The Ordaining Church

I looked out over the crowd that had filled the Anglican Cathedral on an ordinary Thursday evening. I was amazed, surprised, overwhelmed. They had come, from everywhere, in droves: friends and family, colleagues and ecumenical co-workers. The church catholic was present in its fullest sense: Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic (with the exception of the Orthodox tradition*). Especially Roman Catholic: a sea of them along with religious sisters, several priests and one higher ranking official. The happy grins spoke volumes: I was not the only one who had looked forward to this moment.

In the midst of this ecumenical community of faith I claimed my call before the bishop, made vows and promises, and knelt for the “holy huddle” – Anglican, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian clergy colleagues as well as two RC priests joining the bishop in the solemn laying on of hands.

Ordained a priest. I still struggle to find the words. The impact of the experience was profound. It was profound in my own heart-mind-spirit, in my experience of church, and in the effects upon my current ministry. Given the ecumenical make-up of the assembly that night, I felt truly ordained by and into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the fullest sense of that term. I have not recovered from the experience – and I hope I never will.

I have always been mindful of the faith community’s role when one claims a call to ministry; one is called by and for the community, never for oneself. Now this crucial role was expressed in the most tangible way possible – the community’s presence and participation was their fiat. A deepening and affirmation, blessing and mandate all rolled into one holy Spirit-filled act of ordination. No wonder I still struggle to find words.

The next morning I presided over the (Anglican) Holy Eucharist for the first time in a Catholic retreat center, which included a renewal of marriage vows for Jim and I – it was our wedding anniversary. Like the night before, the people of God in all denominational diversity packed the worship space, hungering for a taste of heaven where divisions and barriers melt away: take and eat, take and drink, all of you.

Maybe a number of firsts occurred: RC clergy joining in the laying on of hands, one of whom bowing his head for my first priestly blessing; a religious sister leading music at the Anglican Eucharist the next morning while persons from various traditions served as acolyte, readers, communion assistants; communion bread baked by an Anglican-RC couple; those with different beliefs finding a space of respect and hospitality while getting caught up in the joy and gratitude of the occasion.

That I may at last taste the joy of fulfilling this vocation still feels like a miracle. What seemed elusive for several decades has come to pass. At the same time it was always there, for the priestly call lived in my heart as an animating light, a wellspring of grace and love. For this was the peculiar thing: despite the church’s prohibition, the call persisted. Moreover, despite the fear and self-doubt, the call grew me on the inside in ways that bore all the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)

A priestly vocation originates at the deepest level of one’s being, which is one’s essence. Roman Catholic sacramental theology calls it an ontological reality, an indelible mark on the soul. Years ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend who had left the priesthood because, as he said, he had all the external affirmation but none of the internal reality. To which I replied with new insight, “Yes, and I have all the internal reality but none of the external blessing/affirmation.” “I know,” he replied. Surprised, we looked intently at one another with waves of recognition, understanding and respect.

And so when the final report on the validity of my priestly call was issued by the national Anglican Church’s assessment body, a year ago now, opening the path to ordination, the tears refused to stop:

We find Marie-Louise to have a clear sense of call to the priesthood, a call which has developed in extraordinary circumstances over the past 27 years … This growing sense of call took place in the context of a lifelong faithful involvement in the Roman Catholic Church.

Marie-Louise has an impressive history of lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, demonstrating visionary leadership in the development of numerous ministries, which responded to particular needs in the church. Her involvement in ecumenical initiatives is most remarkable, beginning many years ago with studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

We were impressed with her deep Christian faith and her struggle over many years to be faithful both to the ecclesial tradition she has grown up in and her growing sense of call to priestly ministry. We affirm Marie-Louise’s call to the priesthood. She is a passionate servant of Christ and has a sincere desire to serve God in an Anglican context. (ACPO Report, May 2017)

No matter which denomination does the ordaining, the ontological truth, the imprint on the soul, presses deep; it feels like coming home to one’s true self. Even my friend Carmen, just ordained last month in the Pentecostal tradition, speaks of this reality in her recent blog reflection.

What’s more, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I am now pastoring two rural parishes, Anglican and Lutheran. All the pieces of my life’s puzzle have come together: formation and ministry experiences of the past 27+ years are all bearing fruit in these two small parishes on the Canadian prairies – who would have thought.

Living Christian discipleship in the Anglican household of God now is opening new spiritual vistas and blessings. My heart is growing larger, unfolding like an expanding universe. My capacity to live from contradictions into paradox and relational truth is being stretched, deepened and refined. How do I know all this is from God? Because my joy has never been deeper, my love has never been more costly and intently, my spirit has never been more generous, my peace has never been more solid, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Meanwhile my Roman Catholic family of origin continues to occupy a cherished place in my heart; in her bosom my faith was nourished and my vocation was born against all odds. I truly live a double belonging. The increasing opportunities for joint ministry with my local Catholic priest and his parishioners are therefore sources of deep joy and immense gratitude, weaving unity in my spirit and among our people.

We don’t make journeys like this in isolation. I extend therefore a heartfelt thanks for the company and friendship, prayers and support of so many on this road towards priestly ministry. It truly takes a community to call a priest/pastor. Pray that I will continue to fulfill this sacred trust faithfully, placing my priesthood at the service of the full visible unity of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  • This is an expanded version of the last column (May 9, 2018) in a twelve month series entitled Double Belonging, co-published by the Prairie Messenger (ceasing publication) and the Saskatchewan Anglican from May 2017 to May 2018.
  • * The Orthodox tradition is active in ecumenical dialogues and circles, but my personal connections do not include many members of this branch of the Christian family.

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Grieving in Community

In light of the tragedy that hit my prairie community on Friday evening, I rewrote the sermon I had prepared for this Second Sunday of Easter. Because hockey is such a bonding sport for both players and fans, our entire city – no, our entire province is affected. Because hockey is Canada’s national sport, our entire country is affected. Because the hockey players on that bus came from various parts of the prairie provinces loved ones near and far are drowning in grief.

As Heather Persson wrote in yesterday’s Star Phoenix, so many Saskatchewan kids spend countless hours on a bus headed to hockey games. So many moms and dads put their kids on the road and say a quiet prayer that they will stay safe while out of their care. So many know the pleasure and sense of community found at a Junior A hockey game.

It’s been a harrowing day and a half. The Easter joy we felt last Sunday has made way for shock, grief and disbelief once again, not unlike what the disciples felt when their hero, Jesus, was murdered in the most horrible way possible. And from every wailing heart spring that agonizing question: where is God in all this??

I feel a new bond with Thomas in today’s Gospel. Thomas loved his Lord. I’m realizing now more than before that it was most likely grief, heart-wrenching grief, that caused Thomas’ doubt. Don’t you find that in times like this, we want to scream: God where are you?! Why?!

Besides this painful doubt that springs from hurting hearts, there is no shortage of doubt on other levels of life: institutional doubt, personal doubt, political doubt, spiritual doubt. The world is afflicted with serious doubt and insecurity. Old certainties are melting away like snow in spring except here in SK – waiting for the spring thaw in April is trying, creating doubt about the reliability of the seasons!). Something new may be waiting in the wings, but that new thing can be real hard to spot at times.  Especially when losing so many young and promising lives through a freak accident, doubt can become a tsunami flooding our hearts and minds. And so as a culture and as a church, and now as a grieving hockey-nation, we truly live in doubt-filled, in-between times.

Now doubt in and of itself is not bad. And God does not consider doubting a serious offense. In fact, growing in faith often passes through doubt. And that is what Thomas illustrates well in today’s Gospel account from John. Each of us lives a delicate dance between faith and doubt. That is a normal part of maturing as people of God. Our Confirmation candidates have critical questions sometimes (right?) And that is a good thing, because without a curiosity to find answers  there can be no understanding, no insight, no wisdom.

As much as today’s Gospel features beloved Thomas, it also features, in concert with the other Scripture lessons, the role of the faith community. Answers to critical questions and doubts are powerfully shaped by our encounters, conversations and experiences with others, both inside and outside the church.
Sometimes we move away from faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Sometimes we are drawn into faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Our modern western culture regards religion as a highly individualized and private experience.

But Jesus’s culture was communal. Jesus addressed God as “our” father, our heavenly parent, when he prayed his favourite prayer. Jesus formed a community of disciples who shared all things in common with him. We are not saved in isolation, i.e. outside of a community; we are saved together. Today we are so shaped by western individualism that it can be really hard to fully understand the communal call of discipleship Jesus calls us to.

But rallying around the families who’ve lost loved ones in this horrible bus crash from last Friday is a powerful illustration of being “saved” as a community. This national and international rallying in compassion and love reminds me of how the disciples huddled together as a community to share their grief and fear. People flooded to the arena set up as a crisis centre just to “be together,” just to share the tension of waiting for news, just to hug and cry. There is powerful bonding in love that happens when we gather to share grief, fear and pain. There is powerful healing that can happen when we touch and kiss each other’s wounds with compassion and care: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” said Jesus to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On both occasions that Jesus appeared (without and with Thomas)the first thing he did was to breathe … peace—he exuded peace. Jesus’ breathing of peace upon fearful hearts calmed the disciples. The grief and fear of the gathered disciples was transformed – the Easter effect. New life came in the encounter with the risen Christ.

Except for one – Thomas missed the whole experience. He stayed drowning in his grief, fear and doubt. Thomas clearly missed something very important! I think it rather odd, in fact, that Jesus waited a whole week to appear again. I mean, he knew Thomas was grieving and doubting. So why didn’t Jesus just appear to him privately to convince Thomas that his beloved Lord had risen? But he didn’t; Jesus waited until the community was gathered again.

From its very beginnings, Christian faith and discipleship was lived in community—like the church described in Acts today, a faith family sharing their possessions in common. There’s a standing joke that says living a Christian life would be easier were it not for other people! But the notion of a “solo Christian” is decidedly unbiblical. While a relationship with God is a personal decision, it is not private. God calls us into community with other believers in order to remain healthy, accountable and fruitful. This communal dimension is evident in the passage from Acts, but also in the First Letter from John which begins as follows:

WE declare what was from the beginning, what WE have heard, 
what WE have seen with OUR eyes,
what WE have looked at and touched with OUR hands,
concerning the word of life — this life was revealed,
and WE have seen it and testify to it.
WE declare to you what WE have seen and heard
so that you also may have fellowship with us;
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

It is in relationship with others that the proverbial rubber hits the road. God works in us through the way we live together. And God often uses others, those charming and irritating others, to prune us and inspire us, to teach us and comfort us. Times of tragedy reveal crystal clear how much we need each other in both good times and in bad.

And when we are not present on Sunday, our primary gathering time in and around Jesus and with each other, we miss something very important. When we are not present at Sunday worship, there is a painful absence.  We need all of us present in body and spirit. We feel one another’s absence acutely especially in times like this, but we need each other all the time as we grow to share our lives in Christ.

Living in relationship with other Christians, greatly helps our own understandings and experiences of God in Jesus. Living with each other in Christian community also holds us together when life makes us fall apart. We are saved in Christ Jesus, yes, but we are saved as one Body. Together we hold each other accountable, and together we hold each other in grief.

For the sake of the integrity of the Gospel, for the sake of providing a safe place to ask questions and to share grief, doubts and fears, we have to reclaim our communal existence. Together therefore we are one body, brothers and sisters in Christ. As Christians, we belong to each other in a spiritual family. In Baptism we are given to one another, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. Let us create space for doubt and for faith. Let us together shoulder burdens and share joys. Let us wrestle honestly with questions and seek answers. It is in community that Christian living can come into full bloom. And when that happens, especially in the midst of tragedies, such as the one we are living through right now, our Easter joy can truly be complete.

We pray, O risen Jesus, keep showing up in our lives through the compassion, love and support we give one another. We promise, O risen Jesus, that we will keep showing up in each other’s lives as your Body on earth, the Church. Amen

Homily preached for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32—35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2; John 20:19—31

News stories about the tragedy can be found on the CBC website.

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A School of Love

Pastoring a faith community is turning out to be a school of love for the pastor as well as its members. The other day I visited a young couple who were inquiring about baptism for their newborn baby. All kinds of unflattering assumptions eagerly clamoured to colour my impressions of them because I had never seen them in church. Then we met  and talked — for a long time.

Ever had the experience of swallowing hard and fast to move false prejudices out of the way before they come tumbling out through your lips? Well, that’s what happened to me. Not only did this couple express the desire to have their beloved baby baptized, but one of the parents expressed a desire to embrace Christian discipleship as the path to give meaning and purpose to her life. In other words, she desires baptism as well.

Meanwhile some six months ago a single woman struggling with personal challenges reached out by phone. We have been growing our relationship by fits and starts since that first day. For quite a while I was uncertain whether our connection was helpful. Now this child of God is awakening to her God-given identity, growing a desire to be baptized and to make Jesus her pattern for living within the community of the church.

As many times before, such encounters evoke surprise, awe and wonder.  The Holy Spirit  moves hearts despite us; we can’t even claim the credit. And I began to wonder: do our parish communities live up to what we profess so others can see and taste and hear and feel Jesus in our common life? Is our faith community as energized by the Holy Spirit as Jesus was himself? When others see us relate and interact, are they puzzled by the love that binds us? Are they attracted and wonder what moves us and and what power we draw on?

Living with Jesus at the center ought to be the norm for a Christian community, as a concrete expression of Christ loving through us: self-giving and generous, sacrificial and inclusive, joyfully and gratefully. Human love on its own is incapable of doing this. Human love calculates what’s in it for ourselves. We love in exclusive and possessive ways instead of inclusive and selfless ways. But the love drawn from God in Christ Jesus is other-centered. It is to be the animating force in every Christian family.

We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our faith family (nor our blood family of course). In a Christian community God does the choosing, not us. To love Jesus is to love the community of faith, to love the Church, with all its odd members, needy characters and misfits. It is through the Church, flawed as it is, that we are called to live as a “new creation” in Christ (2 Col. 5:17). This summons has serious consequences for how we relate to God, to others and to the world. Why would anyone even be remotely interested in joining us if we do not look and act any different than the world — that is what it means to be in the world and not of it (john 14:18–19). In his book “Great Themes of Scripture” Richard Rohr writes: The Scriptural ideal is not to live in the world and go to church, but to live in the Church and go out into the world. (pg. 150)

Rohr goes on to say that to be “saved from the world” (John 16:33) involves being freed from anger and fear, bitterness and jealousy, possessiveness and power-seeking, and any other habits and behaviours, motives and attitudes that suffocate and destroy life. And so our parishes, our faith communities, are to become a school in loving. Anyone who has been part of a parish, however, will know from experience how often we fall short of this ideal. Yet the summons remains, because we are the only Body Christ has on earth.

The face of God in the person of Jesus Christ is God`s greatest gift to the world. We touch Christ both in his wounds and his risen glory in the fabric of our daily lives and in our interactions with others, especially those most in need. The universal call to holiness through Christ is not some spiritual veneer for experts and religious acrobats. This call, issued in baptism, is to be fostered throughout life in a practice of prayer in a “school of prayer and love.” Every community of Christians is Christ’s Body on earth, and thus called to be God’s sacrament in the world.

None of this comes naturally or is automatic — ask any Christian. Just because we’ve had the water poured doesn’t mean there is no more sin, no more obstacles, no more false gods, no more mixed motives and hurts. But instead of falling victim to our own worst qualities, we embrace with joy the holy vision of God, committing to growing into holiness our whole life long. Even if we fail and want to give up on ourselves, God clearly does not give up on us.

Jesus saves, he truly saves. Jesus saves us from our worst inclinations and from our deepest hurts. The Christian community is not so much a place for the already converted, but the place where true conversion and surrender to unconditional love becomes possible in order to grow us into a new creation in Christ Jesus. In Christ God revealed that the Body of his Son on earth, the Christian community,  is to be the vehicle for healing, reconciliation and unity in a broken world on the brink of despair.

Mentoring new Christians to the font of life is an awesome privilege, even though we will fall and fail often in loving. But God has faith in us despite our weaknesses. And so, here in our little prairie town in our little parish, we have begun the journey to the waters of life with our three candidates: a newborn baby, a middle-aged woman and a young mom. We will surround them with the love of our parish family, each according to their needs. In the process each of us, candidates, sponsors and catechists, will be mentored by God`s Spirit of Love — consoled and corrected, enlightened and guided, forgiven and healed. We want to be that school of love God is calling us to, and we pray for the grace to be faithful to this vision that has so captured our hearts.

Pray for us and Lord, have mercy.

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