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
I received two pieces of rather severe correspondence before I poured my first coffee this morning. One was an online response to something I had written here that was picked up by another website. I had portrayed God as too merciful, I had ignored some of the more severe things Jesus said, I had failed to take Scripture seriously, I was dangerously misleading people, etc. I’ve received comments like this quite regularly over a decade of blogging, so it wasn’t particularly surprising. The other was a handwritten letter about the Canadian political situation from a stranger in another city (There was a time when, upon receiving letters like these, I would ask questions like, “Who is this person? Why are they sending this to me? What’s the connection here? I’ve since learned that these questions are very often futile…). This, too, was rather familiar in content and tone, and could be crudely summarized as a “sky is falling” type missive. Secularism, pornography, Shariah law, feminism, gay agendas, communism… The list was long, it was dire, and it required my immediate action. I sighed, and reached for my coffee. 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
I finally got a chance to see Silence over the weekend. The film arrived late in our town, and even then only in the second-run theatre (I imagine its themes were probably deemed “too religious,” and therefore not profitable enough for mass consumption). The film is Martin Scorcese’s long-awaited adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, and is set in the context of the 17th century persecution of Japanese Christians by the Inquisitor Inoue. It is a masterfully made film based on a beautifully written novel that asks hard questions about the nature of martyrdom and faith and fidelity and suffering, and, of course, about the silence of God. Read more
Anyone who writes or speaks or puts themselves out there in the public square in any way knows that people are often quite happy to offer feedback. Sometimes this feedback happens to be critical. Occasionally even constructively so. Other times it’s, well, not. This little delight, for example, made it’s way into my inbox as I was composing this paragraph. It’s in response to a piece I wrote about refugees a few years ago:
How many God and Jesus hating ragheads have u moved into ur guestroom, another idiot preaching to sovereign Americans? Really? Anger would be wasted on mental illness u self rightous pontificating communist I bet the answer is zero!
Lovely. Read more
We live in excitable and noisy times. Our heads are daily filled with big ideas, big objections, big reactions, big fears…
I’ve been trying to pay attention to smaller things.
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
A bit of controversy around the celebrated author Joseph Boyden has been dominating headlines up here in Canada over the last little while. Boyden, whose books include Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road, and the Orenda, has become something of an indigenous celebrity in recent years. His novels draw from indigenous history (The Orenda, for example, was based on the interactions between the Iroquois and the French Jesuits in the seventeenth century). He has also been an enthusiastic advocate for indigenous self-determination, even serving last year as a honourary witness at the closing event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 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
Attention is the mind’s desire.
This five words leaped off the screen when I read Joseph Clair’s fine essay “Our Own Devices” over at First Things this morning. The whole piece seemed like a living, breathing personal indictment, truth be told. But those five words, they thrust a question that I often do my best to avoid right to the front of my consciousness: what does the object and quality of the attention that I pay say about the nature of my desire? 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
I have been known, on exceedingly rare occasions, to exasperate my children (and my wife… and, um, other people…) with my insistence that language be used with as much precision and accuracy as possible. Many a pleasant mealtime has been rudely interrupted by a certain irritating someone insisting that a word was being used incorrectly. An unwelcome rupture in the proceedings, if ever there was one, and invariably followed by withering glares and the measured rolling of eyes. Still, I bravely soldier on. We all have our crosses to bear. 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
Most pastors know that the time immediately following a service can be a black hole for anything resembling deep conversation. This is probably appropriate, on some levels. A busy foyer full of people and conversation is not exactly the best time or place for existential crises or deep queries into the meaning of life. It’s a time and a place for cheerful banter and connection with friends and talk of weather and sports. Or, less cheerily, it’s a time and a place for the shuffling of feet and awkward attempts to say something polite about the sermon or to itemize one’s ailments and medical appointments for the week ahead or to complain about this or that. Either way, it’s a place for the ordinary chatter that is part of the glue that holds together any human community. 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