A friend of mine is a therapist. Sometimes she tells me about difficult conversations, painful stories, helpless moments. She’s always careful to keep things confidential and to protect her clients, of course, but even nameless sadness needs to go somewhere. Sometimes she asks me to pray. And I do. Pray, that is. Because I almost never know what to say. Read more
Posts from the ‘Doubt’ Category
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
“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
I was talking the other day with someone about the quirky ironies of the names of things. It’s weird, for example, that Iceland is actually pretty green. At least in summertime. And Greenland actually seems to be mostly ice. Why wouldn’t they call “Greenland” “Iceland” and vice versa. A strange thing, that. 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
I did a very embarrassing thing this morning. I purchased Def Leppard’s latest album. This is not the sort of thing that any self-respecting human being of the twenty-first century ought to admit to, I know. A quick glance at my recent purchases in iTunes reveals a much more acceptable (I hope) repertoire: The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Basia Bulat, Radiohead, Of Monsters and Men. This is probably a more accurate gauge of where my musical tastes have drifted over the years. Def Leppard is the paradigmatic example of the unimaginative late twentieth century glam rock that was the soundtrack of my small-town high school experience. They were big hair, big power chords, soaring engineered harmonies, and mawkish power-ballad-y lyrics about love biting or breathless paeans to endlessly getting rocked or adrenalized or something. In response to the screaming query from 1988’s massive hit “Armageddon It”—Are you getting it?—I can only reply, “Yes, yes, apparently I really am a-getting it.” Or I just got it, at any rate. Read more
Easter is a ridiculous thing. Come to think of it, there is a ridiculous quality to so much of what we as Christians claim.
Christmas—God-in-flesh, born in a feed trough to a teenaged peasant girl. Ridiculous.
The Sermon on the Mount—an idealistic approach to life if ever there was one, a recipe for little more than getting taken advantage of and abused. Naively ridiculous.
Palm Sunday—the “triumphal entry” of a king… on a pitiful little donkey… talking about peace. Laughably ridiculous.
Maundy Thursday—a master who washes feet. Weirdly ridiculous.
Good Friday—a self-proclaimed Messiah, executed like a common criminal, going out with hardly a whimper. Pitifully ridiculous
And now, Easter— the defeat of death, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26? Well, “ridiculous” barely seems to cover it. Read more
I got into the car this morning in a bit of a surly mood. A few things hadn’t gone as I had anticipated the previous day, I had received an unwelcome email that morning, and I was behind on sermon prep. Again. I stabbed the key into the ignition only to be greeted by the ear-splitting strains of the local top 40 station that my wife and daughter were, evidently, listening to on the way home from their evening activities last night. The part of the song that I was forcibly subjected to heard before frantically locating the combination of knobs that could lower the volume and/or change the station went something like, This is my fight song, take back my life song… Read more
I’ve been thinking about doubt over the past few days. It started when I read a recent piece over at Pete Enns’ blog about a pastor who confessed his doubts about the existence of God in front of his congregation. It continued when a friend pointed me in the direction of The Liturgists podcast, and particularly the episodes where the host (Michael Gungor) and co-host (Mike McHargue, or “Science Mike”) discussed their de-conversion and reconversion narratives. Especially interesting was the shape of the faith that was eventually returned to. Gone was the black and white faith of their evangelical upbringings. In its place was a postmodern faith more comfortable with grey, increasingly open to mystery, and less certain about the doctrinal content of orthodox Christianity.
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
Gretta Vosper has been making headlines for a while now. She’s the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. She also claims to be an atheist. According to a recent article at Vice News, Vosper realized back in 2001 that the idea of a supernatural being who intervened in the affairs of the world was a very silly thing to believe. She has, nevertheless, been soldiering on in her church for the last decade and a half in the service of the more worthy and “progressive” concerns that she feels the church ought to be about. Read more
I ran into two friends this morning for whom the month of August is an excruciating one. Two fathers for whom August is the anniversary of the unimaginably painful loss of a young daughter. For both, August brings an acute reminder of the ever-present reality of the gaping wound at the heart of their lives. For both, August means the rehearsal of a crippling loss that no parent should have to endure.
It is impossible to think of these two friends and their losses without thinking more generally about fathers and daughters. Read more
Five Reasons That I Am Developing a Strong Distaste For “Five Reasons People Are Leaving the Church” Articles
It seems like every second time I open my computer these days I come across the latest instance of what is becoming a very familiar (and obnoxious) brand of writing: the “Five reasons for ____.” genre. Sometimes this takes the form of an “open letter,” a form of writing that is surely unparalleled in its odious ostentatiousness (“Dear church, here’s why no one is interested in you anymore” or “Dear church, let me explain to you why all your young people are leaving,” etc.). Sometimes writers of these pieces come up with really clever and original titles like “Losing My Religion” (I’m sure R.E.M. would be pleased). But more common these days are plain old lists. “Five Reasons Why Nobody Goes to Your Church,” for example, or “Five Ways That You as a Pastor Can Stop Being So Boring and Lifeless” or “Five Ways to Stop Being a Soul-Sucking, Hollow Institution and Start Being Spiritually Vital and Appealing for Twenty-First Century Sophisticates.”
(Those last three may not have been actual titles, but, well, you get the point.) Read more
I’ve been thinking often over the last few days and weeks about the last three verses of the magnificent eight chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There was this radio program I was listening to today… They were interviewing some guy who was the executive director of a Christian relief organization who had spent decades in war zones and poverty and famine and disease… Some guy who had traveled around the world doing good in the name of God.
I was half paying attention when he told two stories. The first was about driving down the road in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and seeing a four-year-old boy stagger out of the bush, malnourished, barely alive, having been without water for nearly two days. His parents and other family members had died. There was nobody with him. He was all alone. Four years old. Read more
I got a nice little note today from someone. It was about yesterday’s sermon. It had, apparently, “made sense of a few things.” I appreciated the note. Very much. God knows there are enough Sundays where it feels like one’s words are scattered to the wind. Who knows if or where or how they land? It is nice to hear that a sermon has helped. Read more
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
This morning, I’m shaking out the cobwebs after a delightful week spent out in Winnipeg with the students, staff, and faculty at Canadian Mennonite University as pastor in residence. It was a week full of chapel talks and forums and lunchtime discussions and devotionals and informal conversations with students in the campus cafe and a whole host of other interactions and opportunities that have gotten all jumbled together in my weary brain. I feel a bit like a wrung-out rag, but in a contented, satisfied, grateful sort of way. It’s good to spend oneself in good ways with good people.
During my last chapel talk, I reflected a bit on the experience of being back on a university campus, about the memories it triggered, and about what advice, if any, I might give my younger university self from the vantage point that I now occupy a few years down the road. The following is a lightly edited version of some of what I said yesterday morning. Read more