Coffee hour and spiritual growth

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“Why doesn’t anyone at coffee hour talk about what was said in the sermon?” I remember wondering when I was about 13. Something about Jesus held my focus, yet going to church with my family was more of a source of frustration than connection. 

As the second eldest in a family of seven children, I grew up in Edmonton, where my father taught agricultural engineering at the University of Alberta and my mom busily worked to coordinate our somewhat outrageous family life. I was active in many groups and activities yet struggled with an overanxious introspection and often stuttered.   

As I look back almost 60 years to my teenage puzzlement, I see patterns of disconnection that have continuously provoked spiritual growth, alternating frustration and wonderment about what it means to belong to “the body of Christ.”

Like most kids, I eventually wandered from church, yet the fascination with Jesus persisted in my inner life. When I should have been in grade 12 in Alberta, I was a day student at a Benedictine monastery boys’ school in Trinidad, where our family spent a year while my dad filled in at a university there. After beginning at the University of Alberta, I studied at Bishop’s University and Université Laval.

Carol and I met in Quebec and were married (very young!) the following year. She was from Michigan, and we spent years working back and forth across the country, growing together in ways that startled us both as we felt led together in a pattern of spiritual development. We worked as houseparents in a halfway house for men with developmental disabilities in Michigan, as live-in staff with runaway teenagers in Alberta, and in a multi-ethnic community development program at the High School of Montreal.   

A significant turning point came with a spontaneous invitation from another young married couple, to join them in a small “prayer group.” (“What do you do in a prayer group?” we asked.) We startled ourselves by agreeing to join and then wondered what we were risking. However, the experience lit flashbulbs in me, as though we were living stories lifted from the book of Acts. The prayer group focused on deepening personal relationships centred around Jesus. We met in a small group where we not only prayed together,but shared our hearts and our faith over food, mutual support, laughter and often tears. “This is what church is supposed to be like!” I remember thinking. We had attended various churches but found them more like watching a production, compared to our small group discovery. Through a series of what seemed like minor miracles to us, I stumbled into a process of applying for a “trial year in theology,” which led to a decision to attend the Vancouver School of Theology for a year.

From my retrospective vantage point, I now see threads of purpose interwoven through the busy fabric of all those years, yet at any given moment I might have felt as much fog and struggle as fulfillment or satisfaction. I completed theological studies, serving one year as Anglican deacon, and discovered a wonderful “lift-off” as the liturgy moved from the pages of the prayer book to immediately accessible memory.

After graduating, I was ordained in my “background” United Church, and we went off to a French-English congregation in Val d’Or, in the far north of Quebec. I then became a university chaplain working for the Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches in Edmonton before coming to a large church in Victoria. Now that we had four children, our life became more demanding through congregational crises and family issues. Our spiritual experience reflected this, grew deeper, more nuanced, in many ways much more challenging rather than fulfilling.   

I found myself drawn to define myself as “post-denominational” rather than identify with “left” or “right” theologically. I was “a centrist Christian” — which meant “centred on following Jesus” and accepting the resultant boundary crossing while feeling linked with people from many Christian and other backgrounds. After moving to Vancouver, I worked for many years as spiritual care leader at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, helping families deal with the progressive illness and loss of a child. In the crucible of living with dying, I found strange fulfilment, the breakdown which leads, through paradox, to breakthrough, a resonance with resurrected life in death.

Now in the early phases of “the third third of life,” we found a lot we could afford in Lake Cowichan to fulfill my dream of building our own house. Living in a basement suite for 18 months during the work, we explored local churches in our small town and became regular participants in the Anglican congregation here. When the retired priest had to withdraw because of family illness, I was asked whether I might help offer some Sunday worship leadership since I lived in town, was ordained and was still breathing, and they had been without a resident priest for many years. At their initiative, I eventually met Bishop Logan McMenamie, who affirmed his willingness to appoint me on a very part-time basis.    

As I look ahead, I see a continuing challenge for all of our churches beyond mere survival. While facing the decades-long pattern of decline we know too well, I am motivated by the “house church” experience we had so long ago. Following Jesus means we who follow will necessarily be thrown together with people of great diversity who are all drawn by Jesus, not by us! While denominational distinctions remain, many people care less about the brand name on the door than about connection, worship life that leads to spiritual growth and purposeful engagement that fits with their understanding of the larger narrative of God’s work in history.

Author

  • Eric Stephanson is priest in charge at St. Christopher and St. Aidan, Lake Cowichan.