"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for May 2015

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015

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Ascension Sunday: Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Easter 7, May 17, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Pray.  Today we mark the Ascension of Jesus.  This event, in modern times, is one that the modern church views with some skepticism, at least partly because of our love of rationality.  If you doubt that assertion, you should look at some of the comments made on the news story last October about the Pope announcing that Christians needed to be prepared to put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6) to do battle against Satan.  Many were incredulous that a modern religious leader could continue to believe in such superstition nonsense.

This reflects our church’s love of rationality – and how we push aside those things which seem an affront to reason, even though the New Testament is full of such references.  Paul seemed to have no trouble with the idea of the warfare to which we are all called, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And because of that he tells us to take up the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.  But I digress.  My point is our love of reason often forms the first and  final test of things that we engage on the basis of faith.

That perspective is one of the reasons why the modern church speaks so little about the ascension – frankly, it’s a little embarrassing for moderns to think about someone being lifted up into the clouds, something more at home on a Sunday school flannel-graph than with adult believers.  For that reason the modern church tends to avoid the ascension or at least to minimize its place in our worship and our understanding of the church.

As one example, we have nine modern communion prayers authorized for use by Anglican churches.  The ascension is only mentioned in two (and one is the so called ‘star wars’ prayer #4, which I’ve only ever heard used once).  By contrast, it is part of the one traditional common prayer service, and so every communion using the common prayer setting you would hear: “Wherefore, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, we thy humble servants, with all thy holy Church, remembering the precious death of thy beloved Son, his mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension…”  We rehearse the entire sequence death -> resurrection -> ascension, which indeed is important if we want to keep perspective on what it means to be the church.  My main point today is to talk about how our avoidance of the ascension leads to fundamental misunderstanding about what the church is called to be.

Jesus says some fairly profound things before he departs.  He tells the disciples once again that his presence on earth was to bring fulfillment to everything that had gone before: in Torah, the Law of Moses, the Psalms and in the Prophets.  That statement unites our Scriptures under one interpretive lens – that all things past, present and future point toward the Son of God as the fulfillment of all things.

The second profound statement is the direction to the disciples to return to Jerusalem and remain there until the disciples receive the gift of fire in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We’ll hear more about that event on the feast of Pentecost.

Once these last words had been said, Jesus leads them out to Bethany, blesses them and then, “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven”.  The description is what causes moderns to raise eyebrows at this text, as we’re not in the mode of thinking that heaven is ‘up there’ or ‘over there’.  Just a word on the physical description – note that the action observed by the disciples was Jesus withdrawing from them.  I might liken this to watching a passenger airplane that is life-size at the airport gate, but as you watch it take off and climb to altitude, becomes smaller and smaller until it effectively vanishes from view.  Even though you know the airplane is still up there somewhere, it has for visual purposes, ceased to exist in your present.

This departure of the resurrected Christ was to allow him to take up his rightful place, as we say elsewhere, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From that seat he shall judge both the living and the dead.  The departure of Christ was necessary to bring the cycle to completion and, paradoxically, to put Christ in a position where he once again becomes accessible to the entirety of creation.  This is profound, as the act of raising Christ to the Cross, so that he might rise from the dead and ascend into heaven, is the act that once again brings the possibility of unity to a broken creation…the possibility that the brokenness can be healed.

This is a mind-twisting event, and we’re waist-deep into theology (and probably quantum physics as well) as we consider the implications of what we’ve just heard.  This shouldn’t be a cause of fear (or stopping listening) because as Christians we are by default applied theologians.  The act of attempting to follow Christ while living in the world means we each make theological assessments and decisions multiple times per day, even if we don’t consider ourselves theologians.

This is worth a moment of reflection, because it is core to our being as Christians in the world.  Once you have declared your faith in Christ, through baptism, through worship, through taking the bread and wine regularly, you become a force of transformation in the world around you…even if you never consciously undertake that task.  Your presence, with the Holy Spirit indwelling you, becomes this force for change wherever you happen to move and act.  So, your presence at a place of work, in your family, at play dates with other parents, with your non-believer friends and acquaintances, and even your home in your neighbourhood all become places of light that subtly work bringing Christ’s transformative presence into that place and that time.  This is called sometimes the “ministry of presence”, that a Christian, merely by being present in a place, becomes a mediator of God’s grace.

This is why I say without hesitation that the act of being a follower of Christ makes us all theologians, and makes us all evangelists, merely by our presence in the world.  You may sometimes hear about this from other people – have you ever had a co-worker or friend say to you, “there’s something different about you”.  Part of God’s great grace to this broken creation is that he works these mysteries through broken followers.

Now that idea is actually quite key to our understanding of why the ascension is so central to our understanding of who we are as a body of believers in this world.  Christ’s departure in the ascension renders him absent from the body of believers, but because he has departed he becomes present to all believers in a way that was not possible previously.  Christ is at once absent from our midst, and Christ is at once present in our midst.  Matthew 18:20 provides us the promise that whenever we gather in groups of two or three, Christ will be there with us.  In a few moments as we gather around the table and pray as a community over the bread and the wine, Christ will become present to us in a real way – and it doesn’t really matter at this point if you’re a Calvinist or an Anglo-Catholic, because the real presence of Christ in the midst of a community while breaking bread is nearly universally accepted (even if we sometimes violently disagree of the precise mechanism of that presence).

Before his departure, Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures.  In contrast to their oft-noted blindness previously, the disciples now understand the narrative of which they are a part.  This is the reason why at the end of Luke, we don’t hear of the disciples weeping and keening as they leave Bethany, rather we’re told that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God.  This is the same temple that just days before was the beginning of the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, and yet they’re now full of great joy.  Their joy is because they now understand that the story is not about the death of a teacher, but the resurrection and ascension of their Lord.  This is a part of the reality that we each live into in this moment and throughout our days by virtue of our profession of faith.  Because Jesus ascended, we too can approach the Scriptures with our minds opened to the reality of the Church militant and triumphant – that we are a part of that communion of saints by virtue of our profession of belief.

The other potential opened for us through Jesus’ ascension is the descent of the Holy Spirit on believers.  Prior to the ascension we had the baptism of John, but afterwards we have the baptism by fire that is the Holy Spirit.  It is this indwelling presence that transforms each individual Christian into a witness as to the presence of Christ wherever we happen to move in our daily lives.  It is said that “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon their knees.”  from the hymn by William Cowper.  That is our birthright as Christians, and the idea that you’re not enough of a believer, or not holy enough to make a difference, are complete lies intended to keep you inactive.  This is one reason why we’re told to remain active in the political life of our country – not because God wants us all to vote for one particular party, but because our presence in the process brings Christ’s witness to the process.

Now, what does it mean to follow a Saviour who is at once absent, and at once present?

If the church gets the ascension wrong, the organization ends up living too much in the world – that is, the physical departure of Christ is intended to be a lasting motif for the Body of Christ that remains on earth.  We are not to “hold on” to this world, because we too, like Jesus, are awaiting our ascension to be with the father.  A church that lives too much in touch with and too engaged with the world, is a church that spends all of its time focused on the earthy: what do our performance metrics look like?  How successful is our work to gain added market share from the Baptists down the road?  You can see how quickly believers can get drawn into earthy models of being, which almost invariably leads to the church being run much like a business, fully part of this world.

We need to keep our eyes focused on the otherworldliness of our calling here as the Body of Christ.  That is, as Calvin said, we gather around the table of He who is “in a manner present and in a manner absent”.  Our being as the Body of Christ exists in the same mode, at once present, and at once absent – while we may be a part of this world through our physicality, we can never forget that the gift of the Holy Spirit has made us into something more than just physical, into something that has a home elsewhere.  The call of the Christian in following Christ, is in effect a call to a form of homelessness, for we can never feel totally at home within this physical world.  Like Christ, we echo his declaration that, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)  So too Christ’s church.

This is reflected as well in our understanding of what it is we do around the communion table.  The communion is not something of our making that we use to define what we stand for as a community through elegant language and linens.  Rather, communion is a gift given to us through Christ that in fact constitutes our being as the Body of Christ.  This is why you will sometimes hear me use St Augustine’s words just before we distribute the bread and the wine: behold what you are, become what you receive.  You are the Body of Christ, this is the Body of Christ, as you receive Christ, become more conformed to Christ.  As the disciples recognized Jesus in the instant of the breaking of bread at Cleopas’ home after the Emmaus road, so too do we as the Body of Christ recognize ourselves anew each week in the breaking of bread.  This recognition is huge, and it keeps us grounded in the reality of who we are.  That knowledge is the necessary starting point of all mission work, of all work in the world.

Through receiving the Body of Christ, we are reminded of our share in the reality of Christ.  As is said in the Lutheran communion service, ‘grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come’.  As we gather around the table we are unified as one Body of Christ, and we are reminded of the utter and absolute communion that will eventually be a part of that future.

We are reminded in communion that our time here is provisional – and only in knowing our provisionality can we speak with any authority and integrity to a world that believes it is the end of all there is.  Do you understand the problem of being a church that is soundly grounded in the world?  How can a church that is not distinguishable from the world offer the residents of that world a vision of what exists beyond the shopping malls and cities?  The answer is we can’t do it credibly as long as we look like the world we dwell within.  I’ll suggest that this is the primary way that the mainline churches have lost their way, in believing that to become accessible to people living in the world, they have to look familiar to the world.  Rather, the church is called to claim its birthright by offering a radical alternative to the way of the world, a way that stands in contrast and sometimes in opposition to the world.

The reality of our calling is this: if we are living in the manner the church is called to live, it will not result in your greater acceptance into the places of power in this world.  This should not be a surprise to us, given Christ’s departing words to his disciples: “you are witnesses of these things”.  The word in Greek for ‘witness’ you might recognize even in the Greek, martyros (μαρτυρες).  Jesus literally says to the disciples as he leaves, “you are martyrs of these things.”  Christianity is not meant to be a normative expression of life in the world, but rather a contrary and paradoxical way that calls this world into judgement.  May God make us always aware of our proper place within the creation, and always keep us mindful of Christ’s call.  Amen.



Salute the last, and everlasting day,

Joy at the uprising of this Sunne, and Sonne,

Ye whose just tears, or tribulation

Have purely washed, or burnt your drossy clay;

Behold the Highest, parting hence away,

Lightens the dark clouds, which he treads upon,

Nor doth he by ascending, show alone,

But first he, and he first enters the way.

O strong Ram which hast battered heaven for me,

Mild lamb, which with thy blood, hast marked the path;

Bright Torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see,

Oh, with thy own blood quench thy own just wrath.

And if the holy Spirit, my Muse did raise,

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.       Holy Sonnets, John Donne

In addition to John Donne I relied on Darrell L Bock’s excellent commentary on Luke part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary series.  I also looked at a book that has been sitting on my shelf (embarrassingly) for 10 years ever since my intern supervisor recommended it.  Now that I’m reading it I can’t believe I hadn’t looked at it before…and in fact my copy is on loan to someone I can’t recall, so I had to sign this one out from my local library.  Douglass Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, 1999.  Third source was an editorial out of the US concerning the decreasing number of Christians in the US church, and how this was a good thing: “Is Christianity Dying?”, http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/05/12/is-christianity-dying/

I last preached ascension at the parish of St Timothy’s during the absence of their rector, Joe Walker in 2008.  The use of Joe’s departure as part of the kid’s talk illustration has a certain poignancy about it now.  RIP+

Children’s talk: pitcher with water and red food colour, & blindfold.  Jesus has gone away – remember the suitcase and the travel that Joe spoke of last week?  Jesus promised to return…just like Joe is now away and has promised to return to us.  But Jesus told his friends that something else would happen – after he left, he would send someone to help them…do you know who that was?  (Holy Spirit)  So Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come upon them – and would cloth them with power from on high.  What does this mean – to be clothed in the Holy Spirit?  Can you tell with your eyes if someone is clothed in the Holy Spirit (no)?  Our eyes don’t tell us everything about God…because some of it you can’t see.  So I need a volunteer to be blindfolded.  This jug of water is you – the jug is the part of you we can see and touch, and the water is the stuff in side you.  Take a look at the jug.  Now I’ll blindfold you and we’ll ask the Holy Spirit to fill up our jug person (add food colouring to water).  Without taking off the blindfold, feel the jug and tell me if it has changed (no).  Ah, but it has changed – take off your blindfold.  So the Holy Spirit comes and fills us in the same way the water was coloured – from the outside we look the same, but he changes our inward person just like fire burns wood.  Let’s pray.


Written by sameo416

May 17, 2015 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Discarded sermon notes: ascension Sunday

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As usual, I end up with several pages of material that I have to cut to keep within time. These are the rough notes that didn’t make it out of the editing room.

A co-worker the other day mentioned to me that while his wife was a person of faith, he was not. The reason? He had been trained in the way of science, and needed proof, presumably of an empirical sort. That need for numbers precluded his belief in something that he could not objectively establish the existence of. I have to say that a scientist who makes such assertions is not, in my mind, much of a scientist. There are a host of things that science accepts as factual and dependable without first demanding empirical proof. But, if your mode of interacting with the world is to demand proof of everything, statements like Christ is at once absent, and at once present, are certain to provide you with adequate basis for your head to explode.

How then is this ascension day a good thing? Should we not be simplifying the faith so that it becomes more accessible to our culture? For much of the 1970s through the 1980s, apart from big hair bands, one of the primary focuses of the mainline churches was to contextualize the faith in a manner that made it relevant to the general culture. We did this by altering or concealing things that were potentially distasteful to a modern mind, which invariably meant favouring science over miracles. You can see this quite clearly in the change in language used in the worship forms that were developed out of that cultural intrusion into the church. One of my favorite examples of this shift came in the words of the Nicene Creed. In the old form of that affirmation of faith, we would say, “I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:” In the 1980’s form of that, we now talk about God being creator of all things, “seen and unseen.” The earliest forms of the creed, along with the Greek of Colossians 1:16, use the words visible and invisible deliberately, as this affirms the existence of an order of creation that is not perceptible through human senses.

This reflects Paul’s statement in Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul tells us that our struggle is not with the visible of flesh and blood, but rather the invisible of cosmic powers. The modern change to that creed makes the entire creation either seen or unseen…that is, there are things you can’t see right now, but there is always the possibility that you could see it. This is maybe a small point, but it reflects the greater shift in focus from one that was perhaps more mystical and embracing of paradox, to one that was more empirical and embracing of rationality and measurement. You can hear in that shift the promise of physicists that we will eventually derive the Grand Unified Theory that describes everything. It reminds me of the double-blind studies done that show the effectiveness of prayer – I’m not surprised that prayer can be shown, empirically, to work, but it wasn’t something I was holding off praying to have demonstrated to me, and it does little to change my faith because I already knew of the power of prayer on a level that did not presuppose rational analysis.

This reaction to the enculturation of Christianity is something you hear of repeatedly in the work of Soren Kierkegaard. He often wrote in reaction to those who argued for the need of a historical Jesus, a “great man” only. Kierkegaard says this most directly by asserting that an objective understanding of God is contrary to belief.

Can one come to know anything about Christ from history? No. And why not? It is because Christ is the paradox, the object of faith, and exists only for faith. About him nothing can be known; he can only be believed. You cannot come to know anything about Christ from history. Whether one learns little or much about him, it will not represent who he is in reality. Obtaining historical facts makes Christ into someone other than who he in fact is. … This is why Christianity is a paradox; this explains the contradictions in Scripture. But the intellectual approach wants to abolish faith. It has no inkling of God’s sovereignty nor what the requirement of faith means.

The mainline churches’ fascination with becoming culturally relevant should be recognized as the complete failure it was always destined to be. I don’t come here on Sundays to worship because this community offers me something that I can receive or understand using the tools of the world – rather I come here because this place offers me something that the world cannot, and in fact, offers me something that places the world into stark relief in the light of Christ. We are not about a populist activity here, but one that will separate families.

This should not be a surprise to us, given Christ’s departing words to his disciples: “you are witnesses of these things”. The word in Greek for ‘witness’ you might recognize even in the Greek, martyros (μαρτυρες). Jesus literally says to the disciples as he leaves, “you are martyrs of these things.” The witness of Christ, when carried into the world, will make you a subject of derision and scorn, and that’s a good thing for we who call ourselves followers of The Way. Christianity is not meant to be a normative expression of life in the world, but rather a contrary and paradoxical way that calls that world into judgement.

My co-worker was too polite to say it, just as I was too polite to point out his intellectual dishonesty, but his assertion about his lack of belief because of a lack of proof was an indirect condemnation of my own training as an applied scientist. If his standard of belief is to require empirical proof, something which I reject, how then can I call myself a scientist?

That approach to Christ is the reason why, in the Acts reading today, we hear of the need for two angels to come and ask the disciples why they were looking up into heaven. We can imagine they were looking to see if they would catch a last, empirical glimpse of Jesus. Instead, the angels come to remind them that this was not the time to be expecting Jesus to behave like something of this world, but rather like God incarnate. That reminder should ring true for us, and for the greater church, as it did for those disciples. Rather than staring up at the sky, or assuming Christ is gone and trying to become Christ ourselves through hard work, our task is to worship and to embrace the paradox of our faith.

Written by sameo416

May 16, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Fake Cell Phone Chargers/Fake Electrical Components

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You may have heard this story out of Rimby last week, “Alberta teen suffers third-degree burns after cellphone overheats, catches fire”.  The initial cause of the fire was attributed to an after-market phone charger purchased at a gas station.  A search on “fake iphone charger” turns up many stories.

The electronics market in North America is becoming flooded with cheap copies of USB chargers for phones and tablets.  These third-party chargers are usually considerably cheaper than brand-name chargers, and are often purchased from discount websites or discount stores.  In the case of chargers, you really do get what you pay for.

These cheap chargers are manufactured off-shore, and are imported without markings or with counterfeit certification markings.  In Canada, such devices must have the mark of a certification agency like the CSA (Canadian Standards Agency) or UL (Underwriters Laboratories).  Even if the device has these markings, if you picked it up for a few dollars, it is likely a counterfeit.  Those stringent safety standards require that devices be physically tested to ensure things like adequate separation between low and high voltage components – something that can kill you.

Why is this a problem? After all, would you rather pay $25 for an Apple branded iPad charger, or US $0.99 for an authentic apple charger through eBay?  It’s not just the Apple products either, I can make the same point with any charger.

A few minutes on eBay turned up this ad, shipped direct to me from China (I know it’s the starting bid, the full cost ones are still less than $6).


 ebay ad
The text is hard to read, but the device is not certified for use in North America, and the European marks are not authentic.  On Ken Shirriff’s blog he offers a tear-down of an authentic and counterfeit iPad charger.  He provides a good comparison photo of the two chargers (these photos are from his very excellent webpage):

ipad chargers


Can you tell which one is real?  There are some subtle hints as to the external quality of construction, but at first glance these both look pretty convincing.  Looking more closely at the UL certification mark gives you a bit better clue.  The one on the left includes a number, E211458, which is missing from the right hand charger.  Also missing is the word “LISTED” which (or alternatively “Certified” or “Classified”) which must appear with the UL mark.  The fake is on the right.

left hand

right hand






The number is a link back to a specific UL certification standard used for a specific manufacturer.

Now, the problem is that often the counterfeits also have an E number, and sometimes include all the mandatory language.

What really tells the tale is the internal workings of the charger.  One more picture from Shirriff’s tear down – go to his blog if you want all of the gritty electrical detail.

ipad charger inside

Just looking at the complexity of the circuit boards, you can see why I say you get what you pay for.  That $25 charger easily triples the number of components in the $0.99 charger.  Note also the reddish insulating tape in the real charger (on the left) missing in the fake.  That’s a key part of the safety standard to stop the high internal voltages (up to about 300 volts) from either flowing through to your iPad (meaning a fire or explosion), or flowing through to you (meaning electrocution).  It also turns out that the fake will only supply half the power of the authentic charger.

The other thing the fake chargers give you is very poor quality output power.  The Apple charger uses most of the extra components to provide very clean, regulated power – something missing in the fake.  At best this will lead to some damage of the charging circuit inside your iPad, at worst it will cause a failure of the iPad.

The UK fire services are further ahead on this problem, as they’ve been flooded with fakes through Europe for longer than us.  Read through the article and take the test at the end to see if you can pick out the fakes.  One factor they identify is that the real chargers are much heavier than the fakes.

This is not to say that there aren’t good non-Apple replacement chargers available.  You’ll find those at Best Buy or other reputable dealers for several times more than my eBay bargain.  If the price sounds too good to be true…  Some of those chargers perform better than the Apple branded chargers, and there is a premium price associated with the name.  Purchase from a reputable dealer and you usually won’t go wrong.

Avoid bargain-hunting for phone chargers.  At best you’ll destroy your phone, at worst…well, ask the family in Rimby.

This is not just a problem with chargers…all sorts of electrical equipment is available that has not been through certification.  I purchased a hot-air solder station last year for what I thought was an excellent price…when it arrived I realized it was an un-certified device (I described this epiphany in a prior post).

This is also a huge issue with electrical components in general, both for residential and commercial applications.  The market is also flooded with counterfeit circuit breakers, that are so well done the only way you can verify they are fake is by entering the registration numbers into the manufacturer’s website.

Ken Shirriff’s website is one of the best I’ve ever found for getting into the inner workings of electronic devices.

Written by sameo416

May 15, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Science and Religion

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A comment by a co-worker today, “I’m not a person of faith because of science – the need to have proof you know.”

I didn’t challenge him on this — but I have to say that a scientist that claims to require quantitative proof for everything causes me to question his science.

Science is built on a foundation of a myriad of unspoken assumptions about the nature of reality. Conducting any experiment requires that you accept those assumptions without question. Most of those assumptions are empirically unprovable.

For example, that something can be objectively and repeatably measured. Or that the natural world is fundamentally predictable – that past observation predicts future behaviour.

Those sorts of questions, as much about ontology as about pure science, are often overlooked by those trained in the sciences…but who have never spent much time reflecting on what they do, or are not practising science as a part of their daily work.

The scientists (and applied scientists) that I know in my personal circle, and those that impress me the most, are those that freely embrace the place of mystery in their craft. At the root, both science and theology have a common question – seeking truth and understanding, and in that they have far more in common than difference.

Written by sameo416

May 13, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Eulogy/Sermon for Joshua Phillpotts

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Joshua Phillpotts Eulogy/Sermon – Luke 12:35-40, Romans 12:1-13
All Saints’ Cathedral, Saturday May 2, 2015 (Rogation Sunday, Battle of the Atlantic Sunday)

joshua phillpottsI speak to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. First, my thanks to all the stories and information that poured in…and my apologies for factual errors and omissions, as these are all my fault entirely. It is a challenge to capture a life in a few pages of 13-point font, and particularly so with someone as polyvalent as Joshua Phillpotts…so please bear with me for the next six hours.

I wanted to open with a short poem by the Welsh priest-poet, RS Thomas, called The Country Clergy.

I see them working in old rectories
By the Sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew.
And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels.
They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes
rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

Joshua Hindmarch Eden Phillpotts was born on May 3, 1929 in Spanish Town, Jamaica. He grew up with sisters Ruth and Naomi, brothers Eben and Allan. The story of his life and ministry from that point forward is that of a person deeply committed to following Our Saviour’s call, wherever it might take him. Joshua was a role model to me in many ways, a constant reminder of the call placed on all who call themselves Christians, a call to live a life of constant service to others, and a call to live ready, for we do not know the hour of the Master’s return.

Those words from RS Thomas are a good reminder to all who minister. Most of our lives we have little real understanding of what our words, written onto the hearts of those around us, will ultimately do. This sounds like a message of hopelessness, but Thomas turns to end on an infinitely hopeful note – we know by faith that God will not waste a single word that we have offered in His service. All things in creation turn to the good will of God and serve His plans. This poem has been with me these past two weeks, thinking about our brother Joshua, because of the scope of hearts that he ministered to in some 57 years of ordained ministry and almost 86 years of Christian witness. Even his name, Joshua, in Hebrew, (Yehoshu’a) meaning “God is salvation” forms part of this witness.

A few weeks back, Joshua was speaking to me of his upcoming 86th birthday, which is tomorrow – and he immediately commented that this was a significant year as he was approaching the age of Saint Polycarp at his martyring. Joshua recounted for me Polycarp’s words. When the officials cajoled him to simply burn incense to the emperor and avoid death, Polycarp is recorded as saying, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong, how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” That Joshua drew this out as the red-letter moment of his coming birthday, is further witness to his mindset. Literally everything in Joshua’s being was oriented to serve his Lord.

This relationship began early in life, in a family that modeled service and generosity. Harvest time at St Jame’s Cathedral in Spanish Town saw the families bringing gifts from kitchen gardens and farms, transforming the church into a country market for the feast day. Dottie, a childhood friend, recounted the generosity of the Phillpotts family, and one particular harvest festival service everyone in the cathedral turned to see Joshua and his father dragging a resisting sheep into the cathedral, as it baa’d loudly. His friend also related that Joshua, as I always knew him, was fondly called “Joshie’ to everyone back home. There is early proof of Joshua’s sense of humour – that as a child he would sometimes hide in a tree, covered with a white sheet, to frighten the women returning from the marketplace in the evening. His friend wrote that, “Joshie was sent with a torch, and with that torch he lit many candles, rekindled many fires and whet many swords. His mission to Yukon, Alberta and Canada are now complete, and he has been sent on another mission trip.” All I can say is Amen.

This image of a life in constant service led to the selection of the Gospel reading you’ve just heard. Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning! For we do not know the hour of the master’s return, but blessed are those servants who are awake when the master comes. This call to the believer – Be ready! / Keep watch! Is one that was manifested throughout Joshua’s life. If I was to do proper justice to all of Joshua’s involvement we would be here until the sun sets. I know that I ceased being surprised at how many people he seemed to know quite intimately – as far as I could tell, Joshua did not have any acquaintances, for he seemed to know everyone, their families, their hopes and dreams and what challenges they had been facing. This particular gift he carried over into his ministry as chaplain in a number of retirement communities…I’ve heard the number 14 used to describe the number of retirement communities he served. With anyone else I would call that a gross exaggeration, but it surprises me not a bit knowing Joshua’s love for those in his care. In particular I know of the many hours he spend at the Churchill and at Riverbend Retirement providing pastoral care and coordinating Sunday services.

Joshua married the love of his life, Yvonne, on October 20, 1954. One year later they had twin daughters Margaret and Kathleen, and a son Andrew in 1964. I never had the opportunity to meet Yvonne, as she had gone to her Glory years earlier. I have heard Joshua speak of her many times, and it was clear to me that he was still very much in love. Others described their relationship as a true partnership in all ways, and the ministry of Yvonne in the northern medical station at Watson Lake is still spoken of today. She delivered over 100 infants as a midwife, and following the First Nation practice of naming children, there was a whole cohort of girl infants in that community named ‘Yvonne’ – another word written on the hearts of many.

Joshua attended theological training at St. Peter’s Theological College and was ordained deacon in 1958 and priested in 1960. Prior to this he received technical trades training at the Jamaica Government Technical College where he learned metal work, blacksmithing, technical drafting and what we would today consider the trade of the millwright. He was also trained as a wireless operator in the period just after the Second World War and was involved with Saint John’s Ambulance from his earliest days – a relationship that continued up until two weeks ago. This was all ultimately leading to support a calling in to missionary work in the deepest darkest parts of remote continents. I’ll come back to this in a bit, because this story, as with most where God is involved, has a few twists.

joshua bell towerAfter serving in ministry in Jamaica, Joshua and his family answered a call to go north, far, far north, to serve in the parish of St John the Baptist in Watson Lake, Yukon in July 1965. It is hard to imagine a more severe shift in surroundings – from Jamaica to Watson Lake. The north is a unique place to minister, and the team of Joshua and Yvonne contributed much to their community. A story from his parish time in Jamaica reflects the work ethic of the man – he had designed a 26 foot church bell tower which the parish was to build. A group of official visitors arrived and asked for the rector, and were shocked when a perspiring, dust-covered man in shorts stepped forward from the work party. This was Joshua to a tee, as he was never one who hesitated when there was work to be done.

That story was reflected again in what was a real near-death experience for Joshua. He had been asked to minister at a tungsten mine, the Cantung Mine, some 300 kilometers from Watson Lake, a 6 hour journey. When he set out it was a balmy -30F, and as he was driving he ended up in the ditch about one hour south of the mine site. Shortly thereafter the radiator blew, and Joshua was left with only kindling from the trunk to keep him warm. He alternated between a patch-work quilt in the car and the small fire outside until he became so cold that he fell asleep in the car. When he told this story he described how hypothermia is the kindest way to die, and outlined the hallucinations that preceded his drifting off the sleep.

The mine knew of his trip, and would have come to get him, but right at the expected arrival time, the mine mill building caught fire and burned to the ground. When the fire was supressed, they realized the minister had not arrived, and sent out help. They arrived at about 2:30 am, after about 8 hours had passed. The temperature was now about -40F, and they found Joshua, as he described it, so stiff that they had to pick him up and carry him to the truck. Now the story starts to get even more interesting…he arrives at the camp and sleeps in the next morning. After rising he meets the camp metal worker, who tells him that the camp is without water because the 1,600 foot pipeline to the reservoir froze and burst because of the fire. Joshua looked around the metal shop and noticed two lathes, and said to the metal worker, “I know how to work these lathes, why not work as a team to rebuild the pipeline.” So the pastoral visit, near-death experience and two days of work later, resulted in Joshua and the metal worker rebuilding the 1,600 foot pipeline and restoring water to the camp. / Now the funny ending to the story is Joshua’s reaction. He expected, doing that millwright training in Jamaica, to be sent off into Africa or somewhere similar to put that knowledge to use…and here in the Yukon he was using it for the first time in 19 years. So he noted that God said to him, “Joshua, this is the missionary field I prepared you for. Go to it!” How often it is our ability to pick up tools of any kind and to work along-side others that opens up doorways to truly witness to others in the faith!

Joshua’s involvement in more recent times spans a wide scope of service agencies: the Royal Commonwealth Society of Edmonton; the Monarchist League of Edmonton; the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem; volunteering with St Stephen’s College; the Royal Canadian Legion; the Masonic Lodge and the Edmonton Human Society…just to scratch the surface. The Dean of St Stephen’s College ended his note with the comment that Joshua would be missed for the song in his heart that brought so much music to the lives of those around him. That music continues, but for us, for the next while it will be the Blues.

Joshua had recently returned to Whitehorse as a part of black history month celebrations put on by the Hidden Histories Society Yukon. He met with Bishop Terry Buckle while there, and Terry commented on what a blessing it was to see Joshua reconnect with so many people he had known and ministered to. The newspaper headline read, “Black Pioneer Speaks at Exhibit Launch”. This was an eye-opener, I knew Joshua was a lot of things, but I had never conceived of him as a pioneer. I spoke with one of the historians in Whitehorse, to ask if Joshua had ever commented on facing racism in the North. Paul replied that he had never heard Joshua speak of this, but noted that he had been a real force in the community with respect to the First Nations. This was in the final days of the residential schools closing, and the indigenous children had been put into a vocational school, effectively segregated and not properly preparing them with marketable job skills. Joshua worked in the community to achieve full integration into the public school in Watson Lake for all the children. Yvonne performed similar work in providing care for the First Nation children. After hearing this, I realized this is exactly what he was – a pioneer. It struck me that this, in many ways, epitomizes one of the things that marks the uniqueness of our nation…that a family from Jamaica, who came to the far north of Canada, became a force for integration and equality for all and particularly for our indigenous.

If you ever happened to be on the receiving end of one of Joshua’s stories, you know these were always entertaining…although not always told at the best of times. I can remember looking at my watch more than once rather than dwelling in that moment of fellowship with a brother. Joshua operated on his own time, and would doggedly follow the path that he believed to be proper and Godly, even when this threw him into conflict with others. I know Joshua would not hesitate to write and chastise others if he felt it necessary for the good of their soul – some of you I’m sure have received Joshua’s letters. I’ve read a few and what struck me, after getting over the whole part of me that dislikes with some intensity the process of being chastised, was how Joshua avoided anything personal or argumentative, but made a simple (if lengthy) plea for the faith once given. This was a constant of the man that was Joshua, that follows right along with the word from Romans: Joshua was constantly pursuing the transformation of the self so as to be conformed to the will of God. Even when this put him in opposition to others, this was his witness to the rest of us.

Marion Sutton was assisted into ordination by the mentorship of Joshua, and he returned to Jamaica in 2008 to fill in for her while she was on sabbatical. She related a story that Joshua told in her parish which is still remembered. Joshua provided ministry in the Mission of St Jude, Bourbon, a post so remote it had not had a priest for some 29 years. This was not one of his parishes, but as was typical he dove in waist-deep. To get to St Jude’s he had to meet a boat-man, who rowed him across the Rio Grande River to a field. In the field there was a mule. When he asked how he would find his way to the parish, he was told the mule knew the way. So, Joshua rode the mule to the parish and all was well. Except, one Sunday, instead of proceeding to the parish, the mule instead returned to his pasture. Joshua waited until the parishioners figured out what had happened, and came to fetch Joshua and the mule from the pasture. Joshua laughed so hard when relating the story that tears came to his eyes.

This last story is perhaps the silliest of the set, and yet in so many ways it exemplifies the servant of our Lord that was Joshua. Even at the age that many are sitting peacefully reflecting back on what has already been achieved, Joshua was still riding across that river, and climbing on to a mule that was taking him somewhere new and unexpected. Knowing him, I was not surprised when he returned from Whitehorse in February to tell me that he had been asked if he would consider returning to ministry in the north as a non-stipendiary priest. I’m not sure if he was seriously considering it, but I know that the request had left him deeply touched and he told me that he was bringing the question before God to wait on His leading, something that he had done many times before. And I know with certainty that if the master had called, Joshua would presently be packing up his house and preparing to return to some small hamlet in the sub-arctic.

Well, our Master chose to call Joshua to another ministry, one that exists with the entire communion of Saints past, present and future, gathered around the throne of the Most High. Joshua signed his letter in March to the hosts of his visit to the north, “Prayerfully, your brother in the service of the Master.” That post-script was very much the defining motto of Joshua’s entire life – not because he was perfect in all he did and said, but because all that he said and did was overlaid with focused love and devotion to service in the way of Christ. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and He will come and serve them – blessed are those servants!” As Joshua would often say – Glory be to God!

I opened with the words of RS Thomas, and I thought it appropriate to close with another piece about ministry. This prayer was written by a Roman Catholic bishop as a meditation on the life of Bishop Oscar Romero, and it outlines a worthy prayer for all of us who seek to serve Our Lord, and who are attentive to God’s calling to us, regardless of where that might take us.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen, Amen and Amen.

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw

*This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

Written by sameo416

May 2, 2015 at 10:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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