When a half measure isn’t a half measure

When I refer to the Life and Mission Agency in what follows, I am referring to the Life and Mission Agency Committee and not to the Life and Mission Agency. While this distinction will be lost on many, it is an important distinction that should have been made in the initial writing.

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The Life and Mission Agency of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is presenting the following recommendation to the General Assembly of the denomination in two weeks time.

That clergy in The Presbyterian Church in Canada be permitted for pastoral reasons to bless same sex marriages conducted by civil authorities.

This is a very carefully crafted recommendation (politically speaking) because it is just the kind of recommendation that commissioners to the General Assembly will instinctively want to pass. It is presented as a kind of half-measure, as an exception, and as a compromise for the short term. There are very few clergy and elders who aren’t inclined to vote in favour of recommendations that are presented in this way. “Don’t worry,” the recommendation suggests, “we aren’t changing the definition of marriage, we are simply providing a blessing for same sex couples married by someone else!”

However, there are serious problems with this recommendation, and perhaps the most serious problem is that it is not the half-measure it purports to be. In fact, if this recommendation is passed, then the conversation about the redefinition of marriage within The Presbyterian Church in Canada will be over, because it will have happened. That is, this recommendation represents nothing less than the redefinition of marriage as a relationship between two persons (rather than between a man and a woman). And it would do so without submitting this change in doctrine and discipline to the wider church for approval as is required by the Barrier Act process. Contrary to our polity, one General Assembly will have made a significant change in the doctrine and discipline of the church.

Why does this recommendation represent more than simply a half-measure? Why does it represent a change in the definition of marriage within the PCC? Consider that the following scenario is imagined and permitted under this LMA recommendation (with respect to same sex couples): Continue reading

What are you not seeing?

My latest column, for the Christian Courier.

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Up until a few years ago I had never seen them. I didn’t even know they were around, so didn’t know to look for them. But every Spring they are here. In fact, we are at peak season right now so there’s a good chance you will glimpse them if you look carefully. And it would be worth the effort, too, given how beautiful they are in their blues and greens and reds and yellows – especially the yellows.

IMG_6359Perhaps you’ve guessed that I’m referring to the birds that make their way north each spring, particularly the warblers that rest each night in the trees around us on their journey. There is the Blackburnian Warbler, the Magnolia Warbler, the American Redstart, the Chestnut-sided Warbler, and the wonderfully named Yellow-rumped Warbler. The picture accompanying this column is of a Yellow-rumped Warbler that stopped over, ever so briefly, in my backyard last May.

For so many years, I missed this annual wave of feathers and song. While I have always enjoyed watching common backyard birds (finches, cardinals, jays, juncos and chickadees), I assumed that beautiful, multi-colored birds were a unique preserve of more tropical regions. Now that I know better, I’m learning to recognize the telltale movements of these tiny creatures in high branches as the sun warms them early in the morning. Continue reading

Easter Breakfast, Anyone?

My latest column for Christian Courier – it can also be found on the website, here.

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Breakfast is a big deal here in Montreal, and breakfast restaurants are a point of pride for us. There is Eggspectation and Allo! mon coco and, of course, the classic Chez Cora. In fact, it’s just possible that Chez Cora is one of Quebec’s best-loved exports—ranking up there with maple syrup, Oka cheese and Cirque de Soleil. The success of that restaurant means you can now sample Cora Tsouflidou’s menu from St. John’s to Victoria.

At the same time, if you want to experience peak-breakfast in Montreal these days you’ll have to check out Restaurant L’Avenue in the trendy Pleateau district—there is almost always a line-up, so you’ll have to wait patiently before sampling their watermelon water or indulging in a brilliant breakfast burrito.

While it is true that Montreal has some of the best breakfast spots you can imagine, my own most memorable breakfast wasn’t served up in this city. Rather, it was served up sixteen years ago during a visit to The Gambia, West Africa. Earlier in her life my wife had directed a nurses training school there, and in 2001 we were back for a visit with friends and former students. The breakfast I’m remembering was prepared by Christiana, a former student of my wife. It consisted of baguette and baked fish. She had woken early that morning to prepare the meal for us as a send-off on our continued travels. Continue reading

The Shape of Confession

An important element of Presbyterian and Reformed  identity is our writing of, and deference to, confessions. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has three confessions that define our faith and theology – they are the Westminster Confession, the Declaration Concerning Church and Nation, and Living Faith.

One of the things you quickly discover in looking at these documents is that their meaning is determined as much by the shape of the confession as by the content of it. What do I mean by this? Simply that the order in which ideas are presented is as important as what the confession actually says about those ideas. For example, in looking at the Westminster Confession and Living Faith we notice that Westminster begins with Scripture while Living Faith begins with God – and we might ask why this difference. Can we begin talking about God before we have said something definitive about the scriptures that reveal God? What does it say about our theology that we can begin talking about God before exploring the nature of the scriptures?

There are all kinds of questions that arise when we look at the shape of a confession. Another more important question might be, why do neither Westminster nor Living Faith begin with Jesus, who is the living Word, and the one in whom we see God fully? Continue reading

“Praise the Mutilated World” – Sermon for memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joe McLelland

I had the privilege, today, of preaching at the memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland, former Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University and Faculty member of The Presbyterian College. I share that sermon here.
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Over these past few weeks, as I spent a bit of time surveying the life of Joe McLelland, it struck me what a relative novice I am in the world of ministry and in the world of the academy – wet behind the ears, really! In the year of my birth, Joe had already served fifteen years in ministry – in the year of my birth, he had already 15 years into his academic career here in Montreal. When Joe was publishing his early essays and was teaching his first classes at McGill, I was, as my wife and I have taught our kids to say, still only in the mind of God. This is to say, among other things, that his academic career was full, that his contributions to church and college were many, and that his faithful service to the church was long.

When I arrived in Montreal for theological studies at The Presbyterian College in 1999, I encountered Professor McLelland, as I have mostly known him. And the first memory I have of him comes from the community lunches held each Wednesday at the college. During those lunches Professor McLelland and Professor Bob Cully would sit across from each other exchanging smart-ass comments that kept all of us much entertained. There is a real gift in that, it seems to me – the theology professor as human – if I may, the theology professor as smart ass. This is a theologian, after all, who would write essays with titles such as “The Comic Society,” and “In Praise of Crocodiles.” This is a theologian who could write that “the art of clowning is the humane art in which we find our way to the center, the definite place at which God promises to meet us.” Continue reading

Love – Caress – Difference

In my book Becoming Two in Love I have created brief, first-person “moments” that give expression to the account and ethics of sexual difference that I otherwise describe somewhat abstractly. An ethics of sexual difference is one that affirms the fundamental mystery that the sexuate other is/represents. It is an ethics that entails a refusal of relations of appropriation and possession and identification between man and woman.

Here is one of those first-person “moments” that explores the caress as respecting difference and love between man and woman, also in the context of faith.

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IMG_9308We are by no means strangers. Years of a shared life form a thick and complex backdrop to our everyday conversations and encounters. Between us, the invitation to a caress is a summons to a privileged and private intimacy. And even if this invitation and encounter is marked by a degree of ambiguity or uncertainty, nevertheless a shared history of trust and care mean that the caress may be given, and received, in freedom. Risk remains, certainly—but who could or would mitigate every risk. Continue reading

The God of Silence – reflections on Endo’s novel, Scorsese’s film

My latest column for the Christian Courier, can be found here, or below.


How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?

Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.

The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.” Continue reading

Word(s) and Wonder

As of January 2017, I am writing a monthly column for the Christian Courier, an independent newspaper published in Canada. Here is the first column, which is offered as a kind of description of my own approach to writing.

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Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life.

— The BFG

It is not only Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant who has a twitch-tickling problem with words. Rather, words are a frequent source of botheration (to use a word the BFG might appreciate!) for many of us. In the case of Dahl’s fictional character, words represent a challenge because he has never gone to school and has only ever read one book—Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Given this history, it is no surprise the BFG’s words have ended up as topsy-turvy as they have!

For those of us who inhabit a decidedly non-fictional world, words are a challenge for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is perhaps the fact that we are inundated with words. So many words, in fact, that there is no chance we can absorb them all or attend to them with any care. Words come at us from tablets, monitors, and magazine pages. Very often they are screamed at us, whether literally or figuratively, by politicians and advertisers. And then there is the fact that the reliability of so many words (fake news, anyone?) is often in question. Continue reading

Reconsidering Christmas

An article I wrote in the Montreal Gazette – a decade ago!

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Each year at Christmas time my family engages in an act of resistance, in an act that cuts against the grain of contemporary culture. Our act of resistance consists in this: setting up a nativity scene in our home.

Our daughter, especially, enjoys removing each porcelain figure from its bubble-wrap envelope and placing it in the wooden stable. There are Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, a few sheep, and, of course, the child in the manger. In setting up the nativity scene, we usually read the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel, and as we come to each character in the story our daughter will pick up the appropriate figure from the scene. She thinks Jesus looks like a little girl. To conclude our familial act of resistance, we sing Away in a Manger.

In its own right, setting up a nativity scene seems an insignificant gesture. In our home, however, it is an act of resistance against the largely post-Christian Christmas that is celebrated in Canada today. Even where traces of the traditional Christian holiday remain, the story of Jesus is almost completely overshadowed. And while the average Canadian might see this transformation of Christmas as something of a curiosity, for Christians it represents a predicament. We face the challenge of preserving the message and worship of Jesus in a society that lives with the remnants of Christmas but does not acknowledge his place at the heart of the holiday. Continue reading

Kierkegaard – God – Movement

The second of two reflections I offered on the prayers of Kierkegaard at the retreat of The Presbyterian College this year. Like everything, Kierkegaard looks “slant” at the idea of God’s immutability.

If there is anything that gives the impression of unchangeableness, it is perhaps the towering and intimidating mountains that populate the face of the earth. Whether it is the Rocky Mountains here in Canada, the Himalayas of South Asia, or the Alps of central Europe, mountains represent the notion of the unchangeable. They have been and they will be. img_9315This summer I had the chance to see the Alps for the first time, and the ideas of durability and unchangeableness strike me as more than apt.

When we transfer these notions of the unchangeable into the realm of theology, it is the term “immutable” that might come to mind – we speak of the immutability of God. And there are theologically and spiritually adjacent terms that might also come to mind; ideas around the omnipotence and steadfastness and infinity and power of God.

In one of his prayers, Kierkegaard picks up on this longstanding emphasis of the Christian tradition concerning the immutability or unchangeableness of God. He affirms this idea about God, among other places, in the prayer that is included at the bottom of this blog post. He speaks to God in this way: “O thou who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes.”

And transferring this theological idea into the realm of human need and wellbeing, Kierkegaard also speaks to God with these words: “For our welfare, not submitting to any change.” After all, who would seek God if there was no assurance it was the same God who could be sought each new day – and not a God who had decided to change character and identity while you slept?

In his prayer Kierkegaard also speaks curiously of our need to “submit ourselves to the discipline of thy unchangeableness.” As if this characteristic of God is a reality we need to keep in heart and mind, intentionally, if we are to find rest and peace in our life and faith.

But again, as with so many things he turns his thoughts toward, Kierkegaard swings the whole prayerful conversation about immutability in an unexpected direction. Continue reading