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
Posts from the ‘Jesus’ Category
“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.
I sighed purposefully and did my best to demonstrate what I imagined to be the appropriate combination of pity, learned disdain, and faux superiority. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something like, “Well, you know, we mostly just shake our heads…” My young friend nodded appreciatively and we proceeded into the safe and fruitless terrain of Trump-bashing for the next few minutes.
I’ve thought about this conversation a few times over the last ten days or so. On one level, it wasn’t a particularly noteworthy discussion. To whatever extent I could be described as having political views, they seemed consonant with those of my interlocutor. But the conversation felt like a missed opportunity, in many ways. This feeling has increased since then as I have observed how the antics of Trump and Clinton seem to dominate the time, mental energy, and social media output of many of my friends south and north of the border. And my own.
Here’s what I wish I had said in hindsight.
Well, as a Canadian, I suppose I look at the election spectacle and am thankful that, at least for now, we have been spared the misfortune of the two choices that you Americans are faced with. But our politics and our politicians are hardly perfect either. We don’t have the enormous media machine that you do, with the voracious appetite that requires constant feeding. We don’t tend to tolerate or validate the megalomaniacal personalities that you do in politics. And of course it goes without saying that we’re delighted that our prime minister has way better hair than either of your presidential candidates!
But our politicians are, well, politicians. They’re ruled mostly by self-interest and the desire to gain or retain power. They seem to choose the path of political expedience more frequently than the ethical one. They trade in insults and polarizing language with their political opponents and are mostly incapable of admitting when someone from the wrong political party has a good idea. They’re just like yours, for the most part, except maybe on a smaller and less noisy scale.
But “Canadian” is actually not the primary category in which I think of myself. I am first and foremost a Christian. And if you were to ask me what I, as a Christian think of your election campaign, I would say, “Well, I think that I should think less about it. I think all Christians should think less about it. And I think we should do less speaking and shouting and tweeting and hand-wringing and prognosticating and linking to damming videos and articles and engaging in apocalyptic dooms-daying and social media-branding and identity-politicking and all the rest of it as well. As a Christian, whose primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his kingdom, I should have probably have far less to say about the kingdoms of men.”
If my young American friend was foolish enough to ask me to elaborate further on these strange views, I might, with some trepidation, offer this bit of advice to my Christian friends (and to myself!) during these dying days of the American presidential campaign:
- If you’re a Christian who happens to be Canadian, you’re in luck! As far as I can tell, they don’t let Canadians vote in American elections, so you don’t have to worry about it. You can return to posting cat videos on Facebook.
- If you’re a Christian who happens to be American, you do indeed have my sympathy. As virtually every American I spoke with on my trip a few weeks ago said, “We seem to be faced with the prospect of voting for the less awful of two terrible candidates.” I happen to agree. But I’m from Canada, so… See #1 above. Generally speaking, though, as in every election, if we are Christians and if we are convinced that we ought to vote (and it’s worth remembering that not all Christians are thus convinced!), then we simply vote for the candidate who we feel will do the most good (or the least harm, at any rate) toward promoting justice, equality, and peace for all. Just vote, and then go pray for forgiveness.
- Whatever nation happens to appear on our passport, as followers of Jesus we should never be in the business of pinning our hopes on governments to secure our “rights” or implement our preferred policies or legislate our moral convictions. It’s our job, as a church, to embody the values and positions that we are convinced Christ has called us to. And we ought to remember that we follow (and are called to imitate) one who set aside his divine rights, emptied himself and took on the form of a slave (Phil. 2:1-11). If we mean what we say when we claim to follow this king, we should be very careful about looking to political authorities as means of securing influence and privilege and rights for the church. After all, things have rarely gone well for the church’s witness for Christ and his kingdom when it has been determined cozy up to the kingdoms of this world.
- The things that dominate our attention and our discourse and our sharing on social media are a fairly reliable indicator of what, ultimately, motivates us, and where we implicitly pin our hopes. Given the amount that the dog and pony show that is the American presidential race is showing up on my social media feeds and in everyday conversation lately, I can only conclude that there is little that is more important to my Christian friends than this. Politics has usurped eschatology, it seems. This is where our hopes and fears are negotiated these days. The church is useful to the extent that it validates and affirms our political opinions, perhaps. Or it is relegated the harmless sphere of “what I believe about spiritual things on my own time.” In either case, the church has shrunk to far less than what it has been and ought to be in the Christian life.
- It’s worth remembering that Christians have historically survived far worse kings and tyrants than either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. Indeed, the church has not only survived terrible and oppressive political leadership, it has thrived and grown (spiritually and numerically). You might even be able to make the case that the church was its most faithful when it had the fewest rights, the least political influence, and was most actively despised and ridiculed. At any rate, whenever we’re tempted to think the end is nigh due to the specter of a Trump or Clinton presidency, we ought to mentally rehearse some of the brutally violent and shockingly immoral political leaders that the church has endured around the world over its two thousand years or so. We’ve seen quite a bit worse than this, if perhaps not in such lurid detail.
- Even if—unimaginably!—things turn out to be as apocalyptically bad as supporters of Trump and/or Clinton are convinced things will be if their opponent is elected, even if the church is dismissed and abused and neglected and loses whatever political influence it had, or even is actively persecuted, our prayer as Christ’s church ought not to be, “Help us get back to where we were!” or “We need to make America Christian again” or “God, give us a better president!” but “Help us to suffer well in imitation of our king. Help us to take our place among the faithful witnesses that preceded us who refused to bow down to lesser kings. Help us to be the church, instead of a vaguely religious political interest group. Help us to show, in word and deed, that we believe what Jesus told us: that we are a city on a hill, that we are salt and light. That this, more than anything else in the world, is what defines us, is who we are, is what we have been called to be and to do.”
There was a headline yesterday, the day after the big US presidential debate, that made me despair of being a human being in the twenty-first century. I guess to be precise, it was a tagline underneath a headline, but it was no less depressing for being in a smaller font. The tagline wasn’t found on some trashy tabloid website where you would expect to find a predictable parade of click-baiting garbage. No, this was a national mainstream media article. The offending sentence read thus:
Find Out Who Lied About What and Why 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
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m spending this week hanging out with a bunch of 8-12 year olds (and older kids serving in various other capacities) at a summer camp northwest of Calgary. I’ve been speaking at chapels in the morning and evening, eating with the staff and kids, swimming in a freezing cold river, sitting around fires, and and generally loitering about the place for the rest of the time. At the risk of stating the obvious, speaking to young kids does not exactly represent my natural habitat. But it’s been good to be dragged out of the comfortable and familiar for a stretch. Read more
There are times, even amidst the gloriously lazy days of bright sunny mid-summer, when it’s difficult not to despair of being human. I was sitting with friends at various points yesterday, enjoying casual conversation, catching up on the news, on current events, on stuff going on in people’s lives… At least three different times we came to a point in the conversation where someone said something like, “Ok, this is getting depressing. We need to find something else to talk about.” 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
Over the last number of years I’ve reflected often about how we inhabit this shared space that is the Internet. The ability to interact online is a marvelous gift and one that, as someone who has been blogging for nearly a decade, I am immensely appreciative of. But to the surprise of precisely no one who has spent more than five minutes online, the shared spaces of our online discourse can also be profoundly uninspiring in countless ways. See any comment section anywhere. The human capacity for coarse vulgarity, tribalistic stupidity and willful misunderstanding and misrepresentation is apparently limitless.
The prayer book I use for Ordinary Time operates on a four-week cycle of prayers, beginning with a daily movement through the sentences of the Lord’s Prayer—the words given by Jesus in response to a request as simple as it was (and is) drenched in desperate need: “Teach us to pray.” This morning’s sentence was a very timely one: Forgive us our sins. Timely because, well, I can’t really think of a time when I don’t need to forgive or to be forgiven. Read more
I was warned, this afternoon. Me and a few hundred others who had gathered for a funeral. Me and a few hundred others who sat, silently, grimly, in a cavernous and spare sanctuary while a stern man in a black suit stood in an elevated pulpit and admonished us with grave fingers wagging. I was warned that death was coming for me and unless I renounced the ways of the devil and repented of my worldly pride and attachments, that my fate would be a fiery and tortuous one. I was told that there was nothing good in me and that I could never stand before the righteous judge of the earth. I was told that God has his elect and we must never question God’s ways. I was warned to keep watch for the temptations of Satan because Satan likes to provoke criticisms and doubts during times of death. Read more
A few Sundays ago, my daughter bought two little sheep. She needed these little beasts to provide companionship for her peculiarly needy horse who was losing her previous roommates to another pasture. My daughter’s horse has, in the past, demonstrated an affinity for sheep. She thinks they are her offspring or something. It’s strange. And strangely effective. A trip to the pasture these days consequently yields a fairly odd spectacle of symbiotic co-dependence on a number of levels, but as long as peace is preserved, I suppose it’s all good. Read more
One day I will probably need to offer to pay for my kids’ therapy given the number of times that I have used them and the stories and conversations they inhabit as fodder for my writing and speaking. I can imagine the script already: It was literally like we could barely open our mouths about anything God-ish without dad pouncing all over it and subjecting it to tortuous analysis in some sermon or on his blog or something. It was like he was always waiting for us to produce some “moment” that he could exploit for his own ends. It was kinda pathetic, really. And they would be right. Mostly. In my meager defense, I would say that I have always tried to look at everyday life as the raw material through which God speaks and, well, my kids just happen be involved in most of the days of my everyday life. Not much of an excuse, I know. It’s all I got. Read more
A few years ago, I spent a week at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg as “pastor in residence.” It was an interesting week full of informal conversation, public lectures, worship services, and question and answer sessions. Toward the end of the week, I attended a lunch with a group of students who were considering pastoral ministry. Near the end of our time together, I was asked a simple and entirely reasonable question: “If you could offer one piece of advice to those either considering pastoral ministry or those taking their first steps toward it, what would it be?” 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
We often hear a steady stream of words about what Jesus “did for us” around this time of year, around this stage of Holy Week. Last night, at our church’s Maundy Thursday service, we shared a simple meal together and walked through the familiar story from Jesus’ arrest to crucifixion. We do the same thing each year, and each year something new stands out to me. This year, I was struck the things that Jesus didn’t do for us as he walked the tortuous path to Calvary. Read more
My first night in the West Bank came to a rather abrupt, if expected end with the Islamic call to prayer (adhan) outside my window at 4:00 am. The song from the muezzin was haunting and beautiful. And rather longer than I expected. Given that I had collapsed into bed around 9 pm the previous evening after a long (and sleepless) few days of travel, and given that going back to sleep in the circumstances would prove spectacularly unlikely for me (I have a hard time sleeping well at the best of times, never mind when traveling), I decided I might as well do what I was told and get up to pray. Read more
Tomorrow morning, dark and early, I will be heading up to the Calgary airport for the first leg of a journey that will end in Israel a day and a half or so later. A few months ago, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a learning tour to Israel/Palestine put together by MCC Alberta. The departure date has kind of snuck up on me in the midst of what has been a full first few months of 2016, but now that it’s here, I’m very excited to go. Read more