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
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
In order to commemorate Valentines Day—a holiday I hold in only slightly higher esteem than World Turtle Day (May 23, apparently—mark your calendars)—I read a thoroughly depressing article about love and relationships. Naturally. The article was called “Unraveling Love Stories” and it reads as something like an apologia for the mid-life crisis and all the desperate and destructive flailings that it spawns. 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
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
Can we use your post? Over the last week or so, I’ve received three emails from various publications asking permission to re-publish something I’ve written on this blog. These requests are the new normal in a publishing context where words are ubiquitous and cheap, where content is increasingly accessed rather than commissioned. There are so many words flying about and so many editors desperate to find something—anything!—to capture a few eyeballs for a few seconds before they click on to greener pastures. I suppose it makes sense to recycle the words. Read more
Each year around Christmastime for the last decade or so, our family has a tradition of watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended versions, of course). We spread it out over six nights—a full week immersion into Middle Earth, as it were. Over the last two or three years, my ears have invariably perked up during Bilbo’s conversation with Gandalf near the beginning of the first film. Bilbo is tired and conflicted and ready to leave everything and everyone behind. Then, this memorable and evocative line: I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. 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
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
Yesterday morning began with a heavy fog. Heavy and portentous, as it turned out, because my day matched the weather outside. Foggy, dull, grey. It was one of those days where it’s difficult to summon the energy to contribute anything of value to the world. Days when it feels like a victory to make it to bed time without causing a fight or forgetting something or failing someone. Days when a kind of uncreative lethargy moves unbidden into the living room, kicks off its shoes and rudely puts its feet up on the table. Read more
A disparate collection of reflections on a few of the things that don’t work as they should for your Tuesday afternoon…
I listened to the most recent episode of This American Life while out and about this morning. The episode is called “Seriously?” and talks about the bewildering reality that this American election campaign has made plain: facts are rather puny obstacles when it comes to people’s political allegiances.
At one point, host Ira Glass grimly noted:
Never before have the facts been so accessible and never before have they mattered so little.
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
“Hey pastor, what do you have to say about this graffiti? What do you think it means?” The question came from the teenage son of our German friends as we were walking around the old town of Rethymnon on a warm late-summer day on the Greek island of Crete around a month ago (Can it really be only a month ago?! This seems impossible given the unlikely wintry scenes that have rudely inserted themselves into early October on the Canadian prairies). I gave the image a quick glance and decided to do the responsible pastoral thing and turn the question back on my interrogator. “I don’t know, what do you think it means?” Read more
I’m starting to notice the semi-regular experience of having coffee with someone and having them pause at some point in the conversation and say, “Wait, this isn’t going to end up on your blog, is it?” I usually wince a little and say something, “Well, it might. But don’t worry, I’ll keep it anonymous.” Usually this is reassurance enough (and, rest assured that when it isn’t, it does not end up on my blog!). I can’t really help myself, though. I get to have a lot of great conversations with people, often about important and deeply meaningful questions that are basic to human experience. It seems a shame to not write about these moments, to widen the conversation, as it were. This is what I tell myself, at any rate. Read more
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone… 1 Timothy 2:1
So begins one of the lectionary readings for the week—the reading, it so happens, that I am to preach on this Sunday. Pray for everyone. Um, okay. What shall I do once I’ve finished praying for “everyone?” Get cracking on world peace? The universality of the command seemed laughably absurd to me as I read it this afternoon. Who on earth could pray for everyone? And, come to think of it, who would want to? Read more
A funny thing happened after church on Sunday. One of our church members politely pulled me away from another conversation with the news that, “There are some visitors that want to talk to you.” I’m a little weary after the service at the best of times, but this past Sunday was even worse. I was coasting on fumes having just arrived home from Europe a day before and having been up for approximately eight hours by the time the service rolled around. My head was aching and my eyes were heavy. So it took a bit of effort to summon my best pastor smile and introduce myself to the beaming thirty-something year old couple that stood before me. 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