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
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
Here are a few lines from Annie Dillard’s book Holy the Firm:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.
It’s true. Lord, have mercy.
On this, the Sunday before Easter, we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If you let yourself sink into this ancient story you can sense its significance. It is the moment when you think maybe everything will be alright for Jesus. He has been doubted and misunderstood. Very few people have recognized the significance of his life. Now, finally, it seems he gets some recognition in the capital city. Finally, he makes a splash and he gets noticed. He is celebrated. It’s like the little independent movie nobody believed in that finally becomes hit at the film festival.
The question raised in John 9:1-41 is a disquieting one. If we read the passage with any amount of critical self-awareness we can’t help but wonder about the reliability of our way of interpreting the world. Do we really see? We think we do of course, but do we really? Do we really perceive things as they are?
Here’s the biblical context: in the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is described as the light of the world. Verse 14 of the first chapter says that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” The gospel also includes the story of Nicodemus. It was he who approached Jesus in the dark. He was unable to understand what it could mean to be born anew in the Spirit. In the eighth chapter Jesus describes himself as the “light of the world.” There religious and cultural leaders rejected his claim, on the grounds that someone can’t testify on their own behalf. If someone were accused of a crime and the only word they had in their defense was their own their defense would be pretty weak. So the Pharisees, these religious and cultural leaders, dismiss Jesus’ claims to be the light. John, then, moves us on to chapter 9 and the story of a man who was born unable to see anything at all.
A middle-aged man stands in a glass-skinned office tower. It’s all sharp angles and sheen. In his memory Jack sees his father squatted down, working in the garden picking bug-eaten leaves out of greens. He sees his younger self approach his father who nods in welcome. Jack remembers his father’s words: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man. I’m nothing.” His father’s voice continues, “Look at the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” Jack’s father wanted to be a musician and when that failed to happen he turned his focus to engineering. None of his ideas caught on. He lost his job. He had told his sons that if you wanted to make something of yourself you had to do it by force of will and discipline. Read more
Here’s the way the story was told in the New York Times: B.J. was a sophomore in university. Early one morning he and some friends were horsing around and they decided to climb a parked commuter train. He was the first one up. The train was powered by electricity that ran through overhead wires. B.J. climbed to the top of the car, stood up and eleven thousand volts arced into his arm and shot down through his legs. He woke up several days later in a hospital burn unit. He survived but he had both his legs amputated below the knee and lost much of his left arm as well. Read more
One of the more persistent topics that has come up in and around the church is about the nature of faith. What is it? Can we lose it? Is it contagious? Over the years I’ve found myself coming back to a couple of key points: 1) faith isn’t about being absolutely sure, it’s about faithfulness; and 2) in many aspects of our lives we carry on even though we don’t know for sure. Those two points open up a host of new questions, but I think they also shift our view of faith away from the impossible ideal of having everything figured out and away from the notion that religious faith is wildly contrary to how we usually live. Here’s a link to a message from Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills on the topic: http://whchurch.org/blog/11599/rediscover-faith (ignore the initial promo, or not, it’s your call). He gets at this pretty well. I’m generally skeptical of famous pastors but I confess a soft spot for Anabaptists like Boyd who risk a lot for an unpopular peace witness.
One biblical window into the importance of spiritual practices is the story Jesus tells of the ten brides in Matthew 25. Such practices are ways that we prepare ourselves to recognize God. In this spirit, here are a few thoughts on prayer from Thomas Merton:
“Prayer and love are really learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart turns to stone. If you have never had any distractions you don’t know how to pray.”
–New Seeds of Contemplation (1961).
In prayer we acknowledge “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders,” — may it be so among us.
Today we reflect on three passages: Ps. 29, Acts 8:14-17 and Luke 3:21-22.
The fellow sat down heavily across the table from me. He was tall, bearded, and were it not for his bow-tie and sport jacket, he would have looked like a lumberjack. “In my country crime isn’t such a problem,” he said. “We have police but they mostly just direct traffic. You know, they blow their whistles and wave their hands.”
“I assume you’re not talking about Canada,” I say. “For some reason I thought you were Canadian. You know that it counts as Canada even if you’re outside of Toronto?”
“Well, I guess I’m thinking of my wife’s country,” he replies. “I’ve lived there over half of my life. It feels like home; I can’t wait to go back. I’m not used to this snow and ice. Why do so many people still live here, haven’t they found enough beaver pelts yet?” Read more