Surviving the Haunted House

This is the last sermon I preached at Christ Church Stouffville on January 18, 2015. I had completed 10 weeks of sick leave and returned for one last Sunday before moving to another appointment to move closer to home and my mother as she was dealing with cancer. In it I tell about my experiences with mental illness and share some final farewell thoughts on the readings.

1 Sam 3:1–20
Ps 139:1–5, 12–17
Romans 8:18-28, 37-39
Jn 1:43–51

When I look back at the sermons I wrote 8, 12, 20 years ago, I am first of all very grateful for how much I have grown! My first listeners were so, so generous.

I also notice that, as I proclaimed each text and wrote my sermons, I had so much to say. That won’t surprise the clock watchers among you! What I mean is I wanted to preach about 6 sermons in one. I was amazed at how much was in the Scriptures as I unpeeled layer after layer and I just wanted to share it all.

I was able to restrain myself by remembering I have a full life of preaching ahead of me. If I don’t say it this time, it will still be there in three years’ time.

After 10 weeks out of the pulpit and away from the altar, I feel that same overwhelmed wonder. There is so much to say, so much I want to say, and just not enough time. So, I’ll keep it simple. What happened? What is happening? Some final thoughts.

2015/01/img_0236.pngWhen was the last time you went into a haunted house? Not a real one, one that is constructed so you follow a group through the rooms and you brush by gross feeling things and skeletons and witches come flying at you from nowhere. And you walk in knowing it’s all fake, and it’s completely safe and no ghouls are really going to jump inside your body and steal your soul. But…you are still scared before you even step inside the door from the anticipation of what is coming. And just as you are about to step over the threshold, someone trips and bumps into your shoulder and you are sure your body just separated from your skin and jumped 8 feet high! It’s irrational. It makes no sense.

And that’s the difference between being in a genuine, real situation that make any healthy person exhausted, or scared, or stressed or hurt and dealing with a mental illness.

That feeling you get when you walk through that haunted house, just starting to calm down and feel secure, and then the spiders fall on your head and you jump and then…you laugh because the spiders are plastic.

Well, 3 months ago, that’s how I felt when I went to the store, came home, got an email, had to send an email, go visit someone or go to a meeting. Except I didn’t laugh. I was just…scared.

Of course, like most of us, it didn’t occur to me that something was wrong until the physical symptoms started-not sleeping, not eating, hot and cold spells, pounding blood pressure. I saw a doctor and a specialist, and options were given, but none of them would do me any good without rest.

I am as guilty as imposing stigma on others as anyone, including myself. We talk about “just stress” as if it is normal, and everyone should expect to be stressed all the time. It’s not. We all endure, and isn’t it strange that now that we live in a world where we have so much knowledge about emotional and mental health, we still believe so many myths, that it isn’t real, that only weak people suffer from it, or strange people, or, just, people who don’t think the same way as us. We throw labels like personality disorder and bipolar and “mental” or “has issues” around as if we are all experts when, really, we are just trying to find a reason to dismiss someone who isn’t like us.

So, no wonder we don’t openly talk about our emotional and mental states with anyone but our closest loved ones, if at all. Mental illness is, in most ways, invisible. We look for signs to judge how well someone is. It is usually with good intentions. But the only way to really know how someone is doing is to ask and know that, like with physical illness, you may only be told what the person wants to tell. And that’s ok.

How I spent my time on sick leave is complicated and, frankly, pretty dull. Suffice it to say the rest and medical support were huge to my healing. I was also uplifted by so many messages, calls and prayers from all of you. If I needed to state one reason why I belong to a church, why I don’t believe in being spiritual without being part of a church, it is this: Because I need people in my life who challenge me to dig deeper into my own faith and assumptions, and who will hold me up when I can’t do it on my own. Thank you for standing by me in prayer and love. You were never far from my thoughts or prayers.

So now I am returning back to my roots, to the Diocese of Nova Scotia and PEI. It was a sad decision, but not a difficult one. On behalf of my mom, thank you for all the prayers and good wishes. She has been through a rough few months. However, we got some good news just this week. At the end of her first cycle of chemo her cancer has reduced, more than the doctors would have expected. She is still pretty weak, but we look forward to her getting stronger with this new hope we have been given. Jason, Bishop Peter and Bishop Ron Cutler have been very compassionate and generous as I have made this decision and I am very thankful to have a place to serve and be closer to Mom to support her.

I’ll be serving two parishes-Parrsboro/Port Greville and Springhill-who are working towards an agreement to share a priest. I still don’t know how many churches there are between the two parishes. I have counted 4, although I’ve also heard 5 and 7. They are quite a distance apart, and each parish has had their own full time priest for over 100 years. There is a great deal of hope and possibility for these small places. The communities are strong and faithful, but it is time for new and creative ways of serving God with reducing populations and incomes. Whether you are an urban or a rural church, that is a difficult place to be, and the only thing to lean on is God’s faithfulness.

Last week we celebrated the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. As with Jesus, our call to the Christian life, our ministry begins with the moment of our baptism. Whether we are baptized as babies, or teenagers or later in life, in that moment we are baptized with water and signed with oil, we are called by God. Think of all the words and all the phrases that could have echoed over that river in the heat of the day as Jesus was raised from the water: “This is the Messiah,” “He will save the world from sin,” “He is and will proclaim the Word of God,” or “He will raise up the downtrodden and free the captives from prison.” Of all of that, instead, the voice said, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

For those who follow our lectionary readings you may have noticed I changed the second reading for today. The chosen reading was from 1 Corinthians and warned against fornication. Now, I have no problem talking about sexuality, but didn’t really want to leave here on that note, so I picked up on another theme in our readings: From the beginning of time to end of the age, from the worst of us to the best of us, God knows and loves each one of us equally and profoundly. And there is nothing we or anyone else can do to change that.

When we read stories of calling, like this morning with Samuel and Nathaniel, it often draws us to reflect on the actions of following Christ-the sacrifices we make, the words that we speak. All you have to do is take a look around this church to see that we are a community of action oriented people!

Deborah Krause describes the call of Christian life in this way: “an invitation to a lifelong relationship with God that, in the midst of life’s challenges and adversity, is charged with the assurance of God’s presence and is connected to a deep awareness of God’s sovereign purposes of justice and peace for all creation” (New Proclamation Year B 2006).

When Yahweh called Samuel, Samuel did not yet know God. But Yahweh knew him, knew him before he was planted in the infertile womb of his mother, Hannah. Jesus knew Nathaniel from under the fig tree and before Nathaniel knew there was a Messiah.

2015/01/img_0237.jpgAnd when I say “knew”, I don’t mean their facebook profile-birthday, status, what they ate for breakfast. The way we claim to know one another. God knew all of Samuel and Nathaniel, their blessings and their faults, the things they were ashamed of, the things they took pride in, who they loved and who they hated. They were not called to perform a task. They were not hired. They were invited into a relationship where they would be loved by a God who is pleased with them entirely. They were promised God’s presence with them always. For our offertory hymn this morning we are singing an old hymn that has been in the back of my mind almost daily these past 3 months: Great is Thy Faithfulness. As faithful as we are to God, God was faithful to us first and will always be faithful to us most

We rarely spend time reflecting on the psalm, but Psalm 139 really is one of the most beloved. In fact, the reading from Romans and this psalm are often read at funerals. They are both read near the beginning of the service to remind those who mourn that, no matter how they felt about the person they are burying, no matter what has been left unresolved, how abandoned they may feel, God will never, ever abandon their loved one and will never abandon them. It is a psalm that has always been close to my faith and I share often.

2015/01/img_0238.jpg

We can do our best to obey the call to love others, but without love, a profound and honest faith in how much God loves you, those you love, and those you find difficult to love, then actions are a clanging gong and a clashing cymbal. God’s love is not selective. And when you recognize God’s love for you in all things, it is only then that you can cease to hate others. The resentment and anger in our hearts is only healed by recognizing that God loves and knows every part of us, the beautiful and the ugly. When we fail to see others as God created them, then we fail to know that we are also loved by God.

There is a parable about a young rabbi, Zusya, who approached an older rabbi about his discouragement in the face of his sins and failures. The older rabbi said to him, “When you walk into heaven, and you come before God, God will not ask you, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ No. Instead, God will ask, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya? How about you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Commentary)

We have been created in love, to love and be loved. Nothing less.

Over these past two and a half years we have been challenged as a church in a community growing in numbers, diversity and needs. The temptation to focus on the numbers of “bums in pews” is so great in this day and age of the biggest being the best. We aren’t called to be bigger and bigger. We are called to be faithful, not just to programs, but to one another. Commit to being reconciled to one another, to encouraging and holding up one another in prayer.

And keep your vision outwards. Whether it brings people in on Sunday mornings or not, God has called each church in every community, large and small to love and spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Every church and every Christian in them. Since I arrived I have called Christ Church the best kept secret in Stouffville. Each one of you have great opportunities to share with your friends, your coworkers and your families the good works that God is doing in our midst. The church is not this building, nor the programs in it, nor Jason or Jane as “the ministers”. The church is you, and you and you and you. Young and old. Rich and poor. And the love of God is not just shared here on Sunday mornings to those who chance in. It is shared by each and every one who has the sign of the cross on our foreheads as we love one another. That’s the church.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love of God, and in Jesus Christ, and the blessing of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you all and remain with you always. Amen.

From scarcity to hope

Book review: Carol Howard Merritt. Reframing Hope: Vital ministry in a new generation. Alban Institute. 2010

Over the past few years I have worked in a mostly rural diocese where we have read about and urged parishes to “move from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance”. Many of our churches that are dying are focussed on what they are lacking, and so get sucked into focussing on what they once had, and forget the abundance of what may be in front of them.

I worked to teach many people to change this thinking, countless parish council meetings looking at financial statements in the black and members still convinced we were poor and couldn’t afford office supplies.

However, in other settings, it was harder. It felt trite to not acknowledge the very real scarcity that existed. Any talk of dying or closing were not to cross my lips, but we all knew the reality that I was told not to name. Talking of abundance in these settings was merely prolonging the inevitable with false hope.

Carol Howard Merritt’s latest contribution is for congregations who know they have something special to share with their communities but know that their historical tradition as it is currently practiced is not reaching a new generation. Carol has never minced words when it comes to the dire straits of our institutions. Rather than focussing on an elusive abundance we may or may not feel confident in, Carol encourages us to trust not in the false hope of a contrived abundance, but in the hope of the sustaining God of the exodus and the desert.

Using examples from rural and urban churches, young and old Christians and “otherwise”, Carol encourages the church to seriously consider the concerns and opportunities of our contemporary time when discerning the Spirit’s course for our faith communities. Rather than asking us to dispose of so-called archaic or historical practices, this book acknowledges the power and opportunity of historical, institutional churches, particularly the resources these churches have to explore new ways to communicate the gospel.

For those who are confused and afraid of the technological explosion of our current age, this book places social media and multi-media in a context of enhancing the sharing of the Gospel. It is stressed that these are not requirements, but means to an end. If you are curious about how the tools of social media and multi-media have become so critical in our current generations, but are not so sure if your church is ready to jump on the broadband, there is encouragement here for you, as well.

I have shared Carol’s first book, Tribal Church with many and the pages of Reframing Hope will be turned just as often. Where Tribal Church introduced the church to Generation Y and the Millenials, Reframing Hope introduces the church to a culture that extends from 10 year olds to those who are past retirement. The current state of the institutional church is not limited to one generation, although the burden will be borne by the younger generation. Reframing Hope is for the whole Church, a Church that is ready to try something different to keep on living.

Cutting “priorities” tells the truth about our priorities

On Tuesday, I saw status updates and tweets from friends in national church organizations mourning the layoffs happening at that moment in the United Church of Canada.

In the early millennium, I sat in a cube farm I had dedicated a great deal of my time, energy and creativity to, and watched as 14 of my colleagues were called into the manager’s office, one by one, and then walked back to their cubes, escorted by our manager, to collect their things and then walk out the door. It was a day of no eye contact, except for one. Dwayne. Dwayne somehow found the grace to come to each and every one of us to thank us for being great co-workers. I can’t blame any of the others. I’m sure my substantial hurt and anger was only a speck of theirs.

At the end of the day, there were four of us left, our manager, another co-worker who was hired the same time as me, and a newer hire who had exceeded everyone’s expectations. We were pale, we shook, feeling so ill we couldn’t even imagine going out to drown our sorrows.

And, not being in management, the ones who make the decisions, we then look back and question the decision. Yes, cuts need to be made, and that those cuts would affect jobs is inevitable. It must be excruciating to be the one to make that call. It is too easy to assume the decisions were made because those in management are trying to save their own salaries. Difficult choices had to be made, and I trust that the decision was made with prayer and compassion.

And I share the anger with Doris Kizinna, Martha Martin, and the Rev. Tom Sherwood in this article from the United Church Observer. They stated that, like most national mainline churches, the United Church of Canada named youth and young adults as a priority, and then the programs are drastically cut.

Now that I am a brand new youth and children’s minister, I am well aware of the prophecy, “The youth minister is the last one hired and the first one fired”. In other words, only when churches feel financially comfortable do they hire a youth minister or invest in youth programs, and as soon as finances get tight, the youth minister is the first one to go.

This is not exclusive to the United Church of Canada. The United Church is one part of a larger Christian institution led by a culture where maintaining buildings and systems is far more important than ministry and programs. According to the Observer, the departments that were cut were Youth and Young Adult programs, Communities in Mission and French ministries. All programs, programs that we know are vital to our proclaiming the Gospel and reaching out to the most vulnerable and those on the fringe of our experience. Many call young adults “the missing generation” (see Carol Howard Merritt’s blog as an example), a vital and critical target group, and now they are lumped in with youth, young teens and children. I have a mandate for youth and children for one church and it is more than a full time job. And I am rare. How is one person supposed to deal with programming for people 0-30 years of age for a whole country? No matter how good that person is (and my experience of the current staff person is she is very, very good), this is a formula for burnout at worst and a drastic diminishing of services and programs at best.

Several years ago the Anglican Church of Canada decided that youth ministry was better managed by dioceses and decentralized. There is a lot of good to be done by depending on local authorities to manage ministries. The difference with ministry to children, youth and young adults is that there are so few dedicated staff, sometimes only one or two in a diocese, often only committing 5-15 hours per week, that it is virtually impossible to connect with one another, support each other, seek and offer feedback, and participate in larger programs, like conferences that many adults would look back on and say were life changing experiences in their adolescence.

My bottom line in this post isn’t a wagging of the finger at those working in Church Houses. The United Church of Canada and my church, the Anglican Church of Canada, are synodically governed. These choices begin at the concilliar level, speaking for congregants and parishioners across our country. These councils only reflect the priorities of those who sit in pews every Sunday. My point is that we are stuck in an entire Church culture that can not look ahead beyond our current stage and experience. Anything that looks forward carries it with it so much uncertainty that, when finances get tight, the first thing we eliminate is chance and risk.

Except that it is in those risky, forward looking places that we are most in touch with the vision of the Kingdom of God, like the disciples who listened and were constantly seeking the Kingdom because they knew they had not found it yet. When we are mired down in our present, the vision of Kingdom becomes a smaller and smaller light on the horizon, to the point that it disappears amongst the landscape of current progress or recession.

As Church, we are called to be the ones who point towards the Kingdom of God. When youth and outreach ministries become disposable, as they have in the past few years of recession, we get lost in the landscape as well.

My prayers remain with those who have been laid off and those who, like I did, remain in those offices, facing empty desks. I hope these layoffs serve as a warning to our councils, our good Sunday morning folk, that unless our priorities shift, our presence as national churches will be irreparably diminished before we disappear forever.

Skimming and reading and transforming

As I’m settling into this new way of life, I feel myself transforming every day. I have to say the biggest change is having a team here, in the same building, who call me for lunch and are just a staircase away from me saying, “I was just thinking…” It also means being a lot more co-ordinated. I am absorbing Outlook, trying not to turn into my task list, but working hard to recognize that my schedule and plans are dependent on others in a much more urgent way than before. And as far as technology goes, it is fun to be in a place that a) has a co-ordinated calendar and b) does not get intimidated when you pull out your iPhone to check your schedule.

Sunday was my first Sunday and I finally felt like I was here. My first week I met all of two people under 20. The kids are great and seem to love church school, which is good place to start!

The big thing I am trying to do, though, is get a grasp on some reading. Lots of amazing stuff has come out on youth ministry in the past 10 years, much of which I have skimmed and kept an eye on, none of which I have actually sat down and read. With the aid of a $400+ book token from my beloved former parish and some suggestions from some colleagues, I am building my library with Andrew Root, Kendra Creasy Dean, Mark DeVries, Mark Yaconelli and Dorothy Bass along with others.

I am loving loving LOVING the renewed emphasis on relationship for relationship’s sake, not just to get kids students(they are all called students now. When did that happen?) into a sense of responsibility for the church. I just read a beautiful piece in The Godbearing Life about seeing youth ministry as a mission field–some great stuff for a celebration of new ministry.

One of my the exciting discoveries on which I am embarking is to encounter myself in youth ministry as an introvert. The last time I was in focussed youth ministry, I was much more extroverted, different energy, different ideas, and I was in a very different theological space. And, I learned and grew so very much. I feel a new and different passion for ministry than what I have been experiencing the past 8 years. I feel like God is unveiling me to this place, bit by bit and, in the process, unveiling me to myself.

Preparations…Dawn in the news

I have just finished my last column for our local paper, The Casket. The column will be here on Tuesday. In the meantime, here is the piece written about me. Enjoy.

Anglican minister preparing to say good-bye by Corey LeBlanc.

I have to say, Corey wrote the column about my arrival and has been at almost every significant event in my time here. Thanks for being so generous, Corey.

The burden of a secret

I wrote this 4 days before I made an announcement to my parish and posted it the day before announcement day.

I have never been good with secrets. Confidences…yes. Secrets…no. What’s the difference? A confidence is kept to protect something or someone vulnerable, like a child or someone who is ill or in distress to give them space to grow and to heal. I carry the confidences of many of my parishioners, because what they share with me is not for general conversation. If not for my keeping that confidence, they would have nowhere to turn. I can carry these confidences and do, despite the attempts of many to use me as their news source.

A secret is generally kept to protect someone from the truth they really should face, usually the person sharing the secret, like keeping a friend’s infidelity a secret from her/his partner. The partner needs to know. The philanderer needs to be honest. To me, secrets are rooted in dishonesty.

But this isn’t a thesis. Back to my point which is, I hate keeping secrets, and I am holding one now and it is getting heavier by the day. I have taken to cocooning in my office so I can stop answering questions about plans being made that will be altered greatly once my secret is revealed. I panic every time the phone rings because it could very well mean I will have to lie. I hate being lied to, and I am a terrible liar.

There are several people involved in this secret, let’s just say more than ten. And I am counting on all of them to keep it quiet. Some are better than others. We all have a trusted friend or relative to whom we tell everything. The thing is, then those friends also have a friend they tell everything to, too, and all of a sudden too many people know my secret, most of whom are not the people who deserve to know by now but circumstances prevent me from telling. My secret is growing a life of its own.

Tomorrow I start sharing this secret with some who are closer to the circle that need to know. So, really, today is the last day when things remain the same for them. It all changes for them, starting from tomorrow. And then I have to ask them to conspire with me, to keep a secret for three more days.

A good friend reminded me that my last day of “normal” was actually months ago, when all this began, but things still feel relatively normal today, except for the hiding away and the complete inertia to engage anything new, feeling at the mercy of others who only have to invest about 15 minutes before changing my life forever. Have I been overrating “normal”?

So, why am I keeping this secret? Why am I forcing myself to live this lie? Well, that will come clearer when the announcement is made, but mostly its about controlling the message and making sure I and others have had the space to do what we need to do. As one mentor said, “It is living a lie, but it is the only way it works. There really is no other way.” Since he has lived the ordained life longer than me, I trust his wisdom.

I have been called to live openly in community. I took a vow to model my life after Christ, and to serve as a model to those whom I serve. Dishonesty is not something I wish to model. If I am lying to them, then it gives license for them to lie to me and to one another, doesn’t it?

Except none of us really has license to do wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. I don’t know if this is wrong. Others who know better than me tell me it is right, but it feels wrong to me. But don’t ask me what I would do instead. My answer would probably be to hide until announcement day. Which is kind of what I am doing right now. So I guess I am being true to myself, today anyways. But I can’t hide for four more days. I can barely hide for one more day.

If what I wrote above is true, that I am keeping this secret in order to give myself and others time and space to do what we need to do, then I guess it is a confidence. What feels different is that this confidence affects so many people, and it is about me; me being selfish and sneaking around and lying, so it feels dishonest.

Tonight I will actually spend some time with friends, some who know my news to varying degrees. When I thought about “who to tell”, I realized early on that I needed a group of people who did know, so I could call on them when the pressure got too great. I was reading today about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the burden he carried, and how much he needed his friends. The gospels tell the story differently, but even Jesus chose a few trusted friends to share his burden with. Clearly, they could not go to the cross with him, they couldn’t even stay awake. He knew they wouldn’t, but in that garden, on that night, they were there for him. Even though they slept, even though they did not fully understand, they were there for him and, maybe, like me, he couldn’t have done what he had to do without them.