We are in a moment in between

Bishop Andrew Asbil speaks at a microphone.
Bishop Andrew Asbil delivers his first Charge to Synod.
 on January 1, 2019
Michael Hudson

Bishop Andrew Asbil, the diocese’s coadjutor bishop, gave this Charge to Synod. He will become the Bishop of Toronto on Jan. 1, succeeding Archbishop Colin Johnson, who is retiring.


Do you remember the first time you learned how to ride a bicycle? If your experience was anything like mine, it happens in stages. I first learned in the 1960s, when banana seats and big handlebars and streamers were all the rage. That was not my bike. I had a hand-me-down from my older brother. It was red with chipped paint and a white seat and bent fenders. It was so uncool, and what made it even more uncool was that it had training wheels on it.

Now, there are some things that are good about training wheels, because they can give you confidence when you don’t quite have your balance, and they can help you ride and keep upright when you’re kind of tipping over, and you can navigate tight corners. But with time, you realize that there are limitations when you have training wheels on. While you can out-speed the little kids on the tricycle, you can’t quite keep up with the big kids.

And then comes that fateful day when the training wheels come off. I remember that day like it was yesterday – my father holding me up, and I leaning into him, hoping that he wouldn’t let me go. And then as I tried to curb my fear, he encouraged me with words like, “Don’t look down, look up. Watch where you’re going. Keep pedaling. Now pedal faster. Don’t look down, look up. Keep moving.”

We just kept moving with speed and more speed, and before I knew it there was a little nudge, and I thought he was still there, and it was only when I looked back and noticed him far behind that I wiped out. But you know, it didn’t matter, because I’d caught for that little moment that I’d taken flight, just for a moment.

It feels like I have training wheels on again as I’ve been learning how to ride and pedal alongside this diocese of 183 parishes in 230 congregations that stretch over a huge area, that are diverse in their liturgical and theological expression from low to high and everything in between, from the small town in the crossroads to the inner city to the suburbs – and as we’ve been hearing at Synod, speaking languages that we have not heard before in our presence in our communities, new voices and new tones and new languages sung and prayed. On my first Sunday it was Spanish and on my second Sunday it was Cantonese. What a delight.

And in each congregation, devoted and dedicated lay leaders like yourselves, who every day live out your baptismal call, and clergy who are so gifted in these changing times to take new risks for the sake of ministry, and at the core a College of Bishops – namely, Peter and Riscylla, Kevin and Jenny – who are so wise and so dedicated and so passionate for the gospel, not just in their geographical areas but for the whole diocese and for the whole Church. And then you step into 135 Adelaide Street, and you appreciate all of the gears and the pedals and the spokes and the tires and the wheels, and how it all goes together from department to department, as very dedicated staff do this. This (Synod) is remarkable. I’ve been to a lot of different Synods that are not run like this.

But for the last month and just a bit, I have been watching and learning from Colin Johnson on how to ride the bike. Now, the first thing that you learn is that Colin never puts his hands on the handlebars, but actually what he’s doing is juggling with one hand all of the issues and the canons and the finances and the HR issues, while with the other hand he’s drinking a latte, with a speed dial to the Chancellor. He is reciting from memory every Collect that has ever been written and can tell you the liturgical origin of it. He does not need a GPS to get anywhere in the diocese. He knows where every parish is, and if you press him he can name the succession of incumbents down to the beginning of the last century. It’s like a kid with a hockey card.

It’s not just the past and it’s not just the future. We are in a moment in between. We are in a moment between what was and what is coming. And when you live in a transition moment, it is really important for all of us just simply to be perfectly still. And the first emotion that comes to bear is gratitude – gratitude that God has called us and brought us safely to this moment, all of us. Deep gratitude to you, Colin. You have pedaled so hard, and when we were tempted to look down, you said “Look up. Watch where you’re going. Keep your eye on what is most important. Chase after a Saviour that is calling us to life.”

I always use this day of Synod as kind of that one moment, “if we just get to Synod, I’ll be okay,” and then “if I just get to the next thing, I’ll be okay.” As we get closer to Dec. 31, it feels like the pace is quickening. And before long, we’re going to be running, you (Colin) next to the bike and us on it, and before you know it, Colin’s just going to give a little nudge, and when we look back we will see him. And then there will be times when we will have little wipeouts, but that’s okay, because we know how to get back up.

It’s important to look back, and it’s important to look into the future, but we can’t look too far into the future, not yet, because we’re in between. But I’d like to share just four things with you tonight about what I’m hearing and listening to and have been watching in the last month and a bit.

The first is this: to see Jesus. When you step into the pulpit at St. James Cathedral, you will see a plaque that says, “We wish to see Jesus.” That comes from John, chapter 12. It’s when the Greeks come, and they say to Philip and to Andrew, “We wish to see Jesus.” It’s a reminder to the preacher that it is a privilege and a joy to open the word, and it is a tremendous responsibility to open the word in changing times and dynamic ways, to somehow touch the hurt and the sorrow and the bereft nature that comes out of the pews Sunday by Sunday, that we might crowd around with cries together and experience the risen Lord in our midst.

My mind keeps going back to the reading that we heard at the Eucharist this morning. Imagine that moment when Jesus goes back to Capernaum, he goes back home – we don’t know if it’s his house or Peter’s house – and a great crowd gathers inside and outside, and they are crowding around the front door and they’re craning their necks and they’re cupping their ears in the hopes that they might just be able to hear a word that they need to hear.

Sometimes we don’t even know why we’re hungry, sometimes we don’t even know what’s missing, but when we hear it we know we’ve been fed. Just like the Greeks who wished to see Jesus so long ago, I want to see and experience the real thing. That same hunger is with us in our day today. Some of us have wandered away from our faith, and we’ve been away so long we do not know how to get home. And some of us have never had the opportunity of learning and hearing the story of who Jesus is.

When our children were young, I had to figure out a way to teach them how to pray. I remember when Hannah was about three years old, and I tried to imagine how I was going to teach this young child. One night after a story, I said to Hannah, “How would you like to pray?” And she said, “Daddy, I don’t know how. You start.”

So I said, “Dear God, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for the clouds and the sun.” And she elbowed me, and she said, “And the trees and the birds!” “And the trees and the birds. And we pray for all the people who are poor and don’t have any food, and those who are sick.” “Don’t forget Nana and Grandpa!” “Nana and Grandpa.” And all the way through that prayer, we went back and forth. The second night, the same, the third night the same again, and on the fourth night I said, “Hannah, how would you like to start?” And it was like watching a kid ride a bike.

It is the same in our call as parishes to be intentional about forming and reforming and telling and gathering around the word, and gathering around liturgy, and creating liturgies that inspire and speak to a changing time, of plumbing the depths of our traditions so that we unearth all of the gems of old Collects that still speak and sing in an age that longs to hear and to see Jesus in the way we want to, too.

The second: we need each other. Imagine the paralyzed man on a pallet with four friends as they’re wending their way through the streets of Capernaum, and they come to the house, and there’s a huge crowd, and the four friends know that no amount of elbowing is ever going to get them close. Try and imagine it in your own mind, that process where they decided that it might be a good idea to scale the house, to clamber up the side, to lift the tiles and dig through the roof. I wonder whose idea that was. I wonder if the paralyzed man said to his friends, “Really, no actually, I don’t want you to go to that kind of effort. Maybe we should just go home.” And then lifting him up the side of the house and saying, “No really, honestly, I think we should just go home.”

And did he stop protesting when they started lifting the tiles and digging through for him? Did he go silent? Imagine the dust coming down and daylight bleeding into the living room. Imagine how conspicuous he might have felt as he’s being lowered down, and how so many had looked down on him for so long, and how he had looked down on himself. And the text says, “And Jesus saw their faith and said, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” It was their tenacity, their faith, their hunger to push through so that their friend might be healed, that made all the difference in the world.

It takes that kind of tenacity to be the Church today, to scale the impossible and to break through in places where we ought not to go. Sometimes it is important for us to take the risks that we didn’t think we were capable of doing. Sometimes it’s the Church that’s paralyzed. Sometimes the Church is afraid of what’s coming around the corner. Sometimes it’s the sins of our past that paralyze us; we are learning that as we walk with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Some of us feel quite paralyzed in facing General Synod 2019, because we’re afraid.

But this I know: we need each other. We need all of us to lift the Church. We need conservative and liberal, charismatic and high church, we need LGBTQ and straight. We need all of us to be able to face the future, because it is Jesus that transforms us, and it is Jesus who will say, “Pick up your mat and walk.” It is important for us to be able to walk in unison together and, while we are afraid, to walk anyway. My pledge is that we walk together. It is not enough just to tolerate each other. Jesus did not say, “Tolerate your neighbour as you tolerate yourself.” Jesus did not say, “Make room for your neighbour as you make room for yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” We are in this together, folks.

Number three: creation matters. When it was Sophie, our youngest’s, turn to learn how to pray, she would keep coming back to the same petition over and over, every single night. She would simply say, “Dear God, let there be enough water.” I had never at her age ever imagined saying such a petition, never had to worry about it, and now we do. (From) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from the UN, we have sobering news. And while we might be able to argue the semantics of it all, in the same way we argue the semantics of the prophets of old like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Amos and Hosea, we would throw it all out at our peril, because the truth is being told to us and we are being confronted by it. Perhaps that’s why so many of our young are feeling anxious. The Church needs not to be passive now but active, because creation matters. It matters for this generation and our grandchildren’s generation and our great grandchildren’s generation. And we need to learn how to walk together as a people of faith, because we are created in God’s image.

The fourth thing: There’s a hole in my roof. I’ve often imagined that moment at the end of that reading when the crowd goes home, and Peter’s wife looks up and says, “There’s a hole in my roof.” And for some churches that is a reality, and for some churches it’s a reality that is a game-changer, in saying, “We can’t fix that hole in the roof.” For some of us, we are burdened by our old structures, and we pour all of our energy into old buildings. But a hole in your roof gives you a new advantage and a new vantage point in seeing creation and the future in a new way, and it will take all of the innovation and the creativity of all of us to imagine new structures, and how we use our properties and our buildings in creating new partnerships with community members in our large towns and big towns and small towns. And there are holes in our structures, too, as we heard from our Intercultural Working Group, and structures that divide and keep out, that we need to have the courage to change and transform. And how we make decisions so that we do that with clarity, always keeping our eyes on the faith that has called us and the faith that is in us.

I’m a bit nervous to take the training wheels off, but I am so excited, and I am so excited by what I have heard at this Synod, by the Missional Moments, the creativity of all the congregations across this diocese, and even in parishes where there is deep hurt and malaise, a new sense of a dawning day, of new creative ways that we will meet the future. Don’t be afraid. Pedal along. Thanks be to God.


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