Stories over coffee

At coffee, a man sat across from me that I didn’t know well.

He was a visitor to Laird, here to spend time with family. He was a tall man, well along in his years, in fact probably in his early nineties.

I’ll call my friend “Walter,” a pseudonym, because he has left our community and I didn’t ask permission to tell his story. I knew that in a former life he was a church minister, and so I asked how long he had been a preacher. “Forty-five years” came the answer promptly.

I was struck by Walter’s response. His clerical life had tripled my own fifteen. Then he added that he had been in business for a decade or so after that. His positive and congenial demeanour suggested that his entire life was, and continued to be, a blessing.

My next question was connected to my own ministry experience. I am curious how someone with such a long clerical history speaks of those years. I asked Walter, “How was it, to be in ministry for forty-five years?”

Walter offered another grin and answered simply, “It was good, those were all good years.”

As I probed further, I learned that good years didn’t equate to easy years. Churches have times of struggle, and Walter’s experience reflected that. He spoke of one of his churches, where “they weren’t quite ready to come to where I was calling from.” Then the grin again, as he mentioned that he had recently visited that church, and had been warmly received.

I sensed a healthy and healed spirit.

Walter talked further about the reading, and thinking, and relationships that he explores as he works to keep his spirituality connected to reality.

“News media, in whatever form, will always project mostly bad news, depressing news, painful news. What is there in the spirituality that we develop that can lead to hopeful living? How can our spirituality be relevant to that hard news, how can our view of God make a difference in those stories, how can we offer hope to the world?”

The hour and a half coffee buzzed by quickly as our conversation flowed. Some of those gathered around us leaned in close to hear and participate. Others leaned, obviously not so comfortable with this God talk, but I hardly noticed. That a person entering his tenth decade could speak so comfortably, so accurately, about the current reality was mind boggling. There was none of “fifty years ago we did church like this and then we went modern and everything flew apart.” Walter’s mind at ninety was still gentle and curious, was interested in my thoughts and stories, wanted to know who I was reading, to tell me of his favourite authors.

Walter talked about a family member who works with offenders, the worst of the worst. Music instruction was part of that story, and Water described the joy of a man who learned to play a new instrument. I added that in my experience, that new found joy correlates directly to greater safety for the vulnerable ones in the world.

We tend to stick our version of a Deity into a box, the better to understand and to control that entity. Let’s not have any surprises! And then, when those discouraging or frightening news stories threaten to impact us, that Deity is grasped, held out in front like a weapon, and used to threaten, or cudgel, those who differ, those perceived as “them,” or “the worst of the worst.””

Can we release our death grip on said Deity and instead invite “them” to conversation? What is their experience of spirituality? What language, what images, what stories are central to their understanding? How can our common understandings lead us to approach that which is difficult within our society? How can our differences be held up as opportunity, how can we engage with “them” without threat?

Two words that I heard, and certainly sensed, from Walter, were “respect” and “curiosity.” His eyes still shone as he talked about his hope for the future, the excitement of the things yet to learn, his pleasure in the pursuit of that wisdom. Thank you, Walter. You encourage me to hold up my version of Deity in an open and relaxed palm.