Ten years ago today…

Ten years ago today I started my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical leave. I spent three months in England resting and reconnecting with friends and family, as well a spending time with the good folks from the Anabaptist Network in the UK. It was certainly a transformative time for me and I look back on it as one of the best experiences of my life. I left Edmonton on the evening of Tuesday April 15th 2007 and arrived in London the next day. Here’s the post I wrote after arriving at the London Mennonite Centre:

Hello from the London Mennonite Centre in Highgate, London, England.

Nick and I flew over on Monday night and arrived at Heathrow airport about 11.00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. After clearing customs we traveled by Underground and got here to the LMC early afternoon. We were warmly welcomed by Ed and Phyllis, the hosts, and the other staff and volunteers here. A lot of the people who work here seem to be from Canada or the United States – in fact, English accents are a distinct minority! The director, Vic Thiessen, and his wife Kathy are actually members of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, a congregation which is very familiar to Marci and me.

My time so far has been made up of (a) getting started on my study and (b) doing little housekeeping jobs to help my stay in London and in the UK in general run more smoothly. The latter include things like: getting an ‘Oystercard’ to make travel on the Underground and the bus system more reasonable; getting a ‘mobile phone’ (i.e. cell phone) (haven’t successfully done that yet, although there have been a couple of false starts); and negotiating the mysteries of cyberspace to get my Canadian laptop hooked up to the wireless network here at LMC.

As far as study goes there is plenty of material in the library here and a wonderful book service from which I can buy the stuff I need to continue when I leave here on the 30th. I will be spending my mornings reading Anabaptist history and source material from the 16th century, and then another study period each day (afternoons or evenings) on contemporary stuff, especially the issue of the end of Christendon and the insights Anabaptism has to offer about Christian mission in the new situation we find ourselves in today. My first study book is C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology, and although I’ve only just begun he’s already helped me make sense of the mass of tenuously connected movements that make up 16th century Anabaptism. I didn’t have a second study period today (owing to a little adventure I had on the Underground – a long delay when the Northern Line was closed for two hours), but when I begin that period tomorrow I’m going to be working with Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Post-Christendom’. I’m also really looking forward to Stuart’s book ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’. All Christian traditions have interpretive grids to help them make sense of the Bible; we all tend to assume that ours is the ‘correct’ grid, and I think it’s really good to check out someone else’s grid and see what we can learn from them.

It was good to spend a day with Nick; he and I sat out in the yard (or the ‘garden’ as they call it here) last night and said Evening Prayer together, and today we had tea out there. We took some pictures too, which I’ll post below. I put him on the train this afternoon, and he is now up in Manchester spending a week with my brother.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre; here are a few pictures for you.

Nick in the ‘garden’ at the London Mennonite Centre.


Me having a cup of tea in the ‘garden’ behind the LMC. The house used to belong to a doctor and incorporated his surgery; it was built in the 1850’s and is four stories high.


Getting down to work in the library here at LMC. 
 

Joy and Suffering: A Sermon for my Dad’s Funeral

September 3rd 2013
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9

I’d like to begin by thanking you all, every single one of you, for coming today for this very special service, as we give thanks to God for my Dad’s life and commit him into God’s care and keeping.

Dad asked me a few years ago if I would preach at his funeral, and when I said yes, he told me that the text was to be 1 Peter 1:3-9. He didn’t go so far as to actually write the sermon for me, but I know that he would have wanted two things to stand out front and centre: the good news of Jesus Christ, and the note of joy.

But I don’t want to start with the note of joy. I want to start by acknowledging the suffering of the past few years. Most of you know that Dad has suffered with Parkinson’s Disease, as well as scoliosis, and multiple other health issues. Life has not been easy for him, and it hasn’t been easy for my Mum; as the months and years have gone by, Dad has lost more and more control and more and more dignity, as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. And although my Dad was a man of great faith, he was also a human being, and he would have had to be superhuman to have never asked himself the question, “Why me?” I know that he asked that question, and I know that he had to cling hard to his faith as he lived with ever-increasing frailty in the last few years.

So I don’t want to ignore this reality, because I think that Christian joy does not ignore this reality. A joy that ignores this reality is a very fragile joy, a joy that can only survive by working very hard to keep certain questions locked away – and those questions have a tendency to break out of prison and come back to trouble us. So it’s important to name the suffering that Dad, and Mum, have gone through over the past few years, and to honour it, and to take it seriously, because a Christian joy that’s worth its salt is a joy that takes every part of life seriously.

Peter certainly takes it seriously in the passage from his letter that we read this afternoon. The Christians he was writing to were going through a time of suffering for their faith in Christ; it would have included ostracism, economic hardship, and in some cases imprisonment and death. Maybe some of them were asking the question, “Why me?” Maybe some of them were even asking the question, “Is it worth it?”

Peter takes this suffering very seriously in this passage. After telling them about the wonderful blessings that they are receiving because of Jesus and his resurrection, he goes on to say, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (v.6).

‘All kinds of trials’. There it is, right in the middle of our reading, just as the trials are often found right in the middle of our lives. Peter doesn’t try to pretend that they don’t happen. He doesn’t try to pretend, as some Christians do, that if you just put your trust in Jesus all your problems will go away. He doesn’t try to pretend that there are no difficult questions for us to struggle with.

What he does is to set the trials in the context of the big picture of the Christian life. Let me briefly explore with you what Peter does here. In this passage he deals with the two components of the Christian life: joy, and suffering. Or, another way of looking at it would be to say that in this passage he gives us both hope for the future and strength for the present. In verses 3-5 Peter says,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed at the last time.

So this hope that Peter is talking about is unashamedly a future hope. He uses the illustration of a wonderful inheritance that is waiting for us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days inheritances aren’t as wonderful as they used to be! Jesus talks in the gospels about the mistake of trusting in treasure on earth, “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). These days those moths and vermin and thieves often take the form of stock market crashes and the collapse of interest rates, so that what we assumed were good pension plans and secure savings accounts turn out to be a lot less secure than we thought!

But like all the writers of the New Testament, Peter points ahead to a day that God has promised. As we look around now we see a world full of sorrow and suffering – with joy and happiness too, yes, but also so much that is evil and broken. But God has promised that this is not the last word. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and the gospel promises us that one day God will answer that prayer. Even now, God is quietly at work transforming the world by his love, and the love of his people. That work is still far from complete, but one day it will be completed.

Peter promises us that we will see that day. Like all the writers of the New Testament, he believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about us, too. Life after death isn’t just about the survival of the soul in a place where there are no bodies. It’s much better than that. In the New Testament a believer who has died is often said to have ‘fallen asleep’. Why ‘sleep’? Because sleep is temporary; even a teenager on a Saturday will wake up eventually! When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). And this afternoon Jesus wants us to know that although his friend Bob has fallen asleep, one day Jesus is going to come and wake him up!

Yes, the kingdom of God is coming, and when it comes in all its fullness, God will raise his people from the dead and they will enjoy it with him forever. I have absolutely no idea what that will look like; I expect that it’s far above anything I can conceive or imagine. But Jesus has promised it, and he invites us to believe it, and to live by it. If we accept that invitation, we can never live as if suffering has the last word, and we can never live as if death is final.

But how can we know that we’re going to be part of that glorious resurrection? Peter mentions two things: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new birth.

Death looks final. I was not present at my Dad’s death, but I have been present at the deaths of others, and it certainly looks final to me. And when the disciples of Jesus saw his battered body taken down from the cross on Good Friday, they all assumed that it was the end of the story. Even on the Sunday morning, when the reports started to come in of strange happenings at the tomb, they responded as you and I would have responded – skeptically. It took a lot of persuading, and a few resurrection appearances of Jesus, to convince them that it was true: love really was stronger than death, and evil hadn’t had the last word after all.

But having been persuaded, the disciples’ lives were transformed. Never again would they be afraid of tyrants who said, “Do as we say, or we’ll kill you!” They’d seen their master tortured to death on the cross, but three days later they’d seen him alive again, so what was there to be afraid of? Even the last enemy, death, turned out to be a toothless tiger after all.

So we know that we will be raised, Peter says, because Jesus was raised, and he has promised that one day we will share in his resurrection. But Peter also talks about the new birth. This is how the power of Jesus’ resurrection invades your life and my life.

Birth is a huge change in the life of a baby! And God wants to bring a huge change into our lives too. When he created us, he had a dream for us – a glorious dream. The glory of God is a human being fully alive, free from evil and sin, reaching out and achieving all that God has planned for us. This is impossible without the help of God, so God gives us the gift of a new birth to help us in that process of transformation.

In the New Testament this new birth is often associated with three things: faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They don’t always happen at the same time, and they don’t always happen in the same order!

My Dad was baptized when he was a little baby, and his parents took him regularly to church as he grew up. But Dad sometimes talked about a very special week, Holy Week 1954, when his faith came alive in a new way. On each day of Holy Week, St. Barnabas’ church had special early morning services; Dad went down to those services with my grandfather, and each day the scripture readings spoke to him in a powerful way. That week changed his life, and I’ve heard him speak about it more than once as a new birth. Later, in 1971 in Southminster, he experienced for the first time a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. He said it felt like standing under the waterfall of God’s love, and the water wasn’t just running over him but running into him as well, touching even the deepest parts of his soul with the love of God.

We’re all different, so we all experience these things in different ways. But the common thread is transformation. Jesus experienced transformation as God raised him from the dead, and now we experience transformation as God brings us to the new birth and gradually changes us so that we become more and more like Jesus.

And, hard though it is for us to think of it, suffering has a part in this. It did for Jesus, and it does for us as well. This is how Peter puts it:

‘In all of this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in various kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (vv.6-7).

I once heard a story about a little girl who was taken to see some sheepdog trials. She enjoyed watching the dogs running around and herding the sheep, but she was quite surprised to discover that there was no judge sitting with a black robe and a wig. To her mind, the word ‘trial’ always included a judge and a jail sentence! She learned that afternoon that ‘trials’ don’t always include the threat of punishment; sometimes they are about exercising our abilities and discovering what we can do when we’re put to the test.

Suffering can be like that; it can drive us into the arms of God, teach us to rely on his presence and his strength, and help us grow in faith. Certainly no one in their right mind seeks suffering, but this passage teaches us that in God’s good purposes, suffering need not be wasted; it can teach us wisdom, and patience, and reliance on God, and compassion for others.

And so even in the midst of our suffering there is joy. At the end of our reading Peter says,

‘Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’.

This joy of knowing Jesus is a golden thread that runs through the pages of the New Testament. In one place Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? A young couple, very much in love with each other, might say, “Yes, our life has a lot of hardship, but our love is enough to carry us through”. And that’s what Peter is saying here: “My dear Christian friends, you are going through great suffering right now, but in the midst of it all you’re finding that Jesus is enough; knowing him and walking with him day by day is giving you a sense of joy that no trouble can touch”.

I know that my Dad believed this, even though his faith was severely tested by his suffering; this is the faith in which he lived and died. By God’s grace, I hope to live and die in that faith myself, and I hope you do as well. So let us pray that God will keep us in that faith now and always. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

KT Tunstall covers Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’

There are literally dozens of cover versions of this song, and very few of them come anywhere near the power of Don Henley’s original. The most successful attempts, in my view, are the ones that don’t try to imitate Henley (hello, The Ataris!), but try to do something recognizably different, something that doesn’t immediately recall that memorable original. I think this one by K.T. Tunstall is one of the best.

KT TUNSTALL – THE BOYS OF SUMMER from The Old Vinyl Factory Sessions on Vimeo.

Honorable mention to Show of Hands‘ version.

Remembering my sabbatical leave

It’s hard to believe that on Monday it will be five years since I got on a plane here in Edmonton and flew over to England for a three month sabbatical leave.

I have been in full time ministry for over thirty years, and this was the first (and so far, only) time I’d taken a sabbatical.

Our Diocese of Edmonton has a policy allowing clergy to take a sabbatical for up to three months once every seven years. However, I had never before served in a diocese that had the money to assist clergy in taking sabbaticals, and for most people (myself included) taking three months off work is just not a financial possibility. So it was a great privilege to be able to do it, with the help of the Diocese and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Bishop Victoria Matthews, God bless her, said to me, “The word ‘sabbath’ means ‘rest’, so don’t you dare bring me a sabbatical plan that is all work and study and no rest!” This gave me the freedom to plan for reading and study, yes, but also to take extended time to be with my family in the UK and to renew old friendships with people I hadn’t spent quality time with for years. Marci and three of our four children were able to join me for a month of my sabbatical, and we were able to help my Dad and Mum celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

I had been interested in Anabaptism for some time, and yet didn’t want to study ‘Mennonite’ Christianity so much, as it was and is somewhat tied to an ethnic identity, for better and for worse. The Anabaptist Network in the UK, by contrast, was not only not tied to an ethnic identity, it was also interdenominational and had produced a wonderful website that was my first guide to studying Anabaptism. So I decided to go to the UK, stay at the London Mennonite Centre (as it then was), do some intense reading about Anabaptism, and connect with the Network up and down the country.

I kept a sabbatical blog, starting it a few months before I left, to keep my parish and other friend informed on what I was thinking, reading, and doing. The blog still exists on the Internet and you are welcome to read it.

My sabbatical turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. I had been tired and on the edge of burnout for some time, and the opportunity to spend three months in unhurried reading and networking – not to mention rediscovering the country of my birth and the friendships that have been with me the longest – had a tremendous renewing effect on me.  The folks at the London Mennonite Centre were tremendously helpful and hospitable to me (I spent three weeks of my sabbatical staying there and reading in their library), and I made new friendships which have been with me ever since. Oh yes, and we had a wonderful time at Mum and Dad’s anniversary!

Here are a few favourite photos from my sabbatical:

Front view of the London Mennonite Centre (just in case you can’t read the sign!!!):

Coffee time around the kitchen table at LMC:

Oakham, county town of Rutland, where my Mum and Dad live.

Reunion with my two oldest friends, Jan Barnes and Steve Palmer, and their families. Only our son Matthew was missing.

Peterborough Cathedral, not far from Oakham, which has become one of my favourite English cathedrals.

My Mum and Dad’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, May 19th 2007.

The famous ‘Eagle and Child’ (better known as the ‘Bird and Baby’) pub in Oxford, where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings met.

The wonderful village of Southminster, Essex, where I lived for six years as a teenager.

Vyv Wainwright and Jay Ridley, with whom I prayed Morning and Evening Prayer at All Saints’ Church almost every day when I was staying in Oakham.

Over the next few months I’m going to be reposting some of my favourite posts from my sabbatical blog, especially some of the book reviews. I hope you enjoy them!

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.

Links:

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.

I was at this concert back in the summer of 1979…

…at the Forum at Ontario Place on the Toronto Lakeshore. I had been a Bruce Cockburn fan for about a year, and he was just about to release a brand new album called ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws’, from which the first single would be a little song called ‘Wondering Where the Lions Are’. I first heard that song at this concert, since Bruce was never one of those artists who don’t play songs until they’ve released the album.

It was a magical summer night. I was there with my fiancée Marci, and my soon-to-be best man Paul was also there with his fiancée Helen. The Forum was a wonderful open air venue by the lakeshore, with a circular stage that revolved once every forty-five minutes.

As a guitarist myself I was smitten with Bruce’s playing, and one of the most impressive numbers all night was ‘Bright Sky’ (which I’ve been trying to figure out how to play for over thirty years and still haven’t succeeded in mastering). Here it is. The video is fuzzy and slightly out of sync with the sound, but the memories of that wonderful night come flooding back for me.