Touch, Sight, and Faith #worship

My latest column in the Christian Courier.


A large wooden crucifix stands toward the front of the crypt sanctuary in St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal. While the crucifix is not central within worship, it evidently receives much attention. A striking feature of the crucifix is the worn nature of Jesus’ feet — the paint is worn away and the surface smooth from the many hands that have rested there. Over the years, thousands of hands have been placed on those feet in a posture of prayerful need, of seeking the grace of God.

For those of us in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, this devotional attention to a crucifix will likely raise questions — questions as old as the Reformation itself. Doesn’t every artistic representation of Jesus somehow diminish him? Why not turn to the living Jesus in prayer, rather than to a lifeless statue? Aren’t these acts of prayerful devotion tied up with the idea that a human creation (a crucifix) can dispense grace?

Our tradition has been almost entirely word-centered, which means we are suspicious of visual and sculptural representations of Jesus or of God. In terms of the questions posed above, we have wondered whether such representations (idols!) distract us from the free grace of the living God. Our Reformed tradition has created only one narrow opening for such visual representations, in the specific case of those who could not read. In such cases, images (pictures) have been seen as a way to tell the story of Jesus and to share the truth of that story. This allowance for images focusses on their educational and not their devotional use. Continue reading

We should’ve just drawn straws!

This post is a reflection on the most recent General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and, specifically, on the ranked-ballot process followed as it worked toward decisions on questions of human sexuality and the welcome of LGBTQ persons. As the title makes clear, I think we should’ve just drawn straws…

In Acts 1:23-26, rather famously, the disciples of Jesus draw lots in order to choose a replacement disciple for Judas. The narrative identifies the need to replace him, then continues: “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

Many in the church today will wonder whether such a drawing of straws is really a legitimate way to discern the will of God – whether we can trust that the Spirit could be at work in such a process. But evidently Luke and the early church had no such qualms. The 11 disciples ended up with two options candidates before them, and rather than enter into protracted and vigorous debate about the merits of either candidate, they drew straws. “Ok, Matthias, you’re the one.”

As I think about the ranked-ballot process recommended by the Special Committee and followed by the General Assembly, I offer the following (rather strongly expressed, I realize):

Drawing straws would have been as rational and scientifically rigorous as the ranked-ballot process followed by the General Assembly. And, from the other side, the ranked-ballot process was as irrational and lacking in scientific rigour as would have been a process of drawing straws. Continue reading

On the failures of a ranked ballot. (A thread unrolled.)

I’ve unrolled, below, a Twitter thread I wrote starting this morning. It is a reflection on the recent meeting of the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada—and on a voting approach used to help decide a difficult and divisive issue. (Further tweets added, based on a Twitter exchange with a friend.)


On the *insanity of ranked ballots – or, ranked choice voting [RCV] – a thread.

(Ok, ‘insanity’ is probably too strong a word!)

RCV – where you rank your preferred options and when all ballots are submitted, the winner is the Option that obtains 50% + 1.

The ballots (with 4 Options, in our case) are divided up according to the first choice selected, and counted. If one Option is the first choice of 50 % +1 of voters, that Option wins.

Example: There are 100 voters, and 53 rank Option A as first choice – then Option A wins.

But if no particular Option is selected by 50% +1, as first choice, then you drop off the Option that received the least number of first-choice rankings.

And: Those ballots that ranked the least-favourite Option as first choice are re-distributed according to their 2nd choice. Continue reading

Here we go again, #Quebec #Secularism

My latest in the Christian Courier.


The debate over secularism is ramping up here in Quebec. Again!

It wasn’t too long ago that the government of Pauline Marois introduced the Charter of Values in the legislature (Bill 60)—legislation that would have prevented public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. That legislation died in the National Assembly when the minority government of Marois went down to defeat in the 2014 election. The bill only died, however, after generating a significant measure of anger and social division within the province.

And here we are, just five years later, with Premier François Legault making his attempt at legislating secularism. Legault hopes that Quebecers will see his Bill 21 as the less offensive cousin of the earlier Bill 60. His legislation, after all, only forbids religious attire among government employees in positions of authority; for example, school teachers, police officers, judges, and prosecutors. Legault also points out that his proposed law will only apply to new employees, meaning that no one who is presently employed in such a position will be fired for wearing a hijab or a turban. Continue reading

Lost: In the Memory of God

My latest piece in the Christian Courier.


We’ve all had that feeling of disorientation at some point.

Perhaps you are staying at a friend’s house, and in the middle of the night you wake up not knowing where you are. The room is unfamiliar and you feel lost. You look for points of familiarity but can’t figure out why the door isn’t where it should be. Then, suddenly, clarity! You remember where you are; you can locate yourself in time and space. Your unease dissolves.

I have had a peculiar experience along these lines. One night some months ago I awoke after midnight and walked down the stairs of our home. As I did so I couldn’t think of who I was and also had a sense that someone was missing from the house. The person that I thought was missing was “dad” (though I didn’t know exactly who “dad” was). As I came into the dining room (where my wife was up late working) I asked: “Where’s dad?” She looked at me in great confusion, not knowing what to say. Then, after just a few brief moments, there was clarity for me: “Ah, it’s ok. I know, I’m dad.” Somehow, I was looking for myself?

There are different possible responses to such an experience. Some would laugh it off: “Wow, that was weird.” Others might worry: “Do I have dementia? Am I ok?” Still others might take the experience as an opportunity for armchair psychoanalysis: “Who is ‘dad’ anyway?” My initial response was to worry, though within a very short time I had moved on to the phase of “Wow, that was weird.” But since then I have also taken the experience as an invitation to think about my life and identity. Continue reading

Quebec and Religion: Response

In the light of Quebec’s proposal of a new “secularism” law today, I share this (entirely appropriate and relevant) statement of the Presbytery of Montreal from 2014.

Response to Bill 60 from
The Presbytery of Montreal, of
The Presbyterian Church in Canada (2014)

The Presbytery of Montreal, a body of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, hereby offers its response to Project de loi no. 60: Charte affirmant les valeurs de laïcité et de neutralité religieuse de l’État ainsi que d’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et encadrant les demandes d’ accommodement. We offer our response in terms of the following affirmations and the following areas of disagreement.


1.1  We acknowledge and celebrate the unique identity of Quebec as a Francophone nation and province within Canada, and acknowledge the particular religious and cultural history that has shaped its values, laws, and social fabric. We also acknowledge and celebrate the presence of other linguistic and cultural communities within Quebec – including a large Anglophone minority – and celebrate the contributions such communities have made to the history, identity, and success of Quebec as a liberal democratic polity. We believe that Quebec has been enriched by this diversity.
Continue reading

Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.


The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community? Continue reading

Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.


Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

A Christmas Prayer

My latest column in the Christian Courier is a prayer for Christmas.

Praise to you, O living Word, for you give the gift of our world. You are the creating one through whom ancient Laurentian mountains have their craggy existence. By your imaginative power, forests of black spruce, larch, and balsam grow along ridges of granite and gneiss. By your gracious creativity, lynx and porcupine make their fleet-footed or lumbering way through habitats long called home. “All, at a Word, has become this almost overwhelming loveliness” (Margaret Avison).

Praise to you, O living Word, who has been born, like us, in a rush of blood and water—vulnerable, with your mother, in your passage into this world. The love displayed in your birth is an accompanying love that risks pain and loss and cold and homelessness, even as you are warmly received into the arms of Mary. This young woman who has borne God, leads you into a beautiful and fearful world, teaching you the prayers of your people along the way. You have learned from her; you are yourself with her and the people to whom she belongs. You find yourself, and are yourself, in relation to the God who makes covenant with this people.

Praise to you, O living Word, for you are the showing forth of God’s glory. In your speaking, the magnificence of God is heard. In your face, the beauty of God is seen. In your living, the grandeur of God is made apparent. We had always expected God’s glory to be otherworldly, almost unimaginable, yet here you are in time and space. God’s grandeur in a bawling baby. Glory to God in the highest; Glory to God in an unremarkable Lord alongside us. Continue reading

My garden won’t save the world…

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

My front-yard garden measures 12 feet by 11 feet and so represents a modest effort in terms of urban agriculture. It certainly doesn’t compete with the larger plots tended by some Portuguese seniors in west end Montreal, or with the wide-open community gardens that flourish here. But its postage-stamp size doesn’t tell the whole story of my veggie patch either. Year over year my acreage (dreaming big, here) teaches me much more than many other areas of life—it is the source of innumerable successes, failures, and opportunities to learn.

This year I decided to plant kohlrabi for the first time, which one website describes as “a unique, easy-to-grow veggie.” Easy for them to say! I don’t know whether to blame the less-than-consistent rainfall of this past summer or my less than strategic enriching of the soil, but the resulting, stumpy little kohlrabi stems were rather disappointing. In my defense I should say that I didn’t have a lot of time to invest in the garden this year. And the decision to leave town for four weeks of holidays wasn’t exactly conducive to its flourishing.

IMG_1472Most of the carrot seeds I planted in early June simply didn’t germinate, though the few seeds that did spring up produced twenty lovely carrots. Twenty! (You can interpret that exclamation mark as either frustration or delight!) They were typically odd-sized and wonderfully misshapen. Also, at some point during the season I simply forgot I had planted onion seedlings in the back corner, and only discovered them when pulling out overgrown crabgrass and other weeds a few weeks ago. And there they were, 10 of them pulled up and held in one hand, as remarkable and beautiful as anything on God’s green earth. Continue reading