"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

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.

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Written by sameo416

May 2, 2015 at 10:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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