Once there was a great building. Mighty with towers, spiky with spires, a-bubble with domes. Inside it opened into gallery after gallery, vault after echoing vault, so high that human beings who set off across its marble pavements sometimes mistook its roof for the sky and the building for the world itself. And though it showed signs of many styles, and had been built by many different architects over many centuries, it had been standing so long than no one could remember when it wasn’t there, or suspected that it could ever fall. But it did…
Some of the rubble was gathered up by those who had particularly loved the building and assembled back into a much smaller structure—somewhere in size, say, between a cottage and a garden shed. The rest, however, lay where it had fallen; and the grass grew over it, and creepers disguised the biggest pieces of the ruin till they looked almost like outcrops of rock; and with a speed just as astonishing as the collapse had been, those who walked there forgot there had ever been a building, and took the bumpy hill beneath them for the plain and natural ground.
Last year, I wrote a post called “Thick Like Honey, Sweet Like Grace.” The title came from a quote in Matthew Perry’s recent biography. It was Perry’s own description of encountering God in the pit of his despair and addiction. The post was a reflection on the lack of this kind of “existential urgency” in some (not all) “progressive” Christian circles. It was a plea not to swap out a political agenda for an existential one. To not forget, in all our important talk and work for social justice, that there is an irreducibly personal and affective dimension to Christian faith. To speak urgently of both justice and mercy. There is room for both. We need both. Desperately so, it would seem, given the barrage of articles these days outlining how sad and lonely and anxious and hopeless so many people feel, particularly the young. Read more
I’ve been reading the Beatitudes for over three decades. They’re kind of like the constitution of Mennonite churches (or at least we’re often pleased to think so). The rest of the bible can be hard and confusing and bewildering and even offensive, so we’ll just double down on what Jesus actually said, thank you very much. And we’ll really zero in on Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, the most substantive continuous block of Jesus’ teaching, where he reinterprets and transcends the Law. And we’ll be laser-focused on the first eleven verses where Jesus talks about who is “blessed” in the kingdom of heaven. We’ll leave the theologizing and harmonizing of disparate texts to others. We’re just humble Jesus people. Read more
One of my abiding critiques of the more progressive church circles that I inhabit is that there often seems to be little, for lack of a better term, “existential urgency.” God is, we think, very interested in our positions on social issues and is very eager to affirm our journey through various constellations of identities. But not so much in sin or salvation or judgment or deliverance or a love that breaks in order to mend or anything that could conceivably set a soul aflame. In many progressive churches, God cares a great deal about our politics and our self-esteem, not so much about our souls. Read more
This week, Mennonites from across Canada will gather in Edmonton for our biennial nationwide Gathering. This year, the theme is taken from the opening words of 1 John: “We Declare: What We Have Seen and Heard.” What does it mean to speak of the good news and bear witness to the gospel of peace? A good and timely question, on the face of it, particularly in our disenchanted, polarized, guilt-ridden, merciless age. Do we still believe that we have any good news, for ourselves or for the world? Have we seen or heard anything worth bearing witness to? Is Jesus still worth gathering around? Read more
Well, the half-written posts and fragments and links and barely formed loosely connected ideas are piling up in my drafts folder. I need to do some digital (and mental) housecleaning, as it were. So, I guess today shall be a miscellany day. Here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks. Read more
At 7:40 am this morning, I watched my twenty-year-old son walk out the door in full military fatigues. He is a reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces and has duties for Remembrance Day ceremonies later this morning. As you might imagine, this is a bit of a strange and conflicted experience for a Mennonite pastor. I never imagined that I would have a soldier for a son.
A while back, I wrote a piece on, well, peace. And war. And feeling conflicted. And not knowing precisely how to think about it all. Watching my son walk out the door on Remembrance Day 2021 brought it back to mind. I’ve reproduced a lightly edited version below. Read more
I’ve been preaching roughly forty sermons a year for the last decade. I preached around twelve per year during the three years before that. By my (admittedly atrocious) math, that’s in the vicinity of four hundred fifty sermons. Which is, I suppose, a decent sample size from which to extrapolate. To detect some trends, to observe a trajectory. Or, I suppose, to chart a decline, depending on your perspective. 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
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
Richard Beck is a blogger that I have been reading for quite a while now. He’s a psychology professor and “progressive Christian,” although he seems to have a level of distaste for the term that approaches my own. He has, in my experience, an ability that is rare among progressives—the ability to be unflinchingly self-critical and to acknowledge the challenges and inconsistencies that are bound up with many forms of “progressive Christianity.” His recent nine part series “On Tribes and Community” should be required reading for anyone interested in how faith communities are formed and maintained, and how our cultural and ideological context works against this. Read more
The last few days have been full of expressions of patriotism and anti-patriotism. Canada’s 150th birthday was on Saturday. Today, obviously, is the big day for our American neighbours. The internet is, predictably, aflame with either nationalistic chest-thumping or withering criticisms thereof. There is, of course, plenty to be critical of. Canada continues to come to terms with and be confronted by its treatment of indigenous people, historically right down to the present. The USA struggles with all things Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda that seems content to kick a whole bunch of people to the curb. I suspect that no matter the insignia on our passport, many of us feel at least a little bit conflicted when it comes to waving the flag. And if we don’t, we should. Especially if we are Christians. As followers of Jesus, our national identities ought always to be worn loosely given our primary convictions and commitments to Christ and to his kingdom. Read more
For the past few days, I’ve been mulling over a recent short piece by Richard Beck. In it, he observes a paradox that runs through many strains of “progressive” theology (a term I despise, incidentally, but I’ve covered that ground before). Beck states this paradox succinctly: Read more
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. Read more
When her father died she had immediately stopped going to church. If prayer could not even keep your family alive, she did not see what good it was. But after she and Hank moved to Houston, she had started going again. You were marked if you didn’t. She did not really think about whether she believed, though in the past decade her faith had come back, and they said that was all that mattered. Being old, you had no real choice—salvation or eternal nothingness—and it was no wonder who you saw in church, it was not young people with hangovers and their entire lives ahead of them.
— Philip Meyer, The Son
The last sentence of the quote above confirms what many observe and comment upon when it comes to church demographics these days. Churches are full of old people. Old people who still come either because they have been so thoroughly socialized into church attendance that they can’t imagine not showing up, or who are at a stage in their lives where they have nothing left to do but cling to the consolations of religion. Like all stereotypes, it is crude and rigid and doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, but I suspect that there are few among us who wouldn’t at least nod in recognition of these sentiments and the general trends that animate them. Read more
I spent thirteen or so hours this past week driving under the summer prairie sky. Saskatoon was the location of our Mennonite national church’s biennial gathering which I combined with a visit with my brother and his family. It’s a long drive and very flat. It’s the kind of drive that is easy to dread, particularly in winter months when the roads are bad and the landscape is bleak. It’s a drive I’ve done often enough but it’s not one that I’ve ever particularly relished. This time, however, the sky almost literally took my breath away. Golden yellow canola beside wavy green barley fields stretched out under this vast canopy of pillowy cloud and brilliant blue. Or, when the weather turned, spectacular scenes of dark, brooding masses of cloud. The sky seemed alive. Even when it looked threatening and portended fierce rain, it was a kind of strange comfort. It was the kind of sky that puts you in your place. There was a vast unchangeableness about it. It seemed the kind of sky that nothing could go wrong under. Read more
I was talking recently with a friend about the upcoming Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Saskatoon that I will be departing for tomorrow morning. Like many denominations, ours is wrestling with some familiar trends (aging, shrinking congregations and the institutional challenges that go along with this) and predictable issues (same-sex marriage, how to respond to our nation’s history of colonial attitudes and actions towards indigenous people, among others). And, like many (all?) denominations who live and move in the twenty-first century western world, we do not agree on how best to negotiate these trends and issues. On top of all this, our polity is of a radically congregational nature, so every major decision comes with years of consultation and clarification and feedback and response. And, at the end of all that, we usually come to the unremarkable conclusion that—surprise!—we have a wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues. Read more
I spent a good chunk of this morning in an online discussion about the future of Mennonite Church Canada with a handful of other young-ish pastors from across the nation. It was interesting to be invited as I tend to be less suited to thinking on my feet at meetings or committees or focus groups than I am to writing blog posts where I can hedge my bets and endlessly qualify every statement and default to lame attempts at self-protective humour. I mostly agreed to participate in this converstation because I was frankly giddy at the prospect of being located in the “young-ish” category of something. Read more