Nationalism and the Gears of Affection

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

Margaret Atwood Meets the Christian Environmentalist

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

About these Weeds (139)

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

With Water and Spirit – A Baptism Sermon (136)

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

‘How Extremely Religious You Are’ (134)

I wonder if you’ve ever had one of those moments when you felt a bit embarrassed about being a ‘religious person.’ Maybe it was when you opted out of a meeting because it overlapped with a church commitment. Maybe it was when you decided not to carry out a procedure because of your faith. Maybe you passed on taking a particular client because it would have violated your conscience. Or maybe the awkward moment simply snuck up on you in a conversation at the pub. I think about this every once in a while when our family piles into the car on a Sunday morning. I sometimes feel a bit conspicuous. It feels like we’re the only ones on our street heading off to church. Maybe you’ve felt this way too at some point. Maybe you even tried to find an excuse for whatever it was that could have drawn attention to your faith. You threw a soccer ball into the car so it looked like you were headed to the park or you told your colleague you weren’t actually praying—just napping a little bit.   Read more

This Time with Skepticism (131)

It has not been long since we celebrated Easter. Even so, the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Easter (John 20:19-31) begins by taking us back a week to the evening of the prior Sunday. The second part of the reading takes a week later. Jesus shows up on both of these days. It’s on the second encounter, the one that happens a week after Easter, that I want to focus our attention. In doing that we find a question that we can’t avoid. It’s this: What do we make of the resurrection? Read more

Gifts—Disappointing and Otherwise (124)

I require your imagination to get started. Imagine a little improv game with two people. It starts with one person pretends to give the other a gift. He picks up an imaginary box, determining its size and weight. grassroofHe hands it off to a second person. She pretends to open, saying “Oh my, thank you for this beautiful . . . (saying whatever comes to mind) . . . this wonderful teddy bear’s foot.” The first person thinks of a quick reply: “Yes, yes, I got you the teddy bear’s foot just to say . . . I’d give you my right leg if you wanted it. That’s how much I value your contribution to the office.”  It’s fun little game; give it a try sometime. I’ll say more about it in a moment. First, I want us to turn our attention to I Corinthians (our reading for Jan. 22 was I Cor. 1:10-18). Read more

Breaking Bread in Response to the News

On my drive in to the church today I was reflecting on how to respond to the events that have made news headlines over these past days. There has been yet another deliberate shooting of the innocent, an attempt to breadtake as many lives as possible. We extend our prayers and sympathies to the victims in Quebec City as well as to our Muslim neighbors here in Ottawa. That much is obvious. As the news is recounted on the radio connections are made to the way our southern neighbour is closing its doors to those who wish to flee violence in some of the most unstable parts of the world.

It occurs to me that just as violence can creep through communities of faith and co-opt their commitment and devotion, so too it can poison the love of nation or culture. In a better world a person’s willingness to kill for an ideology, a faith, a culture or a nation would trigger some kind of automatic shutdown. It would tell us that we have gone too far and it would force us into some critical self-reflection. It would tell us that when our love for something we believe is ‘ours’ demands the death of others we have stooped too low. In a better world we would always recognize the inherent, divinely-ordained dignity of the lives of others. Read more

Living in Grace (123)

I used to teach an Ethics course to undergraduates. It was fun because conversations in the seminar would move from the highly theoretical to the intensely practical quick enough to give everyone whiplash. IMG_3665One of the topics that almost always got students riled-up was distributive justice. This is the classic question of who should get what. I can remember one particular seminar where a student was trying to make the case for a libertarian approach by saying that those who develop skills more valued by society should be financially rewarded more handsomely than those who don’t. He said that the free market is a fine instrument for working this out. As you might expect, another student brought up professional athletes. Read more

The Possibility of Falling Up—a short story*

Joanna waved from the café window. Henry was striding confidently over the winter sidewalk. He was thinking about how well he was moving for a tall fellow in his 80s. Optimistic thoughts like these had become an oddity for him. Henry had just raised is arm to wave back when he slipped. Everyone knows how this kind of slipping feels. Unanticipated. Your legs go out from under you. Read more