19 October 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day

Matthew 6: 24-34 -

Sunday, 11 October 2009

St. Luke’s, Burlington

By Stuart Pike

Worry seems to be a permanent state of being for most people. We’re indoctrinated to it. It begins in grade school, when we’re taught to compete with one another. Later we are socialized to worry about social expectations. We have to measure up. No matter how we feel, we need to look the part.

Some of us can relate to the Charlie Brown cartoon that shows Linus dragging his blanket as he observes, "You look kinda depressed,." "I worry about school a lot," Charlie Brown replies. Then he adds, "I worry about my worrying so much about school." As Charlie and Linus sit on a log together, Charlie makes his final observation "My anxieties have anxieties!"

Early on I seem to have been a quick study in regards to worry. Worry became a natural part of my life. It was sort of like an old friend. Worry always provided me with a certain amount of energy – adrenalin, I suppose. And, strangely enough there is a certain kind of comfort in that. It was like always carrying a spare battery pack around with me.

When I was a kid and into my teenage years I used to seriously bite my nails, much to the dismay of my parents. It all had to do with worry and anxiety. Fortunately, I seem to have grown out of that stage, and, with maturity and experience my confidence has developed and it appears that I am beyond nervous behaviour and mannerisms. (Knuckles)

Today is Thanksgiving day. It has been the tradition for thousands of years to give thanks around the time of the harvest. The religious rites were developed around a great feast.

In the middle ages in every village in Christian Europe, the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the holy altar and blessed. And people would gather in thanksgiving for all that God had provided for them. For the people of the village this harvest was essential to them. It could mean the difference between life and death. In the early Church, the Priest of the village would bless the gifts of the harvest, and would bless the people and then the feast would begin.

I can imagine how meticulously the ceremony would have been planned. Everyone in the village would cooperate, and would be there, to make sure that every protocol was carried out. And there would be one good woman of the village who would have slaved for days preparing a feast to close the celebration: she would have organized everyone, made sure the children were in line and knew their responsibilities. She would be quintessentially gracious on the outside and her heart would be madly ticking on the inside.

In the religious ritual before the feast began, she would have heard, along with the others the words from the Prophet, Joel: “Fear not, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the creator has done great things … God has poured down for you abundant rain … the threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”

And then she would have heard the words of their saviour, Jesus, as he said to her: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” And she might have thought, “But what about my battery pack?” (Knuckles)

And the feast would be celebrated, and from the next day, the rest of the harvest would be gathered in. And some of the seeds gathered from the harvest would be set aside for the next years planting and they would represent the great hope and promise of a God who provides for us. And despite Jesus’ words, many would worry.

Anxiety as a way of life would not normally be the intuitive choice of most people that I know. And yet, it seems that more and more people seem to suffer from it. Anxiety and worry are the order of the day. People today are more worried than ever. And we worry about everything. When we look at what the root cause of our worry is, it seems that it’s mostly about material stuff. But that’s not the whole story.

The essential element of our worry is our fear of scarcity. We are afraid of not having enough, of being without. Worry about material goods is the root cause of much evil in the world - it is the cause of greed and selfishness, which in turn are the cause of most wars and conflicts in the world. But the material goods are only symbols of a deeper worry which we have.

Far more serious, (and more integral) than the worry that we won’t have enough, is our deeper, usually unconscious fear that we won’t be enough. (Knuckles) Our wants for the material stuff in our life spring out of the fear we have about our being. Sometimes we try to fix our sense of worry by trying to acquire more material things, and yet, intuitively we know that this is not the deepest problem.

We’re afraid that we somehow won’t measure up. We won’t be good enough, we won’t perform to standard. We’ll never make a good enough spouse, or worker or parent. Perhaps, we feel, that we will not be able to produce – that we will not be productive. Will we not be just a barren desert?

Jesus says not to worry about material things. That God will provide for all our needs. It is an amazing thing to truly be freed from the need to ensure our material future. And freedom is exactly what it is. Barbara Brown Taylor writes "The opposite of rich is not poor, but free."

“Richness” here is about material things, but “freedom” here is about being.

How many people spend their lives worrying about their material possessions? The more we own, the more we have to upkeep and protect. And then we have to insure it all in case something were to happen to it. At some point we might realize that our possessions really possess us and not the other way round.

I have heard several aged people say to me that they spent the first part of their lives wanting more things, the middle part of their lives acquiring all the things they wanted and the last few years of their lives wanting to give it all away: trying to find relatives and friends who could receive and cherish the meaning of the thing, and not just take the thing itself.

Some people have found that it is in the very last part of their lives, when they have given most of it away, that they find a freedom of spirit which they had always hoped for, but could never experience because they were too encumbered with material things.

You've heard how the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that one sees the glass as half full, and the other as half empty. But it seems that most people want the glass to be all the way full. The only problem is that it is very hard to walk or to move with a glass which is completely full. Having too much keeps us from moving, from being and from living.

Some people have learned that secret earlier on in their lives and have had such fruitful lives giving their energy and life for causes which they believe in, rather than just on stuff. This is the secret which Jesus wants to share with us in today's Gospel.

Don't worry about things: what you will eat, or what you will wear. God clothes the grass of the field with beauty and provides for the wild birds of the air out of his abundance.

The best things in life aren't things: they're relationships. The best that we can do with our lives is to spend them freely building up strong relationships as we search, not for more things, but striving instead for God's kingdom: and working to build that peaceable kingdom here on earth.

The best way to do that is to help ourselves and others to find in ourselves our centre – our own true selves - and in the beautiful, silent, material poverty of our being we reach our thin place, and can touch the infinite reality of the Divine.

We might worry about our being, about being productive, but when we come to ourselves we will know that God has planted the seed in us, and that seed is blessed for the harvest and God will make us fruitful.

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the creator has done great things.” And, “all these things will be given to you as well.” Amen.

Huron Clergy Conference

Huron Clergy Conference

7 October 2009

Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre

by Stuart Pike

Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 86

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.