Violence in the News – finding a pastoral response

An essay of mine recently appeared in the Collegeville Institute’s web magazine. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The trouble with being a pastor is that you are supposed to know what to say and do in any situation. People get sick, have babies, engage in relational acrobatics, embarrass themselves on the internet, fail in school, become estranged, crash their cars, win the lottery, get engaged, die, fight with their neighbours, play in the orchestra, get promoted—and in every case a pastor is expected to have the right words, the right gesture of support. It is like a never-ending, three-dimensional pop-quiz.

Beyond the personal questions there are those dropped on us daily by the news. Some of the most difficult involve responding to yet another shooting or vehicle attack with massive innocent casualties. These events are horrific. When they happen in a pastor’s own community, I see leaders rise to the occasion. They speak a community’s grief; they sound notes of reassurance and resolve. The question is immediate and local. Many respond well.

But what do we say and do when these events do not touch our communities directly? A little over a year ago in Quebec City, some 400 kilometers from where I pastor in Ottawa, a young man entered a mosque after prayers and opened fire. A trigger was pulled. Children lost fathers. In the following week, Christian ministers throughout the city of Ottawa sent notes of sympathy to Muslim leaders in our community. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they would feel vulnerable. Our churches prayed for them too. We wept for them. We wept for the state of things

Such a response was not nothing. Yet, when worshipers are intentionally cut down by bullets, praying and weeping can often feel like nothing. . . .

Here’s the link to the rest of the piece. It includes echoes of some of my prior posts here.

 

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Unscientific Thoughts on Mennonite Churches and the Legacy of Mennonite Residential Schools

Last June I traveled to western Ontario. I headed that way in an effort to better understand the origins of three Mennonite schools linked to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The first of these schools was started in the early 1960s, the second two followed in the next decade. If you know a bit about the broader history, you know that by this time what had been obvious to the First Nations for a long time, was finally becoming obvious to others: the Residential School System was a failure on just about every front. So the question I carried to western Ontario was why, particularly so late in the twentieth century, would Mennonites begin such schools? Read more

To Till and Keep—Sketching an Environmental Ethic

At the church I serve a group of adults has been doing a study on theology and the environment. I’ve been leading other things and have not been able to participate. I wish I could have listened-in somehow. It’s spring here in the lower Ottawa Valley. You would have to make a deliberate decision to avoid thinking about trees and garden plants. The book of Genesis says that God planted a garden with trees that were “pleasant to the sight and good for food.” This time of year that’s not hard to believe. If it’s not true—if it is not the case that in some awesome way a divine mystery has given us plants both beautiful and delicious—then evolution has wrought in us a misdirected instinct. If that transcendent and radically-near event we call ‘God’ has not given us the things of spring, then the beauty we see taking shape, which so readily evokes divine awareness in people of all creeds, has pointed us in the wrong direction. Read more

The Limits of Water (162)

I want to focus on the story of Peter and the gentiles today. It’s from Acts 10. We’ll get there in a moment, but first I have a question for you about Mennonite moments.

Have you ever had a Mennonite moment? More specifically, have you had a Mennonite moment in the shower?

This sounds weird. You’re wondering: What is a Mennonite moment? Is it allowed, even in the shower? Is that the only place it can happen? What about Menno Simons? He didn’t even have a shower. Does a Mennonite moment involve peace? Does it have something to do with baptism? Is it a historic thing, like being burned by Catholics or drowned by the Swiss? Can you have a Mennonite moment . . . if you’re not a Mennonite? Read more

Reading for the Road (161)

Some of you are probably familiar with the story of Paul Kalanithi. Just a few years ago, as he was nearing the completion of his neurosurgery residency, he began feeling ill. At the same time, he was also a neuroscience research fellow. Before going to medical school he had completed degrees in literature and philosophy. Kalanithi was already an immensely credentialed person, but the completion of his residency meant that he would soon have his choice of his choice of prestigious job offers. He would have a handsome salary and more realistic hours. If he could just hold things together physically and emotionally for a little while longer, things would change. However, his symptoms persisted, and it became clear that his health problems weren’t simply due to the exhausting hours associated with his top-flight medical training. Read more

“Incels” and the Challenge of Unchosen Lives

According to various news outlets, the man responsible for attacking pedestrians in Toronto self-identified as an “incel,” someone who was “involuntarily-celibate.” These reports suggest he believed this justified his violence. Whether or not this bit of information will hold up to further scrutiny is yet to be seen. There will surely be other complicating factors. “Cause” and “motive” are tangled things.

As a pastor of a Mennonite church, I have some stake in the importance of things being voluntary. Mennonite churches and the larger Anabaptist tradition from which they stem began with the idea that joining a community of faith should be a voluntary act. The early Anabaptists were dissatisfied with the practice of baptizing infants. Infants can’t choose whether to identify with a community of faith or not. Their status as members of the church would have been involuntary. This would have obscured the identity of others who deliberately chose to follow in the way of Jesus. I mention this just to say that if any tribe within the Christian family values lives chosen voluntarily it is us. Read more

Too Brilliant a Darkness (159)

One way to understand a piece of literature is to look for patterns. There are several patterns in the gospel of John. One pattern relates to belief. Someone hears about Jesus, but the hearing is not enough. They need something more. They need some kind of validation. Fake news is not new. One instance like this is found in the very first chapter of John. It involves a man named Nathanael. Nathanael’s friend tells him that he has found the one whom Moses and the prophets were expecting. The expected-one’s name is Jesus. He the son of Joseph and a rabbi from Nazareth. Nathanael is not convinced: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If you’ve ever spent time in Alberta, you may have heard similar misgivings about Ottawa.  Read more

Witnesses to these things (160)

Many people love car shows. I do not. I understand that there is a lot of cool engineering and design in cars. I get the fact that there is a lot of history in them as well. I know that Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, has said that when he lived in Washington D.C. he always had several old Volvos in his garage. On the weekends he liked to get his hands dirty bringing them back to life. After a cheap paint job, he would resell the cars. I think it gave him a sense of accomplishment that being Secretary of State did not. Still, I must confess that interest in cars is not something I have.

I share this bit about myself to set up a story I want to tell. The fact that it involves me going to a car show says more about the size of the town we lived in than it does about my personal interests. I’m trying to manage expectations. The story relates to a word our biblical readings (Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48) had in common—the word ‘witness’. ‘Witness’ is an important biblical word, but it is one that can makes many of us uncomfortable. Read more

Faithful Disbelief (158)

What does it take to call yourself a Christian?

The answer often depends on whom you ask. Some people would respond to the question by immediately rattling off a list of things you have to believe in order to call yourself a Christian. They might mention the triune character of God or the divine inspiration of Scripture or maybe something about miracles, the significance of the church or the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Others, Mennonites maybe, would respond to the question by saying something about following Jesus. If you would ask them why, they would probably respond by telling you what they believed about this ancient rabbi or what they believed about the need for peace today.

Read more