There’s this fascinating conversation in Jesse Ball’s novel The Curfew. The scene is an undefined dystopic future, as so many seem to be, where a faceless government has assumed dictatorial control over an unnamed city. The people live in constant fear and anxiety, never going out after dark, always being careful not to cause any sort of ripple that might be noticed by the powers that be, living lives of weary resignation, whispering along the edges of shadows that never disappear. William lives with his young daughter Molly and makes his living as an “epitaphorist,” which entails visiting people whose loved ones have died or been killed, consulting with them about the words they want to adorn the gravestones of the deceased. Read more
Posts from the ‘Books’ Category
Each year around this time, I look out my office window on a wintry late afternoon and morosely note to myself how early it is getting dark these days. This is one of the delights of living in the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Sixteen hours of frigid darkness a day. Hooray. Read more
You know the drill, by now. “Miscellany” means fragmentary, unrelated mind scraps hastily assembled and lumped together for your reading, um, pleasure?
I’ve talked to enough pastors over the years to know that I’m not unique in saying that I have some ambivalence toward the whole “visitation” thing. Some pastors are born for the task and seem to enjoy it immensely, but I’ve also had numerous conversations with colleagues that run something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s not really my thing… It’s something I have to talk myself into doing… It’s hard to find the time…” And, of course, the ubiquitous, “I should probably do more of it than I do, but it’s just so hard…” Read more
A clergy friend and I were talking over coffee yesterday about how being in this line of work is something of a magnet for human pain. As soon as people find out you’re a pastor or a priest, they will often begin to rehearse their own private litany of suffering or their grievances against the church or their most recent existential crisis or whatever. Sometimes, this can lead to very rewarding and meaningful conversation. Sometimes, it can simply be overwhelming. Story after story of loss and crisis and doubt and health problems and “Where oh where is God in all this?!” What do you say, pastor? Sometimes I don’t really have anything to say, whether because there’s very little to say or because I’m tired or just not really in the mood to hear one more awful story, thank you very much. Sometimes I don’t really have any room on my agenda for anyone’s pain. Alas, human suffering seems to care very little about my schedule. Read more
There are two dimensions of discipleship. One is the learning of habits and the forming of character, the shaping of commitments and the inscribing of rhythms, the training in disciplines and the facing of sacrifices. Some people speak as if that were the only part. But the other dimension is perhaps even more important. It is the acknowledgment of weakness, the asking for help, the naming of failure, the request for forgiveness, the desire for reconciliation, and the longing for restoration.
If we knew the truth about one another we would talk a lot more about the second than the first. But while the first inspires a confident proclamation, the second needs a tender application. The person seeking to articulate the Christian gospel in the face of fear must expect that God will be at least as visible and tangible in weakness as in strength—if not more so. For all the widespread insistence that the church has a difference message than the world, this conviction—that God is made known in weakness more than in strength—is perhaps the sharpest daily distinction.
And yet it is one Christian congregations find hard so hard to believe, to embody, to anticipate. Things will go wrong—faith will falter, clarity will fog, pastors will have feet of clay, congregation members will quarrel, long and sad periods will descend, relationships will fail, children will go astray, temptation will sometimes prove irresistible. The Bible is full of such things. So is the church. So should any account of the gospel be. These need not be moments when discipleship ends. They may be the moments when it begins.
— Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith
Last week’s earthquake in Nepal has, at last count, resulted in well over five thousand deaths and has crippled the nation in all the devastating ways that “natural disasters” do. We see these images and read these reports on our screens and we feel numb. We have few categories for such suffering. The weight of the pain seems too much to contemplate. We don’t know what to do or say or how to pray. For a while, at least. Read more
At any given moment, I have around half a dozen half-written blog-posts and/or fragmentary ideas lying around collecting dust in my “drafts” folder. Sometimes these turn into full-length pieces. Sometimes they just forlornly sit there for months on end until I either get sick of looking at them OR forcibly wrench them into a “Miscellany” post. Today, it’s the latter. 🙂
Here, then, my latest assemblage of ideas about totally unrelated topics… Read more
Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few that break and remake us, that lay our souls bare, that fire our hearts us with the hope of mercy like the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is a story for broken sons and weary daughters, for love-sick fathers and grumbling exemplars of grim-faced duty. It is a story that describes the homecoming we all, I suspect, hunger for, even when we are only dimly aware of it. It is the story of what God looks like and how God loves, no matter what we look like, no matter how poorly we love. Read more
Poetry doesn’t tend to agree with me. Or, more precisely, I don’t tend to agree with it. I’m too linear or dully rationalistic or unimaginative or… Too, well, something. Or, perhaps, not enough something. I so often just don’t get it. I read a poem (or, more likely, a few lines from a poem), scratch my head, struggling to decipher “the meaning” of the strange words and patterns, the unfamiliar arrangements of syllables and syntax on the page, furrow my brow, read harder, more determinedly, try, try again, and then retreat, defeated, tail between my legs, to the safety and predictability of prose. Poetry so often seems like a gleaming city I have never visited filled with sights and sounds that are destined to forever remain inaccessible to this provincial boy. Read more
I’ve been reading Tim Otto’s Oriented to Faith over the past few weeks as I seek to help our church have healthy conversations about sexuality. Like many churches, ours is characterized by a wide diversity of views when it comes to how the church should live with and think/talk about homosexuality. As we have these conversations, one thing that I am convinced of is that we need to make space to hear from a plurality of Christian voices on these matters, whether it is those who would have an “affirming” view or those whose perspectives would run along more traditional lines.
Or those that don’t fit nicely in any camp. Like Tim Otto. Read more
It’s a bit of a dreary Friday afternoon on a number of levels. There’s a screaming southern Alberta wind outside my window which makes my head hurt just to listen to it. I’m fighting some kind of a cold or flu or something that has been a most unwelcome and miserable companion since Wednesday or Thursday. And then there is the steady trickle of bad news on the church front. A combative email from a church in our conference that has decided to leave because of supposedly incompatible views on the authority of Scripture (and the ever-present threat of others joining them). A notification from the school I obtained my graduate degree from of a 30% reduction in staffing (coming on the heels of the closing of another institution that I am connected to). And, of course, the omnipresent reality of the state of the church in the postmodern, post-Christian West, with many shrinking, aging, and dying churches. Of course there is good news out there as well—stories of vibrancy and creativity in the church, stories of new life and growth. But some days… I don’t know. Some days it’s easy to feel as if the gates of hell are on the fast track toward prevailing… Read more
Over the last few weeks, I have been mulling over an interesting passage from Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila. Reverend John Ames, an elderly Midwestern congregationalist preacher is in conversation with his much younger new wife Lila, who has come to find rest, shelter, and love after a brutally hard life full of abuse and neglect. The conversation is about hell and the final judgment. Lila knows little of theology and metaphysics, but she has questions. Hard questions. How, she wonders, could the many people she has known who struggled and suffered so terribly on earth be made to suffer further in eternity because they didn’t become Christians? Who could believe this? She asks her husband how any of it could be true. Read more
For a while now, I have had the following quote from Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge taped to the inside of a handful of Bibles and displayed in prominent (i.e., unavoidable) locations in both my home and church office. I’ve posted the quote here before, but these are words that I could stand to hear again (and again and again) at the outset of a new year. It is a quote that speaks powerfully and personally to me. It speaks of the self that I would like to be, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of others, and for my own sake.
A rich self has a distinct attitude towards the past, the present, and the future. It surveys the past with gratitude for what it has received, not with annoyance about what it hasn’t achieved or about how little it has been given. A rich self lives in the present with contentment. Rather than never having enough of anything except for the burdens others place on it, it is “always having enough of everything” (2 Corinthians 9:8). It still strives, but it strives out of a satisfied fullness, not out of the emptiness of craving. A rich self looks toward the future with trust. It gives rather than holding things back in fear of coming out too short, because it believes God’s promise that God will take care of it. Finite and endangered, a rich self still gives, because its life is “hidden with Christ” in the infinite, unassailable, and utterly generous God, the Lord of the present, the past, and the future.
For most of this fall, our church’s worship has spent time dwelling in a handful of chapters from the back-end of Matthew’s gospel. This stretch of the first gospel (ch. 22-25) contains long, at times unbroken stretches of words out of the mouth of Jesus. Words to the religious leaders of Israel, words to his disciples, words to the hovering crowds. Words of clarification and confrontation, words of offence and judgment. Words that jolt and alarm and cause the scratching of heads. Words about vineyards and virgins and landlords and kings, and screwed up systems where the punishment rarely seems to fit the crime. Words about wasting opportunities, about not paying attention, and suffering the ultimate consequence. Words about weeping and gnashing of teeth, words about darkness and the eternal fires prepared for the devil. Words that sometimes draw us to and sometimes repel us from the One who speaks them. I have been struck throughout our trip through this portion of Matthew at what an enigma Jesus can be, at times. At how hard his words can sometimes be. Read more
There hasn’t been much of time for blogging this week, alas. I’ve been scrambling to get a few book reviews out the door, along with sermon work for Sunday worship and prepping for a series of talks for next week when I am in Winnipeg as the pastor-in residence at Canadian Mennonite University. So many words to assemble and rearrange and package in such a short amount of time… Maybe if I had, oh, I don’t know, planned ahead a bit better? Sigh. Read more
Sometimes life has a way of, I don’t know, settling in. Like a fog over the bay, like a dull, sometimes barely perceptible ache.
Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe it’s the result of seeing too many people hurting because of too many things. Maybe it’s the grinding cynicism borne of a shallow culture where we’re always trying to sell each other things or shout each other down. Maybe it’s the incremental erosion of youthful idealism, the gradual coming-to-terms with the fact that struggle and suffering and uncertainty will always be part of the furniture down here. Maybe it’s the residue of so many unanswered or strangely-answered prayers, so many unfulfilled or strangely–fulfilled promises. Maybe it’s a wondering if I am doing all I could or should in the world, if I am being all that I could or should be to those I love (and those I don’t). Maybe it’s the sobering recognition that I undoubtedly am not. Maybe it’s indigestion. Maybe it’s some combination thereof. Read more
I often hear some version or other of the well-worn argument that faith in God is for the weak, the intellectually deficient, the cowardly, the lonely, the marginalized and disenfranchised, or those staring down the prospect of death and grasping at something—anything!—to make their pain more bearable. The healthy, the strong, the educated and influential, the sane—these are imagined to have no need for such supernatural aids. Religion is a crutch for those who can’t (or won’t) face life as it really is, in all of its starkness. Read more
It’s been one of those weeks where what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with our cultures and communities, what’s wrong with the church, what’s wrong with me has seemed much more weighty and prominent than the many things that are undoubtedly right about each of the above. I suppose we all have weeks like this—weeks when the world somehow seems less like a stage for beauty and redemption and more like just a very heavy place.
It’s times like these that I am grateful for wise, trusted voices to elevate and sharpen my gaze. One such voice that I have come to trust over the years is that of Eugene Peterson. I spent some time reading his book, The Jesus Way this morning and was struck by this passage on the sin, salvation, and the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53: Read more