A 20th Anniversary Reflection … in Gratitude

[On Sunday, January 17 I happily came to Wycliffe College to celebrate the birthday of a good friend. When I got there, well, I found out that the celebration was not for a birthday, but to honour the 20th anniversary of my ministry as a Christian Reformed Campus minister at the University of Toronto. It took a community of a couple hundred people to keep this a secret from me, with my family and the members our staff team at the heart of the deception! This post is my reflection on those 20 years, in gratitude. It comes in the form of a letter.]

Dear friends:

Sometimes I joke that Wine Before Breakfast is just an excuse to gather together my musical friends to play beautiful and evocative music for me every Tuesday morning. It’s a joke, but there is no joking about the role of music in my life, and indeed, in the life of our worshipping community. When I lecture I often tell my students that if there are moments when I am sounding lyrical, any moments when they are taken by the eloquence of what I just said, then these lines will invariably be stolen from my favourite songwriters.

As I now understand it there were a few hundred people in on the surprise party that greeted me when I walked into Wycliffe College last Sunday evening. And around a hundred of you gathered to celebrate the twenty years of campus ministry that I’ve enjoyed at the University of Toronto. By the end of the evening, especially at the end of a parade of tributes from so many of you, I found myself with very few words. And I still find myself with few words, so I think I’ll let the words of some of the songs that the band played during our worship together serve as my ‘script’ for this thank you letter.

A celebration of twenty years of campus ministry appropriately has worship at its heart. Amanda Jagt, Adrienne Martens and Marcia Boniferro curated a wonderfully rich liturgy. And our musical director, Deb Whalen knew that we really needed to begin with Martyn Joseph’s “Kiss the World Beautiful.” Dave Krause took the lead on the vocals.

“Kiss the World Beautiful” (Martyn Joseph)

I want to kiss the world beautiful
I want to kiss the world fine
Shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek
That don’t sound much like a crime

That’s it. That’s what we’ve been doing together for twenty years. Kissing the world beautiful. Shoulder to shoulder – sometimes in the library together, sometimes on the streets of Toronto, sometimes in sharing our stories – and cheek to cheek – in the passing of the peace, in holding each other in joy and in sorrow – we’ve tried to embrace this world, this gift of creation, in all of its beauty.

But it isn’t always easy to do this.

I want to kiss the world beautiful
I have no name for this desire
I believe in the light, but don’t know what to write
With the darkness drawing near

Friends, you know that I make my living with words. But I think that the deepest moments in our life together over these years have been when there were very few words to say. Sometimes I don’t know what to write. Sometimes there is little to say and we need to sit together in silence, abandoning words. Sometimes its just more important to love.

And so, with your help, I have been learning (imperfectly for sure) to be quiet, to listen, to not presume to have an answer, or even anything to say at all, in the face of the hurt, the confusion, the sadness. During the tributes folks spoke kindly of my ministry as being both prophetic and pastoral. I’m prepared to take up both of those callings, but I need to tell you that the last twenty years have been more about growing as a pastor than anything else. I don’t mind being called a “royal shit disturber” (and it is usually ‘royal’ and imperial shit that most needs disturbing!), but the first time that someone referred to me as their ‘pastor’ was one of the most moving moments of my life.

Let me tell you the story. Matt and Lydia Harrison had called for Sylvia and I to come to be with them at the Hospital for Sick Children. Lydia had just given birth to their first child. Baby Finnegan was not doing well and we were sitting together in the atrium of the hospital while Finn was undergoing an MRI. One of the chaplains found us and offered his services to Matt and Lydia. Matt said, “thank you, but we have our pastor here with us.” My eyes still well up with tears when I tell this story. It felt like I was granted the highest honour possible. I was called, with Sylvia, to be a pastor, a shepherd walking a very dangerous and treacherous path with Matt and Lydia. The MRI came back with devastating news. Finn was taken off life support and we were there when he died. And then … well then I said the words of committal when we buried this beautiful little boy a week later. In the thank you book that Amanda so beautifully prepared for our celebration, there was a letter and a poem from Matt Harrison. And at the party last week Hugh Brewster and Leanne Wild stood to bear witness to when they called me to bury their little boy, Josiah, a number of years later.

I want to kiss the world beautiful
Under the weight of all this earth

Under the weight of all this earth, can we still kiss the world beautiful? Isn’t that exactly what we do, through our tears, when we proclaim resurrection at the graveside? Isn’t that precisely the miracle that we are waiting for?

“Waiting for a Miracle” (Bruce Cockburn)

You rub your palm
On the grimy pain
In the hope that you can see
You stand up proud
Your pretend your strong
In the hope that you can be
Like the ones who’ve cried
Like the ones who’ve died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they’re waiting for a miracle

Of course there had to be Cockburn, didn’t there? And Joe Abbey-Colborne has always been our go-to guy for “Waiting for a Miracle.”

Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
Step out from the past and try to hold the line
So how come history takes such a long, long time
When you’re waiting for a miracle

That’s campus ministry at the end of the 20th  and beginning of the 21st centuries. “Step out from the past and try to hold the line.” We all carry the burden of our personal and collective past. And for some of us that is a very heavy burden indeed. It seems to me that many of the folks who have found their way to our ministry suffer from PETSD – “Post Evangelical Traumatic Stress Disorder,” or maybe PCTSD – “Post Christendom Traumatic Stress Disorder.” This is the past that so many have tried to step out of. But what is the line that we are trying to hold? Well, maybe it is the line of whether we are going to remain in the story or not. This has undoubtedly been one of the defining characteristics of our campus ministry all these years. In worship, preaching, teaching and writing. In prayer and conversations – at Graduate Christian Fellowship, during breakfast at Wine Before Breakfast, around the table at Russet House Farm, sitting in the office one-to-one – we’ve struggled together to reclaim a story of Jesus that will keep us in. If there is a prophetic side to my pastoral ministry, friends, this is it. I don’t go out of my way to discern and name the idols of our time just to tilt at windmills under any illusion that such prophetic pronouncements are going to change the way the world works. Rather, I’m trying to tell the story of Jesus in a way that just might make sense to folks on their way out and folks who might be looking for a new story to bring meaning and healing to their lives. Pastoral ministry and evangelism are never too far apart.

In his sermon on the wedding feast in Cana, Andrew Federle suggested that perhaps my one word to the world is ‘home.’ I think we all appreciated how Fed’s sermon managed to remain focused on Jesus, while also finding ways to celebrate these twenty years of ministry. Sermons are places of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, not making too much of any one person. And, happily, the story of this wedding feast is deeply about home. A wedding, the beginning of home. A party to celebrate such a new home. A crisis that might mar the celebration. Fed noted that this is a campus ministry that likes to party. We also like wine, I might add. And at its heart, homemaking is what this campus ministry is all about.

“For the First Time”

My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man’s cloak
He gave me keys to his kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold
He said, “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key

It was so wonderful to have Brian Lim join the band to sing this Daniel Lanois/Bono song. During the tributes, Geoff Wichert suggested that I wouldn’t still be doing campus ministry if it wasn’t for the staff team that I am blessed to be a part of. He’s absolutely right. In fact, when I once had the crazy idea of maybe leaving my job and going on the lecture circuit (I’m embarrassed to even tell you that I had such a stupid idea!), Geoff said that I would run out of anything to say after a couple of months because (and I quote), “You have nothing to say apart from this campus ministry.” True. Profoundly true. And at the heart of it all is a staff team. I have never worked alone in this campus ministry, and Brian Lim was my first partner as we rebooted something called Graduate Christian Fellowship in the fall of 1996.

While we began with big ideas of how we would ‘impact’ the University of Toronto with the vision of the Kingdom of God and we have done all kinds of big and small events over the years to realize such a vision, it became clear early on that the main calling was to make a safe place for Christian community. A place for struggle, for doubt, for faith on this campus. In short, the calling was to a ministry of homemaking in the grace of God.

Some folks came to U of T with a name scribbled on a piece of paper. It might have been “Brian Walsh” or “Brian Lim” or “Geoff Wichert” or “Sara DeMoor” or “Marcia Boniferro” or any other member of our community or our staff team throughout the years. It might have been simply “GCF” or “WBB” or “CRC Campus Ministries.” But whatever it was on that piece of paper, whether it was a suggestion from a friend, a name that was found online, or just some rumour of glory, I think we have come to see that what was really scribbled, whispered or rumoured was “home.” The band sang about a Father with many mansions, with many rooms to see, “but I left by the back door/and I threw away the key.” I like to think that in campus ministry we find the key and give it back. “Hey look what I found! I think you might have lost this. Maybe you never knew that you had it. Here’s a key to the back door. Here’s the key to home. Come on in. It might look different than you remembered it.”

Telling the Stories of Home

There is no home without memory. There is no home without the stories of this place and this people. And so we are a community of story-telling. At GCF it is almost a rite of passage that members get an evening devoted to them telling their story to the community. In pastoral conversations we’re sharing our stories, including the painful memories that continue to hold us back and the joyful ones that liberate us. I can’t begin to tell you how much of an honour it is to be trusted with someone’s story, to bear witness to God’s presence in that story and to be invited to be part of that story. Every tribute that was shared last Sunday night had a story behind it. And the amazing thing, the thing that is so deeply humbling, is that I got to play a role in every one of those stories. Can you see how crazy that is? You all let me be a part of your story and then you thanked me for taking you up on the invitation! The gratitude, my friends, goes both ways.

Free associate some time on the word “home” and the word “food” will invariably come to mind. When I began this job twenty years ago an elderly Christian Reformed lady gave me some advice. “Love them and feed them,” she said. Love and food. That’s the recipe. It was good advice. Members of Graduate Christian Fellowship cook for each other every week and Geoff has even articulated a theology of dishwashing. Wine Before Breakfast really doesn’t work without breakfast. So a bread guild has emerged and members bake muffins for the community every week. And what would a visit to Russet House Farm be without a hearty farm lunch?

It was only appropriate, then, that when we came to the table at our celebration last week. We confessed that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” and we took bread and wine together. This is the foundational meal and it has become integral to the weekly rhythm of our campus ministry. It was so good to have Jacqueline Daley lead our Eucharist with my daughter Lydia serving at her side.

One of the most moving moments of story telling in our community is when we pray together. Guests who speak at GCF are thanked through the community gathering around them for prayer. The times that WBB goes over our allotted time are invariably when the prayers of the community just took over. We bring prayers of lament and joy, supplication and praise. At WBB members of the community craft our litanies each week. For our 20th anniversary celebration Amanda Jagt was the wordsmith and my daughter Madeleine led the litany.

In this campus ministry we also make sure that no one makes a major transition in their lives (marriage, new ministry, departing the community) without being blessed through prayer and the laying on of hands. It was deeply moving to have the community come forward last week to lay their hands on me and bless me on my way.

“On my way”

You can’t kill love, not even with hate
And fate don’t lie she rolls with the choices we make
For a while back there, I lost my way
Thought I would die taken down by a price I could not pay

(But now)
I’m on my way, I’m on my way
Every day a little closer on my way
I’m on my way, I’m on my way
I’m running, loving, stumbling on my way

And so Martyn Joseph bookended our worship. We began with kissing the world beautiful and ended with running, loving and stumbling on our way. Some of us will remember the first time that Martyn sang that song in our community. The harmonies of the forty people cramped into the office for an afternoon concert and conversation blew the artist away. We know how to sing. But we also know what Martyn is talking about in this song. We know that you can’t kill love, not even with hate. We know that life is not fated but totally mixed up with the choices we make. We know what it means to be lost and to feel that life has got too emotionally, spiritually and relationally expensive.

So let’s ride into the wind, so we can sense what’s coming
And the view of you right now my friend is stunning
You rise up from yourself, rise up and be gone
Till the night can’t cast no more shadows, that day will come

As Deb Whalen sang these words her eyes were mostly closed, but not for the second line. She looked into the community and announced that from where she was standing, the view was ‘stunning.’ Yes, my sisters and brothers, stunning. Like a sunrise over the snow covered fields at the farm. Like the smile of a mother holding her newborn. Like a moment of reconciliation. Stunning. That’s you, sisters and brothers. A stunning community of faithfulness.

So let’s ride into the wind. Let’s discern where the Spirit is blowing, so we can sense what’s coming. Let’s do that together. Let’s rise up together. Let’s embrace that hope of a day that will come, the Day of the Lord. Every day a little closer. Running, loving and stumbling on our way.

I’ve been blessed with twenty years on this path with you. And while I’ve just written a lot of words reflecting on those twenty years, when it comes right down to it, there are no words that express the depth of my gratitude.

So …

to the Christian Reformed Church for the vision for this campus ministry;

to faithful members of our staff team over the years;

to Wine Before Breakfast and Graduate Christian Fellowship;

to the bandhood of all believers for giving us a song to sing;

to our faithful priests over the years inviting us to taste and see;

to Wycliffe and Trinity Colleges and the Church of the Redeemer;

to you, my dear friends, for coming together on the Way;

and … of course, to Sylvia, Jubal and Susan, Madeleine and Lydia and wonderful Oskar …

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

With much love,

Brian

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

2 Responses to “A 20th Anniversary Reflection … in Gratitude”

  1. Mieke Van Geest

    amazing what we find on facebook. thanks, Brian, and congratulations on your 20 shared years of ministry.

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Thanks Mieke. And we met all those years ago in this campus ministry at Hart House fellowship. It is quite the honour to be able to stand in that tradition.

      Reply

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