I spent part of this morning taking a kind of personal inventory that often accompanies the beginning of a new calendar year. As is often the case, there was much to be grateful for and much that brought only sighing and sorrow. Progress—moral, character, spiritual, or otherwise—comes hard, it seems.
As I was thinking and praying on these things, I came across this quote from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic that made my jaw drop and my soul heave with grief and gratitude. He’s talking about being seen—truly seen—by the living God. About being known as we are and loved even still. Read more
In the course of a given week, I consume and produce a lot of words. I read books and articles, newspapers and blog posts, denominational publications and the detritus of social media. I send and receive what feels like roughly a billion texts/emails/messages per day. I pour forth my own stream of words via this blog and other forums. Many days, it feels like I am drowning in words. I suspect I am not alone in this. To say that in the digital age words are cheap and ubiquitous, disposable and forgettable is to simply add a few more to the pile. We have become grazers on words, rarely pausing to let them affect us in the ways that they should or could.
Every once in a while, though, a few good words will penetrate the fog of dull half-attention and listless consumption that is so easy to default to. Read more
The end of summer (sadly) draws nigh and, like many, I have spent these dwindling days of August attempting to tidy up the clutter, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. I’ve tried to achieve a bit of focus, clarity, and equilibrium before September arrives This has meant tackling my physical desk, rearranging unread books and recycling correspondence that has been rendered irrelevant by inattention, and trying to wrest a bit of order out of the chaos of random files and documents on my computer’s desktop. Things need to be put in their proper place, after all. Here are a few bits and pieces whose proper place is, evidently, another “miscellany” post. Read more
I ran into an old acquaintance in the grocery store last night. We hadn’t seen each other in almost twenty years when we were students at the same college. He had flown in from out of province to visit his ailing father. Our talk followed the well-worn grooves that these conversations tend to slide into: what do you do, tell me about your kids, what about church, college seems like a long time ago, I guess we’re getting old, smile, wink, sigh. Read more
Summer is a time for reading books. Fiction, in particular. This year, I have taken something of a vow to buy no more new books until I have at least made an appreciable dent in the pile of unread books that clutter my desk and clog my shelves. Among these, is Alan Paton’s classic novel, Cry, the Beloved Country which explores the injustice and social decay of apartheid-era South Africa through the lens of two families. It’s one in an embarrasssingly long list of books that fall in the category of, “Books I really should have read by now.” Read more
Back in May, I went to the opening night of U2’s 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree Tour. I have, consequently, been listening to what I think is one of the greatest albums ever made (although maybe only U2’s second best) off and on ever since. I listen to it in the car on the way to work, in the headphones while I’m writing, and while sitting with friends on the patio on warm late spring evenings. It’s crazy how an album I’ve been listening to off and on for thirty years doesn’t seem to get old.
A few nights ago, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” came through the little Bluetooth speaker on the patio table. As the song approached its lyrical and musical climax, the familiar words soared through the spring air:
I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
I just came across one of the best inadvertent definitions of blogging that I’ve seen in over ten years in the game, and couldn’t resist sharing it. This is from the preface of David Bentley Hart’s new collection of essays, A Splendid Wickedness:
The truth is that essays of this sort—composed sometimes in haste, always in connection with some particular occasion, rarely with any larger project in view—have the form of ephemera; songs written on leaves and then carried away to become the ludibria of the rushing winds.
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
There’s this fascinating conversation in Jesse Ball’s novel The Curfew. The scene is an undefined dystopic future, as so many seem to be, where a faceless government has assumed dictatorial control over an unnamed city. The people live in constant fear and anxiety, never going out after dark, always being careful not to cause any sort of ripple that might be noticed by the powers that be, living lives of weary resignation, whispering along the edges of shadows that never disappear. William lives with his young daughter Molly and makes his living as an “epitaphorist,” which entails visiting people whose loved ones have died or been killed, consulting with them about the words they want to adorn the gravestones of the deceased. Read more
So, words like “truthiness” and “post-truth” are rudely and forcibly inserting themselves into our collective consciousness and public discourse. The former, according to an article today in Macleans, refers to people’s “preference for concepts they wish were true over ones that actually are true” (sometimes referred to in distant bygone ages as “illusions” or “lies”); the latter points to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” Neither addition to the Oxford dictionary flatters us much as a species. Is it possible to repent for making such additions necessary? 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
She had the remnants of tears in her eyes when I saw her as I rounded the corner and pedaled down the alley toward my garage. I had come from a friend’s house where we had spent the Canada Day holiday afternoon watching the European soccer championships. It was a glorious day full of red and white maple leaf flags on the front lawns of our small town, the glorious sunshine lighting up the day after a ferocious thunderstorm. Summer had arrived and all seemed well in the world. But not for this young woman. Read more
To err is human, Alexander Pope famously said in his Essay on Criticism. Yes, it certainly is. And the more experience I have with this being human business, the more evidence I am afforded of this unpleasant truth. Read more
Each year around this time, I look out my office window on a wintry late afternoon and morosely note to myself how early it is getting dark these days. This is one of the delights of living in the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Sixteen hours of frigid darkness a day. Hooray. Read more
A clergy friend and I were talking over coffee yesterday about how being in this line of work is something of a magnet for human pain. As soon as people find out you’re a pastor or a priest, they will often begin to rehearse their own private litany of suffering or their grievances against the church or their most recent existential crisis or whatever. Sometimes, this can lead to very rewarding and meaningful conversation. Sometimes, it can simply be overwhelming. Story after story of loss and crisis and doubt and health problems and “Where oh where is God in all this?!” What do you say, pastor? Sometimes I don’t really have anything to say, whether because there’s very little to say or because I’m tired or just not really in the mood to hear one more awful story, thank you very much. Sometimes I don’t really have any room on my agenda for anyone’s pain. Alas, human suffering seems to care very little about my schedule. Read more
There are two dimensions of discipleship. One is the learning of habits and the forming of character, the shaping of commitments and the inscribing of rhythms, the training in disciplines and the facing of sacrifices. Some people speak as if that were the only part. But the other dimension is perhaps even more important. It is the acknowledgment of weakness, the asking for help, the naming of failure, the request for forgiveness, the desire for reconciliation, and the longing for restoration.
If we knew the truth about one another we would talk a lot more about the second than the first. But while the first inspires a confident proclamation, the second needs a tender application. The person seeking to articulate the Christian gospel in the face of fear must expect that God will be at least as visible and tangible in weakness as in strength—if not more so. For all the widespread insistence that the church has a difference message than the world, this conviction—that God is made known in weakness more than in strength—is perhaps the sharpest daily distinction.
And yet it is one Christian congregations find hard so hard to believe, to embody, to anticipate. Things will go wrong—faith will falter, clarity will fog, pastors will have feet of clay, congregation members will quarrel, long and sad periods will descend, relationships will fail, children will go astray, temptation will sometimes prove irresistible. The Bible is full of such things. So is the church. So should any account of the gospel be. These need not be moments when discipleship ends. They may be the moments when it begins.
— Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith
A friend of mine is going through a mid-life career transition and asked me to be a reference for him as he applies for jobs and considers his course for the next stage of the journey. Today, I was reading over his response to a series of questions about his biography and his theology, and was stopped in my tracks by this paragraph.
I have been learning little by little that there is an unrepeatable gift and grace in the life of each person and in each circumstance regardless of race, culture and creed, or of how broken, wounded, or sin damaged the person or circumstance might be. The depth I can know this in others is only as deep as I know it in myself and in my own circumstances. The recognition and affirmation of this truth is often the beginning of healing and transformation.
Every so often, the accumulation of paper and books and coffee cups and unopened correspondence on my desk crosses a threshold of clutter and despair that even I am no longer able to tolerate, and I begin take halting, tremulous steps to beat back the beast.. This often happens on Fridays on weeks when I am not scheduled to preach. Like today, for example.
Among my discoveries as I tried to wrest order out of chaos this morning was a monthly newsletter from our local L’Arche community. Read more