Deep River Thoughts
By Susan Evans (daughter of the Rev. Bob Plant)
2007 June 10
Thank you so very much for inviting me to share in your anniversary celebrations today.I feel honoured to be asked and honoured and a bit intimidated to be standing here in this spot where my Dad preached many rousing and thought provoking sermons.Its also is a very poignant moment.Peter and I were married right here.We held our reception in the Christian Education Centre next door.I think some of my relatives never did get over the fact that there was no alcohol in the punch! It is many years.I was a teenager here.I’m now a grandmother!
Actually, a good friend who has been very supportive over the past months since Peter’s death, asked me, “What on earth possessed you to agree to speak?” He knows the toll that grief takes –the way it disorients you.But, when Mary Greiner asked me that day, I suddenly and surprisingly felt a certain clarity and a desire to accept.And immediately what came to my mind were the words:“Forty Years.”
I guess I would say –in answer to my friend–that over the years I have tried to pay attention to what bubbles up suddenly, spontaneously into consciousness –interrupting my preoccupations and distractions.Sometimes, it seems, this is God’s way of breaking through the veil …sort of like those irritating and persistent “pop up” messages that appear on the computer screen.My first reaction to both is usually suspicion:hit the delete button!It’s a lot safer!
But, I decided that I would let these words “forty years” play around inside me a bit to see where they would take me –and perhaps take us.
And so I speak to you in the name of our loving God who continues to sustain us, redeem us and inspire us in and through all that is.Amen.
From one standpoint, obviously, the words that popped into my head… “Forty Years” …represent no big mystery. It is forty years this month, my family left Deep River for Toronto.Peter and I were married forty years.As I began to prepare for today I started out thinking about that and what has happened in those years that I might share with you but I guess the wind has blown me in a different direction.I looked up some scripture texts that use the word “forty” and discovered a couple of things that had not really dawned onmebefore.
First of all, I had never noticed how many times the word “forty” is used –whether it refers to forty days, forty weeks or forty years.The rain fell on Noah’s ark for forty days and nights.Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca.Moses was in exile for forty years.He spent forty days and nights on the mountain with the Lord before coming down with the Ten Commandments.For forty years, the people of Israel wandered in the desert.Both David and Solomon reigned for forty years.Elijah travelled forty days and nights to Mount Horeb. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. The time period experienced by Jesus’ disciples between his resurrection and ascension is described as a forty day period.Because so many of the significant experiences recorded in the Bible seem to be “forty” experiences I wondered whether the writers were speaking symbolically.
And I discovered so they are. These story tellers were not so much concerned to report thelengthof the event as they were to alert the listeners to itsnature. Well what basic human experience is a “forty” experience?Being a woman, I should have guessed:Pregnancy.It takes forty weeks.So these “forty” experiences then, that were seen to be periods of gestation.These times were like the time that a fetus is growing and maturing in her mother’s womb.
I would also guess that since the writers were men that they probably saw the womb to be a hidden, dark, unfathomable place. The Psalmist in 139 refers to it as “the depths of the earth.”These stories take place in situations hidden away, remote, dark.Noah was shut up in an ark.Moses was way up on the mountain.The people were in the wilderness away from civilization.Jesus was out in the desert alone.The disciples were hiding in a locked room.
And, in those days, pregnancy was probably seen to be a very dangerous time. The infant mortality rate at times was as much as 30 per cent.A lot could go wrong.Would she survive?Would there be new life?What would be God’s decision here? These forty stories, then like pregnancy, were about dangerous, vulnerable times –exile, wandering, struggle, temptation, fear and there is danger in their situations:Elijah was running for his life.Jesus was in the wilderness with wild animals.In these stories, a lot is on the line physically and spiritually.The disciples were confused: “what was this kingdom about anyway?Was Jesus’ mission for nothing?”In other words, this hidden, dark place existed as much within them as it did in the circumstances surrounding them.It was a place where people were tempted to take charge, deal with things in ways that were not God’s ways.It was a place where the real danger was despair and a turning away, a running away from God.
But when I listen to the details of these stories I also hear something else:awe–the sort of awe we feel when we look at our newborn children.Far more was going on here in this dark, dangerous place than meets the eye –somethingmysterious, something miraculous, a work of the Spirit.This hidden, dark and sometimes dangerous time, the writers were saying, was asacredtime. During this time, God was nurturing them, feeding them, protecting them, holding them close.
Each day there was manna in this desert –enough to feed every person.Elijah was provided with hot bread baked on stones and a water jar.Mark says Jesus was in the desert with the wild animalsbutangels ministered to him.(Who were these angels?Mary or Martha perhaps.) Luke says during these forty fear filled days Jesus ate with the disciples.He taught them about the kingdom.
As, these thoughts and images continued to percolate within me something else struck me, now so many years later.I think that the time I spent here at Deep River Community Church as a teenager was for me such a period of gestation.Is it odd to think this?Is it odd to think that such gestational periods are common to human experience?Jesus said to Nicodemus, to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.So much has been loaded on this phrase.I wonder:when he said this, was he thinking about his time in the desert or perhaps times when the desert, the darkness, the wild animals and the accompanying temptations were inside him?And who of us who seek God do not know such arid places and perhaps dangerous seductions hidden within ourselves? I came to Deep River with my family when I was thirteen.
I came with a kind ofscriptedidentity–“the minister’s daughter.” There are many PK’s who will say this is a recipe for atheism.
Let me illustrate the perils of this identity:One of my earliest childhood memories is of an occasion when I was invited to supper by a little friend whose father was the superintendent of the Sunday School.I was five or six at the time–the early fifties and only a short eight years before we came to Deep River.During supper, my friend’s Dad casually asked me what my father thought of theRevised Standard Version of the Bible.This, of course, was the first of many new translations which supplanted the King James and was the huge controversy of the day.It would have been the equivalent of his asking me what my Dad thought about same sex marriage!Well, I knew two things.I knew the answer to his question and I also knew I had a responsibility not to tell him.At six.
I think it also would be fair to say my Dad had what you might call a very large personality which would at times spill out of his sermons and other activities into the town –often through the North Renfrew Times.And so, in this small town it was an identity that I couldn’t escape whether I was here or at school or even out on the river with a friend in a canoe. Because Dad was well liked, thank God, with this identity came lots of good things.We were invited out to dinner.We were given gifts and taken on holidays.Someone even offered to send me to a private girl’s school for a year.On the face of it, it was a place of privilege.
My parents worked hard to ensure I had as normal a life as possible but through no fault of theirs, it was a bit of a fish bowl existence and I didn’t have a lot of choice about it. And so, I lived a second life below the surface –in a hidden, dark, inner place –though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it was a dangerous place.I was one big question mark—perhaps the normal teenage question mark writ large:What do I think?What am I about?Who the heck amIin the middle of all this? I don’t think I had enough self awareness to understand what was going in me.This vague discomfort could have been a recipe for disaster –Friday night trips to Des Joachims, perhaps, or promiscuity.
Diarmuid O’Murchu, in his bookReclaiming Spirituality( he’s the author ofQuantum Theology)provides an interesting insight here.In his book he argues that spirituality is innate to the human personality. I would agree.It is common place to ask if a person is a spiritual person.I think that it makes no more sense to ask if someone is spiritual than it does to ask if they are “psychological.”The more appropriate question I think would be, “how self aware is a person?”
O’Murchu writes: We are always living out of a spiritual will to meaning but it is not always appropriately expressed… Spiritual energy is at least as powerful as and probably more powerful than our strongest instinctual drives and desires.Consequently, a thwarted spiritual drive or one not appropriated consciously, will often seek expression in dangerous, destructive or pathological behaviours.A great deal of youth culture, especially drug related, is fuelled by a misguided spiritual hunger;so is a great deal of economic or sexual prowess in the adult population.I suggest that it is more accurate to view these developments as un-integrated spiritual overload rather than as an absence of a spiritual sense.Spirituality cannot be absent in a human life, but it can be misguided and misplaced to a degree that ensues in horrendous destruction –personally, socially and culturally.”P. 38.
(When you hear “attitude” in a teenager –or indeed in anyone –what you are hearing is a thwarted spiritual drive.)
What O’Murchu describes, I think, could have been my story.And perhaps you would say that marrying my High School English teacher was pushing the envelope a bit!It could have been my story but it wasn’t.Instead it was a “forty week” story.This church was for me an ark, an upper room –but with a lot of space.It is only now so many years later that I can see what happened here.
Here I could ask, stretch, doubt, wrestle.Here there were no signs of what some of my Catholic friends would call “the thought police.”It seemed that we had moved into a church where people delighted in discussing matters of faith.I would overhear them at the front door of my house and in our living room, in the driveways on my street, in the homes of my friends and in the programs over there in the centre.I was free to think what I wanted and to talk about it out loud. I felt that I was being taken seriously without judgment.I learned that the joy that comes in living a life of faith lies in the pursuit, the explorations, the struggle itself.I discovered that it was more important to seek God both in heart and in mind –intellectually, actively–than it was toaccept a creed.
You see, I also was being confronted in a very concrete way with senseless suffering. For, while my mother was always quietly there in the background with Dad at the heart of his ministry, she had arrived basically carrying a death sentence.As I look back now on this too, what strikes me is that this openness here was balanced by bedrock confidence in God as the creative and loving source of all that is and all that matters.I saw Dr. Keys and his wife sitting in the front row here each Sunday morning.I saw people here in the church face senseless death — Dr. Moore, Tom Morison, Jack Beaver’s son, Merv and Donna Sergeant’s baby –not with rationalizations or platitudes but with quiet assurance.It gave me the understanding (in the words of Julian of Norwich) that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
In the gestation stories, though people were in darkness, there was God always present–in the words of the Psalmist in 139: If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as day, for darkness is as light to You. For it was You who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. As I struggled in this hidden place with these demons, at the same time, the Spirit incarnated in this church, held me gently.Angels fed me, gave me manna in my desert.
But this is not all.I found something more in these stories that shed light on my experience here. In these hidden places –the ark, the wilderness, the desert, the upper room–something new was coming to birth:a new creation, a new nation, a new way of life, a new covenant.In other words, people were not only growing and maturing in faith; their inward parts were being formed for something new.Over the past few weeks I asked myself, was this also true for me?How did my experience here –if it did–set me on my life course for something new –a new way of life?
I think that the greatest danger we face when we are in spiritual crisis, is not things like drugs and alcohol.I have never met an addict who did not have a beautiful soul.The greatest danger is spiritual apathy –to follow the path of least resistance –usually the path that society maps out for us –a path that seems obviously attractive, that makes sense, that leads to power, success.Do you remember the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ?”I think the writer hit the nail on the head:so tempting it is to create an idyllic peaceful surroundings for ourselves with family and abandon all engagement with the world.These are the kinds of temptations people were facing in these times of gestation.
And so I asked myself, what appeared attractive here in this town and made sense for me?The Deep River I knew as a teenager in the early sixties, was a small, very beautiful town with a self conscious, self contained, protected and vey enjoyable culture and some clear boundaries of various kinds. You lived in a house that was appropriate for your status at AECL.(I think the manse was bought with the idea that the minister was the equivalent of a department manager.)
This town culture also carried a very clear academic agenda for its kids.This created for gifted young people growing up here many advantages but also a certain elitism. Though each of the high school classes, for example, was identified with a letter of the name of the homeroom teacher –I was in Grade 9H for “Harrison”everyone knew they were streamed on the basis of IQ.I recall that when we received our Grade 10 diplomas, we were told not to get too excited about it because with that all we could do was become a plumber.(In retrospect I wonder whether those who were less able felt they were invisible.) I remember my Dad coming home one evening after a pastoral visit and telling me that the man he was visiting had a message for me.He said, “tell Sue that the only degree that means anything or gets you anywhere is a PhD.”For me, the “good way” was obvious:become educated –(and remember this was the sixties) do well so I could speak intelligently to my husband when he came home from work–to keep him from wandering.
But I experienced something different within this church.This church stood in the centre of this town as a sign of another way.You included people from a cross section of the Deep River population –regardless of their status or accomplishments. You took one another seriously regardless of their level of education.Anyone could take a leadership role if they wished.I saw this in the mix of kids that participated in the activities here.It was different from the high school.
You were (and I think stillarefrom what I read about you before coming here) offering an alternative order that is not only pastoral, but also counter cultural, subversive and justice making. You looked out beyond the town’s preoccupation with its own life to needs in the rest of the world.For example thanks to the generosity of this church I (and other teens) spent a summer in Labrador with the Grenfell Medical Mission living with and taking care of some native children. I returned from that most wonderful experience, with new life in me.I also returned with some insight about the difficulties that arise when one culture or social group tries to help another.(A way to thwart people’s spiritual drive is to provide answers to questions they are not asking.)
But, at the tender age of nineteen, I still didn’t get it.I continued on a course scripted not so much by my family identity –perhaps more in reaction to it–as by the powerful social messages weighing in on me.I married quickly and well–Peter was easily one of the brightest and most eligible bachelors around–a Doctor’s son, well educated, well established, interested in things spiritual and lucky for me as I discovered later, a feminist–though he never would have called himself that.I became well educated, we bought a big house in the suburbs and had five children.At the same time I began to work in a part time way towards a full fledgedcareer in the world of academics.Nothing wrong with these things, of course, but this churchhadchallenged and prepared me for something more.
About 1985, a research project took me into a large public housing neighbourhood in West Ottawa where a young chaplain was ministering to the poor there and something happened–something akin to the words Jesus spoke to the son of the widow from Naim–“young woman, wake up!”I finished off the research project, shelved it and stayed to work with the chaplain.After about a year and a half, he left and without any of the kinds of degrees and training I should have had, I was invited to be the female chaplain of a male/female team there.And what did I do?I spent twenty years developing inclusive and transformative neighbourhood based Christian community –one which embraced socio economic differences, denominational differences, racial and religious differences-something counter cultural, subversive, justice making.It was (and is) not about the rich helping out the poor;it is about rich and poor together, sharing their journey towards new life–new life for the people who live this mission, new life for the public housing neighbourhoods where it takes placeandnew life for the primarily middle class churches which support the work.And I brought to this work the understanding that developed in me here –in reaching out to those whose spiritual drive has been thwarted, it is more important to seek God faithfullyalong sidethem with the confidence that all shall be well, than it is to bring “good news” rubber stamped, church approved answers.Here lies the joy of a life of faith because then you spend time really noticing how often angels touch you and others gently on the shoulder and offer bread baked on hot stones and jars of water.
Is it odd to look at our experiences through this lens?I suspect that most of us go through these periods of gestation at various times in our lives. Elijah’s forty day journey to Mount Horeb occurred very late in his career.In this past year, my life has been turned totally upside down and, yes, my drive for spiritual meaning, feels a bit thwarted. As O’Murchu says, this is a dangerous place to be in–a place of unintegrated,spiritual overload. Do I know for sure that this is a gestational time for me?
No.Neither, I think, did the people of God recognize what this was about for Moses or Elijah or Jesus or the disciples until sometime later –when the experiences had born fruit.
In your 2006 annual report, Ruth writes that you are a community much like the early church, showing your neighbours and friends the joy and blessing of belonging to the Christian community –growing in Spirit and in Love.She also says she can hear you protesting in modest embarrassment.Well as you did forty years ago, you are still running against the stream and it is likely you won’t be held up as some CEO’s idea of success.The value and import of this kind of subversive stance is not something that is easily measurable.Most people delete the pop ups in favour of the main program.My experience in my work in the west end of Ottawa, though, taught me that you will never attract a huge following–but you willbecome avery effective lever for new life, for justice, for peace in ways you probably won’t even know about unless people like me get a chance to tell you.
My story is unique but so are each of yours.Today is your anniversary, a good time to tell such stories and so I have shared these thoughts with you because I celebrate who you are–who you were for me during that time and who you have become.I encourage you to think about your own forty week experiences.Tell these stories.They are a scripture –sacred stories, God stories that will keep you listening, trusting, paying attention to the Spirit working with and through you. Have you known dark, hidden, times;times when your spiritual life seems thwarted;times of exile, wandering, struggle, fear?Was there manna there?In retrospect –many years later perhaps, can you see the fruit? You know, our whole lives are themselves gestation for something more, something new, some new fruit we know nothing of.Yet, in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of eternal life, the life of the kingdom as something available now for those who can see it, something we are born intonow.
It seems fitting conclude, then, with the prayer at the end of Psalm 139:
Search us, O God and know our hearts. Test us and know our thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in us And lead us in the way everlasting.Amen