Several years ago I visited Charlottesville, VA to learn about some of the social initiatives run by churches in that town. Sadly, I remember very little beyond the fact that we had some fantastic barbeque. Reading about the horrific racism on display there last weekend has got me thinking a bit about nationalism and what it might mean to love one’s homeland well. I do not think it is incidental that many of the bigoted participants did not come from Charlottesville. Many came from other places but were united by an abstract idea–‘white nationalism’. Read more
It was early spring and raining. My family and I went looking for adventure in a woodlot near our house. A two-day downpour had melted much of the winter’s snow and the little stream that we could jump over in the summer now barely fit under the footbridge. When you walk in the rain you feel the relevant facts. Things are wet, cold, slippery. What’s true and important is obvious, which is to say it’s different than taking in the news.
As my wife and I talked, two of our boys ran ahead to explore. They had their bright rain jackets on and several layers beneath. It was still relatively cold. I was focused on our conversation when I saw a child in the water up to his shoulders. He was wearing a red rain jacket. For some reason, I did not comprehend what was happening. We learned later that our son had been walking through shin-deep silty water when he stepped over the submerged edge of a curve in the streambed. Immediately he was unable to touch bottom. He tried, quite calmly, to swim.
In Matthew chapter fourteen we find ourselves in the middle of a story about a massive picnic. It’s an appropriate passage to read as we worship here in the middle of the summer. When we read this story about Jesus feeding a crowd of people in the countryside we probably have a hard time getting beyond the miracle itself. The situation goes from food for one person to more than enough for 5000 in the span of a prayer. We should forgive ourselves if we imagine fireworks going off as Jesus prays, smoke rising as the bread is distributed and an end-of-the-period horn blasting as the last bits are collected. Waahmm!—times up, twelves baskets full of food left over. Jesus wins! Hurray!
It’s easy to read this story and think it is essentially a magic show. I had a student once that paid her way through school as a magician. She told me that every illusion is a story. A good trick is a story that pulls you in, just like a book or a movie. You can’t help but wonder how the rabbit got in the guy’s hat, or how the woman caught to bullet or how she knew which card you chose. A good magic trick gets you in a place where you can’t believe the story’s ending. Read more
A few hundred of us are sitting in what used to be a chapel. The Catholic symbolism is still there, covered by a layer of monochrome paint. There is a table and a lectern just in front of what would have been the apse. A young woman, she must be part of the event-planning crew, goes forward awkwardly at the last minute to turn one of the potted plants. Everyone wants to show their good side for a literary celebrity. Then three women appear from a side door. There is applause. The speakers are Margaret Atwood and Leah Kostamo. Atwood’s record was well known. She’s written more than fifty books and received about as many awards and honorary degrees. Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is currently appearing as a series through the streaming service Hulu. Kostamo is the founder of a Christian environmental center in British Columbia, Canada. The center’s name is hard to pronounce: from the mouth of the event’s moderator it sounds like a bug infestation, from others, like a purveyor of expensive chocolate. An advertisement for the event said that Kostamo’s presence would “broaden the conversation” beyond literary speculations by “providing a unique example of how life can imitate art.” The moderator is a professor at the university where we are gathered. Read more
We are in Matthew 13 again. This time our reading comes from verses 24-30 and 36-43. We’re walking with Jesus, as we’ve been doing all summer, and we’re watching and listening. Last week we heard the story of a farmer who scatted seeds on varied ground—some rocky, some hard, some overrun with thistles, just some of it good. We noticed then that if God’s goal is a high yield rate then God is a failure. This week we are still by the lake shore when Jesus tells another story.
The story is about a farmer who plants a grain field only to find it infested with weeds. Later we listen in as Jesus explains the story to his closest followers. Like last Sunday, I want us to hear this passage in the context of a world where the innocent suffer. Jesus used imagined stories to tell us something about God’s way with the world. Let me tell you a couple of real stories to remind us of how that world, in fact, works. Read more
Quite a while ago I was in a dining hall waiting for a meal. I found myself next to a fellow we’ll call John. We had chatted briefly the day before and realized that that both of us were a part of churches, so John began telling me about a man who had shown up at his place of worship several years before. The fellow was going through a very challenging divorce. There were children involved and all kinds of financial complications. He desperately needed someone to talk to. He also needed a place to work on his truck, so one day John invited the guy over to use his garage. They worked on the vehicle and they talked. They did this a few more times until the guy moved out of the province. Some time later John managed to reconnect with the guy. When they met John was given an enthusiastic hug and the fellow told him how important those simple conversations had been at that earlier time in his life. Read more
I would like to say something about what secularization feels like, but before I do I must tell you about something else. Late last summer I moved from a small town on the Canadian prairies, part of treaty seven territory, to the nation’s capital. The move itself was a bit of a chore; it was that even though a fellow named Russ drove a truck containing all my family’s belongings across the country so I didn’t have to. Before Russ showed up I did not know that loads on moving trucks do not go on and off directly as they would if you or I were driving our own things. I had thought that a driver would load a trailer with the belongings of one or more families in one part of the country, drive it to another part of the country and deposit each load in turn. This is not how it works. Instead, some bits of wire and silicon converse together to figure out how to move things across the map, wasting as little fuel and driving time as possible. Fuel and driving time are both costs, and costs, the bits of wire and silicon are told, must always be minimized. Read more
What can we say about a beginning such as Genesis describes? “Let there be light . . . .” A flash and, as it says, “there was light.”
The Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître developed a theory about the beginning of our universe. He hypothesized back from the observation of its continued expansion to the idea that at one time it must have all been concentrated in single point. Lemaître called this the “cosmic egg” or the “primeval atom.” The beginning of our universe, he suggested, happened with the explosion of this egg. As I understand it, it was Father Lemaître’s ideas that were the beginning of the theory we know as the Big Bang. For Lemaître there was no need to choose between a scientific description like his and the poetic biblical one. Both speak truthfully. Read more
On this particular Sunday, it is Pentecost Sunday, we are here once again to worship God. This is how we begin each week. But on this special Sunday we are also here to baptize and receive new members into our covenant community. This is quite something. It is an important day for those who will be baptized. It is also a sign of encouragement to the rest of us. God’s Spirit, that member of the Trinity who filled and emboldened the early church, is still at work. Read more
There is an old adage that says that someone in leadership should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I suppose this applies to anyone that has influence. Don’t let people get too settled. Unless they’re too unsettled, then settle them. In the ministry of the church the idea can be traced back at least to Gregory the Great. He was a bishop in Italy at the end of the sixth century. Gregory was born just a few decades before the prophet Muhammed. Before he became a church leader Gregory was a public administrator for the city of Rome. Once when he was walking by a slave market he noticed something strange: young slaves with peculiarly pale faces. They were ‘Anglos’. The image of these foreigners stuck with him. Later when Gregory became a church leader he sent missionaries to Britain. Gregory is known for brokering peace with invading armies and for organizing a system of care for the poor. His liturgical reforms gave us Gregorian chant. He has much to his name, but it’s this idea of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” that grabs my attention today. Let’s think of it as the way scripture embraces us, keeping us from both complacency and despair. Read more