Wednesday, June 20, 2012


A snapshot of life on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral as part of the "Benedictine Experience":

Day 3:

0730 - We enter in silence into the Cathedral by a side door and shuffle up the steps in the "quire" for Morning Prayer (aka "Matins"). Our group of 28 forms of the bulk of those seated in the elaborately carved stalls, however there are a few random pilgrims with us this morning and a few of the Cathedral Canons. Many of our group have arrived early to meditate before the office. They use the modern language "Common Worship" book for the offices, and we've all gotten quite used to it. The Old Testament readings so far have been racking up an impressive body count--tent pegs through temples and all that.

canterbury cathedral
0800 - Still in silence, we shuffle back to the "Cathedral Lodge"--a newish retreat and guest house a mere 30 yards from the South Transept Door. Breakfast (in blessed silence) is a buffet of hot and cold items. There is bacon (more like Canadian than American, but without the cornmeal), "Kentish" sausages, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans (?!), sautéed mushrooms, and scrambled eggs. You can also have cereal, various breads and danish, yogurt, several types of dried or fresh fruit, and a small selection of meats and cheeses. Oh, and coffee and tea, naturally. So much for monastic simplicity! Silence ends after breakfast.

0950 - We gather in a very nice conference room for the daily plenary session with Bede. He starts with a sort of "Chapter" meeting: he reads a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict and then offers a bit of commentary about how it applies to community life in his experience, or perhaps about how it has been interpreted historically. Announcements about the day are handled by the organizer of the group.

1000 - The Plenary Talk starts in earnest. I won't dare to say much about the content of the talks, except to say they have to do with things like mindfulness, the balanced life, authority in community, and other such things. We also often go off on tangents based on people's questions and concerns. One of the big themes this year is about how to drop the narrative normally attached to experience. In other words, simply experience things without attaching so much freight to them. The assigned reading before we arrived was a book about meditation--Coming to Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

1045 - Tea break. (and coffee and "biscuits" (think cookies)). Pleasant talk, often touching on topics raised so far.

1120 - More plenary talk today--but on other days we have split off into smaller discussion groups to reflect together about a particular topic. We finish around noon.

1220 - Eucharist in the Jesus Chapel in the crypt of the Cathedral. I usually arrive early since, as one of other three priests in the group, I'm exercising a fair amount of leadership in this department. Typically the Cathedral Vergers have already set up the chapel and laid out vestments. I usually have only had to tweak one or two things, mark the altar book, etc. The Jesus Chapel is a wonderful space--the the eastern most chapel in the crypt. The ceiling is covered with alternating monograms of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The Altar was once the High Altar of the Cathedral, and the frontal is breathtaking. Bede celebrated on our first day. I took the second. A retired priest with 52 years of experience celebrated today. He has become a bit forgetful and unsteady on his feet, so I was close to to hand to shepherd him. He gave us a particularly heartfelt and lingering blessing at the end.

1300 - Lunch. Yesterday was fish with a white cream sauce. Today was a lovely meat lasagna, veggies, and salad. Dessert was apple pie. They feed us very well, and one gets used to the service. I have made a point of at least knowing the names of our various lovely servers, but I do have some flashbacks to Downton Abbey. By the time I return to my room it has been magically cleaned and tidied by the staff. Ah, fresh sheets every night. Time for a nap. One could get used to this.

1500 - Work (on most days) for an hour. I've been assigned to the Vergers, who have me dusting ancient metal gates. Other are helping receiving guests to the Cathedral, dusting other parts, or helping in the gardens around the Cathedral. However, today we had a special tea, instead, with the Dean.

Dean Willis is a gentle, visionary soul. He speaks powerfully about the place of Canterbury Cathedral within the global church as well as within English society. His love and passion for this place is evident. Today we were his guests for tea in the Deanery Garden. He also took the opportunity to give us a tour of the Deanery.

It's not a huge house, to tell the truth, and most of the rooms are designed for entertaining guests rather than household living, but it's surprisingly comfortable for such a formal space. This is a Dean who loves creatures. He has plants and animals everywhere! The outside is surrounded by the most beautiful rose beds. Inside there are potted plants--even on his desk in his library. But I also spotted several aquariums (with live plants), bird cages, and bows of water and food for the five cats that live in the Deanry.

(It's worth noting that cats are an important part of the life of Canterbury Cathedral. There are about 24 cats on the Cathedral Precincts overall, and they are a necessity given how the medieval drain system would be a rat heaven.)

The Dean also raises exotic chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and ducks. In fact, I got to a see a chick that had hatched mere hours before. I was also delighted by an extremely friendly white rabbit that took a shine to Bede's white habit. The rabbit liked being cradled belly-up like a baby. When it wasn't being held, it nibbled on grass at our feet and sniffed Bede's habit.

I was taken on a tour of the garden where I saw large patches of herbs and vegetables, a greenhouse with tomatoes, and lots of flowers. We were also taken to an orchard with pears, apples, quinces and other delights. They have just started a honey bee colony and were pleased to show us combs, raw honey, and candles.

Pictures of the Dean's Garden can be seen on my Flickr Feed.

1730 - Evensong back in the quire. This the full on choral evensong as only the Anglicans can do it: men and boys choir, gorgeous organ music, etc. There isn't a lot of congregational participation, but it is definitely prayerful!

1815 - "Recreation." Really just cocktails in the Lodge Garden. By now the staff have learned to always have a bucket of ice and some glasses waiting for me for the Bourbon Bede and I enjoy. The head server, a very proper looking young lady always dressed in black, saw me coming and checked her watch. "Are we early or late?" I asked. "Early, sir," she said in a Scottish accent, "but we are ready for you." Bottles of red and white wine and Spitfire Beer were ready to go (along with my bucket of ice, naturally). We have our drinks and some snacks overlooking the south side of the Cathedral and chat pleasantly about our day or our lives back home.

1900 - Supper. Tonight was a delicious beef stir fry severed over noodles with veggies. Dessert was another pie. Conversation at my table was about the differences between living in Canada and the U.S. We also swapped healthcare stories (there was a doctor seated close to us).

2000 - We headed back over the Cathedral to spend an hour in silence. A Verger let us into the crypt by a special entrance and then we were free to encounter the space as richly as possible. I took off my shoes both to feel the stone and to make my steps silent.

I had intense prayer experiences at several of the altars, stepping over ropes and going right up to them. Under delicate frescos that are hundreds and hundreds of years old I placed my hands on the ancient altars and stared into the faces of Christ I saw: crucifixes and icons and some bare crosses. I prayed for myself, for my family, for my congregation. The most powerful moments for me this evening came when I visualized my congregation surrounding the particular Christ I was meditating on. Eventually I ended up in the St. Mary Chapel in the centre of the undercroft. It's the oldest part of the Cathedral. It's dark and small and very womb like. Candles burn in votive stands as Mary with the baby Jesus in her lap look down kindly. I ended up prostrate on a well-worn carpet in front of that altar and prayed until I felt the warmth of God's love and just rested in that bliss for a while. I could have spent a few more hours in the crypt, but as our time came to an end the group gathered in the Mary Chapel for the nighttime prayers known as Compline. Thankfully we are using the Episcopal Church's version of this, which I memorized many years ago. I kept my eyes closed and recited the old prayers. The Psalms for Compline are soothing. The themes are protection and rest.

Chapel Of Our Lady Undercroft - Canterbury Cathedral.
Silence for the group begins after Compline, so I put my shoes on again and made my way back to my room to compose this blog entry.

Tomorrow is another day. The highlight might be celebrating the Eucharist again. This time we are doing it as one of my "Contemplative" Eucharists, which means that there will be a lot of silence and a few words.

Friday we are making a field trip to St. Mary's Abbey in West Malling. It's another ancient site of prayer, and the current community of cloistered nuns live a very intense life.

I really feel like my retreat is just beginning. The most pressing concerns are just beginning to take shape in my mind. I'm afraid many of those things are a bit too private to share here, but I wanted to share what I could for those who are curious. It's a marvelous place--but also shows that no matter how far you go, there you are.


Location:The Precinct,Canterbury,United Kingdom

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Few Updates

What I have been up to? Many things. For most of the winter I have been spending time every Wednesday with a small group of guys building some canoes. My boat is almost done. The ribs and planks are all in place. Now I've got to finish sanding the interior (I've already made one pass at it) and then coat it oil. While the oil soaks in we'll "fair" the outside shape of the canoe with sanding to make it perfectly round. Then comes many layers of varnish inside. We'll stretch canvas on the outside with a special filler. Then paint. Then she's done!

This is the first boat I've ever built, and I one of the things that I've noticed is that I have far more emotional attachment to her than to anything else I've made. Something about the organic quality of a boat really makes the connection visceral. When I hammer in a nail I notice the way the whole boat vibrates. She is organic and living. If you've never built or owned a boat you might think this is hyperbole, but really I mean it. The Japanese have a concept of "Kami". Many objects, like Samurai Swords, are said to be inhabited by a Kami, and I totally get that. I'm certainly not going to worship my boat, but I do respect the mysterious quality of spirit that seems to inhabit it.

There is a natural affinity between pastoral work and boat building, which you can see best embodied, perhaps, is places like The Carpenter's Boat Shop. It's a Christian Community that is also a school that teaches apprentices the skills of wooden boat building. One of my classmates, Kim Hoare, has recently become the Director of the Carpenter's Boat Shop, and I really hoping to be able to do one of their "Boat Building for Clergy" retreats. So much of what we clergy is do is stuck up in our heads that using our hands to build things is enormously satisfying.

Life in the parish has been complex. Like many small urban congregations, we face a lot of challenges that have their roots in deep societal trends. For the last year I've been dealing with a radical decline in staffing that has left me shouldering more and more responsibility. At the peak I had three people at my staff meetings. Now... I find myself unclogging toilets and creating the leaflet for Sunday and everything in between. My Youth and Children's Ministry person (part time) will be gone by the end of the summer, and all that's left is a very part time person who mainly just checks the phone and e-mail and manages space booking.

Easter nearly killed me (spiritually). In Lent I broke down crying more than once. My Interim Director of Music, Bruce Kirkptrick Hill, died on Lent 4, a mere two weeks before Easter. I've known Bruce and his wife well for about six years (going back to my St. Mary Magdalene days) and so this was a personal loss as much as a professional one. What do you do when your organist dies right before Holy Week? well, first you take care of people. In this case that meant being there for Stephanie, his window. As it happens, I was her communications link to Canada while Bruce was dying. I relayed messages and did my best to comfort Steph.

Steph. I call her "sis" when I see her in person. I started that back when we were serving together at St. Mary Magdalene's. When she was hired we hit it off incredibly well. Perhaps it was here Mennonite background (Betsy shares some of that heritage) or something else, but we just always had a great deal of mutual respect and trust.

So I did my best to be there for Steph. I had been there for Bruce--visited him in the hospital, even--before his fateful trip to Cuba. But after he died I was pretty grieved.

There was a Tuesday BCP Eucharist that I did for some older members of the congregation shortly after his death. I could barely get through the sermon because I started crying as I preached about Bruce. The reading was about Jesus feeding the 5,000. And my sermon was about how, in the Resurrection, Jesus pulls together all the crumbs. All the fragments of this man's life would be pulled drawn back together in the kind of abundance and fullness that characterizes God's crazy abundance. I cried and cried. And these old folks, who know and love me as I love them, were right there with me. Honestly, if I had hand picked the people in my life I would like to break down crying with, it wouldn't have been much different. Older folks know grief and have a patience and compassion that is deep, deep, deep. I composed myself and did a liturgy that would have made Bruce proud.

I was honoured to be asked to be the Liturgical Deacon for Bruce's Requiem at St. Mary Magdalene's. It was wonderfully familiar to be back there, and yet there were some changes. As usual, I was awestruck by the professionalism and poise of the "SMM" crew. These guys know liturgy. Not just by rote, they really understand the principles of what makes good worship at adapt flawlessly to changing circumstance. Father David is doing a great job there, and I applaud and support the work they are doing.

Now, imagine 570 people packing the church. Standing room only. Then imagine many of the best church musicians in Toronto packing the Gallery Choir. How about one of the best Organists in Canada on the bench. I have been to many church services in my life, including some in great Cathedrals of England, and I have to say that this was the best church music I have heard in my life. It was out of this world, literally. I was really glad I could be a small part of that.

Back at Messiah we scrambled to find a musician to fill in for Holy Week. Someone to pick up the pieces and move forward with what Bruce had planned. He did a fine job, but attendance was disappointing. It is hard to determine why, but we simply had fewer people this year for Holy Week Services despite having what I thought was some pretty awesome liturgical content. I won't give you a blow-by-blow, but the worship (music, prayers, everything) were pretty impressive, I just wish more people had come for it all.

Normally I would have taken a few days off in Lent to make a retreat and then a Sunday after Easter to recover. I could do neither this year, and the result is that I have been really struggling to keep it together. I'm pretty much totally burned out, but it hard to see how I can take any time off until my Honourary Assistant comes back from holiday. When he does, my plan is borrow a canoe and take Henry into the woods with a guy friend and his 2-year-old for two nights.

Perhaps I'll get some rest this weekend. Friday and Saturday I'm going with my skipper from sailboat racing to pick up his new boat. we are looking forward to a very exciting summer of racing on the lake, and this new boat is a whole new league for us.

There are many challenges the parish faces that I don't feel I can blog about. It is much on my mind, of course, but it's hard to say much at this stage. I'm obviously exhausted and burned out. But I think we are moving things forward despite that.

On a Diocesan level I've been heavily committed. I'm now a Fresh Start Coordinator, which means that I spend 3/4 of a day once a month teaching clergy in transition. It's a sort of continuing education initiative designed to keep people sharp and in tune with the latest research in the field of ministry.

And I'm also serving on a committee that is helping to reshape the communications strategy of the Diocese.

And I'm helping to coordinate new media (particularly video) projects for the Diocese.

And I'm "consulting" with the Back to Church Sunday Committee (the contest to give an iPad to the best commercial inviting people to church was my idea).

And I'm still involved with the "Fresh Expressions" movements in the Diocese. The committee is being restructured, but I'm part of all that.

And I've been asked to help with some other one-off projects. I do say "no" to some of them... but perhaps not as many as I should. Sigh.

This summer I'm travelling to England for a retreat at Canterbury Cathedral. It's the reunion for the the group that did the same thing two years ago. I love Canterbury, and I really look forward to resting in the arms of the mother church of the communion. I expect England itself will offer up the usual charms, as well. I'm hoping to maybe visit the maritime museums in Greenwich. I'm also interviewing a Church of England big-shot on behalf of the Diocese (we have a kind of information exchange with them). We were hoping that Betsy and Henry could come with me, this year, but we just don't have the money for that, and a grant we thought might come fell through. It turns out that no grant organization we can find thinks clergy families should be supported to go on retreat. Don't get me started on the short-sightedness of that particular policy!

Henry is amazing. Right now he is daily mastering new phrases and words. This morning, for perhaps the first time, he said, "I love you daddy" when I dropped him off at Daycare. How incredible is that?! He just started a fixation on Thomas the Train. Ilove him to death, and I want nothing more than to load him up in a canoe and take him in to woods and love him in the wild way of nature. I have so much I want to teach him and show him. He's a delight.

That's probably a good place to end for the moment. If you've read this far you deserve a special prize! So here it is: last night I had a crazy dream in which I went sailing with President Obama on a high-performance racing Catamaran. It was just the two of us racing this carbon fibre beast. I spent a lot of time with the guy in my dream, actually, and can tell you that he is exactly what you would imagine.


Sermon - Easter 4 2012

Here is my sermon from Easter 4 ("Good Shepherd Sunday"). Thanks to various circumstances (like people not showing up for scheduled appointments) I had an unusually large amount of time to prepare for writing this sermon by reading more than the usual number of commentaries. I found lots of inspiring content, and the results are evident. Even the way that I am speaking too fast is evidence of how excited I was by what I found in the research time of my sermon prep.

Incidentally, speaking too fast is my go-to homiletic sin. But sometimes my flow gets going and it's hard to slow down. But if I had to choose between too-fast and excited and slow and detached, I'm going to choose the former mode every time. Because I believe strongly that the role of emotions is preaching is absolutely critical, and I am willing to make many trade-offs in order to have an emotive moment in preaching, especially with this congregation. The Church of The Messiah values authenticity above all else, and they will forgive me talking too fast if they think I am telling them about something that excites me.

Anyway, I felt like this was one of my stronger sermons in the last few weeks, so I went ahead and posted it. Enjoy!


Friday, March 30, 2012

Sermon - Lent 3 2012

I found this to be a fairly challenging sermon to put together. One of those times when I felt strong about it in the preparation stage but then felt that it didn't quite work in the execution like I had hoped. That's one of the risks with extemporaneous preaching, you can feel very confident and good about your plan and what you want to say, but extemporaneous preaching isn't about merely "delivering" pearls of wisdom that are the freeze-dried product of a previously dead-and-gone process. No matter what process has gone before, there is a new stage of process that happens as the sermon is being unfurled in front of the congregation, and that can be very difficult to predict, even for someone with five+ years experience doing it! But, of course, with risk comes the possibilities of great reward, and many of my best sermons at Church of The Messiah were simply unimaginable to me before I started giving them.

Anyway, one of the main themes I wanted to deal with in this sermon was the general distaste people have for "organized" religion. We live in an age where it is fashionable to be cynical of institutions. I probe that a bit in this sermon. Cheers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sermon - Lent 5 2012

I was very pleased with how this sermon turned out. I was dealing with material from a variety of sources, including the Zombie Apocalypse show "The Walking Dead" to make sense out of the hope that Jesus offers us. The implications of the bodily resurrection mean that salvation goes beyond those parts of ourselves that we like towards all the parts of the world that we inhabit and infect with our human capacity to relate.

Resurrection in an anxious world was also a poignant theme because of the death of our Interim Organist (and a personal friend) Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill last week. His funeral on Saturday at St. Mary Magdalene's was magnificent. More than 570 people packed the church, and the music was simply stunning. I preached through my grief in a passionate and delicate sermon on Tuesday, but by the time Sunday came around I had contextualized some of the lessons from Bruce's life and death into the larger story that he had dedicated his life to proclaiming through music.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Dreams May Come

Last night I dreamt that I died, saw the "Mansion with Many Rooms," and was brought back from the dead to be part of some supper hero crime-fighting team.

The dream started when I was part of the Roman Imperial Court. Over lunch we discussed the benefits of empire, and I was arguing vigorously that a particular people should be allowed to keep their language and customs. The conversation moved on to the Ceasar's son, who had just been born. I was sent to the priests to observe the ritual of choosing his name.

The Roman Priest carefully three small darts from bird feathers and needles and then flung them at the wall. I helped measure their exact height off the floor, which somehow translated into a name.

Quickly the dream transformed and I found myself sneaking into a room full of RIM (Research in Motion, the people that make Blackberries) employees and executives. It was a preflight briefing for a corporate charter flight. We all loaded up into some wide body jet. After takeoff we were enjoying a close up view of Manhattan when the airplane pitched up radically, stalled, shuddered, and then began to yawl. I knew instantly that the pilot didn't have enough altitude to recover and that we were most probably going to die.

I decided to spend my final seconds saying the Lord's Prayer and thinking of my family. As we crashed into the East River I was thinking of my little Henry.

When I "woke up," I was confused and disoriented. I was inside, a large building. As I began to wonder around I saw that the different areas of the building were decorated in radically different design schemes. I admired some of the designs. Many of the rooms had projection screens. There were some people around, but I didn't want to talk to anyone.

In the dream, I then saw some of the news coverage of the crash. Apparently the pilot was the only survivor. He had apparently tried to ditch the plane in the river like Sully had, but failed and as riddled with remorse. Soon I realized that there were other members of the flight in the mansion. One of them had a digital audio recorder (he had been part of a video crew). When we played it, we heard the sounds of the crash and then a woman's voice explained that we had been brought back from the dead and taken to a secret island where we would be crime-fighting super heroes.

At that point the real Henry woke me up with some kicking and thrashing around.

It was a neat dream. I think my favorite part was seeing my mind's version of heaven. Maybe I'll get to explore it again, sometime!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Every Marine a Rifleman -- Every Christian an Evangelist

One of the organizational maxims of the U.S. Marines is "Every Marine a Rifleman"--which means, in a literal sense, that every US Marine must be proficient is using a rifle and maintain that proficiency, no matter how useless the skill might be to their assignments. In point of fact, most members of the U.S. Military (or most others) are not front-line combat troops, and they contribute best to the war effort in other ways (logistics is an obvious example). Spending time on on the rifle range might seem like a waste of time to someone who spends every day managing supply trains, but that's the rule.

The Christian application of this philosophy might be something like "Every Christian an Evangelist." Meaning, it doesn't work to leave communication about the faith the well-trained, paid elite corps. We need everyone involved in the work of making Christ known.

So I find it odd that people expect that all communications coming from a parish will flow through my office. I simply don't have enough time to
-Update the parish voice mail message
-Update the the street sign
-Update the parish Facebook Pages
-Update the parish Website
-Produce and Post posters
-Produce and distribute fliers
-Manage a parish newsletter
-Make an interesting service bulletin every week
-Send out a parish-wide e-mail blast
-Produce and post sermon videos
-And notify local publications about upcoming concerts and events
And that's not at all an exhaustive list of all the things our church does on a regular basis to reach people. Some of these things I've managed to delegate to others, but there is still a tremendous hole. And I realize that there will continue to be a gap between what's possible and what we do until we get away from a top-down communications strategy.

If every member of my church took it upon themselves to tell a few people in their circle about the exciting and worthwhile things they do at church, our communications problems would be completely solved. Alas, most people are reluctant to do so.

Solutions? Well, to start off with, I think we need to equip our people. They need to be coached on the basics of how to share their faith in a way that is respectful and engaging. The weird thing (to me, at least) is that people have become habituated to sharing all kinds of intimate details of their lives, and yet are quiet about this one. Is faith the last taboo? Or perhaps they just don'tf find their lives to be particularly worth commenting on (a sad thing, if true).

So I'm just thinking about this quesiton of whether we are raising the bar high enough for people who profess to call themselves followers of Christ. Surely they would not have committed their lives to God, and given up a few hours every weekend, unless there was something worth sharing in this whole God business?


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sermon - Epiphany 3 2012

Diana Heath preached this wonderful sermon on the third Sunday of Epiphany. I was the building at the time--doing church with the kids. I think she did very well, and it's gratifying to see lay-preaching developing in my congregation.