UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Photo by Pawel Dwulit

Interview issue: John Suk

Christian Reformer turned United Church minister

By Anne Bokma

Rev. John Suk, 58, was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and editor of its denominational magazine. He resigned from both in 2012 to become a United Church minister in Toronto. His book, Not Sure, chronicles the crisis of faith that led to his departure from the CRC. He recently talked to Anne Bokma.

 Growing up, we went to [a Christian Reformed] church twice on Sundays. We arrived early to watch everyone else arrive. After church, all the uncles, aunts and cousins got together at Opa and Oma’s to smoke cigarettes and cigars, have soup and buns and talk about church and politics and people. Afterwards, during the evening service, I’d cuddle up against my mother’s shoulder and fall asleep.

I now remember my childhood days with an aching sadness, because what I freely received then I cannot now buy for all the money in the world. Faith is neither whole nor easy anymore.

Change is complicated. It’s not like you wake up one morning and just change your mind. All sorts of little issues nag at you and add up. Until I took a yearlong RV trip with my wife, Irene, I could set my doubts aside. I was busy with responsibilities. But there came a point during that time when I realized I was going to go on a personal journey that might involve great change.

I remember the exact moment I knew I had to get out. I was teaching catechism to a young couple wanting to get married. I found myself going through it with them and feeling terrible because I realized I had no conviction for this.

The United Church has been a sanctuary and a safe place where theology and spirituality are a playground rather than a battlefield, a place where I am invited to wonder about the Divine with my audience, as opposed to seeing them as a jar that needs to be filled.

I have a marital partner whom I don’t think I’ve ever taken for granted. But what has changed is that I’ve come to realize how deeply implicated she is in most of the positive changes in my life and ministry. My wife has been a rock in the raging river of shifting time.

People always struggle with religious issues and guilt, and ministers should listen carefully and assure people of the love of God. But they aren’t therapists. I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that many ministers give very poor advice and have little insight when it comes to therapeutic issues.

There’s a huge trend in contemporary Christianity toward revved-up worship that’s fun and happy with singing and dancing. There has to be a place for that, but on any given Sunday so many people sitting before you are the walking wounded, and you need to give them permission to be sad.

We’ve never owned a TV. When our kids were young, we read with them, together and out loud, for an hour every evening. One of our favourite books was Tom Neale’s All in the Same Boat: Living Aboard and Cruising, about a Canadian family who built their own boat and sailed it around the world. I’ve spent many hours reading, daydreaming and putting numbers on the back of a napkin imagining how Irene and I could spend five or 10 years sailing as an early retirement option.

I’ve read Les Misérables once a year for over 20 years. It was my one literary compulsion. My unabridged version is held together by duct tape, all 1,400 pages of it. The bishop who gives Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks after he has stolen them demonstrates an incredible act of forgiveness and epitomizes for me what being a minister is all about.

I think it’s ridiculous to talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. I have personal relationships with people I can share a glass of wine with or slap on the back or arm wrestle.

When it comes to prayer, I don’t ask for things. It’s more like having a secret diary — the idea that there is a divine presence that embraces my hopes, dreams and concerns.

All religions of the world are hopeful that this life is not all there is, and so am I. I don’t believe in heaven as it is described mythically in scripture. I hope for some kind of spiritual consciousness after I die that is loving. I’m not afraid of death; it feels like whatever happens next will be good. Even if it’s only a forever sleep, it will be a good rest.



Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Interviews

Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image

Editorials

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Faith

May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi

Faith

May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together

Faith

May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle

Interviews

May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Ethics

May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations

Interviews

May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image