Getting the Stories Straight

What are you telling me? Ecumenical dialogues have been taking place for 50+ years?! And have produced substantial officially recognized agreements?! I have heard these questions, with the exclamation marks, too many times from well-meaning and committed Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others. Yes, we have been in conversation with one another for a good half a century; yes, we have published official statements on several aspects of our faith in Christ Jesus. And yes, this growing ecclesial relationship is bearing profound positive fruit in both our churches. After frozen relations of several centuries, we are finally recognizing in one another the presence and witness of our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are also recognizing the serious need to walk together as an expression of faithfulness to our Lord’s dying wish that we all be one. It is only in Christian charity and unity that the Gospel can be credibly preached into a hurting world.

The above questions point to the ongoing challenge of Reception, i.e. the process by which official statements trickle down to the ordinary people in our pews to be embraced in their local context. This challenge was once again the subject of the most recent National Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (ARC Canada) meeting in Ottawa.

But this time there was good news to share. For the past two years the ARC Canada group has been collecting stories of lived ecumenism on the ground between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  New Stories to Tell was launched in conjunction with the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The collection is a rich tapestry of inspiring accounts in which individuals from both traditions rediscover our common heritage in Christ Jesus, thus contributing in no small measure to healing the wounds of our historic ecclesial divisions. Each story is followed by a brief theological reflection with references to one or more ARCIC documents, and by study/discussion questions.

The collection is dedicated to a renowned theology professor and ecumenist, Dr. Margaret O’Hara, who is considered a giant in her long-standing involvement in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Stories include experiences of interchurch families, bishops befriending each other and in some cases sharing living quarters (!), encounters at the TRC hearings, covenant agreements between dioceses, joint work with refugees, ecumenical retreats and parish missions, theological study groups etc.

Here is the opening story of this lovely new collection:

An Anglican priest shared the following experience: He had not come to this Truth and Reconciliation hearing with anger, and he had not come with blame. But he said that he wanted me, a Catholic priest, to know that he was not afraid anymore, nor ashamed of who he was. He was confident and secure and even proud of his identity as an Indigenous person, and he wanted me, wearing my clerical collar, to sit with him and hear that from him, because he had never been able to say that to any priest before.

It became clear that there was a misunderstanding. He had attended a school operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, not the Anglican Church of Canada. I was an Anglican priest. So what were we to do? Should I offer a word of apology anyway? Or should we find a Catholic priest and start the process over again? Before I could decide, the man uttered: “Catholic… Anglican… It’s all the same. It was Christians who ran these schools and who did these things to my people. You are all responsible together. You all need our forgiveness. Maybe you should get your own stories straight before you talk to us.”

This encounter speaks clearly about our shared identity as Christians in the present, and about our dividedness in the past. It speaks clearly about our need for right relationship with Indigenous neighbours, as well as with one another, and about the way one relationship affects another. It points to the work of reconciliation as the way forward for healing. The Indigenous man in the above account speaks prophetically when he challenges us to “get our own stories straight” as churches. But already back in 1848, our divided heritage discredited us as messengers of the Gospel:

“Mr. Rundell (Rundle) [Wesleyan Methodist] told him that what he preached was the only true road to heaven, and Mr. Hunter [Anglican] told him the same thing, and so did Mr. Thebo (Fr. Thibault, Roman Catholic), and as they all three said that the other two were wrong, and as he did not know which was right, he thought they ought to call a council among themselves, and then he would go with all three; but that until they agreed he would wait.” [Great Plains Cree chief, Maskepatoon, in conversation with Paul Kane in 1848; James G. MacGregor. Father Lacombe. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975]

We arrived in Canada as divided churches. Our separation was transmitted to Indigenous people during the earliest missions in New France and British North America. It was a stark reality in colonial life, as a Catholic majority came under the rule of an Empire whose established religion was Anglican. It continued to resonate in the ways the Protestant population expressed prejudice towards Catholics (who gladly returned the favour) and in the separateness of our educational, language, and legal identities.

That separateness is a reality which looms large in our present-day experiences as Christians together, and which affects the perceptions our society has of us, the stereotypes we have of one another, and the ministry we can offer. The work of ARC Canada, the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, and the stories of people and communities encountering one another in new ways, present a way forward. The path involves facing and reconciling memories, and making new history together.

The language of reconciliation and of right relationship is a gift we are learning, ever more deeply, from people like the Residential School survivor who challenges us to “get our stories straight.” The broken relationships which we Christians brought with us continue to affect the way we relate to the land, to its First Peoples, and to one another. Yearning for and coming back into right relationship involves all these aspects.

Ironically, in many other ways the world sees us as one even before we see our own unity. When it comes to negative press about one of our churches, we are all perceived in the same light. When it comes to martyrdom, we are not asked first whether we are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox.  As Pope Francis stated a few years ago, to those who persecute and kill we are simply Christians.

Would that the world could see positive signs of our unity! For the sake of right relation and the integrity of Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation, let’s get our stories straight.

New Stories to Tell, published by ARC Canada, can be accessed at www.churchesindialogue.ca

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Ready for Christmas?

It doesn’t matter where – in the checkout line-up, at the pool, at the post office, even in church. Everyone asks the big question, often in a hurried tone of voice: so,  ready for Christmas yet? I’m supposed to answer: no I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and to send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!

Odd isn’t it? I mean this type of reply. I’m ready for Christmas, because I take the question to mean something quite different. Quiet daily prayer is enriched with the Advent wreath – lighting one more candle each week, keeping me anchored in essentials without drowning in waves of excessive consumerism. Dreams and yearnings are allowed to rise up in my heart, as God’s gifts growing in the womb of my spirit. Christmas baking gets done by loving hands way more competent than my own from annual Christmas bake-sales, filling the freezer (and eventually our tummies) while supporting a good cause.  We strive for quality time with our adult children and their families even with the challenge of irregular work hours; looks like a chess tournament is on the radar this year. Yearly donation checks are off to various charities, however small. Sharing is good for the soul and a blessing to others. Ready for Christmas? Yep.

Because our family Christmas takes place when everyone can make it, Jim and I have become regulars at the annual Community Christmas Dinner on December 25, organized by our friends from the local Soup Kitchen. A weekly meal free of charge is hosted throughout the year for anyone who needs food and company. You can find us there most Tuesdays, hanging out with a motley crew. We go not because we are “hard-up” but because we eat with friends who’ve expanded our notion of family. Helping out at the Christmas Dinner therefore is not only a great way to spend the holy day of Christ’s birth, but it is truly a day with family.

We do appreciate receiving Christmas letters from beloved family and friends; letters full of the latest travel adventures and the year’s achievements of children and grandchildren, and sometimes including the latest health challenges. Such letters are a great read. It’s the yearly catching up on news in the lives of loved ones.

But we don’t travel a whole lot anymore, and don’t even miss it. There’s hardly anything left on our bucket lists. We are most content and comfortable in our own bed, our own home, our own routines, our own garden and backyard (not fancy, just … lush). Do we sound like old folks set in our ways?? Or is it the quiet contentment and joy that comes from truly living a simple, modest life we both love and have no need to get away from? We do regret not seeing our granddaughters as often as we would like due to distance and work commitments. They are each growing way too fast into three lovely individuals, each with their unique personality. But we are grateful for photos on Facebook and video-calls. And we’ve been relatively healthy (not counting the hearing aids I’ve had to acquire this year), rarely accessing the health insurance we’ve been paying into for so many years — touch wood! So there isn’t much news to share.

Or maybe there is …

We learnt new things this past year, found new questions, gained new insights into relationships and into living a full life. We enjoy many blessings, right in our own home and community, even in the hardships. Once again we learnt that it’s not what happens to us that brings blessing or curse, but how we live what happens to us:

  • Ordinary days in our prairie towns (Humboldt and Watrous) burst with extraordinary little rays of light and joy, of love and of mercy. The abiding faithfulness of friends is nourishing food for the soul. New friends keep sprouting from the stubble of prairie fields, each one bearing gifts of vision and compassion, of invitations into new discoveries and into exploring different worlds.
  • On the other hand, our quiet community was rocked to the core last April by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Shock and grief have never been so close to home, never been so deep and so widespread, galvanizing the attention of the world. But even in the darkness of that tragedy, blessings were hiding: see Grieving in Community and April in Labour. For the first time I preached on empty, only to nd discover that tears in the pulpit sometimes preach more effectively than words.
  • We learnt that discord with loved ones, whether friends or family, is best lived as an invitation to look inside — how have we contributed to the breakdown? The resulting honesty, vulnerability and humility can then turn into a healing blessing. Own up, fess up, repair it — these virtues are keepers. Or when unjustly accused or treated, draw the boundaries firmer and forgive; don’t let anger poison your heart.
  • Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral, ethical or desirable. We’re keeping our fingers crossed about legal pot, and other questionable practices. The best (and healthiest) highs come through healing hurts, cultivating a curious and open mind, and from seeking meaning and purpose in all things every day, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • In our age of fake news and the crumbling of old certainties Pilate’s ancient question, “what is truth?” is ever so relevant again. Even the Church is not spared this piercing question as it grapples with massive loss of members, credibility, and revelations of abuse. What if truth resides in the quality of relationship — to life, to this planet, to one another? I’m trying this out for awhile.
  • Electing our new Indigenous bishop Chris was a great experience; his arrival as a messenger of reconciliation and a bridge-builder bodes very promising for our Anglican diocese and beyond.
  • Living below one’s means creates a freedom the world truly cannot give. It’s oddly easy to stay clear of the traps of over-spending and consuming when it’s an attitude/perspective fostered over a life-time, not to mention the light ecological footprint and the effect on the wallet. It does lead to an odd problem, though: we don’t create enough garbage or recycling materials to fill the bins we pay the city for! But we admit, it takes all kinds: the economy would be in even worse shape if it depended on frugal spenders such as us!
  • Being a country priest with a dedicated band of Anglicans and Lutherans is all and more than I had imagined, and Catholics are coming along for the ride. Weekly Eucharist and preaching, ecumenical studies and worship, baptisms and funerals (no weddings yet), hosting weekly (free!) summer BBQ suppers for the town, pastoral care and counseling — a rich spiritual harvest. Good energy among parishioners, renovating the church hall, planning for great things in the new year.
  • Not everything was roses. The murder of our cousin Kim’s husband shook us all to the core. No amount of tears can hold the sorrow and loss.
  • Our God-daughter Josephine married Brody this past summer, inviting me to preach holy words at their celebration. Blessings of joy galore and a great wedding party on the farm.
  • Jim is still helping Rachelle with the seed business, but managing a slower pace while mentoring his young, energetic and passionate successor. Some of our kids have discovered a new role for their night-owl Dad: they phone him on late nights, sometimes  to be accompanied on long drives.
  • I saw signs of limits to inclusiveness; some call them boundaries, others call them barriers. Why does including some often seem to happen at the exclusion of others? There’s got to be a better way.
  • Year-round exercise of choice: lane swimming. I’m the slowest swimmer in the pool, so every 20 lapse feels victorious, rewarded with time in the hot tub!
  • Two weeks in Israel with my bishop and clergy colleagues was a true gift — walking where Jesus walked, getting to know my colleagues better (a glass of wine in a warm climate does wonders!), and growing a disturbing realization of the plight of our Christian sisters and brothers: The Not-So-Holy Land.
  • Even with my Sunday church duties, Jim and I enjoyed a record number of four Christmas concerts in one weekend, each one outstanding. What a talent on the prairies!
  • My first meeting with the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) in Ottawa was substantial, inspiring and so much fun, including a surprising renewal of old friendships. Working for Christian Unity continues to be my passion, integral to my ministry and my vision of church.
  • The best bread in town is still the one kneaded with my own hands, with flour milled from Jim’s home-grown grains, and coming out of my own oven — oh, that smell … it’s the one foolproof baking I can muster.
  • Praying for others is powerful and rich, esp. when writing down the daily intentions and mentioning others by name. Pray for people far and near, for victims of disasters and violence of all kind, and for friends and family struggling with too much, helps keep helplessness and despair at bay. Praying for others grows our heart softer, bigger and more compassionate, fostering real-time connections, collapsing all distance.

We are painfully aware that life delivers too many blows to too many people, stretching to the breaking point one’s capacity to see and savour blessings. In this year’s season of Advent waiting in hope, we have learnt of a suicide, a stripping of job and reputation, legal challenges in a custody case with devastating effects on the children, a tumbling back into alcohol and drug abuse after a 10+ year sobriety, betrayal by church leaders, painful diminishment in aging, terminal diagnoses, all within our own circle of love. Not to speak of the horrors millions face daily across the globe. Life is fragile, vulnerable as we all are to unexpected and unmerited chaos and disaster. And yet, as I wrote in my previous blog post, we need a vision to inspire us, to motivate going on living. The birth of Jesus still gives us this vision.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we hold in our hearts and minds both the pain of the world and the vision of God in Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God became one of us – that is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received, no matter how much the Church has tainted this message with its own sinfulness. Divinity came among us as a tiny, helpless baby for whom there was no room anywhere. Born to a young teenage virgin and a dedicated foster father forced to take his little family to Egypt to protect the child from brutal murder — not unlike millions of refugees on the run today. A teenage mother, an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy – that is our God, throwing in his lot with all the scrawny and needy ones among us.

This is the vision going with us into 2019. This vision is our prayer and our wish for us all. Ready for Christmas? You betcha!

Marie-Louise and Jim

Prairie Encounters

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