When I retired from full time pastoral ministry 12 years ago, I was given a book by a couple from the church: Gilead, written by Marilynne Robinson (thank you Alison and Ernie). The book is about an “old,” retired pastor writing reflections on his life to share with his son. He muses about what to do with all his old sermons.
I quote. “My father always preached from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic. . .Pretty much my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. . .I’m a little afraid of them (p.18)”.
“I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime. . .If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought. If I don’t burn them someone else will, and that’s another humiliation.” (p.40)
So, what does this old retired preacher do with all his old sermons? I read. I shred. I go through a whole mixture of emotions. I keep a few “samples”. It is not for the faint of heart.
And just occasionally something jumps out at me. Early on Monday morning (May 12) I read the Toronto Star. There is a piece by Martin Gregg Cohn about the long history of our underfunding of long-term care homes (which bear the brunt of the Covid virus). In the “common sense revolution” of the mid 1990’s, “privatization” and “deregulation” and “for- profit” became big words under premier Mike Harris. There was a 22 percent cut to social programs (today Mike Harris is chair of Chartwell retirement Residences, one of Canada’s biggest private operators. For-profit homes have by far the worst outcomes for those hit with the virus). Harris, as premier, removed minimum staffing levels, a huge factor in today’s crisis.
Later Monday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I start reading – and shredding--old sermons. The first one I pick up is one from October 1996 – “Which Revolution – Which Dream”. A week later I use the framework of this sermon for a longer presentation at our Ministers/Deacons/Elders/Caregivers Conference in Toronto. I tell the story of Joseph, who moves from prison to being second in command only to Pharaoh. “So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharoah, because the Egyptians sold all their fields, so severe was the famine; the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, Pharaoh set them to work as slaves…” (Genesis 47:13-25).
I was a bit too brash, I think. I compared the Joseph story to what was happening in Ontario at that time. “Our new vocabulary is down-sizing, spending cuts, short term pain, deficits user fees, cutting the fat, privatizing, rationalization, outsourcing, adjusting the safety net”. In other words, I tried to challenge the basic framework of the so called “common sense revolution”. (I was angry that three staff positions at St. Clair O’Connor Community, our Mennonite nursing home and residence had been terminated that week because of these cuts).
I was unprepared for, but then delighted, with the blowback and spirited debate of my sermon and the presentation – both at TUMC and at the conference. There was a whole storm of discussion. For some it was my negative depiction of Joseph – surely a biblical hero. For others it was my critique of what the provincial government was doing. For others it was to loudly affirm my challenge and critiques. At Toronto United Mennonite Church, at that time we had a sermon response time after the church service. Usually we had a small group of 10 to 15 people attending. This time there were 35. One church member came to me saying, “You know Gary that I never come to these discussions – unless I am really upset and angry with what you said. Today I’m coming”.
It was kind of fun reading the Star’s analysis and my old sermon on the same morning. Maybe our unpreparedness for Covid does have something to do with what our governments unleashed in the nineties – underfunding, privatization, and neglect of the deep needs of the vulnerable. Something like Joseph unleashed back in Egypt.
Do I keep this old sermon or shred it?
I am missing corporate worship. Closing our churches is a necessary tool in fighting the crisis we are in. I totally appreciate and affirm what our church, and so many other churches, are doing to create on-line worship. Kudo’s to the technicians and pastors and other leaders who are making this possible. Zoom really is quite amazing. And I have loved hearing my sons preach in their respective churches – all electronically (My wife calls me “digitally resistant”).
But I still really miss gathering together on Sunday morning for worship. I miss being together with the people I have come to love. I miss the power of wonderful congregational singing. There is something so inspiring, so transcendent, about voices and spirit and body merging in sound and communal offering to God. Planning and leading corporate worship was always a highlight of my pastoral life. And as a retired pastor, corporate worship has nurtured my soul in a different, but very significant way—a way different than when I was giving leadership to it.
So, I am pondering how to nurture my spirits when this kind of worship is limited to electronic communication - when I miss the familiarity and power of a communal Sunday morning.
Lydia and I have tried to nurture a daily time for scripture reading and prayer together throughout our marriage. That continues to uphold our spirits. But there is still a missing link in my emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Maybe there is a lesson in that. This pandemic crisis is creating many huge challenges for all of us. One of these for us is to pay more attention to the health of our spirits when not supported by the fuller power of being physically together for worship.
I suppose that Paul’s challenge to the Colossian believers to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” could apply to shut-in households. But what about for those who are living alone?
In the face of “social distancing” we are all challenged to find new and powerful ways to stay “connected” with each other – and with God.
I am inspired by the many stories that are being told – stories of reaching out, stories of sacrifices made, stories of coping in new ways with isolation and fear and loneliness – and death. Just this morning my flagging spirit was set alight by the lead story in The Toronto Star Insight section. I could almost not believe it. There they were, big, bold pictures, side by side, of Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland and Ontario Premier Doug Ford. They are political enemies, aren’t they? Now they call each other “therapist” and “friend”. They have genuinely forged a deep respect, appreciation, and, yes, friendship with each other. Wow.
What has that got to do with worship. I don’t really know. All I know is that I was thrilled deep in my heart. Enemies becoming friends. And then I read that the premier of Alberta too has high regard for Freeland. I marvel at how well these former “enemies” ARE working together wonderfully well in the face of our crisis.
I will ponder these things while worshipping via Zoom tomorrow morning. I will put my life, our lives, into the much bigger picture of God’s healing love for the entire world.
Our MCC footprint seems rather small. Some of you have a much larger one. Yet, our connection with MCC feels significant and memorable to us. It led us to places and people and stories we could not have imagined.
In the mid nineties MCC asked my wife Lydia, then the director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Center, to help facilitate an exchange between Muslim and Christian theological scholars. MCC had already arranged to have Roy Hange spend several years as a student in the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Instituted located in the city of Qom, Iran. Qom is a “seminary” city, a particularly “religious” city, the center of Islamic fervor. Qom, with a population over 2,000,000 is largely built around producing clerics. MCC through, Ed Martin, asked Lydia to facilitate arrangements for two Muslims scholars from that institute to study here in Toronto – entrance to Toronto School of Theology and providing living accommodations for them. Yousef Daneshvar and Mohammed Farimani entered our world and our lives. During this time Lydia also helped organize a broader theological dialogue between Muslim and Mennonite theologians. Some of you may even remember that memorable scholarly dialogue, held at Conrad Grebel University College, where police sharpshooters stood guard on the campus – because of local Muslim protest. It seemed a bit ironic that pacifist Mennonites and Muslim scholars engaging in dialogue needed police protection.
In the year 2000 I was offered a sabbatical leave by Toronto United Mennonite Church where I served as pastor. The Evangelical Seminary of Cairo (Presbyterian) invited Lydia to teach there in Cairo as a sabbatical replacement. We spent six months in Cairo loosely under MCC’s auspices. Gary was seen as an unofficial “Pastor” to the 10 person MCC unit there (which included our son Kendall who had been a part of the story getting Lydia her teaching position). When MCC learned that we would be in Cairo, they asked us to travel to Iran to help strengthen the Muslim-Mennonite dialogue.
Near the end of our time in Cairo we flew to Tehran. The most “official and formal” meeting in those two weeks spent in Iran was the two hours we spent with Ayatollah Mizbah, the director of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. In his opening greeting Mr. Mizbah referred to Ed Martin and the Hanges as “opening the door” to the larger dialogue and to our visit with him. “Through them we learned to trust MCC”, he said. Then, he startled us, turning to us and saying, “You are the first Christian clerics (he assumed Lydia was a cleric too) in the history of Qom to be invited by, and hosted by, this Muslim Institute. And it’s all because of Ed Martin and MCC. MCC came to Iran to offer help after our devastating earthquake (which killed almost 100,000 people) - WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED. They just offered much needed relief help. We trust MCC.”
We also spent a day at the headquarters of the Red Crescent Society of Iran, located in Tehran. At first it seemed to us that the director, to whom we were introduced, thought of us as a bit of a nuisance, an interruption to his important work. But when we gave him our greetings from Ed Martin his whole visage changed. “Ed Martin – He is a friend. We trust him. We trust MCC”. He devoted the rest of our time there to proudly showing us the huge scope of the Red Crescent Societies work.
We can’t resist sharing our story of how we met our “Muslim angel”. Our last evening there we were reflecting on our amazing time in Iran. We were anticipating our flight back to Cairo the next morning, and a few days later our flight back to Canada. Our two weeks were almost over. We asked each other about any unfulfilled dreams for our trip. There were a few. One Lydia mentioned was disappointment that we had not been in more Iranian homes and had not been able to talk with more Iranian women. How could we have known that it would take a bit of a nightmare to get her wish. But then, in that nightmare, we also met an angel.
Our hosts had said goodbye. They had arranged for taxi service to the airport for us for the next morning. Everything was proceeding normally and without fuss the next morning at the airport prior to boarding the plane back to Cairo. Customs is cleared. Baggage is checked. We have our boarding passes in hand. The last line up is for passport control.
“You can’t go on the plane. Your visitors visa is no longer valid”. Panic. Cold sweat. “But what is wrong with it?” “Your date is okay, but your visa limits you to a seven day stay within those 14 days listed on your visa. See right here. And you have been here 12 days already. Your visa is not valid now. You must go to the Department of Alien Affairs and try to get your visa extended. We have cancelled your flight.”
Apparently the MCC office manager in Cairo had not read the fine print when arranging our flight. No amount of discussing and seeing higher up officials helps us. We retrieve our luggage. We try to make reservations for the next day. The airline refuses. They don’t expect us to have our visas renewed by then. In some turmoil we take a taxi to Alien Affairs. There, nobody, it seems, speaks English. There will be many hoops to jump through, with nobody to explain where to jump. We are in despair.
“Do you need any help? I speak Farsi and English”. Do we ever need help! Victoria too has come, reluctantly, to that office, not quite convinced that she needs to get a visa extension for her children. She is Iranian, but having married an American, and lived in the United States, her children are American and need visitor visas. She is back in Iran because her husband has died.
Altogether ours will be a 6 ½ hour process. In that time, we get close to 20 signatures from various officials, go to a particular bank twice for receipts, get our pictures taken, go to court, face a judge, and pay a fine (fortunately only a few dollars each). We are now convicted law breakers in Iran. Ah yes, facing the judge. Lydia hadn’t worn socks for the trip home. Victoria tells her she cannot face a judge in Iran without socks on. But a man can. So, Lydia faces the judge with Gary’s socks on while Gary goes sock-less.
Victoria is an absolute angel. She stayed with us the entire time. Had she not, we are sure the process would have lasted days rather than hours. She cancelled her appointments to see us through. She interpreted for us. She rather energetically pled our case when there was resistance. When the last official we met with said we should come back the next week for our visas, she said, “No way. You will have them ready by closing time today”. Amazingly, we got our visa extension just minutes before the office closed for the day and for the weekend. Our next frustration was that the plane for the next morning was already overbooked. We managed to get the last two seats for the following morning.
Victoria was not finished with her angelic work. She invited us to her home for dinner that evening. We had an amazing evening with her and her two children (5 & 7 years of age). Gradually the panic and stress of the day abated, and we relaxed into the enjoyment of friendship and our common humanness.
We tell these stories because they exemplify the genius of MCC. Yes, MCC offers help and aid around the world. But even more basically it develops mutual relationships - relationships of trust and respect. Offering earthquake aid without strings attached led to amazing scholarly dialogue. And then an angel, at some personal risk, returns the favour by inviting us “strangers” into her heart. It is all about relationships.
These many years later we celebrate the story and ministry of MCC, and the life-changing moments of our very small footstep in it.
I confess it. My innate pattern was – and perhaps still is - to avoid conflict. Don’t fight. Be peaceful. Be nice. Maybe the conflict will go away.
That was my family of origin pattern. Since we oldest three brothers were all three years apart in age, and my youngest brother 9 years younger than I, we could kind of ignore each other, and just walk away if we were upset. I knew it wasn’t wise to cross my older two brothers. My father was an introvert who was known as a quiet behind-the-scenes peacemaker. He seldom spoke out in public, and never raised his voice when he did. Mother, the only extrovert in the family, more inclined to name things, accepted her diminished role as a woman and spoke up only in women’s meetings.
My home church, in my opinion, had a very poor record when it came to conflict resolution. Conflict there was aplenty. The pattern, it seemed to me, was to avoid conflict (though there was lots of gossip). But occasionally there were explosions of anger vented in public. That experience made me very afraid of open conflict. In my mind I still hear how people yelled angrily at each other in a congregational meeting.
I married an extrovert whose family pattern was to engage each other rather forcefully. They seemed to love arguing with each other, challenging each other, stating their opinions and convictions very strongly. And it didn’t break relationships. It seemed to me that their disputes deepened family bonds. Looking in from the outside I admired this capacity to have things out in the open. But it took me a long time to have the courage to enter this kind of give and take. I was a conflict avoider, kind of stuck in that rut, afraid to change long ingrained inner patterns. Gradually, and far too slowly, I learned to enjoy the give and take of having disagreements out in the open and sorting things out face to face – though old patterns of avoidance still tempt me. My family home was more peaceful than was the Neufeld family home. But we buried things inside that should have been uncovered and dealt with.
As an educated pastor I was fully comfortable with rather rigorous academic and scholarly pursuit where Biblical and theological differences were easily challenged and discussed – a bit at arm’s length, I confess. But what about much more personal and emotional conflicts which engaged the heart more than only the mind, when the attack was much more personal than intellectual? Differences of opinion or interpretation or even conviction can be sorted out in one’s mind with rational discussion. But when the dispute has to do with more deeply held personal convictions, or has entered the sphere of emotional intensity, the sorting out is much more challenging.
Gradually (too gradually), I learned that it was freeing to name and to express deeper emotional stress, including anger, within my marriage, and family, and church circle. Much better to have anger out in the open rather than simmering inside. I am not quite a “Neufeld” yet, but I have moved beyond my “Harder” carefulness. When Lydia and I taught our “Church and Ministry” course at Conrad Grebel University College, and when we partnered in doing intentional interim ministry in three different churches, we would hear appreciation for the times we would publicly disagree with each other. And we were listened to when we named and challenged in-appropriate use of power in the churches.
What about conflict, and anger, in the church? Should I as pastor supress it, or engage it? Do I put on my “Harder” hat or my “Neufeld” hat when being a pastor in a church in conflict? My observation is that generally we Mennonites do not have a very good record when dealing with major conflict within the church. It seems to me that there is a culture of avoidance and secrecy in many of our churches. We are afraid of conflict and tend to supress it – until it wants to explode. We want to manage conflict carefully, rather than bring it out into the open to heal the underneath stuff.
When we look at the New Testament church, we notice immediately that huge conflicts were there from the beginning. The really big one, of course, was bringing Gentiles into a church that began with Jewish believers. Acts 15 tells this story and includes a line that I delight in. “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’. And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them…”. A few verses later we read, “After there had been much debate…”. In other words, they faced the conflict head on – and changed the church forever.
The church at Corinth was full of conflict. There were fights between leaders (Ch. 1), there were “worship wars” (Ch. 14), and the communion service itself became a showcase for the rich flaunting their power over the poor (Ch.11). Paul seems to address these conflicts directly and wisely. I really like what he said regarding the substantive issue of how best to worship, which was dividing the church in Corinth between the “charismatics” and the “rationalists”. “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also: I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Wow.
I am not convinced that Paul was equally adept at inter-personal conflict. First, he has quite a row with fellow missionary Barnabas who wanted to take young, inexperienced John Mark with them on a missionary journey. Paul would have none of it. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company” (Acts 15:37-40). And then Paul tears a strip off fellow apostle Peter when they have a difference of opinion. “But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13). Wow again. His style would not be in today’s conflict resolution manuals.
The church will always have its conflicts. I assume that as a given. And since we Mennonites reject having a powerful hierarchy solving our problems for us, we must learn healthy patterns of working at conflict (not bullying, or managing or avoiding, or overpowering, or leaving).
I end with a story that still grips me. The church where I was a pastor was in the throes of a very divisive substantive conflict. There were certainly parts of this story which were very hurtful and unproductive. But one evening was very special. We re-arranged the chairs into a big circle. (we needed a very large circle for this one). Every single person in this large circle was given a mike. Every person was invited to share their deep conviction. You could “pass”, but very few did. People were almost brutally honest. We heard a lot of pain and anger and root convictions. Everyone listened without public judgment. It was, as it were, an invitation to listen deeply into people’s hearts and minds. We didn’t agree with each other that evening. But we heard each other. Deeply. It was very powerful.
Now if my spouse and I would only agree on how we want to plan for the Bible study that we are leading together…
Yesterday morning, Jan. 12, Peter Haresnape was licensed for ministry and installed as an associate pastor of Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC). I, as former pastor at TUMC, now long retired, was thrilled. It was a powerful moment of recognizing Peter’s calling by God and his many gifts for ministry – especially his biblical and theological strengths, his gentle care for people and his commitment to peace and justice. Underneath the surface of this public celebration of God’s call into ministry flowed another stream – a stream of healing for both the congregation and for me as former pastor.
We were a broken congregation, and I was a broken pastor, after our deep conflict over issues of inclusion around human sexuality in 2003. These tore us apart. But maybe our acknowledgment of brokenness was the window into which God’s healing started to flow. We lamented. We confessed. We tried to open ourselves to the future. We began to see our differences as gifts and the conflicts we had as opportunities to understand more fully what it meant to live into God’s hospitable invitation. Thankfully, there were some from within and some from without the community who continued the dialogue and gently pushed us to continue on a journey of justice and healing.
After my retirement, God sent Dave Brubacher to TUMC as an intentional interim pastor to work with many lay leaders to prepare the ground for the future. Then came Marilyn Zehr as pastor, later joined by Michele Rizoli. We moved into a team ministry model which included several youth workers. The congregation grew. The spirit of the congregation was again full of energy and vitality. When Marilyn left for other ministries, we spent some time searching for a pastoral model for our present context.
And now God was inviting another person to join Michele on the pastoral team. Several months ago, our congregation met with Peter to discern whether or not to invite him to be our associate pastor. The conversation was rigorous, a spirited and healthy give and take. In the end the congregation moved, by consensus, to invite him to join our pastoral team. Peter being gay was not an issue.
I could not have imagined all of these developments when I retired from full time ministry in 2007. I felt God’s gentle healing touch personally when God gave my wife Lydia and I a wonderful opportunity to partner together in serving three very unique congregations as intentional interim co-pastors. After eight years away, and after full retirement, we came back to TUMC to make it our church home. It was a changed, and more vibrant, congregation.
Yesterday the congregation was in high spirits. Alicia Good, associate pastor of the Leamington North Mennonite Church preached a fine sermon (including reminding us that every pastor also fails at times). Marilyn Rudy Froese, Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada officiated the licencing.
I marvel at God’s healing touch. I rejoice in all callings to ministry. I celebrate the hospitable spirit of our congregation. Thanks be to God.
Downsizing # 2
I open the filing cabinet committed to emptying it. It holds many files from my days as pastor. I am fully retired. I don’t really need these files any more. It seems I started at the wrong place. One of the first files has the title “marriage preparation”. Ah. I always loved marriage preparation and officiating weddings. Over the last years Lydia and I were often asked to do marriage preparation as a team. We thoroughly enjoyed doing so. In fact, within the last few months we again had the privilege of meeting with a young couple as they prepared for their marriage.
Cleaning out old files is going to take lots longer than I thought it would. There it is, as I open the file for a quick look. “The flower of intimacy” tool we developed to help couples reflect on the breadth and depth of their relationship. We picture a flower with roots (what each of them brings to their relationship) a center (the relationship they want to build), and ten petals (each one another dimension of a healthy relationship).
Using this image, we invite a couple to reflect, first individually, and then as a couple, on the strengths and perhaps weaknesses, and gaps in their relationship. We help them explore their level of intimacy in each petal – emotional, social, recreational, financial, spiritual, esthetic, physical-sexual, vocational, intellectual, and wider family. This is where so many differences of perspective and expectations emerge. The discussion becomes very lively. Most couples find it very helpful to reflect on this multi-coloured nature of a healthy marriage relationship. Most couples are surprised at the broader scope and breath of intimate possibilities.
But opening that file totally altered my timetable for cleaning out that filing cabinet. I was stopped in my tracks – I think in a good way. Part of this is that we too, especially in our aging, need to keep on reassessing our own intimacy needs and expectations, and the realities of our own marriage relationship. But the other thing that grabbed me was that I experienced a lot of relational and emotional and spiritual intimacy in my work as pastor – intimacies which I now miss.
A flood of gratitude to God blesses these memories. It has been an awesome gift from God to have had the privilege of walking with people through the highest and lowest moments of their lives. Perhaps preparing people for weddings and funerals reflects the incredibly wide scope of a pastor’s deeply intimate involvement in people’s lives. We are so often invited into the most joyful and most painful realities of life – and everything in between. Most people want to be assured that God is accompanying them in their journey. They long for the pastor to hold them in prayer and to pray with them. To be invited to pray with people is incredibly intimate. Yes, I do miss that, even as I give thanks to God for the privilege given me to experience that kind of intimacy over so many years.
My marriage also has been an immense gift from God. I am aware that our intimacy needs do evolve and change over time. Some of the things we once really enjoyed doing together – like tenting and camping – are no longer feasible (old muscles resist getting up from tent floors and old bladders resist repeated nocturnal visits to outdoor toilets). And yes, we kind of need two T.V.’s to accommodate our different viewing preferences. We too need to ponder those flower of intimacy petals to reflect on our own changing intimacy needs. One thing does remain constant. We have always prayed together. That has been a powerful core of our intimate relationship.
I better not open any more of my files.
I may never finish downsizing.
It all started with a very modest second floor renovation project. Both the grand-child and niece who had been living there the last while had moved out. The carpet and paint were 30 years worn. Time to call the flooring and painting people. They would not appreciate the clutter – full bookshelves, full filling cabinets, full closets (left by the previous occupants). Time to start serious down-sizing. Besides, at our age we do need to give some consideration to the travails of the next generation cleaning up after us.
We have done quite well in getting rid of old books – lots of old books. Whole bookshelves full of old books. When a pastor and a scholar live together books accumulate without end. We were even able to dispense with the upstairs bookcases. We had emptied them. But now there were the filing cabinets – packed full of papers - really special, really important papers. A life’s work of scholarship. Filling cabinets so full and so heavy the flooring and painting people might get hernias in their efforts at moving things around.
Old papers – and old sermons – are very hard to dispose of. They carry memories. They represent a life’s work. There might even be a few good ideas and thoughts in them. Do they still have any value at all? Yet we sincerely doubt that anyone in the next generation will want to read them. Out went all of Lydia’s many papers – those she wrote and those she had collected from other scholars. All of them. Three huge recyclable bags so full it was a challenge to carry them downstairs.
Some consolation for Lydia was that she had been able to include some of her best published articles in her recent book (The Challenge is in the Naming: A Theological Journey, published by CMU Press, 2018). Still, it is not easy to throw away stuff that reflects a life-time of work.
I am torn. Lydia faced her downsizing challenge with great courage. Now it is my turn. What do I now do with over 50 years worth of old sermons? Should they suffer the same fate? I smile at a memory. In 2007 I was given a partial sabbatical leave to try to write a book. The congregation – and I - kind of assumed I would seek out what I thought were some of my best sermons and publish them in book form. After reading through a bunch of them I knew they wouldn’t make book material. That got me going on the book that did get published (Dancing Through Thistles in Bare Feet; A Pastoral Journey, published by Herald Press, 2008). We had become friends with a German Lutheran Bishop who spent some sabbatical time in Toronto during which he and his wife attended our church to get a sense of how an Anabaptist Mennonite Church worshipped. At dinner at our place he chuckled as he responded to reading my book. “I’m so glad you made the decision not to print a book of sermons. Those kind of books almost never work.”
So, what’s the point of keeping all those old sermons? They can of course be recycled. But what kind of recycling is best for them? I do need to confess that I did include several of these old sermons in my recently published book The Pastor-Congregation Duet, published by Friesen Press. Maybe that German Lutheran Bishop would not be happy with me.
Aging does face us seniors with a series of losses – though also with some significant gains. As a pastor I constantly heard stories of the losses people experienced as they aged. Bodies and minds do tend to slow down, energy evaporates, mobility is reduced. Many friends and colleagues are gone. Housing is downsized. Even the church community feels more fragile. Older seniors can’t always make it to church on a Sunday morning, especially when they have health issues. They may then feel that they will be forgotten. They are no longer looked to for advice. Perhaps a spouse has died.
And yet, as a pastor, I also heard so many stories of seniors embracing their aging, dealing with their losses, creating new communities and friends, preparing well for death. And now my wife and I are in that space.
Our upstairs is now ready for the flooring and painting people. We are tired but content. And we ponder the next stage of our ageing.
Miziwe… What musical world are we entering? How will we respond to its haunting strangeness?
Tomorrow our Pax Christi choir has an extra rehearsal – one of a number of extra rehearsals. The oratorio “Miziwe” is one of the most challenging pieces of music I have sung. We will perform it March 31 at Koerner Hall – the world premier performance of this brand-new oratorio by Barbara Croall, an Odawa First Nations musician from Manitoulin Island. Part of the difficulty of the piece for us singers is that it is in the Odawa language. Even more challenging is the musical style. It is beyond anything I have ever sung before. It tone-paints the sounds of nature. Its rhythms are incredibly complex.
And yet I am totally intrigued by it. For one thing, it reflects the language, spirituality and place of our son-in-law who, together with our daughter and three grandchildren, lives on Sagamok First Nations land in Northern Ontario – an Ojibwe nation. We have visited there a number of times, always enthralled by its beauty and its hospitality. There we have heard the sounds of the natural world this oratorio captures. There we come face to face with our long Canadian history of colonialism and white supremacy.
My wife and I are part of a long and troubled history. We were, unwittingly, part of the now infamous “sixties scoop” (a government sponsored, church encouraged, program to adopt indigenous children into white families with an underneath motive of “taking the Indian out of the Indian”). We adopted an indigenous daughter from the Siksika Blackfoot nation in Alberta. (She and her husband bring together two indigenous worlds – Blackfoot and Ojibway). We were very naïve. Why wouldn’t our daughter just grow up accepting our “white-Mennonite” culture and spirituality and way of life like our sons would. We now know it just isn’t that simple.
Maybe the complexity of the oratorio for me mirrors the complexity of that relationship between settlers and indigenous folk. We are learning, sometimes painfully, to engage each other in new ways - in ways which respect and honour identity formation that is not our own. We cherish our First Nations family. We have been so warmly welcomed onto First Nations land and into First Nations spirituality – powwows, sweat lodges, ceremonies and sacred dances. And to pick blueberries there. But these relationships are very complex, and we stumble along the way. And sometimes cry together.
Miziwe… (Everywhere) – I enter a new musical world, and a new cultural and spiritual perspective. It challenges me. I feel privileged and honored to have this opportunity to enter them. So, come to Koerner Hall March 31 to enter this amazing First Nations world yourself.
Old love, Old love letters, and a Lost Ring
Like many old, retired people, Lydia and I have been “downsizing”. No, we aren’t in a hurry to leave the house we have lived in for over thirty years now. But we are trying to declutter. We have given away masses of old books, and it was time now to have a go at our filing cabinets and the reams of old papers and letters lodged within. And discovered that we weren’t quite ready to throw all of them away after all.
Old love letters, that is. Wow.
We were engaged to be married in April. Our wedding date was August 1. But after we finished our school year at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg in June, Lydia headed East to help on her family’s farm in Niagara, Ontario and I headed West to our farm in Rosemary, Alberta. We would not see each other for a couple of months until a few days before our wedding. So, we wrote love letters to each other.
No, I will not make them public. Except for one story that jumped out at me - a story of crisis proportions.
In those days I couldn’t afford bus or train tickets. I got a ride with Saskatchewan students that got me as far as Swift current, Saskatchewan, after a detour through Saskatoon. We left Winnipeg in two cars. I squeezed my suitcase into the only available space in car number one. As it happened, that car only went as far as Saskatoon. The other car, with me in it, headed off to Swift current – without my suitcase. From there I would hitch-hike home – minus that suitcase.
Alas. In April I had given my beloved the engagement ring. The matching wedding ring was in that suitcase. I put it there to be sure I wouldn’t lose it. Alas. The suitcase was shipped to Rosemary via the CPR. It never arrived. Our CPR station agent kept the telegraph wires hot in Its pursuit. No luck.
The day before our wedding I bought a rather cheap replacement wedding ring. At least we did get married.
Fast forward to a brutally cold November day back in Winnipeg, six months later. Two burly CPR agents stand at our door – with my suitcase. It has been found in a warehouse in Vancouver. Now Lydia has two wedding rings. But not for all that long.
The next year we are living near Sudbury, Ontario, where I am the pastor of Waters Mennonite Church. We make a week-end trip to Niagara to visit Lydia’s parents. We return home to discover thieves have broken into our house. They didn’t take all that much – some coins I was collecting, and the cheap wedding ring used for our wedding. So now we were back to only one wedding ring. Is there a message in this somewhere?
The wedding ring saga continued. A few years later we are in London, Ontario. I am doing a year of clinical pastoral education there. One day the diamond in Lydia’s wedding ring – the ring not used at our wedding – disappears, unnoticed by her, down the bath tub drain. Alas.
Is there a moral to this tragic story? Hardly. Except that I am writing this saga on Valentines Day, a day dedicated to love. Despite our ring misadventures, our love and our marriage, feel strong, feel blessed, feel worth celebrating some 55 years later.
Messing up: Part 1
The pancakes I made for that breakfast were plain awful. I pride myself on making good breakfasts – a different menu for each of the six breakfasts I make every week.
“Opa, when are you going to make pancakes for us?” asked grandson Tobias a few days earlier. “I love your pancakes,” added granddaughter Matea. In my small Leamington based family I am rather famous for them. This is a rather small cheering section, I admit. But the grandkids ask for them every time they come visiting. For Tobias and Matea I still use gluten free Almond milk, though they are gradually growing out of that allergy. For the rest of us I use regular milk. Two bowls of batter are ready, both richly sprinkled with wild blueberries – blueberries I have handpicked on Sagamok First Nations land north of Massy, Ontario. These blueberries came at a high personal cost. In my eagerness to approach a loaded bush of blueberries I failed to notice the wasp nest on the rotting tree stump several meters away. Alas, four painful stings accompanied my hurried retreat. Those blueberries were very precious. And they were nicely colouring the batter in each of those two bowls.
The griddle was hot, ready for five pancakes at a time, two for the grandkids, three for their parents and Oma. They look “interesting”. There is a bit of a “thunk” when I turn them over. They don’t rise like they usually do. And they look a bit “splotchy”. I serve them. They eat them. Quietly. No “What great pancakes, Opa.” Glum silence. I make a few more. Same thing. Thunk. Silence.
Only later in the day does it finally occur to me what went wrong. While checking our egg supply I was surprised at how many there were still left. The lights went on. “I forgot the eggs”. I’ve made pancakes hundreds of times. How could I forget the eggs?
But why did that omission, small, really, in the larger scheme of things, bother me so much. Those gathered around the table still ate those heavy lunks of fried dough. No one complained – unless glum faces are complaint enough. Why not just laugh and move on? But it nags at me. I messed up. I forgot the eggs.
There is a thought here somewhere, perhaps a lesson to be learned. Maybe it was time that my grandkids too realized that grandparents also mess up sometimes. And for me? Well, messing up is nothing new to me, and almost inedible pancakes are among the smallest of my mess-ups. And maybe it’s okay that my pride was pricked and that I wasted my precious blueberries making pancakes that “thunked”. My grandkids don’t love me less for it.
Messing up: Part II
I was messed up. The church I was pastoring was messed up. We had come through a long process of discernment wounded and broken. All our careful planning, our rigorous processing, didn’t prevent our very human tendencies to try to win the battle whatever the cost. That cost was very high. No one won the battle. We felt broken. I felt broken. (The longer story is told in my book The Pastor-Congregation Duet published by Friesen Press, 2018).
God’s healing came as a surprise, and as a gift. Maybe God’s healing always comes as a surprize and gift. We didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve it. The healing wasn’t instant. It took a long time. But it was deep, and it was profound
Maybe this was also true in the New Testament churches – both the messing up and the healing. The church at Corinth was in constant conflict and turmoil. There were leadership battles, worship battles, social prestige battles (the rich flaunted their wealth, at, of all places, the communion table). How did that church even survive? How did our church even survive?
Paul keeps on naming the human and sinful reality of the church at Corinth, but also the love and grace of God. Paul, mind you, is also often in conflict with other early church leaders. He and Peter are angry with each other. He doesn’t trust Barnabas. Paul is also a wounded, and sinful, human leader – as we all are.
In our story in Toronto, church and pastor felt wounded, broken, discouraged – and maybe finally open to God’s grace-filled healing.
The one reality is that we humans do mess up. We mess up our relationships, including our family relationships. Is there any church that can claim never being messed up? We humans are really messing up our created world. Our political structures are in constant upheaval and mess. To be human is to mess up. To be human is also to deny our responsibility for the messes we make.
The other reality is that God is bigger than our messes. God does hold us accountable. The prophets of the Old Testament name this loudly. There is no soft pedaling our alienations – from each other and from our environment and from God. And yet our prophets, and our Scriptures, dare to claim that we humans were made “in the image of God”, that we are deeply loved by God, that God’s project with us humans is forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, restoration. God is at work in the messiness of our lives.
God’s healing did come as gift and surprise to me and to our church. The shock to me was whom God sent as messengers of that healing when I didn’t see it. I was greeting people after a difficult, intense, painful, emotional “lament” worship service where we cried out our brokenness before God. I felt exhausted, empty. Two first time guests became God’s messengers to me – to us. “A church that can be this honest, this transparent, this real, is one I want to be a part of,” they both said.
They were angels to me that morning.