Have you ever heard of someone ‘praying to the saints’? There may be some people who actually do this, but mostly it is a misconception. Protestants, Anabaptists included, have told tall tales about this sort of thing for a long time. The Bible calls all those who are in Christ ‘saints’. We have come to use the term more narrowly, though, to identify someone whose life is obviously holy. A saint is a role model, a hero of sorts. It’s a description we don’t use glibly. We don’t usually identify people in this way until years after they have died and some of the biases have settled out. In the wake of so many new allegations of sexual harassment and abuse this seems like good sense. Celebrity culture pushes us to admire public and powerful figures in a way that ignores their shadow side. The tradition of identifying saints isn’t perfect, but it is more patient. 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.
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
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
You may be familiar with this story: Dirk Willems, imprisoned on account of his Anabaptist faith, was on the run and being chased by a guard. He crossed an ice-covered pond. His pursuer tried to do the same but fell through the ice. Willems turned back, stretched himself across the ice and saved the guard. The grateful man wanted to let Willems go, but a town official reminded the guard of his duty. This was the sixteenth century. Dirk Willems was jailed again, tried and then burned (MM, 741). Dirk Willems is an Anabaptist hero. He lived Jesus’ call to love his enemies.
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 take 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
I was driving home from work when I hit a guy. The light turned green, there were no cars coming, so I turned left. My victim was smoking a cigarette and had made it part way across the strip of pavement marked out by parallel white bars. At the last second I saw him and slowed, but I hit him anyway. Bumper to thigh. I stopped the car. Then put it in gear again and pulled through the intersection. He returned to the curb from which he had come and sat down on the embankment. A few people got out of their cars. Some made their world right by giving me the finger. A man in a ritzy SUV gave me a sympathetic look, as though he too had once smacked a pedestrian or maybe more than one. Read more
Last month an essay of mine was published in the Journal of Brethren Life and Thought. Since that journal is probably not one that will be showing up in your mailbox anytime soon, I thought I’d included a bit of it here. The piece is based on a presentation I gave some years back; I’m happy to see it in print.
Simplicity strikes many of us as a good, if occasionally naïve, thing. In his “A Salutation of the Virtues” the thirteenth century saint, Francis of Assisi, cast Simplicity as a courtly sister to Queen Wisdom, outranking Lady Poverty and Lady Charity. In the twenty-first century we may well be intrigued by Simplicity but we probably lack the saint’s solemn devotion. Consider the TV reality show “The Simple Life,” which cast socialite Paris Hilton in the role of a farm worker. The foibles of the out-of-place heiress generated spinoff shows around the world. The irony of simplicity’s attraction in a complex and fragmented time is captured in Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s marvellously titled book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. There Weaver-Zercher explores the growing American fascination with “bonnet rippers.” She relates that in 2002 only two such books were published. In 2012 there were 85. This growth betrays, she thinks, a desire on the part of readers to be transported from a hypermodern and hypersexualized present to a simpler way of life. Weaver-Zercher is not alone in her analysis. Sociologists Donald Kraybill and Carl Bowman offer a corroborating conclusion about our cultural fascination with plain living. In a book about Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren they write,
I presume it was relatively cold, the 15th of January in 1549. That was the day the authorities entered Elizabeth’s house and found a Latin Bible: “We have found the right person,” they said, “we now have the teacher.” The authorities believed this woman was an Anabaptist leader. Elizabeth was taken from her home and arraigned the following day (MM, 481).
The story is chronicled in the Martyrs Mirror, and that massive book, Elizabeth’s story included, has been an important devotional read for Mennonites for several hundred years. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the Martyrs Mirror has been the most important book for Mennonites, next to the Bible. Read more
Today, Trinity Sunday, I want to encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity. This is one of the most enduring and central descriptions of God maintained by Christians around the world. In the coming year I intend to encourage our congregation to think and pray about the ways we care for each other. This is both a question of our individual disposition and a structural question. The reality for our congregation and for many others is that the ways we’ve cared for each other in the past are no longer as effective as they once were. Things have changed. Given that context, you can think of the reflections that follow as a bit of a rationale for why that’s an important question. Psalm 8 was a part of our liturgy this morning but Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15 are our central readings. As we begin reflecting on the doctrine of the Trinity in the context of these passages, I wonder if I can admit something . . . I don’t really like the book of Proverbs (gasp!). Can I admit that as a pastor? The book irritates me. Read more