My ordination 10 years ago this weekend during the closing worship service of the annual meeting of the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada was an important moment for me. My mother was there. My younger brother and sister, Andrew and Catherine, came to the front of the church to lay their hands on my head along with the president of the Toronto Conference as she read the words of ordination. She then placed a red stole I had inherited from my late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, over my shoulders; and along with the other ordinands, I served communion to some of the hundreds of people gathered at St. Paul’s United Church in Orillia on that hot Sunday morning.
My ordination as a minister in the United Church of Canada was the end point of four years of training and the start of a new career.
Ten years earlier in 2001, I had stumbled back into the United Church at Kingston Road United in east-end Toronto, which was where Andrew and my sister-in-law Ruth worshipped. I had declared a call to ministry in a eulogy for my father in July 2007. I had spent three years as a full-time student at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto to earn a Master of Divinity degree and ten months as a student intern and supply minister at Knox United in Didsbury Alberta. I had undergone a complex process of discernment and evaluation by student committees and interview boards to become first an Inquirer, then a Candidate, and finally an Ordinand for ministry. I had agreed to be settled by the church in a remote and depopulated part of southern Saskatchewan.
I had made it.
But as much as I appreciated the ordination service, it had less impact on me than a simpler gesture from a church leader three years earlier.
In July 2008 at the end of a five-day learning circle with other Divinity students and First Nations elders at the United Church’s Five Oaks retreat centre near Brantford Ontario, the former Moderator of the United Church, the Very Rev. Stan McKay, came up behind me while we waited for breakfast and slipped a stone into my coat pocket. I was so startled I merely uttered a brief “Whoa!” as he walked off, although I got a chance to thank him before we went our separate ways later that day.
This is the stone that he gave me that day, and it has a lot of meaning to me because of the role it had played at an annual sharing circle of men in the United Church.
In the years 1992 to 1994 when Stan McKay was the Moderator of the United Church, he spent a lot of time on the road leading worship services, giving talks, and participating in events. One of these events was a dedication service for this building on May 2, 1993. There is a plaque on the wall beside the main entrance to Mill Woods United that commemorates that service and Stan’s role in it.
Earlier that year, Stan had helped lead the first of what became an annual gathering of men at Five Oaks. This “Male Spirituality Circle” is a chance for men to spend three days and nights in community and to share their fears, hopes, and dreams. I didn’t learn about this gathering until 2002 and didn’t attend one until February 2003. But although Stan McKay only led the first one, some of the practices he brought to that inaugural event have marked it ever since, such as lighting a fire at sunrise each morning at which prayers to the Four Directions and smudging are offered and of sitting in circle to share and listen to others with the use of a talking device. Starting in 1993, that device was this stone, which in Indigenous tradition, is called a Grandfather stone. It was one that Stan had brought with him to Five Oaks from his home in Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba.
At the end of each year’s gathering, the stone was claimed by one of the men for safekeeping with a pledge to return with it the next February. We invested a lot of emotion in the stone. Participants often said they felt the weight of the joy or pain shared by the others in the circle in it. Sometimes, we talked about this stone as though it were alive.
One year, a keeper of the stone forgot to bring it, which led to a lot of upset and a hasty car ride home to retrieve it.
On the weekend before the 2008 learning circle began — which for me and ten other of the participants was part of a summer credit course called “Engaging Aboriginal Theologies” — I visited two key mentors – Rev. Rivkah Unland, who had been the minister at Kingston Road United when I joined it in 2001 and her husband Rev. Peter Kingsbury, who along with Stan McKay had helped to organize the first men’s spirituality gathering in 1993, and who is the only person to have participated in all of them from 1993 through 2020.
Rivkah and Peter had recently moved into a beautiful farmhouse on an acreage not far from Five Oaks. That weekend, I enjoyed talking with them about the joys and struggles of my first year of classes at Emmanuel College; and in our conversations, Peter raised the issue of the Grandfather stone. At the end of the previous gathering in February 2008, no one had volunteered to take the stone home. Noticing this, Peter had scooped it up, and we talked about whether it had become an idol.
At the end of the weekend Peter dropped me off at Five Oaks and used the occasion to visit with his old friend Stan McKay. At breakfast the next morning, I sat with Stan and said how much I valued the Male Spiritualty Circle he and Peter had started 15 years earlier. I also mentioned the connection I felt to Fisher River because of the Grandfather stone, to which Stan replied that Peter had brought the stone with him the previous day and given it back to Stan. This was Peter’s attempt to break the idolatrous connection between this stone and those of us who loved the circle. I laughed in delight at this news, which I thought was a smart solution by Peter to a small dilemma.
I loved the next five days we spent at Five Oaks with native elders from the nearby Six Nations Reserve. Stan McKay, who is not only the first Indigenous Moderator of the United Church of Canada, but also a survivor of an Indian residential school, led us in Bible Study and theological reflection.
This was both an opportunity to learn about Aboriginal Spirituality and a time of healing. All of us, Native and non-Native, shared our hurts and our dreams as we confronted the blessings of our tradition and the deep wounds of colonialism in which our tradition is so deeply embedded.
Much of what I loved about that week was due to Stan’s leadership. Thirteen years ago, he was already retired, although he had continued to serve the church in many ways. His presence radiated both authority and humility. He listened intently and shared his personal story and his spiritual knowledge. Under his leadership, passages of Scripture came to life in new ways.
So, I was deeply moved when Stan slipped this stone into my pocket. When I arrived home in Toronto, I encountered a chain of emails in which men from the February men’s circle expressed their upset after Peter informed us he had returned the original Grandfather to Stan McKay. I didn’t let on that I now had it. And when I returned to Five Oaks the next February for the men’s gathering, Peter came with a bucket filled with stones that could play the role of a talking device, and the kerfuffle subsided.
After breakfast on the day that Stan gave me the stone, I walked the labyrinth at Five Oaks wondering what to do with it; and at the centre of the labyrinth, the obvious answer sprang into my heart. I would use it in ministry.
But I have used it less than I had imagined. I used it in at one sharing circle in Didsbury when I was a student minister there; during a few evenings of sharing in Saskatchewan; and a few times in my first year here at Mill Woods United. But mostly, it has stayed on a shelf in my office.
It turns out that starting a sharing circle is far from easy, which makes me even more impressed by the work of Peter Kingsbury in sustaining the men’s circle at Five Oaks for nearly 30 years. I hope the circle resumes next February after being interrupted this past winter by the pandemic.
When Stan gave me the stone, it felt like a validation of my journey towards ministry, a feeling that was confirmed at my ordination; and for me, the thread that connects the men’s circle, the stone, and ordination is grief.
All the men’s circles I have experienced at Five Oaks have been deep and engaging times; and one of the most precious aspects of them for me is listening to other men express their grief and having an opportunity to share some of mine.
Grief for me is the most crucial emotion, although it is also the most elusive, probably because expressing it is so painful. But in those rare moments when I have been able to feel some of my grief, I have always emerged with a greater measure of self-acceptance, a greater ability to be present to the moment, and with greater joy at the gifts available to us in any moment despite losses or heartbreak.
Here is how I put the issue ten years ago on the day before my ordination. On the Saturday afternoon before the Sunday service, all the ordinands were asked to speak for 90 seconds to the meeting. Our task was to choose a favourite hymn that might give the delegates a glimpse of our call to ministry; and I chose “O Sacred Head.”
After the Conference delegates sang it, I made the following remarks: “I chose the Good Friday hymn, ‘O Sacred Head’”, I said, “because just as any Sunday service can be a celebration of Easter, so any moment can be one in which we remember the suffering on the Way of the Cross; and for me, today is a special kind of Holy Saturday — a time of waiting between the humiliations of life’s ups and downs and tomorrow’s ritual of renewal.
Ordination like confirmation refers to our baptism; and one of the key things that strikes me about the four official United Church statements of faith is that none of them connect baptism to death.
Not so with St. Paul. In Romans he writes, ‘all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life’ (Romans 6:3-4)
My call to ministry is on this difficult baptismal path of death where our hope is for rebirth into a life beyond ego.
When I was confirmed at age 14, I became a confirmed atheist. But I went through with the service anyway since the person presiding was my father, the late Rev. James Clare Kellogg. During my teenage years as my siblings and I drifted away from church, my father sometimes tried to reach us through choral music, which we loved. So, he took us to Toronto to hear a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and he led a Lenten discussion group that centered around the choruses from that work, especially ‘O Sacred Head.’
My father’s efforts did not bear fruit at that time, but my memories of them remain. And so tomorrow as I put on my father’s alb, receive the laying on of hands from my younger brother and sister, and am ordained with one of my father’s stoles, I will remember the promise of rebirth that is present in the glorious music of Bach and in the sacrament of baptism. I will also remember that it is a promise that only glimmers at us dimly through a veil of suffering and death.”
May it be so. Amen.