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.
I think a lot about Joseph at Christmastime. Mary gets most of the headlines, and for good reason. She sings the song of the season, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour. She holds out the hope of a world turned right-side up, where wrongs are righted, where injustice is undone, where promises are, finally, kept. She is the object of devotion, admiration, even reverence around the world. We sigh as we listen to songs wondering if she knew what her baby boy would become for the world. We hail her, full of grace. We call her the mother of God. Nobody would call Joseph the “father of God.” Obviously. That would be blasphemy. But I still think about Joseph. Read more
Each year around this time, I find myself remarking to my congregation that the songs of Advent and Christmas give us some of our best theology. I’m sure they’re getting weary of hearing it by now. In my meagre defense, after a while one runs out of new things to say. At any rate, it’s no less true for my repeating it endlessly. Aside from just being a delight to sing, these songs give us marvelous lines like:
- Oh, love beyond all telling, that led thee to embrace, in love, all love excelling, our lost and troubled race.
- Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
- Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today!
- Hail the incarnate deity; pleased with us in flesh to dwell; Jesus, our Immanuel!
- Son of God, Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
There are days when the weight of human cruelty and carelessness seems almost too much to bear. I’m not speaking about the vicious climate of our political discourse or the endless shouting and posturing the dominates our news media—the wearisome, grinding tedium of left shouting at right and right shouting at left. This, too, is excruciating, but I’m thinking more prosaically today. I’m thinking of the middle school playground, or the creaking and groaning marriage, or the toxic workplace or the chaos and confusion of the dementia ward or the high school cafeteria. I’m thinking of the endless weaponizing of words, the myriad ways in which we are inhuman to one another in our everyday lives. Read more
I saw a couple standing in their driveway this morning on my way to work. They were young and clearly enraptured with one another in the way that young lovers are. They stood close together, their faces inches apart. They smiled and laughed and shuffled their feet. It was, in some ways, an ordinary moment surrounded by all kinds of ordinariness—winter jackets, half-melted snow, some gaudy Christmas lawn ornaments, an aging SUV, yesterday’s recycling. But it also struck me as extraordinary. Or, at the very least, heartwarming. A bit of romance at 8:30 on a Friday morning. Who would have thought? Just as they had almost receded from my view, I saw her lean in for a kiss. Read more
A few unfinished scraps and fragments are cluttering up my “drafts” folder, so it’s time for another “Miscellany” post. There’s a common thread that runs through what follows—something like “the truth and how we tell it”—but nothing cohesive enough for a single post, evidently. 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
There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery. Read more
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
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.
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
It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is a strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.
— Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light
Christian Wiman writes sentences that sound so good that you’re convinced that even if they’re not true, they probably should be. Like that last one: “Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.” I laughed out loud the first time I read it. It brought to mind the many eager beaver pastor-preneurs I’ve encountered over the years, people who so obviously craved the stage and all that went with it, people so utterly convinced that they could save every lost soul by the sheer force of their own conviction (and often volume). Or the people who are just a bit too desperate to plaster themselves and their causes all over social media, as if almost to overwhelm people with the innumerable exciting things that they are presently catalyzing. I have rarely found such people credible. Who are you trying to convince or impress? I often mutter unholily under my breath. No, I have never much appreciated the fevered sales pitch, religious or otherwise. Read more
After Saturday’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump offered this diagnosis of our cultural moment:
It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world. And something has to be done.
Indeed. All the hate is terrible. And something does have to be done. Many of us wonder if one of the first things that might be done would be for Mr. Trump to have a glance in the mirror (or his Twitter feed) and ponder some of the ways he might have contributed to “what’s going on with hate in our country,” but there is truth, however clumsily put, in what the US president says. What, then, is to be done about all this hate? 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
I was forwarded an email yesterday about “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I think I vaguely knew that this was a thing, but I had no idea that it was upon us. Apparently, one of the ways that my church can show appreciation to me is to give me a gift certificate for a discount on books. It’s a nice gesture. But honestly the last thing I need is more books. I already have a dozen waiting to be read and I have probably reached that stage of life and ministry where I am less optimistic than I once was that a book holds the key to whatever intellectual, pastoral, or administrative deficiencies I daily inflict upon my church. But, again, a nice gesture. And it got me pondering a rather simple question: Why appreciate a pastor? Read more
A headline on Facebook this afternoon caught my eye. It came from one of those Christian sites that’s always hunting around in popular culture (movie stars, athletes, etc.) for any whiff of a reference to God or faith. The headline in this case was “Drew Brees Gave a Moving Interview About Faith After Breaking the All-Time Passing Record Last Night.” Brees is a quarterback who plays for the New Orleans Saints. As of Monday night, he’s also apparently the all-time leading pastor in NFL history. So, he’s a pretty big deal. The headline on Facebook was accompanied by the words, “Grab the tissues.” Against my better judgment, I clicked the link. Read more
I have a dirty, shameful secret to confess. It’s a secret that will likely lay waste to my credentials as a pastor of integrity and compassion, a thinker of anything resembling depth and insight, a citizen with more or less centre-left politics, or even a reasonably decent and upstanding human being. It’s a secret that I do not expose to the light of day lightly. Truth be told, it would be far safer to keep it consigned to the murky shadows. No matter. My sins must be expunged.
My secret? Last week, I read a book by Jordan Peterson. 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