Huron Clergy Conference
7 October 2009
Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre
by Stuart Pike
Gospel reading Luke 10:1-12
We said our goodbyes at the airport. We left our families and friends and homes – all the things that were familiar – all our stuff, except for the clothes and the few books that we fit into our suitcases. It was a grand adventure and we were filled with that wonderful mixture of hope and fear all at the same time.
We left a warm mid-August day and twenty hours of travel later we arrived to a Uruguayan winter. We were spirited away from the airport to the home of the newly-elected Bishop of Uruguay. After dinner, Bill and Susan and I walked out into a cold, clear night and the disorienting realization finally hit home when I looked up into the glittering night sky and saw that all the stars had changed! The north star was gone and the earth seemed to shift under my feet. My God, we really were at the other end of the world. Bill pointed out to me the southern cross.
It was a four-month field placement for us three third-year Seminarians from Huron College. Bill and Susan were placed with the Anglican Cathedral in Montevideo. I was placed in a Roman Catholic parish in the Pueblo of Peñarol at the northern edge of the city. Everyone spoke another language ! It’s a funny thing about the Spanish – they’ve got a different word for everything!
Along with all the stuff which we left behind, I also left my language, living in my newly-learned Spanish except for once a week when I would return to the city centre to work with Bill and Susan. What had I gotten myself into?
It was an amazing, intensely formative time. We were in our last year of seminary after all, and thus were well prepared to change the world!
They were heady days. The military dictatorship had only fallen a couple of years before and the people were in the transitional time – exhilarated with a new sense of freedom, and still afraid that a military coup could return at any moment. It was a time when the tortured might look across the street and recognize their torturer. It was a time when we felt we were engaged in doing justice.
We listened to the protest music of Mercedes Sosa and marched in the streets with the poor who were demanding dignity for the homeless - “los sin techo.” Thank goodness we three had each other for support in this adventure, especially when the excitement gave way to feelings of great loneliness.
I think Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs because he knew how lonely their ministry could be. Sometimes it can feel like being sheep in the midst of wolves. Beginning a new ministry, whether right out of seminary, or moving into a new parish can be exciting and heady. At first, I didn’t understand my new bishop when I moved into the diocese of Niagara, when he said at my first clergy conference that he understood that being a parish priest can be so incredibly lonely. But later I came to know what he meant.
Sometimes we are blessed to work in a team situation, with other ordained colleagues within the parish to share the load. Sometimes those colleagues aren’t the people with whom we would most naturally be inclined to share our burdens. Sometimes we work alone, or at least seemingly so. Sometimes we might convince ourselves that we like it this way.
Last week I was “gifted” with one of those ubiquitous emails which arrive from friends who are far away and seem to be in boring jobs and who insist on passing on the gems which are making the circuit through the e-ether. Perhaps in my desire for some boredom in an extremely busy week, I actually read the note instead of hitting “delete.”
The note was entitled “Zen advice” and the first item was as follows:
“Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of
me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me for the path is narrow. In fact, just piss off and leave me alone!”
I must admit, I laughed. There are days, and sometimes weeks when, despite my extroversion, I feel like I just want to say, “Just piss off and leave me alone.”
Jesus knew that we can’t effectively continue in such a way. We need to travel into the newness in twos or threes. We need companionship, which literally means, we need someone with whom to share our bread. And along with our bread, we need to share our hopes and dreams, our fears and our sorrows.
In the loneliness of a Parish, it can be hard to find such a one. It could be that you are blessed to have someone who is a soul friend – an “anam cara” with whom you can meet regularly. It could be within such a relationship that you can share, like the disciples did as they went, two-by-two into their ministry. Or it might need to be in a more formal relationship of spiritual direction, or spiritual guidance. Call it what you will, after twenty-one years of ordained ministry, I am convinced that we need to make sure we have the spiritual guidance of another. Meet with your director or guide every month or at least nine times per year, if possible. It is the model which Jesus gives us.
When I think of those seventy disciples heading off in pairs, I am reminded so easily of my favourite Gospel story. It is Easter day and the two disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus, sharing their sadness, their confusion and their dashed hopes. It wasn’t what they thought would happen. Yet, in their disappointment and confusion, they have each other. Of course, the third, a stranger, joins them, and they continue to share their journey and their story with him. In their sharing of bread – their companionship - they recognize that it was Jesus, who was the stranger among them all along. What a truly blessed story this is.
By the time I was in my third month in Uruguay, the humility and kindness of my Uruguayan hosts had brought me to a place of transformation. I was walking through the garbage of the shanty town, ready to start my weekly task of helping to construct a community hall in the middle of this disaster. As usual there were plumes of smoke rising from several mountains of burning garbage scattered throughout the barrios. Picking his way through the garbage and over a stream of filthy water which ran down the street was a young boy who was carrying his younger sister who had no shoes and whose feet were cut and festering. In this instant, I recognized Jesus as an eight year old boy carrying his burden, and also as the five year old girl being carried.
Sometimes you will recognize Christ in the relationship you have with your soul friend. But I think more often, you will recognize Christ more unexpectedly among the people you serve and who serve you. It will surely happen during the times when you have a spiritual guide who is sharing the road with you.
The other thing I notice about Jesus sending out the seventy, is that, if he sent them out in pairs, then we can assume that they went to thirty-five different places. There was a variety of newness to which they went. Not everyone had the same situation. Presumably some met more amicable towns. Customs and attitudes would have been a little bit different. The experience of the disciples would have been extremely different. But, in the 17th verse, which we didn’t read in today’s Gospel, it says, “The seventy returned with joy…”
The joy is a result of being in the midst of ministry, and then returning. Both the engagement in ministry, and the returning are important. You give yourself in ministry, and then you return together, such as at this conference. The going and returning, the gathering of experience, and the sharing of your stories are important to your joy. It is the model which Jesus gives us.
The last thing which I notice about my story and today’s Gospel story is that, after twenty-one years of ordained ministry, the story is starting to happen all over again. Comfortable things have shifted and sometimes, it feels like we’re in a new place once again. The world has changed around us and there’s a newness to the cultural landscape. I never expected, after two decades, that I would feel something of what I felt in Uruguay.
Sometimes, I look up from my work in parish ministry today and I see that all the stars have changed! It feels like we are on the cusp of something new. It feels like everyone is speaking another language. Sometimes I understand that we are being called to leave all our stuff behind and to step out into the new territory which is our actual ministry. We think we are familiar with the places in which we have always been. Perhaps we have become blinded by our supposèd familiarity.
A few days ago Mercedes Sosa left this life, and so I have been listening to her music again – this time on my ipod. Her songs of challenge and liberation and protest have resurrected in me something of the exhilarating mixture of hope and fear and the promise of joy which I felt so long ago.
What is my way forward? Well, it won’t be done alone. It will be done with another, or others who share this journey with me. It will be done in conversation and companionship. It will take the courage which I somehow mustered up two decades ago in order to risk a new journey.
Ultimately, the journey will be, I trust, my response to what my Lord requires of me: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.” In this way, I trust I will see, and you will see that our essential companion on our way is really our Lord Jesus. Amen.