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Posts from the ‘Theology’ 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.

The Monstrosity of Easter

I remember a few years ago I was hunting around for some music to listen to while preparing my Easter sermon. It was Holy week, so I thought I should try to find something a bit more inspirational than my usual fare. Perhaps some classical music. I surveyed the options on my streaming service. I was presented with two choices for Holy Week. How delightful! I read the description of each.

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Wonder Shining in My Eyes

I wonder if one of the central tasks of faith at this middle stage of life is that of reimagination. To unlearn the notion that faith is a “whoever dies with the most correct ideas about God in their head wins” kind of game. To open oneself to the possibility that when it comes to the things of God, it’s less about arguing than evoking, less about proving than reminding and revealing, less about heroically thinking enough right God-things or doing enough good God-things than loving mercy. Sigh. Even as I look at the preceding three sentences, I hate the soppy mid-life cliché that they sound like. Perhaps one of the other tasks of the middle-stage of life is to somehow come to peace with the cliches that we inevitably become. 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

Amidst the Flames

For the last four years or so, our church has taken the stretch of time roughly between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent to focus our sermons on questions of faith from members of our congregation. These questions range from the existential (Does God exist?) to the hermeneutical (What is the meaning of passage x) to the socio-cultural (What does a Christian response to this or that thing going on in the broader culture look like?). Needless to say, it’s a sermon series that forces me out of my proverbial comfort zone. I am sometimes thrust into issues and texts that I might prefer to avoid. I am also at least partially liberated from the confines of my own subjectivity and forced to read Scripture, experience, and the broader culture through the lens of other people’s questions. Which is good.  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

The Fullness of Time

Christmas is a time for joy. Perhaps this year, of all years, we could use a focus on joy as we draw near to the manger. I want to offer a brief reflection on those two words.

Time and joy.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:1-4).

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What If?

I wonder if it’s any coincidence that an essay called “What if You Could Do It All Over?” seems to be getting a lot of traction near the end of the darkest month of what has been a fairly bleak year? It’s fairly natural, on one level, to wonder about lives that might have been when we’re all living lives that we never imagined we would be and that few of us want (I suspect the bloom is coming off the proverbial rose even for those extreme introverts who half a year ago were joking that all this enforced social isolation was just what they’d always been dreaming of). Not to mention, it’s easy, when we’re all stuck at home for long periods of time, to wander off into nostalgia, romanticizing the past, and hypothesizing about what might have happened if we had chosen y or z way back when instead of x. Unlived lives can often serve as both reproach and escape. Read more

Things Are Bad, You’re the Problem, Do Better

For what feels like the six thousandth time, I sat down at around 3:30 MT this afternoon and watched the latest COVID update from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. I’m not sure why I do this, exactly. I suppose like everyone, I hope to see the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths begin to fall. Like everyone, I watch for signs of hope that the latest round of restrictions might be lifted. Like many over the last nine months, I’ve grown sort of accustomed to useless doom-scrolling and update watching. You want to feel like you’re up to date on this miserable virus that has so radically altered our experience. This is just what we do these days, I guess. Read more

Winners and Losers

I was captivated by an article over breakfast this morning. It was about a kid from a small town in southern Alberta who has improbably made his way to a massive NCAA college football program. Ajou Ajou is the child of South Sudanese refugees who grew up in Brooks, a rough prairie town whose demographics have been transformed in the last two decades by virtue of a massive meat-packing plant that aggressively recruited around the world for labourers. His is, in many ways, a classic rags to riches story. A poor immigrant kid with plenty of obstacles, growing up in a strange land, whose drive and determination, and no small amount of God-given talent, have led him to the top. His future looks bright. He is, against all odds, a winner. Read more

Trust Me

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately. As the global pandemic grinds into its ninth (tenth? eleventh?) month, I’ve noticed a decidedly weary and cynical thread in many conversations. People are fatigued, obviously. They are tired of restrictions, tired of uncertainty, tired of agonizing over how the bills will be paid, tired of being unable to spend time with people they love, tired of feeling guilty when they sneak in a bit of illicit social connection, tired of politicians and health officials wagging moralizing fingers at them daily. But beyond this, I detect a sort of resigned cynicism, a sense that nobody can be trusted, and nobody really knows what’s going on. This is a dangerous place to be. Read more

On Razors and Reasons for Being

I’m bald. Have been for roughly two decades. Perversely, I spent the previous two or three years before losing my hair shaving my head and bleaching the stubble that remained platinum blonde. I’m not at all filled with self-loathing for my poor choices on this score or bitter about going bald early or filled with jealousy for men my age who have full heads of hair. The fact that I pleaded with my son for most of his teenage years to grow his hair long so I could live vicariously through him has nothing to do with unresolved early-onset balding trauma. My proclivity to wear a hat anytime I’m not sleeping or preaching has nothing to do with vain contempt for my bald head. I like being bald and am fully at peace with it. Really. 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

More Than A Feeling

There are probably better things to think about than the toxic polarizing hostilities of our cultural discourse while riding a motorcycle through the Rocky Mountains on a glorious fall Monday. I could have simply exulted in the beauty all around me or opened myself up to mid-life epiphany of some sort or another. And to be fair, I did do a fair bit of the former—the Rockies in autumn are simply spectacular (no epiphanies to speak of, alas). But I had just listened to a podcast… and just finished a book… and read a few articles about the corrosive effects of social media on democracy and the world more generally. There were some things I just couldn’t get out of my mind. And you have to fill six hours alone with your thoughts inside a helmet somehow, right? Read more

Awe About Shock

It seems that an external review into complaints from former and current employees at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has uncovered “pervasive and systemic racism” and a “toxic culture.” A rather awkward finding for an institution devoted to, well, human rights. One might expect that if any workplace was to be characterized by equality, compassion, dignity, fairness, etc., it would be the CMHR. One’s expectations would, it seems, be rather too optimistic. Read more

How Does God Matter?

I was listening to a podcast the other day and the topic of “guilty pleasures during a pandemic” came up. What are watching and listening to these days? What distractions are getting us through the days? How are we spending our time now that we have so much more of it to spend at home? Even those admirable souls who are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to take up virtuous new hobbies like building their own furniture or making quilts for the less fortunate or learning a new language must spend the odd hour or two on less laudable pursuits, right? Right? The rest of us sure hope so. Read more

Why Pandemic?

Why COVID-19? What is the meaning of this global pandemic that we are all currently living through? This is a question that might sound nonsensical to many readers. It’s a rather embarrassing category confusion. Seeking to find “meaning” in something like a virus is silly, at best. Read more

The Liturgically Awkward Hope of Resurrection

If you’re anything like me, time has taken on a bit of a funny feel during these days of pandemic. Everything seems somehow off kilter, stretched out, indeterminate. It’s easy to feel like you’ve lost your bearings. Last week, I encountered one of the endless memes floating around social media these days (COVID-19 is thus far at least proving to be a reliable generator of these!) that captured what many of us are feeling: “In case you lost track, today is March 98th!” Sounds about right. Read more