A Sermon Preached At
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete, Greece
The Diocese in Europe | The Church of England
October 27, 2019, 11:00 am
[Expanded considerably for this blog]
Key Questions: What has been your journey in life? What has been your journey in faith?
A Season of Visioning
This morning we begin a Season of Visioning here at St. Thomas’s, Kefalas. We are moving towards coming up with the vision and mission that God wants us to carry out here. It begins with prayer, that God will give us the Holy Spirit to be able to see and think about this.
How do we get a handle on our mission and vision? One way is to think of three intersecting stories. There is my story as an individual – or your story as an individual; this is the circle on the upper left. There is the story of our community and our relationships – the upper right circle. Then there is God’s story – which is the circle on the bottom. These circles of narration all overlap, and in the centre is where we will find the vision and mission of the church.
Let us start with our stories as individuals, since in our individualistic society this is where many of us naturally begin. To model how to do this I am going to give my testimony, not because I am a great saint or a terrible sinner who has experienced a stunning redemption, but because I may have had a few more opportunities to tell my story than you. As I talk about my own journey, I invite you now and in the week to come to think about your own.
Next week we’ll talk about the story of the Church – both local and global – and then after Remembrance Sunday, we’ll reconvene on November 17 to talk about the story of God. On November 24th we’ll see how these stories interact – us, the Church, and God. On the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, we’ll have an extended service where, as part of the Liturgy of the Word, we’ll be seated in table groups and write down our thoughts on vision and mission. Out of that we’ll develop the vision and mission, and then work out measurable goals and objectives. God willing, we will have a road map for the next few years of our common life here, although don’t be surprised if God has us taking a few side-trips here and there.
To get us started, I’m going to think a bit about some of the hymns that were important to me over the span of my fifty-seven years. Let’s start with a well known Sunday hymn – well, at least, it’s well known in North America!
Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.
I grew up in small churches in Grand-Mère, Quebec, Canada, although for two years in the early ‘seventies, when I was eight and nine years old, I was part of much larger church in Bathurst, New Brunswick. Both Grand-Mère and Bathurst were pulp and paper towns where my father worked in engineering and management in the local mill making newsprint for newspapers. I was baptised in Bethel United Church in Grand-Mère, a congregation in the United Church of Canada, a uniquely Canadian denomination that resulted from the merger in 1925 of Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. The church in Grand-Mère was small, reflecting the small English speaking Protestant population in the midst of the 90% + Francophone Catholic majority. It shared a United Church minister with the United Church congregation in Shawinigan next door. When I turned eight we moved to Bathurst, New Brunswick, where First United Church was a large operation with two clergy and a host of activities. I attended Sunday School, participated in a Christian after-school program once a week, and sang in the children’s choir. Whatever the theology that was behind this denomination – Wesleyan, puritan, Scottish Calvinism – what I received was an impression of a God who was loving, forgiving, and wondrous. Creation was good, although we human beings were often wayward and problematic. Jesus was a sign of God’s love for us, and although I did not understand it, I was much taken with the story of his birth, death, and resurrection.
Around the age of twelve or thirteen we had moved back to Grand-Mère and I was being prepared for confirmation. By then the two United congregations and the two Anglican parishes had joined in a shared ministry, sharing one Anglican priest who conducted Anglican and United services. In Grand-Mère and Shawinigan at the time we English-speaking people were so few that the Anglicans and Uniteds had agreed to share a minister. Thus, I was to be confirmed in both the Anglican and United Churches. At the time the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada had a Plan of Union, to become one big church (although it fell apart in the mid-‘seventies). In the end the Bishop of Quebec, the Right Reverend Tim Mathews, on behalf of the Anglicans, and on behalf the Montreal Presbytery of the United Church, the Rev Mervyn Awcock – who was not a UCC minister but the Anglican priest of the shared ministry – both laid hands on me. This was my introduction to Anglicanism, and in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer I experienced a sense of tradition that was lacking in the UCC.
The key thing in all of this is that I never knew a time when I was not welcome in the church, and it was a place where I felt at home.
As an adolescent I experienced faith and religion in music. I remember the first time I went to a school dance. I had great fun. Then I came home and played a 45 record of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken”, with its incredible piano introduction by Rick Wakeman. In the Fall of 1976, when I was fourteen, I went to a boarding school, Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. Over the next four years I sang in the chapel choir, acted in plays, marched in the cadet corp (and became an officer, shouting out drill commands), played Canadian football, hiked the Long Trail in Vermont, biked the Eastern Townships, and spent hours in the library reading books that had nothing to do with my courses. I did well in my classes, graduating top of my class (big fish, very small pool), but what remains with me about my time there was the broad range of activities I engaged in, and the opportunities to develop as a young leader.
In the chapel choir and in daily chapel services I learned to sing in harmony, and I mastered Anglican chant and the services of the Book of Common Prayer. For most people mandatory chapel was an inoculation against religious activity, but I somehow came away with a continued interest.
After BCS I went to the University of Toronto in 1980. I lived at Trinity College, which had the reputation of being the hardest college to get into, in the Canadian university with the highest admission requirements – so I thought I was hot stuff. Initially I was going to study sciences, but I really spent the first year drinking and failing two of my five courses. I attended chapel and sang in the choir there, which did a much more challenging repertoire than at BCS; I also served at chapel services as an acolyte. After that first year I was put on academic probation and lost two scholarships.
Like most nineteen year old males I was pretty immature and incapable of being a decent human being, combining arrogance and ignorance in equal measures. I was in a relationship with a young woman, but it was foundering, and and in the Autumn of 1981 I found myself in the chapel at Hart House (a student centre), praying and wondering how I would get through it all. That night, while praying, I felt God as a presence in my life, one which I could not deny. This did not fix my relationship with the girl, but I realized I needed to work on my faith more.
This fit in, sort of, with what I was studying. After that disastrous first year I had given up on sciences. Instead, I transferred into philosophy, which at the time in the early ’80s was set up to lead from the pre-Socratics through Plato and Aristotle to modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Hegel, and arriving at the Anglo-American analytic tradition, epitomised by the work of the later Wittgenstein. It was part of my exploration of The Meaning of Life, and I wasn’t exactly a natural at it, but I stuck with it. By my third year I was getting reasonably good at writing essays.
In the summer of 1982 I found myself traveling around Europe on the standard North American student’s backpacking tour. For me, it became a kind of pilgrimage, exploring different types of Christian faith.
- I made my first private confession at Canterbury Cathedral.
- I went to the High Kirk in Edinburgh (that would be Presbyterian, Church of Scotland).
- I went to Chartres and marvelled at the stained glass windows.
- Then I went south to Lourdes where I participated in massive Catholic liturgies and learned to say the Hail Mary.
- In Rome I had an audience with the Pope – just me and five thousand others with John Paul II in St Peter’s Square.
- In Switzerland I went to the American fundamentalist haven known as L’Abri, and if I had stayed longer than a week for the suggested three months I might have been turned into an evangelical.
- I went to West Berlin and stayed with young German Baptists.
At the end of it all I knew that I definitely was a Christian. I admired the Evangelicals and their love of scripture, but I also knew enough about biblical hermeneutics that I could not swallow inerrancy or take a naive approach to problems in the texts. I also admired the Catholic Church’s grounding in tradition and education, but I was dismayed by its patriarchal, clericalized structure. So, I stayed an Anglican, and went back to Trinity College and U of T to finish my BA.
After the trip around Europe people asked me if I thought I might be ordained. I thought perhaps, “yes”, but I was not in any hurry to do so. I thought I might have a career in the hospitality industry, and perhaps eventually run a hotel. That hope fell apart in the year after I graduated with that BA in philosophy. I worked as a bus boy in a hotel restaurant, then I sold encyclopaedias from door to door (for about a week), and tried selling musical game software for the Apple IIe (I was terrible at it). My father suggested that he was retiring soon, and said that if I wanted help in paying for a divinity degree I should do it sooner rather than later. So I applied to Trinity College and its Faculty of Divinity, and was accepted.
I finished that three year degree without any problems, and along the way I married Frances. I was ordained in the Diocese of Niagara and served as an assistant in parishes in Welland, Ontario and St Catharines, Ontario, two communities close to Niagara Falls, Canada. After six and a half years we had the mortgage, a child, two cars, two dogs, three cats, way too many books, and we felt it was time for an adventure. So in 1995 we upped stakes and moved west to Pender Island, British Columbia, where I served for ten years as rector of the tiny churches on Pender and Saturna Islands. Along the way our our second child was born. In 2002-2003 I took an unpaid sabbatical and we all went to Boston where I got a degree I did not need from Harvard University, a Master of Theology to go with my BA and Master of Divinity.
Seven months after that I was appointed Archdeacon and Executive Officer of the Diocese of British Columbia, which is the Anglican diocese covering Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. At 41 I was the second-most senior priest in the diocese, and I was effectively the chief operating officer, managing the diocesan staff and dealing with any problems with clergy and laity. This meant I got to deal with bullying wardens and schismatic clergy, as well as cases of sexual misconduct. To my great surprise I was good at crisis management, and I became known as a good administrator and someone to call when conflict erupted. The previous Executive Officer had gone on to become the bishop of the diocese, and many people assumed that this was what would happen to me in due course. My career path seemed set. It was all very, very seductive.
Behind all of this there was a problem. The issues I had with alcohol in my first year of university had not gone away. While many people abuse alcohol in their teens and twenties, the majority of them are doing so because of peer pressure, or to rebel, or because they think it’s fun. As they mature they moderate their drinking, and drink normally – at most, maybe a glass or two a night at the end of a long day, or perhaps on special occasions. They might go weeks and months without drinking alcohol. They leave the stein of beer unfinished, or put the bottle of wine in the fridge for another time.
That was not me. I always finished the drink and usually wanted more. Blackouts were not uncommon. Someone challenged me in 1990, and asked me if I was an alcoholic. I said no, and stopped drinking for five years. After that, having demonstrated that I did not have a problem, I started drinking again. I started getting into hard liquor, and brewed my own wine and beer. I did not have much of a palate, but I did enjoy getting drunk. It went from occasional binges to a daily habit, and I started to organise my life around when I could get drunk. Nothing was more important to me. I kept my spiritual life in one silo and my drinking in another, and the two never met – although the reality is that you cannot drink heavily and develop spiritually. I was in denial in how it was affecting me – mostly in my home life, because that’s where I did my drinking. Finally, after one bender just before my 43rd birthday, I realized I had a problem. I went and got help, and started to work on being a sober alcoholic.
When a crazy alcoholic person sobers up, what you still have left is a very crazy sober alcoholic person. Stopping the alcohol did not make everything better. What followed was what I call “the long hangover”, where I needed to spend a fair amount of time on myself and my relations. Frances and I separated for a time, and then after a year and a half, began to put it back together. Marriage breakdown is never easy, but putting it back together is even harder. We love each other now, eleven years later, but I no longer take the marriage for granted, and I try to work at it every day. I now have over 5000 days of sobriety (over fourteen years), but this morning I woke up with this one day ahead of me, and God willing, I won’t take a drink before I go to bed. As the old song goes, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
“A Spendthrift Lover Is the Lord” by Thomas H. Troeger
A spendthrift lover is the Lord who never counts the cost
Or asks if heaven can afford to woo a world that’s lost.
Our lover tosses coins of gold across the midnight skies
And stokes the sun against the cold to warm us when we rise.
Still more is spent in blood and tears to win the human heart,
To overcome the violent fears that drive the world apart.
Behold the bruised and thorn-crowned face of one who bears our scars
And empties out the wealth of grace that’s promised by the stars.
How shall we love this heart-strong God who gives us ev’rything,
Whose ways to us are strange and odd, what can we give or bring?
Acceptance of the matchless gift is gift enough to give.
The very act will shake and shift the way we love and live.
After nine years as Archdeacon and Executive Officer I was ready for a change. I had recently received a legacy from my late mother, so in October 2012 I went on an unpaid leave of absence to begin work on a PhD dissertation. By the middle of next year I was preparing to go back to work, having written little but read a lot, but the bishop of my diocese had resigned, and I was approached to stand in the election for a new one. In the end, in October 2013, I came second in the voting, but there are no prizes for coming second in such things, and I needed paid employment. I became the rector of St Matthias, Victoria, in June 2014, a parish which had gone through a schism four years earlier. I was there for three years, but my intention to grow the parish into financial self sustainability did not come to pass. I encouraged the Bishop to find me something else to do, and to put someone else in the parish, somebody who could do what I evidently was not accomplishing.
Part of the problem was illness, both physical and mental. In December 2014, less than a year into the new job, I came down with c. diff., an intestinal disease that knocks one flat and can kill infants and old people. I had to go on a leave of absence through the Christmas season and new year. I never really felt myself for several years afterwards, and I never seemed to get back on track in the parish. Further, in the autumn of 2015 I attempted to go off the antidepressants I had been on for some six years; while the first six months seemed to go all right, especially after the pinging in my brain stopped after the first month, in the next six months I slid into a slough of anxiety and depression that seemed overwhelming. I went on another leave of absence, and it was then that I told the Bishop it was time for a change. I went back on antidepressants, and I started to regain a level of mental balance.
The true bright spot in all of this happened without any planning on my part. Members of the Diocesan Refugee Committee came to me and asked if I would be the Diocesan Refugee Coordinator. I wasn’t the first person they had approached, but I was the first to agree to do it. The Diocese of British Columbia, like many churches and community organizations in Canada, had a sponsorship agreement with the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. Groups of people based in our parishes would raise money to bring over refugees from other countries. Once they arrived they committed to supporting them and their families for a year, helping them to settle in, begin English classes, eventually find work, and so forth. It was very hard work, and usually something between six and twenty people a year were sponsored. I started in February 2015, and experienced a steep learning curve as I found out about the complexities of immigration and settlement. I was supposed to spend five or six hours a week on this as my diocesan commitment.
In September 2015 the photograph of a dead Syrian toddler on a Turkish shore went around the world. There was a Canadian connection, for the family of the toddler had tried to come as privately sponsored refugees to the Vancouver area, but the application was rejected because of technical errors. The family, feeling they had nothing to lose, got into a flimsy boat with a bunch of other refugees to go the short distance to a Greek island, in the hopes of making their way into Europe. It sank, and the mother and two boys died, leaving only the father as a survivor from the family.
Canadians were shocked. In the midst of a federal election it became the dominant issue in the news cycle, and the different campaigns all tried to respond to this outpouring of compassion. Recognising that this was a unique opportunity, I went on the radio and went to protests and announced, “If you want to help sponsor refugees, come to an information meeting next Tuesday at St Matthias Anglican Church”. Some 325 people showed up,and probably 2/3rds ultimately volunteered. In the end, by the time I left this position, we had brought over or had committed to bring over some 250 people, mostly Syrian but from all the major sources of refugees around the world. Some 500 people across Vancouver Island were organised into constituent groups and were screened and trained. Two individuals making up a total 1.5 FTE (“Full Time Equivalent”) were hired. Over two million dollars in Canadian funds were raised. It is probably the most important thing I’ll ever do in my ordained life.
Of course, helping 250 people out of the 60-70 million refugees around the world does not solve the fundamental problems that creates refugees. That said, there are some 250 people now living in Canada who will not be washed up dead on any shores. I continue to look with some pride and humility as so many of these new residents become citizens and contribute to the wealth and well-being of my country.
I had basically worked myself out of a job in growing the Refugee Program, and after my period of depression I decided I could let it go. The Bishop put me into two successive parishes as an interim, one of which had experienced serious conflict. I helped to calm the anxiety there, and when a colleague went from one parish to this one to be the new incumbent, I went to be his temporary replacement. Meanwhile I managed to squeeze out some 300 pages of my dissertation. It is entitled “Unsettling Theology” and examines the theologies that were used to justify the churches’ participation in the federally operated Indian Residential Schools in Canada between 1880 and 1970. I recently had the oral examination in London, England, and I have been asked to do a rewrite and resubmit, so I am still at it.
When I was engaged in the interim work on Vancouver Island I was feeling restless. I was not so much as worried about finding work – the interim gigs were working well for me – but I felt that I could do something else. Whereas in 2013 I really wanted to be a bishop, in 2018 I was not so sure. Both Frances and I had rewarding occupations, but with our children out of the house there was a feeling that it was time for another adventure. What was God calling me to know? I felt like I could wait to see if the next diocesan electoral synod would choose me – but the prospect of overseeing the Diocese was less and less attractive. After all, I had already done much of what a bishop does when I had been archdeacon. Did I really want to get back to travelling again, only even more, and did I want to spend my time dealing with people behaving badly? Did I have the quality of leadership that was needed in the future? Shouldn’t the diocese try to get someone other than another well-educated male of British descent to lead them?
It was in April of 2018 that a colleague and friend was having breakfast with Frances, and told her that she’d seen a job advertisement for a half-time, low-paying position at an Anglican Church in Crete, part of the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England. Within twenty-four hours I had the information package. I calculated on the back of an envelope that we could sell our house in Victoria, pay off the mortgage and any debts, and still have enough money to invest and live comfortably off the income, on top of the house, car, and €5000 that the church in Crete would give me. So, I applied, and here I am.
I am still not quite sure what God wants me to do. Obviously I need to finish my dissertation. I have a passion for helping and empowering others, especially the marginalized. My calling is involved in the calling and mission of this congregation. My story, and your story, and God’s story will come together, that I know. And God in Christ will surprise us.
I leave you with a song that seems to catch me where I am today. I pray that this testimony will inspire you to think of your own journey in faith.
Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me bring love,
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you
Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there’s sadness ever joy
Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace:
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in giving to all men that we receive;
And in dying that we are born to eternal life