December 31, 2017
This is the last day of the year, and as I’ve been listening to various reviews of the year politically, globally, comedically, it occurred to me that reviewing our year as a faith community would be a good exercise. I don’t mean an exhaustive summary of everything we’ve done, like an annual report; nor looking at things like successes and failures, or most newsworthy events. Rather, I want to do what’s called an examen, in spiritual terms. That means a prayerful review to reflect on where the Spirit was at work in our ordinary life as a church, drawing us closer to God.
The examen is a method that comes from St Ignatius of Loyola, and is taught by the Jesuits to this day. You can use it to review an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime, and the key is to pay attention and ask, as you look back, when did you find yourself open to God, open to others, open to the flow of love, and when did you find yourself shutting down, disconnecting, being prickly and hard on the inside? The experience of being open to God, better able to give and receive love, is called consolation. And its opposite is called desolation.
It isn’t necessarily just pleasant experiences that draw you closer to God, like cuddling a baby or watching a sunset. Painful ones can draw you to God too, like experiencing deep grief and yet also feeling God’s comfort and the care of others. And similarly there can be experiences that are enjoyable at the time, yet they pull you away from God, like gossiping negatively about someone, or venting your anger at a person.
The purpose of doing the examen regularly is to notice what tends to draw you closer to God and God’s love and grace, and what tends to draw you away. That way we become better able to stay in the circle of God’s love, and be transformed more and more by the Holy Spirit into the sort of people we were created to be. We can learn through the examen to understand ourselves better, and let the Spirit work in us more freely.
So what in our life together as a community over the past year has led us closer to God, and enabled us to be more trusting, more loving, more open to the Spirit?
We had some significant new beginnings this year: Yvette was chosen to be our new music director, Morgan as our new sexton, Gemma as our new children’s minister. Michael was ordained as our deacon, and Kevin as our bishop. We also had a review and redesign of our 8:30 service that resulted in the new contemplative format we’re currently using. And there have been other new things this year.
New beginnings mean change, risk, uncertainty. They’re not always easy times for a community. But what has impressed me is how open St Aidan’s generally is to change, and how willing to trust that God is doing something new. I experienced that especially in the small committees that worked on our searches for a music director and children’s minister – their trust that God would bring us the right people. And I’ve also seen that same trust in the congregation and parish at large.
One of Matt Adams’ gifts was his incredible imagination and creativity, always dreaming up new ways for us to be God’s people in this place, connecting in new ways with the community around us. Not all his ideas came to fruition, but we gradually learned to go where the flow of energy was, and out of that came the Zipline ministries to young families, and the Creative Space ministries to artists. This year saw the transformation of Alan Dodds’ old apartment into an artists’ studio, with a residency programme and an art show. It was more than I could have imagined, and it taught me a lot about trusting the Holy Spirit both to inspire us at the beginning and to guide us through the process.
Looking at the times of desolation for us, what in our life together as a community over the past year led us away from God and made us harden our hearts?
There was conflict during our year of sponsorship of the Bdiwi family. The sponsoring body with its committees sometimes struggled with interpersonal conflict, disappointment, cynicism as the process tried peoples’ patience and goodwill. I would sometimes come away from meetings or phone calls wondering what we’d got ourselves into, and feeling quite jaded. Stress and conflict are classic causes of desolation., and we need to be vigilant about not letting them pull us away from God and into our corners.
There were also occasions when the church was vandalized, property damaged. A fire was set in Memorial Hall just a few days ago, which was discovered and extinguished before it could do much damage, but could have been so much worse. It’s easy at those times to feel vindictive, blaming, punitive, ranting mentally at ungrateful people who should show more respect for us and our fine community work. It’s easy to get on our high horse of judgment, and that always gallops us away from God’s grace.
Other times of desolation came when tragedies occurred in the lives of our community: Alan’s death, Peter’s, Lorna’s son Brad’s, to name just a few. Our hearts ache for each other, and we ask why. Why did this happen? Where is God now?
Those times of heartache can make us feel very far away from God. And yet they can also draw us closer together as we reach out to each other, lean on each other, weep together and pray together. The Holy Spirit can enter through the cracks and the heartbreaks, often more than in our times of success and strength when we’re sailing along as if we don’t need God very much thank you.
Consider your own year past. Where did you feel God’s presence? Where did you learn a little more about trust and grace, including in the difficult times? And where did you close down and build roadblocks?
We’re a work in progress – communally and personally. As a new year dawns, we present ourselves to God, as Mary and Joseph presented their little child Jesus, for a blessing, to learn and grow in God’s ways. They heard words from Simeon about the salvation that was dawning and about the suffering that lay ahead.
And so it is with us: whatever the future holds, it will involve suffering and salvation, pain and healing, because that’s the nature of the unpredictable lives we live. The examen can help us learn how to stay close to God and God’s grace no matter what is happening. So may we look back with thanksgiving and a little more wisdom, and may we look ahead with trust and expectation. Amen.