I have no memory of when I first met Joe Walker. He was working as the Anglican chaplain at the University of Alberta before he was ordained, and in that capacity I’m sure I saw him at diocesan meetings and such, not long after I arrived in the Diocese of Edmonton in February 2000. But it’s all a bit hazy, and I’ll resist the temptation to create a mythology about it!
I do remember one of the first times I noticed him, however. The Diocesan family was gathering at All Saints’ Cathedral for a Diocesan Synod (don’t ask…). Registration for these things takes place on a Friday night between about five and seven, and there follows a grand Sung Eucharist at the cathedral, full of pomp and ceremony and incense and multiple anthems and other things which, as regular readers of this blog will know, do not particularly appeal to this writer (slap wrist: get on with the story, Tim!).
So here we are, dozens of us, with more arriving all the time, dressed up in our best clothes (and, in the case of the clergy, clerical collars and all), having registered for synod and now milling around drinking coffee and chatting and waiting for the opening service. And there is Joe, sitting in the entrance to the cathedral, guitar in hand, guitar case open in front of him, busking to raise money for the campus food bank!
Well, as all of Joe’s friends know, he could play; the guy had forgotten more jazz chords than I’ve ever learned. I loved his taste in music from the first (he would go from ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ to a Stan Rogers tune without missing a beat, and he had a particularly hilarious way of combining worship songs and hit songs over the same four-chord rhythm so that he went straight from ‘We Wanna See Jesus Lifted High’ to ‘With Or Without You’), but it was the principle of the thing I warmed to immediately. This was no cookie-cutter priest; this was an original.
Joe was not a rebel; he was just always and without exception himself. I do not think I ever saw Joe trying to fit the mould of a priest, in the sense of fulfilling some cultural expectation of what a priest should be. I always saw him trying to follow Jesus, building bridges with other people, trying to find fresh ways of reaching out to people with the love of God. Of all the people I have known in my life, Joe was one of the ones who seemed to be most comfortable in his own skin.
Joe was younger than me, but in many ways he was my senior. He was far better educated than me; he had several degrees and was an expert in classical languages, including Attic Greek and Latin, to which he later added Arabic (he once tried to help me with my New Testament Greek and apologised at one point for speaking with ‘an atrocious Attic accent’!). He had read more of the classical and medieval authors and the theologians of the early Church than almost anyone else I’ve ever known. With some of them, such as Dante and Augustine, he was so intimately familiar that they were almost his soul friends. He told me once that reading Augustine had saved his spiritual sanity more times than he could remember.
Joe was a man of prayer. While attending university in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he had been introduced to the discipline of praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the traditional 1959 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and this was the practice that sustained his prayer life. In later years he modified it a bit from time to time, to try to include his kids in it. He used the Book of Alternative Services happily in the parishes he worked in, but I don’t think he was ever tempted to stray from the BCP for his daily prayer.
At one of Joe’s ordination services (deacon or priest, I can never remember which), Don Aellen, the preacher, said that Joe had ‘the spiritual gift of hanging out’. He really did. He loved coffee and he loved people. When he was the U of A chaplain he loved sitting in coffee shops and striking up conversations with people. He continued this as the parish priest at St. Timothy’s; his favourite hang-out was Ajay’s Second Cup on the corner of 149 Street and 89th Avenue. He knew all the regulars there and they knew him, and when he got sick with cancer Ajay got everyone from the coffee shop to sign a card and send it to him. Much quiet evangelism and Christian formation went on in those one-on-one (or sometimes one-on-two or three) conversations over coffee. Many of his blog posts were written in those coffee shops as well, and, trusting soul that he was, Joe would leave his laptop sitting at the table from time to time while he slipped outside for a quiet smoke!
Have I mentioned his sense of humour? Well, now I have! If you read his blog through, you will run into it on a regular basis. Read the Liturgy for the Blessing of a Mini-Van and see how he manages to laugh at the experience of travelling with a young family and the language and ethos of much modern liturgy at the same time. He was a loyal Anglican but loved to poke fun at the bureaucracy of the Anglican Church of Canada (see here, here, and here, for instance). Many of his funniest posts had to do with the experience of fatherhood and the ability of children to burst pretentious bubbles.
Joe loved his kids, Emily, Adam, Sarah Joy and Justin. He loved doing things with them, he loved telling people about them, he loved teaching them things and reading them stories and canoeing and gardening and swimming with them. Many will know that Sarah Joy has Downs Syndrome and other health issues, and Joe became a passionate defender of the rights of ‘mentally and physically challenged’ folk, born and unborn. The subject was one of the few things I ever saw him get angry about.
As for his love for Alisa – well, I will not write about that. It is not for me to talk about.
Joe was too well-grounded in the classical theology of the Christian Church to be impressed with fads. He was thoroughly conversant with the emerging church movement and was a member for some years of the Sol Café, an ‘unchurch’ that met in Café Dabar on Whyte Avenue on Sunday afternoons; he thought that the Fresh Expressions movement had some good things to offer and he was committed to sharing the gospel and finding effective ways to do it. But he had a healthy skepticism about ‘technique’ and I heard him say many times that the most important thing pastors could do was to pray for their congregations and the people in them, and to pray with them as well. To argue with Joe was a formidable experience, because he was such a well-read and well-grounded person. And yet, he never attempted to demolish your arguments. More often, his method was simply to ask nagging little questions, and before you knew it you had begun to realise that maybe there was something in what he had to say after all…
Well, that’s enough for tonight. Time to read a little bit more Felix Hominum and then go to bed.