The podcast I was listening to cut out halfway to my Aunt Hilda’s funeral. Like a switch being flicked, I suddenly saw my surroundings. I saw the greyness of the sky, the blankness of the white fields, the flatness of the landscape. Driving through the prairies in wintertime is like wandering the corridors of an abandoned school in summertime: everything is long, straight and empty.
The podcast was an incomplete download. Ugh. I was irritated. I was expecting to be bored in half an hour, but not now. I was heading back to the small conservative Mennonite town where my mother’s people started out. Grunthal, Manitoba is a sweetly named place if you speak German. In English it sounds rather sour. The “green valley” for which the place is named is not there. The name either refers to a ridge that was hauled away for gravel years ago, or it arose from the founders’ homesickness for someplace else.
I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting of the funeral, but probably some tropes about “going home” that put all the colour someplace distant from here, from this life, this place. I must confess that I did not think of my Aunt Hilda as a colourful person, so I didn’t really believe that she had given her funeral officiants much to work with.
I was wrong on both counts. Aunt Hilda’s funeral blew me away.
My Aunt Hilda never married, and I see now that I had held this against her as something sad, something like a failure. This was a bit of stupid prejudice on my part. I learned at her funeral that Hilda’s singleness was not at a sad state. She had friends and colleagues who became her family and cherished her. She was known by them as someone who was happy, grateful and kind.
It turns out that Aunt Hilda knew how to celebrate life, and her funeral sermon was given by a preacher who knew how to celebrate her. It was the most powerful funeral sermon I think I have ever heard.
Because the preacher shares Hilda’s diagnosis. Gary Martens is a gifted preacher, and he has terminal metastatic colon cancer, exactly the same as Hilda did. Gary can joke, can quote scripture verbatim off the cuff, he can hold an audience and he can tell a story. He began his and Hilda’s story with Hilda’s diagnosis, and his visits to her as her pastor. The plot twist came eight months into Hilda’s treatment, when Gary got his news, and they started hanging out as chemo buddies.
When I die, I hope the homilist is someone who really was my friend, and someone who really knows how to preach. It is something to behold. There was respect, there was honesty, there was grief, and there was a contagious joy over a life well-lived in Gary’s sermon.
And then my people sang.
Say what you will about my people. We are obstinate, slow to change, suspicious of outsiders, often suffocating in our moralism, but we can sing. All the art we denied ourselves, all the colour we drained out of our church windows, all the fun we never had we sublimated into choral singing.
God, it felt good. It made me homesick for church.
It’s funny, you know, because I was looking forward to hanging out with a fellow church castaway after the funeral. Aunt Hilda’s funeral was only half the reason I made the road trip to Grunthal. I probably wouldn’t have gone if Grunthal weren’t also the home of a friend I recently made online via the Nomad Podcast Beloved Listener Lounge. Mike is a recovering evangelical pastor who could no longer toe the party line of the Baptist church where he had been ministering for the past fifteen years. His Instagram handle is closetjudas, which probably tells you most of what you need to know about that. Mike ended up in Grunthal because Grunthal is close to a Bible College where his PhD wife finally landed a gig, just in time for Mike to take a break and not go crazy from officially representing the faith he had been privately deconstructing for years. For now he is a stay-at-home Dad in a town where Halloween rounds with the kids have to be quietly pre-arranged via Facebook, because you don’t want to horrify the wrong neighbour with the fact that you and your three-year-old pink princess and your seven-year-old little superhero dude are out celebrating Satan’s birthday.
So Mike’s place was the cathartic encounter I was really looking forward to, and it really was a terrific visit. Thank you Nomad for helping me find a friend in Grunthal!
We talked about kids, and our stories, and we talked a lot about church. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. For me and Mike this is not just a frustration of a desire to belong, but a desire to contribute, a desire to lead. Mike strikes me as a pastor of a church that doesn’t exist yet. It was interesting for us to compare notes and see that the hurdles for people like us are in many ways as high in churches on the liberal end of the continuum as they are on the conservative end.
On the conservative side, the admission requirements are drawn up mostly according to what I would call “content.” Does your statement of faith tick all the right boxes? If so, welcome to the club. Here is your mantle of leadership. Now just never change your mind about anything, and you have a lifetime gig here as an intellectual and spiritual guide to the faithful. On the liberal side, the gatekeeping is all about what I would call “process.” Mike and I have both explored the possibility of pastoral ministry in the United Church of Canada, the most liberal mainline denomination in the land. (For you non-Canucks trying to place this tribe, it is a made-in-Canada amalgam of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist denominations) The message of the UCC is: Everyone is welcome here, we have open minds and open hearts. And iron-clad protocol. That few members understand. So when some young outsiders come along without the proper paperwork, the UCC just doesn’t know what to do with them and their offer of pastoral involvement dies in committee.
In its defence, the UCC is trying to protect its congregations from hostile takeovers by zealots who have come along in the past to try to “save” them from their liberal heresies. And they are trying to protect their pulpits for the good folk who have gone through their accredited seminaries and find themselves competing for pastoral charges in an ever-shrinking pool of viable UCC congregations. Just like the glaciers we thought of as permanent to the Canadian landscape, liberal mainline churches are dissolving quickly in a rapidly changing climate. It’s a hard time to be hospitable.
So guys like me and Mike get together to lick our wounds and soothe our egos and figure out how in the world our love for reading theology and making music and meeting people in the most real moments of their lives could still be a vocation, and perhaps, please God, a livelihood.
In the wilderness in which we wander, podcasts like Nomad are manna. They feed us, and draw us together around a common, if virtual, table. We may be homeless wanderers, but we are homeless together, and that is a life-saving difference. We are so grateful for the leadership and provision podcasts like Nomad offer us in this mostly leaderless, provisional time. But still, we ache for a land in which to settle, a place to grow our own crops and provide for others instead of living off of the morsels drifting down out of the sky.
When I was leaving, Mike lent me a book by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. It so happens that in the book, Volf asks the question of what it means to be a nomad. Does it mean a life where, as Gilles Deleuze says, “There is no starting point just as there is no goal to reach”? Volf suggests that rather than the life of a nomad, what Deleuze is describing is the life of a “vagabond” or “stroller.” Nomads are going somewhere, seeking something. They are “departing…without leaving,” according to Volf. He points to the nomadic archetype of Abraham: Abraham’s “departure had a starting point – his country, his kindred, and his father’s house; and it had a definite goal – creation of a people” (40).
Here’s to being a nomad.