A bit of a reflection on our time with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Last month, we hosted the writer and new monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for a series of events in and around our church.  This post gives a bit of background as to where our connection to Jonathan came from, and what it might mean for us over the coming months.  To get a little more context, you can take a look at an outline of the events themselves posted on this site, or you can head to Jonathan’s very fine website, and maybe take a listen to one of the lectures posted in his media section.

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itting at the gate in the Minneapolis airport, waiting to catch my flight on the commuter plane up to St Cloud, I began to play a little internal game.  Who in this little gathering of twenty passengers was headed to the Collegeville Institute, to take part in the 2008 “Writing and the Pastoral Life” summer program?  This was a retreat/workshop designed for a dozen participants in active pastoral ministry, all of whom understand writing to be a key part of the pastoral vocation.  Our facilitator for the week was to be Eugene Peterson, and the whole thing (right down to this quick flight from Minneapolis to St Cloud) was funded by the Lilly Foundation.   “Surely that guy over there is in our group,” I thought, “everything about him just screams ‘pastor’.”  And from the samples of writing we’d all been asked to submit, I thought I’d recognized someone else who fit the bill.  This was going to be an easy game to win

And then there was this long, lanky young man, dressed in work pants and a t-shirt, with a back-pack slung over his shoulder.  I watched as he ambled over to speak with the attendant, and I heard him ask his question in this folksy southern drawl.  “This guy is a student heading up to some college for summer courses,” I said to myself, “or maybe he’s got a job in a mill or at some Minnesota summer resort… he’s not a pastor.”  And just that quickly, I dismissed him.

At the St Cloud airport the various participants began to sort out who was who, and that lanky young man wandered over and asked the assembling group, “ya’ll going to Collegeville?”  Really?  So much for my little airport game; so much for my stereotypes.

Well, over the next couple of days, it became clear that not only was this guy a writing pastor, but he had what was without a doubt the most interesting  publication record of the bunch of us.  At that point, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove had three books to his name, with another in which he’d shared joint authorship, and a couple of more in the works.  He’d been in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams, was immersed in a predominantly African-American church context, was living with his wife and child in a new monastic community in Durham, and had written perceptive and penetrating books based on each of these foundational experiences.

Of all of the assumptions I’d made in my little airport game, at least two were true.  This guy was young – all of 27 at the point we were gathering at Collegeville – and he was almost disarmingly “folksy”.  Most of us in that group might have imagined that there was nothing we’d want more than to see our work picked up by the publishers with whom Jonathan had worked, yet he seemed to think it all not a big deal.  In fact, Jonathan didn’t seem to find anything to be a “big deal”, outside of actually figuring out how to live what we believe.    That was a big deal, but only insofar as it helped us to be what we were meant to be.

I think that it was on about the third day of the program that I realized, “I have to bring this guy to Winnipeg, to spend a few days with our church.”  Our church community is a bit of a wonderfully odd hybrid of Anglican liturgy and spirituality, some Anabaptist sensibilities, a good dose of evangelical immediacy, and a far ranging student/artist/musician-driven poetic questioning.  We pay attention to Benedictine hospitality and spiritual disciplines, but keep seeking to root those in an utterly new social and cultural context.  On paper, we’re an Anglican congregation, but I suspect that some 90% of our people come from some variation of the Anabaptist and/or evangelical world.  We’re learning to think about art and music in new ways, and yet for many of us one of our real guiding voices has been the great Christian Reformed philosopher Calvin Seerveld.  Who better to have as a guest in our community than a Baptist from the South, living in a new monastic community and taking some of his lessons from both the Mennonites and the Benedictines?

Well, the short version is that within about 10 months of our time at the Institute, I offered up the invitation, and Jonathan accepted.  He came to Winnipeg this past November, and spent a very busy four days with us, offering up a series of very fine reflections based in his own experiences, shared in such a way that his life and work in his particular context could help us to reflect on – and stretch – things as they play out in our own setting.  Two public lectures (one held as part of a monthly Aqua Books ideaExchange series, and one at the Ellice Theatre, an old movie house that has been reclaimed by a Baptist congregation for community and non-profit use), a Sunday sermon, a couple of less formal gatherings with members of our church community, and a whirlwind tour of four local post-secondary schools, all squeezed into those few days.  Through all of this, Jonathan seemed quite tireless as he rose to the various challenges of each setting; quite a gift.

When we bid him farewell on the final night, I came away quite deeply aware of just how fruitful had been those days at the Institute.  At some very real level, of course, I had known that well before that initial week-long program was even half over.  In fact, I was so taken with the people and the place that I’ve since done another week there on my own as a short-term scholar, and have plans to do a longer stint in the Winter of 2011.  A year or so back, our church community took Fr Kilian’s series of poems based on the Prodigal – “The Father Empties His Coffers” – and used it as the basis for the liturgy of the word in one of our Sunday gatherings, which bore fruit all of its own.

But this series in Winnipeg, led by someone with whom a friendship was initiated in the context of that Institute summer program?  It brought it all home in a new and fresh and altogether unexpected way.  We’re still trying to sort through the challenges Jonathan issued, and to see how we might in our own context enflesh the gospel, just as he and his community are doing in theirs.  And who knows where it all might lead?   Already the conversations are exciting, and in different ways just a wee bit daunting.  But that isn’t such a bad thing in the life of a church community, to have imaginations lit on fire and unsettling new possibilities added to the horizon.

So, if you were one of the people who heard Jonathan preach or speak, who picked up a book or listened to one of those lectures on his website, or who had even a minute or five of conversation with him and found something in what he says or writes or lives to be unavoidably compelling… well, we need to talk.  Log in your comments here, contact us online, or connect for coffee and a conversation.  Who knows what’s next?

Jamie Howison

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