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My View

Are we relevant?

When attitudes toward religion range from indifference  to apprehension, are we surprised that so many ministers lose sleep wondering whether we offer anything of any significance to anyone anymore? I often lie awake worrying, and yet I can’t afford to lose sleep; it takes energy to write sermons that simultaneously explain doctrine for beginners, boost faith in the faithful and entertain the 25 percent who are likely atheist. The progressive among us insist there’s a better way, but if we aren’t ready or willing to divorce tradition, can we still see ourselves as relevant?

When I start to fret over this question, I think back to the summer I was hired as a chaplain at an army cadet camp in the Rocky Mountains. It was embarrassing. No one seemed remotely interested in what I was paid to do. Only two or three cadets (out of 200) ever attended the weekly worship I was asked to hold. The one time someone actually sought me out for “counselling” was on a dare. As far as I could tell, the camp hired a Protestant and a Roman Catholic chaplain because they always had, and not because most cadets were practising Christians. I spent the summer trying to figure out exactly what I was good for, as a leader in faith.

The Roman Catholic chaplain was a middle-aged man named Charlie Durette. He taught religion at a Catholic high school in Toronto and had spent the past 30 summers at the camp. Charlie was thin and hyperactive and as erratic and impulsive as some of the teenagers. He would hijack the camp’s sound system and blast Top 40 pop at our 5:30 a.m. workouts, arms and legs flailing in an improvised aerobics routine. He told dirty jokes and swore in both official languages.

Charlie wasn’t with me the week I accompanied a platoon of cadets on the mountain biking challenge and got caught in a freak summer blizzard. We rode on slippery trails, our bodies mud-splattered and wet with clumpy snow. When I got so cold I couldn’t unfurl my fingers from the bike handles, I forgot myself and roared the worst string of cuss words an ear could hear. And of course, one of the cadets heard me. He looked shattered, and I couldn’t figure out why. I thought anything I did was irrelevant to him.

I know now that my swearing admitted a certain kind of defeat. What it actually said was that I was no match for life’s challenges. When Charlie swore, it was to tell life’s challenges they were no match for him. He knew that the job of a religious leader is to excel at the art of living, and that what most people want is simply the encouragement to be better and to discover a capacity for real joy. It was precisely because he was a faithful leader that Charlie would surprise the cadets with yoga at sunrise instead of the usual workout.

The practice of religion — any religion — is one means of transforming life from banal to beautiful. This wasn’t why the cadet camp hired us as summer chaplains, and yet this is what we could offer, in freak blizzards and at 5:30 in the morning. Christian leaders encourage everyone they come into contact with to blossom and flower in the fruits of the Spirit. Could the camp go on without Charlie Chaplain? Of course. It’s the intangible offerings the kids would miss.

Rev. Kristin Philipson is the minister of Christian education at Rosedale United in Toronto.

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