Friday, December 30, 2005

Here's a reason... eat crappy pizza.

Life Together

It’s been a tough week for our congregation. We lost two long time and much loved members on the same day – Christmas Eve. So, Christmas worship took on a less celebratory, more solemn, sombre tone.

Vesta was the matriarch of our congregation. People joked that she taught me how to hug. 94 years old and could still beat all comers at cards. I told someone recently, only half-joking, that I thought it was her prayers that were keeping our church ship afloat. She had such a tremendous gift of faith. She talked about her faith as effortlessly as if she was talking about a cookie recipe. But she wasn’t given to trite Christian sloganeering. She had seen too much and suffered too greatly in her 94 years to allow such nonsense.

Anne was a kind, gentle, soul, who died very suddenly in the hospital.She had been admitted because her headaches making her crazy. She had a heart attack just after breakfast on the 24th. I always enjoyed my visits with her. I gave her holy communion two days before she died. She was a gracious hostess, even in her hospital bed, even when she could barely life her head to speak. We prayed. She always had a kind word for me. After I left her room, I wondered who was being blessed; her or me.

Vesta’s funeral was on Wednesday. Anne’s was yesterday. Both of them took more from me than I expected. Wednesday was particularly tough. When I sat back behind my desk I felt like I had been slapped by a big fat fish. But I still had another funeral to prepare. And little energy left from which to draw.

Then the phone rang. It was the daughter of the man to whom I gave “last rites” (or “Commendation of the Dying” in Lutheran parlance) on Christmas Eve following our late service. He was in the final stages of cancer. The family was gathered and asked for a Lutheran pastor. So the nurse started cold calling Lutheran churches. Our’s was the last church on the list and the first to answer the phone. I prayed with the man and the family. Then went home and collapsed.

On Wednesday afternoon I had to prepare for yet another funeral.

These funerals remind me why I love the church. We are a family. We care for each other. Some folks came back early from their holidays to say say good-bye. Everyone pitched in on short notice. It all seemed so effortless and natural.

The sanctuary was packed for both church funerals. Folks needed to grieve and hear Jesus’ promises of resurrection again. People leaned on each other. They wept openly. They smiled in gratitude for having known these two remarkable women. They wanted to sing songs of praise and lamentation, knowing that death brings both grief and promise.

I went back to my office yesterday after the reception and pulled from my shelf Dietrich Bonfoeffer’s masterpiece Life Together and sipped on this passage:

“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren [and sisteren] is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken away from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren [and sisteren].”

So, tomorrow I have funeral number 3. An opportunity for God’s grace to shine in the midst of grief. Grace in Jesus’ promises of the resurrection to eternal life. And grace in our life together.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Friday, December 23, 2005

Have the Churches Abandoned Peace on Earth?

[This is the text of my opening remarks from yesterday’s forum which I talked about here]

On November 26, Christian Peacemaker Team members Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, Jim Loney, and Tom Fox were taken hostage by a group calling themselves “The Swords of Righteousness Brigade.”

On November 29, right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh, commenting on the hostage taking said, I quote: "part of me likes this…here's why I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality…any time a bunch of people walk around with the head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds, if necessary, and have things sized up." (

I’m guessing the “irresponsible, idiotic theory” that Limbaugh was referring to comes from the favourite philosopher of a certain US president, a little known wandering sage called Jesus of Nazareth, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”

I could go on and on but you get the idea.

Given the full-throated support folks like Limbaugh have given the Iraq war, not to mention their defense of the US as a so-called “Christian” nation, together with some of their high profile Canadian clones, the question of “have Christians abandoned peace on earth?” is, on many fronts, a very appropriate one.

However, not since apartheid in South Africa has there been such an overwhelming worldwide consensus among religious leaders regarding an important issue until the war in Iraq. From the pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the eastern patriarchs to African Pentecostal preachers, the message to George Bush and Tony Blair was clear; the invasion of Iraq did not meet the criteria of the Just War.

At the local level, the message remained the same.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, my congregation in Halifax, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, held prayer services each Saturday at noon. We kicked them off with an ecumenical gathering which included leaders from a variety of denominations and faith communities. We raised a united voice in prayer, pleading for peace, unified in opposition, and in a greater vision for the world than one provided for us by many world leaders.

From there we joined thousands of others opposed to the impending war, and marched through downtown Halifax in the cold January wind. Two Anglican bishops joined the march. As did most of the pastors in the city.

My congregation was well represented. But one member stands out in my mind. Aino Brzak was 90 years old, a refugee from post-WWII Europe. She had seen war up close and very personal, having lost many family members to the war. Although she harboured a special hatred for tyranny – a Saddam certainly fits that category –she hated the human cost of war even more. She marched because she knew that Jesus’ message of self-giving love for neighbour and even for enemy was more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.

She’s not alone. I find it interesting that the those in my congregation who were most opposed to the war were war veterans and European immigrants. People who still bore the scars of war.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize churches for not doing enough. I, too, often play that game. But I’m a parish pastor because I believe passionately in the power of ordinary Christians doing God’s work underneath the radar screen. While Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Rush Limbaugh maybe the loudest voices in Christendom, we need to remember that they don’t speak for Christianity. Theirs is a partisan political agenda that confuses the gospel of Jesus Christ with gospel of worldly power.

But to ask whether churches have withdrawn from contemporary social and systemic issues by focusing on more individual matters is, in my opinion, a false choice. When way say that we need to, “confront sinful structures that keep people in poverty” we need ask ourselves what that really means. When we confront government, by whose authority do we speak? And if so, why should government listen? Do we then become a left-wing version of the religious right by demanding government adopt our agenda? What is the relationship between church and state?

The underlying question is: how is society and the world transformed? I have helped organize grassroots anti-poverty organizations and rallies. I have helped organized days of Action to protest draconian cuts in our social safety net. I have spent many hours in the cold rain and snow with a placard in my hand. I have written countless letters to and visited with government and private enterprises, advocating a more just treatment of our world’s poorest citizens.

But over the years I have become less enamored with “changing social structures” than I have with changing peoples’ hearts. Like poverty, social structures are not abstract, impersonal notions, but are the product of people. So I wonder if, to change structures, we need to change people. But I also wonder if we let ourselves too easily off the hook by saying we need to confront sinful social structures than to engage living, breathing human beings.

And that’s where churches come in. That’s where churches excel. Most Christians are deeply concerned with poverty, racism, the environment, war. And we do believe that we are called to witness to a different reality than the realty presented to us.

Hard work is being done by individual Christians, walking together down the hard road of faith. When I flip through my congregational directory, I see a diverse group of men, women, and children; people from both ends of the political spectrum, people who despite many, almost irreconcilable differences, have followed the Spirit’s leading and live together in the bond Christian love..

I’m thinking of two church members, one a liberal and one a conservative. They sit down for coffee to talk about the most divisive issue facing the church: the blessing of same-sex unions. They share openly and honestly. They argue. They pray. Then they shake hands and agree that no matter the outcome, whatever the church decides on this issue, they will still be brothers in Christ, because baptism trumps politics.

Or I’m thinking of the crotchety old-man who’d been a thorn in the flesh of one congregation over fifty years. Particularly of one man who’d been a pillar of the church for almost as long. These two men sat on opposite sides of the table, one yelling at the other, who quietly asserts his view. They agree on nothing for over five decades. But when the old-guy starts to fail and can’t get out, even to get groceries, this guy he’s been tormenting for 50 years, makes these trips for him twice a week. “No big deal,” he says, “The guy’s gotta eat.”

Or I’m thinking of the teenage mom who stumbles unexpectedly into the church one day, holding her new born baby. She hasn’t been to church since she was a little girl. She has little money. Few clothes for the baby. Some women of the church conspire and throw this young mom a baby shower. Nothing big or extravagant. Just enough to get her started. The women do this because she is loved, no matter where she came from.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. That’s what the churches are doing. Is this social justice. Maybe. But not really. Is it life-giving? Definitely.

Have the churches abandoned peace on earth? Not by a long shot. Could we be doing more? Absolutely.

Peace on earth is not a political agenda, but a deeply human one. I think the fact that churches are trying to figure out what peace on earth looks like is a sign that God hasn’t given up on us yet. That’s why Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth, the poor child born in a barn, who brought life and salvation to a hurting and broken world.

But the Christian task is not done yet. Together we struggle to live Jesus’ message of the kingdom of peace, justice, and life. Some times we get it right, other times we mess up completely. That’s because, at the beginning and end of the day, we are only human.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Battlefield of Beliefs

This afternoon I participated in a forum to discuss the question: “Has the Church Abandoned Peace on Earth?”

I found the question offensive. So I said I’d be glad to participate. It was me, a Mennonite Peace Activist, and philosophy professor from the University of Lethbridge. The Mennonite woman was excellent. Smart. Passionate. Engaging.

The philosophy professor was…shall we say, less so. His whole shtick was what he called “Ideological Marketing,” of which the church was guilty. The first words out of his mouth were “Religion has done more harm than good in the world.” His arrogant dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular made me want to tear out what’s left of my hair. It was the same stuff that I’ve heard a hundred times, “You think that Christianity is the only truth. But MY philosophy of secular, modernist dogma is the only truth.” “All Christians are theocrats.” Etc.

I found myself getting defensive. Giving full-throated defense of the hard work that Christians are doing in the areas of peace, human rights, development, etc.

I’m a BIG believer in the marketplace of ideas. Now I know the rigour of such a marketplace. The give and take of two fervently held positions. The clash of competing world views. The battlefield of beliefs.

I had a GREAT time.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Children's Message: Advent 4 - Year B

After waiting in the cafeteria line at lunch Hannah found a seat across from Lydia, the girl who lived down the street from her.

Lydia fumbled through her backpack then pulled out a chocolate bar.

“A girl after my own heart,” said Hannah, “eating dessert first.”

“This isn’t my dessert,” replied Lydia, “This is my lunch.”

“What do you mean it’s your lunch? Where’s your sandwich?”

Lydia looked away and took another bite of her chocolate bar.

Hannah opened her brown bag lunch. There was a ham sandwich, a juice-box, a banana, and a granola bar. She looked in her bag then looked at Lydia.

“Here, have this,” said Hannah, handing Lydia her sandwich, juice-box, and granola bar. She kept the banana.

Lydia didn’t say anything.

“Don’t you want them?” Hannah asked.

Lydia still didn’t say anything.

“Well, here they are if you want them,” said Hannah getting up from the table and leaving the sandwich, juice-box, and granola bar on the table.

A minute later, Hannah stuck her head back in the cafeteria door and watched as Lydia took huge bites out the sandwich Hannah left on the table.

That night when she came home from school, Hannah opened the fridge and pulled out some leftover ham, lettuce and tomatoes, mustard, mayo, and bread. And started making herself a triple-decker super-duper, skyscraper sandwich.

As she was assembling the second layer, her mom came into the kitchen.

“Wow! That’s a big sandwich for a growing girl,” said her mom.

“I’m hungry,” replied Hannah.

“Apparently,” replied her mom. “I guess we have to pack you more food for lunch.”

“I gave my lunch to Lydia.”

“Who’s Lydia? And why’d you give away your lunch?” asked her mom.

“Lydia’s a girl in my class. She only had a chocolate bar for lunch so I gave her mine.”

“Boy, that’s generous,” said her mom. “That’s sounds a lot like the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.”

“How?” asked Hannah.

“God gave her a wonderful gift. The angel Gabriel told her that she would be Jesus’ mother.”

“But what did Mary do to get that kind of a gift?” asked Hannah

“Mary didn’t do anything to deserve it,” replied her mom. “All she did was open her arms to receive the gift of the Christ child. But what I think is even more amazing is that we all can be like Mary. We all carry Christ’s Spirit within us, and when we show love like Jesus did, and you did with that girl at school, Jesus is born again in the world.”

“H’uh?” asked Hannah.

“It’s just another way of saying that we all can share God’s love with everyone who needs it. Where love is, so is Jesus.”

Then they said a prayer like this as we do now: Dear God, please love the world through us. Amen.

National Bishop's Christmas Message

ELCIC National Bishop Ray Schultz's Christmas Message from Bethlehem (you need Realplayer to watch this)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sermon: Advent 4 - Year B

She lumbered out of bed to wash her face and splashed water on her forehead, already hot from the early morning sun. She waddled over to the bed and eased herself back down. Soon she was supposed to go on a journey, yet she was as big as a house.

Staring at the ceiling, Mary concentrated on her breathing. The baby inside kicked. With sweat trickling into her ears, she wondered how long ‘til she’d have to get up – and get moving. She lay there, studying the cracks in the ceiling.

She was pregnant without a father. An angel had told her that...(the rest here)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Writer's Block

I have three sermons, three children’s sermons, and one presentation to write in the next week and a half. I have no choice. This needs to be done. But each time I sidle up to my computer – nothing.

Last night I did a little reading on writer’s block. This guy suggested I’m afraid of something, probably my topic. Hmmm. The high holy days usually put the fear of God into me. Kind of like the Super Bowl of church. Expectations are high and I feel extra pressure to deliver.

But that’s not it. I’m not THAT afraid. Pressure doesn’t paralyze me. At least not usually.

Maybe it’s because these bible passages are simply too familiar. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? How do I know I’m not just wasting peoples’ valuable time? How can I breathe new life into these dry bones?

Could it be that I’ve lost the wonder and delight of Jesus’ birth story? Could it be that the in-breaking of the kingdom of God – the Word made flesh - has become so ho-hum that the thought of preaching AGAIN fills me with more boredom than dread? Could it be that the story of life, joy, and salvation in the baby Jesus has become, for me, so commonplace that it fails to move me?

Apparently so.

Maybe I need to get out of the office. The stacks of books lining my four walls are standing over me in judgment, an unyielding reminder that I can’t put two decent words together. Well, at least not any two words that I get paid to say.

Perhaps I need to go out and find where this story is hiding. Maybe that single mom down the street, the one who works two part time jobs just to pay the rent but can’t afford toys for her kids, she might know where he is. Her guess is as good as anyone’s. From there I should head to the library. Folks there chat all day about stuff they’ve seen. And they’ve seen a lot. Then maybe I’ll make my way to the hospital. Maybe Jesus is wandering the halls with a bag of candy for the kids and handfuls of healing and comfort for everyone.

Then maybe I should head home and listen to my daughter and hear what she has to say about the wonderfully bizarre story that - somehow - tells us who God is.

I need to go learn once again where Jesus is being born. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll can be the herald of good tidings, the bearer of good news, the messenger of salvation.

Because I can’t tell anyone anything that I haven’t already seen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Pope: Materialism is polluting Christmas

For once, Pope Ben and I agree. But the question remains, how do we escape the trap of a consumer Christmas?

Canadian Blog Awards: Results

The results are up. Unfortunately, this humble blog didn't make it to the podium. But a big thank you to Princess Monkey who nominated me for Best Religious Blog. It's been a great honour. And thank you everyone who took the time to vote for me.

The winners for Best Religious Blog are:

1. Aaron's Head
2. Relapsed Catholic
3. The Green Knight.

Congratulations! Three excellent blogs. Be sure to check them out.

And thank you to Robert McLelland of MyBlahg for hosting the awards.

Quote of the Day

"Politics turns into virtue what religions often see as a vice — the fact that we do not all think alike, that we have conflicting interests, that we see the world through different eyes. Politics knows what religion sometimes forgets, that the imposition of truth by force and the suppression of dissent by power is the end of freedom and a denial of human dignity. When religion enters the political arena, we should repeat daily Bunyan’s famous words: 'Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.'" - Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

via Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, December 10, 2005

CTV Election Blog

Check it out.

Festival of Thomas Merton?

Without a doubt, one of the books that made the greatest impact on my faith is The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton. Usually I devour books. But this one I read slowly and devotionally.

It’s an Advent book. Meaning it’s Merton’s testimony of his waiting, waiting to publish his book, to make his final vows, to become a priest. It’s about making your life your liturgy, seeing God, not only in the ancient prayers of the church, but also in silence and solitude. For Merton, God wasn’t powerfully present. But God’s presence was most markedly noted by God’s absence. A man after my own heart.

He begins his book on December 10, 1946, exactly five years after entering the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Ironically (or some might say providentially) Merton would die on December 10, 1968, exactly 27 years after entering Gethsemane.

For me, Merton’s most powerful legacy is the creative ways he engages the Christian tradition. For him, Christianity is not a staid, fixed, dogmatic religion. But a dynamic, living, breathing tradition. A conversation and an argument with all those saints and sinners who followed the way of the poor man from Nazareth throughout the centuries.

Today, when the loudest Christian voices are also the shrillest, I return to Merton for a gentle witness of the gospel’s life-changing, life-affirming power. Or when popular Christianity diminishes the gospel by turning it into a self-help program, Merton reminds us that follow Christ is walking the way of the cross and not of our selves.

So I propose (if it isn't already) that December 10 be proclaimed the Festival of Thomas Merton.

The grace of Easter is a great silence, an immense tranquility and a clean taste in your soul. It is the taste of heaven, but not the heaven of some wild exultation. The Easter vision is not a riot and drunkenness of spirit but a discovery of order above all order –
a discovery of God and of all things in Him. This is wine without intoxication, a joy that has no poison hidden in it. It is life without death…Sometimes we taste some reflection splashed from the clean Light that is the life of all things…slake us always with this water [O God] that we may not thirst forever.
(Merton, The Sign of Jonas)

[Update: revised and edited.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Mickey Mouse is offering me $1000 for my soul

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Attention, pastors: You have just four weeks remaining to work a lion, a witch or a wardrobe into your next sermon. Walt Disney Pictures is so eager for churches to turn out audiences for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opens Friday, that it's offering a free trip to London - and $1,000 cash - to the winner of its big promotional sermon contest.

It's becoming a short walk from preacher to prostitute these days.

From Leadership Journal blog

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Daily Dig

Sign up for the Daily Dig, Bruderhof Community's quote of the day.

Here's today's:

With Hunger for Him

Jane Tyson Clement

He who has come to men
dwells where we cannot tell
nor sight reveal him,
until the hour has struck
when the small heart does break
with hunger for him;

those who do merit least,
those whom no tongue does praise
the first to know him,
and on the face of the earth
the poorest village street
blossoming for him.

Secular "liberals" aren't cancelling Christmas...

...megachurches are.

via Bene Diction

Remembering the Montreal Massacre - again.

I don’t know why I remember this date each year. But I do. Every year. Something inside makes me return to this tragedy; to remember and grieve women I never met.

Maybe it’s because I have two small girls and I wonder how they will be treated as they grow. Will they fall victim to abusive and dominating men? Or will they be strong like their mother and demand that the world respect and treat them like equal partners in the world’s great enterprise?

Maybe I remember because, in remembering, I can never become complacent.

UPDATE: Families Remember the Montreal Massacre

2nd UPDATE: The Prime Minister released a statement on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Stephen Harper also released a statement but I couldn't find it on their website.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sermon: Advent 2 - Year B

Mark begins his gospel in an artless, matter-of-fact sort of way. It’s as if he has something to get off his chest and doesn’t have time for pleasantries. No genealogies. No pregnant octogenarians. No babies born in barns. Nothing. Just “boom!” we’re in the middle of an on-going story.

Right out of the gate jumps John the Baptist. Part wild man, part TV preacher. Don’t get too close, he can smell your fear.

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he roars. His camel-hair shirt battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. He speaks with an authority that isn’t his own. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (the rest here)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Near Misses

I was almost killed on Tuesday. Twice. Within the space of two minutes. It was snowing and I miscalculated a turn, hit some black ice, and my car spun into on-coming traffic before sliding toward a ditch.

A minute later – after retrieving my heart from my throat - I went east on an unpaved side road. An 18-wheeler came barreling down the westbound lane. A gust of wind pushed me into the lane in front the truck. At the very last minute my tires clenched some gravel and I was able to pull the car back into the eastbound lane.

Seconds. Milliseconds later. I'd be maggot feed.

This is the closest I've ever come to dying. At least that I know of.

When I got to my office an hour later I was still shaking inside. I kept running the events over and over in my head, constructing little scenarios about what people would do in the event of my demise. Where would the funeral be? Who would preside? Who would attend?

My two little girls would grow up without a dad. My wife would bury her (first?) husband. I would only be a memory.

I used to think that I was prepared for death. This is not because I have super duper, unshakable confidence in the resurrection to eternal life.

No. I have HOPE in the resurrection, not certainty. I have NO IDEA what happens to us when we die. The bible makes promises, tells stories and poems, and tries it’s darndest to relieve us hapless souls of our existential anxiety. But alas, the bible does not offer certainty.

I used to believe that I was prepared for death for one simple reason: I’ve outlived many friends. I’m 36 and I know my fair share of dead people.

When I was in grade 3, a classmate died from bone cancer. In high school, a basketball player keeled over and died during practice. In university, it seemed that a summer break couldn’t go by without the news of someone dying while away from school. Five years ago, a colleague, who was a year younger than me, died suddenly from meningitis 2 days before Christmas.

And I outlived them all. So whatever life I have now, I’d consider gravy. I would tell myself that I have to live the life that these people were robbed of.

At least that was the theory. It sounded good. It FELT good. But after Tuesday’s near misses I feel like I need to confront my own mortality – for real. I don’t know what that looks like or how it will make me behave differently. Some moments it makes me afraid to leave the house. Other moments I need to be out in the world doing something, making a difference, leaving my mark, “participating in God’s reconciling love for the world” as my church’s purpose statement puts it.

It is a cliché that after a near miss, life seems better, fuller, your senses sharpen; beer tastes better, sex feels better, flowers smell better. Like most clichés, it rises out of the ashes of burnt truth.

Near misses remind me that, one day, I will say good bye to those whom I love. When I snuggle with my daughter before she falls asleep I know that, one day, we will part. Either she will die or I will. The same goes for my wife. And everyone else in my life. I call that the underside of intimacy. With great love there is also great loss.

When I remind myself that one day I will say good-bye, I also remind myself that that day is not today. Today I will love and be grateful. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

Canadian Blog Awards - Round Two

Wow! I made the second round! Thanks to everyone who voted for me.

If you are so inclined to vote again, click here for all the finalists. If you want to see the full results, click here.

Tentative Timetable
Saturday December 3rd - Friday December 9th: Round Two voting.
Sunday December 11th, 9pm EST: Round Two results will be announced.

Voting Instructions

You may vote once per day.
Note: It's not required that you vote in each category, but you must make all your selections before you submit your vote.