Category Archives: Musings

Post-election thoughts: I’m disappointed.

My disappointment is not really in who was elected. We live in a democracy and the people have spoken. Now we can live with it for the next four years or so, just as we have done for all previous elections. We still live in an amazing country and most of us, when we boil it down, have little to complain about. I’m confident that it will stay that way. Sure, we may not like some of the changes that come our way, but do we need to fear? No. And yet that’s exactly what I see and hear.

I’ve been shocked with some of the stuff I’ve seen and heard in the course of this election campaign, both before and after the election. If there’s anything that brings fear to my heart (even though we shouldn’t fear!), it’s what I saw on social media during this election (yes, this is mostly about Facebook).

Two things in particular concern me. They have to do with the possibility civil dialogue and theological grounding.

1. Civil dialogue. I’m worried that we are losing (or have lost) our ability to have civil dialogue. Dialogue requires not just listening but also the effort to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. It seems to me we did very little of either listening or empathizing during this election, at least if Facebook is any indication (it might be that it isn’t, but I doubt it).

When we engage in civil dialogue, we will discover that the “other” is rather a lot like we are, with similar foundational goals and fears and perceptions and weaknesses as we have, even if on the “issues” we disagree. And when we discover this, we discover that we are dealing with fellow human beings. With neighbours.

Instead, what I saw was a lot of plugged ears while screaming out personal points of view mixed with prejudice, mockery, and hatred.

2. Theological grounding. What didn’t come across my Facebook feed was anything that remotely suggested that what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ has any bearing on what we think are important election policies. (And I don’t think that the only faith-based issues are abortion—which none of the major parties are interested in addressing—or marriage.

Based on my feed the election was all about the economy, taxes,  and what is best for me personally, irrespective of my neighbours’ needs. (And also half-truths and lies about the politicians we didn’t like).

But where did Jesus’ teachings come into play? Where did God’s heart and character (love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness) come into play, not only in policy but in the conversation?

Christians are called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I feel like politics has a knack for turning all of those things off, not least the God-loving mind.

England-related thoughts and musings [edited/updated]

One of my favourite things about England is all the footpaths. They’re everywhere: in the countryside, in the middle of cities (there are 120,000 miles of them, according to Bill Bryson). I love walking and the idea of stepping out of my door and within a few blocks being able to find footpaths that would take me through field and forest is wonderful. I realize I live in the countryside here, but walking is limited mostly to the gravel roads, unless I want to drive to a park in a city somewhere. Gravel roads aren’t nearly as nice as footpaths and trails. I envy the British their footpaths. There were a couple of occasions I desperately—well, that’s perhaps too strong a word—wanted to wander down a wooded path, but instead had to be driven somewhere else.

* * *

British television is far superior to North American television (speaking in general and subjective terms, of course). I’m thinking of the BBC programs that I have binge-watched on Netflix: Sherlock, Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Wallander, Doc Martin, and The Bletchley Circle. All of them seem much more interested in character and plot and mood than flash and style. Granted, we haven’t had regular television in six or more years, but every time we visit my in-laws or stay in a hotel I realize how right Bruce Springsteen is: “57 chanels (and nothin’ on)”. Perhaps the same is true in England and it’s just that I’ve managed to have all the crap filtered out first. And I guess we have MythbustersMantracker, Jeopardy, Sienfeld (reruns) and—my current favourite, though it’s not actually on television as such—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In England we watched a couple of fun game-shows with my aunt and uncle: Pointless and Two Tribes, both of which were fun and informative, neither of which would likely make it in North America (not least, I suspect, because prizes won’t exceed a couple of thousand dollars). And since coming home, I’ve discovered QI (“Quite Interesting”), a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. The idea of the program is to talk about interesting and obscure things, points awarded for interesting things said (even if completely off topic), points deducted for boring or obvious answers. It’s basically a show about everything and nothing at the same time, filled with English accents and idiom. I love it!

* * *


So much of it! So inexpensive! So tasty!

I purchased 2 pounds of my favourite tea (Yorkshire Gold), a box of 240 P.G. Tips tea bags, and another box of 80 Yorkshire Tea bags (because it came in a fun caddy). All of it for a fraction of the cost of buying the same stuff in Canada! No matter that I already had 3 pounds of my favourite tea sitting in our cold room at home!

* * *

I was surprised by all the litter, particularly in London, but in other areas as well. I saw people throw garbage over their shoulders at the train station and down subway stairwells in London, and many more just leaving their trash wherever they were sitting. It’s not entirely the people’s fault, though: London seems to be almost completely devoid of garbage cans (or, rather, “rubbish bins”). I think this surprised me because in my mind’s eye all of western Europe is almost spotlessly clean, though I couldn’t tell you where this idea comes from.

* * *

About three-quarters of the way through our trip I thought I might have gotten over my Anglophilia, but that was short-lived. It’s back full-force: tea and accents and British television and streets and houses. All of it.

My favourite thing right now is the British tendency to turn statements of fact into questions by adding an “…isn’t it?” or a “…weren’t they?” or the like to a sentence. It somehow makes conversation much more interesting and inclusive. Delightful! I wish I was British! Alas, it isn’t nearly as delightful with a Canadian accent, is it?

I’ve been watching a lot of QI in the last couple of weeks. Maybe the panelists aren’t representative of British English as a whole, but it seems like it’s not just turning statements into questions. There seems to be a tendency to add extra words at the end of a sentence which North Americans tend not to do. For example, “What’s the correct answer, then?”, where—I think—would be more likely to ask the same question by emphasizing the word “correct”: “What’s the correct answer?” Another example: “I like it very much, indeed,” where a Canadian would likely say it without the “indeed.” I don’t know what it is about this that I like so much.

* * *

In Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson complains that every British town centre looks identical, because they all have a Boots, a Marks & Spencer, and a WHSmith. It’s interesting how familiarity really does breed contempt. The stores Bryson mentions are the equivalent of Canada’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Safeway, and…well, I don’t think we have the equivalent of WHSmith (a stationer/newsagent) anymore, thanks to Staples. And yet I liked seeing these stores. They were unfamiliar and therefore, in a way, unique, a novelty.

But, given that it’s the equivalent of our Superstore, I can’t imagine what some of our fellow passengers on the train to London thought if they overheard me telling Dixie, tapping on the window with no small amount of excitement, “Hey, look! A Tesco’s!” (I can’t imagine what I’d think if a visitor from overseas exclaimed, “Hey look! A Walmart!”)

Silence is not just not talking

One of the pleasures of browsing books and desultory reading is coming across little gems that you hadn’t anticipated. For one reason or another, Dixie had pulled Nurturing Silence in a Noisy Heart, a a little book by Wayne E. Oates published in the late 1970s, off the shelf. I had bought it on a whim years ago at library book sale.

The book was laying on our bed last night, so I picked it up and started reading and was hooked pretty quickly. Here’s a bit on silence as not simply the absence of noise (quoting Thomas Merton in the first paragraph):

Silence is a part of the rule of obedience which [Trappist monks] follow. This does not mean, however, that the “monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He must distinguish what is useless and harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God…”

He uses the word “distinguish.” What does that mean about silence? Wrapped up in “distinguish” is the basic principle of nurturing silence in a noisy heart. It means to “chose between” or to “choose from among” the many sounds—noises, tones, words—what is useful in creating within us a clean heart and right spirit. We put to the test all that we are about so say or not say; we are constantly choosing to listen, and choosing what we will need to listen to. We develop, under the tutelage of the Spirit of God, the power to discern and make choices in the feeding, nurturing, and growing of our personal realm of silence. Jesus suggests a kind of prayer that is not know for its “much speaking.” He taught simplicity of utterance. Your “yes” is to be “yes” and your “no” is to be “no.” Silence, then, is not just not talking. Silence is a discipline of choosing what to say and to what to listen. Nurturing silence, then, is the growth of the power of discernment as to what will be the focus of your attention, care, and commitment. (9)

Well, that’s pretty profound, I thought to myself as I closed the book, grabbed my smartphone, and started watching Letterman clips on YouTube. Perhaps not profound enough, I guess.

These are words I need to heed. I have a lot of alone time, relatively speaking, but I don’t have a lot of silence, because I tend to fill my alone time with the noise of the internet. My excuse is that true silence is boring, but the reality is probably that silence is scary. In silence we begin to think about things we otherwise wouldn’t. We begin to realize things about ourselves that we’d rather ignore. God is given room to speak, when it would be much more comfortable to push his voice away with YouTube, Buzzfeed, Facebook, movies, work, etc.

Of course, none of these things aren bad in and of themselves, and sometimes it’s okay to just “escape,” but the danger is that we (I) simply start filling every space with this stuff, so that every waking moment is filled with noise of one kind or another. Smartphones with large data plans don’t help.

We need silence to quiet our hearts, to restore us, “reset” us from the noise, the outside voices, the cacophony of our world, so that we can hear God again, so that we can know who we are again.


Reading for the sake of writing.

My in-laws are here for the weekend. My mother-in-law surprised me with a book: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great BooksNick Hornby’s collection of 10 years worth of columns from Believer about the books he has read. (My mother-in-law is clearly paying attention, as I only came across this book at a bookstore in Banff a couple of weeks ago and added it to my Amazon wishlist.)

I’m only 65 pages in, with 400 to go, so I may yet lose interest (at any time, really), but so far the book has been delightful. Hornby is insightful and witty in the Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse kind of way, which is the best kind of witty.

This book once again proves that what makes a book great and delightful is not necessarily what it says but how it says it. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of language and peripheral matters redeeming what would otherwise be an ordinary and possibly boring book. You might think that I like this book because it’s a book about books and reading. This does help, and it is what initially caught my attention, but I’m reading it now because I love Hornby’s voice.

It might just be that he’s one of those writers who is such a pleasure to read that it doesn’t matter what the subject; you just want to keep reading. It’s what keeps me buying and immediately reading books by Bill Bryson even when they’re about the evolution of the house or a one particular early 20th century summer. It’s what brings me back to Roy MacGreggor, reading his book on Tom Thomson’s death, even though my interest in art is purely about visual and emotional pleasure, or the biography he wrote about his decidedly not-famous father. (Or maybe it’s what Hornby says in one of his early columns: “Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures…are especially compelling: they seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t.” Yes, I had to look up “sui generis,” too. It means “unique.”) It’s what brings me back to P.G. Wodehouse, even though every one of his novel’s I’ve read has essentially the same plot. It’s what will keep me reading this Hornby book, even though I won’t care about 95% of the books he mentioned.

They are all writers who make me want to write again. I don’t know what this says about their work, because I’m essentially saying, “I don’t care what you’re writing about, but I like how you write about it.” When I read other authors—glancing at the shelf: Tolkien, Kent Haruf, Alistair McLeod—it’s the bigger picture that draws me in: the scenes they paint and feelings they create with their words, the “what” they create. Obviously, they way they create those things—that is, their language—makes all the difference, but their language is hidden or embedded in the work. I don’t know which is better. But Bryson, Wodehouse, to a lesser extent MacGreggor, and now apparently Hornby please me in a way the others don’t.

As a bonus (isn’t the term “added bonus” redundant?), Hornby promises to help me feel okay about abandoning books, even if they’re classics. At least that’s what the introduction, written by someone else, tells me. Let’s hope he does, because The Brothers Karamazov and The Grapes of Wrath are gathering dust, bookmarks firmly in place.

C. S. Lewis anticipates Buzzfeed and Facebook, but not in a good way.

I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey at the moment. I bought (or received) this book 10 years ago or more, I’m sure. Just getting to it now. Such is my way. The current chapter is on concepts of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As part of Shippey’s argument, he quotes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which I read almost 20 years ago). The quote gave me a bit of a knock upside the head.

Context: Screwtape is a senior demon who writes letters to a junior demon (Wormwood?) about the different ways they can lead Christians astray (in fact, the book is comprised only of his letters). Shippey gives a bit more context before quoting the book directly:

One of the striking and convincing assertions made by [Lewis’] imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude… Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One ‘without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for [he now quotes Screwtape Letters]:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambitions to give them relish. (p. 127, emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942. When I read the portion from the book my mind went immediately to much of what we look at on the internet. I’m thinking of pages like Buzzfeed or Clickhole or the Fail Blog or any number of mindless gathering of entertainment “news” or endless lists. In many ways, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like also fit the bill: “a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.” Precisely how I find myself some days. “Tedium and solitude.” Precisely how I think of the millions of us sitting in offices and cubicles and at hoe computers around the world for hours every day.

It’s remarkable that Lewis’ comments are so true in our day and age. Possibly more true than they were in 1942. But one thing has changed and is no longer true: lust, gluttony, and wrath have been wrapped up into the tedium and solitude. Lust can be gratified in so many and easy ways online, whether is it pornography or shopping. Gluttony in our binge-watching on Netflix and hours on social media. Wrath in trolling and shaming and endless online arguments and hatred.

It made me think, both about how I use my own time. And that I should read The Screwtape Letters again.

Solomon’s story is the story of all humanity.

One of the fun aspects of teaching is learning or noticing new things yourself, particularly when it happens unexpectedly in the middle of teaching. This year I started teaching the discipleship/confirmation material in my junior high Sunday school class (we call it “discipleship/confirmation” because for most of the kids in the class it’s not confirmation in the traditional sense, as they were not baptized as infants). We are working our way through the Old Testament and today we talked about wisdom, using Solomon’s story as the context, and I had one of those “ahah!” moments.

We began with Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in which God advises (or gives wisdom to) the future kings of Israel. (So it wasn’t unexpected when Israel asked for a king in 1 Samuel. Noted.) God basically said told Israel that their future king shouldn’t acquire too many horses (and don’t get them from Egypt), wives, or much wealth. Solomon, at one point the wisest of the wise, leaves the path of wisdom and breaks all three of those things exactly: he had many horses, some of them from Egypt; he had many wives; and he amassed so much wealth that silver was as common as stone in Israel.

As we were discussing this, and as I pointed out that Solomon did exactly what God said the king shouldn’t do, it suddenly dawned on me: money, sex, and power! Solomon fell prey to the classic three human vices: horses and chariots (power); wives (sex); and wealth (money). Seems the human struggle has been the same through all time. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but I didn’t make that connection until the middle of class.

Back in Deuteronomy, God also said that the future king of Israel should read the law every day of his life so that he would remain faithful to God. Obviously Solomon wasn’t doing this—if he had, he may not have fallen prey to the temptations of money, sex, and power and not turned away to other gods (which in his case seemed to be mostly because of sex, as it was his foreign wives drew him away).

Even the wisest among can leave the path of wisdom, if we aren’t rooted in the wisdom of God.

Solomon’s story isn’t unique. On some level it’s the story of all of us, of all humanity.

Reading the book after watching the movie. [UPDATED]

I still remember watching the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries on TV in the mid-1980s. My parents let me stay up past my bed time to watch a couple of episodes, although when it got violent I was no longer allowed to watch. I saw enough to be moved emotionally and in my imagination. I was hooked on that story. “Lonesome Dove” follows the story of a handful of old Texas Rangers who decide to drive several thousand head of cattle and horses from south Texas up to Montana, as yet unsettled.

I’ve watched the series a number of times since, having bought it on VHS in university (and since then the DVD version and recently a remastered wide-screen version). About two weeks ago, I picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry on which the miniseries was based. I’ve owned the book for years, but at more than 900 pages, it’s quite intimidating to start. This time I was immediately hooked and managed to read through the whole thing in less than two weeks. It’s a wonderful novel, with well-rounded characters. A great tale of the trials and tribulation of this motley cattle crew. 

What struck me was that the miniseries—at least, as it exists in my memory, since it has been about a decade since I watched it last—was incredibly faithful to the book. So much so, in fact, that right from the beginning, in my mind the characters in the book looked and sounded liked depicted by their respective actors (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in particular). In some cases, a book is spoiled by watching the film version first, but I can think of a number of cases where I’ve read the book after its film version and thoroughly enjoyed the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the film was one I particularly enjoyed, my experience of the book is enhanced by the viewing.

Lonesome Dove. As I read I began to realize that both Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played their roles perfectly, but I don’t know if I can say that retrospectively. I might think this simply because I’m reading their performances into the novel.
– Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know if I would have read this one if I hadn’t seen the A&E miniseries (the Colin Firth one) first.
A Prairie Home Companion. There is no novel version. But there is a screenplay published in book form. I read it after watching the movie and loved it.
True Grit. I’m about a third of the way through this one. The recent Coen Brothers’ version is what’s in my mind as I read (in fact, my copy of the book is the movie tie-in version). I’ve read that the Coen Brothers’ version is more faithful to the book than the 1969 John Wayne version.
– No Country for Old Men. Another Coen Brothers film, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Also a very faithful adaptation.

I used to insist that it was better to read the book before watching the film version. But looking at the above examples, I’m inclined to say that reading a book after watching its movie version is a much better experience than watching the movie version after reading the book.

The Lord of the Rings films were good adaptations of the books, though as the years pass I think less and less of the performances (with the exception of Saruman and Denethor). That’s because they don’t live up to my mental vision of those characters. The Hobbit films are terrible adaptations of a childhood favourite, but are otherwise well done and for the most part entertaining (although I can’t stand all the battles). The Da Vinci Code is a unique instance of me being neutral on the film vs. book question. I could say that the film wins by a hair because the writing in the book is terrible. But then the book was an incredible page-turner, which the movie didn’t match with engagement/tension.

And then there’s Simon Birch, the atrocious “adaptation” of John Irving’s wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Although, reading up on the film a bit more now, I realize that the film doesn’t bear the title of the book because Irving thought it was too unfaithful an adaptation, but because Irving didn’t think the book could be successfully adapted to the screen and therefore sold the rights with conditions about the name. In which case, perhaps I should take it a little easier on the film.)

UPDATE: As it turns out, reading the book has in a small way ruined the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries. In an unexpected turn of events, my fond memories of the miniseries which were revived and relived through the reading of the book took some of the “magic” away from the miniseries.

The two worlds of the introverted pastor

I recently saw a meme about how tired we are of hearing about introverts. There’s been a lot of that going around lately, so I apologize for carrying on about it here. I do this not because it’s the thing to do, but because I’ve been reading and thinking about it lately. It has been a great exercise in understanding myself more and in identifying strengths and weaknesses.

One of my seminary professors once told our class that the majority of pastors are introverts. A useful, but shallow, definition of an introvert is someone who is energized by solitude (and its related activities) and whose strength is drained in crowds (and their related activities). Desiring solitude is not the same as shyness; an introvert is not necessarily shy, however. As I say, this is a very shallow definition of introversion and really doesn’t do justice to the nuances and spectrum of the trait. But it’ll do for now.

If my professor’s statistic is true, it’s an interesting one to consider. On the positive side, an introverted pastor is suited to the calling of preaching and teaching, which requires significant time studying in solitude. On the potentially negative side, an introverted pastor is nevertheless required to spend significant time with people. I say potentially, because to be an introvert is not to say that one doesn’t like people or spending time with them. Rather, it means that a good portion of the introverted pastor’s work is work that drains rather than energizes. I am not a pure introvert (I assume that few people, if any, are), so I find Sunday mornings, for example, both energizing and very draining.

But I’m thinking of this at the moment in terms of the introverted pastor (me) at home. At church and youth functions, I am relatively lively and energetic, making a point of interacting with people. At home, I tend to be quiet and solitary (as far as that’s possible with a wife and kids). That doesn’t mean I’m pretending at public functions, acting like something I’m really not. It just means that I’m drawing on a different part of who I am, or like a rechargeable battery, at public church functions I’m a battery plugged in and making the bunny walk and beat its drum, whereas at home I’m a battery plugged into the charger.

What I’ve wondered about it when the two worlds collide: when someone from the church or a one of my youth is over for non-“official” reasons. What does is it like for them to experience me recharging at home—not very talkative, reading, keeping to myself? Can those two “sides” of me coexist in their minds? Should I plug the battery back into the bunny when people come by? Sometimes I do, but not always.

It’s one reason I think understanding personality can be very important in communities like the church. We live in a world in which extroversion is generally assumed to be the ideal (see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain). Misunderstandings can occur when we don’t understand how people are wired, or more specifically, how each person is wired in a unique way. Our expectations of others can easily be shaped by either the ideal or dominant personality within a community (and extroversion is by nature dominant).

Something I’ve been pondering.

The dusty Old West

Sometimes at meal times, particularly if we’re at a restaurant, our family likes to play games. Usually it’s the alphabet game (name a category, and then we go around coming up with words that belong to that category for each letter of the alphabet). Last night, however, Madeline started a “favourites” game—favourite song, favourite book, favourite movie, etc.

I find favourites like this are often difficult to determine, as things like favourite album or movie are constantly in flux as time passes. But tonight, as I was looking up something mostly unrelated, I came across the classic closing scene of Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven (spoiler alert), which reminded me how much I love that movie. Last night over supper I named Dances with Wolves as my favourite movie, but Unforgiven comes pretty close. It occurs to me now that I have a thing for films set in the “Old West” (or if not in the “Old West” as such, then in dusty corners of the U.S.). Consider some of these favourites:

  • Dances with Wolves
  • Unforgiven
  • There Will be Blood
  • No Country for Old Men (dusty corners, not Old West)

Well, that’s only four. My mind’s gone blank. I was sure there were more. At any rate, these movies have consistently remained favourites over the years. And it’s not westerns that I like—in fact, most Westerns I don’t like, and those Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly never did it for me. It’s more about setting and feel than genre.

(Thought of some others, though they’re not favourites on the same level: Lonesome Dove [tv miniseries, but still…]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

Films of other types come and go from my lists of interest. There are the comedies I’ve loved, but they boil down more to nostalgia (in the form of quoting large portions of the scripts) than anything else.


I Am Haunted by Waters (Walking on Water, Part 3)

To borrow a line from A River Runs Through It: I am haunted by waters.

Specifically, I am haunted by the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water in Matthew 14. More than 6 years ago now I wrote a post pondering my negative reaction to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based entirely on Peter’s little episode. (Or more specifically, my negative reaction was to the first 30 pages of the book. I couldn’t read any further.) That turned out to be one of my most discussed musings: a long (for a blog) conversation about calling, growing as a Christian, trusting in God, and stepping out in faith. I look back at it as marking a watershed (heh-heh-heh) of sorts in my life. I had been in a personal rut, directionless, for about 6 years, but within a year of writing that post I began what some might call “stepping out of the boat,” according to the popular interpretation of that story.

My beef with the popular interpretation remained, however. Two years ago, I came across a different though equally, if not more, plausible interpretation of the passage, one in which Peter’s actions aren’t commended as a model for all Christians to follow.

I hadn’t thought about it at all since then, but as it happened, the speaker at this weekend’s family camp used that passage in one of his sessions. He was preaching a series on trust and his take on this passage was again along the lines of the popular stepping-out-in-faith reading. My response was again negative, though to a much lower degree. Perhaps this will mark another watershed in my life, but this time my response is more along the lines of how we interpret this passage.

Let me say this first: I’m not questioning the speaker or his motives or his overall message. I believe that we need to trust in God fully for everything. That is what faith is. I believe that sometimes we are called to do difficult things and when that happens we need to “step out in faith,” but that this could mean anything from sharing the Gospel with a friend, repairing a broken relationship, making Kingdom choices rather than cultural choices, moving to the inner-city to work with the poor, or selling everything and moving to the jungles of South America. Some are called to what from the world’s perspective are “great things”, but I believe that we are all called to something specific and, when it comes down to it, things greater still in the Kingdom of God: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

My concern with the popular reading of Peter walking on water is a general concern about how we read scripture. In the case of Peter walking on water, there are several dangers I see which could be applied to our interpretation of any passage of scripture.

One is that we interpret how we’ve always interpreted it. I value the tradition of the church—that is, the wisdom of the Christian witnesses who have gone before—and so I want to be careful not to argue for innovative readings of scripture for no reason other than innovation. What I intend to say is that whenever we read scripture, we need to read with fresh eyes and open ears. We may have misinterpreted it previously, we have missed a detail or an important contextual element, or the Spirit may simply have something different to tell us about the passage.

A fine example of this happening to me was Matthew 24:36-41. That’s the passage where Jesus talks about what it will be like when he returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” This is where I assume the Left Behind book series gets its name; I imagine this was also the inspiration for Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The popular interpretation among conservative evangelicals, and the assumption behind both the books and Norman’s song, is that those in the passage who are “taken” are taken to be with Jesus and the ones who are “left” are unbelievers who, depending on your eschatology, will either have to suffer through the Great Tribulation or suffer some other terrible fate from which the believer is spared. But when you look at the context of Jesus’ words, you notice that he says that his return will be like the days of Noah in which “the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, it seems that Jesus intended a meaning reverse to the popular reading: those left behind are the children of God; those taken are unbelievers. When it comes down to it, it’s a rather minor point (though it may have repercussions for our eschatology), but it was an eye-opener for me in terms of needing to read scripture with an eye for the details and context. We need to be attentive rather than lazy readers (I continue to struggle with lazy reading).

When we look at the details of Jesus and Peter walking on water, we see this: Jesus walks out to the disciples on the lake; they are afraid; Jesus reassures them by identifying himself; Peter says, “If it’s you, let me come to you”; Jesus calls him; Peter walks on water; Peter becomes afraid and starts sinking; Jesus calls Peter one of “little faith” and wonders why he doubted; Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat. These things we know for sure. In addition—and I think this is important—we note that Jesus does not challenge the other disciples for staying in the boat. From the looks of things, they weren’t all meant to walk on water.

We don’t know whether Jesus intended for Peter to walk on water or if he was just responding to his request. We don’t know to what Jesus was referring when he asks Peter why he doubted: did Jesus mean to ask why Peter doubted his ability (through Jesus) to walk on water or why he doubted Jesus’ self-identification or maybe both.

The problem I see with the popular interpretation of this passage is that it makes much of Peter’s getting out and walking on water, but makes little, if anything, of his doubt. In addition, the popular reading tends to project a negative image on the rest of the disciples (who did not get out of the boat) which the text in no way calls for.

The second, and possibly more insidious danger in how we read the text is hearing what we want to hear. I think this danger is possibly worse than the first one because it appeals to our emotions so much—we understandably like hearing positive, encouraging things, and we don’t like the resulting feelings to be questioned. We may continue interpret a passage a certain way simply because it’s a nice, encouraging sentiment, because we want it to mean that. What we want it to mean may even be a true sentiment, but it may not be the meaning of the verse or passage. Nobody likes a bubble-burster; nobody likes to have their bubbles burst. We may reject  a bubble burster’s attempted bursting by saying, “But my reading is also true, right, so…” as if the truth of an idea is itself enough to justify imposing on any old text. This is the problem with proof-texts or life-verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”): it may be true about me in a general way (insofar as I fall into God’s redeeming work in history), but this verse is not about me or you, it’s about Israel first and foremost. So I can claim this verse as my hope for my part in God’s future for creation; I’m not sure it’s proper for me to claim it as God’s specific promise to me and my life as it relates to my career or family or retirement, as much as I would like it to mean that.

How does this apply to the popular reading of Jesus and Peter walking on water? The popular reading smacks a bit of a Christianized version the “American dream”: you can do great things through faith in Jesus, almost to the point of Jesus being the means to the end of doing great things. We like to hear the message that God has wonderful things in store for us and that we are destined for great things if only we would believe and act. While I am inclined to say that, with some reservations (e.g. those mentioned above in reference to the Jeremiah passage), that this is true, given what we know and what we don’t know about this passage I don’t think we can honestly say that this is what this story is about.

For one, the story survives if we take away Peter’s part of it, as the other gospels have done. One could say that Matthew included it for a purpose, but the knows and know-nots of the passage are such that it’s difficult to say what that purpose might be. So I’m inclined to think that we misplace our focus if we pay too much attention to Peter in this passage. I think the story calls us, not to walk on water, but to trust in Jesus, whether he wants to walk on water or stay in the boat. Jesus where our focus should rightly lie.

My other concern with this story and our superimposing the things we like or prefer on it is how we define “walking on water.” I think the tendency is to think of this as “doing great things” for God (at least on the surface) or otherwise. But there is no clear idea as to what such “great things” might be. Will we then come up with our own things? will we superimpose the American dream of wealth and happiness? I’m reminded of Jesus’ observation that the poor widows offering of a few coins was greater than the large offerings of the wealthy; I’m reminded of the Beatitudes: the great things of the world are not the great things of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may well be calling you and/or me to “walk on water,” but I’m not convinced the story of Peter’s walking on water is intended to do this. Neither am I convinced that “walking on water” would be becoming the next Billy Graham or Mother Theresa any more than becoming a peacemaker in our communities or sincerely praying for our enemies and wishing them the good life.

And so ends today’s musings on scripture and Peter walking on water. You may wonder why I would waste so much time and energy talking about this passage. You may even think this is all done in resistance to the truth in this passage. You might be right. Time will tell. Part of this post is certainly “reactionary.” But I find great joy in this sort of thing: to go back to a passage like this one (or, say, Genesis 1), to really pay attention to it and wrestle with it again and again.