All posts by bwhitla

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Music Director Becca Whitla’s Farewell Sermon

Good morning. Welcome to all of you, especially to visitors this morning. Today is my last day as the Music Director here at Holy Trinity and I asked for the chance to share some of my thoughts with you as I leave this place and begin a new and exciting phase of my life’s journey. I have been the Music Director for twenty years. Before that, I was a member of the congregation, coming to church with my parents. It has been a long time. So, in many ways I feel like I am leaving home. This spiritual home we call Holy Trinity is the building, yes, but more than that, it is you the people…all of you who are here, visitors, friends and members of the parish – the people that are here are the church. The space also holds the memories of those whose smiling faces and singing voices still inhabit this place long after they’ve died or moved on.

As I contemplate this transition and what it means to “leave home”, I’d like to reflect a little on my time here at Holy Trinity, share some the things I’m passionate about as I move into full time studies as a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, and finally wrestle with the meaning of vocation especially in light of today’s readings.

Here at Holy Trinity, as well as in my other work, especially with the Echo Women’s Choir, I have, over time, become a teacher. It wasn’t what I started out to be – it was something I moved into gradually, when there was a need.

Many of you are also teachers. All of you have been my teachers. My time here has been a time of growth, a time of learning, a time of becoming and a time of teaching. The more I contemplate what it is to be teacher and a leader of song, the more I realize how much I have to learn. The dynamic between teaching and learning is a semi-permeable boundary, porous, that flows both ways.

So it is as a teacher and a community song leader that I became a student three and a half years ago in the Master of Sacred Music program at U of T and I loved it! And into that work, I poured my passionate self and I carried you all with me. What a wonderful formation I was given by simply being a member of Holy Trinity, a formation that was enriched by being trusted as a teacher and a leader.

When my son David was diagnosed with Leukemia, we had to completely re-orient our lives. It became clear thenthat my studies were very important to me. In fact they were nothing short of a lifeline. Week after week, my professors guided me back to myself – they gave me hope – by insisting that I could still bring the best of myself to the pursuit of learning. In the middle of these new strange and sometimes terrifying circumstances, I realized how deep me sense of vocation was for academic work. Every fibre of my being wanted to be learning…it literally kept me sane, kept me going.

As circumstances stabilized and as I finished my Masters degree with a challenging and wonderful study leave in Cuba with Emma, the internal nudge to consider doctoral studies became an insistent nagging. I had to do it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But it isn’t exactly embarking on a career path that will lead to riches and security for my family. Studying theology and music is among the worst possible combinations for future employment. More than that, this step represents a commitment to the institutional church even as it dissolves around us. And yet, here I am, making just such a commitment and with immense gratitude for the vigorous support of my family.

What this all means for me academically is that I plan to do a postcolonial analysis of hymnody. In other words, I want to study what we sing in church and why. What musical treasures ought we to keep and which ones can we let go? And how can we make space for new and diverse expressions of song? How can we better reflect the world around us so that we might be transformed into a vital, growing, robust people of God? Music, and especially singing, has great power. Like other powers, it may be used for good or ill. No song is innocent – songs belong to particular cultures – they have contexts, stories, and layers of meaning. Knowing this power, I want to help imagine what songs the people will sing in the church of the future. I want to continue to help the people express themselves to each other and to the Divine, making space for the Holy Spirit to irrupt among us through our singing.

This task requires a willingness to go to some hard places, to accompany people and help them express themselves at times of sorrow, grief, anguish, lament, as well as joy and celebration. That’s what I love so much about Were You There? It doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff – the gritty realities of an unjust death, expressed here as the suffering and death of Jesus. It’s a lament that can express our collective grief and anguish at suffering wherever we find it in this death-dealing culture of ours. Are we there, walking beside Jesus and other victims of injustice or do we turn away? Of course, this particular song also represents the particular story, and cultural expression of African Americans, sung today like nobody else can sing it, by Alan and Sue, and you. And, it also embodies the same kind of insistent passionate calling to account we hear in Proverbs this morning.

So…what about those readings?

Let us hear some highlights again:

From Proverbs: Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice. “How long, O simpletons, are you going to love being stupid? How long will scoffers enjoy the sound of their own scoffing and fools persist in hating knowledge? Listen carefully to my reproof: I will pour out my thoughts to you; my words will make clear exactly what I think of you.

From James: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. The tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell….no one can tame the tongue…

And from Mark: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

What is a fledgling doctoral student who is finally claiming a vocation of teaching and leading to do with that? I’m not sure it’s a call of vocation for me, or a reason to bury my head in the sand and say “ask the next guy.” Can I live up to Wisdom’s standards? Am I really ready to be a teacher? Am I really prepared to have me life turned upside down?

It strikes me that these are also good vocational questions for our church. Are we living up to Wisdom’s standards? Are we being good leaders and teachers for the world? And, are we ready to have our worlds turned upside down by doing the gospel we’ve professed?

I confess that this kind of soul searching makes me uncomfortable. I don’t much like it when my friends challenge me to be a better person or when I am asked to examine myself closely in my classes to find those places where I still have a sense of entitlement or privilege. In my time at Holy Trinity, I have seen that we as a church are sometimes also uncomfortable when we are challenged in this way. The voice that challenges is often haranging and annoying like Wisdom’s voice in this passage from Proverbs. Can we still listen? Can we respond to the call to self examination, remaining true to our calling as a church of justice-seekers– it is a call that asks us, “are you sure you’re doing it right?” and then insists…“You’d better be!”

These readings call us into an engagement with doubt. We are called to question. We are called to critical engagement. We are called to face the difficult stuff. We are invited to embrace our own doubt, our fear, our grief, our lamentation. We are called to be like wisdom — to be insistent justice seekers, constantly questioning ourselves even as we also speak truth to power. Wisdom says, in Holy Trinity member Ian Sowton’s hymn poem, which we will sing in a few moments: I decline your ritual offerings, give me equity for all. When will you admit my outcasts, dignify my dispossessed? Never mind your solemn gatherings–do the gospel you’ve professed.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of some grand vocation or call. Instead I believe that a calling sometimes comes in a thousand conversations and countless moments in which we might catch a glimpse of the Divine – it emerges out of our relationships and our passions. My own call is riddled with doubt (just like my faith), and yet, as I step into a new life-phase, I can say with some certainty, that I’ve never felt more called. I am called to engage doubt, even to embrace it. I am called to scrutinize myself to make sure my relationships and actions are filled with right relations, justice seeking and love for humankind and wider creation. I am called to discern the place of song in a church that is perhaps dying. Whether the church crashes and burns or rises like the phoenix, I want to be there to help lead the people’s song. Our world is in trouble and I believe that the church has something good to offer to the world. It is a call to love and to hope, even amidst fear, doubt, and suffering.

I am well aware of the many gifts that I take with me from Holy Trinity; I deeply appreciate the critical thinking, the intellectual rigour, and the commitment to justice seeking and liturgical renewal that characterize our church community. These qualities have helped to shape me as a person, as a musical leader, and now as an academic; I will carry them forward as I embark on this new phase of my life’s journey. Last week, at school, I ran into Lionel Ketola, a former member of Holy Trinity who is now working as a United Church Minister. He’s part of the Holy Trinity cell at Emmanuel College…along with me, and Susie and Jennifer. He reminded me that critical engagement is part of the baptismal covenant at Holy Trinity…are we are baptized in the name the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother, Lover, and friend and…critical engagement.

Last Thursday Cathy Goring treated me to lunch and asked me if I would think about Holy Trinity after I’m gone. I said quickly “no” and surprised both of us. Then I said, ‘I’ll be carrying you all with me, all the time.” Whenever I lead a song, teach a class, argue with my classmates and professors, pray with others, you will be there with me, keeping me engaged.”

So now, I ask for your blessing and your prayers in this new phase of my vocation, and for my family as we look for a new church home. And I thank you. For growing with me, for letting me be your song leader, for trusting me, for embracing my family, Alan, Emma and David, for loving us. I (we) will keep loving you.

Looking back, I realize over my twenty years as music director, I can claim to have helped develop the musical life of this church. We are once again known for our celebration of the arts. More than that, we in this parish, have begun to forge a new collaborative vision of music and justice that includes a rich and diverse community musical expression in sung music from all over the world. As you go forward in your church journey without me, may you continue to celebrate the rich gifts of human expression in this way. May you continue to welcome the scary transformational possibility of engaging doubt and despair. May you be leaders in our city on the side of the dispossessed and marginalised. May you be justice-seekers and lovers of life. Oh…and keep singing your hearts out!


Open Doors

Friday May 25, 6pm

….part of the Oasis Series in the Heart of the City – services of music and prayer to nourish the justice seeking soul

a celebration of Doors Open weeekend…

With Special Guest Alfredo Barahona

A joint celebration of Holy Trinity and San Esteban

6-7 pm on the last Friday of the Month
Simple meal to follow


In-Between Spaces

A reflection on a Three Month Study Leave in Cuba

Homily for Easter 5, 2012

by Music Director, Becca Whitla

Good morning.

I have been asked to share with you a little bit about my recent three month study leave to Cuba. There is also a blog: and I plan to organize my photos someday!

I was there for three months from January to April to study choral conducting and theology at a seminar in Matanzas with my thirteen year old daughter Emma, finishing up the final semester of a Master of Sacred music degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. It was part of my larger personal, spiritual and academic journey.

This morning I’d like to invite you to reflect upon in-between spaces and in- between times. My time in Cuba was, for me,  an in-between intercultural space.

The reading from Acts describes such an intercultural encounter. Philip is instructed to “make his way south” on a wilderness road where he encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch. Riding together in the Eunuch’s chariot, they engage in an exchange. A space is created between them in which the Eunuch experiences a conversion moment and decides right then and there to be baptized.

I confess that I experience a little bit of envy when I read this kind of reading – it is a dramatic story in which the angels and the Holy Spirit play an active role. As I wrestle with spiritual and vocational questions myself, it would be so great to have an angel pop out of the sky and give me some clear direction.

But a little deeper reading reveals some messiness and complexity, that might more closely mirror my own life and perhaps our life as a community.

Why did the Eunuch need to be converted?
What was wrong with his first understanding of scripture?

Our formation as Christians teaches us that our way is the right way, an approach that has colonized,  and annihilated peoples all over the world. Perhaps this isn’t the best model for an intercultural exchange after all? Especially as Philip, in this story, appears to have all the power, though it is true that the Eunuch also has the power and privilege of the royal court. Power relationships are often complicated like this.

At Holy Trinity we reject this kind universalizing, at least the part that oppresses other people. I wonder though, sometimes, whether we have done all we can? When might we be tempted to use our power and privilege to get our way?

These are the kind of questions I have been personally wrestling with in my studies as I try to make sense of my own faith journey which I could equally well call a ‘journey of doubt’. They are also certainly questions I also encountered in my time in Cuba in daily intercultural exchanges – in the thousand little conversions I experienced all along the way.

In Cuba, I am wealthy, I am foreign and I am white. Our way here in Canada is greedy, it is unsustainable, and I would say, life-killing. I can see that the kind of simplicity that dominates Cuban life might be a better path forward for humanity. And yet, this life of simplicity is also a life of scarcity that has its own problems – lack of privacy, a struggle to get basic food needs met, wasted time just trying to accomplish the most basic tasks.

In Cuba, there is the added complexity of the a need for a whole scale re-visioning of society –  the revolution is tired and it is no longer capable of looking after the most vulnerable. There is a sense of desesperanza –  a lack of hope –  in the air.  This is a huge challenge for Cuban churches – it tears at the ecumenical fabric of their unity. In these contexts, who am I to waltz in and say that the simple way of life in Cuba is a better path forward from my position of relative wealth?

My task is not to tell Cubans that they’ve got it right, though I kind of think they do. It is to be self-critical, to learn from my experience there and apply it to my life here.

How can I lead a simpler life, in this land of plenty? How might I invite others to join me? My friends my family, you, my community, in a bid to live responsibly, to live in solidarity with the rest of the world and many people in this country who have so little? Within two days of our return, Emma had cut her clothes in half, appalled by the relative amount of stuff in our house.

Over the course of my stay in Cuba, I became increasingly aware that my friendships were challenged by a power imbalance. I had more wealth, more freedom, more privilege, and more power. With such an imbalance, it is not very difficult to assume mutuality. But, I know that friendship is possible. For me the starting point is to acknowledge my own position of relative power. By putting my own power, my own privilege on the table, by giving it up a little, even a little,  real engagement becomes possible.

Returning to the first reading, I want to now imagine it a little differently for a moment
— I wonder if the Eunuch, an African and a member of a sexual minority, kept intact his own understanding, experience and culture in the conversion moment, contrary to what I might have assumed at first. Perhaps he went on his way rejoicing, intact as a the person he was but enriched with new knowledge and new perspective.
— I wonder too if Philip may have been changed, maybe he experienced a conversion of sorts through the interchange with the Eunuch

So then, how do I? how do we? enter the in-between space that is required by real engagement? How do we truly give up power? How do we discern what the gospel means and then seek to proclaim it, potentially open to our own conversion even as we seek to convert? This is messy hard work. And it is work that makes me, at least, really uncomfortable. That’s when I know I am doing it – when I get squirmy.

At Holy Trinity we say we are committed to challenging oppression wherever it may be found, expressing our faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. I can get behind that, at least in theory. But I fall short in the living-it-out all the time. How do we ensure that we are truly putting our privileges and our entitlements on the table?

I’d like to look to the second reading for some guidance –  an excerpt of the first letter of John. The task requires nothing more and nothing less than “love”. Loving one another and loving God. It is an invitation to embody love. “Love is of God” John tells us. Last week we heard in the sermon that we are to love in truth and action, not in word or speech. That sounds good.

But this is not an easy task to carry out.

First, there’s the problem of sacrifice — or atoning sacrifice, in some translations of this text. Through much of Christian history, a theology of the cross as self-giving love (and I am going to quote Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza here, from Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology) “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.”  I’m going to read that again: “has rendered the exploitation of all women in the name of love and self-sacrifice psychologically acceptable and religiously warranted.” I actually don’t think that’s what John had in mind. And I know it is not a theology I can embrace.

And yet, this kenotic move, this emptying of the self, this taking on of humanity through the incarnation has great potential as a model for embodying love.

I do not believe that the kind of annihilation and violation of the self which has been imposed on women and others in the name of Christianity is what is required. Instead I suggest that it is a ‘self limiting’, a ‘giving up of power’ in order to allow for space for an other. And I acknowledge that this is tricky work for anyone who has suffered oppression. Love is hard work. I am a mother. I know that I sometimes chose someone else’s needs over my own – but that does not mean that I erase myself or deny myself. If anything it requires the opposite.

The harder life gets, the harder it is to love, the harder it is to be lovable, the harder it is to accept love. Love is hard work. Hard choices are required. A child with cancer, my child with Leukemia,  is not always easy to love – despite the false propaganda we see everywhere. Daily awful chemotherapy is required, even when your kid is screaming and kicking, bouncing off the walls on steroids. Love requires the seemingly inhumane act of feeding daily poison to your kid so that he can live. It requires full exhausting engagement all the time.

Let me return to Cuba where love is an important ingredient in the daily recipe for survival. Cubans depend utterly on each other. At the daily chapel services at the seminary in Matanzas where we lived, love was a constant theme – but it wasn’t some kind of sentimental, sappy love.  Love means solidarity, it means living together – ‘convivir’, it means living together well – ‘buenvivir’, it means sharing the last food you have. As wealthy as I am, by Cuban standards, I needed to depend on my neighbours for everything from food, to lice treatment, to forks, to a cup of coffee and a friendly conversation. From their scarcity, my Cuban friends showed warm generosity and hospitality. They embodied love.

When David, my son, visited with Alan for two weeks and got sick, the seminary driver Girardo, drove the seminary van for two hours in the middle of the night to the Pediatric Hospital in Havana and stayed with us all night long. Hospitals are in between places –  in Cuba and in Canada –  in between sickness and health in between life and death. Love takes us to those in between spaces. Our friends in Cuba organized daily visits and brought toilet paper, soap, water, cutlery and food, just as many of you have accompanied us here.

But how do we keep it up? We must depend utterly on each other.

A Cuban friend I know suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and had to give up a career as a nurse in the same pediatric hospital where David and I spent a week. At the age of 33 he now teaches Hebrew at the seminary –  he learned Hebrew from his Sephardic neighbours in Havana. He told me a story about how he had been inspired by a little boy. It was as if an angel was speaking to him, he said. Overwhelmed by the challenges of his life, he had been sitting alone in the seminary dining room thinking about giving up when he heard this boy’s voice and it gave him the courage to keep going. He didn’t understand the language. That little boy’s voice was David’s.

Sometimes the work of loving, the work of engagement requires nothing more than our simple presence. Sometimes that is all we are able to do. Every good pastor, every good shepherd, knows the discomfort of being in those in-between times and places with other people.

But when we can, I believe we are also called to a self critical engagement. That’s where I think the third reading points us. Branches that do not bear fruit get cut away.

My Cuba experience gave me the enormous privilege of being in a three month period of self critical engagement. I got to cut away the branches that bear no fruit. Everything thing I know, every way I have of being, all the ways I have of perceiving myself were lovingly challenged by my Cuban friends as I opened myself up and entered the in-between space of intercultural engagement.

I know this community engages in self critical process. We do this to embody love, to live out the justice seeking gospel we proclaim, to open ourselves up to the chance encounter with another that might convert both of us and continue to act as an agent of transformation in our lives.

I’d like to ask you to consider for a moment whether we are really doing this as much as we can – in our own lives and as a community. Where are our growth edges? What are the things that make us uncomfortable? Are we engaging the in-between spaces or do we avoid them? Will we choose the wilderness path to the south like Philip? Are we open to our own conversion?

Embodying love in these in-between spaces, at this in-between time means examining and re-examining our privileges, our entitlements, our prejudices. We need to prune away the branches in ourselves that do not bear any fruit. We need to consider questions of wealth, fairness, waste, needs and wants. This is our calling as Christians. This is our vocation as Holy Trinity.

The basketball court after the Easter Sunrise service, in Matanzas, Cuba.

From the Heart, Friday February 24, 6pm

“From the Heart” – a service of meditation and inclusion
  • accommodating people of ALL abilities
  • listening with more than our ears
  • seeing with more than our eyes
  • opening our hearts
  • deepening our welcome

Friday,February 24, 6pm

….part of the Oasis Series in the Heart of the City – services of music and prayer to nourish the justice seeking soul

with Guest Musician Alan Gasser

Worship Leader: Marilyn Dolmage

6-7 pm on the last Friday of the Month
Simple meal to follow