Category Archives: Musings

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

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*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Do evangelicals give Israel a free pass?

Do evangelicals give Israel get a free pass?

I was thinking about this the other day as I listened to a podcast interview in which the guest argued that the gospel Paul presents in Romans is universalistic (we should take heed, she suggested, to Paul’s repetitive use of “all” in reference to both the consequences of Adam’s sin and the effect of Christ’s death). Whenever the subject of universal salvation or reconciliation in Jesus Christ—that is, the idea that in and through Christ everyone will ultimately be saved—comes up, my mind tends to go to the strong and dismissive opposition such an idea seems to get, particularly in evangelical circles. What about judgment? What about repentance? these people wonder.

Yet it seems to me that many of these same people give the modern nation-state of Israel, on the assumption that they are are the same Israel of which the Bible speaks and for (to me) vague biblical reasons, a free pass into salvation. Israel, it seems, will be folded into the Kingdom just for being Israel, whether or not they are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. For Israel it seems like judgment and repentance aren’t an issue, but for gentiles it certainly is.

I admit I do not pay much attention to Zionism (e.g., John Hagee) and its close associates, so perhaps I am mishearing them, but this is the impression I get.

(It occurs to me now that evangelicals also tend to think of salvation as a community thing when it comes to Israel, but an individualistic thing for everyone else.)

This is not, of course, itself an argument for universal reconciliation. This is simply to point out what seems to me, if my impressions are correct, an inconsistency in evangelical thinking about salvation.

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.

My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”

Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.

(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)

Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).

A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.

Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).

It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.

(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)

Post-US election thoughts

This is an old post now, written mostly a couple of days after the US election, with some edits today. My thoughts are still the same. Since then, however, I’ve seen numerous videos online of people uttering hateful things at ethnic minorities and just this morning I saw a video of portions of an “alt-right” leader giving a speech of filled overtly white-supremacist rhetoric—in fact, it sounded not unlike a speech Hitler may have given earlier in his ascendancy and individuals in the audience were giving the Nazi salute, saying “Hail, Trump!” This gives me pause. Trump may not personally endorse this stuff and may not be personally responsible, but it seems that the election of Trump has empowered individuals and groups with these tendencies and from what I hear, Trump has appointed some far-right men with white-supremacist associations. It remains to be seen if this stuff is coming to light because people are aware of those tendencies in Trump’s campaign platform and are highlighting what’s out there anyway, whoever is in the White House. It’s not time to panic (I’m not sure it ever is, given what I say below), but awareness, a willingness to speak out for the poor and oppressed, and prayer are fitting responses.

Yesterday was a weird day. The previous day had begun at 5:30am, ran through a long but productive board meeting that was over at 11:00pm, and then at home some tossing and turning in bed until 2:00am while my wife and son watched the US election results come in. To be honest, I didn’t have much vested interest in the election. Trump wouldn’t have been my choice, but mostly from a character and lack of experience perspective, as I don’t know much about his policies (or Hillary’s, for that matter). My mind was not active because of the election, but because of the business of the day and because what I anticipated happening online the next day as a result of the election. My Facebook feed would be filled with friends and acquaintances celebrating Trump as God’s gift to the world and with other friends and acquaintances weeping over the worst possible election result imaginable, and the two were not likely to speak kindly of each other. I spent some time wrestling with what, if anything, I could speak into that divisive cacophony.

So yesterday I was exhausted and felt a great heaviness. I also felt a bit lost. I couldn’t figure out why. I can understand why people are surprised and upset at Trump’s election. I don’t understand why others think Trump is God’s gift to the US and the world, but I can understand the fact that many people for whatever reason voted for him and so were happy that he won. But neither of those things were weighing me down.

By the end of the day, it became more clear to me. I am generally speaking an even-keeled person. Not much ruffles my feathers, not much gets me either upset or excited. Life is good and it goes on. All shall be well, one way or another. But—possibly as a result of my even-keeledness—I also don’t do drama. I don’t like the wailing and gnashing of teeth over election results; neither do I like the rejoicing and triumphant glee of the religious far-right in response to this particular election. Both sides, it seems to me, overdo the response. The world hasn’t come to an end because of this and it likely won’t; they have not elected the Chosen One, the Saviour, and they never will.

But there is a lot of that kind of drama going on and I find myself caught in the middle and struggling with whether to keep silent or speak up. In the morning I did speak up a bit and it got me more frustrated, mostly because it caused more drama, but also because later I realized that what I should really do is turn it all off and pray, contemplate, be with God.

Late on election night I posted these words from Scot McKnight’s blog:

“I went to bed last night with Jesus as Lord. I go to bed tonight with Jesus as Lord. And every day from now into eternity Jesus is Lord.

Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world. Where is our hope? November 8 may tell us.” (link)

This is true. But I also realized that Christians on both sides may say or hear similar things but interpret them very differently. Other people have said things like, “God is in control,” but that can mean vastly different things, too.

When I say “Jesus is Lord” and when I agree that “God is in control,” I don’t mean that God wills the election results (whatever they are) or that people and nations cannot make wrong, even devastating, choices. That we can seriously mess up and that God is at the same time in control is abundantly clear from the biblical narrative.

To say, “Jesus is Lord” or “God is in control” is not to say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, this is the way it’s meant to be.” It is to say, “Fear not, Jesus is Lord, God is in control beyond and above this election.” God can and will redeem, fix, justify, restore what needs those things, and even the stupid things we do cannot thwart God’s plans.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is also to remind us that as Christians we are called to allegiance to someone who stands far above whoever the president—or prime minister or premiere—elect may be. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is a reminder that we are called to live lives that reflect Jesus’ lordship over us, which means we must seek after the protection and care of the most vulnerable, the young, the poor, and oppressed, and call our governments to their responsibilities in that regard.**

This is where it tends to get tricky for Christians on the political right (at least the far right). I’ve seen a number of comments on Facebook where Christians suggest Clinton would have been a better choice. In response, inevitably other Christians say, “Well, the unborn that are being murdered wouldn’t think so!” or “Not if you value the life of the unborn!” For some this election is once again a one-(or maybe two-)issue decision. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments don’t reflect the reality of how political (and legal) systems work, nor complexity of the issues themselves. And the fact that we live in a world shot through with sin makes these kinds of issues especially tricky.

But that’s a post for another day. For now I’ll just say that if we are going to vote based on “Christian values,” there are more than one or two issues that should be considered and other issues that need to be reconsidered, and some some issues with which we have to struggle with and remain in deep tension.

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**Patrick Franklin and N.T. Wright both made similar comments on their Facebook pages (I’m sure Wright, at least, as previously influenced me on this):

“God is sovereign. Is this comforting? On one level, yes. But let’s remember that God has sovereignly given human beings freedom and calls upon us to exercise that freedom in ways that honour what God cares about. When we fail to do that, people suffer. And God has special care for “the least of these” – the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the ‘alien’, the hungry, the outcast, the homeless, the sick, . . . as Jesus and all the prophets passionately insist. To those who are in despair over the Trump win, have hope. To those celebrating: remember that our job is to hold government accountable to be just, fair, benevolent, peacable, and dedicated to the flourishing of all human beings (all of whom bear the divine image).” (Patrick Franklin)

“Whenever the question of national leadership comes up, my mind goes to Psalm 72. It provides a stunning vision of what God wants all leaders and rulers to be like, especially in prioritizing the needs of the poor. Christians believe three things about this: first, that the vision was fulfilled in Jesus himself; second, that with Jesus already enthroned, all rulers are called to imitate this model; third, that those who faithfully follow Jesus have the responsibility to share his rule by reminding those who exercise worldly power of their calling.” (N.T. Wright)

Great but not necessarily great (still thinking about The Tragically Hip).

Last week the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired The Tragically Hip’s final concert on every outlet (radio, tv, streaming) commercial-free. It was bit of an emotional experience for me, but I’ve written previously on how this band had been part of the soundtrack for much of my life. It also confirmed to me—again—how smart phones and social media can prevent me from being present in any given moment. I did too much texting when I should have been watching and listening.

It was interesting to read the comments after all the fuss of the concert. Most people posted things expressing sadness or praising their music. Other people made comments ranging from feeling like they’re the only people who don’t care about the Hip (legitimate, considering how much the attention the band was getting) to suggestions that there’s a myth about the greatness of the band, the range of comments suggesting an underlying pride in the fact that they don’t care.

The comments undermining The Tragically Hip’s “greatness” or how “good” they are seem to miss the point. I don’t think all the fuss had much to do with the “greatness” of the band. I was a fan for many years, but I confess that I didn’t pay much attention to their last few albums (I also confess that mid-concert I ordered their last two to complete my collection). However, I really like their music, and so I consider them “great,” but not necessarily great in some kind of semi-objective, analytical way that an expert would identify “Starry Night” or “The Jack Pine” as great paintings. That’s beyond my skills. I just know what I like.  (Though I have no doubt many would consider them great in that way.)

The point of all the fuss is that this band tapped into the Canadian psyche, telling Canadian stories. Their music—great or not—became part of what it means to be Canadian, like poutine, “eh?”, mounties, loonies, and Tim Hortons. Nobody has to agree that Tim Hortons is great in order to agree that they are a significant part of Canadian identity. That 1 out of every 3 Canadians watched or listened to the concert a week ago says enough.

And I, for one, thought that it was a beautiful national moment.

Gord Downie, the lead singer, was certainly not up to his usual antics and was quite reserved, which I imagine has to do with the brain cancer, but it was still a great show. Here’s a song from that final concert:

Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 1

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were good in a way that I want everyone to experience them. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, Daniel Taylor (IVP, 1992)

I hope I can do this book justice. Last time I read it was more than 10 years ago. I’m due to read it again. But it had an enormously positive influence on my faith. This book helped me realize that my growing unease and, yes, uncertainty, about some of the beliefs and doctrines I had been brought up with did not mean I had to abandon ship altogether. I was a young university student not so much struggling with faith in Christ, but with some of the other doctrines and beliefs relating to Christianity and the Bible that in my tradition were presented as foundational—so foundational that I was reluctant to express my doubts about them. You might say this book saved my faith.

In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor argues that uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but in fact a great help to faith, moving us to depend on God more than on our own intellectual certitudes. In fact, Taylor argues that the notion of faith (or trust) implies a level of uncertainty: “Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.” (81-82)

Taylor isn’t the first person to make this point. I’ve heard it from Lesslie Newbiggin, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lammot (not personally, of course, but in their writings), and I’m sure that list could go on for quite a while. But Taylor was the first one to make this point to me at a crucial time in my life and faith.

Taylor takes it a step further—and this was also crucial for me in a university setting—by noting that all of us (in my case, all of the people I interacted with at the university) are on the same level, the same playing field, when it comes to what we know or believe. All of us have “question-able” foundational assumptions upon which we base our beliefs about this or that, and those assumptions are based on other question-able assumptions. Taylor argues (as I recall) that this does not lead us to despair, but calls us to risk commitment to some foundational assumptions, even if it is possible to question them. We all do this every day. This is both the myth of certainty and the risk of commitment.

(This might actually be Lesslie Newbigging breaking in to my memory. He writes, “All major theories…rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned.  But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned.  It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know.” [from Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship]. This certainly echoes the sense I recall getting from Taylor.)

Taylor writes, “The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever.  It is to recover a relationship with God.” (123) In short, faith is not about intellectual certainty, it is about a commitment to a reasonable assumption: in my case, relationship with God in Christ, and from there the notion that the Christian faith presents an accurate and coherent understanding of our world.

Next up: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

 

The Hip soundtrack to my life.

Just last week it was announced that Gordon Downie, lead singer of acclaimed Canadian band The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. None of the major rock deaths from the past year—David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey—had any personal effect on me, but Gord Downie will affect me a bit. He’s one of my favourite voices in rock music and the music of the Tragically Hip was a soundtrack running underneath the formative years of my life and beyond.

They’re doing a final tour this summer. I’m thinking of going when they hit Edmonton in July. I saw them in Saskatoon nearly 20 years ago, and it was disappointing (poor sound—but I know better now: sound is rarely great at a rock show).

Matt Gurney, columnist at The National Post, gets it: …”the Tragically Hip has been a big, big part of the soundtrack of my life for decades. I strongly associate periods with the music I was into at that time. I had Elvis Costello years. A long Collective Soul period. Went full Johnny Cash for a while. But throughout it all, there’s been Tragically Hip…” I had a long U2 period that overlapped other periods for a while, an R.E.M. period, a brief 54-40 (also Canadian!) period, a Sloan (Canadian!) period, an Arcade Fire (Canadian!) period, but throughout it all were The Tragically Hip.

So the last little while I’ve been listening to The Hip again and reflecting on all the different stages of my life with which they are associated—mental pictures and memories of people, places, activities, and journeys. It’s all a bit melancholy now with the news about Downie. But here are some of the memories, meaningless to you the reader, poignant for me.

“New Orleans is Sinking” (from their first full-length album, Up to Here [released 1989]) – It’s elementary school, I’m in a buddy’s driveway. The high school principal’s son is playing this song across the road.

Road Apples (released 1991) – I would later come to love this album, but first knew it only because “Little Bones” was the song for the opening credits for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) music television show.

Fully Completely (1992) – I’m in high school. It’s a hot summer day, I’m on a secondary highway north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in a buddy’s car, going to fish in Buffalo Pound Lake. We listen to this album there and back. “Courage” and “Pigeon Camera” always bring that day to mind. He would be killed in a work accident several years later.

Day for Night (1994) – The first Hip album I bought when it was released, making me officially caught up to the times as a Hip fan. High school: my fishing friend plays me this new album on his portable CD player on the bus to a soccer tournament. College: a buddy plays “Scared” on his guitar in the yearbook office, next to the student lounge.

Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) – “Ahead By a Century” is the first Hip song I learn on guitar.Legendary Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, which I loved at the time, used one of the songs from this album for the soundtrack to their cult-favourite movie Brain Candy. I have a t-shirt with the album cover on it. My older brother gave me that shirt for my 19th birthday in December 1997. I still have that shirt. It is in perfect condition. Dixie hates it and wants to get rid of it because it’s so old. Along with the shirt, my brother gave me a ticket for the Hip’s concert for their new album.

Live Between Us (Live, 1997)

Phantom Power (1998) – the first single from this album “Poets” was released in the spring of 1998. I was in the middle front seat of a Ford F-350, somewhere in the wilds of northern British Columbia with my tree planting crew. Everyone else was unimpressed, but I was delighted. That August I would see them live in Saskatoon with the ticket my brother had bought me. The concert was disappointing—my expectations were high, the sound was poor. I bought a t-shirt there. It did not last more than a year or two.

Music @ Work  (2000) – This album was released in the spring of 2000. I remember this because I paid twice as much for it as I should have at a local music store in Whitecourt, Alberta—again with my fishing buddy from Fully Completely—because I couldn’t wait for the tree planting season to be over to buy it at a chain store at a lower price. We again listened to it in the cab of a Ford F-350 on the way back to our camp north of Whitecourt. This album was a huge departure for The Hip, but I loved most of this album from the start. I would get married that August.

“It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” (from In Violet Light [2002]) – I’m sitting at the second desk at the front of my father-in-law’s law office. My pregnant-for-the-first time wife is probably in the back working. I stream this song from The Hip’s website and instantly love it. In fact, it is one of my favourite Hip songs of all time. The rest of the album would take some time to grow on me.

After this album, I checked out of The Tragically Hip’s world for a couple of years: In Between Evolution (2004); Yer Favourites (2005);  That Night in Toronto (Live) (2005); World Container (2006); then…

We are the Same (2009) – spring or summer: I’m with my wife and three kids in our 1992 Honda Accord waiting in line at the drive-through car wash in Prince Albert. We’re listening to this album, which I’ve just purchased, and I’m delighted. The Hip seem back on form. Later that summer we would move to Manitoba to attend seminary.

Then: Now for Plan A (2012) – I stream this album on Rdio, but am disappointed.

So, I’ve drifted away from the Hip these last years, but the old soundtrack still hums in the background. It’s strange: I was a huge U2 fan, and I still love their earlier albums, but they mostly stay on the shelf, not listened to. Same with R.E.M. and Arcade Fire. I listened to these groups for hours and hours over and over again, but at some point I moved on to something else, and while they still have a place in my heart and I would still list them among my all-time favourites, it is only to The Tragically Hip that I return regularly. At the very least, a summer road-trip needs at least one listen to Fully Completely.

Remembering Dad

(cross-posted from Facebook)

I think I’ll break my Facebook “fast” to say a few words about Dad. He died 5 years ago today, as Dixie mentioned earlier.

I’ve never been one to miss people all that much, even those dearest to me. I don’t know why. I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with me. But that’s one reason I didn’t think to say anything on Facebook. But I do think about Dad from time to time, particularly around this time of year: his birthday in mid-April and his date of death just over a month later.

Several of you said very kind and true things about my Dad in comments on Dixie’s post today. Thanks for that. It’s interesting how even the not-so-great memories of people will, with time, start to develop a sheen of sorts. Remembering seems to rub away the spots of corrosion and rust and leave polished metal underneath.

One of my great friends sent me a very kind message today in which he remembered some things about Dad which have been meaningful to him in the strange way that memory makes things meaningful, things which for me (at the time anyway) would have been more embarrassing than anything. My friend said he still uses a line that my Dad would, with a twinkle in his eye, say to him: “If you sucked as hard as you blew, you’d have the moon in your face.”

I remember him saying that, but I don’t remember the twinkle in his eye. I just remember feeling mildly uncomfortable because it made no sense to sense to any of us (or at least I thought not). It was just another weird saying that my grumpy, gruff Dad would randomly lob at people.

But now, all these years later, I think it’s hilarious, even though the phrase still doesn’t really make sense to me (or maybe it’s just starting to make sense), because that phrase is just so Dad.

I wish I could remember some of his other turns of phrase. But Dixie and I do carry some of them forward into our own family. Some of them we share just with each other. We will imitate him from time to time. We will say, “I like that pie,” when eating a delicious pizza. Or we will refer to that ubiquitous Seattle coffee company as “Starbuck” without the “s” at the end. And when we go for a walk, we’ll say it’s to “blow the stink off.” Those are all Dad-isms.

Maybe it’s not that I don’ t miss people, but that I don’t take enough time to think about them—to really think deeply and remember—because I really do miss Dad.

Unhurried Delight

Every year as part of maintaining “good ministerial standing,” our denomination requires its pastors to fill in a form in which we list educational and personal growth experiences, such as courses taken, workshops or conferences attended, and books read. I keep track of what I’ve read in a little notebook (and on Goodreads) and so I go back and look at what I’ve read.

What troubled me this time around is that I couldn’t remember a thing about one or two of the books I had read this year. I remember reading them (I think), but I don’t remember what they said. Which makes me wonder, why did I read them?

Eugene Peterson said somewhere (but I’m quoting his Twitter feed, and the same quote pops up every now and then), “Reading is a gift, but only if the words are taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Coincidentally, it was one of Peterson’s books that I don’t remember anything about.

His words get me every time. How often do I read with “unhurried delight”? Rarely. Usually I’m more concerned with getting through the book and adding it to my “books read” notebook. Part of the problem is that I have so many books that I want to read (and have already purchased in anticipation of reading them) that I feel like I can’t keep up, so I read quickly if I can.

Occasionally a book will be so striking that I soak it up in a hurry and remember it, but that’s not normally the case. But what’s the point in reading if I can’t remember it? Is there value in reading simply for the sake of reading and being changed in small ways along the way? I think so.

On the other hand, there’s really little value in hurrying through a book if I won’t remember any of it anyway.

I need more “unhurried delight” in my life—not just in what I read, but in all of my life.

All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.