Malcolm is back

After a few months of slow blogging (we all go through that from time to time), it’s great to see that my blogging friend Malcolm French is back in the saddle, giving us food for thought every day (and I mean every day; he’s taken up daily blogging as a Lenten discipline this year). As he said of me in a recent post, our journeys have been different and we disagree from time to time, but I usually find good food for thought in what he has to say. I particularly enjoyed a recent post on ‘Experimenting with Prayer‘ as I’m currently doing some experimenting myself; after years of a fairly individualistic prayer life, I’m now into my second year of sharing my morning prayer time each day with Marci, and we’re both really enjoying it.

Malcolm is pretty passionate about some of the causes he believes in, including socialist politics (which I agree with) and the movement to stop the Anglican Covenant (which I’m less enthusiastic about). But he’s also pretty passionate about his ministry as parish priest of St. James the Apostle Anglican Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Malcolm’s blog is called Simple Massing Priest, and I’m glad to point some traffic in his direction.

Joe Walker’s birthday

20130816-091828.jpgThis is a repost, slightly adapted, from two years ago.

Today would have been Joe’s 50th birthday.

I suspect that many of us who love and miss him will spend a bit of time today reading and reflecting on Felix Hominum. Ideally, this should be combined with a cup of strong coffee – or, perhaps, a pint of good beer or a glass of single malt.

Or, if you want to get really intoxicated in Joe’s memory, how about a draught of St. Augustine or Dante?

God bless you, Joe. Rest in peace and rise in glory. I will especially miss your presence in the back pew of the chapel at clergy retreat at the end of this month.

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.

Reed Fleming’s blog

411373_10151785812620391_1862738916_oI hope that all my readers make regular trips over to Reed Fleming’s blog. Reed is an old friend of mine – we first met in 1978 – and we served together in the ‘Church Army in Canada’, which is now called ‘Threshold Ministries‘. He currently works in Saint John, New Brunswick, where he serves in a ministry to inner city people called ‘Street Hope Saint John‘ as well as pastoring a small congregation for inner city folk.

Reed writes one post a week, on Fridays, and the posts often grow out of his experiences ministering among inner city people. Here’s today’s post, ‘Buffeted Closer’:

Years ago when I was ministering in First Nations’ communities I fell into the habit of modelling many of my conversations after Aesop’s Fables. The way he personified forces in nature in order to demonstrate moral lessons for humans seemed to suit the context very well. I often would tell the story of the competition between Sun and Wind. They were disagreeing about who was more powerful when a they spied a man walking below. The man had a coat wrapped around his shoulders. Sun challenged Wind to see who could disrobe this man as a test of power. Wind confidently took up the challenge and blew a gale upon the poor man, but the harder Wind buffeted the man, the more tightly he clutched his coat. Finally, Sun took a turn and gently shone on the man until the man willingly took off his coat and thus Sun proved his superior power.

We were chatting about one of our favourite topics at Street Hope, God’s grace. We talk about it often because life often reminds us of our utter need for it. We also talked about not trying to use grace as a licence to continue to sin.

Paul talked about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ which was a messenger of Satan, to buffet him and though he sought God to remove it (whatever it was) God assured him that His grace was sufficient.

If when we are ‘buffeted’ we cling all the more tightly to God and his grace we can trust that his grace will suffice for us. Things come our way through our own poor choices or through the fallen nature of this world. These things appear as severe tests perversely designed to drive a wedge between us and God but as we choose to let these circumstances drive us to God rather than away we will find that what may have been intended for evil God can turn to good!

As we struggle with addictions and lifestyles and brokenness we first must recognize our impotence. We are powerless, but when we are weak He can be strong if we choose to be buffeted toward him! The free gift of God though only comes to those who choose to receive it. The grace is not meant to be only forgiveness, though we desperately need that, it is also meant to be our strength so that we can stand in the test that buffeting brings. Actually we can do more than stand we can become ‘more than conquerors’ through Him.

At Street Hope we all struggle to be recipients of grace during the storm rather than after. This requires reprogramming a life time of ‘stinking thinking’! We are choosing to be buffeted closer to Christ.

The previous post, ‘Fraught with Opportunity’, begins like this:

Some days I feel like I’m in a ‘time loop’ I have the same conversation over and over again. It begins with someone bemoaning the ever shrinking church population. It often moves on to pining for the ‘good old days’. These ‘good old days were when the church as an institution was respected and a time when people in desperate straits would turn to the church for aid in a time of need. The church is no longer respected in this way and people turn to a myriad of other things instead of calling on the church. The conversation begs for an answer to how we can turn back the clock, but that ship has sailed. The days of an institutional church attracting seekers have passed.

If that is true, the conversation continues, how are we ever going to ‘fill these empty pews’. People no longer look to institutions for help when they are desperate they look instead to people. They do not want to ‘fill’ our empty pews but are seeking people who may have found an answer to the vicissitudes of life.

The challenge then is not how can we be a better institution but how can we be better people, and then how we can befriend those who may be in desperate need of meaning, purpose and hope, so that we might be sought out.

Read the rest here.

‘Thank God it’s Friday!’ some people say, because they’re looking forward to the weekend. Well, as a pastor, weekends aren’t time off for me, but I still look forward to Friday because I know Reed will have something good and nourishing for me to chew on each Friday morning. I hope you’ll become regular visitors to his blog too.


Update on my stay in England

I’ve been having a very quiet and peaceful time in the English midlands with my Mum and Dad, who live in the town of Oakham in Rutland.

My Dad is quite frail, having lived with Parkinson’s Disease now for about eleven years. Basic tasks of life take up the vast majority of each day for him, and my Mum spends most of her time caring for him. So we haven’t done a lot of tripping around as we might have done on visits a few years ago. We have, however, managed a little trip to a nearby garden centre for lunch, and we enjoyed a lovely visit with my Mum’s cousin Ruth on Friday. Each day I have walked down to All Saints’ Church to join the small group (from one to six people) who assemble each morning and evening to pray the Daily Office together. This has been the anchor for my prayer life on trips to Oakham for the last five years or so, and I’m thankful for it.

This past weekend my brother and his family came down from Manchester for a visit. I don’t get to see my brother Mike very often so it’s always a pleasure to have time with him. We went to church with my Mum and Dad Sunday morning (for reasons too complicated to go into, they don’t go to All Saints’ but to St. Mary’s in the nearby village of Ketton), and enjoyed a couple of meals out at one of the local hotels, the Whipper-Inn. Of course, this has also been the Queen’s Jubilee weekend, and this fact was marked during the service at St. Mary’s. I must say my feelings about that are very mixed. I’m a big fan of Her Majesty and pray she will continue healthy enough to serve her people as Queen long past her hundredth birthday! But I’m also enough of an Anabaptist to be uncomfortable with national flags and national anthems in church.

This coming week will see the ‘working’ part of my trip go into high gear. On Tuesday I’ll travel down to Rochester to spend some time with the Rev. Jean Kerr and the parish evangelists of the Diocese of Rochester, learning about the ministry of the evangelists, how they are trained and used and so on. On Thursday I’ll move over to the Diocese of Chelmsford where the Rev. Charlie Kosla will host me on a similar fact-finding mission. While in Chelmsford diocese I’ll be glad to stay with my old friends Kath and Ken Dunstan in the village of Southminster, where I lived as a teenager, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to play a gig in my old home church, St. Leonard’s, on Friday night (June 8th).

Here’s a photo of my Mum and Dad, my brother and his family taken Sunday afternoon at my Mum and Dad’s home in Oakham.



And that’s it from me from central England (which was lovely and sunny for a few days when I arrived but has now turned wet and cold!).

The wit and wisdom of Joe…

A few people have begun to frequent my blog since Joe Walker died of cancer at the age of 47 last August, and so may not be aware of the enormous respect and affection I have for Joe and his wit and wisdom.

If you are in that category, can I recommend that you take a little trip over to Felix Hominum, the excellent blog that Joe kept from late 2004 until a few months before his death?

As I said a few weeks after Joe died, if you are new to ‘Felix Hominum’, there is a wealth of material waiting for you. Joe helped lead several pilgrimages to Egypt, to Israel, to Turkey and Greece, and on the blog you will find some of his stories and photographs. He commented on goings-on in the Anglican world, and he liked to relate current events to the writings of old saints like St. Cyprian (‘On the Unity of the Church’). He did series on St. Augustine’s Confessions, on Dante’s Inferno, on Virgil’s Aeneid, on Homer’s Odyssey, and on Bernard of Clairvaux, to name a few.

One of Joe’s more enjoyable habits was to post his preliminary reflections on scripture passages he was going to preach on (a good habit that I am now trying to imitate). These were not finished sermons, but rather, they represented the early stages of his thoughts in the sermon preparation process.

If you like lighter stuff, check out some of his photographs of his children in amusing situations. His lighthearted jibes about Anglican bureaucracy, and his mock liturgical offerings (“The Liturgy for the Blessing of a Mini Van”, “Ananias and Sapphira Sunday”) are particularly enjoyable. On a more serious note, his thoughts on Down Syndrome, and on the rights of disabled folks, both born and unborn, were clear and incisive and challenging. And then there are the ‘Jesus and this life’ observations, the thoughts about prayer and Joe’s love of the psalms and the Prayer Book daily office, and much, much more.

If you haven’t done so already, go over to Felix Hominum and sample the good things Joe has to offer. ‘He, being dead, yet speaketh’ (Hebrews 11:4).

I’m ‘in a relationship’ with my Mum

Warning: this post is a rant – a rant, to be specific, about that heavily overused word ‘relationship’.

Of course, I’m well aware that ‘being in a relationship’ is just the latest euphemism for being – how shall I say it? – ‘romantically involved’ with someone. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to be ‘romantically involved’ with a girl, you asked her to ‘go out’ with you. Do teens nowadays ask someone ‘will you be in a relationship with me?’ I have no idea, given that it’s thirty-four years since I was a teenager, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

After all, that’s the language Facebook uses! When you join Facebook, one of the categories it asks you to fill out is ‘relationship status’. You get to be ‘single’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘married’, ‘divorced’, etc. etc. And just to clarify matters, in case any other Facebook user would like to be ‘in a relationship’ with you, you can specify whether you’re ‘interested in men’, ‘interested in women’, or ‘interested in women and men’.

Now, personally, I find both men and women infinitely interesting, and I have to admit that I’ve been ‘in a relationship’ with at least one man for fifty-three years. That man, of course, is my Dad, who is over eighty now and rather frail; our relationship, however, is as strong as it ever was.  And yes, I’m also ‘in a relationship’ with my Mum – after all, I literally lived inside her for nine months, after which she fed me and bathed me and changed my dirty diapers, and (later on) worried about my romantic escapades and made sure I did my homework and told me when I needed a haircut. I got off the phone with her a few hours ago, and she assured me (as she does after every phone call) that she loves me, so I guess we’re still ‘in a relationship’! Make of that what you will, Mark Zuckerberg!

Furthermore, according to, I’m ‘in a relationship’ with a man who has been dead for three hundred years. His name was Will Tayler, and he was born in the village of Earl Shilton, Leicestershire, in the year 1664. There’s a little button you can click on Ancestry to discover what a person’s ‘relationship to you’ is; apparently old Will is my ‘8th great grandfather’. How’s that for a long-lasting relationship!

The creators of Facebook, of course, are simply reflecting the popular usage, so maybe it’s not fair for me to go after them as if they’re entirely to blame for this absurd linguistic reductionism by which a word which used to mean (according to my OED) ‘the way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected’ now means ‘we went out to Starbucks together a couple of times and kissed in the car afterwards’. But seriously, Mr. Zuckerberg – ‘interested in women and men’? I do blame you for that one! (Not to mention the hilarious phenomenon – which I observed myself – of a musician greeting a fan at a gig by saying, “I don’t think we’ve met before – are we ‘friends’?”)

What do I dislike about this usage apart from the fact that it’s so linguistically reductionistic? I think it’s the passivity of the phrase that bugs me the most. No matter how hard you try, you can’t turn ‘being in a relationship’ into an active verb without making it hopelessly vague. ‘I’m going out with her’, ‘I love her’, ‘I proposed to her’, ‘I married her’ – these phrases all use good, strong, active verbs. ‘I relate to her’? That seems somehow ridiculously noncommittal (and maybe modern ‘relationships’ are ridiculously noncommittal, for all I know) – especially when compared to these wonderful  phrases: ‘Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and forsaking all others… be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?’ ‘I will’. Nothing vague or passive about that, thank God, although the way some people treat their marriage vows these days, it’s obvious that they’re taking their cues from Facebook rather than the Book of Common Prayer!

Well, I’m currently ‘in a relationship’ with a gazillion germs who made me cough and splutter, to the point that I had to leave my relationship with my bed and take up a new relationship with the couch for a while in order to preserve my relationship with my wife, who is working today and so needs her sleep. However, I sense that it’s about time to renew my relationship with my bed, so I will now break my relationship with you, gentle reader, and attempt to make up with my pillow. Until next time…

Bishop Jack Sperry, 1924-2012.

I heard tonight that Bishop Jack Sperry died yesterday in Hay River, Northwest Territories at the age of 87.

Bishop Jack has a lot to answer for in our family. He was born in the same city as me, Leicester in the English midlands. As an Arctic missionary, he would come home on furlough in the 1950s and early 1960s and it was he who got a young couple from St. Barnabas’ Church called Bob and Shirley Chesterton interested in serving in the Arctic. As it happened, Arctic life wasn’t for them – they stayed only one year, from 1967-68 – but my brother and I were with them and it was this that sowed the seeds of Arctic ministry in my own mind.

Years later, Jack invited Marci and me to go north to Aklavik, and we ended up spending seven years in the Northwest Territories, in Aklavik and Holman. I was a Church Army officer at the time, but it was Jack who ordained me as a deacon in October 1990.

Jack Sperry was born in Leicester in 1924. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy, first on a destroyer escort vessel in the Battle of the Atlantic and later on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He once told me that the most important part of his training to be a minister was not his seminary education but the years he spent living in close quarters with fellow crew-members in the navy.

He left the Royal Navy in 1946 and shortly thereafter emigrated to Canada where he did his theological education. He moved to the Diocese of the Arctic in 1950 and became the missionary-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Church, Coppermine (now Kugluktuk), where he spent the next nineteen years. In those days English was only spoken by white people who lived in the settlement, and so missionaries were silent until they could learn to speak Inuktitut. Also, the majority of the people were living out on the land for most of the year, working traplines and hunting and fishing as their ancestors had done. So as a young missionary Jack spent months every year on the trail, visiting people in small family groups in snow house villages. In this way he clocked up thousands of miles of dog-team travel every year, ministering to people not only in the Kugluktuk parish but also in what are now the parishes of Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo, and Ulukhaktok (Holman) as far north as the old Walker Bay HBC post some fifty miles north of Holman on Minto Inlet.

Jack had a tremendous gift for languages and became a recognised authority on the Copper Eskimo (Inuinaktun) dialect of Inuktitut. He wrote some excellent grammar notes for the use of young clergy like myself who were just coming into the diocese and trying to get our heads around this amazingly complex language. He translated the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts into Inuinaktun; he revised an existing translation of the Book of Common Prayer and also many hymns. Later in the 1990s he produced a new translation of the Book of Common Prayer which also included some features from the Book of Alternative Services.

Jack married his wife Betty Maclaren, a nurse who had been serving in Aklavik, on April 14th 1952, and they had two children, John and Angela. His wife died some years ago, and their children and grandchildren still live in the north.

The Sperrys left Coppermine in 1969 and moved to Fort Smith where Jack served for a few years. After a brief stint in Yellowknife he was appointed as the Third Bishop of the Arctic in 1973 and served in this role with distinction until his retirement at the end of 1990. He continued to live in Yellowknife until his last years when he moved to Fort Smith to be closer to his family.

As I said a couple of months ago, I remember Jack as a down to earth, ordinary Christian; he loved the Gospel and he loved the people of the Arctic, and he loved most of all bringing the two together. He was an old-fashioned evangelical, but not of the sort who get things out of proportion and major on the minors. He was a man of prayer and a man who knew how to build things with his hands (you had to do that a lot as a missionary in the Arctic). He knew that his first job was to care for his clergy and their families, and when he came to visit us he always made time to play games with our children, draw pictures for them, and talk with them. Episcopal visits in the Arctic always involved staying overnight in the mission house, of course, as there were no roads in and out of most of the communities, and very few had more than one flight in per day. But with Jack, it wasn’t a case of necessity but of vocation; he knew how isolated his clergy were and he did his best to care for us as individuals and as families.

One of the best times I ever spent with him was in the early winter of 1988 after we moved to Holman. I was learning to negotiate a new language, and so Jack came to stay at our mission house for a week which we spent in intensive language study. For eight hours a day we poured over the few written resources available (most of which he had written himself), and it was then that I discovered that I not only enjoyed language, but I had a pretty good ear for it. But we also visited and told stories, and each night the local people would arrive at our door and come in without knocking, as was the custom, to sit and drink tea with the man who had once been their minister (Holman had been part of Jack’s patch in those nineteen years when he used to travel up the western side of Victoria Island by dog team each winter). The respect and affection they felt for him was quite obvious.

Jack Sperry has been known and loved by generations of northern people and hundreds of Arctic clergy. To me he was a true Christian hero and I will always look up to him. God bless you, Jack, and thank you for everything you did for me. Rest in peace, dear older brother in Christ, and rise in glory.


CBC: Arctic bishop John Sperry dies.

Nunatsiaq Online: The Arctic loses a dear old friend.

UPDATE: Some pictures from our family archives:

Above: Confirmation with Bishop Sperry in All Saint’s Church, Aklavik, probably about 1987.

Above: Jack sitting in the living room of the mission house in Holman about 1989-90, visiting with his old friend and trail companion Sam Oliktoak.

Above: Jack baptised our son Nicholas in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, in January 1989.

Above: Jack at the Holman airport with catechist and old friend Morris Nigiyok.

Above: Jack ordained me as a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, October 1990.

Above: The people of Holman give Jack a retirement gift, October 1990.