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
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
It’s 11 PM ET and I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Harrisburg, PA reflecting on the week thus far at the 2015 Mennonite World Conference. It’s been another full day and I should probably be more tired than I feel, but I’ve been sleeping poorly all week so I’m not even going to bother trying until after midnight. I think my body is still on Mountain Time. What better time, then, to try to scramble a few thoughts together on the MWC experience so far? Read more
Some Sundays are better than others. Every pastor knows this. Every parishioner surely knows this. Some Sundays the seats are filled, the music is glorious, the prayers and the stories and the sermons are crammed full of inspiration and provocation. Some Sundays there are unexpected divine surprises that catch you off guard and move you to tears. Some Sundays are incredible, and I am pleased with whatever contributions I have made to the worship of Christ.
And other Sundays? Well, not so much. Read more
The official news showed up where all things show up these days: on my Facebook feed. Right there next to cheesy inspirational slogans and idiotic videos and family photos and passive-aggressive politicking…
It is with profound sadness and regret that the Bethany College Board of Directors announces that the conclusion of the 2014-2015 year will mark the end of the ministry of Bethany College in its current iteration.
It wasn’t a surprise to me—I had seen this sad news coming for quite a while, had been talking with my twin brother (the academic dean) about it for months—but I was surprised at the way my heart sank when I read the announcement. Surprised by how surprised I was to see the words on the screen. December 10, 2014. The day the news came that another small Canadian Bible school—an institution that has been around since 1927—would be closing its doors. Read more
A few completely disconnected thoughts on an early summer Wednesday…
I went to see the latest Transformers movie last night. I wish I was joking, but, alas, it’s true. My kids are at the age where they have evidently graduated from little kid Hollywood crap to big kid Hollywood crap, so off we went. I was expecting very little and my expectations were barely met. Lots of explosions and digitally generated creatures and explosions and lame dialogue and explosions and tired old Americana and explosions and—oh, look! The robot trucks have discovered some robot dinosaurs and they will together vanquish the other robot things!—and mass destruction and chaos and explosions and a lame teen love story and a lot of very bad acting. And very loud impressive explosions. Did I mention those? Read more
Over the course of the month of May, the MennoNerds blogging collective that I am a part of has been reflecting upon how “Anabaptist distinctives” impact our thinking and living in the world. A while back, fellow MennoNerd, Tyler Tully wrote a piece called What are Anabaptists? where he outlined three core Anabaptist convictions:
- The centrality of Jesus above all things
- The essential community/free church of confessing, baptized disciples
- The prophetic and non-violent witness of God’s peace.
The challenge subsequently went out for all of us to write our own blog post on how these three convictions influence our own faith and practice. Read more
Our church has spent two hours over the past few Sundays wading into the potentially stormy waters of dialogue about human sexuality as part of our national church’s ongoing discernment process. Among the many interesting things that came up over the course of a very stimulating (although far too brief) conversation was the question of the boundaries of sin. “Why are we so hesitant to use ‘sin’ language?” was one question. Why indeed. It’s a good question. Read more
So, 2013 is drawing to a close, which means it’s time to take a peek in the rearview mirror and reflect a bit on the year that has nearly passed. In the blogging world, this means—what else?!—highlighting the most read posts on this blog over the past 365 days or so. It’s an imperfect tool of evaluation, obviously—a cursory count of clicks and page views hardly provides an accurate assessment of meaningful or substantive engagement—but I suppose it give some sense of the themes that drew people here over the year. Whenever I look at statistical summaries on this blog, I find myself scratching my head. That was my most-read post?! I don’t even like that one! Why didn’t ____ make the list? Posts that I am convinced are the best thing the internet has seen since, well, two hours or so ago languish in obscurity while others that I dashed off in twenty minutes generate more traffic than I would ever have expected. I suppose such is the nature of blogging. Read more
It happened again the other day. That predictable conversation that begins with, “So what do you do?”, traverses through the awkward terrain where it is discovered that I belong to that most bizarre and incomprehensible of categories—“pastor”—thus placing myself outside the boundaries of ordinary humanity, and ends, inevitably, with a tortured query about what kind of creature, exactly, a Mennonite might be. I can almost write the script by now: “You’re a what?” “Why would you want to do that?” “Don’t Mennonites drive horses and buggies and wear only black?” “How many kinds of Mennonites are there?” “You’re a what?! Add a few variations here and there, for colour and variety. Rinse and repeat. Read more
This morning was an errand-running, back-and-forthing, radio-in-the-car-listening kind of morning. Part of the time was spent listening to an interview with the “The Minimalists.” Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Milburn are currently on a mini-tour through Alberta to promote their book called Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life. It’s a familiar enough riches to rags kind of story. A couple of young, single, fabulously wealthy young men gradually discover that money and stuff can’t buy fulfillment and happiness and they decide to downsize. They flee the trappings of corporate America for the mountains of Montana where they live simply, write books, start a website and a small indie publishing house, and do all kinds of other things to spread the gospel of simple and intentional living. Wonderful stuff.
Today, however, was not the morning for me to hear the clarion call to simplicity and minimal living. Today is a day when I am feeling less than enthusiastic about the merits of smaller and less. Read more
How can the Mennonite Church be future-proofed? I clicked on the link with bit curiosity and no small amount of trepidation. It was an interesting choice of words. “Future proofed?” Would that be possible? Desirable? It turned out to simply be a brief article—with the much less exciting title of “Introducing the Future Directions Task Force”—about a group that was going to be looking at the issue of how to work toward financial sustainability at the conference level. No five easy steps, alas… Read more
The denomination in which I serve—Mennonite Church Canada—is currently asking its congregations to engage in a lengthy and challenging process of facing challenging difficult ethical issues of our day (issues around human sexuality, religious pluralism, pacifism, environmental concerns, etc.) head on and discerning together what the Spirit seems to be saying to us regarding how we are to respond as followers of Jesus. The “Being a Faithful Church” process is an attempt to put hands and feet to our theology. Mennonites affirm, among other things, the importance of community, the priesthood of all believers, the inappropriateness of hierarchical power structures and modes of relating to one another, and freedom of the Spirit to lead us into deeper and truer understandings of Scripture. The “Being a Faithful Church” process is an (ambitious!) opportunity for churches to demonstrate that we actually we believe what we say we do. Read more
Over the past two thousand or so years the Christian church has consistently, in its worship, its leadership structures, its pedagogy, and its general ethos, deviated from the spirit and intent of the community Christ envisioned. Rather than becoming a community of believers gifted and called to participate together in the ongoing task of becoming disciples of Jesus in life and worship, the church has become an institution maintained by professionals. There have been exceptions along the way, to be sure, and of course God has seen fit to work with and through the church with all of its errors, but the general trend throughout most of church history has been to move away from multivoiced communities of active participants toward monovoiced institutions filled with passive consumers. It is time for this trend to change. This is the provocative thesis of Sian and Stuart Murray Williams in their book The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church. Read more