Heathrow Chaplaincy, Day One

Today I officially took up my position as Head of Multi Faith Chaplaincy at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).  In a formal service at the Chapel of St. George, attended by various representatives of the airport and chaplains from both LHR and other airports, I received a license from the Lord Bishop of London at the hands of the Archdeacon of Northolt.  Here are my remarks from the occasion:

Archdeacon Green, Chaplains, and esteemed guests: thank you for your presence here today, for the many kind and encouraging words I have received today, for your prayers, and for this opportunity to briefly address you.

Although World Cup football and the Olympic Games claim pride of place in their ability to draw world-wide television audiences (and boy, don’t we hear the crowing about it after each tournament…), still even today the collective human events that draw more participation – requiring one to remove one’s backside from the sofa and actually do something – fall under the label of “spiritual pilgrimage”.

Every year, more than 100 million people participate in some form of journey directed to a holy place. The annual Muslim Hajj alone now averages over 2 million participants. And the largest single human gathering in history, as far as we know, was in 2001 at the Maha Kumbh Mela, a festival held every 144 years in Allahabad, India, which attracted more than 60 million Hindus. Within my own, Christian, tradition we know of many smaller pilgrimages: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, and – more locally – Walsingham, to name but a few.

People of faith know that we are all on a journey. Our scriptures and traditions readily hold out the experiences of faith-filled travelers as being instructive for us as we make life’s bigger journey. Whether it be Mohammad and his Hijra to Medina, Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, the travels of the Buddha in his peripatetic life, or – an event in which all three of the great monotheistic faiths find their roots – the call of Abraham and his subsequent pilgrimage in search of the promised land, we recognize the role of the journey in the formation of who we are as people of faith.

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He Qi – “Look to the Heavens – God’s Covenant with Abraham”

Travel teaches us. It stretches us, removes us from the familiar, surprises us with serendipities, challenges us physically, at times frustrates and confuses us, and throws our daily routines into the dustbin. In sum, the journey opens us to new experiences, to new ideas and new ways of being. This is true for everyone, but perhaps even more so for people for whom the primary lens through which they view life is a spiritual one.

For this reason I believe every international airport, by the very nature of its function, is what theologians call a “liminal space”. Liminal spaces are those places in life – involving ritual, a point of passage, or a threshold – where the normal boundaries of our experience dissolve somewhat, the veil between worlds grows thin, and we find ourselves vulnerable, perhaps disorientated, but also open to transformation. Airports are such a place for many. It’s no surprise then that when Virgin Atlantic did a survey some years ago they came to the striking discovery that fully 55 percent of travelers said they had “experienced heightened emotions while flying” and even 41 percent of men admitted to having cried on an airplane.

Some here may remember Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom exhibited at the Tate. The artwork consisted of slow motion footage of people arriving at London City Airport soundtracked by Miserere, a seventeenth-century setting of the Bible’s fifty-first psalm by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Wallinger, who claimed a fear of flying before creating the work, later confessed that “it was airports I was frightened of, not the plane. It was that incredible scrutiny, the State examining one, which you don’t feel anywhere else. The powerful relief you feel when you finally reach home – or the (place) you’re hoping to reach – seems rather like confession and absolution.”

Is it any wonder that faith communities the world over have identified airports as important places to have a representative at the ready? Not to promote religion, that’s not necessary; rather, merely as a practical matter, a recognition that a large percentage of the traveling public and those who work at the airport will, from time to time, find themselves spiritually and emotionally vulnerable and in need of a trustworthy companion on their journey.

(I’ll not speak to the business case here, only to say it makes extremely good business sense to ensure one’s customers’ needs and employees’ contentment are satisfied and that they know the airport authority had a hand in it.)

My earnest hope is that, whatever else may happen in the years during which I fill this new post, I will at the very least make a meaningful contribution to seeing the Chaplaincy services at Heathrow Airport become more able to meet the diverse spiritual and emotional needs of the traveling public and of those who work at the airport. This, one of the world’s leading airports, deserves a world-leading Chaplaincy. Not so that we might boast about it, but so that we can best serve the common good. I invite you to join with me in working and praying to that end. Thank you.

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Caught in the middle of my address.

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L to R: Archdeacon Duncan Green, Chaplains’ representative John Mackerness, me, Heathrow Airport Ltd representative Jason Holmes.

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Farewell to parish ministry. (For now?)

And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.  – I Samuel 22, 2

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it, fellow clergy?  Memorize it; it’s your life verse.

Whether you knew it at the time or not, when your ecclesiastical superiors gathered round and laid their hands upon your bowed head you embraced a calling to live a life surrounded  by the distressed, the indebted and the discontented, their faces anxiously turned to you for hope and guidance.

Eugene Peterson said it best in The Contemplative Pastor:  One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know your emotions are as fickle as ours, and your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to extract a vow from you. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it….With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.

Not long ago, during an interview for a new position, I was asked to describe my ministry experience in one word.  My interviewers seemed rather taken aback by the swiftness of my answer and the confidence in my voice when I replied: “burden”.  Yes, I admit, there are dozens of other words that would describe the joyful and privileged aspects of this, my life’s work, but when it comes right down to it, since my ordination I have felt that a weight has been strapped to my shoulders and an inner voice compels me to walk.

This past Sunday I said goodbye to parish ministry.  It was a happy occasion filled with a gush of kind words and gestures.  I leave in a good frame of mind, contented, yet ready for the next step.

A week from now Renata and I will be off to the UK where I will take up a chaplaincy role at London’s Heathrow airport.  I’m glad to leave parish ministry behind (for now?) and for the change of pace.  But as I do, I have only the deepest respect and gratitude for my colleagues who persevere, often in the same parish, decade after decade.

One thing I know I won’t leave behind: the distressed, the indebted and the discontented.  “The poor you will have with you always,” someone once famously said.  It’s kind of what our vocation is all about.  And that burden.  Thank God we don’t carry it alone.

Five things they should have told me before I was ordained. No, Six.

I may not be the sharpest pin in the box, or maybe I was sitting behind the door when the instructions were handed out but, in any case, I seemed to have missed a thing or two in divinity school.  My professors taught me to read ancient languages, decipher complicated texts, actively listen, and use Robert’s Frickin’ Rules of Order, but nobody ever mentioned the following:

1. You will be an interloper on holy ground.  Whether it is the moment you hand someone the Eucharistic host, or whether you are the silent third party witnessing a tearful couple finding new life in their relationship after years of pain, or whether you are hearing someone confess for the first time to a crime they committed long ago, these and a hundred other situations will regularly place you on someone else’s holy ground.  Like Moses before the burning bush, it is best to tread as lightly as you can.

2. The bully wins.  Not always, but almost.  You know the one in your church with the super-sized ego?  The one who believes the church would fall apart without them, and everyone else wishes they would give it a try?  (Tip: they were probably somewhere in the picture when you interviewed for the job, but you didn’t realize it then.)  They are variously known as gate-keepers, king-makers and by other – less friendly – terms.  Well, if you decide to be a hero and rescue your people from the tyrant’s oppression, don’t be surprised if, when the crucial moment comes, you’re the only one marching to the fight.  The reason is simple: everyone knows that if you try and fail and end up leaving, they still have the bully to deal with; he or she is still their next-door neighbour and a member of the church council.  You, on the other hand, are dispensable.  Instead of the hero you will merely be the latest in a long line of scapegoats: the sins of the community will be heaped on your back and you’ll be sent packing.  A useful ministry too, but maybe not the one you envisaged.

3. You will have countless opportunities to abuse your position.  Sadly, this has been proven many times over in church history.  Cases of clergy abuse are often in the media these days and have been the focus of heightened efforts of prevention by church leadership.  But the fact remains: your position is one founded on trust and if there are weaknesses in your character or flaws in your integrity, these will have ample room to manifest themselves.  You don’t mind having a little bit of extra lunch money in your pocket from time to time?  Presto: people will push envelopes of cash into your hand, in complete confidence that you will see it to its destination, and with remarkably little interest in verifying that you did.  You have slightly too much interest in the blooming bodies of adolescent youth?  No worries; they trust you, their parents trust you and you will find ways to indulge your interest.  I could go on , but you get the point.  Please, if you know deep down that you can’t be trusted, go find another career where you’ll do less damage.

4. Every object has hidden significance.  Your job is all about opaque signs and symbols, so you should be used to this concept.   You aren’t; not by half.  In churches the meaning behind the thing always works out exponentially.  When you walk into your church facility for the first time it might be helpful to imagine that you are a character in a video game walking into a room full of treasures.  Every single item in the room that you touch, no matter how insignificant, will cost you points, but the value seems to be assigned arbitrarily.  Those old hymnals at the back that have not been used in at least a decade?  A thousand points; very costly.  The set of quality biblical commentaries someone left in the church library?  Oh, we don’t care, do with those what you will.  The 1950’s era, badly framed snapshot of the children’s choir hanging in completely the wrong place?  Don’t even think about it.  That little photo carries more weight than the bearing wall on which it hangs; remove it, and the whole place will collapse….

5.  The best two days will be your first one and your last one.  On your first day you will still be living in the fanciful world of the parish profile and your new congregation will still earnestly believe that you are the sum of your CV.  On your last day you will all know the truth, and the truth will set you free, and the people whose lives you’ve touched but never said a word will finally come forward and have their say, and there will be tears and there will be laughter, and pain and satisfaction, and bitterness and thanksgiving, and it will all be right.

6.  There are, actually, some Christian people in the church.  Not everyone, not by a long shot.  And by Christian I don’t mean the baptized, though I suppose they win on a technicality.  And I don’t mean those people with impeccable manners who always behave in such a civilized way.  Nor even those with an active faith who give you books “you should read” and pat your hand knowingly and tell you they are praying for you.  And heavens no, I don’t mean the ones who listen to those awful Christian radio stations and are always going on about how the church should be doing more evangelism and becoming more contemporary.  I mean the handful who have taken Jesus at his word.  Who make the time to care for the materially and emotionally poor.  Who give of their means, generously and quietly.  Who are glacier-like slow to judge the intentions of others.  Who somehow find it in their hearts to love even their detractors.  Who serve without pretense or false humility.  Who come to the aid of the marginalized.  These are the people who get it, and who, in so many ways, will enrich your life immeasurably.

The Church should get out of the marriage business

During my ministry career I have presided at dozens and dozens of weddings.  And I’ve done my fair share of marriage preparation too.  However, apart from service entries in the vestry book, I’ve never registered a marriage; I’ve never “married” anyone.

When I moved to Canada in 2011 and took up my first posting in the Anglican Church of Canada one of the first things I needed to do was register with the provincial authorities to be authorized to perform and register the weddings at which I presided.  The paperwork was included in a stack of other forms presented to me by the diocese and, to be honest, I didn’t give it much thought until I received the return letter from the BC Vital Statistics Agency extending my authorization and giving me a license number to include on any submitted marriage registration forms.

It was then that I unearthed a personal conviction I had never before had the occasion to give any serious thought to: I don’t believe the Church should be marrying anyone.

For the first 10 years of my ministry I lived in the Netherlands, one of the countries in Europe where churches have no role in the legal aspects of marriage.  All wedding ceremonies are conducted by a civil registrar, normally at city hall, and only afterwards may the couple proceed to a church, if they wish, for a secondary ceremony.  This second event looks exactly like a standard church wedding, with the exclusion of the legal rubrics.  It is a purely religious event.

Upon moving to British Columbia I discovered that my experience to date was not merely a reflection of my Dutch context; it was also consonant with my sense of Church / State relations with regard to marriage.  Fortunately I had a bishop who was sympathetic to my sensitivities and I was granted the request to have my name withdrawn from the civil registry.  Practically, this has meant that any couple wishing for me to preside at their ceremony must first engage the services of a civil registrar, or allow me to work in tandem with another minister who will complete the legal necessities.

What, other than historical precedent, makes us believe the Church should have anything to do with deciding who may or may not marry in a society?  There are no other legal issues in Canadian family law – divorce, custody, wills, taxes, estates, death, you name it – where the State extends a legal function to religious representatives.  Why, then, should this right be given at the initiation of the marriage relationship?

“It is a sacrament!” I hear you say.  Yes, I agree.  A visible sign of an invisible grace.  At least that is how I have experienced my own marriage.  I wish that every couple would want to have their marriage relationship acknowledged, celebrated and blessed in the context of a faith community.  However, I see no reason for the Church to continue debating the minimum qualifications for marriage or remaining a servant of the State in performing the legal function of registering marriages.   Marriage is an experience common to the entire populace; let that populace, in the form of the elected government, decide its parameters and provide for its legal bureaucracy.  (And let the Church be free to maintain its prophetic voice vis-a-vis the government with this issue as it does with any other.)*

The Churches of the Anglican Communion are awash with marriage debates.  Perhaps the problem stems from a presumptive authority which no longer has any basis in reality in our modern societies which have moved beyond the Church/State relationships of the era of Christendom.

As for me, it is rather straightforward: if you want me to preside at your wedding, to lead the worshipping community in celebrating with you and seeking God’s blessing in your relationship, I will do it gladly.

Just show me your Certificate of Marriage first.

 

*Naturally, in countries with established, or “state”, churches – such as England – the issue is somewhat more intricate; thankfully we are free of that complication in Canada.

Of foxes and birds and Quintessential Man

Luke 9: 51 – 62

There is a saying that you never really know someone until you have shared an inheritance with them.

I had to think about this as I pondered Jesus’ odd words in this reading, which at first seem to imply that, if one claims to be a follower of Christ, they should be willing to abandon all legitimate familial expectations and commitments. It seems counter-intuitive; shouldn’t a “good Christian” be exactly the one who becomes the pillar of strength and goodwill for the family in their time of need?

I know a man who discovered unexpectedly harsh realities when, upon the death of his father, he and his sister – the two surviving siblings who had for the most part enjoyed a harmonious relationship to that point – ended up in a protracted legal tussle which saw the sister taking most of the inheritance.

The general consensus of the commentators on these later verses of our reading (“let the dead bury their own dead; you follow me” and “don’t worry about saying farewell; just get to work”) is that we must be wary of Jesus’ use of Middle Eastern hyperbole, and we must balance what he is saying with what he says elsewhere in the Gospels. If we do that, we are able to settle on a summation of his words that may go something like this: “The good is the enemy of the best.” Our tendency is to believe that life offers us choices between good and evil; the reality is that life most often requires us to make a choice between the good and the best. And that’s not an easy choice, especially when settling for what is good happens also to be what is easiest.

The context is Jesus’ and the disciples’ trip to Jerusalem. They were in Galilee last week (you remember the story of the crazed man on the other side of the Lake of Galilee), and now they are headed southward to Jerusalem, going via the hill country of the Samaritans. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as god-forsaking half-breeds, spiritually and ethnically unclean; they had strongly racist sentiments toward them.

Jesus, however, chooses the quicker route to Jerusalem, and this means going through Samaria. The group needs a rest stop, perhaps lunch or dinner or an overnight stay, but the Samaritan village proves to be unwelcoming. This is all the excuse needed for James and John to request permission to go all Old-Testament-prophet-like: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

As if. But then, I personally know someone who “rebuked in the Name of the Lord” a neighboring campsite and its inhabitants when they didn’t turn down the volume of their radio to an acceptably Christian level. How easy it is for us to believe that our interests are God’s interests; that our personal likes and dislikes are divinely inspired and sanctioned. Most of the hardships I have suffered in the Church have come from the hands of those who were utterly convinced of their rightness or spiritual superiority.

And maybe that’s the lesson of the whole reading: we simply can’t assume that our priorities, whether they focus on the fight against evil or on the promotion of good, are necessarily divinely inspired. We should not say that God demands this or that; we should say instead that because of our own understanding of God, as limited as it is, we stand for this or that. Don’t drag God into the fray of calling down fire and brimstone, nor even into the presumed goodness of caring for the bereaved. You are doing it, not God. You may do it because of what you understand of God, but you are doing it. You must weigh what is good and what is best.

What does it mean to follow someone who says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”? To become like the Quintessential Man means accepting that the end of our day will not find us returning to the place from where we started it. Becoming truly Human is to reject the merely repetitive and cyclical existence of the animals and respond instead to a higher calling, one that urges us on toward the image of God; one that, hopefully, brings us to a new place, a better place, at the end of each day.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Amen.

©Howard Adan 2013

Jubileum

The nurse needed to tend to the person I was visiting so I excused myself and said I would wait in the hallway for a few minutes.  I took a seat in an alcove with three chairs and a small table littered with old National Geographic and Time magazines. An elderly man, unshaven, a patient by the look of the loose light-blue hospital garb, sat across the table studying me through a haze of bad vision and incongruent thought.

He began to mumble words I couldn’t quite make out.  Something about his brother and being a Baptist.  So my clergy collar had triggered a thought, but I wasn’t able to follow.  The young orderly taking a break in the staff room across the hall looked up briefly from his Blackberry and sniggered.

Sometimes luck is with you.  Or the Holy Spirit; it’s hard to tell.  “You have a nice voice,” I said, “you should be on the radio.”  It was the only compliment I could think of.

The old man was silent.  A far-away look slowly gave way to tears.  He got up gingerly, came near and sat on the coffee table, his face close to mine, the tears caught in the stubble of his chin.  “You are very kind”, he replied, his voice a mesmerizing baritone whisper; “my father owned a radio station in Moose Jaw; I guess it runs in the family.  I miss him.”

There are a million things I need to do tonight.  My transition to Canada so often feels like two steps forward and one back.  In fact I planned to get out and finally-clean-up-that-patio-and-basement-window, something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I moved in.  It will wait, again.

Ten years ago tonight I could be found with family and friends in a restaurant terrace in Brussel’s Rue Jourdan on a balmy summer’s evening, enjoying a dinner of delicious Belgian cuisine.  The next day, June 24, I would be ordained a deacon in the Church of England, an exuberant ceremony at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity.

L’Eglise d’Angleterre croit que le Saint Esprit ‘a institué divers ordres dans l’Eglise….  I didn’t realize until just now that there is a full-page explanation in French on the inside cover of the order of service.

We sang Be Thou My Vision and Take My Life.  I was presented with a white stole, a gift from my wife, with the fabric pattern called St. Aidan.  By mistake I was wearing Homer Simpson socks, hoping nobody would notice.  The Bishop gave me a New Testament, and prayed “Send down the Holy Spirit upon your servant Howie…give your servant grace and power to fulfill this ministry…”.

And so this evening I finally opened the letter I wrote to myself ten years ago.  As I stared at the envelope – “To send/open in Summer 2011. Howie” – I could not remember a single word I had penned just a decade earlier.

“….Much has happened in the last 10 years of course – sadness, frustrations, honours, tragedies…”  I couldn’t stop the tears, each of these simple words bringing up floods of memories, the hurts and triumphs of a decade, personal and shared.

“…My hope is that you have stayed close to the Lord through all of it.  This is what I really hope and pray for you…that your wife and children are all healthy, happy, and serving / loving their God….that you will be more humble, more given to righteous living, and more in love with God, wife, and children than ever before…that you’ve had two or three real accomplishments to look back on…”.

Do the tears come because I know I have failed so often, or because I still long to hear my Father’s voice?

Stability

Saint Benedict’s “Rule for Monks” requires three vows of those joining a Benedictine monastery: a vow of stability, a vow of conversion, and a vow of obedience.  Together they form a structure upon which healthy communal life can be built for a lifetime.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how my own life squares up to the vow of stability.  In essence this vow is a pledge of permanence, a commitment to stay in one place and make one’s life within a single community.  It’s a vow that is beyond the reach of many in our highly mobile societies.  As a consequence, our relationships never reach the depths which God intended.  Conflicts are resolved not by working things out, but by waiting things out – snug in the knowledge that we, or the person who offends us, will soon move away.  Some of us are faced with the additional temptation to always be looking for greener grass somewhere else.  As Thomas Merton noted, “in making his vow (of stability) the monk renounces his vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery’.”

With the exception of a few short sojourns elsewhere (Spain/Morocco, Canada) I have lived in greater Amsterdam for all but four years of my adult life.  I arrived here at the age of barely 22.  I learned the language (more or less; see the blog below), adapted to and adopted the local culture, became a season ticket holder of Ajax FC, sent my daughters to the local Dutch schools, and generally did all I could to advance what I believed were the interests of the Church and the Kingdom of God in this city.  When I agreed to be ordained as an Anglican, I understood it to be within the context of my local community.  Amsterdam was my town; the closest thing I have ever known to “home”.  I had implicitly taken a vow of stability, without consciously thinking about it in those terms.

Then came 2006.  In that year I was offered a ministry position which I believed was perfectly suited to bring together all the various strands of my background and formation, and put me in a place where I could continue to bless Amsterdam for many more years to come.  I envisaged getting old here.  I remember surveying the memorial plaques in our local church, dedicated to the memory of ministers who had served especially long tenures, and thinking, “I will surpass them all in longevity.”

But it was not to be.  At the last moment the door was slammed in my face, the position given to someone else.  I wept.  Literally.  Again and again.  Because the logical implication, in my newly-embraced Anglican polity, was not simply that I had lost the position itself, but I had lost Amsterdam as well.  I would be forced to move on by a system that did not appreciate or understand a vocation to place.

Four years on and I have gone from one interim position to the next.  It has been interesting and fulfilling, to be sure.  I have been useful in those various places, I know that.  I have even wondered at times whether intentional interim ministry is the way I should go.  A year here, a couple years there, change, travel, solving problems, the experience of a diversity of cultures.  It is attractive.  It does fit me in some ways.

And yet, I still mourn the loss of my hometown and, even more, my community.  And I wonder if what I really need is to make a vow of stability to a new community.  But where and when will that come?

This morning, having a Sunday off at my current parish, Renata and I went along to the Old Catholic church in Amsterdam.  Bishop Dick Schoon was taking the service and in his sermon he spoke about St. John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.   “I did not see a temple in the city,” says John; a statement that must have been shocking to his Jewish readers in their day.  The temple in Jerusalem had recently been destroyed, and here is John saying that in the new age to come, the temple would not be rebuilt.  God was doing a new thing.

A message of hope, meant just for me.