Wisdom, Encouragement and Joy.
Rev. Jim Sinclair, former General Secretary of the United Church of Canada, used those words when we spoke of Stew a week or so before his death. Stew, who did his best to keep up with the latest technology, would have been tickled to know that Jim contacted me after he creeped my Facebook page when I posted a picture of Stew and Jim had been unable to connect with him.
Almost five years ago, Stew asked me if I would be open to sharing some professional reflections at his funeral. Of course, I said yes! Reminding him that I didn’t know him until he had retired from congregational ministry. So he shared some stories via email… I told him that he had to keep the entire epistle to two pages… If you were ever the recipient of an email from Stew, you know he had a vast vocabulary and wasn’t afraid to us it!
He was settled in Sheffield, a 4 point charge. He spoke of studying and reading the Bible before breakfast… more studying after breakfast, visiting in the afternoon, writing and meetings in the evenings. Laying the groundwork for more than 60 years of ministry. He got interested in broadcasting, attended a couple of conferences… had his eyes opened to a different way of communicating. Ministries in Sydney, where he was introduced to journalism and began reporting on church things to newspapers. Became interested in workers’ rights and was invited into union meetings. Spent 4 years in Woodside-Imperoyal… A few more years on the Gaspe Coast. They moved to Montreal where he was the Superintendent of Home Missions,
Then out of congregational ministry into another sort of ministry, this time with the CAMR, or the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded in Moncton. And then back into congregational ministry in Cowansville, where he and his wife Evelyn stayed until they retired to Nova Scotia in 1997. It was during his time in Cowansville that he oversaw the summer student program and introduced supervision in terms of encouragement and learning.
That work history only tells the details of his ministry… They don’t say much about the essence of his ministry. Throughout his entire ministry he was concerned about people… people who gather faithfully Sunday mornings and people on the margins of society. Encouraging us to do our best and that we could BE our best.
I got to know him when he and Ev retired to Nova Scotia and started attending this church where I was a member and he joined the Prison Ministry Team which I was also a member of. Our paths crossed only occasionally those first few months, but when the Atlantic School of Theology suggested that I read some theology books before beginning studies the following year, I turned to Stew and asked him to recommend a few. He showed up at church a couple of weeks later with two bags of books, ranging in subject from Models of God, by Sally McFague to The Shape of Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix and just about everything in between. That bagful of books was the start of a mentoring relationship between us.
We began to get together occasionally for coffee and discussions about what I was reading, and when I started preaching at a local pastoral charge, Stew was always ready to give me some background information on the lectionary readings. When I entered the Atlantic School of Theology the following year, I turned to Stew for guidance in writing papers. My business background had given me experience in writing sales and marketing proposals, but not an academic paper. He was a demanding taskmaster, giving me feedback on content and presentation, not to mention grammar and punctuation. I think he commented on every paper I wrote in my first couple of years. In my final year he remarked at one point, “You realize you aren’t sending me your papers anymore?” I hadn’t realized until he pointed it out… and I was REALLY glad that my marks hadn’t dropped in that year!
He encouraged me to think critically about what I read until it became a habit, to reflect deeply on my experiences of ministry; to believe in myself and to continually strive for excellence. But I was not the only one who benefited from his wisdom and teaching. Numerous interns and students here at Cole Harbour Woodside, along with a number of students at AST, have received the gift of his wise counsel and attention.
Finding himself with too much energy upon retirement, he soon found himself a position as chaplain at the Infirmary… and he would often invite a student or two to accompany him. In fact, I credit the two days I spent with him at the hospital at getting over my fear of illness.
And while he shared his wisdom and vast knowledge with so many of us, some of his teachings were very practical as well. I am not sure how many of us he taught to wash our hands properly! Wash hands with soap and water, grab paper towel, turn off taps with paper towel and open door with paper towel! One of my classmates says she thinks of him every time she washes her hands at the hospital!
He shepherded so many of us is so many ways. And like a good shepherd, he knew when to prod and guide and he knew when we were in need of rest and refreshment. Like the good shepherd in the 23rd psalm… who will lead us THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death. The shepherds promise is that we will not stay in the valley.
Wisdom, encouragement and joy.
As I spoke and communicated with a number of ministers who had been mentored in some way by Stew, those words resonated with them as well. And I think one of Stew’s unique gifts was that each one of us felt special to him. And I think each one of us was! I used to think that his greatest gift to me was his persistent questioning. But now I believe that it was the lack of personal agenda that he had with each of us. He simply wanted each one of us to be the best we could be… as long as we would preach without notes! Was there any one of the students or interns or candidates that didn’t receive feedback on preaching from him?
Rev. Susan MacAlpine-Gillis, his minister for many years, wrote this, “He was an awesome support in ministry and a gift to the church. I, like many, was blessed by his “supervision” with long and thoughtful emails following worship. He was a fabulous minister emeritus. He knew how to support without ever over stepping boundaries. He was a faithful and wonderful man.”
And of course, the vast network of people around the world who were recipients of his weekly introductions to the scripture readings… there is more than one of us who has those saved in a folder.
As presbytery chaplain, Stew was minister to the ministers… checking in with us and praying for us.
Not long before Stew died, I listened to an interview with the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom. 20 years later when he was asked what he thought people needed to hear when they were dying, he said, “You are loved and you matter.” Then went on to say that this is what people need to hear when they are alive. Stew was loved… and he mattered… loved by his family… loved by the friends and colleagues who have gathered this afternoon and those who are not able to be here. Loved by God.
Two weeks ago, God welcomed Stew home. The passage from John tells that Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. The home of God, whom he knew as Father. A place where he would be also…A place with God…And we will be welcome. Jesus also told the disciples that they would know the way to the place of which he spoke. And when they questioned that, he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And he was. Think about the way that Jesus lived on earth. He preached repentance and good news… He healed the sick… He welcomed all… And he taught us that God was love.
That is that welcome that Stew received. He is at home with all who went before him and is preparing a place for us as well. And all of us will be reunited with him in the deep mystery of faith. So draw strength and comfort from Jesus who experienced life in all of its joy and sorrow. Draw strength and comfort from one another and from the friends who have gathered here today. Draw strength from a faith that promises everlasting life. A faith that promises a home with our God. To this home, we entrust Stew, knowing that he has been welcomed into loving arms. In the same way, we entrust ourselves in God’s care on earth. Thanks be to God for these promises. Thanks be to God for Stew’s life.
And Hallelujah anyhow! Amen.