The service in which I was ordained a priest in Winnipeg, Manitoba 38 years ago serves as a fitting symbol of the shattering changes that were about to shake the church in which I and those with whom I was ordained would be called to minister.

In the early ’80’s it was not just churches that were beginning to “sag.” The floor was starting to sink for all institutions, and those of us who felt responsible for shoring up the failing structures were not quite sure what to do.

One of the changes I have had the hardest time embracing in my years of priesthood is a change in the practice of belonging. Church used to be the place to create community. It was a primary place to which many people looked for a warm sense of belonging and connection.

People still need a sense of belonging; but they no longer need church for meaningful connection. Like the spiritual market place today, the belonging business has many competitors. There are multiple community expressions today beyond church that help people connect, put down roots, and live worthwhile meaningful lives in community. I know a local yoga studio that immediately organized a Go-Fund-Me campaign and pot-luck dinners for a young mum instructor when it was learned her child had cancer.

Church is no longer the only option to help people overcome loneliness and find affirmation and validation. We need to offer a deeper call and a greater vision than just community support. For the church, belonging has always been a secondary function and aiming at “belonging” does not really work anyway.

I have come to see over all these years that, if I do not discover within myself a deep sense that I belong simply because I am, I will never find belonging with other people, no matter how good a community I may join. Belonging starts within my heart.

The church’s job is to challenge us to look deeper. Our unique task is to encourage people to reach below the surface, to find a deeper well-spring of identity that does not depend upon being affirmed or encouraged by any external person or form. This may be why Jesus made the shocking statement that

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Jesus does not want me to depend for my identity on even my most fundamental relationships. Church exists to call us to discover the freedom of living with a deep awareness of worth and identity rooted in Christ, not in anyone’s response to how we are. True community is a by-product, not a goal.

Churches struggle today to find their way in these dramatically altered realities. It is hard for a faith community to get its bearings in the midst of the tectonic shifts in culture and technology that seem designed to work against weekly Sunday gatherings for worship.

If I were starting out today, I do not know how I would find my priestly way in this altered landscape. I feel great admiration and deep compassion for clergy who have seized the challenge to be church in this radically altered and competitive environment.

But, there is one thing I do know that has not changed for thousands of years. The prophet Isaiah pointed to it when he said,

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters. (Isaiah 55:1)

Everyone is thirsty.  When we awaken to this thirst, we confront a deep lack that runs like a fault line through the human condition.  We find a longing in our hearts too deep to be satisfied by shopping, sports, or any form of entertainment aimed at distracting us temporarily from reality.

Human beings were created for something more than skimming the surface. There is a space at the centre of every person that is not content without water that nourishes the deeper life force that is our true nature. Church was created to guide people to travel in the depths.

As a priest, my task remains the same as it was in 1981. I exist to encourage people to open to the “thirst” that dwells in the deepest part of our being and to heed the call of that thirst to plunge into the depths where we find a mysterious hidden Presence. Jesus said, this Presence for which we yearn, dwells “in secret” and is accessed when we

go into our room and shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret. (Matthew 6:6)

The other thing I know is that, there is no fancy technique that can prepare me to minister in a rapidly changing world. I will only be equipped to fulfill the priestly role faithfully when I spend time in that secret room with the door shut listening to the voice of Divine Love and resting in that place that provides fresh water for my thirsty soul. That has never changed. This voice of Love calls and equips me today as much as it did all those years ago. I trust that this voice will continue to summon me as eventually I pass over into the full embrace of that eternal Presence who has sustained me for all these years.