We are anxious and at a loss, staying in an empty and mosquito-infested YWAM residence in Dakar—a busy, confounding city that neither of us knows. My flight has just come in from Vancouver, via New York; she has taken all manner of public transportation (bush taxi, ferry, bus) from a rural town in The Gambia. It has been a year since our last in-person conversation and now we are thrown into complete dependence on each other, for which neither of us is prepared.
The phone call that saves us is to Christine, back in Sibanor. A generous soul if ever there was one, she is strong in compassion and full of wisdom. In this moment she offers a window of hope: “There are friends in the town of Richard Toll. Go north to find them.” Wasting no time, we throw on our backpacks and rush to the bus depot, hoping we aren’t too late for transportation. We aren’t.
Sometimes salvation is a lumbering bus with a heavy diesel engine. The bus rolls north with open windows through sun-burnt countryside. We trundle past seaside St. Louis and then veer north-east toward Richard Toll, a town that sits on the border with Mauritania. It’s a town that throws together North Africa with Sub-Saharan West Africa along the Senegal River—a colonial town producing sugar from its founding to today. Our arrival is late, but the arms of Jenny and Maria are as wide open as could be imagined.
My column in the Christian Courier for November 2020. ______________
Do you have an author you regularly return for insight and wisdom? A voice you’ve come to trust, with a gift for making sense of our lives, our world, and perhaps also for making sense of God? The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has become such an author for me. When I go back to his writings, I am rarely disappointed. This is particularly true in terms of his written prayers.
In this pandemic context, a particular prayer of Kierkegaard has helped me rediscover an important dimension of God’s life and God’s relationship to me. This prayer explores the concept of God’s unchangeable nature. In more theological terms we sometimes refer to this as God’s immutability.
There can be deep assurance in knowing that God doesn’t change. As we pass through waves of the pandemic, or work through relational upheavals, or perceive the instability of the world, there is comfort in the realization that God is a certain and fixed point of reference to whom we may return. We can pile on the metaphors here: God is stable, unwavering, consistent, persistent and faithfully present. Continue reading →
There’s a temptation to wish life away—to wish that pandemic days, months, or even years would rush to oblivion. That from some bright future these mournful days would become as an Autumn mist burned away by the late morning sun. Forgotten; banished from memory.
Exhaustion of online world and conversation. Two dimensional images displace the play of light on faces and bodies. Loss of loving presence through touch and embrace and quiet nod. Digitized voices never quite capture the person we know and want to learn from. Click “leave meeting” and sit back to recover.
Far-off parents and grandparents reachable only by phone—a Summer visit already distant in heart and mind. Thanksgiving, family dinner over Zoom? Forbidden 600km journey to a meal of roast turkey and baked potatoes and the best stuffing ever and a welcoming embrace. Aching for a world other than the one received today. Continue reading →
Where would you put yourself on the optimism/pessimism spectrum? I suppose I land just slightly on the optimistic side, though with serious bouts of pessimism thrown in now and again. Among my friends there is at least one eternal pessimist (with an astonishing capacity to see the worst in every situation) and a few who seem born entirely to optimism (forever confident things will be just fine).
Perhaps we all slide along the continuum, depending on circumstances, but our optimism quotient also seems a fairly fixed personality trait. You occupy some place on this spectrum and there’s not much you can do to change that. Maybe it’s pessimistic of me to say that!
But let’s make this a little more concrete by asking about our present pandemic moment. Are you optimistic we have finally flattened the curve? Are you confident there will soon be effective treatments for COVID-19? That we might see a vaccine within the year? Get back to something approaching normal life in the next two years? Continue reading →
The past weeks have been difficult and stressful for many of us, or perhaps all of us. It’s no exaggeration to say there have been sleepless nights, worries in the day, challenges in family life, and a kind of fogginess about where life is going. This is on top of the very real suffering that some of us have experienced or witnessed in relation to COVID-19.
In the midst of all of this, we can perhaps also acknowledge that there have been moments of grace and joy—when we have discovered something of God’s goodness, creativity, and grace. We have discovered this in one another and in the world around us. Not unlike in other seasons of our lives, moments of struggle and of grace are often set in tension alongside each other. (Continues below pictures…)
One of the ways in which I have experienced the grace and providential love of God in these days, has been through birds in our back yard. The pandemic season has happened to overlap, in the past few weeks, with the spring migration of all types of birds. In cool mornings on our back porch I have found a gracious reprieve from the anxiety and stress of the day. With their beautiful, feathered fluttering these birds have descended with God’s grace into my daily life and that of my family (though three teenagers are not always as excited about birds as their dad is!). Continue reading →
In more normal days I have often wondered how I should sign off emails to friends and colleagues. Should I say: “Best regards” or “Cheers” or “Take care” or “Best wishes.” Or should I forget about a sign-off phrase and just use my name or initials. It’s a small thing, perhaps. But in these pandemic days, it feels more important than ever. How should I express care for someone else in signing off my email? Over the past weeks, I’ve started to use the phrase “grace and peace”.
“Grace” seems so important. The reality of grace means that God meets us where we are, blessing us beyond what we could imagine. Through Christ, God meets us to to bring forgiveness and healing and strength beyond what we could have expected. It seems we also need to extend grace to ourselves in these days—to not expect more of ourselves than we should in the face of our struggles and weakness and fears. “Grace” seems like a good word for all of us these days.
“Peace”. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and through Jesus we know that real peace comes to our world—the peace that is otherwise “Shalom”. This is the deep peace of God. Shalom means wholeness, well-being, love, and comfort. It sounds just like what we need in these days too, doesn’t it? Peace in our hearts. Well-being in our neighbourhoods. Comfort for those in distress. Love for toward each other. Peace in this beautiful and expansive sense; a gift of God.
So in this deep and full sense,
I wish for you grace and peace in this day and this week.
These difficult days of pandemic have revealed some difficult truths about our society. Over the past few weeks we have realized that vulnerable, elderly persons have often been forgotten and inadequately cared for. We have also discovered that we don’t value, or offer fair pay to those who care for the elderly in long-term care residences. In these revelations there is judgment. As a society we have failed, and this is a hard revelation.
But there have also been other, more positive revelations about our society over the past weeks. Our love for neighbours has been revealed in the attention we have given to those living around us—we have called to see how they are doing or gone shopping for them. Our capacity for patience has been revealed as we wait in lineups to enter the pharmacy or the grocery store. Human creativity has been revealed in the re-purposing of factories to produce hand sanitizer or ventilators.
In other words, these pandemic days have revealed both the brokenness and beauty of human community. As Christians, we approach this brokenness and beauty through our faith in Jesus. Where there have been failures of care, we seek forgiveness and then strength to live more faithfully; particularly, to live in the deep love of Christ for the most vulnerable among us. Where we have discovered something good in our relationships and community, we turn toward God with thanksgiving. We acknowledge that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Every moment of beauty is by God’s grace.
My prayer is that we might live into this faith of ours—that we would acknowledge failures and then seek grace to live more faithfully in the love of Christ. And, that we would turn toward God with a song of praise for all gifts He has given.
I wish you grace and peace in this day and week, through Christ our Lord.
Over the past months, a few friends and acquaintances of mine have been reading Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Giving yourself the gift of done—it’s a book you will find on the “motivational” or “self-help” shelf (or would, if we still had bookstores!). Acuff has written Finish with the goal of helping readers get beyond their perfectionism and busyness so they can actually finish something—finish reading a book, finish an exercise regime, or finish a personal project.
Acuff is the kind of writer who makes you think anything is possible. Reading the book is like listening to a hilarious and wise friend tell stories over a beer. There’s the time his young daughter said she was going to live off his dead fund once he was gone (his life insurance!). He wonders aloud about sending his kids foraging and dumpster diving, rather than prioritizing meal preparation. He admits that his lawn is 1-part grass to 10-parts weeds, and that he’s ok with it. His writing is smooth and funny, and a profoundly inviting vision for getting things done!
Among other advice, Acuff suggests that we bomb some things—suggests that we need to intentionally stop doing some things in order to get other things done. Expressed in less war-like terms, it’s about deciding what we won’t care about, so that we can give time and energy to something we want to finish. A simple example, he suggests burying the email app deep in our smart phone (in a file on the third page) so that it doesn’t incessantly demand attention. It’s about caring less about email so that we can, for example, get a column written!! Continue reading →