It is now several days after the largest mass shooting in modern US history. It almost goes without saying, but it still must be said, that our hearts and our prayers are with the victims of this horrific killing spree. Several Sundays ago, churches that follow the lectionary heard a reading from Romans 12. One phrase from that reading, it is from verse 15, reminds us that Christian communities are places where we “weep with those who weep.” Yes, we do. What makes the sting of this event sharper, at least for those of us at a distance, is that it does not stand by itself. It was only last year that dozens were killed in Orlando. Earlier this past weekend Canadian news told us about a brutal attack in Edmonton. Now the internet, radio and TV are ablaze with one question: What are we to do? Part of the answer is obvious: elected official need to enact meaningful legislation that makes it more difficult for those who want to kill massive amounts of people to do so. It is our duty as citizens to encourage our representatives to do this. But beyond our responsibilities as citizens, what is our task as members of the church?
You all came very close to having to sit through a sermon on taxes. We’re lucky we started in verse eight and not verse seven of Romans 13. This is verse seven: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due . . . .” We jumped into the passage in the next verse. We’re just in time to hear Paul tell his readers not to owe anyone anything except love. And this meant something. In the ancient Roman world people’s lives were ordered by their sense of obligation, to the empire, patrons, ancestors, even friends. But Paul says that the good news reorders things. Yes, those who believe this good news should still pay their taxes; they should be a benefit to the larger community, not a drag. But because Jesus is the crucified and risen presence of God, they could let the whole system of honor and obligation go. Read more
Just last weekend I was in Goshen, Indiana. While there I spent some time in the Blaurock College historical archives. I was about to leave when the woman who ran the place handed me a manila file folder. She was probably 75 years old, thin as a hay fork and smart as a whip. I had told her earlier in the day that I was interested in Canadian issues. As she handed me the folder, she said, “Here, take this. I have never known what to do with it. Someone submitted it to the journal twenty years ago. We obviously can’t print it.”
I asked if she wanted it back.
“No,” she said, “it makes me uncomfortable having it around.” Read more
So there’s this youngish British-American marketing and leadership guru being interviewed on a British show. He is asked about what companies need to do to work better with employees in the twenties and early thirties: it’s the “millennial question.” The guru responds, obviously slipping into material he knows well, and the interviewer just lets him go. The guy talks uninterrupted for about fifteen minutes. His little talk has now been watched more than 7 million times on YouTube. He made a connection.
What the guy says, if I can summarize it quickly, is that a lot of organizations just aren’t equipped to work well with a younger set of employees. The work environment doesn’t fit them. The reason is—let’s put it in the form of a little story—this cohort has been raised by parents who have convinced them that they’re special and that they can do anything they want. This is a nifty parenting idea, and it might work as long as the parent can make things happen for the child. However, it doesn’t fit with the real world of performance reviews, competitive bids and job interviews. So inevitably we find that we aren’t as all-wonderful as our parents have told us. We’re pretty average, and this is profoundly disappointing. To grow up thinking you’re going to be the next Nelson Mandela or Hillary Clinton and one day finding out that you are just another person riding the bus, watching Netflix and fighting for a job you don’t really want—this is not a recipe for happiness. Read more
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