Rev. John Suk, 58, was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and editor of its denominational magazine. He resigned from both in 2012 to become a United Church minister in Toronto. His book, Not Sure, chronicles the crisis of faith that led to his departure from the CRC. He recently talked to Anne Bokma for a series on Intriguing United Church people you may not know but should.
Growing up, we went to [a Christian Reformed] church twice on Sundays. We arrived early to watch everyone else arrive. After church, all the uncles, aunts and cousins got together at Opa and Oma’s to smoke cigarettes and cigars, have soup and buns and talk about church and politics and people. Afterwards, during the evening service, I’d cuddle up against my mother’s shoulder and fall asleep.
I now remember my childhood days with an aching sadness, because what I freely received then I cannot now buy for all the money in the world. Faith is neither whole nor easy anymore.
Change is complicated. It’s not like you wake up one morning and just change your mind. All sorts of little issues nag at you and add up. Until I took a yearlong RV trip with my wife, Irene, I could set my doubts aside. I was busy with responsibilities. But there came a point during that time when I realized I was going to go on a personal journey that might involve great change.
I remember the exact moment I knew I had to get out. I was teaching catechism to a young couple wanting to get married. I found myself going through it with them and feeling terrible because I realized I had no conviction for this.
The United Church has been a sanctuary and a safe place where theology and spirituality are a playground rather than a battlefield, a place where I am invited to wonder about the Divine with my audience, as opposed to seeing them as a jar that needs to be filled.
I have a marital partner whom I don’t think I’ve ever taken for granted. But what has changed is that I’ve come to realize how deeply implicated she is in most of the positive changes in my life and ministry. My wife has been a rock in the raging river of shifting time.
People always struggle with religious issues and guilt, and ministers should listen carefully and assure people of the love of God. But they aren’t therapists. I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that many ministers give very poor advice and have little insight when it comes to therapeutic issues.
There’s a huge trend in contemporary Christianity toward revved-up worship that’s fun and happy with singing and dancing. There has to be a place for that, but on any given Sunday so many people sitting before you are the walking wounded, and you need to give them permission to be sad.
We’ve never owned a TV. When our kids were young, we read with them, together and out loud, for an hour every evening. One of our favourite books was Tom Neale’s All in the Same Boat: Living Aboard and Cruising, about a Canadian family who built their own boat and sailed it around the world. I’ve spent many hours reading, daydreaming and putting numbers on the back of a napkin imagining how Irene and I could spend five or 10 years sailing as an early retirement option.
I’ve read Les Misérables once a year for over 20 years. It was my one literary compulsion. My unabridged version is held together by duct tape, all 1,400 pages of it. The bishop who gives Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks after he has stolen them demonstrates an incredible act of forgiveness and epitomizes for me what being a minister is all about.
I think it’s ridiculous to talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. I have personal relationships with people I can share a glass of wine with or slap on the back or arm wrestle.
When it comes to prayer, I don’t ask for things. It’s more like having a secret diary — the idea that there is a divine presence that embraces my hopes, dreams and concerns.
All religions of the world are hopeful that this life is not all there is, and so am I. I don’t believe in heaven as it is described mythically in scripture. I hope for some kind of spiritual consciousness after I die that is loving. I’m not afraid of death; it feels like whatever happens next will be good. Even if it’s only a forever sleep, it will be a good rest.
This piece first appeared in The Observer’s November 2014 issue with the title “John Suk, Christian Reformer turned United Church minister.”