the penultimate WORD

Series 2006 - June
He who wills the end, wills the means...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican






June 2006: "He who wills the end, wills the means..."

Having poured a mug of coffee, I slipped into my regular booth. My waitress approached, note pad and pencil in hand. As she arranged the place-mat and knife and fork we exchanged the normal pleasantries.

“I didn’t know you were a Minister,” she added pleasantly, taking notice of my clerical collar. I had not returned home to change. I had been to a funeral of a friend and my costume did not conceal my vocation.

“I’m a retired Anglican priest,” I replied.

“O, you never retire from that,” she said, placing pencil to pad, and added with a smile, “Do you want your usual?”

“Eggs over-easy and dark whole wheat toast,” I replied. I don’t adjust to change easily. Breakfast all-day is reliable. I drank some coffee as I scanned the latest Coffee News.

The order filled, the waitress placed the eggs framed by dark toast in front of me. I set the mug aside and thanked her. “O, I knew you were a Christian,” she commented. “I just didn’t realize that you were a Minister.”

Later this month, on the Nativity of St John Baptist I will observe my 34th anniversary as a Priest in the Church of God. I share the anniversary with Fr. Ron Rippen. We had both left the Cathedral Choir to go on to study for Holy Orders. Ron went to Huron College after serving with the R.C.M.P. and I went to King’s after graduating from High School. Our paths crossed again in the Cathedral – at the chancel steps – on June 24th in 1972 when Harold Nutter ordained first Ron, then me to the Order of Priest. It was a Saturday.

The sacrament of ministry begins at the font. Most are nestled in the crozier embrace of an arm. Some come to the waters not borne by parents but drawn by a voice that calls us by name. A few of us are called to the ministry of priests. Fewer still are called to the ministry of bishops.

My waitress at the local Diner helped refresh my vocation with her comment. I had mistaken my monthly pension cheque as certification of retirement. I had misconstrued the processing of forms to be in some way a diminishment of the journey I had taken for so long, and with so many. A business paradigm had set me aside and while at some level I knew I was yet a priest, it was a waitress who reminded me of the depth and veracity of that vocational truth.

Ministry in recent years has changed immensely. It isn’t a whole lot like the ministry that occupied me over the past few decades in this diocese. Some of the change is beyond my comprehension. Ministry is less full-time than it once was in many places. Ministry has become more a matter of doing than being, even if the doing of ministry is piecemeal and ad hoc. With no part-time sheep on the mountain side, shepherds are engaged as hirelings on a part-time basis. But I’ve said, I don’t adjust to change easily.

José Saramago reaches beyond Kafka in his provocative novel, Seeing. He observes that “He who wills the end, wills the means.” Having found the book only recently in one of the local book stores, I was disturbed when I came across this brief but penetrating aphorism. The words came as thunder every bit as much as did the chiding remark of my congenial waitress.

The ambiguity I found challenging.

I see life through a lens of a world-view shaped by being a priest. That confession made, I am nonetheless the product of the pragmatic cynicism of my day. I recall from early schooling that critical thinking assessed whether the “end justified the means”, or the “means justified the end”. It was applied in every area and Literature and History examined us regularly. If we couldn’t decide, and we needed and answer, sometimes we guessed. But the choice was always the same. We could choose one or the other and our pragmatism was fashioned on a lathe of cynicism.

Saramago provided me with a third way, a new way. He provides a way that is pragmatic without the accompanying cynicism. He allows for volition and demands a response. He allows for choice and insists on responsibility. He allows for ambiguity and calls for recognition.

It seems clear to me that God has willed from the beginning the healing and reclamation of a broken world. He has willed the means of that redemption in the Baptism reality we have entered into – the death and resurrection of Jesus. The truth of that reality drew me to a ministry, first as one who is baptized and only later as one who is a priest.

He continues to will that fullness of ministry for his Church and for the very reason that brokenness continues to afflict his creation that so desperately cries out for healing – continuously and ceaselessly.

Recognizing the truth of what we are called to be as a People called by God, it is incumbent on us to respond with the engaging will of enabling the means of ministering to those whose cries are heard every bit as much as were the cries of the Israelites in their slavery.

But what can I say; I don’t adjust to change easily.

Copyright © 2006 James T. Irvine


Series 2006

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton