I am usually quite suspicious of oft-repeated expression, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Actually, “suspicious” might be putting it rather mildly. I have something bordering on a pathological loathing of this phrase. It’s possible that I have even visibly shuddered in disgust in the various contexts where this expression makes its predictable appearance. I usually encounter it in people who either refuse to consider church in the first place or who have left it behind for the usual assemblage of real or imagined grievances. Or people who can’t be bothered to think very hard about what they might believe or why but like the idea of seeming a bit deeper than they in fact are. Or people who imagine that they have grasped the deeper truth that all religions are inadequately and intolerantly pointing toward. Or people who like yoga. Or people who think that all religions are neat and cool and inspiring except for when they say things that don’t confirm what they already think. Or when they infringe upon personal liberties and preferences… or sleep habits… or weekend plans or… well, when they infringe upon anything, really. “I’m spiritual but not religious” very often seems to me to be among the more vacuous statements that a human could utter.
Oh dear. I did say that “suspicious” was putting it mildly, didn’t I? Read more
Some churches have the best locations. When I lived on the west coast I would gaze longingly at the sight of little churches with ocean views or in the heart of leafy green neighbourhoods with fruit stands and local markets and beaches nearby. When I’m in the Alberta Rockies, I often sigh plaintively at the sight of houses of God that dwell in the shadow of snow-capped mountain peaks. During my travels in Europe or South America or the Middle East, I frequently marveled at majestic cathedrals in historic cities or sturdy stone sanctuaries in quaint seaside towns or humble chapels in the midst of touristy cities devoted to more hedonistic pursuits. It would be so much easier to serve the Lord and his children in such impressive and inspiring surroundings, I often wistfully imagined.
My church, as it happens, is a stone’s throw from a meatpacking plant. Read more
It was cold last Sunday, and it started to snow minutes before the morning’s activities at church were to begin. I threw on a hat and some gloves and went outside to shovel the entrance to the church and a few of the closest parking spots. I like shoveling snow. My job requires little of me physically, and I enjoy expending a bit of energy. I had also been struggling to tie up a few loose ends in my sermon and I figured getting a bit of fresh and frosty air might clear my head before church began. Read more
When her father died she had immediately stopped going to church. If prayer could not even keep your family alive, she did not see what good it was. But after she and Hank moved to Houston, she had started going again. You were marked if you didn’t. She did not really think about whether she believed, though in the past decade her faith had come back, and they said that was all that mattered. Being old, you had no real choice—salvation or eternal nothingness—and it was no wonder who you saw in church, it was not young people with hangovers and their entire lives ahead of them.
— Philip Meyer, The Son
The last sentence of the quote above confirms what many observe and comment upon when it comes to church demographics these days. Churches are full of old people. Old people who still come either because they have been so thoroughly socialized into church attendance that they can’t imagine not showing up, or who are at a stage in their lives where they have nothing left to do but cling to the consolations of religion. Like all stereotypes, it is crude and rigid and doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, but I suspect that there are few among us who wouldn’t at least nod in recognition of these sentiments and the general trends that animate them. Read more
Over the past few weeks, a number of people have inquired about my thoughts on a recent study conducted by Canadian scholar David Haskell which draws a strong connection between theological conservatism and church attendance. According to the study, churches that interpret the bible more “literally,” hold to more traditional theological doctrines, and are open to more contemporary expressions of worship tend to be the ones that are growing, while those that emphasize their opposites are shrinking. The study has shown up in the Globe and Mail and The Guardian, among other places. A few days ago, Haskell himself authored an apologia of sorts for the piece, being loosely connected to the liberal Protestant tradition that the study seems to cast in a negative, or at the very least ineffective light. Read more
Over breakfast this morning, I watched a video called “Welcome to Canada,” produced by The Atlantic. It is a fascinating window into the lives of Syrians who have fled their country and found a refuge in our nation. This particular story takes place in the Vancouver area and follows a young Syrian man who came to Canada in 2014 as a refugee, and is now doing what he can to help the most recent wave of refugees who have arrived in 2016. The outlines of the story will be familiar to anyone who has been following the news over the past few years, but is no less poignant for being familiar. Obviously.
God of our salvation, all our longing is known to you, our sighing is not hidden from you…
So begins one of today’s prayers in the prayer book I use. Quite appropriately, as it turns out, for I do a lot of longing and a lot of sighing. Indeed, it seems like the older I get, the more longings I accumulate. I took an hour to make a partial list today. Read more
There was a grizzled old man sitting outside the coffee shop yesterday morning. He was dirty and unshaven; he was missing a bunch of teeth and had dirty clothes. He was just hanging out by the garbage can, twirling a single cigarette in his grimy hands. I made eye contact and he perked up. “Hey brother, can you spare a bit of change?” I looked him up and down. “Do you want a coffee?” I asked. It was a bit chilly outside and I figured it would warm him up. He grinned sheepishly at me. “Nah, I just need some cigarettes.” I sighed (hopefully inaudibly). I asked him where he was from (Williams Lake, BC) and where he was going (Montreal). We talked for a few minutes more. I gave him a couple of bucks and went inside to get a coffee. He lit up his cigarette. Read more
So, the world is today waking up bleary-eyed and incredulous to a Donald Trump presidency. Most of the people in my social media orbit are stunned, shocked, angry, grieving, horrified, anxious, fearful, and whole host of other grim adjectives. I can’t recall encountering this volume of doom and gloom before breakfast in quite some time. The once-laughable prospect of someone as reckless, crude, ignorant, arrogant, childish, and spiteful as Donald Trump ever occupying the White House has now become a reality. Read more
Midway through last week, someone encouraged me to periodically attempt something like modern “retellings” of Jesus’ parables during my sermons. In other words, rather than drily “explaining” the stories Jesus told, just try to tell the story in a new way. So, I gave it a shot yesterday. These stories are based on Luke 18:9-14, the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. What follows is, it should be noted, a work of fiction, even if it is obviously informed by various stories and experiences I’ve encountered along the way. Read more
“So, what do you Canadians think of our election campaign?” The question was accompanied by a wry, knowing smile from an earnest young man as we were finishing dinner at a restaurant along the shores of the Susquehanna River during a recent trip to Pennsylvania. As it happened, it was October 7, the very date that the recording of Trump’s lewd comments about women were setting the Internet on fire. And Americans, it seemed, could talk of little else. Read more
The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true.
So says Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer, and founder of an organization called “The School of Life,” a kind of church for atheists. de Botton started the school out of a conviction that religions have a few useful traditions, rituals, and practices that are worth borrowing and adapting in the ongoing project of becoming kind and fulfilled and generally decent human beings. The truth of the matter doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether there might be some useful things to salvage from these historical traditions as we continue the steady march of secular progress. Read more
“Hey pastor, what do you have to say about this graffiti? What do you think it means?” The question came from the teenage son of our German friends as we were walking around the old town of Rethymnon on a warm late-summer day on the Greek island of Crete around a month ago (Can it really be only a month ago?! This seems impossible given the unlikely wintry scenes that have rudely inserted themselves into early October on the Canadian prairies). I gave the image a quick glance and decided to do the responsible pastoral thing and turn the question back on my interrogator. “I don’t know, what do you think it means?” Read more
Maybe sometimes prayer is just “worrying out loud” before God.
So mused a friend over coffee yesterday when the subject of prayer came up. I was very relieved to hear this as I had just spent the previous forty-five minute motorcycle ride to the meeting worrying. Um, I mean praying. Read more
I spent thirteen or so hours this past week driving under the summer prairie sky. Saskatoon was the location of our Mennonite national church’s biennial gathering which I combined with a visit with my brother and his family. It’s a long drive and very flat. It’s the kind of drive that is easy to dread, particularly in winter months when the roads are bad and the landscape is bleak. It’s a drive I’ve done often enough but it’s not one that I’ve ever particularly relished. This time, however, the sky almost literally took my breath away. Golden yellow canola beside wavy green barley fields stretched out under this vast canopy of pillowy cloud and brilliant blue. Or, when the weather turned, spectacular scenes of dark, brooding masses of cloud. The sky seemed alive. Even when it looked threatening and portended fierce rain, it was a kind of strange comfort. It was the kind of sky that puts you in your place. There was a vast unchangeableness about it. It seemed the kind of sky that nothing could go wrong under. Read more
I was talking recently with a friend about the upcoming Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Saskatoon that I will be departing for tomorrow morning. Like many denominations, ours is wrestling with some familiar trends (aging, shrinking congregations and the institutional challenges that go along with this) and predictable issues (same-sex marriage, how to respond to our nation’s history of colonial attitudes and actions towards indigenous people, among others). And, like many (all?) denominations who live and move in the twenty-first century western world, we do not agree on how best to negotiate these trends and issues. On top of all this, our polity is of a radically congregational nature, so every major decision comes with years of consultation and clarification and feedback and response. And, at the end of all that, we usually come to the unremarkable conclusion that—surprise!—we have a wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues. Read more
I was warned, this afternoon. Me and a few hundred others who had gathered for a funeral. Me and a few hundred others who sat, silently, grimly, in a cavernous and spare sanctuary while a stern man in a black suit stood in an elevated pulpit and admonished us with grave fingers wagging. I was warned that death was coming for me and unless I renounced the ways of the devil and repented of my worldly pride and attachments, that my fate would be a fiery and tortuous one. I was told that there was nothing good in me and that I could never stand before the righteous judge of the earth. I was told that God has his elect and we must never question God’s ways. I was warned to keep watch for the temptations of Satan because Satan likes to provoke criticisms and doubts during times of death. Read more
A bit of a grab-bag of unfinished thoughts, provocations, and observations collected over the past week…
I spent my morning commute listening to the first few minutes of this week’s episode of On Being. The episode was an interview with Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner and had the delightfully breezy title: “Capitalism and Moral Evolution: A Civil Provocation.” I’ve not yet finished the episode, but I was struck by one line that I heard this morning:
As people become richer and safer, their values change.