Let the Sermon be Interrupted

The Church, First Nations and Reconciliation

i

“Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Once again Jesus is interrupted. It must happen to Him a dozen times or more. There He is, preaching some jaw-dropping piece of good news, and next thing the roof is coming apart, or a demoniac is shouting Him down, or a teacher of the Law is standing up to test Him, or Sadducees are lining up to trick Him, or Pharisees are cooking up a trap to ensnare Him.

But many people just want something from Him. Most who interrupt Him are simply preoccupied with their own stuff. They’re caught up with some earthy, urgent, agonizing matter that can’t wait for the sermon to end. They want answers to vexing questions, and they want them now. “Who is my neighbour?” “Good Teacher, how do I inherit eternal life?” “Son of David, have mercy on me – cleanse me, heal me, restore me!” “Lord, tell my sister to help me in the kitchen.”

That’s the story in Luke. A man crashes into the middle of Jesus’ sermon with his urgent demand. “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:12). Well, that man does have a point. It’s hard to listen attentively to a sermon when your brother just bilked you out of your share of the family estate. A thing like that tends to consume all your energy.

A thing like that is powerfully distracting.

Many of my First Nations friends have difficulty listening to sermons. There are many reasons for this – some personal, some cultural, some historical – but much of it comes down to the issue of justice. They got bilked out of their share of the family estate. Land. Language. Children. A way of life. All and more were taken from First Peoples. And sometimes they itch to interrupt all our ethereal business about heaven and love and God and such with a burning request. “Jesus, tell my white brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Well, they do have a point.

But actually that’s not quite what First Nations people, at least the ones I talk with and listen to, are asking. Dividing the inheritance is not exactly their request, or not the things they ask first. Almost every First Nations person I know wants something else, something deeper. “Jesus, tell my white brother to reconcile with me.”

I suggest this is worth interrupting our sermons.

And yet, is reconciliation even the right word? Many First Nations people don’t think so. Many observe reconciliation implies restoring the relationship to a former level of mutual warmth and trust and affection and intimacy. In most cases no such former relationship ever existed between Indigenous people and European settlers in Canada. In most cases our relationship has been marked by suspicion and distrust. In most cases we were never close.

What we need is a new story. A fresh beginning. A do-over. But to get to a new story, all of us must first become keenly aware of – and, I suggest, deeply troubled by – the story we actually have.

That was the hope that launched Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established to examine the history and legacy of Canada’s “Indian residential schools” and bring some closure and healing for those who suffered there.

The TRC was struck in 2008, launched in 2009 under the leadership of Justice Murray Sinclair, and wrapped up in 2015. The commission issued a seven-volume report which contained 94 Calls to Action. The work of the commission continues through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed in the University of Manitoba.

In the seven years the TRC was active, the commissioners, along with many participants, heard the testimonies of more than 6,000 residential school survivors. These testimonies, taken together, are devastating, and yet strangely and profoundly inspiring. They narrate a long tale of abuse, neglect and evil, but also tell a story of resilience, courage and grace.

But note this: the TRC was initiated by First Nations people, featured the testimonies, almost exclusively, of First Nations people, and was attended mostly by First Nations people. It was the idea and work of First Nations people from start to finish. All with the aim of reconciliation. Not blame. Not restitution. Not score settling. But reconciliation – of getting the story straight so now, hopefully, we can begin a new story.

Non-Indigenous people in Canada should stand amazed and grateful and humbled by this. After all that’s happened, First Peoples still hold out a hand of friendship to us.

But many of us have just ignored it.

About 14 years ago, I started a small effort to get Christians to start caring about the Church’s relationship with First Peoples, and to inspire Christians to be at the forefront of creating a new story. I’ve talked to hundreds of people about it. I’ve spoken in dozens of churches on it. I’ve lectured at colleges and universities regarding it. I’ve been involved with several conferences dealing with it. I’ve written a number of articles focused on it. I have helped organize local initiatives around it.

One of these initiatives is even called New Story. It’s an all-day teaching event to help Christians understand the history and culture of Indigenous peoples, both nationally and locally, and what we as churches and individuals might do next.

I am seeing some things that give me hope. A growing number of churches, for instance, now open their Sunday services with an acknowledgement of the traditional lands on which they are situated. A few churches welcome, at least in small ways, some form of Indigenous worship in their Sunday gatherings.

More and more Christians are learning the beautiful and unique contributions First Peoples bring to the reading of Scripture. Genesis 1, for instance, depicts not humankind’s superiority over everything in creation, but our dependency on everything in it. Humans need air and water and light and fish and flocks and fruit to survive and flourish, and yet none of these things need us. Everything else in creation flourishes independent of our existence.

But I am also seeing in our churches many things that cause me distress. Continuing bigotry. Abysmal apathy. Deep contempt. Condescension. Resentment. Defensiveness. I would love to see all this change. And if you would too, here are a few things that can begin that change – a few steps toward a new story.

LEARN THE HISTORY

I am still astonished how few people in our churches know about the Doctrine of Discovery (the papal bull from 1493 upholding the divine right of Christians to take land from its “savage” inhabitants), Terra Nullius (the legal claim that “empty” territory belongs to the state that occupies it), the history of treaties, the history of colonialization, the history of the Indian Act, the history of Indian residential schools, and the current struggles and achievements of Indigenous peoples and communities in Canada.

And still fewer know anything about the local tribes and bands within driving distance of their church and home.

Why not strike up a church study group that, over the next few months, becomes well informed on all these things and then informs others?

DISCUSS THE SITUATION

There are many things the group might read and discuss, but I suggest you start with three things – Volume One of the TRC Final Report, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which is underneath much of the TRC’s work and recommendations), and the 94 Calls to Action that emerged from the TRC. I suggest your group focuses on Calls 58 through 61, which specifically address the Church and its supporting educational institutions. (On a side note, I find it stunning Canada’s First Nations people issue 94 Calls to Action, but ask only four things from the Church.)

MAKE A STRATEGY AND TAKE ACTION

The next step might be to come up with a strategy for your entire church to respond to one or two of the Calls to Action. For example Call # 60:

We call upon leaders of the Church parties to the Settlement Agreement and all other faiths, in collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders, Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other religious training centres, to develop and teach curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the Church parties in that system, the history and legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and communities, and the responsibility that churches have to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence.

i

One local church I know gathered a group of about ten people who spent several months discussing how their church might respond to this one Call to Action. That led to an evening where the group hosted a Blanket Exercise (www.KairosBlanketExercise.org) for the entire congregation. They also invited several elders from the nearby First Nations community.

This one initiative broadened the conversation, and soon several members of the church were meeting regularly with some of the elders to discuss ways they might work together. That led to several youth from both communities meeting every week, sometimes at the church, sometimes at the community.

That led to real friendships and that led to transformation.

What might your local church do?

REAL FRIENDSHIP

That last story brings us to the most important thing – real friendship. It still surprises me how few people in our churches have even one Aboriginal friend.

That was me a few years back. Indeed it was me for most of my life. Until about 15 years ago, I didn’t even know a First Nations person.

Then I became good friends with one First Nations man. That opened the way for other friendships. And the more First Nations people I got to know, and the more I learned their stories and came to know their hearts, the richer I became. My First Nations friends are funny and kind and generous and wise. And they are hurt and sad and wary and angry. But they still want to be my friend.

I have gained and grown much from these friendships. I discovered I need my First Nations friends more than they need me. I need my friends to be my teachers and examples and guides. I need them to show me how to live out my faith more fully and authentically – to pray with deeper faith, to share with greater joy, to stand up more bravely under trial. I have learned from them what it means to forgive from the heart. And I have learned from them the true meaning of resilience.

Every new story is rooted in friendship and leads to deeper friendship. That’s where the real transformation happens.

Canada’s TRC, intended to address the history and legacy of RSs, followed the pattern set by other country’s TRCs, such as the one in South Africa. The South African TRC was intended to address the history and legacy of Apartheid. But there is a significant difference between Canada’s TRC and those of other countries. In South Africa, as in other countries, the TRC was tribunal in nature. That meant that it included the testimonies of over 2000 perpetrators – those who engineered and carried out the policies of Apartheid, those who benefitted from it, but especially those who enforced it, often by brutal and illegal means: police, for instance, who committed extra-judicial murders to silence political dissent.

In Canada, for various reasons, the TRC was non-tribunal. In practice this meant that it heard virtually no testimony from anyone who “ran the system”: no government agent who scooped a six-yearold from her home and dragged her away from her wailing mother, no priest who summoned a 12-yearold boy to his study and sexually abused him, no nun who broke a little girl’s neck throwing her down the stairs, no teacher who publicly mocked and humiliated a student for peeing his bed, no school administrator who saw all this and turned a blind eye.

None of them said a word.

Which is a problem. Because – well, think about it. What if you suffered deep harm at the hands of another person, told your story publicly, and all the while the person who harmed you seemed neither to notice or care, and just stayed silent?

It would, at the very least, be hard after that to reconcile with that person. And it would be hard to reconcile with anyone associated with the system in which that person operated. It would be hard to begin a new story. Which is why this all comes down to you and me. Will I too stay silent? Will you?

Let us begin.

Reprinted from FAITH TODAY, January 2018

Thirsty

 

“I am thirsty,” Jesus said from the cross.

It was plea. His insides burned, and he craved even just a drop to ease it.

It was a declaration. Jesus stood with us in our humanity, beginning to end. He felt, all the way down, what we feel: I am thirsty. He knew the wanting in us that is never fully quenched, never quite satisfied.

My dad was thirsty.

For many years, from his late teens to his early 30s, he had a bottomless capacity for scotch whisky and, when that wasn’t on hand, rye whisky. I don’t know the difference between the two, but he did. Put 2 or 3 drinks in him, he was funny, charming, witty. Put another 2 or 3 in him, he was sour, mean, belligerent. And he never stuck with just 2 or 3. It gradually took over his whole life. He squandered all the money. He couldn’t hold a job. He couldn’t keep friends. He was about to lose his marriage.

And then one day, a miracle: he stopped.

My dad was home sleeping off a bender. My mom was often home, too, but she’d slipped out while he slept and took the bus downtown to meet with a divorce lawyer. But she got turned around – she never had a good sense of direction – and went to the wrong lawyer, who listened to her anyhow and who, without charging her a dime, told her go back home and tell my dad that either he stopped drinking or she would leave. While she was gone, a Fuller-Brush man (ask your grandfather) happened by the house and found my dad in his drunken stupor. The Fuller-Brush man had recently sobered up through the help of AA, and he forced his way into the house, against my father’s loud and foul protests, and read my dad the riot act.

When my mom got home, she said, “Bruce, I have something I need to tell you.”

And he said, “Joyce, I have something I need to tell you.”

“Okay,” she said. “You go first.”

“I quit drinking,” he said.

He told her what happened, and then said, “What did you need to tell me?”

She said, “That I love you.”

 

That was all in the early part of the 1960s. My dad never touched liquor again. Not once. He could serve it to others – he kept a well-stocked liquor supply in his home office, and routinely poured and mixed for others. He just never indulged.

But he was always thirsty. Always trying to fill some dry empty place in himself, slake some wild dark craving. I am so thankful for that Fuller-Brush man, who himself slipped back into active drinking 6 months after he met my dad, and died from liver failure 2 years later. But for many years I was also bewildered by my dad: if he wasn’t a drunk anymore, why could he be sometimes so funny, charming, witty and then, with no warning, sour, mean, belligerent?

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started to figure that out: he was still thirsty, always thirsty. And he kept reaching for something, almost anything, to fill it.

In my early years, I judged him for that.

In my later years, I got it.

I’m thirsty, too.

It’s actually how God made us.

Jesus doesn’t judge our thirst. He gave it to us. He experiences it with us. Goodness, Jesus wouldn’t know what to do with us if we ever lost our thirst. Our thirst is how he’ calls us to himself: “Is anyone thirsty?” he says. “Come. Come to me. And I will give you real drink.”

No, Jesus loves the thirsty, and he honors our thirst.

It’s just that many things we turn to, often over and over, don’t satisfy it. Some things we turn to even destroy us, though usually at first they show us a fine good time. The well we keep going at first thrills us, then poison us. Retired seminary professor James Nelson in his book Thirst, about his own struggle with alcoholism, puts it this way: “the more I drank, the thirstier I became.”

When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4), the topic of his thirst, and then hers, thirst drives the encounter. “Can you give me something to drink,’ is how Jesus starts. I am thirsty. But very quickly, he turns to her thirst: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Give me this water!” she says. She loses all politeness. All decorum. All dignity. Thirsty people tend to do that.

One of the things that older Christians – such as Augustine, Ignatius, Chesterton, Lewis – understood but more recent Christians often forgot (though thankfully are starting to remember) is that our hunger and our thirst – our desires – are not all carnal. Indeed, at root they’re all spiritual. One writer calls our desires, even our worst and darkest ones, “the ruins of our search for lost transcendence.” They’re hieroglyphs of our deepest longings.

C.S. Lewis writes:

 

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”

 

Jesus doesn’t intend to take away our thirst. He just wants to give us a drink. When he goes to the the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (John 7) – a carousing week-long whoop up of eating and drinking like none other – and does this:

 

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

 

And then John, helpfully, adds this “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”

I am thirsty. You are thirsty. It’s okay: it’s how we’re made. But sometimes we go to wells, over and over, that don’t satisfy. But if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who meets you at your well, you would ask him and he would give you living water.

The Father’s Love

This past summer, rummaging through a table of used books, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It’s her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, a modern-day Daniel Boone who lives on a thousand acres of pristine land in the hillbilly country of the Appalachian Mountains. He has made himself an expert at everything he puts his hands to, which is mostly recovering ancient ways of farming and building and cooking and concocting remedies from tree bark and forest plants. I had not, until reading the book, heard of Eustace Conway, though he’s something of a legend, nor had I read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert, though she’s a well-known writer.

But I was captivated from her first sentence: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”

Thus begins a tumbling, wheeling, radiant portrait of a troubled and prodigiously gifted man, equal parts tyrant, visionary, romantic, adventurer, entrepreneur and utopian dreamer. He can drive a real estate deal with snaky cunning and hard-fisted resolve, then write sheer mush to yet another idealized woman for whom he’s fallen hard, then lose himself in some grand ambition to make or remake history. He wants to save America from itself – its flabbiness, laziness, ineptitude, wastefulness, consumption – and teach everyone to live free and wild. But his own compulsiveness keeps him in a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration.

Eustace is a complicated man. Many influences shape him, and much about him remains a mystery. But one theme that Gilbert returns to over and over is his relationship with his father, Eustace, Sr.. Eustace has never lived up to his father’s impossible, inscrutable expectations. Repeatedly, through childhood on, he’s tried in every way to make his father proud, and in every way has failed. When Eustace, Jr. was still at home, Eustace, Sr. had three modes of parenting him – scowling silence, withering mockery, and pummeling lectures. A typical tirade: “You are stupid. I have never met a child more dimwitted. I don’t know how I could have sired so idiotic a son.”

Never has the man reversed his verdict.

Eustace has been in every inch formed by this. He’s spent his entire life trying both to escape his father and to win him. As Eustace’s fame and influence and skill has grown, as he’s been sought and admired by more and more people, he’s remained the boy desperate for his father’s approval, crushed by his father’s contempt. In many ways, he’s accomplished so much because he’s been damaged so deeply. His success – his perfectionism, really – has been a massive gesture of compensation, a thing he’s used to try to fill a void that has no bottom. It’s been his lifelong and mounting effort to hear just one thing: You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

Three things emerged for me reading all this. One is a deep thankfulness for my own father, now gone 20 years. Though my relationship with him was strained at times, he was a kind and good man, with a generous heart, and I never doubted his love for me. After his death, I found among his treasures all the tacky or homey little gifts I ever gave him – a metal key chain with his initials crookedly stamped into it, a wooden letter opener made from black oak and ash, and somesuch. I held them and wept.

The second thing is a fresh resolve to be a good father to my three children. To speak words to them that are kind, and true, and hopeful. To call them to be their best selves, but never impose on them my own version of that. To tell them often that I love them. That I am proud of them.

The third thing that emerged is renewed wonder at God’s love. My favorite memory of my own father was a Saturday in June 1976. I had just turned 16. We rose early and drove through the Fraser Valley, outside Vancouver, looking for a U-Pick blueberry farm. We never found one. But the whole day we talked, and laughed, and sang. We had lunch together in a 50’s style diner. We arrived home late afternoon, empty-handed but full-hearted. When I think of God’s fatherhood, I always think of that day: the gift of his sheer presence. He gives many good gifts, but always, with all of them, he gives himself.

Perhaps had Eustace Conway known a father like that, he wouldn’t have had the drive to succeed. Or maybe he would have, but with it also the capacity to enjoy his success, and yet not to define himself by it.

I want to succeed. I want my children to succeed. I just hope that what gets any of us there is not someone’s impossible, inscrutable demands, but this alone: the father’s love.

Giving Good Gifts

Where has the time gone?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? …. you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….”

(Luke 11:11-12).

 

My 3 children came home for Thanksgiving. Nothing makes me happier than having all of them under the same roof, even if only for a few nights. Of all the roles I play in the world – writer, professor, terrible cook, kilt-wearing, brogue-speaking, bag-pipe playing Scottish warrior (well, maybe not, but there’s always room for dreaming) – none is more foundational than husband to my wife and father to my children.

I wish I was better at both, husband and father. I have a decent idea what excellence looks like here. I just struggle to attain it. Like Jesus says, I know, despite the evil within me, how to give good gifts to my children. The same could be said of my relationship with my wife: I know how to cherish and honour her. But it seems to me that Jesus’ emphasis here is on the phrase “know how to.” Knowing how to do something does not always lead to doing it. I know how to change oil, too, and fix dripping faucets, and caulk and paint molding installed 2 years ago. But knowing how to do these things and actually doing them are not the same thing.

So my children come home for Thanksgiving, and I want to give them good gifts, heart gifts, soul gifts. And to some extent, I do. But honestly, my vision of the father I want to be and the father I actually am are still too far apart.

And that has me thinking about the Holy Spirit. When Jesus says that fathers, despite our evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, he isn’t really talking about us. He mentions us simply as a point of comparison. Jesus is talking about our Father in heaven:

 

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

 

How much more.

The whole point is that God always delivers on this request. God the Father knows how to give the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he never fails to give in full when we ask.

And that has me thinking about being a father to my children, a husband to my wife. There is a gap between my vision of these roles and my actual performance of them – between knowing how to give good gifts and actually giving them – but that gap is not closed by trying harder.

It is only closed by asking for more of the Spirit.

O Lord, fill me up.

Better Living through Indignation

Alabaster Jar

I’m trying to become more indignant.

And also less so.

It turns out indignation – not its presence or absence, but its cause and its object – is one of the best measures of spiritual health.

Saint Mark, almost back to back in the same chapter, tells two stories about indignation. One story is about the collective indignation of Jesus’ apostles toward two of their own, John and James, when they ask Jesus for elite status in his kingdom – one wants to sit at Jesus’ right hand, the other at his left, when Jesus comes to his throne. “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:31).

Indignation – being ticked off, put out, riled up – is typically a sign of sheer pettiness. It’s no more than hissy fit. A melt down. A tantrum. It’s the behavior of a spoiled child. It’s what the small-minded do when they don’t get their way. It’s a symptom of an overfed ego and an undernourished heart. And usually that’s all it is – a rant over some perceived slight or inconvenience.

We see it elsewhere in the Bible: the same disciples are indignant when Mary breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet, priests and lawyers are indignant when children make too much noise singing in church, synagogue rulers are indignant when Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And we see it in ourselves: I get angry over a stranger cutting me off in traffic, feel resentment toward a colleague getting recognition I think I deserved, become irritated at a child squalling on a plane.

Sheer pettiness, all of it.

And we might leave it at that, except for the other story Mark tells:

 

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (10:13-16).

 

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. And it happens more than once. He’s also indignant – the Bible uses a different word, but describes the same emotion – when the Teachers of the Law oppose his healing a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).

The sum of it: Jesus loses his temper with people who try to keep other people from experiencing a touch of God, especially if they are people who lack influence – children, the sick, a woman with a shady past. He waxes angry with anyone who throws up obstacles to someone else’s need and hunger for God. “Do not hinder them” is his watchword.

And what, usually, hinders the child, the sick, the beggar, the woman? Ironically, tragically, it’s the false indignation of the entitled. It’s those of us who try to defend our little patch of turf.

What am I indignant about? That is a penetrating spiritual question. My indignation is too often self-regarding, connected with my lust for winning or my fear of losing. It’s a defense mechanism for my own sense of entitlement. It’s a protective gesture to any threat to my status or privilege. I get indignant over losing out.

Jesus gets indignant – grieved, burning, spoiling for a fight: all that is caught up in this one word – over someone else losing out, especially if it’s someone who has little or no voice being bullied by those who already have enough.

Oh, I long to be indignant like that.

Around the Table

community

 

I love my new job. And I loved my old job.

 

For 24 years, I was a pastor, and it was good (except the times it wasn’t). This past 7 months, I’ve been a professor. And it is very good, and so far I haven’t found the underside. Do I love professoring (my coinage) more than pastoring? It’s hard to say. They’re hard to compare. All I know for sure is that my heart sings now in a way it had stopped singing.

 

There are probably many reasons for that. One, I think, is simply practical: I am home most evenings. In the pastorate, most my evenings were taken up with some church-related duty or another. After too many seasons of that, something eroded in me. Some deep weariness took hold of me.

 

But now I have most evenings free. The first few months, I gorged myself on that. I went nowhere. I saw no one. I sat home and read, or watched movies, or puttered around the basement. I drank a lot of tea.

 

It was life-giving.

 

And then it got boring.

 

So Cheryl and I started inviting people over to our house, and readily accepted invitations to go to other peoples’ houses. In fact, in the 7 months we’ve live here, we’ve hosted more meals in our home and eaten more meals in other people’s homes than we did in our last 5 years in the pastorate.

 

I’m beginning to realize why Jesus placed such a priority on sitting down to a meal with someone. Something happens around a table that doesn’t, or only rarely, happens elsewhere. It’s some magic that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or faked. Stories are told. Histories are remembered. Dreams are evoked. Laughter breaks out, and sometimes tears. A depth of honesty emerges. A sense of shared humanity weaves hearts together.

 

It’s ironic, maybe tragic: I spent so much time as a pastor I trying to create this, and so little experiencing it.

 

I don’t know if I’ll ever pastor again. I just know, from here on out I don’t want to miss the simple, beautiful, subversive power of meeting another human being around the table.

How to Have a Beautiful Soul (or Avoid an Ugly One)

eyeI was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.

Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.

The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.

Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.

The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.

It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.

Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.

Difficult People

bunckmates

Bunk Mates in Heaven

A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”

I laughed, and then didn’t.

I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.

I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.

Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.

Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?

But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?

Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.

So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):

  • Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
  • Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
  • Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
  • Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.

There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?

 

When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.

How’s that going for you?

 

 

Celebrating 27 years

 

We're on a night train to Paris – a marathon journey that starts in Venice, the City of Bridges, stops at a handful of Italian centers – Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Milan – before heading into the Alps and ending, almost 14 hours later, in the heart of Paris, the City of Lights.

Our 12 days in Italy have been amazing – from the spectacular coastline of southern Italy, to the lush vineyards of Tuscany, to the magic of Venice's canals and gondoliers.

Best of all, Cheryl and I celebrated 27 years of marriage today. We began with breakfast on the Grand Canal of Venice and finished in a dining car somewhere between Padua and Milan. In between, we threaded through a maze of Venetian streets and wandered in and out of shops of handcrafted glassworks and Italian leather and silk.

I'm a blessed man, to walk with Cheryl by my side these past three decades – it's been that long if you count our courtship. Every year gets better – we get more playful, more thoughtful, less reactive. We value the other more deeply. I think we are more hopeful. We've been through a lot – glories and messes, breakthroughs and let downs, tragedies and windfalls. Such things either season you or shrivel you. Mostly, I'd say, it's seasoned us.

It's not that we don't have our episodes – crankiness, testiness, wondering when this person will finally fully get with the program. But those moments get further apart and shorter in duration. And what more and more rises to the surface is deep abiding thankfulness, to God and for each other.

I'm on a night train to Paris, and think I'm the luckiest man alive.

To the lady of my life, all my love, always.

Shalom

Mark

Golfing In Hades

 

 
 
 
 
My new friend Tony – ethnically Chinese, culturally Welsh – has managed what I thought no man could: lured me back into the game of golf.
 
It's a hateful game. A soul-wrecking, aggravation-stirring time-waster. It plays to all our basest instincts: pride, delusion, anger, pettiness, rivalry. That a fellow Scotsman first concocted this awful sport and inflicted it on the world is to my everlasting shame. The idea of spending several hours snookering a ball around a booby-trapped field is inherently absurd: to call it fun, and pay exorbitant amounts to engage it, hare-brained.
 
There. I got that off my chest.
 
It didn't help that I was mentored in the game by a father who fumbled away at it his whole life but, maybe to compensate, was a stickler for the rules. So I know that you don't touch the head of the wedge to the sand before hitting the ball out of a trap, but never managed to hit it well anyhow. I know that even to nudge the ball before laying into it is counted as a stroke, but rarely make the shot count all the same. I know all the intricate arcane rules of putting – there are dozens – and still can't putt. 
 
I'd given the game up years ago. When anyone asked if I'd like to play, I'd politely decline. In my head I reckoned it would be cheaper, faster, and provide roughly the same sensation to just to buy a box of straight pins and stick them in my arm. 
 
Then Tony – he who cooks like an angel, he who regales me with stories of God's astonishing healing power, he who, along with his wife Marian, has embraced us bedraggled displaced Canadians like we're long-lost relatives – asked me to go golfing. Tony loves golf, and I love Tony, and besides, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. So I said yes.
 
And I like it. 
 
I still play like a fool. I still torture the ball, just never into submission. I still can't drive, can't chip, can't putt. I still hear my father's pedantic lectures and stern rebukes every time I break the rules, which is pretty much constantly. But darn if it ain't fun.
 
Well, there's Tony to liven things up. And there's Hades, not once but twice, to get the adrenaline pumping.
 
Hades I and Hades II is what Tony calls hole 6 and hole 8 on The Cliffs, a par-3, 9-hole course in Gwbert, just north of Cardigan Bay. Both holes involve treacherous shots across wide chasms over churning water. But that only begins the test. Both holes have greens – especially Hades I – that sit on a narrow plate of earth: undershoot, overshoot, shoot to far to the right, and your ball is gone, swallowed in outer darkness.
 
I would happily play those two holes, over and over, all day. I would, of course, go through a mountain of balls (on Wednesday, Tony and I together lost about a dozen). But there's something compelling about matching your wit and skill, modest as these things are in my case, against the abyss. It is grievous pain to lose at it. But it is joy unspeakable when you win. One good shot over Hades is worth a thousand brilliant ones elsewhere. 
 
Surely God is speaking through such things.