I’ve been spending a good portion of this week preparing for the funeral of my grandmother. Good words are always important, I think, but especially at funerals. I feel this even more acutely when it’s the funeral of someone that I have known and loved. This morning, I was drifting around a rarely accessed bookshelf in my study and I came across a dusty old book called The Complete Handbook for Ministers. A number of books like this have found their way into my hands over the years, usually as gifts from retired pastors or people with a pastor in their family. I located the “Funerals” section and turned to the first page. There, I encountered a very peculiar section heading:
For an Outstanding Christian.
The season of Advent approaches and with it the ever-present temptation to dwell in the saccharine, the safe, the sanitized—harmless images of God’s coming that trouble us far less than they ought to. I feel this temptation every year. It’s easy to prepare for the coming of a harmless child that is with us but demands little of us. It was and is all too easy for earth to receive her king poorly. Read more
I spent last weekend participating in a church renewal workshop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I tend to be a little ambivalent when it comes to these kinds of events. Whatever “church renewal” is or might look like, it seems like the sort of thing that resists easy formulas or clever strategies. Also, I hate group exercises. But desperate times call for desperate measures. These are hard times for the church in Canada. The litany is familiar enough by now: shrinking, aging congregations, dwindling budgets, the evacuation of younger generations, the perception of irrelevance (or worse) out there in the broader culture, etc. The wearisome data piles up. Something, clearly, must be done, even if many of us have little idea what that “something” might be (or whether, indeed, it is all the church’s frantic “somethings” that are part of the problem). Read more
Most people recognize that to be a human being is to be on a lifelong journey in pursuit of two broad goals: to become the best version of ourselves that we can be and to contribute something of worth to the world around us. We don’t all do this very well or very consistently, but we generally realize that the idea is to try to leave the world a better place than we found it and to become a better person along the way. Read more
Perhaps it’s an utterly ordinary affliction of mid-life, but I find myself wondering often these days about what it means to make progress along the journey of life, whether this progress is physical, relational, professional, emotional, spiritual, or all of the above. It’s fairly normal, I suppose, to reach a certain stage of life and ask questions like, “Ok, how am I doing? Have I gotten any better at anything? Am I more disciplined now than I was at twenty-three? Have certain convictions grown sturdier? Is my faith stronger? Are my relationships healthier? Am I more confident in my vocation? Have I become a better husband, a more devoted father, a more faithful friend? Am I progressing on anything like a more hopeful arc in these important domains of life? Read more
I’ve often been asked a variation of a single question over the past few weeks. So what insights are you taking out of your sabbatical? It’s a natural enough question, I suppose, even if there’s a bit of pressure built into it. The expectation sometimes seems to be that three months away will have yielded a host of spiritual breakthroughs or ministry strategies or transformative insights. And those, as it happens, are in short supply during these last days of summer. Nothing quite that exciting, I’m afraid. I hope people won’t be too disappointed that I’m returning as roughly the same person that departed several months ago. Read more
There’s this mildly irritating phrase that I have encountered with some frequency over the course of the decade or so that I have been a pastor. I’m sure you’ve encountered something like it in your own circles, particularly in these post-Christian, post-church, post-everything times. Oh, I don’t mind church, but, you know, I encounter God best in creation. That’s where I worship. Nature is my sanctuary. Indeed. When I am on the receiving end of this phrase, I usually smile and nod in as gracious a fashion as I can muster. Inwardly, I am often thinking very un-Christian thoughts. Of course nature is your sanctuary. A rather convenient justification for avoiding this one, I would say. Read more
I made a rather remarkable discovery yesterday. Well, remarkable to me, at any rate. I have only preached one sermon on the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son in ten years (and that was seven years ago). This surprised me because it’s one of my favourite stories that Jesus tells. I’ve written about it a fair bit on this blog. I’ve described it in pretty breathless terms. But I haven’t preached on it much. This seems a rather glaring omission. Read more
Last night our little church had the opportunity to hear from what is a bit of a rarity in southern Alberta: a Syrian Orthodox priest. We have a connection with Father Lukas Awad that goes back three years. I first met him when he was touring the province with a group connected to MCC Alberta. Through a series of events, this initial meeting led to our group of churches sponsoring families from his parish in Homs that were refugees in Lebanon at the time. Father Lukas has thirteen families from his parish scattered throughout the province of Alberta, including six here in Lethbridge. Read more
Richard Beck is a blogger that I have been reading for quite a while now. He’s a psychology professor and “progressive Christian,” although he seems to have a level of distaste for the term that approaches my own. He has, in my experience, an ability that is rare among progressives—the ability to be unflinchingly self-critical and to acknowledge the challenges and inconsistencies that are bound up with many forms of “progressive Christianity.” His recent nine part series “On Tribes and Community” should be required reading for anyone interested in how faith communities are formed and maintained, and how our cultural and ideological context works against this. Read more
Holy Week is upon us, and with it the usual wearisome parade of articles and blog posts and podcasts offering more palatable understandings of Christian faith and crosses and empty tombs than the dreary orthodox fare. Rational people can obviously no longer be expected to believe the outdated and unbelievable story of miracles and dying for sins and actual coming-back-from-the-dead. But the narrative of Holy Week is still deemed to have a few residual nuggets of potential worth mining for us in our spiritual journeys. You’ll be relieved to know. Read more
I was at a lunch this week where Matthew 20:20-28 was read devotionally before the meal. It’s the passage where the mother of James and John seeks to stake out some territory for her sons in the kingdom of God that Jesus was always going on about and which she believed was imminent. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” They’ve been good boys, after all. They’ve left everything to follow Jesus. They’ve puzzled over his strange teaching, witnessed his miracles, and are now trembling with anticipation at the triumph that is surely coming. They’re primed to rule with Jesus and they’d like a front row seat (and a bit of power) when the action starts. Read more
I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.
— Linus Van Pelt
I suspect that most of us can, at various points of our lives and to varying degrees, identify with this statement that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz puts in the mouth of good old Linus. “Humanity” as an abstract category seems entirely worthy of love and good will. Individual human beings? Well, that’s another matter entirely. Read more
Up here in the Great White North (and it truly is white these days, caught as we are in the grip of a wintry blast!), the media has been having fun with our dear Prime Minister’s “peoplekind” comment delivered at a recent town hall in Edmonton. Some young woman made the calamitous error of using the word “mankind” in her essay-length question, and, as luck would have it, our fearless leader deigned to correct her. “We like to say ‘peoplekind,’ not necessarily ‘mankind.’ It’s more inclusive.” Well, yes. “Mankind” is a perilously uninclusive word (I know “uninclusive” isn’t technically a word, but if our PM can make up words, so can I). Also, “peoplekind” is much more 2018, much more fitting for our enlightened, unshackled times. Granted, a white middle aged man telling a young woman what words she’s allowed to use doesn’t sound very feminist, but I suppose I’ll have to defer to those more knowledgeable about such things. Read more
Earlier this week, I dropped my kids off at school after a long weekend at home and sent them forth with these inspiring words of parental wisdom: “Remember, be kind and gracious to each other.” As is the tendency of twins and siblings more generally, they have been known to (exceedingly rarely, of course) be less than kind or gracious to one another. It was one last desperate salvo before I began the long drive home. Please be nice, for heaven’s sake. Or at least for your worrying dad’s sake. Read more
Two recent conversations have me thinking about what I want to be when I grow up.
The first was with a recruiter for a Christian university over coffee a few days ago. I asked her about common questions that she gets from parents considering post-secondary education for their kids. She sighed, and listed off what was an unsurprising itemization of the requisite programs and degrees that would get their child the right kinds of jobs in the future. We mused about how little interest students (or educators) seem to have these days in things like virtue or being properly formed as human beings. Education is about dumping facts into brains so that these brains can then go out into the world and make money. You can figure out what kind of a person you want to be on your own time. Or not. So it seems, at any rate. Read more
Human beings spend a lot of time arguing about whether or not our beliefs are true. Even in these strange days where “I feel like” seems to have replaced “I think that” as the ultimate, ahem, trump card in a given dispute (how can you argue with a feeling?!), we still invest a fair amount of intellectual, emotional, and rhetorical energy into arriving at truth and convincing others of what we believe to be true. Even amidst of the mountain of lies that can sometimes seem to overwhelm our socio-political discourse, the truth of the matter still seems to matter to us. Read more
The end of summer (sadly) draws nigh and, like many, I have spent these dwindling days of August attempting to tidy up the clutter, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. I’ve tried to achieve a bit of focus, clarity, and equilibrium before September arrives This has meant tackling my physical desk, rearranging unread books and recycling correspondence that has been rendered irrelevant by inattention, and trying to wrest a bit of order out of the chaos of random files and documents on my computer’s desktop. Things need to be put in their proper place, after all. Here are a few bits and pieces whose proper place is, evidently, another “miscellany” post. Read more