Optimism vs. Hope, in a Pandemic

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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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

Grace in the Pandemic

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

Signing off emails in a Pandemic

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.

Roland

Pandemic Notes 1

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.

 

(Un)Finished

My latest in the Christian Courier.

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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

The Missing Cup

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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TIS THE SEASON OF THE HOLIDAY coffee cup. Whether you prefer to line up at Second Cup or Starbucks, your paper cup will evoke a festive and holiday spirit. It will do so, of course, without reference to any traditional Christian teachings concerning the birth of the Messiah. At this time of year, Starbucks is often singled out by the Christmas/Christian culture warriors for its willingness to exploit the birth of Jesus while simultaneously erasing the Bethlehem narrative.

But what about Second Cup? Are we going to let that Canadian company off the hook? Let’s look at Second Cup’s holiday campaign, which involves beautiful, baby blue cups evoking snow, ice and tinsel. Each cup is emblazoned with one of the following three words: Peace, Joy or Love. Here in Quebec it’s Paix, Joie or Amour. I like these cups. Who in their right mind would object to anything that celebrates the first three of the fruit of the Spirit? Continue reading

How pastors (shouldn’t?) care…

A few thoughts on pastoral care, in my latest column in the Christian Courier.

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You would think that pastoral care would be a straightforward practice at this point in the church’s history. After all, we have centuries’ worth of pastoral images to work with. In Psalm 23 and the prophecy of Ezekiel we discover a God who leads his sheep into a places of peaceful comfort and who accompanies them and restores them. In Jesus we have the image of a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. This is to say nothing of the writings of Paul or the myriad of modern books that expound on the ways pastors might care for their flock.

Notwithstanding this breadth of resources, however, there remain significant challenges today for understanding how exactly a pastor should care. Although the language is strong, we can characterize these challenges in terms of temptations faced by clergy and other pastoral care providers. A couple these temptations are worth mentioning. Continue reading

#blessed #sayings

For my latest column in the Christian Courier, I prepared a list of sayings in relation to the theme of #blessed, which was also the theme of this particular issue of the paper.

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Let others declare your blessedness, and let uncertain silence be your response.

A song of blessing can only be sung in a minor key.

Blessing is rarely known in the moment; it must reveal itself through the pressures of time and the struggles of life.

A blessing that does not become a blessing of God is no blessing.

It is often more faithful to see your blessedness as an accident of the universe than an act of God.

If being #blessed is about you, you’re doing it wrong.

The thrift store is a more likely site of blessing than Aritzia.

Resentment of another’s blessedness is no blessing.

There is a necessary correlation between a blessing and a smile.

There is a necessary correlation between a blessing and tears.

“Grateful” is a better word than “blessed,” and gratitude is better expressed through living than speaking. Continue reading

The colour of life – with Toni Morrison

My latest column in the Christian Courier.
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There are a few instances of colour that stand out in my life and memory. The warm red of a steel wagon that was a childhood gift to me; the deep indigo of a Fula shirt my wife (girlfriend at the time) sent to me from West Africa; the myriad blossoms of Springtime annuals in the greenhouses of my late uncles.

Colour has been especially on my mind since I went back to the writings of Toni Morrison several weeks ago. Morrison, who passed away on August 5th, this Summer, wrote as an African American woman and wrote for a specifically African American audience. While she acknowledged the presence of a non-African American, white readership, she worked hard not to let the questions, concerns, or judgments of that audience determine the shape of her craft. That is, she wrote as a woman of colour for people of colour. She was, as the New York Times put it recently, “an iconic author of the black experience.”

Toni Morrison

Photo by Maggie Hardie/REX/Shut-terstock (490822g) Toni Morrison, 2004.

So again, colour has been on my mind. Yet it has been on my mind not only in terms of the acute questions of identity that Morrison raises, but also in terms of the simple reality of colour (blue, orange, violet) as she weaves it within her work. For example, in Morrison’s unfolding of the difficult and compelling narratives of Sethe and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, in Beloved, colour finds a place of subtle prominence. For Baby Suggs, in the last years of a life marked by violence, oppression, and slavery (a life equally marked by her articulate and faithful resistance), colour becomes central. Continue reading

What you know doesn’t matter!

My opening reflection/homily for the new academic year at The Presbyterian College.

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Let me begin today with what might seem a provocative statement. Let me begin by saying this:

What you know, doesn’t matter.

If this isn’t a provocative statement, it’s at least an unusual thing to say – particularly given where we find ourselves in this moment. Here we are in a theological college, on the edge of major Canadian university. Here you are, either beginning a new academic program or continuing for another year in an academic program. Over the coming months, much of your energy is going to be put into acquiring knowledge. And your knowledge is going to be tested. The entire premise of this enterprise called theological education is that knowledge matters. But this morning I still want to say this unusual and perhaps provocative thing.

What you know, doesn’t matter.

Now this statement might be somewhat palatable if I’m only referring to certain kinds of knowledge – if it’s only certain kinds of knowledge that don’t matter. For example, knowledge just for sake of knowledge, or information without wisdom, or knowledge that isn’t integrated into life. Continue reading