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.

October 24th 1990

404231_10150660066745400_2065258587_nOn October 24th 1990 I was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman (Ulukhaktok), Northwest Territories, by Bishop Jack Sperry, Bishop of the Arctic. He translated the BAS ordination service into Inuinaktun specially for the occasion, and we did the service bilingually, alternating between English and Inuinaktun.

23 years later I am very grateful to the late Bishop Jack Sperry for taking a risk on a Church Army guy who didn’t have a proper seminary education. Along with my Dad, Jack was my other great mentor in parish ministry. I’m sure they are praising God together with all the saints now!

The meaning of infant baptism

I’m actually rather disappointed in this video by Archbishop Justin Welby in which he attempts to explain what baptism, and particularly the baptism of Prince George, is all about.

I like Justin Welby and I think as a bishop he is incredibly focussed on the Good News of Jesus Christ, on prayer, on Christian witness, and on reconciliation.

So I find it a little disappointing that our Lord Jesus Christ barely gets a mention in this video about the meaning of baptism!

In the New Testament, by contrast, baptism is inextricably linked, not just to God, but to Jesus the Son of God. Jesus clearly identifies the meaning of baptism in Matthew 28:18-20:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Baptism in this passage clearly means becoming a disciple or follower of Jesus. The call of baptism, for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as parents bringing a child to the sacrament, is for them to be sure that they are following Jesus as their Lord, and committing themselves to raising their son George in ‘the School of Jesus’, so to speak.

But it is impossible for George to grow and learn in the School of Jesus without supernatural help. John’s Gospel therefore talks about ‘being born of water and the Spirit’, the miracle that God does by his grace, granting us the free gift of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do the things he calls us to do. This is one of the things that baptism signifies.

Baptism is not just about ‘belonging to God’. Surely every child born on earth belongs to God, in the sense that God is their Creator and God loves them! No, baptism is about being born again into the family of Jesus, and it is the beginning of a life of following Jesus in the context of his people, the Christian church.

In this respect, it is disappointing that Prince George will be baptized in ‘a private ceremony’. Most of us Anglican Christians have long since given up baptizing people in private ceremonies. We believe that if a person is being baptized into the people of Jesus, then the people of Jesus should be there to support them, to welcome them, and to witness the promises being made. I am sure the Archbishop believes this. Surely, in this day and age, it’s time for the Church of England to make it clear that, whether a baby is born to be King or not, he gets to be baptized in the same way as anyone else – at  public service, so that the people of Jesus can be present to welcome him into the School of Jesus.

I wish the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge well, and I hope that when their son is baptized tomorrow they will be sincere in the promises they make and in their desire to help him grow up as a follower of Jesus. But I wish that Archbishop Welby had taken the opportunity in this video to be clearer about what the Gospel of Jesus really is, and how baptism is connected to it, and I do wish that by his actions he would make it clearer that, whatever privilege a person may or may not have been born into, they receive the sacrament of baptism in the same way, and under the same circumstances (i.e. the corporate worship of a Christian congregation), as anyone else, and it confers on them a dignity greater than any royal dignity on earth – that of being a follower of Jesus Christ, born again of water and the Spirit.

The Big Questions

Some years ago I attended a clergy conference at which we were discussing a rather esoteric document produced by, I believe, the Primate’s Theological Commission (non-Anglican readers should note that in this context ‘primate’ refers to the presiding archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, not to a monkey).

I have no exact memory of what the subject matter was, but I think it was something along the lines of ‘What exactly is an Anglican?’ or ‘is it possible to draw a circle so that everyone inside that circle is seen to be Anglican?’ or ‘How do Anglicans actually do theology and ethics?’ All of it of course was an attempt to dance around the issue of whether being gay or lesbian is, in fact, A Good Thing in the Anglican Church.

A comment that I frequently heard at the conference, from my clergy colleagues, was that the members of our congregations ‘Don’t do theology’ and that it was hard to drum up any enthusiasm for this sort of theological reflection at the parish level.

Now, as it happened, the conference was being held at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, so I had a fairly long drive through open prairie country to get there. It was a very dry summer; many of the sloughs had gone completely dry, and the crops were not in good shape at all. I remember looking at the parched ground I was driving through and thinking ‘some farmers are not going to make it through this season’. For some, I suspected, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The next day, when I kept hearing at the conference that ‘lay people aren’t too enthusiastic about this sort of theological reflection’, I found myself wondering whether or not that was true. Could it be, perhaps, that we were just reflecting on the wrong subjects? How surprising was it that the lay people of eastern Alberta didn’t find discussions of ‘what constitutes a distinctively Anglican method of doing theology?’ particularly exciting? Their crops were dying in the fields around them, and those of them who considered themselves Christians were no doubt praying fervently for rain several times a day. That summer their prayers were not answered, and undoubtedly some of them lost their farms as a result. The luxury of a theological discussion about whether or not God was particularly interested in the evolution of a tiny theological tradition originating far away in the British Isles was something they literally did not have time for. Some of them, no doubt, were clinging to their Christian faith by their fingernails – any Christian faith, Anglican or not.

And I found myself wondering, is it in fact true that there’s no theological reflection going on in the coffee shops of Vermilion or Wainwright? What do Christian farmers talk about when they get together for coffee? And do they ever struggle with the ‘why?’ questions? You know the ones I mean. ‘Why doesn’t God answer my prayer and send me rain so that my farm can survive?’ ‘What does it mean to say that God is all-powerful and then to say that you can’t blame him for the drought?’ ‘How can you possibly believe that God is a God of love when he can’t even be bothered to help me feed my family by sending us a drop of rain?’ All of those questions, of course, are just ringing the changes on the perennial theological questions of evil; ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ ‘Why is God silent?’ ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

Why weren’t we gathering together as clergy to help our parishioners grapple with these questions, rather than ‘Anglican Identity’? Does God actually give a sh** about Anglican identity? What does it mean to be a pastor among people who are struggling to make sense of the silence and inaction of the heavens? And is it, in fact, the case that we don’t want to deal with these questions, or help our parishioners deal with them, because we are terrified that we don’t have any answers for them, and, as professional religionists, we desperately need to Have All The Answers?

Here’s what I know about the questions around the problem of pain and evil and the silence and inactivity of God. First, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to those questions – answers, that is, that dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. I said to an agnostic friend last week that the problem of evil is the greatest challenge to faith for most believers. Most of us can’t find a coherent answer to it that actually satisfies us. We stay believers, because leaving God out of our world views raises even more difficult questions for us (more about that some other time, perhaps). But I have yet to hear a theological explanation for evil and the silence and inactivity of God that I find completely convincing.

So no, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to these questions, which may be why we pastors are so afraid of them. But the second thing I know is this: nevertheless, it is crucial for us to continue to acknowledge these questions and to keep exploring them and discussing them with people. If we don’t, people think they aren’t allowed to question God, and when they can no longer restrain themselves from questioning God, then they drop out of faith altogether. This is because their pastors have never taught them that praying the questioning and angry psalms is a Christian thing to do.

For the last two years I have watched from a distance as my Dad has gotten increasingly more frail through the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. He lost more and more control over bodily functions as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. He lost most of his dignity and most of his sense of joy in his life. It would not surprise me to learn that he came close to losing his faith, though I don’t think he did; I do know that he struggled with the ‘why?’ questions just like any other Christian would. Eventually he almost lost his ability to swallow, and so more and more particles of food got stuck in his aesophagus. When he died, he was struggling to breathe, so my Mum tells me.

My Dad died on August 12th. It is now September 6th, and I am still waiting for a call from a Christian pastor or priest who will offer to get together with me and help me struggle with the theological issues raised by my Dad’s death. I do not expect to find answers to these questions, and I do not expect to lose my faith over them, but they are troubling me. I need to talk about them. During the past three weeks two friends – a lay member of my congregation, and a songwriter friend who is an agnostic – have taken the trouble to invite me to join them for coffee or lunch and give me space to talk about my Dad. Many people have left kind messages on Facebook, and I am grateful for their support and sympathy. But I am still waiting for the opportunity to have a theological conversation with a Christian pastor about the problem of pain and the seeming unresponsiveness of God. And I find myself wondering, would we really rather discuss ‘Anglican Identity’ and ‘Missional Theology’ than grapple with the biggest questions that ordinary Christians face in their lives?

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.

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.