Honesty isn’t the best policy…

It’s the only policy.

I’m in my first year on my condo board. I said when I retired and we moved in here that I would never do this: condo boards deal mainly with finances, building issues, and complaints, the three aspects of church vestries that I found most tiresome. The missional aspect of church life helps to put these matters in some perspective. Not so in a condominium.

Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to this service, in part because I felt that things were not altogether right in how our building was being run. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I’m enjoying the work, or I was, until this week. Back-story: earlier this year we embarked on a project to revitalize a common lounge by the main entrance. After some months, and an expenditure of a reasonable but not huge amount of money, the project was finished, and many people commented on how much better it looked now. But — boom! — we received a package of 11 letters of complaint at this past week’s meeting. The writers didn’t like what was done, and they didn’t like the way it was done. I can accept that some mistakes were made. I also know that you can’t please everyone in matters of taste. People are entitled to their opinions, and if some feelings were hurt, as seems to be the case, some kind of apology could be made.

Dear_Sir_formal_letter_iStock_000004683049XSmallExcept…

Only one of the letters was signed: the property manager had removed the other signatures at the writers’ request. They apparently didn’t want to be open to recriminations, wanting to keep the building peaceful. For me, this just makes things less peaceful, because anonymous complaints make any kind of meaningful response and reconciliation impossible. It’s a matter of community building, which requires openness, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings.

In one parish where I served as Rector, we had a spate of critical anonymous letters, very often placed in the collection plate. They bothered me mightily until I realized that I could not respond to them without being in dialogue with the writers. The trouble was less the (sometimes valid) content  than the one-sidedness of the process. I announced a policy of refusing to acknowledge anonymous communications, inviting people who had concerns to come and see me in person. Over the next several months, I had a number of very worthwhile conversations with parishioners. The dishonest communications stopped and the parish never looked back. We discovered the benefits of openness and honesty.

Why would I call anonymous letters dishonest? Simply because they allow the writer to hide behind a veil, covering up any other matters that might pertain to it. The letter may be the truth, but there is no way of knowing if it’s either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Lies of omission disrespect the recipient, and are every bit as dishonest as lies of commission.

In another parish, I encountered a more straightforward kind of dishonesty. A parishioner had donated a couple of buckets of soup for a church lunch. Somehow, someone had set them on the back steps, where they were forgotten for long enough that they went rotten, ruining the ice-cream pails they came in. A group of people came to me to ask what they should do. What should they tell the donor, who had a sharp tongue and a habit of holding grudges? They wanted a plausible story which would save everyone’s face, but they were rather taken aback when I suggested they simply tell the truth and suffer the consequences.

It worked. The doPrintnor was annoyed about the waste of her gift, and also about the loss of her pails, but the fact that her friends gave her the respect of the truth served to smooth the waters. Trust had been damaged, but if a lie had been told, further trust would have become impossible.
In the church, even more than in a condominium, we are concerned about the building of community. Let’s remember that true community can only be built on trust, and trust can only be built on honesty. And, of course, dishonesty destroys trust.

Jesus said “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 

 

 

On the journey to…

A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.

The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.

The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.

That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.

The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.

This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.

Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.

In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”

I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…

A theology of money?

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.

“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.

In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.

A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.

dollar-signThe church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.

In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.

This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.

First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:

…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.

…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

And further on,

(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.

Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.

If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?

The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.

And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.

Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.

Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.

Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.

And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.

May it be so.

Visiting: ministry for all

Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“You said…”
“You didn’t say…”
“You weren’t there…”
“You were there…”

Whatever they do (or don’t do), clerics have to expect that someone will be  annoyed with it.

sell ice cream

When I was in parish ministry, the thing I was most often criticized about was visiting. The model of ministry which I grew up with, and that most of my parishioners expected, was that the clergy would spent the largest amount of their time visiting their flock, in times of need and in almost every time. Just dropping in was totally acceptable.

Except…

When I started out, there were some people for whom that model worked, but far more for whom it didn’t. The folks for whom it worked were mostly older, very settled, and accustomed to receiving guests at the drop of a hat. Others? Younger folk had busier lives, fuller schedules, and were often not open to just welcoming someone into their home, even if they had nothing else on.

There’s a generational divide at work here, of course, but also a divide in lifestyles. My first parish was largely farm folk, for whom hospitality was a way of life. My second parish was mostly double-income families, at least one of them commuting. Commuter-suburb ministry turned out to be hugely different from farm-town ministry.

I have clergy friends who still regard visitation as the heart and soul of their work. That ended for me over 25 years ago. The change in my situation forced me to begin asking what parish ministry was really all about. Did it still mean that the pastor had to spend most of his/her time running around trying to find someone at home? Or did it mean that more time was spend building up the community so they could care for each other. and so be better equipped for mission?

I hope by now it should be no surprise that I decided that the latter was the appropriate course.

A community which is dependent for its existence only one person is no community at all. On the other other hand, if that one person has worked to enable the community to thrive through all sorts of tribulations and joys through the graces it possesses, that person has done something truly wonderful.

I didn’t do much visiting at all in my third and last parish. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all! But I do feel gratified that I worked to  build up a team of people who were committed to reaching “in” to care for the people within the community, building up the Body of Christ in ways that one person like me could never do.

Visiting people is important. Read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 25:31-40:

 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

This is not a call to a specialized group of people, but to all of God’s people.Don’t guilt your clergy about who they haven’t visited. Rather, ask yourself who you have reached out to.

Promises made, promises not kept

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about promises. We find them in all kinds of situations and relationships: marriages, employment, politics, just to name the first three that come to mind. We make many promises in life, and many of us are very aware of making promises that we could not keep. That’s a very human thing.

A promise is an interesting thing. It’s a statement that we will do something in the future. Some are conditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such if you do thus-and-so.” Others are unconditional, as in “I’ll do such-and-such, come what may.” Conditional promises are the ordinary day-to-day stuff of business. Contracts are essentially bilateral promises: “We will let you have this car for the next 2 years, as long as you keep up your lease payments.” Letting down our side of the promise empowers the other party to invoke whatever penalty or escape clauses there are in the contract. Miss too many car payments, lose your car. It’s pretty simple. Most of us understand conditional promises quite well.

promise.jpg

Unconditional promises are another thing entirely. In the rites of the Anglican Church of Canada, marriage and ordination vows are both unconditional. The ordinand or spouse makes certain promises about future behaviour, without any conditions or implied penalty clauses. The sad fact is, however, that many people approach these unconditional promises as if they were conditional. I’ve seen that in a number of weddings at which I have officiated. Maybe not at the weddings, but certainly in the later history of the couples. There’s no need to cite particular cases, because I am sure that most of us know people who have approached their marriage vows this way.

As for ordinations, in our church candidates make a whole slew of promises. [You can read them on pages 646-7 (for priests) or 655-6 (for deacons) in the Book of Alternative Services  for the actual promises.] The content of the promises is one thing. The nature of the promises is another. When I was ordained priest, the preacher explicitly used the imagery of marriage to talk about our new relationship with the Church. The promises are unconditional, except as implied in the final exhortation from the Bishop:

May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.

To which the ordinand replies, “Amen.”

What happens when marriage or ordination vows are broken? In the first case, all kinds of personal and relational damage: broken homes, damaged children, financial ruin, injury, and even death. In the second case, the results are sometimes less clear. When a priest or deacon strays from the ordination vows, the resulting hurts may be less immediate, but they can be deep and long-lasting in a community which has relied on his or her pastoral guidance.

Clergy are only human, and the church is a human institution, but both are supposed to be dedicated to the goal of building God’s Kingdom. As a friend describes it, that’s the way things are supposed to be, while we live in the world of the way things are.

Clergy failings happen, but they create all sorts of difficulties among God’s people, hindering rather than building up the Kingdom.

But let’s not forget that clergy are one party to an implied promise, between congregation and cleric. When clergy receive a call from a new parish, the parish is implicitly making a promise about what the relationship entails. This is spelled out in the rites for Celebration of a New Ministry in the Canadian “Book of Occasional Celebrations.” There is an implied contract between congregation and minister, which is actually made specific in the Canons of the General Synod (see especially Canons XVII, XVIII & XIX), and the various Diocesan Canons and policies which apply.

Parishes and clergy make reciprocal promises, but at times the promises are treated as conditional, as in, “We’ll have you as our priest/pastor/minister (choose your preferred language!), as long as you behave yourself, treat us right, and we’re able to pay you according to scale.” Other promises can be made in the course of clergy search processes, sometimes implying that the parish is something other than what it is. That’s deception, whether or not it is intentional!

Let’s go back to marriage. Deception about the true state of things is grounds for declaring a marriage null and void, resulting in an “annulment” in the language of the civil courts. Our church’s Canon on Marriage gives extensive grounds for such a declaration. (See section III of Canon XXI in the Canons of the General Synod.) Some years ago, I had occasion to process such an application for a woman who was sure that what she had entered into was no marriage. I was gratified to learn that the courts of the church agreed with her. Her supposed spouse had deceived her about his nature and his intentions in entering into the covenant of marriage. It was a hugely painful process to work through it with her, but there was much healing in the result.

Broken promises made conditionally are relatively easy to deal with. Broken promises made unconditionally are much harder problems. Marriages, ordinations, and appointment of clergy are the examples that I have had cause to think about recently. They are all modeled on promises God made to the people of God, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, which lead us to the New Covenant made with Jesus.

promiseOfTheDayJesus promised “I am with you always.” We strive to be always with those we love, whether spouses, the Church, or congregations. We fail at times. May we find loving ways of dealing with our failures, and the failures of those we love.

quotes-and-poems-awesome-6

The last, and perhaps most important, question is what to do about broken promises. I have no great solution at hand. Broken promises break all sorts of things, estrange people, make enemies, cause hurts, damage lives. Sometimes reconciliation is in view, sometimes not. What I do know is that reconciliation is the ministry that Christ left to his people.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  (2 Cor 5:18-19)

Guns or love?

I feel sick at heart. In some ways, I should be rejoicing: a major issue for which I have advocated for years has taken a huge step forward in our church. A big issue in the choir in which I sing and serve on the executive is very close to resolution. My personal life is placid, calm, full of blessings.

And yet…

I picked up this week’s issue of Maclean’s Magazine, to which  I’ve subscribed for many years, and was immediately discouraged by the cover headline: “The Republic of Fear.” I browsed through it, and promptly threw it to one side. So many of the stories had something to do with how badly things are going in today’s world. I may pick it up again and read some of it, but tonight it only served to remind me of how troubled I am about what is going on today:

There are so many violent incidents in the news: NiceBaton Rouge (twice), Minneapolis, Turkey, Dallas, Calgary, ISIL, just to name a few. Guns seem to the rule of the day, and for the life of me, I just don’t understand the gun-ownership mentality of

There are so many leaders preaching negative thoughts: in the wider world I thinkof Trump, Clinton (somewhat less), Teresa May, Putin. Locally, I read my newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, and see so much negative thinking in the people who write in it and to it, with the exception of Paula Simons.

The reaction of some of our church’s bishops to the big issue, whether our church will allow clergy to officiate at marriages of same-gender couples, has been very depressing. They feel disrespected and abandoned by the rest of the church. I am sorry for that, but the language in which these statements have been made makes me feel disrespected

I could go on, but what’s the point? The world sometimes seems to be so full of negativity these days, when all I wish for is that people could love each other, care for each other, treat each other as beloved children of our God. And what I see is more and more hatred

Where is this leading? I don’t know, and sometimes (like when I tossed Maclean’s aside tonight) I don’t want to know. What I know is that God calls us to live in the love God has declared towards all people.

“Love your neiggood_shepherd-7135901hbour.” Yes!
And the lawyer asked , “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus’ answer (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is basically this:
“Who is not your neighbour?”
We don’t get to choose who to love.
The only choice is whether or not to love — and that’s no choice at all.

Brothers and sisters, let us learn to love each other as God first love us. Without that, there may be no hope for the human race. For those who see guns as the answer to all the problems of the world, I can only say: “I love you.”

 

 

 

On bishops and other callings

bishop-mitre-h-87A good friend and colleague recently disclosed that he had been chosen as one of the four final candidates in an election for Bishop. (Read about it here.) It put me into a reflective mood, recalling the occasions when I had a brush with episcopal office.

The first time was in 1997 in the Diocese of Edmonton, my home and current diocese. I had been serving as an Archdeacon for a couple of years, and for the first time had had some significant interactions with people in other parishes. Out of that came a request from someone present in one of those events that I allow her to put my name forward in the upcoming election of a new bishop. I was quite daunted by the idea, even though I admit to being flattered by the request. After some thought and prayer and discussion with my wife, I decided to let it happen.

The search committee asked each candidate to submit a fairly large bundle of material, including a detailed CV in a particular format, and a personal statement about ministry, and my sense of the episcopal office and how I might fill it if I were so called.

Assembling the CV was a good exercise: it was the first time since my ordination that I had put all of my work history down in one place. The document turned out to be much longer than I expected, considering I had only been ordained for 10 years. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I re-read it after finishing.

The statement was quite another matter. I sweated blood over it, reading, thinking, praying, writing, tearing up, writing again, finally telling myself that it wasn’t going to get any better. It may be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the years since, I have returned to it often, to check up on my continuing sense of vocation, and where my ministry is headed.

At the electoral synod, I was seated with the rest of the clergy, as required for voting. My wife was sitting in the observers’ seats at the back of the Cathedral, along with some other people from my parish. The preliminaries having been taken care of, we proceeded to vote, and then to sit and wait for the results. I wasn’t dead last in that first ballot, but pretty close, with 2 clergy and 3 lay votes. I knew who the clergy votes came from (me and my proposer), but to this day I have no idea who were the 3 laypeople who felt I was the best choice for bishop. On the second ballot, it was down to 1 clergy and 2 lay votes, still not the very bottom, but it seemed like a good time to drop out and stop wasting people’s time. The folks from the parish said they could all hear my wife’s sigh of relief when my withdrawal was announced.

That day, the diocese of Edmonton elected the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews as the first female diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada.

The second time I found myself on an episcopal election slate was for the Diocese of Qu’Appelle in 2006. I had been quite astonished to get the call from their search committee asking me whether I would accept the nomination. (My proposer had not contacted me first, as should have happened.) I asked for some time to consider it, coming as it was more or less out of the blue. My wife and I talked about it at length, and I  consulted my Bishop of the day. I was less than 3 years into a new ministry, and it hardly seemed the time to leave.

Nonetheless…
A call like this did not seem to be one that could be ignored — it might well be of the Spirit. My bishop suggested that the only real way to determine that was to let my name stand. And so I did. It felt quite different from Edmonton in 1997. For one thing, I would be moving to a completely new city, working with people I did not know at all. For another, that Diocese is a land of wide-open spaces, and many small multi-point charges. As bishop, I would likely spend much of my time in long-distance driving. The final thing was that I was nine years older and more experienced, and had a much better sense of my own capabilities and what the office of Bishop entailed.

The documentation they required was much like that asked for in 1997, so had most of it more or less ready to go, after another revisit to my personal ministry statement.

The results of that election were somewhat more gratifying. There were six candidates, and I ran a solid third until the third and final ballot. My good friend Gregory Kerr-Wilson was elected that day, while I sat at home in Brandon with my phone handy, waiting for results of the ballots.

That’s the story, although there’s an epilogue of sorts. I was approached to let my name stand in another election a year or two later. After considerable thought and prayer, I concluded that I did not hear the call to episcopal office, and did not let my name stand.

The formal processes I went through were quite different from the one my friend is in. Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that the internal process of seeking to discern a call to ministerial office is much the same however it may be externally structured. The writing of my personal ministry statement was an important turning point in my own ministry, and the document became one of the touchstones of my continuing vocation.

I learned, particularly in the 1997 election, that vocation must be heard within, and that requires intense prayer. My understanding of prayer is that it begins with listening, not with telling God what you want God to do. That became abundantly clear in 1997, in 2006, and then when I declined nomination.

Did I ever want to be a Bishop? I don’t know. I do know that some people say that anyone who really want the office shouldn’t get it — but probably deserves it. The office is almost impossible, but some people of my acquaintance have managed to make it look easy. I know that’s not true. I am also quite sure that, had I been elected, I would probably have managed to make it look very difficult!

Thanks be to God for all who let their names stand for Bishop.
And thanks be to God for all Bishops who serve Christ in His Church.