Contemplative by Catastrophe

by | Aug 30, 2020 | Sermons

Kristine O'BrienIt is with great delight that I introduce the Rev. Dr. Kristine O’Brien. Kristine serves as the Director at Crieff Hills – Retreat & Conference Centre, which is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Crieff Hills holds a special place in my heart as I spent thirteen years attending Youth Retreats as a high school student and Youth Group leader. I current serve as the Treasurer for the MacLean Estate Committee, which is the Board of Directors for Crieff Hills.

Kristine is a friend and a mentor. She is married to Pat and they have four children. She loves wilderness canoe trips, visiting beautiful gardens, and seeding the occasional flat of kale.

~ Rev. Ellis 

Contemplative by Catastrophe

Scripture: Psalm 46

Do any of you know Jane Philpott? She is a physician from Stouffville who became well known for her work as the federal minister of health, and later the minister of indigenous affairs.

What you might not know is that Jane is a child of the manse. Her father, the Reverend Wally Little, was a Presbyterian minister who served congregations in Manitoba and Ontario. Her husband’s father was also a Presbyterian minister and so perhaps it is not a surprise that early in their careers the newlywed couple went to Western Africa as Christian missionaries. They stayed for a number of years before returning to Canada and beginning a very successful medical and political career.  

Jane resigned her position as a federal cabinet minster, was ousted from caucus by the Prime Minister and then lost her seat in the election last federal election.

“Defeat for a federal politician,” writes journalist Clara Pasieka, “means losing a job, social standing and structured daily life. Cellphones get cut off, the paycheques stop, logins won’t work and everyone wants them moved out fast. They have two or more offices to shut down, mountains of paperwork to navigate and piles of case files that either need to be archived or shredded.” (

As Jane lost her bid for re-election, she was immediately set upon by journalists wanting to know what she would do next.

I loved her answer. “It’s too early for me to have formed any decisions about my future plans that I’m feeling comfortable sharing at this point,” she said. “I think I need to spend time with my family and my closest friends and advisers…” In other words she needed to return home, back to her neighbourhood, to the Mennonite church where she is a song leader. She needed to catch her breath, talk, pray and regroup. She needed time to stop and be still. (

Now that I am the director of Crieff Hills Retreat Centre, I have a better sense of just how many people are like Jane, in need of time to stop and regroup.

If you have never been there, Crieff Hills is a 250-acre property that our denomination inherited in 1950. There are three lodges, a conference building, five retreat houses and a collection of 1-bedroom suites. An old schoolhouse has been transformed into the dining room and we are open all year round. We welcome many different groups —large and small churches, the children’s aid society, quilting groups, and community organizations. Individuals come to visit as well—some who are pastors, writers, church leaders, and caregivers.

While they are at Crieff Hills, people find that there is no television and if they choose, no wifi connection either. There are wooded trails for hiking and a large outdoor labyrinth for meditation, plus beautiful gardens with benches where people can sit and rest. Groups can gather in the conference hall for worship around the piano, or to meet for visioning and planning activities in one of the many living rooms.

Many—perhaps most—of the people who visit come seeking a quiet time of rest and renewal. Some of them come as part of wise practice. They choose to set aside a day or a week to be still and tend to their soul, or to their shared ministry.

But there are others who do not come in a planned and peaceful way. They come because they are exhausted. Burned out. Overwhelmed by work, or church, or relationships. Those are the ones that spend their time curled up in sweatpants doing little more than sleeping or praying.

Those are the ones that Parker Palmer says are “contemplatives by catastrophe.” They are suddenly thrust into failure, illness or other calamity and it leaves them unable to carry on as usual. They don’t know what else to do but stop, be still, and wait on what next with God.    

The Christian practice of contemplation takes a number of different forms—praying, reading, walking, singing—but at its heart, contemplation is any way of living that leads to “penetrating illusion and touching reality.” (p.57)

To become a contemplative is to have the courage to look inward, to be still, to pray, to encounter God without rose coloured glasses or an overfed ego. It requires honesty with ourselves, and honesty about ourselves. It might happen through the daily discipline of reading scripture or going on a silent retreat. It could involve meeting with a spiritual director or learning meditation. It often involves solitude.

Contemplation is a practice that takes an investment of time and energy.

If it sounds hard, it is. I know because I have spent years making attempts and still feel like I have barely started to get the hang of it. Parker Palmer and many others will testify to that, too. But if you are not sure whether it’s worth the bother, just have a look at this morning’s psalm. 

Psalm 46 has catastrophe written all over it: mountains are shaking, waters are roaring. There is trouble and fear; nations are in an uproar, kingdoms tottering, and the earth is melting at sound of God’s voice. It is all of our anxieties laid out on the page—corrupt politicians, climate change, global conflict and every kind of trouble we can imagine, from family fights to a cancer diagnosis.

However, right there alongside all of the calamity is instruction. “Come, behold the works of the Lord…be still and know that I am God…”

Sure, things are a mess the psalmist says. But hold on for just a second—that trouble is not the whole story. In case you have forgotten, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. God will help when the morning dawns. The Lord makes wars to cease, breaks the bow, shatters the spear.

This is what’s really real. It is the truthiest truth. If we will just stop for minute we will learn again that “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (v.11)

To say that many churches know about trouble is a massive understatement, and I think I can assume that you are like many others who find our current reality frightening and painful. There are fewer people now, fewer volunteers, and not the money for ministry that there once was.

A congregation could lament along with the psalmist about how it feels as if mountains are shaking and waters roaring. How will the church survive? What about my grandchildren? Why does no one seem interested in Jesus anymore? Who will look after this beautiful space when we are gone?    

It’s important to stop and take a clear long breath.

That clears the way for you to remember again what kind of God you worship. God has done so many great things, God has nourished and sustained generations, God has created, blessed, redeemed, and triumphed. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. God will help when the morning dawns. The Lord makes wars to cease, breaks the bow, shatters the spear.

This is what’s really real.

In an era of church decline, it is too easy for churches like yours to panic. Congregations can spend so much time and energy wringing their hands that they forget how and why they exist. They miss the opportunity to be ‘contemplative by catastrophe,’ and take heed of the Psalm that urges us to be still when confronted with confusion and chaos. They miss the chance to penetrate illusion and be inspired by God’s reality.

It is God’s reality that matters most. Kingdoms might rise and fall and mountains tumble into the sea; elections and jobs may be won and lost, congregations come and go—but all of it is held securely in God’s hands. The reign of Christ will outlast any other.

This is the Good News of the gospel. It is especially good when the bottom falls out from under us and when we find ourselves weary, broken, or afraid of the future.

So I commend this psalm to you as you. May it comfort and inspire you, equip and guide you, so that you hold fast to the Good News that Jesus reigns and we are held secure. A mighty fortress in our God. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

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