(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing|Rituals

This blog was originally published
July 8, 2016 by Winnipeg Presbytery

Rituals & Rings

Rituals & Rings

Though I did not grow up in the church, per se, I do recall attending a funeral in my family’s faith of origin at a young age. I admit I do not remember for whom the ceremony was held, though I have some recollection that it was unusual for children to attend such rituals in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. What I recollect, vividly, are the wailers, who were professional mourners. They wept and cried in what I remembers as an undulated sing-song. The rhythmed cacophony embodied lament in that space that was a visceral part of the ritual. Even now, if I close my eyes with deeply drawn breath, I can still hear those women …

For millennia, the church has provided ritual and ceremony that have marked life’s minor and major milestones. From the biggies – death, birth and marriage – to lesser, though no less important – such as graduations to pet and bike blessings – Spirit has often threaded these events into community. In fact, such events have often created and maintained identity, whether that has been as the dominant faith or as an oppressed and marginalised community of believers.

The church’s rituals have historically made sense, even in contexts where not everyone shared the same beliefs. We know, however, that is no longer the case in this ever growing pluralistic and globalised planet. The richness that can be found in diversity also presents problems for a all organised religions, not just the Christian church, as we attempt to understand ourselves in an ever changing world.

It occurs to me to muse – therefore – in this changing cultural landscape, how might those who find solace in organised Christianity translate these rich rituals for a primarily secular world? How might faith communities offer consolation and celebration for life’s milestones without an agenda intent on filling pews or confusing the Good News with ideologies such as conversion and colonisation? How can the church go out into the world to help those who are hurting and joyfully celebrating, yet who often have to cobble together – consumer-style – practices that speak to the deep import of life and death?

Memory's Lights

Memory’s Lights

We who find ourselves drawn to the rich history that embodies Spirit through the Christian tradition are now finding ourselves innovating and dreaming. We are translating and creating ways that ancient forms of ritual might make sense to the world outside of our walls and with whom we do not currently have a shared vocabulary. This can be anxious making, it can also be exhilarating when we listen to where Creator might be calling us.

In this generative time, therefore, imagination can be unfettered to inspire. What I think this means is that each particular context – whether that’s from a local faith community to denomination and even interfaith friends – will find no cookie cutter solution. But I think there will be common threads that help imagine how historically powerful rituals might find new ways of expression.

I recently sat with a Sister from The United Church of Canada. She shared a group with which she has been working. In particular, locally, she and others are imagining ways to incorporate a Threshold Choir into a Winnipeg context. This choir accompanies those through the stages of grief and dying with dignity and beauty.

The power of this choir, from what I understand is not bound to a particular faith or ideology: nonetheless it speaks to the rich longing that communities of faith have always tried to embrace. If this – but one example – speaks to how institutional Christianity might find ways to go out into the world in ways that honour Jesus’ mandate to go forth into the world to meet people where they are at, then I have great hope … and that seems like Good News!

(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing|Courage

This blog was originally published
May 27, 2016 by Winnipeg Presbytery

The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip

I loved my time in Kingston, Ontario. I totally enjoyed the experience of my first foray into graduate school in the Classics Department at Queen’s University. The intellectual heights of hearing through the ears of languages now faded and gone was both exhilarating and humbling. I was often filled with the excitement that comes with learning, of being immersed in the rich thoughts of those upon whose shoulders we all stand.

I also found Kingston, Ontario difficult during my first steps into the graduate studies journey. I find myself now – well into writing my PhD – not necessarily cynical, but aware that in every place in which humans gather, we bring our longings and hopes, our hurts and brokenness. And – sometimes – we get in the way of others as they too try to figure out this journey called Life.

In this time of learning and fermenting, of discerning who I might be, there was music. Glorious music that rode crests that only Canadians can create. Of course – being one of the denizens of north of the 49th – I am not objective. Regardless, during these years, the Tragically Hip set the stage amidst friends and work. As my steps into my new marriage unfolded and new packs members arrived, the Hip played. And man, could they play!

Classics @ Queen's University

Classics @ Queen’s University

I even had friends who played in a cover band. When we couldn’t hear the Hip themselves, they played on and filled the silence. The tempo of base and electric helped integrate theory and the practicality of life. And in this time, youth’s impenetrable shield was my companion.

A lot has happened since then – that I find myself in this vocation called ministry is … fascinating, life-giving and challenging. And, as this week has unfolded, Gord Downie has announced that he has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I’m sure there’s never a good time, but I suspect that for all of us who walk with or have themselves endured such a prognosis it likely “couldn’t come at a worse time.”

There’s no platitude that makes it easier, there’s no way to pastorally and compassionately explain such realities that occur in the finitude that is this mortal coil. But man, there is choice. Whether you operate from a place of faith, embrace a secular or humanist philosophy, we do indeed have choice about when someone we love or we ourselves look into the linear walk we all make.

The Boys

The Boys
Belle Park (Kingston, ON)

I have no idea what Gord Downie’s going through and it would be less than caring to presume. But what is clear to me, as a person who operates from a vantage of faith, is that he has been both embraced by this collective we call Canada and has chosen to respond in a way that sure seems like courage.

I can’t imagine it is or will be easy. But the muse that has coursed through the Hip, for now more than 30 years, has led them to embark upon a summer tour in the face of a diagnosis that would likely leave most of us scrambling, numb, perhaps even raging! There is irony in the band’s very name: The Tragically Hip have, in their music, embraced the fragile and tenacious, frivolous and inspiring paradox that is the nature of life.

  • Sometimes, when answers will be wonting and explanations desired, even demanded, from the Universe, all you can do is dance, celebrate, and embrace and be embraced by the harmony that is the Universe.
  • Sometimes, when there are no right words, no simple explanations, it is how we live in the tragedy that points to a courage that binds us all. And – when those tears come, for they shall and will – before that curtain comes down, in our belting out life’s song, we are reminded we are not alone …

(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing: Lent|Faith & Dying

This blog was originally published
March 11, 2016 by Winnipeg Presbytery

A Lenten Collection

A Lenten Collection

Lent: We walk into the gathering danger & doubt surrounding Jesus as he made choices that led to the Cross.
This is a time of preparation & reflection.
Where have you been this year & where might you be going?
What are the things that have kept your journey on pause?
What are the choices you have made that you would like to revisit?
A Lenten Collection

Faith & Permanence

Faith & Permanence
Image: Meena Kadri

“For what are you willing to die?”

I think that’s one of the central questions that dances in and amongst a discernment of the Christian faith. Where is the line in the sand, where is the place when you say ‘too much’ and stand, knowing – let’s be clear that this means literally – in the way of danger?

This central tension often helps people discern what it means to follow as a disciple of Christ. I also think (too often) it is sensationalised to a point that makes sacrifice look mandatory. I think that is an interesting debate and I offer that I do not think it is mandated. I feel, however, it is the inevitable outcome of embracing a love so radical that injustice and inequity become evidently apparent. It is in that clarity that it becomes a ‘no brainer’ to help others, because love – not that romanticised-Hallmark-five-dollar-card-kind – makes us radical, it makes us mavericks!

At one time, these are the one-on-one conversation I would have when I was in pastoral ministry. What is an individual or the community’s call? Where in the neighbourhood are the marginalised suffering and how does walking into solidarity affect everyone? Another interesting question in this context was: what are you willing to sacrifice? Of what do you need to let go, in order to be that radical love?

Not easy questions, certainly often without trite or simple answers, but the excitement that they create engenders discussions of Jesus among us, the Kingdom now and fully living in freedom, for which I believe we all long. And – getting to that place – is grounded both in trust and vulnerability: another difficult dance, though well worth the commitment. But – of course – I am biased …

twilight near!

twilight near!
Image: Nick Kenrick

My context – in the last few years – has shifted from the pastoral to one that is more structural or administrative in nature. In turn, as I began this year’s Lenten blogs, I was again wondering how would these musings translate into this new experience.? As I was sitting at a recent monthly gathering of church in Winnipeg, it became clear that the questions are just as appropriate individually, as they are collectively.

Let’s not sugar-coat the discussion and – as we are in Lent – wrestling seems appropriate. Whether as an individual or collective, which endeavours to follow Jesus, faith and dying are companions with whom we must walk. There is no doubt there is beauty in this ministry we have inherited. It often it comes in the awakening to the dream and an awareness of another person’s intrinsic beauty as a fellow Beloved of God. But this beautiful dream confronts – and likely always will – a dominant story of brokenness, inequity and oppression. As such, choosing to help others inevitably places a person of faith in direct tension with this ubiquitous story. If Jesus left us with anything, it is that faith and dying are intimate partners and in shadowed times, resurrection seems like a pipe dream of milk and honey that will remain a fairy-tale.

In the midst of this Lenten journey, therefore, how we – as The United Church of Canada – respond to such questions, may illuminate how we might describe our mission in the world as we await Light’s dawning:

• For what are you willing to die?
• What is our Call?
• Where in our neighbourhoods are the marginalised suffering and how does walking into solidarity affect everyone?
• What are we willing to sacrifice?
• Of what do we need to let go, in order to be radical love?

Blog links:

 Image: twilight near
 Image: Faith & Permanence
 Wikipedia: Lent

 Wikipedia: The United Church of Canada
 YouTube: Dream (Priscilla Ahn)

(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing|Goodbye

Death and goodbyes are numbing experiences. Regardless of any sense of preparation, once life’s inevitable dance comes to an end, those of us left behind must figure out what this new reality looks like, feels like and lives like on a dance floor now emptied. I totally get the brain science about why grief and goodbye saying is hard. Our memories, habits and living day-day are intertwined with those who have died. Those networks, which are hardwired in our head, that formulate our sense of being, therefore, begin to break down. Somewhere in there is where our rational mind and emotional being wrestle.

But just because the science makes sense, it doesn’t ever or in any way make death pleasant. In fact, knowing too much can distract from the need to be in the loss. Over the last week, my household has had to say goodbye to a matriarch of our family and to also help one of our dog companions die. It’s been a difficult time and one that has led me to wrestle with death’s presence.

A Faithful Companion

A Faithful Companion
Credit: Shelly Manley-Tannis

• What do we do when we are left behind?
• How do we find anything hopeful when our identity
loses those central to how we understand ourselves?
• How, as Christians, do we find comfort in what we all know is part of life’s cycle
and what we would nonetheless rather not confront?

The history and understanding of death and the hereafter or heaven is rich and speaks to the beautiful subtlety that is our human capacity to describe that which we will never know while alive. The Christian journey has told many stories to try to understand this inevitable mortal cycle. Whether that’s being reunited with those left behind in some sort of party or festival. Pearly gates and big clouds is another image in which we might find comfort. Another Judeo-Christian understanding describes the hereafter as a void that is beyond understanding. A further metaphysical tale might be adapted from quantum mechanics, in which we are all interconnected and consciousness may not be understandable at the foundations of where myth and science meet.

Regardless of what’s true, I think there is more than the need to understand and to find comfort with death. How we say goodbye connects us to central ideas and the ethics of our mortal lives. After all, if what we believe creates reality then our intention in those beliefs must come into play. Our intention becomes central to understand the ways in which the living interact with one another since the dead – without being callous – are free from the considerations that govern this life. A life that is bound to time is an arrow let go from a bow.


Credit: Dennis Skley

And so, with goodbye saying begun, I find myself most drawn to the wisdom of an elder now gone. I remember her sense of humour and her own willingness to grow and learn, when our understandings of age might lead to assumptions. I find myself pining for my lost furred companion, who would work tenaciously and offer love unconditionally. Who would demand to be loved and return such offering tenfold. In the grief that is present, I am reminded (ultimately) that no person or creature, that no aspect of creation is mine. I do not own you or those who with whom I have the honour to walk in this life. I get to choose how to praise you, honour you and, if in some way I am fuzzy about the specifics as to what’s on the other side, I do think that a certain line, from a certain movie that paraphrases the Roman philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, rings true to me in these dark cloud gathering moments when all I can do is lament and let certainty and answers go: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Blog links:

 Image: Goodbye
 Wikipedia: Heaven
 Wikipedia: Lament

 Wikipedia: Marcus Aurelius
 Wikipedia: Quantum Mechanics
 YouTube: Gladiator (Clip)

(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing|Scott

When tears fall & souls weep.
When grief strikes & questions abound.
May we (who r able) respond with care
& may those who need – be embraced
(Verses|May 2013)

15 years give or take a few solar revolutions … that’s how long I had the privilege to call Scott a friend. Though at first I knew him by the nickname he used in our online community as tarna, once we began to work with one another and then connect on the phone, PM, IM, and through various digital media our relationship matured from digital acquaintance to friendship. Scott was one of the bravest men I have ever known. He fought with an illness so aggressive that it required frequent surgery and caused such pain that I could sometimes hear it in his voice; and, every time I phoned him, not only was I humbled but I felt that his joie de vivre was a blessing. I will miss you Scott/tarna. And for those of you for whom relationships are grounded in the digital, never listen to that voice that says such connexions are ‘less than’ or not ‘real.’ The tears I have experienced at learning of the death of my friend have been most real and I know that Scott is now free of the pain with which he choose to live with dignity.

An Analogue World

An Analogue World

Perhaps the first paragraph is as much a testimonial of loss as it is a catalyst for reflection about my faith and what I might need to learn, to share with the church. Faith & church: they are intimately connected, how I live out individually what I understand to be a reflection of the Holy will obviously inform the way I walk into the human institution called church.

My relationship with Scott was grounded in a place and in a way that some see as ‘less than’ or ‘not real.’ I have been online for the better part of 2 decades and have friends from around the world, many of whom I only know digitally. These relationships are as valuable and life-giving to me as those which I have the gift to be able to embrace with physical touch. tarna’s illness did not define him, but it allowed him to model a generosity of spirit that I know affected others. His questions of concern for others in our online community not only speaks to his own compassion for others, but mirrors how such a place creates reciprocal relationships. Where mutuality in these democratic and sometimes frenetic places becomes an expectation grounded in freedom to be who we know we want to be. Sometimes, the most authentic person we long to be flourishes in these places that are free of the addictions, distractions, dysfunctions that are our lives in the ‘real world.’ Sometimes the ‘real world’ only shadows who we know we want to be – who we truly are – and an online community can embrace the ‘real’ you in ways that are life-giving and soul celebrating. As a person of faith, therefore, Scott modelled for me in this digital environment that it’s not what you believe that matters, it’s how you treat strangers: strangers in an online community are nameless and faceless at first. They might live next door or on the other side of the globe. How you treat the nameless are the seeds of friendship and that is just one way that I will honour this friendship.

A Digital World

A Digital World

What I take to the church is this: it’s not whether or not we should be testifying and evangelising the Good News in this environments – it’s the public commons of a new age and unless we’re there engaged, then we’re obsolete. For those who will follow, this is where we’ll meet them first. What we MUST ask, therefore, is ‘why.’ If our answer is about wanting to boost numbers or some double-speak agenda of conversion and coercion, not only do I want no part of such a reply, I believe it is theologically flawed. There is an entire generation, now almost two, who have no grounding in organised religion, for whom the rituals that mark death are few and far between and who are already– appropriately so –wary of those who peddle saccharine. Judgement laden and cheap faith. If our ‘why,’ however, is about wanting to help people shine, to help people transform from what the world tells them, that bullies into a conforming and controlling consumer mould where the common denominator must deny uniqueness, then I say let’s get to the business of sharing the Good News.

In places online – from chat groups, Skype, social media platforms and a plethora of real-time communication – people are gravitating to spaces and places that promise to offer community and change. And I believe that the church that longs to help people awaken to the gift they are has something to contribute in such spaces. Whether or not we’re ready, however, doesn’t matter. It’s already happening, we just need to ask ourselves ‘why’ … the rest will be what it will be …

RIP Scott/tarna

Faith is the unspoken confidence
in a threaded reality that defies word compartments.
Belief is the construction of compartments
(A Pres-bit|@wpgpres)

A Deacon’s Musing blog

(Blog) A Deacon’s Musing|ICU & YOU & ME

This blog was originally published October 30, 2008
by Emerging Spirit & was entitled,

49 Remember your word to your servant,
in which you have made me hope.
50 This is my comfort in my distress,
that your promise gives me life.

Psalm 119.49-50

“So are you going to blog about this?” My spouse asked me rather rhetorically. She does indeed know me well!

The last few weeks have been challenging, filled with Grace and exhaustion. My mother has fallen most unexpectedly ill and has ended up in ICU. To see the woman who has been formative in my journey become so ill, so quickly, has me filled with many emotions that range from powerlessness to anger, from rage to lament. And in between the beeps and dings, the singing of electronic alarms and warnings, two things occurred for me in that space: hope and concern.


The hope was simply being in the family room of the ICU ward for over a week and experiencing people in prayer as they discussed their faith and God. In this windowless space, tears and laughter were shared, not only with one’s own family, clan, pack and pride, but with strangers, with people who become the neighbour without a CV, an Interview or a Reference Check. The instant intimacy that accompanies sudden illness, where death looms large and uncertain – as assured as is too much coffee – cuts through affluence and pretence and serves to remind everyone that life is both beautiful and fragile, tenacious and precious. In that room, the Holy was present in every person I met and the eyes of Christ looked upon me in my own struggles as I too cared for people whose names I will never know.

The concern also comes from my time in ICU. For all of us, we experienced grief and lack of control over the lives of our loved ones. And, often in that room that was filled with life abundant while surrounded by the shroud of loss, it was often the family members that the Emerging Church is trying to reach out to who seemed less consoled by prayer or hope. In the moment the doctor came through the swinging doors, disinfectant the only perfumery, we all knew the news, the consoling whisper that begins seemed to fall with less import for those whom I assume have not experienced a faith community.

The concern, therefore, leads to a challenge: if there is such a large and significant portion of post-Christian society that has no formal affiliation with any faith community, then how are the milestones – such as birth, marriage, death – experienced? Now do not get me wrong, institutionalisation often carries with it much that is problematic when a bunch of people get together, but … there is always a but … such organisations often foster relationships and community, and, in turn, the Holy is experienced.

ICU was a time to be reminded of the simple basics: life and death are intimately woven into our journeys and if we, as church, have anything significant to say to our dominant individualised and consumer-oriented society it is this: we are not alone. No matter how much we might be tempted to deny it, the energy in an ICU room cuts through the baggage and dysfunction and clearly illustrates what is important. The Psalmist knew this, the family who lost their patriarch asked me at the same time how my mother was doing knew this: This was a gift, it was hope …

How the church shares that hope is our challenge, the Spirit whispers to us to reinvent and reimagine so that God’s presence is in people’s lives and that does not necessarily mean the church …

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The Summer Day
Mary Oliver (1992)

Blog links:

UCC: Creed
Wikipedia: Mary Oliver