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.


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!


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

Kierkegaard – Love – Prayer

It had been too long since I had spent any concentrated time with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard – but this summer saw something of a revival in my love and attention toward his works. This revival was partly inspired by a family vacation to Denmark and Copenhagen, which included a visit (for me, at least) to the Kierkegaard family burial plot in Assistens Cemetery as well as some time at a Kierkegaard conference at the University of Copenhagen.

img_8061This revival of attention to Kierkegaard’s writings led me to offer some reflections on two prayers of Kierkegaard at the annual retreat of The Presbyterian College, held this past weekend in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal

The first prayer I reflected on is one that sits as a kind of prelude at the beginning of Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. It is a beautifully Trinitarian prayer, and one that reprises some of the great themes of Christian faith and identity. But as with almost everything that Kierkegaard’s mind and pen touch upon, there is also something fresh and challenging in the prayerful words he offers. (The full prayer is shared at the bottom of this post.)

First a few comments about the classic themes that Kierkegaard touches on. He points out that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the God who is love; that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Son who gave his life for our redemption in love; and that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Spirit, who always points away from himself, toward Jesus, revealing love.

So in this opening part of the prayer, there is both a remembering of love (of God) and a modelling of love, since Jesus becomes the one who shows us how to love – self-sacrificially. And the Spirit teaches us to love by pointing away from ourselves toward the God who is love, and toward the Son who embodies love for the world.

img_9538Kierkegaard also mentions, in passing, what he defines as a need in love. Continue reading

scars – a poem

A poem referencing the Gospel lectionary passage for this coming Sunday. John 20:19-31.


Running blind ‘round a corner,
Robber to a cop in hot pursuit,
Forehead meets half-opened door;
Pain, dizziness, trickle of blood.

Childhood memory is borne in the body,
Fibrous tissues heralding past pain,
Scar as locus of life’s hurt and healing.

Boyhood hands whittle a branch,
Releasing bark, sharpening to a point.
“Always away from you,” momentarily forgotten,
Jackknife jumps, slices skin, hits bone.  Continue reading

supreme court confusion

Like most Canadians, I don’t make it a habit to read judgments written by the Supreme Court of Canada. Rather, I rely on journalists and other specialists to provide summaries and analyses in relation to various cases decided by the court. It is perhaps also fair to say that the trust I place in these secondary sources mirrors the trust I place in the court itself.

But this has recently been put in question for me.

In the past several days, a doctor in the Quebec City region became the first in Canada to (legally) provide a patient with a lethal injectors on to end his or her life and suffering. This physician’s action was made legal by Quebec’s new assisted-death law and by the February 2015 judgment of the Supreme Court in Carter vs. Canada. More specifically, the legality of this assisted-death should be understood with reference to the Supreme Court’s follow-up decision last week, in which it granted the Federal Government four more months to craft legislation but also allowed the legislative vacuum in Quebec to be filled by that province’s new law.

  It was after hearing these various news reports that I decided to go back and read the Carter decision for myself, in order to understand the arguments that have led to such a dramatic change in our moral and medical landscape. The result of my reading, I must say, is a greatly diminished trust in the Supreme Court of Canada. Continue reading

God is good. All the time?

God is good. All the time?

On the final day of a recent study trip to Cuba, one of our Pentecostal students led morning devotions by inviting us to respond to his “God is good” with “All the time.” And to his “All the time” with, “God is good.” He also led us in a vigorous singing of the refrain “I’m praying my way to victory.” It was a great start to the day, infusing our hearts and minds with a reminder of the constant presence and surpassing goodness of God.

That was in the morning.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the town of Varadero after an intense week of conversations and encounters in Matanzas and Havana. Students and faculty members walked through the town, spent time on the beach, and swam in the profoundly blue, turquoise, and salty waters. At this point in the trip, I had ended up with my passport and (let’s not get bogged down with admittedly important details about why or how) $4,000 cash in my money belt – a money belt that I had worn close to my body all week. On this last day of our trip, since I was wearing my swimsuit, the money belt was installed in the bottom of my camera bag.

Until it wasn’t.

After lunch I sat down on the beach, opened my camera bag to get something out, and discovered that the money belt was gone. An initial curiosity was very quickly displaced by a sense of panic. And a series of “S$!t, s%#t, s&!t.” I had no idea where the money belt was, and in the ensuing minutes realized I had probably inadvertently pulled the money belt out and dropped it when I stopped to take pictures of a hummingbird during my walk to the ocean.

God is good. All the time? Continue reading

Sola Scriptura: A Baptismal Defense

A talk presented to a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on History and The Presbyterian College – as part of ongoing celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Still in somewhat rough form, but clear enough to follow.


Some days you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw. And let me confess that I feel a bit that way about this line-up of five events over five years, with each year dedicated to one of the famous Solas of the Reformation tradition.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

Sola Fide –Faith Alone

Solus Christus – Christ alone

Soli Deo Gloria – For God’s Glory Alone

And our sola for today, of course, is Sola Scriptura – by Scripture Alone.

I’ve got to say that when I thought of this line-up of topics, I said to myself: “Grace alone. That’s such a beautiful and compelling theme of the Reformation – that our lives are gift and grace – that new life in Christ is grace upon grace. Grace Alone is a beautiful and is such an uncontested theme of Christian life and faith. Who wouldn’t want to offer reflections on that topic?” Continue reading

Clothed with Christ — Being and Identity

My installation lecture from this past Thursday evening…


Let me begin with what is perhaps an odd observation: We all got dressed today. And probably that’s a good thing!

And to that first observation let me add another: That we probably thought about what we would wear today. Some of us may have dressed up – some us may have dressed down – some of us wondered what on earth to wear this evening – some of us didn’t particularly care.

Clothing, of course, has always been significant for human life – not only for protecting and sheltering the body but, equally important, for providing a sense of identity. And historically speaking, human patterns of dress reflected an identity that was shared – our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or people. So of course there has been a style of dress typical among the Scottish, and there have been styles of dress typical to the peoples of the Senegambia, and styles of dress typical among the Dutch. Today we refer to these as cultural costume or folk dress. Historically speaking in western cultures your clothing primarily constituted you as part of a particular culture.

Now when we dress ourselves today, we might still experience this communal dimension of clothing in some small way. This evening, for example, I have put on a Geneva gown that sets me firmly within a tradition of pastor-teachers stretching back 500 years. I have also put on an academic hood that sets me within a tradition of university education stretching back about a thousand years. In the context of everyday life, I may also put on a jacket and tie – the uniform of the corporate employee for a few generations now. Each of us, in our own way, may be able to discern ways that our clothes set us within a particular community.

But even as we acknowledge this continuing collective element in our dress, it remains the case that clothes today do not primarily reference a shared identity. Rather, the clothing we buy and wear become elements in our individual projection of ourselves and our identity. The clothing we choose to wear – the ties and tights, the jewelry and jackets, the pants, the pumps, the sweaters, the sweater-vests, the blouses and the boots – these have become elements in our individual projection of who we are or want to be. Through our clothing we attempt some private and public declaration – this is me. This much is, I think, a commonplace of cultural analysis. Continue reading

what we wear – who we are

Clothing has always been a significant part of human identity. Historically human clothing has been particularly significant in terms of our shared or our collective identities. In particular cultures there was always a similarity of dress; our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or community. So there has been a style of clothing typical among the Scottish, or typical among the Dutch, or typical among Cameroonians – and then even within those larger groups, there have been narrower styles that marked out smaller groups or peoples. If you were an anthropologist travelling around the world two hundred years ago, you would have inevitably identified particular cultures or peoples according to the clothing they wore. Particular peoples just were peoples that wore this type of clothing. Your clothes made you part of a group.

Today that collective dimension remains a part of human culture in some respects. But today there is also something much more individualistic about our clothing. Our culture in the west today gives especially high priority to our creation of an individual identity. In our culture, everything around us is seen as raw material from which we can create or build or project our personal identity. We have been taught to resist the idea that our identity is in any way given to us or dictated from outside of ourselves – modern culture teaches us above all that our individual identity must be created, must be fabricated, must be cobbled together by us out of the raw material of life. You create yourself. You establish your own identity.

So I choose this set of experiences to define me.

I alter my body in this way to mark myself as this distinct person. Continue reading