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Friday Miscellany

It’s Friday, and I’m not preaching this Sunday. What this means, of course, is that there are a number of unrelated and not necessarily coherent ideas rattling around my skull that I need to dump somewhere. I’m (mostly) kidding. I think much more highly of preaching than that. Although I have found it quite remarkable how frequently the events and ideas and reading of a given week will find their way into a Sunday sermon. At any rate, a few miscellaneous thoughts on a grey, rainy Friday morning…


Disaster struck earlier this week with a deadly tornado Oklahoma and we all know what happens when disaster strikes. Christians fight about what it “means.” Hooray! It’s getting to be a rather tiresome and predictable spectacle. Within mere hours of some horrific event involving gut-wrenching human suffering, a Christian pastor, writer, or leader can be counted on to stampede to the Internet to dispense their wisdom via tweet or blog (!) or Facebook or whatever about what God is trying to tell us via this event. Usually God is angry about something and using tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes or floods to voice his displeasure at [insert preferred sin here] or his desire that human beings would worship/exalt him more truly/faithfully/singularly.

This message is usually followed by a flood of angry reaction from Christians (and others) who do not think God works this way. And so, both sides grimly roll up their sleeves and arm themselves for online battle. After a week or so of nasty rhetoric flying back and forth through the ether, everyone either gets tired or is suitably reassured about their rightness, and they move on. The Internet is usually given a few days to lick its wounds and recover before it all begins again over some other issue.

And over there, just off to the side, far away from this increasingly uninteresting tribal spectacle, real human beings try to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. Real kids try to figure out how to go back to a classroom with some of their friends no longer there. Real parents try to cope with the loss of a child. Real communities come to terms with the devastation that is now part of their new normal.

I realize that there is a human need to speak about tragedy, to make sense of suffering, to explain why the world is the way it is. Really, I do. We need words. I’ve undoubtedly contributed more than my share of them to the cacophony of responses in times of disaster than I ought to have. But I am increasingly longing for the day when events like this week’s in Oklahoma is met with silence from Christians. At least in the first hours and days. No words, no tweets, no status updates. Just willing hands and feet and shoulders to lean on.

This is perhaps especially good advice for those of us who have some kind of leadership role in the Christian community, those of us with a felt need to always be saying something. I am quite deliberately speaking to myself, when I offer the following suggestion: When disaster strikes, just leave the Internet alone for a few hours. It will survive without you. So will your followers. The void is not crying out for 140 of your precious characters or 700 of your wise words to soothe and explain. This is not your opportunity to make theological hay or vanquish your online enemies. This isn’t actually about you at all.

And for crying out loud, if you’re going to say something about awful realities like human suffering and loss, don’t use Twitter! If ever there were a case of using the wrong tool for the job, this would seem to be it. Twitter is for… um, well, other things. Or so I’m told. But I am confident that virtually nothing of significance can be said about suffering in 140 characters. Or 280. It just can’t. Go for a run. Punch a pillow. Rage at the heavens. Cry. Pray. Just don’t tweet. Please.


I continue to think about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the complex labyrinth of issues that surround Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people, past and present. Yesterday I finished Thomas King’s fine book called The Inconvenient Indian. It’s a sweeping, highly readable account of several centuries of injustice, treaty violations, broken promises, abuse, and general bad behaviour when it comes to how the USA and Canada have treated aboriginal people. Grim, but necessary reading.

At times, though, the book left me mildly irritated. Perhaps mine was merely a not-so-subtle reaction to King’s rather obvious lack of appreciation for the city I currently call home. He taught at the University of Lethbridge for a decade or so, but doesn’t seem to have much good to say about the city. It mostly comes across as a small, boring town full of bigoted rednecks—a town where King inexplicably managed to find his life partner. Can you imagine? In Lethbridge, of all places! Can anything good possibly come from… Never mind.

That’s probably just me being a bit defensive and grouchy. But it does gesture toward an interesting irony, I think. King frequently (and rightly) chides his non-native readers for placing all native people in one big generic “Indian” category, rather than acknowledging the amount and variety of different First Nations. As in, plural. There are Blackfoot, Navajo, Mohawk, Ojibway, Mi’kmaq, Salish, Haida… The list of nations goes on and on, each having their own unique language, culture, and spirituality. There is no such thing as a generic “Indian.”

But when it comes to non-natives, King seems, at times, to resort to the very lack of nuance and tendency to generalize that he deplores when it comes to talking about First Nations. He talks about “whites” and “Christians” and “capitalists” and “North Americans” in very generic ways, as if these all seamlessly flow together, as if all whites are capitalists, as if all North Americans think the same way when it comes to aboriginals, as if all Christians are colonialists…

… or as if all people from Lethbridge were a bunch of small-town bigoted racists. To pick one entirely random, impersonal, non-defensive example :).

I don’t think that King actually thinks this way about all non-Native people. But his language, at times, could certainly leave this impression. Of course, King’s ways of speaking about “whites” and “Christians” are entirely justified in specific (innumerable and depressing) historical situations. Many of them, in fact. But not all. The truth of any matter is often incredibly complex. It takes a great deal of care and caution to use our words to reflect it accurately, but I think it is also worth the effort.


Finally, I was pleased to be invited to become a part of an online blog network called MennoNerds. I’ve not often felt particularly “nerdy” (or Mennonite-y,” for that matter) but it’s nice to be included amongst a pretty thoughtful crowd of Anabaptist writers who are saying some interesting things about what it means to follow the Jesus way in the twenty-first century.

You can check out the blogs that make up this network by clicking the link above or the MennoNerds badge on the right sidebar of my blog. Once you’re there, you can also “connect” via innumerable other Twitter-y, Facebook-y things there as well.  I think. I still can’t bring myself to use the words “Twitter” and “tweet” in serious conversation. I usually end up saying “Tweeter” or “twit…”

Um, I have no further comment.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya #

    Poor Piper. I think he was actually trying to be encouraging and direct people toward God in a horrible time, but that back fired big time.
    I totally agree, in these cases, less words and little more work would be helpful. I sure hope that is being done by everyone, but especially the church.

    The cover on the “Inconvenient Indian” seems to give a good summary of what might be in the book. I should read it but know it will be so depressing.
    “The truth of any matter is often incredibly complex. It takes a great deal of care and caution to use our words to reflect it accurately, but I think it is also worth the effort.” I agree with this as well, but it also means I should probably never talk. sigh.

    May 24, 2013
    • I think Piper’s intentions were good, too. They usually are, however regrettable what comes out of his mouth/computer sometimes is. I don’t think he’s nearly the monster many people portray him to be, even if I think his theology paints him into certain corners that he can’t get out of—especially when it comes to the problem of evil and suffering.

      But on Twitter…. Good intentions can VERY easily get misunderstood, misconstrued, etc. It seems like every week I read some article saying how important it is for pastors and other leaders to be up to have a “social media presence” to “connect with the people they serve. Maybe. But I think this week has provided us with very good evidence for “maybe not.” This is as true for Piper as it is for the many people who have been, at times, unfairly tearing into him via social media.

      I think many (all?) of us could do with a bit of “not talking”—at least for a while—when it comes to human pain and suffering.

      May 25, 2013
  2. mike #

    CONGRATULATIONS on your acceptance into the MennoNerds network,Ryan. You have the special gift of an unusually clear and sharp intellect… You may be someone of noteriety someday 🙂

    May 25, 2013
    • Thank you kindly, Mike.

      May 26, 2013

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