I’ll never forget my first Yellowhead Presbytery meeting as the ministry rep from Athabasca. Presbytery is where United church folks gather from churches in the neighborhood to socialize and work together for the Kingdom of God. Yellowhead Presbytery gathers people from over 40 churches from Lamont and Fort McMurray to Jasper and Hinton. That’s over 80!
I was nervous about meeting that many new people, and wondering if I would recognize anyone. Of course I did, especially one dear lovely lady who was as excited to see me as I was to see her. I knew her from our days at the University of Alberta where we sang together in the choir, and she must have been around 18 when we first met.
I kept running into her at Naramata Center where for one week a year in the summer, she loved and inspired my children, helping them to grow in their faith and self-confidence. I was thrilled and not surprised to hear that she had gone into ministry, and very excited that she got posted back to Alberta from Saskatchewan. So seeing her in Surprise Lake Camp was wonderful.
As we entered the main room where the meeting was going to be held, I wanted to sit up front near the big fireplace where a cozy fire was warming the building on a blustery October day. It was very surprising to hear her ask if we could sit at the back near the door where all the cold air was coming from.
The friend I was sitting with was Reverend Leigh Sinclair, and some of you may remember her from my covenanting service which she preached in this very spot.
At the time she was the President of Alberta North West Conference (which is over 200 congregations from Cypress Hills to Whitehorse), and she was a bundle of enthusiastic energy, brave, smart and deeply Christian. She also had been evacuated from Slave Lake.
The mere smell of campfire smoke was enough to trigger her memories of fearful evacuation and even though it had been six months since the fire, Leigh had not gone camping once over the summer. She was too busy providing pastoral care, working with Conference staff to provide emotional and spiritual support for the townspeople and dealing with her own needs. One thing she hadn’t needed to worry about was her church, which was left standing and became a center for much of the healing ministry she undertook. Another thing she hadn’t needed to worry about was her salary. Across the conference, people had donated funds which supported her for a short time and the surplus funded art therapy professionals to offer wrkshops for both children and adults. So Presbytery became the first time she encountered that smell, and the sight of flames.
She could have run away from the meeting. She could have gotten angry at the insensitivity of the organizers to put a fire in the meeting space. She could have pretended that she wasn’t afraid and spent all her energy trying to repress anxieties, and not concentrate on the business at hand.
Instead, she confided in a few folks that she trusted, and sat in that room at a safe distance while taking deep breaths and praying to find calmness and healing. She would not allow herself to be enslaved to her fears, but reminded herself that she was a child of God.
Fast forward 5 years. Today Leigh is in Quebec, and has been communicating almost daily with myself and Reverend Donalee from Fort McMurray. She has become a pillar of strength and a supplier of calm support for us both.
She has been praying for all the folks in Fort McMurray, but also wanted to send her love to you again. She still remembers the wonderful ways that Athabasca supported her and is grateful for that time of love and care. As she told us when she preached here 4 years ago, Athabasca folks were a beacon of hope for many. It is not easy to do. We can get compassion fatigue and volunteer burn out. We can find ourselves replaying old griefs from our pasts or having emotional outbursts. We can feel resentful at all the publicity or free stuff or the perceived profit-mongering of businesses in town. We can feel guilty that we have not done more. We can become slaves to the ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ fears of unrealistic expectations. We surround ourselves with stuff or busy activities.
Or we can remind ourselves that life is a marathon. That as Christians we are called to be real, and that we have an ally to support us through the good times and the bad. We know that suffering cannot always be avoided. Not to say that we should stay in abusive relationships or stick to addictions in order to suffer, but to recognize that they may be unhealthy coping mechanisms and the pain of sobriety or loneliness may be the suffering that we deeply fear. Does that kind of suffering lead to a better world for all? Of course not.
In the long run, in the marathon of life, if we truly call ourselves Christian, we need to face suffering as Paul or Mary and Martha or Peter, or Mary and Joseph, or even Jesus. Jesus faced his own fears of losing his life – “take this cup from me”, he prayed on his last night. He also told his people of the comforting Spirit of truth. Not the spirit of lies or pretending or fear, but the Spirit of Truth which has always and will continue always to set us free from the slavery of fear. May we all know that spirit of truth and freedom. Amen.