Feeling at Loose Ends

Maybe it’s the weather, rainy, cool, and gloomy. Maybe it’s because summer has come to an end, the days shorter, the promise of snow in our futures. Maybe it’s because, for the first time in five years, I’m not back in school. Whatever it is, its causing a feeling of melancholy.

It’s likely a combination of all of those things and more. I am really missing the first days of school though. The syllabuses to read, the anticipation of learning new things, the calendar to organize, the new books (oh, the new books!!!) to buy and peruse, all added a feeling of newness and excitement to life. The people, teachers and students alike opened windows to worlds I could only imagine in an atmosphere that somehow encouraged openness and sharing, the rapid building of friendships.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have exciting things going on in my life, things that would be quite impossible to maintain if school were part of life’s mix. There is travelling to do, especially since our Edmonton family moved to Ottawa. There is time to spend with those I love without the need to rush off to another class an hour and a half away. There are tandem bike rides through the countryside. There are lots of things to do here at home, things to build, to fix, to prepare for. There are books to read and conversations to have. There are sermons to write, a congregation to love, classes to teach, meeting to attend, the trouble of a burnt church to weave through. There are rations to run, farmers looking for advice, a training session to speak at.

I even went and joined a choir just so I could sing the Messiah this Christmas.

Life is full.

But still, with all the fullness, there is a little hole looking to be filled.

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Indian Horse: Book Review

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Douglas and MacIntyre, 2012, 221 pp.

wagamese      Saul Indian Horse is an Ojibway, a native Canadian, who finds himself at the New Dawn Center (“They call it a treatment facility.”)  to deal with his addictions. He is asked to tell his story, the story of how he came to be in this place a place where the choices are change or death. He struggles to tell it. He cannot do it in the context of the circle with thirty others listening, so he is encouraged to write it down in the hope that by facing the story, bringing it out for examination and understanding, he can get on with life, in fact find life again..

The story told is one that is not only Saul’s story, but the story of a whole people, told in such a way it cannot help but convict those who were, and are complicit, in the abuses suffered in the name of bringing a policy of assimilation to first nations people. It is a riveting story, a stark story, one that does not allow the book to be put down. In the same way as our eyes are drawn to the horrors of a car crash along the highway, this story of draws the reader deeper and deeper into a story which is indeed an allegory of the experience of an entire people. We are drawn to witness, pain, abuse, racism, loss, in a way which does not throw it in our faces but rather entices us to find ourselves in the story.

Wagamese weaves this story of abuse with humour and overlays it all with Canada’s love for its national sport, hockey. The use of hockey at the center of this story, makes it unmistakably Canadian, it brings the rest of the story home, close to home, while also providing something of a metaphor for the way that Aboriginal people, even when they are good enough to compete in the mainstream of society are prevented from reaching their potential by the prejudices of the dominant society. Even those who seem to be allies in Saul’s quest to embrace the game, who seem to be encouraging and protecting him, are, in the end shown to be exploiters.

While the exploitation Saul suffers is named, its place in the story gives the impression the author recognizes people don’t want to acknowledge that they too have been used. Saul is quite willing to enumerate the abuses, the losses, the deaths suffered by others in the residential school system, but, for much of the story holds himself outside of the circle of victims. Certainly he does recognize the wrong he suffered in the loss of his family, and the fact that his mother was lost to him, “turned so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world” because of what she had earlier suffered in the system. He also recognizes the prejudices he has endured as he has entered and excelled in the world of hockey. But, for almost the entire book it appears that he has emerged from St. Jerome’s Residential School relatively untouched, physically. He’s done this by keeping his head down, blending into his background, one of the lucky ones to survive the system.  He’s done it by burying his own abuse while grieving that of those around him.

He gains success in the white man’s world playing “their game” until the anger boils over, and alcohol becomes the medicine to cover, salve, the deep hurt and grief that comes with recognizing he too was abused, shamefully, continues to be exploited, and was really only valued as something to be used and tossed away. He spends most of his story toughing it out, trying to beat the whites at their own game, their sacred game, to rise above and ignore what has been done to him until it finally does catch up and he gives up his dream.

Many books have been written describing in detail the abuses suffered by First Nations peoples in both Canada and the United States. While their words are certainly accurate, and their accusations against “the invader” very likely fully warranted, Wagamese brings the message in such a way that it cannot be ignored, it cannot be put aside as another Indian manifesto enumerating the wrongs of generations past. Indian Horse puts flesh on the realities in a way that implicates all of us. It draws our eyes to the disaster created by a policy of assimilation, wrapped in the mantle of Christian mission, in a very personal way. It pulls back the curtain on the idea of assimilation, showing the end result to be domination rather than equality; a society with an underlying foundation of racial superiority where true assimilation was never really the goal anyway. By putting young Saul in the game, playing better stronger, smarter hockey and being pushed out for the colour of his skin rather than being honoured like the hockey greats he had come to look up to and admire, Wagamese draws a parallel to the struggle of all natives to succeed in the white man’s world.

I don’t know if I have ever read another book about hockey, but this book really isn’t about hockey. It’s about a system pushing people down, destroying lives. Indian Horse leaves the reader with a sense of disquiet. Certainly the residential schools have been closed. St Jerome’s is broken and battered. But, the wounds remain, the hurts still hurt, and there don’t seem to be any ready remedies. While there are few answers or simple solutions, Wagamese leaves us with the sure knowledge that hearing the stories is an important first step to reconciliation and wholeness.

The Stole, Images

The stole I received on Friday night did not come off the hanger in a liturgical vestments shop. It was custom made for me by my good friend S. It is unique and special.

Stoles carry symbols, often crosses, or flames, symbols that are meaningful to the wearer and which will invoke meaning in those that see it as well. The colour of the stole also has meaning

CameraAwesomePhoto (2)My stole has two symbols. The first, closest to the top is a stylized dove. The dove is the universal symbol for the Holy Spirit. The dove on my stole faces out symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s movement out from me through the preaching of the word. It reminds me that my words are empty on their own, just words, unless they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. It also assures me that it is not my job, solely, to connect with my listeners. I don’t work alone.

CameraAwesomePhoto (1)The second symbol is the denominational symbol, the cross superimposed on a triangle representing the trinity. This symbol has been turned into a fish, the same sort of fish you see on the backs of lots of cars, the same fish early Christians used to identify themselves to each other in times of persecution. The Greek word ἰχθύς means fish, but was seen as an acrostic, using the first letter of the words Ίησοῦς Χριστός,  Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ which are translated Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. Thus, the fish.

All of this is on a white background. Many pastors have multiple stoles for use during the different seasons of the church. Mine is white, and for now anyway will be the only one. Since I will likely only use the stole for “special” events white works even though it may not be totally liturgically correct.

The stole is the most cherished physical gift of Friday night.

The Stole

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Photo Courtesy Annelies Numan

My ordination service, in the Christian Reformed Church, was an odd and wonderful thing. It is unusual for a minister to be ordained in his home/childhood church. I have been part of the congregation where I now serve for over 40 years. I’m older than the regular candidate, and earned my MDiv from a seminary outside my denomination. The service itself was a community event since I have been involved with the other churches in town for many years. It was an awesome and diverse event.

One of the very special, and unique aspects of the evening was the presentation of a stole. A stole is a liturgical vestment which, in some denominations is seen as a sign of ordination and the office of the ministry of Word and Sacrament. In my part of the world the use of a stole is unusual in our denomination. It is however common in the Lutheran churches, whose seminary I attended.

Photo courtesy Annelies Numan

Photo courtesy Annelies Numan

The stole was given to me by some of my Lutheran friends and presented by Matthew, a Lutheran pastor from Montreal who has become a close friend following a couple of pilgrimage trips mentioned earlier in this blog.

Receiving and wearing the stole has been a wonderful privilege. I love symbolism and will wear the stole for special events, Lord’s supper, baptisms, weddings, and funerals as a symbol of being yoked with Christ.

Matthew 17:28-30

28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The Almost Final Step

On Wednesday of this week, I was examined by Classis Huron of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). It’s the last step in the process toward ordination. I’ve been working on, and finished a Master of Divinity. I’ve been examined by the faculty of Calvin Seminary, the Candidacy Committee of the CRCNA, and received a call (job offer) from a church. The examination is the last hurdle.

Of all of the exams, this one is the most onerous. Two examiners are assigned, one to delve into practical matters and one to cover theology. Both contacted me, in one way or another, before the event and gave a very broad idea of what they might ask. It was broad enough that virtually anything was on the table. There were about a hundred people in the audience and they were allowed to ask questions as well (there weren’t many of those).

After about two hours, the questions stopped and all but the delegates were asked to leave the room. It seemed to take a long time, but we were called back in and, while the chairman tried to add some drama, implying failure, I was passed.

I felt a lot better as it was announced this was behind me. I don’t suffer a lot from nervousness, but this experience, with its broad scope, and answers, which are, by their very nature, sometimes controversial, did push me as far as I have been pushed in recent years.

The title of this post is “The Almost Final Step”. There is one more, the Ordination Service. It will be a celebration, not a trial, but it is the final step in this journey. That service will be held February 28th at 7:30.

During the questions, I was asked to reflect on God’s work in this whole process. All along the way, God has been pushing, prodding, and opening doors. The presence is much clearer in retrospect than it is in the moment, but, I know that as this journey continues to unfold, God will continue to be there, out front, marking the way.

The Journey to Ordination: An Update

It’s been a little while since I shared anything here about the ongoing trip toward ordination. This is mostly because there has been little to tell.

DSCN1831Back in September, I was called as the bi-vocational interim pastor of the church where I have been a member for most of my life. This call was the trigger to start the final steps of the process. You see, to be ordained legitimately you need to have both an internal call (you recognizing yourself that God is telling you this is the direction your life is meant to go) and and an external call ( a group of people, a church, telling you that this is a suitable direction, God’s direction, for your life). The external call and the internal call affirm each other. Ordination requires both.

With the external call realized, the bureaucracy moves into gear. Examiners are assigned to make sure, even though both calls are recognized, the candidate has the necessary skills, and gifts, to actually function in the role of “minister of the word”. The examinations cover sermon writing, delivery, and worship leadership, as well as theology and practical ministry.

Back in December, I was assigned 1 Samuel 3 as my examination sermon. Two weeks ago, I led a service and preached the resulting sermon in my own church with two pastors present. (you can view the sermon here)  By the next evening, I had their report, three single spaced pages critiquing not only the sermon but the entire service, as well as two other sermons which I had submitted earlier. It was a valuable exercise which, while painful in places, did conclude with the words “we heartily recommend”. This sort of input is actually quite unusual in the every day world of preaching because ministers so rarely hear each other, and when they do are hesitant to comment on what they have heard.

The next stop in the process is almost the last one. On February 12th, fully five months after being called, I will be examined, orally, (no they are not going to look in my mouth) at the regular meeting of the classis (a body consisting of ministers and elders from 22 churches) There is 40 minutes allotted for this on the agenda, but, I suspect the questions may go on longer. Two ministers have been assigned to lead off the questioning, but, at some point, the floor will be opened and anyone is able to ask virtually anything. I can’t say I’m really looking forward to this experience.

With the examinations passed, if I am successful, there will be a time of celebration, an ordination service, likely a couple of weeks after the oral examination. The rules say you can’t set the date or start planning this event until after the successful completion of the exams, so I can’t tell you a date. Hopefully, I can in a couple of weeks.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the first post on this blog. I wonder if the title of this blog will need to change once this piece of the journey is complete.

The Journey Continues

We picked up our July issue of the Banner, the official publication of the Christian Reformed Church, a couple of weeks ago. Every year, one of the highlights of this issue are the pages devoted to the newly minted candidates for ministry. I can remember pouring over those pictures and names, playing a sort of solitaire version of Dutch Bingo trying to build connections, trying to figure out who these folks are, where they come from, how they come to appear on these pages.

ScanWell, now folks are doing this with my picture. Back in June, at the annual Synod of the CRCNA, I was declared a candidate for the ministry, along with forty nine other fresh graduates. Some of them attended the meeting. We were in Ireland at the time and watched the ceremony on video. Since I was a long distance EPMC candidate (which means I never actually attended Calvin Seminary) I really didn’t know many of the other candidates. I had interactions with some of them in online courses and the couple of times I was in Grand Rapids for course work, orientation, and other necessary tasks, but the deep camaraderie that comes from actual contact in a seminary situation is missing. I have more of this experience with my fellow Lutheran students.

Times have changed. Not so long ago the picture would have been accompanied with quite a bit of information: age, spouse’s name, number of children, home town, intern postings, making the Bingo game a little easier. Today, all you get is a picture, a name, a phone number, and email address. Those who speak languages other than English have those listed as well (I didn’t tell them Ik kan een klein beetje nederlands praten). There is very little information to link individuals to a place, or even a country. Our ethnic mix has changed as well with a lower proportion of Dutch sounding names, more colour in the faces, and a lot more women (there were none when I was a younger man studying faces and names). There are more candidates as well. I don’t know if fifty, new, potential ministers is a record, but it must be close.

The picture in the Banner seems like a mile stone, a  mark along the road. Something has been accomplished and here is visible proof for all to see. Others received their copies of the magazine before we did, phone calls and emails of congratulation arrived days before we received ours. These contacts have been a great source of affirmation and often come with a sense that I must have a clear vision of next steps, direction for ministry, vision for the future.

The picture is something tangible, but it has not added a whole lot of clarity to the journey. Conversation, listening, and exploration continue, some of which was not possible, or probable, before the picture. It represents a milestone, but it is also the other side of a door I have been allowed, in fact led, to walk through.