There, But for the Grace of God…

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc. At other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck. Continue reading “There, But for the Grace of God…”

Jesus and the Invalids

Jesus makes his way from the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem around 33 AD to our city in 2019. Jesus can do this because Jesus is alive and because Jesus shows up behind locked doors and along roads to Emmaus and over breakfast with confused disciples. Also, because, well, Jesus is God. He walks around our city streets to see what he will see. Continue reading “Jesus and the Invalids”

And Yet, Once More

To be a pastor is to regularly encounter people who find faith difficult. (It’s also to regularly encounter people who you suspect might find faith too easy, but that’s another post). There are all kinds of people in the post-Christian West whose faith kind of hangs by a thread. It retains a bit of nostalgic affection for Christian ethics, perhaps, and it craves the community embodied and offered, however imperfectly, by the church. It might even have an appreciation for mystery and a dim recognition that this life can’t be all there is. But it can often seem like not much more than a kind of half-hearted and undemanding openness to possibility. It’s a long way from deep conviction and bold faith in the great creeds of orthodox Christian faith. All that talk of virgin births and resurrection from the dead and judgment is too much to stomach. And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road. Continue reading “And Yet, Once More”

Wednesday Miscellany: Proselytism, Parasitic Morality, and a Punch in the Mouth

I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West. Continue reading “Wednesday Miscellany: Proselytism, Parasitic Morality, and a Punch in the Mouth”

You Give Them Something to Eat

I spent part of this morning packaging and delivering bread. Every three years, the Mennonite-ish churches in our area pool their time, talent, and resources to organize a relief sale for MCC (the relief and development arm of our denominations). And every three years, a friend in our church uses our church kitchen to bake bread for the sale. Like, a lot of bread. Like, three hundred and fifty loaves of bread. He arrives at 4:30 in the morning, turns on CBC radio, and works until late afternoon. Sourdough, whole wheat, muesli, raisin, white… The list goes on and on. He told me that this year he’s been doing push ups for three months to prepare for the physical toll of kneading and rolling dough. It had never occurred to me that you might need to train to bake bread. But then it would never occur to me to bake three hundred and fifty loaves, either. Continue reading “You Give Them Something to Eat”

The Filthy and Excessive Gospel

In a world where deep reading is becoming the exception to the rule of skimming and grazing our way through the endless media that comes at us every day and from every angle, headlines are becoming increasingly important. If the headline doesn’t grab us, we won’t read on. There are just too many words out there and not enough time or attention to bother with them all. Poor headlines! They have to do a disproportionate amount of the work for a piece to even get a hearing! This is more of a confession than an indictment (although I suppose it could be both). I am the chief of sinners on this score. Continue reading “The Filthy and Excessive Gospel”

Death of a Simple Narrative

I am learning that the jail is very often a place where simple narratives go to die.

This morning’s lesson was ostensibly about learning how to stop blaming parents and take responsibility for our own actions but, as is usually the case, the conversation tends to meander off in all kinds of loosely-related or unrelated territory. There was a younger indigenous woman who was sitting quietly while the lesson was read. She had spiky jet black hair streaked with blond, a few tattoos on her face, one that looked like a tear drop of blood. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she sat in stony silence throughout our time together. She didn’t look like she had much to say. Continue reading “Death of a Simple Narrative”

When the Water is Troubled

By the pool of Beth-za’tha and its remedial waters is where Jesus came across the invalids. Many of them, apparently. The blind, the lame, the paralyzed. The broken and discarded pieces of humanity that were and are easy to walk by. But not Jesus, of course. Jesus summons such people to life. Jesus says things like, Stand up. Take your mat. Walk. Continue reading “When the Water is Troubled”

The Movements of Faith

What is the primary movement of faith? More specifically, what is the primary movement of Christian faith. It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s a question that I’ve answered differently at various points of my life, in implicit and explicit ways. It’s a question that I answer differently at various points of the day, come to think of it. What ought the trajectory of a life lived in pursuit of the risen Christ look like? Continue reading “The Movements of Faith”

When the Guy You Baptized Won’t Take Your Call

Half a decade or so, I watched from the window of my study as a beat-up old truck covered in mud pulled into our church parking lot. I think it was on a Tuesday morning, just like today. The driver just sat there for a while. I watched from my window, puzzled. Were they lost? Confused? Was the Tim Hortons parking lot across the road full and they were just looking for a peaceful place to nurse their double double? Were they actually in the right place but struggling to muster the courage to come inside? Eventually, a young man opened the door tentatively made his way into the building. I’ll call him Duane. Continue reading “When the Guy You Baptized Won’t Take Your Call”

On Innovation

A few months ago, I did something I don’t often do. I attended a candidates’ forum during a provincial election campaign. I don’t tend to expect much from politics or politicians, and my low expectations were barely met during this event. There were plenty of platitudes and evasive non-answers, plenty of posturing and sniping, plenty of “questions” from the audience that seemed like either lightly informed speeches masquerading as a queries or fastballs down the middle of the plate for a preferred candidate. This is, it seems, what passes for political discourse these days. Continue reading “On Innovation”

Unstuck

There are questions that I encounter as a pastor that haunt me. I’m not necessarily thinking about the “usual suspects” here. Questions about the existence of God or why we suffer or the challenge of pluralism or the historicity of this or that biblical story or the conundrums of interpreting this or that passage or doctrine. These all represent familiar enough terrain and present their own challenges to faith. But the questions I’m thinking about today are much more personal in nature. Continue reading “Unstuck”

Pornland and Purity Culture: A Tale of Two Impossible Demands

A friend and I have been having a very interesting discussion this morning about a New Yorker article published yesterday called “A Sociologist of Religion on Protestants, Porn, and the “Purity Industrial Complex.” It’s a clunky title for what is a fascinating examination of how internet porn is affecting conservative Christians (who tend to have strong moral convictions in this area). In short, it’s leading to depression and unhappiness, it’s disrupting marriages, and it’s destabilizing communities. But is all of this because of the nature of porn itself, and the way it has been thoroughly normalized and made easily accessible in our culture? Or is it the impossible moral demands that these Christian communities make on their adherents? Continue reading “Pornland and Purity Culture: A Tale of Two Impossible Demands”

When the Women Showed Up

There were two mistakes made at the jail this morning. The first was that the security guard called the wrong unit to the chapel. So, instead of the one or two men who usually show up Monday mornings it was nearly twenty women. In most places, the error would be corrected, the wrong group sent back, the right group recalled. But nothing happens easily or quickly in the jail and we were already running late. So, we decided to just play the hand we were dealt. The circle was widened, more bibles were procured, more photocopies of lessons were made. The women had shown up and we couldn’t very well turn them away. Continue reading “When the Women Showed Up”

The Weirdest of Animals

Human beings are by far the weirdest of all God’s creatures. I say this with all due respect to the wild and extravagant diversity of the animal kingdom, much of which, regrettably, I remain woefully ignorant. The species of our world are truly bewildering both in number and variety, and their capacity to astonish and confound seems virtually limitless. But we are by far the strangest of the bunch. Continue reading “The Weirdest of Animals”

On Elections and Empathy

After a volatile and rancorous six weeks or so of campaigning (both by the candidates themselves and by their devoted and faithful supporters), it’s election day here in Alberta. There has been seemingly endless mud-slinging and accusations and labelling and self-serving platitudes. The UCP has mostly tried to frame this election as an overdue corrective for a staggering economy. The NDP has mostly tried to cast it as a referendum on progressive social policies. A friend commented this morning that this election might simply reveal what’s more sacred to us, sex or money. Probably not far from the truth. At any rate, I did my duty on the way to work this morning. I sighed, and I voted. Continue reading “On Elections and Empathy”

Genesis

I left the jail this morning feeling a heaviness that I have not felt in some time. I don’t go there each Monday with some big agenda—I’m not there to reform or convert or instruct, but to listen, to pray, to encourage. But most days, I get a glimpse of goodness through a conversation, a smile, a new insight into the human heart and the human predicament. Today was not one of those days. Continue reading “Genesis”

Bigger Barns

Another Monday morning, another trip to the jail. Again, only two guys show up. There was a third who just about made it, but he transgressed on the walk to the chapel (he said hi to someone in an adjacent classroom, which is not permitted, and which led to a voice over the loudspeaker just as he was entering the chapel: “Back to the unit…”). So, only a few plastic chairs occupied in the circle this morning. Continue reading “Bigger Barns”