A New Season

I owe you, my faithful readers, an update. No, I have not been “hiding” behind the past four postings on the Theology of the Body and Ordination. I felt it was important that these installments were posted in sequence to improve flow and accessibility for reading. But while these postings appeared, some significant changes took place in my own life and ministry, changes I am happy to share with you now.

If there is one thing I have learnt, and keep learning, on this life and faith journey it is the absolute importance of good discernment grounded in deep prayerful listening in community. When the Anglican family of faith opened its doors to me a couple of years ago, it wasn’t just a triumphant grand entry. These things rarely are; to expect otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The Anglican steps in the preparation process towards ordination challenged my capacity for both spiritual and ecclesial obedience in a spirit of surrender in freedom. I faced the need to stare down in my spirit impatience and entitlement, distrust, doubt and fear. These five amigos vied for a place in the driver’s seat of my denominational and vocational decisions. Each of them came with solid Scriptural backing, much like the devil did when tempting Jesus in the desert. It took courage to unmask their counter-witness; it took trust to turn away from their alluring yet shallow promises. It takes ongoing perseverance to wait in joyful hope.

It now looks like this discernment gamble is paying off. The developments of the past months were unanticipated, and thus can only be attributed to God’s own providence and blessing of this remarkable vocational journey. As of January 2017, I have been entrusted with the pastoral leadership of two small congregations in a rural community not far from home. What is more, all of my previous denominational and ecumenical ministry, as well as my vocational experience, are culminating in this new pastoral assignment, all of it. Why do I make this claim?

First, the two congregations belong to two different traditions – one Anglican and the other Lutheran (made possible through the Full Communion Covenant between the ACC and the ELCIC). Therefore two bishops had to approve my appointment. My Lutheran seminary training and my long association with all things Lutheran now stands me in good stead. As I quip to my Lutheran friends and colleagues, I may be Anglican now but you Lutherans got under my skin back in those seminary days and you clearly never left 🙂

Second, my continued grounding in Roman Catholic spirituality and theological knowledge is proving to be a rich asset. This Lent I am participating in ecumenical conversations in our little prairie town between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics through the parish study Together in Christ. I find myself answering questions from all sides with a deep affection and respect for each of the three traditions.

Third, I sense a deep convergence towards Christian unity in my own spirit, thanks to the blending of the various traditions in both ministry, spirituality and ecumenical collaboration among the denominations in the community where I serve. I am increasingly relating and ministering from the perspective of the Lund PrincipleI am acutely aware that the positive disposition with which I engaged my denominational transfer is now creating the inner freedom to engage in joy and affection with the local Roman Catholic parish priest and parishioners. Had my denominational move been motivated by negative reasons and unresolved frustrations, I likely would have been greatly hampered in the current building of new friendships with Roman Catholics.

This ecumenical convergence in my own spirit is circling back to growing my Anglican identity. For Anglicanism at its best in today’s Christian family is to be ecumenical in vision, in spirituality, in practical partnering, in common prayer and witness. The Anglican tradition is animated by a deep desire to embrace the best in both Catholicism and Protestantism, humbly acknowledging its own need for the other expressions of Christian discipleship.

Finally, I am experiencing the truth of what Frederick Buechner said long ago (and his words have become a classic saying): The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. For so many years I have sensed a deep call to parish-based pastoral leadership ministry. Already some 15 years ago I wrote in my journal: if only I could pastor a little parish in the country somewhere I’d be perfectly happy. Now it’s one thing to “dream” about something as if this is a true calling. It’s quite another to experience it in real time. But I am in real time now and I am pastoring in a small prairie town. And yes, I’m over the moon (the honeymoon!) with this new assignment; some of it will wear off over time I’m sure. But that is okay. The current synergy and the joyful energy welling up inside me, as if an artesian well has been unplugged, is unmistaken. There is something so right about where I am, and the people of God in both parishes have welcomed me so warmly. Preparing weekly sermons and preaching has never been easier; I am no longer the guest preacher who gets parachuted into a congregation, preaches without any bonds to the people, and then leaves again. Now I can build thought patterns with the Scriptures over the course of several Sundays, and to my great surprise some people are taking note and responding.

I experience spiritual and ministerial “highs” as I try out new pastoral initiatives, as I bring communion to shut-ins, as I lead worship in both the church and the long-term care facility, as I engage with the local refugee committee (small town–big project, refugee family arrived last November) and the Ministerial Association, and get to know parishioners. I pinch myself periodically; is this really happening?

I have worked in “church-land” long enough to know that it will not always be this way. I will hit new lows and collect new bruises on my heart. The artesian well will eventually run dry, the excitement of new beginnings will wear off. The hard balls of living will knock me over again – they always do. The cross always looms over the resurrection light, but its darkness does not overcome it. For now, in this little window of joy and excitement, this feels a bit like storing up blessings as preparation for the lean times which inevitably follow. The very fact of making the journey itself is truly the destination. And all this even before ordination – Deo Gratias 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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Barefoot and Preaching

I wish I had come up with this title, but I confess one much smarter — and younger! — than I is to be credited with this captivating name for her new website/blog BAREFOOT AND PREACHING.  My dear friend and sister in faith and ministry has just joined the cyber-publishing world — welcome Leah! Do check her out, she’s a force to be reckoned with:

BAREFOOT and PREACHING

Prairie Encounters is my little site where I share my ministry ware.

By way of exception, I will not add a comment section, as this is simply a joyful “birth announcement” 🙂 🙂 🙂

I have another entry in the draft section, so stay tuned. It should be up in a couple days.

A High-Wire Act

Because the word of God is what a preacher wrestles with in the pulpit, and because it is a living word, every sermon is God’s creation as well as the creation of the preacher and the congregation. All three participate, with the preacher as the designated voice. It is a delicate job for the one in the pulpit. … If the preacher leans too far one way, he will side with the text against the congregation and deliver a finger-pointing sermon from on high. If the preacher leans too far the other way, she will side with the congregation against the text and deliver a sermon that stops short of encountering God. (The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993)

It has been well over 20 years that Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers in the US, penned these words. By now a veteran preacher myself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Preaching is definitely a high-wire act and not for the faint-hearted. Hard and demanding as it is, however, the work of engaging the Word of God for preaching purposes is both exhilarating and immensely life-giving. You’d think that professional preachers, e.g. priests–ministers–pastors, would gladly take this task to heart every time it’s their turn to break open God’s Word to offer the community a morsel of divine sustenance for the soul.

Curiously, that does not seem to be the case. In his 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis devotes 25 paragraphs, or a whopping 20 pages, to the importance of the homily and how to prepare properly. My hunch is that he wouldn’t have seen the need to spill so much ink over this subject if the quality of preaching was up to Gospel standards.

Back in 2001, when publishing my book on preaching, I wrote:

Soon the preaching course moved beyond my comfort zone. It did not take long before I needed to risk the security of knowing who I was and who I was called to be. The paradox of learning more, and learning more deeply, became apparent. Gaining greater insight into the task of good preaching did not make my listening to Sunday homilies any easier. Developing a critical ear started to spell despair. More often than I care to admit I heard big gaps in Sunday homilies: those featuring the preacher more than God’s Word, those that  kept things too “nice” so as not to offend the listeners, those that divided people easily in “them” and “us” camps, , those that perpetuated gender stereotypes, those that excluded by sheer omission and silence, those used for spreading personal agendas, those that even left God’s Word untouched altogether. Many times I left Mass still hungry, even though I had received Communion. Now I wondered about the reasons for that hunger: there were in fact very few homilies that fed me spiritually. Receiving Communion alone was not sufficient.  I gained some understanding of and sympathy for people who say they “get nothing out of church,” even by those who come with sincere intent and a hungry heart. I felt deep sadness and frustration. I started to harken back to the days of ignorance in the best sense of that word  — it felt more comfortable not to know so much. 

Sadly, I am reminded of these words often and sigh. Take this past weekend. I had prepared my sermon for the Anglicans for Sunday morning, but attended Mass in a Catholic parish on Saturday evening. I was looking forward to the homily on the same Gospel passage, curious as to what the priest would have to say about this tale of two women in Mark’s Gospel (5:21-43). There were a few baptisms and, as a result, a lot of people at church who might not normally attend. But I left church, again, with a hungry spirit. For starters, the priest omitted the section of the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, thereby diffusing the Gospel passage of its shocking message. Then instead of being served the radical message of the Gospel we heard a 11-minute treatise on the history of baptism. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this illustrated exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor described in the above quote, i.e. leaning away from the text and delivering a sermon that stopped short of encountering God.

We’re not supposed to criticize Father’s sermons or be too hard on our priests as they’re so stretched in all directions. And it is quite possible that another soul was fed by the same sermon while mine was left wanting. Pope Francis gives us permission to take seriously our hungry spirits esp. as we leave church. I just hope that my hearers will tell me when my preaching words do or do not deliver food for their souls. I will let you judge for yourself. Here is my take on last Sunday’s Gospel: The Tale of Two Women

Prairie Encounters

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