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.
I was totally surprised by the intensity of my emotional reactions this morning. My brother sent me an email which brought me back to my roots and to memories long buried.
I grew up on a farm in Rosemary Alberta. It’s been years since I have been physically or emotionally back home. That rural community seems to be a part of my distant past. I have been thoroughly urbanized, quite content to live in the biggest city in Canada. At times, in my life, I have reflected on how growing up on a farm, and attending the Rosemary Mennonite Church, helped shape my work ethic, my values, and my spiritual journey. Realistically I am no longer emotionally connected to the place of my growing up.
I had uncles and aunts and cousins whom I felt close too living in the area. They provided strong family bonds. My grandfather was the Aeltester (bishop) of the German-speaking immigrant church (I was 4 years old when he died). Now I have only 2 cousins left in the Rosemary area. The family connections have thinned.
Some years ago, I felt some inner turmoil while I was in a rather heated letter writing debate with a few folks from the Rosemary church who were very distressed about my openness to Christian gays in the church. The Rosemary Mennonite Church has more recently left the embrace of the Conference of Mennonites In Alberta, supposedly over this issue. I am aware that the theological and ecclesial gap between my growing up church and I is rather large.
Yes, emotionally these Rosemary roots have thinned and faded. Until this morning. My brother sent me notice of Alvin Lepp’s death. Alvin Lepp was 10 years older than I. But I felt I knew him quite well. I have memories of him in the left back row of the church choir, which my father conducted, face lit with pleasure, singing in his deep bass voice. When I came back to Rosemary from college one summer and formed and conducted the male choir, he was an enthusiastic and very affirmative singer. It was Alvin who bought our family farm, a year after my dad’s death and after my mother realized that she couldn’t run the farm by herself. He it was who remodelled our old house and made other improvements to the farm.
And it was Alvin who played a very significant role in a very momentous episode in our family story. Our indigenous adopted daughter, at 19 years of age, was looking for her family roots. It was Alvin, because of his “mission” work on behalf of the Alberta Conferences of Mennonites on the Siksika nation, who had the personal contacts and relationships there that helped our daughter almost immediately get into contact with her birth mother and larger birth family. Thank you, Alvin from the bottom of our hearts.
Emotionally I am back in Rosemary this morning. Alvin’s funeral will be this afternoon. I wish I could be there. I give thanks for the roots I have in Rosemary, Alberta. And I ponder how our “roots” still keep us connected in invisible ways to the place of our beginnings -- long after we think we have left them behind. Do any of you identify with having tenuous, and yet strong roots to home?
'‘Tis a New Year. We have laid the old year to rest, with some regrets, but with a feeling that there was more to celebrate than there was to wish away. I basically don’t make New Years resolutions. Either I am too lazy to make them, or maybe realize that I won’t keep them anyway. But, based on my experience a few weeks ago, I am pondering the need for some remedial social awareness. I have never really followed youth culture, and need to confess that I am totally out of touch with the realities of that world – technologically and musically. Can someone my age really change? Should someone my age make any resolutions at all?
My burning light moment of “out of touch-ness” happened several weeks ago. I confess that I had no clue. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I just got stuck in the past. Maybe I’m just oblivious to the contemporary scene. I had no clue who I was playing hockey with.
Our son Mark invited us over for a visit in Kitchener. We wanted to catch up on the trip Rachel and Mark had just returned from – a trip to Europe to visit their daughter Lorena who is studying in France. Mark specifically invited us for a Tuesday visit. Tuesdays is when he plays hockey with a bunch of other clergy – an ecumenical group of hockey enthusiasts. They play in Tavistock every Tuesday morning. Mark invited me to play hockey with them.
I soon realize that I am by far the oldest one there – most retired clergy know when to hang up their skates. But I am warmly welcomed anyway. Coming to the arena I did notice a big black vehicle and several people in official looking uniforms – maybe guards of some kind. I payed no attention. The comaraderie in the dressing room was welcoming. These clergy though are mostly quite young. What am I doing here? One of these young clergy is quite exuberant. He is in the far corner. At one time he even starts singing. I like the spunk these soon to be teammates on the ice show.
We warm up on the ice. Then I’m told that they always start each game with a prayer. Maybe clergymen also need to remind themselves that they should not get overly competitive. This young man who had started singing in the dressing room now launched out in a loud, enthusiastic prayer. Time to play hockey.
These young clergy are way faster than I am. It turns out that I am on the same team as the “singer-prayer”. He is actually a rather good hockey player. He scores a few goals. I don’t.
The game finishes. Mark and I head back to Kitchener, chatting happily, feeling good about the physical exertion just expended.
Sometime later I get an email from Mark. “Do you know who we were playing hockey with yesterday? Do you know who the “prayer” was? It was Justin Bieber.
My only consolation in not recognizing Justin Bieber was that Mark didn’t recognize him either. Maybe I need to include my son in a joint program (resolution?) to include remedial social awareness in “our” journey into 2019.
There are reasons to fear what is happening in our world. Democracy seems to be at growing risk. Violence is producing more and more refugees even as our world becomes more and more afraid of them (but what power do refugees really have to make us afraid)? The United States government is partially shut down over a wall – a wall to keep refuges out. Christians too are hesitant about, or resistant to, welcoming refugees who are fleeing for their lives. It seems that an anti- immigrant sentiment is growing around the world, including in Canada. Why are we so afraid?
Surely the Christmas story offers prospective and hope to this fear of refugees. The basic story line of Jesus has him being born in a stable in Bethlehem to poor parents, and almost immediately becoming a refugee in Egypt. Here are my thoughts.
What if – what if Egypt had built a border wall (I suppose if they could build pyramids, they could build a wall), or had met Joseph and Mary and Jesus with chariots and spears drawn. What if Egypt had said a loud “no” to this Jewish family, and sent they back into the cruel arms of King Herod? Would Jesus even have survived? Would there even be any “Christians” today?
What if – what if our Canadian government had said “no” to those fleeing for their lives from Russia in the 1920’s? I would not be here then. I am a Russian Mennonite whose father fled Siberia and was welcomed by Canada in 1927. Three of my uncles didn’t make it and were murdered. What if our government had closed its doors to my family, as it did to that ship of Jewish refugees in the 1940’s? We were, after all, German speaking – an enemy people, and we were from a Communist country, another enemy people. And we were Mennonites, a strange – and pacifist – sect of Christians. Would any of us who have a Russian Mennonite background even be here today?
What if – what if the indigenous peoples of North America had said “no” to us settler peoples, had not allowed us in. But how could they have known that we “whites” wouldn’t be satisfied with co-existence and partnership. How could they have known that many would be hell bent on control and domination. Would any of us “whites” even be here now if our earliest peoples had said “no” to us?
But there is a bigger what if. The above what ifs assume that we humans can control what happens in our world – the strong supposedly protecting those who are deemed weaker, but really solidifying their own power. The story of the birth of Jesus declares that God enters our world with vulnerability and love – a power far greater than all the armies and walls of the world. A few wise men, foreigners even if not refugees, thwart power mad Herod. The Egyptians (wouldn’t they have seen Jews as enemies?) did offer sanctuary to this Jewish family. God was protecting the vulnerable.
I confess that I do carry anxieties and fear about what is happening politically in the United States and here in Ontario. But I want to re-orient my spirit to the good news of the birth of Jesus – the Messiah. I want to hear the angels singing “Do not be afraid.” What if I would put my trust in God’s powerful love.
My wife is trying to persuade me to start writing blogs. “Writers write blogs,” she says,” so start doing what writers do”. But am I really a writer? I’m a retired pastor. I do admit that I have always enjoyed crafting and writing sermons. But surely people don’t want sermons as blogs.
My grade 12 English teacher saw no hope at all in my writing ability. I thought I had written a cute, creative piece. It came back covered in red. Likewise my first essay in college. I must have been sleeping through all the classes where I was supposed to learn the rules of grammar and good English. And yet there has been an urge within me to write, to express myself in words, to find a way to push myself to try to articulate feelings and ideas and faith.
Last week I was asked to preach the sermon at our church. My first impulse was to go to my file of old Advent sermons. I have some dozens of them – over 50 years worth. So much easer to select and repeat. I couldn’t do it. I realized again that I love the writing – the wrestling with a text and a context, finding words and stories and images and emotional tones that might connect with a particular worshipping community. That is exhausting work, but also deeply satisfying.
I thought, when I retired from pastoral ministry, that my serious writing days were over. There was a sense of relief that I no longer needed to face the rather daunting task of writing sermons to meet Sunday morning deadlines - no matter that in the long run this had energized me. Now I could put my brain into neutral and just relax, and - do what?
'Tis my wife who reminded me that I have always enjoyed writing – she claims I am even rather good at it – and that I have considerable experience and insights into pastoral ministry and about what makes for a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation. These might even be worth writing about. “Why don’t you write another book”? If writing a sermon is always daunting, writing a book is just crazy daunting.
My emotions forcefully resisted the idea of starting another writing project. “Retirement is for relaxing – and doing nothing”. So, I relax and do nothing – and can’t stop thinking of scattered ideas that I might want to write about. Eventually I plunge into it, and a book eventually emerges. It even gets published.
And now my wife is encouraging me to start writing a blog. And I resist. And yet. . .?