The reason we walk…

By Rt. Rev. Michael Bird

Thinking about the ways we walk together reminds me of our Bishop’s book for Lent, in the Diocese of Niagara this year, entitled: The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew, a powerful book written with insight and humility that offers us an inspiring and painful story of one indigenous family’s road to reconciliation.

It is Kinew’s story of reconciliation with his father who was a hereditary chief of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people and who devoted himself to a life-long campaign of forgiveness after his own experience in residential schools.

It was chosen in keeping with our diocesan commitment to walk more closely with our First Nations peoples, however, in my experience whenever I have engaged in these kinds of reflections on indigenous issues, I have learned just as much or more about myself and my own faith journey. Wab Kinew writes: “To be hurt, yet forgive. To do wrong but forgive yourself. To depart from this world leaving only love. This is the reason you walk.”

As I read this book, I began to see that this is a fundamental starting point for us as a church in this generation:

What is the reason you walk and I walk as a Christian, as an Anglican?

What is the reason we sit in the pews on Sunday morning?

What is the reason we walk as a church, as a diocese?

Why does any of this matter in my life… why should it matter to anyone else?

I believe that it is in the focusing upon these questions… about the reason we walk… that a number of Anglican congregations have begun to emerge from the state of paralysis that we have been living with, in the past, breaking out of the mind-set of mere survival.

When we have had the courage to wrestle with these questions we have launched ourselves on the journey of moving from a membership based church to a discipleship based church and it has forced us to examine the nature and the character of the faith journeys that we are walking. We have had to decide whether we are prepared to journey as committed pilgrims or whether we are content to be mere tourists… dropping in each Sunday to see the sights, taking a few pictures and then getting back into the real world that bears no resemblance to what we have experienced on the way.

The passage from scripture that you have chosen to draw inspiration from for this Synod, that comes from the Letter to Ephesians chapter 4, challenges us to choose that higher calling, as pilgrims: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in peace.”

It challenges us to walk this pilgrim road being prepared to meet and embrace people we would never meet if we stayed at home. To take this journey with our eyes open and our lives open to new insights that will come our way and to receive what we see and experience as a gift. We will need to walk with a greater sense of humility knowing that we will learn more than we will teach, that we will receive more than we will give and that we will encounter Christ in some very unlikely places and in the faces of some very unlikely people.

Just a few weeks ago we read in our worship, the story of two followers of Jesus who were walking together on the road to Emmaus. On this journey, one of them says to the risen Christ: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?” It pleases me no end that the risen Lord comes alongside them as a stranger, as some kind of alien or refugee or sojourner.

Both these passages articulate critical elements for our faith journeys that see us move from being tourists to pilgrims, from religious consumers to true disciples and they speak to us, as we reimagine some of the ways that we will gather for worship, and to reinvent what our outreach and our evangelism will look like in this twenty-first century.

Bishop Michael Bird at the Diocese of Huron Synod Dinner

For a long time now we, as Anglicans, in this part of the world, have been feeling pretty beaten up ourselves… but there are signs in many places that this period of doom and gloom is coming to an end. I believe that it is when we begin to discern a clearer sense for ourselves and our congregations about the reason we walk, about the nature of this higher calling, and when we find the courage to live into that higher calling, no matter where that journey takes us, that we will thrive as Christian communities, that our evangelism will take hold once again, that our prophetic voices will ring out in the public square and we will be empowered for the work of participating in God’s mission for the people we are called to serve.

In her book, “The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Scared in the Middle of Everything,” Katherine Jefferts Schori, the former Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church writes: “If we really want to follow Jesus, we are going to have to leave home. That’s a good part of what he means by saying ‘Pick up your cross and follow me’… It doesn’t mean we’re going to have to suffer. It means we have to get on the road, see new territory and experience God in new situations. It means we have to leave our comfortable pews. It means we must pick up our cross and see the world from a new perspective.”

I want to close with this one last thought: The other day I was confronted by someone who wanted to point out to me, once again, a fact that has plagued us throughout the course of my 33 years in ordained ministry. About one of the big box churches down the street and how the parking lot is packed on Sunday morning, etc, etc. and what are they doing right and what are we doing wrong. You have all heard it a million times and I gave my standard pat answer. But maybe the real answer to this lies in the questions that Wab Kinew helped me formulate:

What is the reason you walk and I walk as a Christian, as an Anglican?

What is the reason we walk as a church, as a diocese?

Is it possible the reason we walk has more to do with ensuring a strong Christian and Anglican presence in every part of this country of ours and in especially to the people in northern regions, or is it about doing something meaningful about the world-wide refugee crisis, or speaking truth to power, or opening our doors and our arms wide with community kitchens and dinners and gardens and out of the cold programs.  Maybe it is more about walking the talk rather than packed parking lots and wrestling deeply, deeply with what Jesus meant when he said: “pick up your cross and follow me”… and maybe the reality is that that doesn’t always fit neatly into what the world and society judges to be important in these challenging days. And maybe we are going to have to accept that for a while and stop beating ourselves up about it.

It is all there in this passage from Ephesians: “Lead a life worthy of your calling….with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  My friends, this is the reason we walk… as followers of Jesus the Christ.

May God bless the clergy and people of the Diocese of Huron and the Diocese of Niagara as we walk this road together in the days and years to come. Amen.