Over the last few months, no fewer than three people I know and respect have told me that I should listen to Justin Bieber’s new album. These are all people that know me well enough to understand what a musical stretch this would be for me. Each recommendation was met with slightly hostile incredulity from yours truly. Justin Bieber?! Seriously?! You might as well ask me to forfeit my soul. How would I even begin to salvage the tatters of my reputation? But three people. And people I respect. Hmm, what to do. Read more
There’s a woman who calls me at the church with some regularity. She calls from two or three different phone numbers and uses a handful of pseudonyms. I have a file full of the various names and numbers she’s used. I’ll call her Mary. The stories she tells vary. She’s dying or mortally ill. She has to get somewhere far away for a surgery and needs gas money. Her kids are terrible and mistreating her (and will probably be calling me soon to ask for money—don’t give it to them!). Her grandkids need food. She needs a hotel room. She needs a thousand dollars, but she’ll settle for fifty. This has been going on for the better part of a decade. I suppose most churches have a story or two like this. Read more
Last year at the beginning of Lent I decided that rather than giving something up I was going to take something on. I would read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What better way to journey toward Good Friday than by immersing myself in a serious theological reflection on the cross of Christ? I made it just over a hundred pages. I wish I could say I had a good reason for quitting, but I don’t really have one. I suppose I could blame COVID’s arrival in Lent 2020 and the way it colonized most of my mental bandwidth, but mostly it was just a combination of distractibility, apathy, and preoccupation with other (lesser) things. What can I say? The truth isn’t always flattering. Read more
As human beings, we’re generally pretty lousy at grace. We long for it in our deepest and truest moments, and we desperately need it, God knows. But we often struggle to receive it. We’d prefer to earn, to justify, to merit. Grace is for the weak and that’s not us. At least this is the impression we often give. We’re even worse at extending it, particularly to those we are convinced will treat it recklessly and wastefully. Those who most need it, in other words. We are far more interested in and skilled at scorekeeping and evaluating. This is our lane and we are too often happy to stay in it. Read more
Yesterday, a group of prominent artists, writers, and academics signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the rising tide of illiberalism and ruthlessly policed ideological conformity in public discourse. There are some impressive names on the list: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling are just a few of the more than one hundred fifty signatories who are growing increasingly uneasy about “cancel culture” and the censuring of any viewpoints that don’t align with the orthodoxies of the moment. Read more
Remember how last year I said I was done writing these rambling birthday letters to you now that you are adults? Well, I lied. You can add this latest transgression to the sad list that I’ve accumulated over nearly two decades as your father. Each year on this day I tend to dissolve into a puddle of sentimental nostalgia mixed in with a generous dose of neurotic longing for your futures and, naturally, this garbled mess has to find expression somewhere, right? You’ll thank me for this later, no doubt. Ahem. Read more
I spent Monday morning in a packed hotel conference room full of community leaders who had been summoned to hear a presentation on a plan initiated by our city called the “Community Wellbeing and Safety Strategy.” Like many cities, ours is facing significant challenges. Poverty, homelessness, crime, lack of affordable housing, and, of course, the scourges of addiction, mental health issues, and racism that bleed into all of the others. The opioid crisis is hitting our city hard. It is hitting the indigenous population particularly hard. And this spins out into all kinds of social realities that heighten suspicions and diminish good will in our community. The picture of the reality on the ground we were presented with was bleak. “We can’t fix these problems on our own,” the city representatives said. “We need your help.” Read more
Like many, I’ve been watching the comedy series The Good Place over the last few years. The show is set in a heaven-ish place designed as an afterlife reward for, well, good people. It’s a show that actually manages to tackle some fairly weighty conundrums of moral philosophy (What is the nature of goodness? How is it achieved? What does it say about us that we so naturally understand life as an arena for moral scorekeeping) in a fairly interesting way. I’ve not yet watched the last season (hurry up, Netflix!), but so far, it’s been entertaining fare. Read more
I don’t know, I guess I kinda just feel like something’s missing in my life… you know how people talk about that God-shaped hole or whatever…?
The person on the other end of the phone was young, a member of the disappearing (in church circles) and much-coveted millennial demographic. I was initially taken aback. I had been anticipating a riveting morning of responding to emails and doing a bit sermon prep while a blizzard raged outside. But wait, what’s this? A spiritually sensitive young person calling a church to ask halting questions about God, meaning, life?! It’s the kind of scenario that many pastors assume doesn’t really happen anymore. Except, well, maybe to other pastors in other places with bigger churches. Read more
The big news this week here in Canada is that a nearly-two-decades old photo has surfaced of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—heroic champion of diversity and inclusion and tolerance and fierce critic of their opposites—in brownface at a costume party. For scandal-hungry media covering an election campaign grinding along in a rather pedestrian and uninspiring fashion, with candidates trying desperately to make voters’ choices seem like something more sensational than they are (do we prefer a center-left or center-right government this time around?), this is of course pure gold. It was front page news on every major news media site this morning and I expect the commentary will continue for days. Read more
Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc. At other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck. Read more
I am learning that the jail is very often a place where simple narratives go to die.
This morning’s lesson was ostensibly about learning how to stop blaming parents and take responsibility for our own actions but, as is usually the case, the conversation tends to meander off in all kinds of loosely-related or unrelated territory. There was a younger indigenous woman who was sitting quietly while the lesson was read. She had spiky jet black hair streaked with blond, a few tattoos on her face, one that looked like a tear drop of blood. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she sat in stony silence throughout our time together. She didn’t look like she had much to say. Read more
Many Sundays, our worship service ends with me or someone else saying three words to the congregation: “Go in peace.” These are good last words. They are words I like to speak and words that I like to hear before heading out into another seven days of God knows what. Peace for the going is surely what each of us craves, even if only in the substrata of our consciousness. Read more
I’ve mentioned (and quoted) Ben Myers’ fantastic little collection of line-by-line reflections on the Apostles’ Creed a few times over the last little while. I’ve been going through it again this morning as I reflect on the beginning of the season of Lent tomorrow and, ultimately, the staggering hope of Easter coming. There were a few passages I encountered today that I thought were too good and too profoundly hopeful not to share. Read more
Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated. Read more
For churches whose preaching is lectionary based, one of the texts for this Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8. It’s a marvelous passage that describes Jesus in some of the most exalted language in all of the New Testament. The “faithful witness,” the “the firstborn of the dead,” the ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who is and who was and who is to come,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” It’s breathtaking stuff. The risen Christ is described as the source and goal of all creation.
There’s another section of this passage that we are perhaps not so readily drawn to:
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
Among the many interesting experiences of parenting teenagers is to listen to the same arguments one once used against one’s own parents turned back against oneself. When I was a kid, I remember trying to justify my music choices to my parents (or myself) with the argument, “Well, I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just like the music.” This was sorta true in that I wasn’t drawn to bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Motley Crüe for their, ahem, lyrical profundity. It was the crunching guitars, wailing vocals, and pounding rhythms that attracted my teenage heart. But of course, I knew full well that the lyrics were profane and raunchy, at best, offensive at worst. I doubt my parents found the “I just listen for the music” argument convincing then. I certainly don’t have much use for it when struggling through some of what passes for music in my kids’ minds these days. So it goes. Nothing new under the sun and all that. 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