Archive for May, 2019

Plus près du ciel

Last night, Peter Elliott (dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the man who will always be my priest) phoned to tell me that Patrick Wedd had died.

Patrick Wedd was a truly brilliant Canadian composer, organist, and choir director.

Source: Musica Orbium website

He was also my godfather.

A lot of folks from outside the church who might be considered “culturally Christian” have a lot of ideas about what a godparent is. Patrick Wedd was all of those things, but more importantly he was everything a godparent is truly expected to be by the church and family that ordains them to such a position.

When my mother was barely an adult (maybe 18, surely no older than 20), her home parish choir director, Peter Chapel, told her she needed to expand her horizons as a choral singer. She needed to join a bigger, more prestigious choir, he said, and he recommended Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. “Go and sing for Patrick,” he said. “You must.”

Mum was terrified. She thought there was no possible way she could hack it…but she decided to give it a shot. So began a forty-year long friendship with Patrick and his husband Robert Wells (my other godfather).

There are two gay couples in my life who were instrumental in teaching me as a child that love was love, no matter who you were. Patrick and Rob were one of those couples. From infancy, to me they were Uncle Paddy and Uncle Robbie.

Their relationship was simply gospel when I was growing up. Where there was one, there was the other. To me they always seemed beautifully complementary. Patrick was well known across the Canadian choral world, and a truly accomplished musician in his own right. Rob was quieter, also a wonderful musician, but in my memory more in the background, and always full of smiles. They were so well-matched.

Uncle Paddy always had an air of busy-ness about him to me. There were things to do, minds to mold, worlds to conquer, divine truths to immortalize in music. He is one of two people in my life who always called me by my full, baptismal name: Clare Elisabeth.

Patrick was director of music and organist at the Vancouver Cathedral until the ’80s, when he was succeeded by Rupert Lang, another titanic musical figure in my life. Patrick went on to Montreal after that to work at the church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, and finally, in 1996, he went on to Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal.

He founded many other groups, including Musica Orbium Acceuil, for which my mum sang for years when we lived in Ottawa. Nearly every weekend, the two of us would pile into the car and put one of three CDs into the deck: The Lion King soundtrack, The Mission soundtrack, or Handel’s Messiah. Then, singing all the way, we would make the two hour drive to Montreal for the weekend. I was around nine or ten at the time.

The rehearsals happened in halls and churches, and my mum would load a bag full of books and toys for me. I would go off by myself in a corner and do my quiet thing, soaking up all of this divine music. I also remember checking tickets at one of their shows.

In the evening, we would go back to their little apartment in Montreal, have some manner of delectable dinner, sit in their back porch garden, play with their dog. They had so many weird and wonderful things – books, knickknacks, all kinds of stuff.

When we moved back, although I didn’t see him as often as I once had, the connection was still there. He was invited to my wedding, of course, and I insisted that he play Widor’s Toccata from his fifth symphony in F. As a child, I had learned that the informal name many organists gave to this piece was “Cat and Mouse,” which delighted me. Patrick made that organ walk and talk that day. When my husband Paul and I recessed to it, Paul insisted we not exit the church. He wanted to stand in the narthex, right beneath the organ, so he could hear the whole thing.
He still talks about it.

Despite an entire lifetime of good memories, I still think my best one was the last time I remember seeing Patrick, on the day of my ordination to the transitional diaconate.

I was so nervous I was practically jumping out of my skin as we ascended the stairs to process into St. Mary’s Kerrisdale for the liturgy. And as I walked, I came face-to-face with a pale mustard-yellow shirt and a tie with huge pink peonies on it as someone came dashing into the church at the last minute.

“What a great tie,” I thought, and then I looked up and saw a round beloved face, pink with the heat of the day.

Mum and he had arranged for him to be there but had kept it from me. I was completely taken by surprise. It was such an incredible gift.

Earlier, I said Patrick embodied everything it meant to be a true godfather.
A godparent is not just a family friend with whom you would trust your children. A godparent in these latter days of Christianity is someone with whom you trust the Christian spiritual development of your child.

Patrick was all of that and more to me. While the culture around us and the church itself had high-minded debates about the appropriateness of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks, Patrick and Rob did ministry with a capital M, heedless of what the system said was allowed.

For so much of my childhood, the Anglican choral world in Canada was (and often still is) a haven for gay men in particular to give glory to God through music, and especially the crowning gift of the human voice.

Patrick exemplified the kind of persistent dedication that all Christian people should aspire to, the kind of service that just gets done, because someone needs to do it, and because some are called and must respond to the call.
He showed me that it didn’t matter what anyone said: queer people were doing God’s work, whether they were out or not, and to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t was simply a bald-faced lie.

He also modeled for me the truly Anglican love of beauty which has informed so much of my faith. Again, while so many of my family in Christ debate the “appropriateness” of liturgy or aesthetics in worship, Patrick simply lived into the truth of our denominational calling: that worship should be beautiful, because God is beautiful, and because we should always bring our best to God. It instilled in me a passion for musical excellence and liturgical sensitivity. While over time I have exchanged a frankly snobby musical attitude with a passion for sincerity in church music above technical skill, I yet fall into what my Sufi friends might call holy drunkenness when I hear a perfectly executed anthem by a traditional Anglican choir.

There’s not much more to say at this point. My mother wept herself hoarse last night. She couldn’t even speak to me when I phoned her. I was scheduled to officiate at Compline at the Cathedral, so I went there, wondering if I’d make it through the liturgy without making a fool of myself.

I arrived to see a quartet was scheduled. Most of them already knew Patrick had gone home to glory. They sang several of his pieces that night. I read Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur,” one of my favourite options in the Cathedral’s selection. Parts of that poem feel like a protest, like a Magnificat to me. And Uncle Paddy would have liked it.

Today, I am about to leave to practice Rupert Lang’s “Cantate Domino” with Vancouver Children’s Choir alumni for the choir’s 35th anniversary concert. It seems appropriate.

Today, my mother is doing her best to write down all of her memories of Patrick. I can tell she’s not entirely sure why, except that she doesn’t want to forget. There is so much she remembers that I will not, so I’m very grateful.

My commission to you is this: Whoever in your life has been God for you, whoever has modeled what you find is true, honourable, and lovely, if they are still here on earth – please hug them. And if they have passed into the world beyond our sight, maybe think about them, and give thanks.

“Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us, so make haste to love; be swift to be kind.” – Henri Frédéric Amiel

“Good shepherds,” (Sermon, May 12th 2019)

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

John 10:22-30

Last week, two very bright lights of the Christian theological world went out to be lit anew in glory: Rachel Held Evans and Jean Vanier.

The story of their lives, and deaths, could not be more different. Jean Vanier died at age 90 after an impressive forty-year legacy of work and care. Rachel Held Evans, a prominent and luminous Christian writer, died suddenly at age 37 after a bad reaction to medication for an infection.

While we will dearly miss the generous-hearted presence of Jean Vanier, I was surprised by how much Rachel’s death affected me. I am not terribly versed on her body of work, although I had read some articles and interviews and followed her on Twitter, where she was quite active. She alternated between personal vulnerability and fierce advocacy for those commonly marginalized by the church, including women, LGBTQ+ folks, and Christians of colour.

Despite the fog that accompanies the loss of such great witnesses, it seems most appropriate to have before us Good Shepherd Sunday to give some context to our grief.

Because these two were both good shepherds.

Jean Vanier, born in Geneva in 1928, was a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. Concerned by the institutionalization of developmentally disabled people and feeling called to live a spiritually rich life, Jean founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Subsequently, in 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends in over 80 countries. He continued to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in France until his death on May 7th of this year. The Toronto Star’s editorial on his death says, “In the early 1960s, as a young Catholic professor, Vanier encountered disabled people living in what he called “a whole world of pain, of brokenness.” For the next half century he devoted himself to creating spaces where they could live as full people on their own terms. Rather than turning away from them, he embraced their reality. He did not value them for their beauty, riches or success, but for their simple humanity.”

Rachel Held Evans, born in Alabama in 1981, studied English literature before becoming a journalist in Ohio. Her first book, formerly known as Evolving in Monkey Town and rereleased as Faith Unraveled, explores the implications of the Scopes Monkey trial and Rachel’s acceptance of a new kind of Christian faith which accepts doubt and questioning. She wrote several other bestsellers including A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Searching for Sunday, as well as many articles critiquing the church’s approach on appealing to Millennials, particularly their focus on style over substance of worship. In her Atlantic article “Rachel Held Evans: Hero to Christian Misfits,” Emma Green writes, “Her very public, vulnerable exploration of a faith forged in doubt empowered a ragtag band of writers, pastors, and teachers to claim their rightful place as Christians. Evans spent her life trying to follow an itinerant preacher and carpenter, who also hung out with rejects and oddballs. In death, as that preacher once promised, she will be known by her fruits.”

Both of these two luminaries not only lived lives of great self-growth and enrichment, but were generous with their wisdom, allowing and empowering others to walk beside them on the way, just as our Good Shepherd does for us.

It’s too bad we don’t get a wider slice of Jesus’s Good Shepherd discourse this Sunday. We only get the more problematic passage which seems to set him against the Jewish people. Location is important for our understanding here. It is significant that Jesus walks in the portico of Solomon at the festival of the Dedication, the feast of Hanukkah. This ties him to the history of his own people, a history of a glorious temple destroyed by an occupying power, and to a stubbornly remembered day of miraculous and enduring light – a light like Jean’s, like Rachel’s. Those who found Jesus walking there would have been full of righteous fire, hungry for imminent justice. “Tell us,” they say. “Tell us, because time is short and we yearn to be wholly God’s again. Tell us you’re the one who stomps down this empire and avenges our oppression.”

Today as well, we turn to Jesus and say, “Hey, are you going to step up and save us? Are you going to come back to strike down the violent and lift up the oppressed like you promised? Are you even there?”

John’s Jesus is impatient. He says, “I’ve already told you. You refuse to see it.”

I think if Jesus were answering us today, he might be more understanding. Earlier Christians believed he would be back soon to fulfill all he had promised. Today, though, we’ve been waiting a while.

He might use similar words – “I’ve already told you” – but I imagine him sounding more like he did lifting Peter out of the ocean. “Why do you doubt? I promised.”

Jean and Rachel both embodied the kind of enduring faith and humility Jesus demands and models.

By refusing to give up on those whom society had rejected, Jean Vanier lived a life centered around the special witness of developmentally disabled people.

By refusing to cast out those branded as heretics, and also refusing to give up on the Church, Rachel Held Evans lived a life of openness and vulnerability, and sought to model that for anyone unwilling to give up on the church even if it had the temerity to reject them as unredeemable.

Shepherding is not what one would call glamourous work, but like many un-glamourous jobs, the beauty is in the unselfish depths of care that are required. It’s messy, back-breaking, and incredibly isolated. Shepherds of Jesus’s time spent long lonely hours on hills with no-one around but their flock, sometimes not seeing another person for days. And yet this time not only helped remind them of their closeness to creation, but gave them ample opportunity to remember the God who provided for them. The poetry of St. Patrick, who cared for sheep as a slave in Ireland, is a testament to this.

Jean once said, “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” On the surface, he founded a new community for people to live together, one of the most elementary things for a human being to do. But the mission of that community and his continued presence among them as comrade, or indeed, as family, rather than benevolent overseer, testifies to his status as an imitator of our good shepherd.

Rachel wrote in her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again: “Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved.” She spent much of her career giving Christian people an alternative to a narrow-minded reading of Scripture, and listening deeply to those who sought to speak with her in good faith. Again, Emma Green writes, “Especially for people who have felt hurt by or unwelcome in the Church, Evans provided a safe shore, full of encouragement and defiant acceptance.” Her patience with the vulnerable, her defiance against the abusive, and her steadfast faithfulness to the all-loving God she had come to know through her own joyfully owned fragility testifies to her status as an imitator of our good shepherd.

Beloved, as these newly crowned saints do, so should we. Let us not be afraid of our own fragilities. Let us be both a trusting flock of Christ, and a faithful, patient, and fierce tender of lambs.

For as Jean said, “Growth begins when we start to accept our own weakness.”

And as Rachel said, “There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the Resistance is winning. The light is breaking through. So listen to the weirdos. Listen to the voices crying from the wilderness. They are pointing us to a new King and a better kingdom.”