Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Vacation Here We Come!

Just posting a short note to let you all know that I'll be logging off and offline for a few weeks. We're going on vacation today and I'm dropping the computer off for some technical assistance, namely, to have the sound card checked.

We're going tenting for nearly a week, spending time visiting family and friends, and staying at my in-laws camp. Should be good. Should be relaxing. Wait! I have three kids! One is four and the other two are infant twins! Are we crazy to be traveling like this! Should maybe think of having my head examined! Nah! Should be alright, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, once we get back I'll again try and post more on this blog. I've been mildly negligent lately. Not for lack of topics or ideas, but for lack of time. Until later, though, this blog will be empty of fresh input and thoughts.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

No More Endless Summers

June was an unbelievably busy month. One piece of evidence of this was that every single Saturday was booked with either a family event or church event of some sort: church picnics, weddings, birthday parties, baby showers. That this is evidence for our busyness shows that our weekends are usually pretty mundane, and if I’m busy then it’s because I’m still working on the sermon for Sunday!

July might well be similar. Along with the fact that my wife is one of our DVBS teachers (which means busy prep this week and busy days next week for her and additional child care for me), we have a couple of church families dealing with serious illness. As difficult as it is to imagine perhaps, there’s a part of me that gets a little tense and whispers a prayer each time the phone rings because it could be someone telling me that a loved one has died.

After DVBS we begin three weeks of vacation, time-off which will involve spending time with family, going tenting, hanging out at my in-laws camp, and, hopefully, getting some relaxing reading done. Of course, given the phone calls I await, our vacation could find itself edited in one way or another—that’s part of what it means to be a pastor.

Once we’re back from vacation, we have just a few weeks before the fall arrives. Strange as it sounds, it sometimes feels like the summer is already over! All our time is essentially spoken for. A time of year that used to stretch into forever now disappears, or so it seems, before you get the chance to enjoy the concept of unscheduled days.

I remember when I was a kid, summer seemed endless. Granted, sometimes I found myself impossibly bored. But there was a part of me that relished that feeling of having days and days of simple relaxing, reading, and a whole lot of nothing to do. It really gave me the sense that there was a definite change involved in the shifting of season besides those due to weather. I experienced time differently. Life wasn’t in as much of a rush as it might normally be.

Without waxing nostalgic too much, a part of me misses that experience. I recall when I could spend hours reading through a stack of deliberately chosen books (admittedly, not everyone’s choice of summer activity). I still have lots of books I would love to pour over thoughtfully, enjoyably, even prayerfully, but rarely do I have time to get to most of them. I miss having more leisurely time.

True, I do get some time like this. But with a family, time alone is a special gift. And with a vocation that could potentially even interrupt vacation time, it can be even harder. A consequence of this is that it can be hard to get that to place of being able to rest even when you are on vacation. Your body might be on vacation, but your mind is a hive of activity, a bundle of thoughts that prevent genuine Sabbath. There is more than one way of being still. Even if I’m physically still, being spiritually and mentally still is a whole other matter. I hope that while I’m on vacation with my family I find myself able to be still in both ways. While I might not have any more endless summers, hopefully I can catch snatches of summer here and there. Like anyone else, I sure could use it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Making the Familiar Fresh

As a pastor I am always thinking about what I should be preaching about. Usually I have a long list of potential sermon topics and series ideas but sometimes choosing one to work on can be a challenge. For the last month or so (and for two more weeks) I’ve been preaching a series called “The Bible’s Greatest Hits.” The idea has been to teach on passages that are very familiar to many of us within the church and known to many outside of church from one setting or another. The idea was hopefully to make the familiar fresh. This is the list of “greatest hits” I came up with:

#1: Psalm 23
#2: The Ten Commandments
#3: John 3:16
#4: The Lord’s Prayer
#5: Isaiah 40 (especially verses 27 – 31)
#6: 1 Corinthians 13

Sometimes the challenge is that we’ve heard certain Scriptures read so frequently that we lose their meaning. I think this can be the case with Psalm 23 and John 3:16. With other Scriptures the challenge is to see the passage in its context, because we can have the tendency to interpret them independent of the chapters and verses that surround them. Given that 1 Corinthians 13 is often used at weddings proves my point since this chapter falls in the middle of Paul’s discussion of congregational worship and spiritual gifts. It is not first and foremost a description of marriage love even if we can apply the truth of that passage to married life.

Last week when I talked about The Lord’s Prayer I essentially made two points: First, prayer is a privilege that comes when we place our faith in Jesus. Being able to address God as Father, or Abba, is a privilege for those who, as Paul puts it in Galatians 4, “receive adoption to sonship.” Second, prayer has a pattern according to Jesus; that is, there is an order to our praying. Or there ought to be. Since so often our prayers are dominated by health issues and immediate circumstances, it’s important to observe that biblical prayers (I have the prayers of Paul in mind here) almost always have to do with growth in Christian maturity and growing closer to God—with putting God’s glory, kingdom, and will ahead of everything else.

We can also wrongly interpret passages or miss their depth when we isolate them from their context. Isaiah 40 is a good example of this. Verse 31, the one about eagles’ wings and one often embroidered on wall hangings or engraved on other decorative items, is indeed a comforting verse. But often we miss the fact that these words are at the end of a passage insisting that despite Israel’s experience of exile God is sovereign and powerful, that he intends to redeem his people, and that God’s people are being called to trust in him and draw comfort from the fact that contrary to outward appearances God remains in control. He has not forgotten his people and will eventually use them as a witness to his character and to display his glory.

Anyway, it’s been interesting and refreshing to take a look at these popular and well-known passages of Scripture. A series like this is particularly enjoyable for me as a pastor because of the variety of texts involved. This is especially so since at Easter I finished a series on Mark’s gospel that I began last September. What I’ll preach and teach about once I’ve gone through all these “greatest hits,” I haven’t decided yet. But the wonderful thing is that there is more than enough Scripture to choose from.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Stronger Than Death

In case any of you were wondering, I asked permission of the couple who inspired this post for permission to include it on my blog. They were more than happy for me to post these thoughts.

Marriage involves serious commitment of a kind not called for in any other relationship. No other human relationship requires that we take vows publicly. And no other relationship fastens one person to another regardless of circumstance or mood; that is, one’s commitment to a marriage partner is not conditioned by the loss of romantic feelings or by misfortune. Consenting to marriage is, therefore, consenting to be this person’s exclusive covenant partner, friend, confidante, and lover through the various experiences of life. It’s a recognition that in this person one has found love. And love means there is a mutual willingness to share a life of fidelity. Whatever else may change, this allegiance is not to alter.

These days the significance of marriage is eroding. Whether we’re talking about divorce, the prevalence of common-law relationships in our culture or the rising (or so it seems) support (legal and social) for same-sex marriage, the value of one man and one woman committing themselves wholeheartedly to one another has become more difficult to discern for many. Especially in a social climate where relationships have become more about personal fulfillment (whether consciously or not), finding relational meaning through sacrificial love is almost quaint.

All this is on my mind for a simple reason. I recently had the privilege of presiding over a young couple’s marriage. Actually, I had this privilege twice! If that seems strange, it’s because the circumstances in this case were exceptional. The first wedding ceremony was held in the event the groom would not be in sufficiently good health to make it to the intended wedding date. Without wanting to sound overly grim, we couldn’t be certain whether he’d even be alive by the actual wedding date. For the last two years he’s been struggling with cancer and this past winter was told it was terminal. Over the last couple of months, his health has worsened. So this is why they asked if I could marry them sooner—they wanted to be sure they would be married.

This situation is exceptional in more than one way. First and most obviously the majority of couples, especially young ones, don’t find themselves having to face the possibility that one of them might die and soon. Maybe especially when we are younger, we tend to live as though we are immortal. We don’t give a lot of thought to our own mortality, at least not willingly. If we do, usually that’s because we are given good reason to do so.

But the other way in which this situation is exceptional is that this couple decided to press forward with the decision to marry even though they had no guarantee that their marriage would last longer than a few months. In purely medical or scientific terms, the chances were not good. Outside of a miracle, the bride would become a widow sooner than later. Yet they married. I think this exceptional because in a day and age when marriage has become a question of convenience and, Lord have mercy, disposable, such a decision—conceivable or not by us—stands as a testimony to its true meaning and purpose as a covenant, not to mention putting real flesh and blood on that part of the traditional wedding vows that say, “in sickness and in health . . . as long as we both shall live.” Rarely do such words resonate as strongly as they do here.

Thinking of this brings to mind these words from Song of Solomon 8:6, 7:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Talking to some people, I know that not all would see this marriage as wise. Some wondered whether they would do the same thing in the same situation. I confess, too, that I had similar questions in my mind. The question, put bluntly, is this: would you still get married if your fiancé was terminally ill and, in all likelihood, did not have long to live? Put another way, would you want to go through with a wedding if you knew that you would have to go through a funeral for the very same person within the span of a few months or even weeks? Honestly, on one level I can see how neither answer (yes or no) would be an easy one.

At both wedding ceremonies, the groom in question praised the commitment of his bride, particularly the fact that she never once complained and never once wavered in her commitment. Certainly it would be understandable if she had; but she didn’t, despite what to some would be seen as an impossible situation. How many others would have cut and run, chasing instead their dream of long-life and marriage rather than demonstrating such a selfless and sacrificial love?

In the movie Shadowlands, which portrays the relationship and eventual marriage of Christian author C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham, we see Lewis and Gresham face a very similar circumstance. In fact, as portrayed in the movie, their wedding ceremony takes place in her hospital room where she’s being treated for cancer. In a tender moment, Joy says to Lewis something like, “The pain now is a part of the happiness then.” That is, as soon as we open ourselves to the possibility of love we also open ourselves to the possibility (and likelihood) of pain. What we love we can lose, and losing what we love always hurts. Only avoiding the vulnerability required of love frees us from the pain of losing what we love. But ultimately this involves a much deeper, more profound loss.

No small wonder that Scripture likens the relationship between God and Israel (Hosea) and between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:25 – 33) to the relationship between a husband and wife. Both are covenants. Both call for unconditional love and fidelity. Both relationships are unchanging regardless of changing circumstances. Indeed, in the case of Jesus he ultimately and willingly died for his bride—and did so to save her, to demonstrate his commitment to her.

And marriage, contrary to the thinking of many today, is about a dying to self, an instance of the gospel—and kingdom life—taking shape in a practical day to day relationship where such a commitment is needed if the relationship is to last at all. Without the willingness to die to one’s own interests and desires and the idea that marriage is about what I get out of it, any marriage will crumble.

So when I watched and officiated over this young couple’s wedding(s), I confess to being amazed. Amazed and touched. It was a privilege for me to participate. And for those who witnessed their commitment—and who will continue to—and still have questions over the wisdom of their choice and whether they could do likewise, I understand. But all I know is that their example is close to the example of Christ’s love for us—a love not conditioned by changing circumstances but instead shaped by the insistence that the love marriage requires “is as strong as death.” In the case of this couple, perhaps it’s even stronger.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Music to My Ears: Part 3

U2 has long since been more than just a band; they’re very nearly a corporation and have a globe-trotting, tinted-shades wearing activist with a Messiah-complex as their CEO. Given the event that each album and subsequent tour becomes, it seems nearly impossible for Bono and company simply to release just any old album. Instead, each release comes across as a highly strategized business plan, one that is calculated to ensure that they retain their title as the world’s biggest rock band. Aside from themselves, they have a lot of people to please.

Ever since their brave (as well as dark and dense) but near-disaster release Pop (1997), U2 have, it could be said, played it relatively safe. Forsaking the experimental sounds they incorporated into their 90s releases (Achtung, Baby!, Zooropa, with the aforementioned Pop being the pinnacle if not the actual creative height of this period), during the new millennium they’ve instead relied more on straight ahead anthemic stadium rock of the kind they were known for in the 80s.

This is why their 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind was considered such a throwback—it had been years since U2 had sounded like four guys in a room playing songs. And indeed with this album the songs were propelled to the foreground and anything experimental was there simply to enhance the songs. Much the same was true of 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Though with this release the Edge’s guitar seemed, on many tracks, to be amped up even more (“Vertigo,” “All Because Of You,” “City of Blinding Lights” being the best examples).

During the first half of this new millennium U2 seemed to be enjoying a new lease on life. Both ATYCLB and HTDAAB and their respective tours were incredibly successful and they showed no signs that the upward curve of rock stardom was waning. To me, at least, it’s impressive that not only have they remained one of the biggest concert draws for the better part of two decades, but have also continued to record new, vital music at this stage in their career rather than rest on past laurels.

All this does, I suppose, raise that perennial question first posed by Neil Young: “Is it better to burn out or to fade away?” That is, how long can any band or recording artist maintain their level of success? And how do you know when it’s time to bow out gracefully? Certainly no one wants to wait until that moment when all of a sudden no one’s buying your albums and buying your concert tickets. How does one know when the downward part of the curve begins? To put it another way, when does a fan cross the line from being proud and supportive of the artist in question to being embarrassed to be a fan?

I ramble on in this way only because U2 recently released their new album, No Line On The Horizon. And it is with this album that they very well might close out their third decade of recording and performing, which, in rock music terms, is a geologic age. Right now the question is: does the new album qualify as a worthy entry into a discography already loaded with classics (War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung, Baby!, and, some would say, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)? Or does it show signs that perhaps the downward part of the curve has begun?

First of all, in listening to the new record it’s clear that it’s not nearly the stylistic departure from previous releases that both the band and their producers (and co-writers) Eno and Lanois claimed it would be. It is not, despite pronouncements from inside the U2 camp, as a big a leap from previous records as Achtung, Baby! was from The Joshua Tree.

Yet at the same time it isn’t as safe a record as All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb arguably are; that is, there are examples of experimentation that both recall their 90s period but also draw sonic comparisons to The Unforgettable Fire. It’s a strange melange in a way. One can hear hints and suggestions of U2’s various incarnations throughout but none of them come to dominate and nor do they ever coalesce into something altogether different or surprising. And I have to say that I’ve moments when I’ve loved the album and others when I’ve been less sure.

I don’t think, however, that No Line On The Horizon represents the beginning of the downward curve. “Magnificent,” for instance, is quite possibly one of the best U2 songs of the last 10 years—as well as one that unabashedly acknowledges and celebrates our origin and purpose in God. And “Get On Your Boots,” the much-maligned first single, is better, I think, than most critics suggest. Not unlike one of the other stronger songs on the album, “Breathe,” it bravely suggests, despite current political, economic, and world events, that there is reason for hope, that we can, without being cynical, put one foot in front of the other and walk out into the world.

And there are signs all over this album that the reason for hope is grace—a grace with its source in eternity. “I know a girl with a hole in her heart,” says Bono on the title track, “She says infinity’s a great place to start.” Makes me think of Augustine’s famous statement from his Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” Augustine, and perhaps U2, would argue that only God can fill that hole in the heart, that it is in fact a God-shaped hole. Infinity is a great place to start, indeed.

On “Breathe” Bono speaks of a “love you can’t defeat” and says that “every day I die again and again I’m reborn.” As the song reaches its climax, he’s singing his heart out: “I found grace inside a sound/ I found grace, it’s all I found/ And I can breathe.” It’s because of this grace, it would seem, that he’s found the “courage to walk out into the street with arms out.” Set to the Edge’s chiming guitar, the hopefulness that builds in the chorus is the perfect counterpoint to the more anxiously sung-spoken verse sections.

Taking on the guise of a dying soldier overseas, on “White As Snow” (set loosely to the melody of the carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) we have intimations of the need for a Saviour: “Once I knew there was a love divine/ Then came a time I thought it knew me not/ Who can forgive forgiveness when forgiveness is not/ Only the lamb as white as snow.” In the same song he asks, “Where might we find the lamb as white as snow?” and finds himself wishing, “If only a heart could be a white as snow.”

Though not one of the strongest tracks on the record, “Unknown Caller” also portrays the need for divine intervention, specifically the need for repentance and how this can only come from a divine source. Using, rather awkwardly, terms derived from computer-speak, we hear a voice tell the listener to “Restart and reboot yourself/ You’re free to go.” This same mysterious voice says “Hear me/Cease to speak that I may speak,” and this almost sounds like the Scripture verse: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

A definite clue to the meaning of “Unknown Caller,” that it is in fact a conversation between a human being and God, lies in the line “It was 3:33 when the numbers fell off the clock face.” The numbers 333 also appeared on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, printed as J33:3 (a sign in the airport terminal). Bono remarked in an interview that this was a reference to Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” He called it God’s phone number, and now here again those divine digits show up.

Altogether I wouldn’t say this album grabs the listener as strongly as How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It falls more into the category of more transitional albums like The Unforgettable Fire and Zooropa. At the same time, I think that it shows a band that has little interest in simply repeating itself. However the album does in the long run, I hope that it doesn’t prevent U2 from following their creative instincts wherever they lead. I’m thinking here primarily of comments in the press that the band hopes to put out a companion album to Horizon sometime in the next year, one that would be called Songs of Ascent. Bono says the plan is for this to be a more meditative album on the theme of pilgrimage. Given that the announced title for the album comes from a section of OT Psalms (120 – 134) called the "Songs of Ascent," which are about a pilgrimage, a journey to the holy city of Jerusalem, this makes such comments all the more intriguing. Let’s hope if U2 does continue long enough to have a definite downward slide that it begins after this album.

A Fish Funeral

It happens to all parents eventually. And a couple of weeks ago it happened to us—we had to tell our little girl that one of her pets had died. In our case it was one of four pet fish, a tiny catfish (or corydora) named Joyce. It was my wife who discovered that our little pet had expired and that night, once our daughter was in bed, we set about the task of removing its body from the tank and making preparations for the next day. That was when we began to get the giggles.

You see, there was just something a little disgusting and creepy about that poor, little dead fish. My wife didn’t want to extract it from the tank, and I wasn’t real anxious to do so either. We began to exchange little jokes—none of which I can immediately recall—all of which seemed very funny in the moment. On top of that the little box my wife found for a coffin was a gift box from a recent baby shower for our twins. There was a picture of a teddy bear on the box with the words “new arrival”! Now, if we hadn’t already been giggly, that drove us over the edge.

Anyway, we successfully managed to prepare the coffin and get the fish inside. We taped it shut (in case, I don’t know, there was some sort of weird fishy resurrection?) and set it aside until the next day when we would tell Ella, our four year old.

Once we had the chance, we sat Ella down to tell her what had happened. Since this was our first pet death, we had no idea how she would react. I mean, one of her pets had died; but on the other hand, it was a little fish, not likely in the same category that a pet cat or dog would be in the same situation.

It was actually a sweet little moment. We told her that Joyce had gotten sick and died, and once she understood the finality of what had happened she did get upset and cry for few minutes. Through her tears she told us that she wanted to see Joyce again.

She wasn’t very upset, but in that moment I saw my daughter process an experience I had never seen her have to process before. I have to say, she was brave and mature. She wanted to know if we would see Joyce in heaven. We told her that we didn’t know for sure, that the Bible isn’t clear what happens to animals upon death. Alisha talked to her about how sad she had been when Miss T, her dog, had died. I shared a couple of pet stories too.

The next step was the burial. We found a spot at the back of our yard right next to a large rock. On the rock Alisha painted Ella’s name and Joyce’s name. She shovelled out a hole large enough for the makeshift casket. When we went to bury Joyce, I read a portion from Psalm 104, and “Auntie” Janis said a short prayer thanking God for Joyce’s time with us. It was probably the shortest funeral I have ever attended!

More than anything, I was impressed by my little girl, Ella, and how she dealt with the whole thing. It may seem like a small thing, even a silly thing, to have a fish funeral, but I think it was good for her. It took seriously her feelings and showed, I hope, that what’s important to her is important to us. It was a nice little family moment. And I hope that it’s something she remembers in the years to come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Divine Friendship

Out of all the things that I miss from my old college/university days, it is the network of friends I had who were a regular part of my life. Since being married and moving back to NB, my social life more or less consists of my wife, her family, and a handful of people from our church. And since I’m the pastor, I often feel like I have to be measured and deliberate about cultivating friendships inside the church (whether that’s right or wrong, I’m not sure).

Whereas once I could call up friends at a moment’s notice to go out to a movie, now it seems to require a vast assembly of factors to come into play at the same time to make it work at all. The few friends I have around here also all have wives, kids, jobs, responsibilities, commitments, etc. So usually I simply don’t bother. It hardly seems worth the effort. And there never seems to be the opportunity. Time often works against me when it comes to this. So I complain about it instead, normally to my wife!

In thinking about this, I realize something else. It’s not really about going to a movie once in awhile. More is going on than a desire to get out on occasion for some fun social time—though I would definitely welcome more of that! On top of wanting to head to the theatre with a couple of friends on the odd evening, I feel something deeper: the lack of genuine friendships, that personal space where I can be totally myself, feel accepted and loved and, yes, enjoy myself, laugh, and just have fun.

Part of why I feel this lack, I think, is it can become a little too easy to see myself only in terms of the responsibilities I fulfill: father, husband, and pastor. Of course, I get the fact that being a father is not only about responsibilities I fulfill and that being a husband is not only about obligatory duties. This is, in the best of times, also true of being a pastor. Each of these aspects of my identity involves relationships; all personally engage me. Indeed, I consider my wife to be my best friend.

But—and I hope I am not alone in this—sometimes I just want to be me. I want to be free of that feeling that in this situation I have to be something and not only somebody, free of the need to be performing tasks and instead freed to enjoy the slow passing of time over a conversation about shared interests, hobbies, concerns or whatever. Friendship is the space within which that freedom is most often experienced. I miss being around people—around friends—who simply want to be around me because I am who I am, and because we both read the same kinds of books or listen to the same kind of music or watch the same kinds of TV shows and movies.

Already I mentioned to the fact that as a pastor I don’t feel the freedom others should feel in cultivating friendships with people in church. This isn’t to say people from church are excluded from my social life; rather, the degree to which I would be able to experience that sense of genuine friendship, of intimate disclosure and honesty, of personal closeness and openness is very limited when it comes to folks in my congregation. And this is precisely the kind of friendship I am really talking about. It may include going to the movies, but it isn’t limited to that.

And the thing is, I don’t believe that friendships are frivolous and peripheral to all other relationships. Though so many of us become too busy with family life and work to put any energy into potential or existing friendships (I’m looking in the mirror here!), I think that friendships help us to be more of ourselves, to fulfill our God-given identities, to help us see more clearly who we are and who we can be. Other people draw out of us more than we can draw out of ourselves.

When it comes to Christian friendships, their value is that they’re a form of spiritual encouragement and support, and one of God’s ways of meeting us himself. In all the evangelical talk of having a personal relationship with God, one thing is often missing: that we often experience our own relationship with God through the relationships we have with other believers; that is, our relationship with God is vertical, yes, but it is also horizontal. To some extent it is vertical only if it is also horizontal.

To put it more practically, only when I experience friends praying with me (and for me) can I sometimes understand how it is that God is personal—and that he is with me. Perhaps this is why I’ve occasionally felt a connection between the struggles I have in my prayer life and the lack of Christian friends with whom I can pray in the same room.

In my experience, the times when I’ve felt the presence of God most closely are rarely those times when I’ve been alone; instead, there are usually at least a couple of other people in the room. Those moments when I have been most aware of God’s friendship are those moments when I have been most aware that God has provided me with Christian friends. While not encompassing the full meaning of the title, I think, too, this is part of what it means to call God Emmanuel, “God with us.” And though it’s true that knowing this involves a whole lot more than going out with a friend to the movies, maybe it at least needs to begin there. Hmmm . . . maybe I need to make a phone call?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Grace and Brokenness

“The heart is a bloom, shoots up through the stony ground.”
– U2, “Beautiful Day”

“But a certain sign of grace is this: From the broken earth flowers come up, pushing through the dirt.”
– David Crowder Band, “Wholly Yours”

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
– Paul the Apostle, 2 Corinthians 4:7

None of us likes to be vulnerable, to display weakness. Oddly, and paradoxically perhaps, this also true of people in churches. You would think that if there were a place where we could be more honest about our fallibility and frailties, it would be among God’s gathered people, people who gather under the sign of the cross and the promise of the resurrection. Instead, we hide behind masks of feigned happiness; or at least sometimes we do.

Our lives are a combination of stony ground and broken earth where only God is able to make anything bloom or any flowers push through—indeed, we are, as Paul writes, earthen vessels, each of us an example not only of grace but of our perpetual need for it. Why we have an instinctual propensity to conceal this truth behind a veneer of strength, I don’t know for sure.

This isn’t to say that we should all put our particular weaknesses on view for all to see—discernment and wisdom is needed when making ourselves vulnerable. But I do think that some basic acknowledgement that we are all broken, all in various states of disrepair, is an important for what it means to be church. More than that, only when we can be free to express honestly our all too human shortcomings will we also open ourselves to the possibility of grace.

Weakness—indeed, vulnerability—lies at the very heart of the gospel, if not at its end. We worship a God who, mystery of mysteries, willingly subjected himself not only to the limitations of human flesh but also of human suffering—an excruciating form of martyrdom that, in human terms, was a sign not of glory and strength, but of humiliation and shame. Only because Jesus is our God and Lord, the same Jesus who made the journey to Golgotha, can we also admit to our weakness and even in our weakness discover God’s power.

In this way, admitting to our brokenness is not a source of shame for us, a cause for embarrassment, but rather the only route available to receive the grace of God. We do this personally when we confess our need for Christ and bring our sins to him so that we might receive forgiveness; but we also should do this communally. Recognizing together our need for divine provision and strength becomes a vehicle for God’s grace to become operative in our lives.

I have heard people say that they do not attend church or try it out because they don’t feel good enough to sit amongst all those good Christians. Such logic reveals two things: first, a tacit recognition of their own human imperfection and sin and, second, a misunderstanding of what being in church actually entails. Or what being in church should entail; sometimes we believers can feed the very misunderstanding that keeps others from exploring a life of faith in our communities. That we do so is to our shame because it keeps people who need grace from understanding the gospel.

In my experience, sometimes unbelievers are more prepared to be vulnerable and honest than believers about their sin and failures. Maybe those of us who gather from week to week in sanctuaries can learn something from this example, especially since the only thing that separates us from those who’ve yet to come to faith is the very grace all of us stand in such desperate need of receiving: we actively recognize our need for grace while there are many, even knowing of their brokenness, do not. The only difference between those who are Christians and those who are not is Jesus and his grace, his inexhaustible willingness and endless capacity for causing flowers to bloom even in broken earth and stony ground.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Music to My Ears: Part 2

So far 2009 has been a pretty good year for music. First U2 released No Line On The Horizon and then, several months after it was released, I had the chance to hear Extreme’s Saudades de Rock. I also picked up some Hillsong and Passion worship CDs which have some very good music on them. And just a couple of weeks ago, Jars of Clay released their newest offering, The Long Fall Back to Earth. That’s the album I want to talk about here. But before I launch into what I think of Jars of Clay newest album, I want to say a couple of things by way of introduction.

The first is this: I’m getting tired of how nearly every review of a new Jars of clay album includes the obligatory mention of how this album either does or doesn’t sound like their hugely successful (by CCM standards) and critically acclaimed self-titled debut album released roughly 14 years ago. I find these comparisons tiresome, because they contain the somewhat implicit suggestion that any album that doesn’t come across as FIRST ALBUM PART II is automatically inferior. And the truth is most of the Jars' subsequent albums have been much superior to their first.

Moreover, I love the fact that no two of their albums, while all recognizably Jars-sounding, sound alike. Their styles have ranged from alternative acoustic rock to brit-rock to Beatlesque pop to alt-country/folk/gospel to re-imagined hymnody. Their last album, the near-brilliant Good Monsters, combined a number of these styles into one album, making it one of their most ambitious. Now with The Long Fall Back to Earth they’ve decided to channel the best of 80s lush keyboard and guitar-tinged pop-rock, creating an album with a million melodic hooks.

I don’t know yet whether this album will rank among my favourite of Jars’ work (Who We Are Instead, Redemption Songs, and Good Monsters), but it is a wonderfully realized package of catchy tunes and mature lyrics that explore the complicated tangle of experiences and emotions that are part and parcel of human relationships. More than anything, the album tackles such themes as forgiveness, grace, fidelity, and perseverance in the context of relationships.

Introducing this theme is the song “Weapons,” which both announces that people in relationship can sometimes behave like combatants and tells us to “Lay your weapons down/there are no enemies in front of you.” The lyrics manage to lay bare how we sometimes treat one another while pointing to the hope that even in the worst of our human brokenness the possibility of grace remains: “We didn’t notice that grace had run so thin/ Till we’re falling apart and the cracks in our hearts let the truth sink in.”

Two songs in particular deal specifically with forgiveness. The first, “Safe to Land,” pictures the narrator as a pilot saying “I need your runway lights to burn for me . . . Is it safe, is it safe to land?” The other, “Forgive Me,” is an irresistibly melodic rocker where the singer confesses his amazement that forgiveness is even available, and wonders if he’s waited too long to seek it: “And now I’m so afraid, if I find the words to say/ Have I lost you anyway?”

“Scenic Route” seems to be about the perseverance of one partner in the relationship when the other seems ready to give it up, while “Closer” expresses our need for intimacy and the frustration we know when it seems to elude us. Even the album title, The Long Fall Back to Earth, which comes from the song “Safe to Land,” seems to refer to the difficult emotional and personal distance we need to travel for reconciliation to happen at all.

One thing to note is that none of the songs are in any way obvious “Christian” songs, though the themes that the band explore are all at the core of the good news of God—that he seeks to reconcile us to himself, and that he, in the person of the Son, has indeed made “a long fall . . . to earth” to make his offer of forgiveness and relationship concrete.

Still, the album would have been helped if it had given some indication of where we all can find full reconciliation: that is, in Christ. Especially since even the fullest expression of reconciliation between human beings is only possible through the good news, it seems a little odd that this wasn’t made more explicit in the lyrics of the album. Though this is so, the album is redeemed by many lyrics which effectively express the themes in question from a human perspective.

So though it’s possible that the album as a whole might have been stronger by stripping it of a couple of songs (“Headphones” and “Boys (Lesson One)”), it’s strong melodies, poetic and mature lyrics, and ear-candy instrumentation makes The Long Fall Back to Earth another excellent addition to the Jars’ already impressive discography.

Patience Required

Of all the fruit of the Spirit, I think the one that I struggle the most to cultivate is patience. Others who observe me might not think this so, given that I can be perceived as quiet and easy-going. But talk to my wife and she will relate a different story! People who live with you inevitably know you better than people who are only—sometimes at best—acquainted with you.

My lack of patience sometimes comes out as frustration with the people around me, particularly my own family. Experiencing impatience usually feels like having a lack of control over what’s going on around you. If, for instance, one of our two infant boys is crying after having been fed, changed, burped, and held, and there seems to be no discernible reason for the crying, I can find myself (sometimes but not always) feeling impatient and frustrated at the sound.

Circumstances, too, can make me lose patience. A simple example is when I find myself waiting longer than I like. Just yesterday my family and I had to go into town for errands and at one stage my wife and daughter went to do one or two of them, leaving me and our sleeping twins in the car. That was fine, since whatever they were doing wasn’t going to take longer than 20 minutes or so. Or so I thought. After just over an hour, they returned. As it happened it didn’t bother me so much this time but this could have been one of those occasions. Turns out that this time I ended up dozing off listening to music! Of course, had either one or both of the boys woke up crying to be fed that would have been a different story!

The funny thing about patience is that it’s easy to have when it’s not actually being tested. I suppose the same could be said of all the fruit of the Spirit. Learning that I could be so impatient was not pleasant. Discovering that I can be this way brought me face to face with a less than attractive part of myself, and, in fact, whenever I become impatient and catch myself, I realize how ugly I can be.

The only good news about realizing your own character flaws is that it reminds you of how much you need God to reform you. God is ever-patient with me, to an extent and depth that I will never understand. Yet I can snap in a moment, either because I am over-tired or because something rubs me the wrong way. Over the last several years, thankfully, God has been helping me with this. The seeds of patience are perhaps beginning to bud and sprout! I look forward to when the fruit comes forth in full bloom!

In the end of the fruit of the Spirit is about character. It is about growing to resemble the person of Christ. It is about the work of God in us when we place our faith and trust in him. It is about recognizing that ultimately we cannot so easily reform ourselves with our own strength, but that to become who God intends us to be is something only possible with his power.

Such change, though, doesn’t happen overnight in the life of a Christian. A garden doesn’t produce vegetables in an instant and neither does God produce the fruit of the Spirit in us the instant we convert and believe in Jesus. Those who count Jesus as Lord are all works in progress. In that sense, waiting for God to grow his fruit in us is itself an act of faith—and faith always involves in one way or another a waiting. Faith requires patience, it turns out!

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Story of My Life (Receiving the Call): Part Three

Below is the last autobiographical portion of my association license application, and rather than recount details of ministry and life I try and express my experience of call. For me sensing and being sure of a call to ministry has always been a struggle. Hopefully I make clear why.

On the subject of the “call,” I must say that I have almost never in my life felt anything as certain except the existence of God and his revelation in Christ. I almost always struggle with big decisions. And once I make a decision, there are times when I wonder if I’ve made the right one. That was true of graduate school, of marriage, of having kids, and of pastoral ministry. This is part and parcel of my personality (my wife can verify this!). But it has caused me some grief when I have felt doubt about my vocation and whether I am suited to it, often when I feel something hasn’t gone well in a ministry context. Sometimes I rub up against the limitations of my training and experience. But, truth be told, I suspect everyone at some point experiences such doubts and questions. For me, perhaps it’s just more pronounced; however, I don’t experience such feelings with the frequency I once did. My sense of call isn’t perfect but it has grown in strength and confidence over these last few years.

More than anything, I am certain that God is real and that he has ultimately and perfectly revealed himself in Jesus Christ. I might not be able to prove this, but I can proclaim it and give witness to it and pray that the Spirit does his work of convicting, encouraging, and guiding in the hearts and minds and lives of those who hear my all too human proclamation and see my all too human witness. I know that Christ is the source of my life—present and eternal—and that apart from him I can do nothing. I trust that he is the reason, the purpose, for all of creation because all things were made through him. Though pastoral ministry is a rough road to travel (in ways I hardly yet know!), I want to do whatever I can, through whatever gifts God has given me, to live according to this truth and to help others do likewise. And to me at least it seems the vocation of pastor is particularly well-suited to doing this.

The Story of My Life (or At Least Part of It!): Part Two

And it continues . . .

The first intimations that perhaps a life of ministry was beckoning came while studying at Acadia. On one occasion, when visiting my mother on the Miramichi, her priest (she was still a practicing Catholic then but is now a member at Union Street Baptist in St. Stephen) invited me over for a visit after hearing I was studying theology at Acadia. Having accepted the invitation I hadn’t anticipated that the Bishop of the diocese would also be there. After some initially awkward small-talk, I was asked the big question: Have you ever considered becoming a priest? My answer was a resounding but polite no. That sort of stopped the conversation in its tracks. In the end it felt like they were less interested in me than they were in finding someone to join their ranks. My reason for saying no at this point was that I hoped to marry someday and certainly didn’t feel a call to ministry (at least not of that sort!).

That being said, at Acadia I did for a time consider teaching in an overseas missions context. Looking back, I recall being in contact with a couple of organizations but I don’t recall why such explorations fizzled. Still, many of my classmates at Acadia were students preparing for pastoral ministry and something about hearing of their experiences, in addition to a growing sense that there was more to the Christian life than theology texts, led me to inquire about adding MDiv studies to my MA. Conversations with the dean of students at that stage made me reconsider. Since I still was “between denominations” it didn’t make a lot of sense.

During my time at McMaster I began to sense a desire to try preaching. This was especially true when a friend of mine, who had initially planned on pursuing a PhD in math and science, abandoned that direction for seminary. I had pastor friends all around me. And since I really enjoyed teaching, preaching seemed like a natural extension. And though I probably could have volunteered or asked for the opportunity and been given it by my pastor at the time, I was not someone who was forward enough to do so. In one candid moment when I mentioned to a pastor friend that the idea of pastoring and/or preaching had begun to occur to me, he said that he could see me being a pastor. Though he did say, too, that he could see me as an Anglican minister! I still don’t know what that means entirely!

I think God had to come at me through some back-doors, or at least some side-doors, to call me into ministry. For some time I had viewed what pastors do as dull. Even they seemed dull. It didn’t seem like an interesting calling at all. Studying theology, having my head in books and full of deep thoughts, was far more edifying than what I had observed of pastors and their calling. I also felt like something of an outsider in the Baptist world since so many pastors and students had grown up in it—or so it seemed to me—and had a level of familiarity with the landscape and its inhabitants that I did not.

My first actual opportunity to preach was in summer of 2002. I was living in St. Stephen with my mother until Alisha and I got married and I got a call from her pastor. He told me that he was going on vacation and was wondering if I would be willing to fill his pulpit for one of the weeks he was away. Given the fact that I had been thinking about preaching, this seemed like a gift from heaven; however, knowing what my first sermon must have been like for the congregation, I’m not sure they experienced it as the gift I did! It showed a lot of signs that I was a theology student and not yet a pastor. But I did it, and it was—despite the questionable quality of the sermon itself—a positive experience.

Since we were getting married that summer (2002) Alisha and I were also trying to find work of some sort. Blissville Baptist Church was looking for a pastor since theirs had just retired, and both Alisha and I were interviewed for pulpit supply. I can’t say whether or not the deacons of the church were accepting our resumes for a possible calling to more than supply preaching, but that is certainly all I had in mind at the time. And call us for pulpit supply they did—several times!

Shortly before Christmas 2002 they asked if we would consider a joint call to part-time ministry at their church beginning in June of 2003. After much prayer and conversation and reflection, we agreed that we felt God calling us to say yes to this ministry opportunity. Whether pastoral ministry was going to be a more permanent vocation for either of us still wasn’t certain, but I at least saw this as the chance to try the vocation on for size. It fit, it turns out, even if it took time for me to see so.

When the financial situation at Blissville made it clear to the deacons, congregation, and to us that maintaining even a part-time pastoral ministry was untenable, Alisha and I found ourselves in a place of uncertainty. We knew God had called us to Blissville but might he perhaps call us to yet another church?

That was about the time when I received a phone call from the search committee of Nerepis Baptist Church. After the initial interview both Alisha and I (though they were calling me, they also wanted her for part of the interview) had lingering doubts and questions. So we asked for a second interview and it felt like all of our doubts were addressed and our questions were answered. I accepted the call. And I am still here.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Story of My Life (or At Least Part of It!): Part One

As a Baptist pastor who is not yet ordained but on the way to being so, I have to re-apply annually for what is called an association license to minister. This process is meant to reaffirm my call to ministry and to certify me for the ministry to which I've been called. It's a helpful process overall but this year it's gotten more involved insofar as I have to provide in writing a description of my conversion and call as well as a brief statement on the main areas of Christian doctrine.

Below is a section of the conversion/call section of my application. In it I simply describe how I came to faith and some of the ways in which my faith progressed and grew during my undergraduate years. You might find it interesting, you might not. Either way, here it is:

Though it would be easy for theological reasons to distance myself from my religious upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church, the truth is that my experiences of growing up in the Catholic Church, along with experiences with particular family members, was formative for my eventual conversion. That is, there were both positive elements and negative elements to this upbringing. Those that are positive I still carry with me, and those that were negative prompted me to seek elsewhere what I felt was missing from my Catholic experience.

The fact is that I have always been the kind of person who wanted to align myself with whatever was true. I wanted to live truthfully, to believe truthfully, and to feel like I was standing on a solid foundation. At first (in high school) when I was given reason to question some of the particulars of Roman Catholic theology (the Mass, Mary, the role of saints, and papal authority especially), I felt like the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. It was like the earth was shifting on its axis and I was losing my balance—all because what I thought was true, what I was raised to believe as true, might not be after all.

But over time as I read the Bible, was involved with IVCF, and attended Baptist churches (varied according to where I was studying), I came to understand more clearly the truth of who God was—and specifically, who Jesus was (is!) and that he wants a personal relationship with me. This personal dimension had been all but lacking in my childhood where faith was more about giving assent to certain beliefs and practicing certain rituals.

As far as my conversion is concerned, it’s probably fair to say that it was gradual, more the Emmaus Road type than that of the Damascus Road. It wasn’t dramatic, and while the change was gradual, it was evident and clear that God was at work. And despite the fact that much of my spiritual journey was characterized by wanting to know what was true, my actual conversion had much more to do with a deep feeling of my need for God, that only he could make something out of the deeply insecure young man that I was. Only he could give my life purpose and direction where before I had none.

Without nailing down one particular moment, it would have been toward the end of my second year at Mount Allison that I truly and consciously gave myself to Christ. No doubt it was the cumulative effect of my having been searching for so long, and of taking courses on the Bible and theology (the intellectual side) and of being involved with IVCF and a local Baptist church (the personal side). From that moment on, I began to change from someone with absolutely no personal confidence or self-esteem to someone who found his purpose and strength in Christ—and who in time even took on leadership roles, albeit modest ones.

Since at this stage I was still struggling with the degree of commitment I should have to a local church, much of my initial growing in faith happened through my involvement with IVCF. Along with participating in and taking on leadership roles in my chapter, I also soaked up the opportunities to go IVCF weekend retreats for times of worship, Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Those days of fresh Bible reading and prayer, of fellowship and outreach, while they seem so far away now, were absolutely formational in my own understanding of personal faith, discipleship and mission.

Through all of this becoming a pastor never even appeared on my radar. I think this is largely because I wasn’t committed to a local congregation and therefore had very little understanding or appreciation of local church life and ministry. It almost seemed to be an adjunct to my experience in IVCF rather than vice-versa. Until I finally made a conscious decision to seek membership in a local church and undergo believer’s baptism, I think I was very much a long-distance lover with respect to the church. Thankfully, I didn’t remain so.

To be continued . . .