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Posts from the ‘Love’ Category

Final Exam

I often talk to people who feel like they’re failing. Failing God, failing their kids, failing their spouses, failing their church, failing their colleagues or shareholders, failing to realize their potential, failing to optimize, prioritize, maximize. Sometimes the people I talk to about all this failing are the voices in my own head. Life is conceived of as some kind of a test or a race or contest with winners and losers. It’s remarkable how frequently people who, by all outward appearances seem to be thriving, or at the very least keeping their heads above water, feel like they’re not measuring up.

One of my guilty pleasures during this pandemic has been reading Joshua Ferris, an American author who seems to specialize in narrating some of the bleak, tedious, and darkly hilarious dimensions of modern life. He is perhaps best known for Then We Came to the End, which is an absurdly hilarious window into of a group of co-workers negotiating office life in a Chicago advertising agency. His most recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, follows the life of a certain Paul O’Rourke who, according to one summary, is “a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.” He’s a character just conflicted enough to be thoroughly believable.

Ferris has also written a collection of short stories called The Dinner Party. In one story, “Life in the Heart of the Dead,” a middle-aged advertising salesman from Cleveland finds himself on a business trip in the city of Prague. Despite being in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, he is unable to muster up much enthusiasm for the sights and the sounds, the castles and cathedrals, the monuments to great historical moments and figures. He is bored out of his mind on an official tour. It all just feels a little pointless to him, a parade of meaningless events in the “continuing shit show” that is the world. He’d rather find a Starbucks or sit in his hotel room.

One day, the unnamed salesman finds himself on a bridge in Prague, looking out over the water, pondering what his life has even amounted to. The possibility of suicide briefly flickers across the screen of his consciousness, the “terror of failing to even merit attention” searing through his synapses:

What was wrong with me? Here’s what I feared would happen one day. After a lifetime spent in a hurry, I’d wake up and realize that there was never any destination, life was all tour, and in a paradox beyond comprehension, some more real destination would be revealed, one I could never have dreamed of, and at last I’d see that I’d come in dead last.

I suspect that there are few people—at least among those who reach a certain stage of the journey—who don’t at least occasionally have similar thoughts. We scurry about our days, chasing affirmation and competence, trying to prove to ourselves and others that we’re doing ok, and then one day we wake up and wonder if we’ve even understood the rules of the game we’re playing. Maybe life is about the journey, more than the destination, we say. Or some other cliché. Maybe all the worthy things I’ve been chasing after are an illusion. Or maybe it’s all more real than I imagined! Maybe I’ve missed the point! Maybe I’ve wasted too much time on what will not last! Maybe time’s almost up and I’ve been lapped by the field! God, how I hope I’m not failing the exam…

I know someone who is currently in the midst of treatment for mantle cell lymphoma. He’s grinding his way through chemo right now, and more aggressive treatments are on the horizon. His immune system will basically be wiped out and “reset.” He is facing an uncertain future with an inspiring combination of grace and determination. I told him this the other day—that I admired him, his realism, his courage, his faith in the midst of it all. “Well, it’s like final exams,” he replied. “You don’t want to take them but they’re part of the course and you can’t avoid them.” No. I suppose you can’t.  

Christian faith can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, we believe that faith actually asks things of us. It matters how we live our lives. It matters whether we give ourselves over to love and to the pursuit of justice and peace or to their ugly opposites. It matters if we are oriented toward the inversion of value that the kingdom of God proclaims, where last are first and first are last, where the unlovely and broken, the poor and the needy, the ones constantly stepped on or stepped over are somehow “blessed” and reveal the priorities of God. How we choose to live and who we choose to align ourselves with matters. We believe that God is constantly calling us to become the human beings that we were created to be, to the glory of God.

And yet, on the other hand, Christian faith also speaks loudly of a grace that is available for all the failures and the screw ups, the ones who keep on making the same dumb mistakes over and over again, the reckless and wasteful, those in crisis and those leaving a path of destruction in their stupid wake. The sinners who sin in ways that we can understand and those who sin in ways we’d prefer to distance ourselves from. We believe that God shows up in all the ugly, un-sanitized corners of our world and our lives and speaks of a mercy that goes far beyond our scorekeeping. Christianity is nothing if it is not also a word of hope for those who feel like they’re coming in dead last in a game they barely understand.

Final exams do come. And they do reveal much about who we are and what we’ve give ourselves to. Perhaps the most staggering truth of the gospel—the hope proclaimed by Easter—is that the ultimate reality with which we all have to deal is not a test that we succeed or fail at or a destination that we find our way to or miss the mark entirely, but a Love that bursts out of an empty tomb, overwhelming all of our striving, redeeming all of our failures, reconfiguring the landscape of reality entirely. All shall be well, the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich famously declared. And perhaps it shall. I would never bet against the possibility in the aftermath of an empty tomb.

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The image above is taken from the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar and is the one chosen for Easter. It’s called “Benediction,” by Brenda Strichter.

“You’re Not Very Nice”

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

What’s the Matter with Death?

Reading a book about the philosophy of the mid-life crisis is comparable to being on the receiving end of targeted advertising for Rogaine. You instinctively resent the fact that you now represent a category of humanity for whom this could even plausibly be relevant. Alas, haughty resentment is about as useful in stalling the clock as it is in stimulating long dormant hair follicles. I have thus far resisted the siren call of Rogaine. Mid-life philosophy books? Evidently not. Read more

So Much to Love

I spent part of a cold February morning reading two things: a chapter on the phenomenon of “missing out” from an average book on the philosophy of mid-life and a 2015 article on the marvel that is legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady. I suppose it’s a fittingly ironic combination. While most of us in our mid-forties are pondering lives left unlived, Brady seems, by all outward appearances at least, to keep irritatingly living his best one. Read more

What’s the Sky For?

A few nights ago, my wife and I watched a quirky Irish romantic comedy called Wild Mountain Thyme. The film itself was fine, nothing spectacular, but an interesting story if only because it strayed a bit off the beaten path as far as rom coms go. Two eccentric single farmers struggling to find each other in the midst of navigating a land dispute in the middle of Ireland doesn’t exactly scream “blockbuster” or “financial windfall.” Not caring much about these things is a feather in any film’s cap, in my books. Read more

Good Graces

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

Beauty Calls

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about beauty. This is perhaps a strange thing to be thinking about in a year as ugly as 2020 has been and may yet be. I could catalogue all the ways that 2020 has under-performed but this is hardly necessary, right? You’re all sentient beings and have likely been tethered to your screens just like everyone else during this pandemic. And at any rate, one gets tired of obsessing and complaining about ugliness after a while. There is a seemingly limitless supply of it and the outrage/fear/anxiety machine of the internet keeps it ever before us. Perhaps some more pleasant fare will be welcome.

Read more

On the Occasion of Your Nineteenth Birthday

Hi kids,

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

To Love Another

Some people don’t know how to respond to throwaway questions. You know, the kind of verbal ephemera that so many us daily traffic in to fill up social spaces? The classic example is, of course, “How are you?” We’re rarely really interested in the answer to the question. We mostly just pause long enough for the obligatory “fine, “good,” or “busy” before moving on to the next item on the agenda. But occasionally people forget their lines and do crazy things like actually tell you how they’re doing. Maybe this pandemic has opened up some time and space for reflection. Maybe we don’t have as many important things to rush off to. Maybe we’re finding more time to ponder the “normal” we’ve lost or are in the process of losing. Maybe we’re doing some re-evaluating of priorities and asking questions about what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it. Read more

On Staying Safe

Stay safe. You hear these two little words a lot these days. They serve as the tag at the end of the phone call, the coda for the email, the last words before signing off yet another Zoom meeting, the wary exhortation as you watch your son head off to a shift at the grocery store. These two words have become part of the furniture of our leave-taking, virtual or otherwise, during the days of COVID. Read more

Memento Mori (Or, a Few Thoughts while Social Distancing Through the Rocky Mountains)

I spent two of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic practicing social distancing in my van. My daughter was attending college in British Columbia this year and late last week the directive came that dorms would be emptying, and students would have to return home. So, twenty-five hours in a forty hour period were spent bombing over the Rocky Mountains and back. Read more

Fix the System, Fix the Problem?

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

On “Inherent Worth”

One of the movies getting rave reviews these days is Just Mercy, the film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name. Stevenson is a defense attorney who has made a career out of fighting biases against the poor and minorities in the justice system, and often defending those deemed indefensible. It is, by all accounts, a powerful and inspirational story. I’ve not read the book or seen the film, but I plan on doing both.  Read more

Come

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my favourite songs each year around this time is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. There are endless versions of it, of course—this year, I’m enjoying Future of Forestry’s take on the grand old hymn—but I’m at least as drawn to the lyrics as any particular rendition of it. There are few songs that convey the depth of human longing and the beauty of the Christian hope like this one. Read more

Life Expectancy

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 Deepest Refrain

Lord God, you love us, source of compassion

These words provided the restorative refrain near the end of a Taizé service I attended with our local L’Arche community on Tuesday evening. Over and over again, we sang. Lord God, you love us, source of compassion. Until it was drilled down into our bones. Until the words wore down our defenses and settled into our souls. Until we could just about believe this most incredible of things.

We are loved. I am loved. By God. Read more

Love Loses

I’ve had some interesting conversations (online and face to face) recently with people about psychology professor and blogger Richard Beck’s ongoing series on the need for a “post-progressive Christianity.” He’s covered some interesting terrain in the series thus far, everything from how progressives approach the Bible to the phenomenon of deconstruction to how they understand the role of the church and others. In each case, Beck describes how he has found progressive Christianity’s approach to faith insightful in important ways, but also lacking in others. Hence the need for a “post-progressive Christianity,” however much some of us might cringe at the introduction of yet another “post” into our cultural lexicon. Read more

The Filthy and Excessive Gospel

In a world where deep reading is becoming the exception to the rule of skimming and grazing our way through the endless media that comes at us every day and from every angle, headlines are becoming increasingly important. If the headline doesn’t grab us, we won’t read on. There are just too many words out there and not enough time or attention to bother with them all. Poor headlines! They have to do a disproportionate amount of the work for a piece to even get a hearing! This is more of a confession than an indictment (although I suppose it could be both). I am the chief of sinners on this score. Read more