (Acts 4) Over two thousand Christmases later, has Christ’s coming made a difference? Over two thousand Christmases later, has the Word truly and fully become flesh in us, those who profess him as Lord and pattern for living? I want to believe it has, but the evidence often points to the contrary. Endless in-house quarreling still leads to ecclesial break-ups and new alliances, continuing to fracture the Body of Christ. Denominational identity markers still get hauled out to keep us apart from “them.” All the while we shamefully ignore Christ’s own burning prayer on the night before his death, namely that we be one as he is one with the Father. Our sins of betrayal, abuse and cover-up have sent Christianity to the gallows. In the affluent west we have sold our souls to the capitalist system of consumption, trampling down countless of God’s cherished little ones in the process. And the Holy Book is pretty clear about what God thinks of those who cause little ones to stumble (Mt 18:6) and who refuse to welcome the stranger and care for the orphan and widow (Jer. 22:3, Mt. 25:35–36).

I could allow the barrage of bad news to feed cynicism, anger and callousness. But then I may well become impossible to live with. I could adopt an attitude of the “glass half-full,” finding the bright stories of love and mercy and hope. And yes, they do exist, this one in particular. But, and there’s always this annoying but, to do this might lead to ignoring the pain and the cries for help. What has God decided to do — to enter deep into human misery through Jesus, and to redeem that misery from the inside out so it loses its death-dealing power. Or, as my dear friend Leah says so well in her Christmas reflection this year, God risked dropping anchor in a world that could hurt his Son. What a risk, much greater than any listed above… I’m hanging on to this holy child’s tiny finger for dear life. Not because I get paid to do this, but because my hope for the world is still stubbornly staked on this holy birth.

The Risk of Birth – Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth …

The Coming of God — Ann Weems

Our God is the One
who comes to us
in a burning bush,
in an angel’s song,
in a newborn child.

Our God is the One
who cannot be found
locked in the church,
not even in the sanctuary.

Our God will be
where God will be
with no constraints,
no predictability.

Our God lives where our God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
the living.

Our God will be born
where God will be born,
but there is no place
to look for the One
who comes to us.

When God is ready
God will come
even to a godforsaken place
like a stable in Bethlehem.

Watch … for you know not
when God comes.
Watch, that you might be found
whenever
wherever