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
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
I was precariously winding my way through snow-covered streets in my neighbourhood a few days ago, trying to keep moving so as not to get stuck. At one point, I glided through and unmarked intersection coming out of an alley, and just as I crossed the sidewalk I noticed a young man less than a meter from my side window. I wasn’t going fast—certainly not fast enough to do any kind of damage—but it still felt like a bit of a close call. Read more
A breeze was entering the room through the window and rushing about inside, giving small notice here and there. William would have smiled then, had he been the sort to smile. One envies such types—who do not smile. The rest of us go around like fools, and these few maintain such dignity.
— Jesse Ball, The Curfew
They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. I wonder about that. Sometimes it seems there is nothing easier than not to smile. 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
God of our salvation, all our longing is known to you, our sighing is not hidden from you…
So begins one of today’s prayers in the prayer book I use. Quite appropriately, as it turns out, for I do a lot of longing and a lot of sighing. Indeed, it seems like the older I get, the more longings I accumulate. I took an hour to make a partial list today. Read more
I often spend Monday mornings ruminating on the sermon I didn’t preach on Sunday. There are, of course, only so many things that can be said, only so many avenues to explore in a given text or texts in 15-20 minutes. There are usually many ideas and/or questions that never make it past the Saturday evening cutting floor. Sometimes it was because I didn’t have the courage to tackle them in public. Sometimes they weren’t relevant to the point I was trying to make. Sometimes there just wasn’t the time. Sometimes it’s all of the above. 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
Every Wednesday evening, I lead a bible study with a group of seniors in our church. It’s a pretty simple affair, usually. We read the passage(s) that I will be preaching on the upcoming Sunday, we talk about what it means, we close by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and then we have coffee and goodies.
We always begin our studies with sharing and prayer. Usually, this means a long list of people in our immediate orbits who are sick or suffering or struggling. Last night, however, we made a point of praying for those affected by this week’s stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in British Columbia. A young man walked into an ordinary school on and ordinary day and took life. A thirteen-year-old girl killed, a fourteen year old injured. Christ have mercy. Who can understand these things? We have few categories up to the task of coming to terms with the hows and the whys of such acts. 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