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You Don’t Know What It’s Like

One day, three conversations.

1. I’m at a function where my job is to give a short devotional and prayer before the meal.  Pastor-y stuff.  You know.  I’m trying to be witty, disarming, light.  I make some throwaway comment about how I know we’re all hungry and that the soup smells good, but please won’t you just spare 5 minutes or so for the presence to descend?  I do my thing.  Appreciative smiles, all around.  Let’s eat.  I wander around the room, hungry for praise, when a woman approaches me.  I smile warmly, preparing myself for the inevitable, “oh, thank you for your words” and “that was so wonderful” or some other appropriately appreciative expression of gratitude.  But she isn’t smiling.  “You shouldn’t have said that, you know!”  I look blankly at her.  “Um, what?”  “About being hungry.  We’re not hungry.  None of us has ever been hungry.  Certainly not you.  You shouldn’t have said that.”  I’m waiting for her to say, “ah, just kidding!” or “but other than that, your words were, of course, quite brilliant.”  I’m waiting for the conversation to make the obligatory turn.  Doesn’t she know this isn’t how it goes?  Doesn’t she know about the appreciative remarks and that grateful smiles?  Hasn’t she read the script?!  But there is no turn.  And she still isn’t smiling.  “Um, well, I’m sorry,” I mumble unimpressively.  “My husband was a prisoner of war,” she says, face unmoving.  “He knew about hunger.  But you don’t know what it’s like.  You should be careful about what you say.” Read more

One Body, For All the Wrong

I sometimes think of strange things on the way to work.  Today is April 8, 2014.  Yesterday it was 20 degrees Celsius here in southern Alberta.  This morning it is snowing.  This seemed somehow wrong to me as I was driving down the highway this morning.  Yesterday the window was open.  Today the defrost is on and there is snow on the hood of my car.  Yes, this is very wrong indeed.

As I was pondering the deep and mysterious wrongness of southern Alberta weather patterns, I began to wonder about other wrong things in our world.  I began to wonder about how many things are said, each day, in our communities, cities, nations, and world, that are wrong.  How many factual errors?  How much sloppy and inaccurate reporting?  How many people pronouncing upon things they know little about?  How much of noisy chatter in Internet-land is simply misinformed and incorrect?  How are we able to wade through all this wrongness and still function?   Read more

A Theology of Speaking Slowly

I listened to a man on the radio this morning. He had a dignified South African accent (most English-speaking accents sound “dignified” to Canadians). He spoke in deep, measured tones. He left frequent pregnant pauses in the conversation. His words virtually dripped with gravitas and significance.  I imagined him leaning back in a big black chair, hands assuredly folded,  secure in the knowledge that his was a voice worth listening to, worth waiting for.  He voice confidently proclaimed, “it is worth standing in the silences between what I have said and what is yet to come.” Read more

All That Life Threatens to Steal

I read an article this week about the death of handwriting and how a whole generation of kids will grow up with bad to nonexistent penmanship skills due to the proliferation of technological devices that they master before their tenth birthday.  I read another one about how we retain far more of what we write when use pen and paper rather than laptop and tablets.  And then I read yet another article about how wireless technology was giving us cancer and generally rotting our brains.  Feeling appropriately despondent about the state of our wired and technologically dependent world, I said to myself, “very well then, pen to paper it is.”  My handwriting, as you will see, is truly abysmal (I’m old enough that I can’t even blame the Internet for my inadequacies), but hopefully it is legible nonetheless.  Believe it or not, this is the result of me writing extra slowly.

I wrote the following reflection sitting in a dumpy coffee shop with an old notebook after visiting a dear saint walking through the fog and sadness of the valley of the shadow. Read more

Broken Along the Way

I had planned to be in Edmonton today for the seventh and final national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, but a combination of an unexpectedly clogged schedule and yet another batch of bad weather in the winter that refuses to die means that I am, instead, watching the events on my laptop on this snowy spring morning.  The opening ceremonies are taking place right now—the prayers, the speeches, the parade of dignitaries across the stage.  It’s all very good, but the audio’s not great, so my mind is drifting.

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How Things Work in the World of (Mostly) Rich Western Christians

It seemed like every time I ventured into the wonderful world of social media today, I was greeted by a new salvo from one side or the other of World Vision’s recent yes-we-do, wait, no-we-don’t position on whether or how they will hire gay Christians to work in their organization, with all the predictable bleating and threatening and pulling of support (in response to both decisions) echoing around the corners of evangelical Christian-dom. It was all very sad and pathetic, and mostly it just made me embarrassed to be a Christian.

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Faith is Change

A few days ago, we got together with some good friends to share and to pray.  These are people we have, in some cases, known since we were teenagers.  When we were younger and flush with spiritual fervour and the optimism of youth, we would get together like this more frequently, praying for revival, for victory and blessing, for change, for all kinds of wonderful things that we believed lay just around the bend.

We’re a bit older now.  Maybe even a bit wiser.  If nothing else, life has left its mark on all of us, in the wide variety of ways that life always does.  We have had to negotiate the death of parents and others we love, we have watched relationships fracture and fragment into divorce and separation, we have participated in the elations and agonies of parenting, we have negotiated the challenges of infertility and adoption, we have struggled with physical health concerns, vocational anxieties, and crises of faith.  We have seen, in short, that life is a mixed bag, and that faith is not (and has never been) some kind of inoculant from the pain of living.

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A Gift is for Giving

This past weekend, we were privileged to have Cheryl Bear from the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation community in northern British Columbia as a special guest here in Lethbridge at both our Mennonite Church Alberta Annual Assembly on Friday and Saturday, and at our morning worship service on Sunday.  The timing of the event was significant here in Alberta, as the Truth and Reconciliation’s final national event will be taking place in Edmonton this week (Mar 27-30).  Cheryl is gifted musician and storyteller, and it was delightful to both hear from and get to know her over these short few days.

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Two Hands

I notice her standing in line at the café.  She’s young, attractive, and has an easy smile. Everything about her appearance screams confidence and self-assurance.  She’s dressed stylishly, I suppose, a little bit provocative or edgy or something (as if I knew a thing about style).  She turns toward me and I notice her shirt.  It’s tight and black and it has what looks like a Jack Daniels logo on the front.  But it doesn’t say “Jack Daniels.”  It says, rather, in bold, bracing white letters, “100% PURE ATHEIST.”  Underneath, in smaller letters, “Two hands at work for good in the world are more useful than a thousand folded in prayer.”  I sigh, almost audibly.  I would have preferred Jack Daniels. Read more

The “Self-Aggrandizing Fairy Tale” Upon Which We All Depend

Earlier this week I turned the last page of Joseph Boyden’s highly acclaimed third novel, The Orenda, recent winner of CBC’s Canada Reads and, to the great consternation of many, long listed, but not shortlisted, for the prestigious Giller Prize.  It is, as many have said, a remarkable book about the seventeenth century Huron-Iroquois wars in what is now Eastern Canada, and the French Jesuit colonial missionary enterprise that inserted itself into the mix. It is gripping, insightful, heartbreaking, and, yes, at times almost unspeakably violent.

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Love Finds Us

Lent is a time when we talk often about “wilderness experiences”—about times when things are hard, when God seems absent, when we seem disoriented or stressed or lonely or bored or anxious or whatever.  “The wilderness” becomes a kind of placeholder for an experience or set of experiences that happen to us.  A season we must endure or grow through, a challenge we must rise to, a test we must pass, a necessary part of the journey of faith.

I think this is mostly an appropriate way to use wilderness language.  Mostly.  Read more

Expectations

My daughter and I are driving in the slushy muddy mess of a mid-March southern Alberta thaw.  We’re on our way to swimming or piano or some other busy kind of thing.  “I wish it would rain,” she says, looking out the window.  “Things are so dirty and brown out there right now.  I remember when it rained in British Columbia, and everything would be clean and green.”  We drive in silence, wishing it would rain.

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Riding with Richard in the Land of Atheist Devotion

It’s Ash Wednesday, a day for sober reflection on, among other things, what it is to be a human being.  And what better person to usher us into a conversation on this weighty and important matter than… Richard Dawkins.  Wait, what?  Richard Dawkins?   As in the crusading evangelist for atheism?  As in that famous biologist who holds any and all religious beliefs in utter contempt and never allows an opportunity to heap scorn upon supernatural belief to pass him by?  As in the self-proclaimed champion of all things rational and scientific?  That Richard Dawkins.  Yes, that one. Read more

Hope is a Condition of Your Soul

Fear.  Of nothingness.  Of dying.  Of failure.  Of change.  It is of different degrees, but it all comes from one source, which is the isolated self, the self willfully held apart from God.  There are three ways you can deal with this fear.  You can simply refuse to acknowledge it, dulling your concerns with alcohol or entertainment or exercise or even a sort of virtuous busyness, adding your own energies to the white noise of anxiety that this culture we have created seems to use as fuel.  This is despair, but it is a quiet despair, and bearable for many years.  By the time that great grinding wheel of the world rolls over you for good, you will be too eroded to notice. 

Or, if you are strong in the way that the world is strong, you can strap yourself into life and give yourself over to a kind of furious resistance that may very well carry you through your travails, may bring you great success and seem to the world triumphant, perhaps even heroic.  But if it is merely your will that you are asserting, then you will develop a carapace around your soul, the soul that God is trying to refine, and one day you will return to dust inside that shell that you have made.

There is another way.  It is the way of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for release from his fate, abandoned by God.  It is something you cannot learn as a kind of lessons simply from reading the text.  Christ teaches by example, true, but he lives with us, lives in us, through imagination and experience.  It is through all these trials in our own lives, these fears however small, that we come close to Christ, if we can learn to say, with him, “not my will, Lord, but yours.”  This is in no way resignation, for Christ still had to act.  We all have to act, whether it’s against the fears of our daily life or against the fear that life itself is in danger of being destroyed.  And when we act in the will of God, we express hope in its purest and most powerful form, for hope, as Václav Havel has said, is a condition of your soul, not a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself.  Hope is what Christ had in the garden, though he had no reason for it in terms of events, and hope is what he has right now, in the garden of our own griefs.

— Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Safe at the Foot of the Fuzzy Cross

Lord teach us to pray (Luke 11:1).

Like the disciples, I often have no idea how to pray.  I don’t know what to ask for, I don’t know how long to keep asking, I don’t know if I am doing it right, I don’t know how it all really works.  That doesn’t sound very pastoral, I know.  What can I say?  I suppose I am, at least, in decent (or at least populous) company when I say that prayer is often very hard for me. Read more

On With the Words

It was one of those articles where I started to get a little queasy about a millisecond after reading the headline: “Why Writers Should Stop Blogging.”  That the piece was written by a respected fellow pilgrim and writer only made things worse, as did the links she provided to other content echoing the same themes.  I have long suspected that blogging is inherently inferior to more traditional modes of communication—kind of like the minor leagues of writing—and have reflected often on the deleterious tendencies that it tends to inculcate among it’s practitioners.  Each and every one of these suspicions (and others) was confirmed in reading this post and the attendant articles.  Jeff Goins’ piece called “Why You Need to Stop Blogging & Regain Your Writing Soul,” in particular, summed it up with painful precision. Read more

The Receptionist and the Messenger

There are times when it feels like to be a pastor is to be the receptionist at a walk-in clinic where the doctor is never in.  The sick and the wounded, the weary and confused, the angry and exhausted—in they stumble, speaking of bodies that are breaking down, of loved ones who are dying, of relationships that stagger under the weight of too many cumulative breaks and fissures to possibly think of mending, of doubts born of too much suffering and silence.  In they come, assuming that the receptionist has some kind of special access to the doctor, to the healing they want and need. Read more

Monday Miscellany

Hockey is Canada’s ReligionSo blared the headlines yesterday after the second of our nation’s triumphs with skates and sticks on the Sochi stage.  For much of yesterday, Canadian media outlets were aglow with videos and tweets and updates about brave, patriotic Canadians getting up at ungodly hours of the morning and braving frigid temperatures to heroically make their way to the pub (sometimes, without even the lure of alcohol, if you can believe it!) to watch the big game.  There were even heartwarming video clips of mosques and churches that decided to show the game before morning worship.  The overall mood was exultant. This is what it means to be Canadian, we rehearsed to ourselves over and over again in myriad ways.  Read more