A piece I wrote 14 years ago this month, published in the Montreal Gazette. Time has flown, but the cultural issues are much the same.
A child’s first birthday is a wonderful event in the life of a family – filled with balloons, cake and party hats. For many parents, however, the joy of first-birthday celebrations is tempered by the realization that mom’s year of federally-subsidized maternity leave is coming to an end. Going back to work means finding someone else to take care of a child. And as my wife and I recently discovered, a year of advanced notice doesn’t make it any easier to work through this time of transition.
They are all angels while sleeping.
As a part-time pastor and full-time graduate student, caring for our little one didn’t seem to be in the cards for me – time was in short supply. And my wife was returning to full-time work as a nurse. Her twelve-hour shifts, seven days out of fourteen, meant that we needed someone to care for our daughter two or three days a week.
Thus it was that we turned to daycare, that near-universal institution, to solve our dilemma. It wasn’t easy to find a daycare that would accept a child for only two or three days each week (five-dollar-a-day daycare seems only to be available to those who part with their children five days a week), but we eventually found a non-subsidized daycare space we thought would be good for our daughter.
The first week of September our daycare ordeal began – and it was an ordeal. Day one was no problem – our daughter found everything new and interesting at the daycare. Day two wasn’t so pleasant – this time she knew that mom and dad were leaving her behind and she clearly expressed her displeasure. Days three through four left us guilt-ridden and in tears – our little one was equally teary-eyed on each morning’s hand-off, and again at pick-up. Continue reading →
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.
Perhaps 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 →
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 →
It’s safe to say that Christianity has often been indifferent toward self-love. In fact, when I imagine the typically response to the possibility of self-love, I would describe it like this:
Self love? Meh.
Our own Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has often been downright negative about self-love. Within our tradition great emphasis has been placed on our brokenness and our sinfulness and our need of forgiveness – and great emphasis have been placed on the tremendous love of God toward us in Jesus. Our tradition has emphasized grace – everything we receive is through the grace of God – the undeserved love of God.
But in that kind of framework there often hasn’t been a lot of room for self-love. In fact self-love has often been seen negatively. In sermons and in books on Christian faith you will often hear that we are too preoccupied with ourselves, too focused on ourselves – this is an expression of our sinful self-absorption. We are too focused on ourselves and on what we need and what want – so focused on ourselves that we fail to love God and fail to love our neighbour. Continue reading →
Daisy Tsai describes her work, presently on display at Luz Gallery, Montreal, with these words:
Painting is habit-defying labour… As our world dazzles, rushes, and burns, i peek-a-boo through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence, stillness verging on celebration and distress.
The notion of habit is a powerful one, speaking as it does to those areas of our lives where we have perhaps stopped paying attention or ceased living intentionally – where we have allowed lethargy to withhold us from the possibility of the new. Of course habit is not always a negative dimension of human life, since the formation of positive and constructive habits is a necessary resource for living well. But our habits of sight, and habits of thought, and habits of behaviour can also be, and invariably are, a way that we close ourselves off to precisely that possibility – the possibility of living well, or faithfully. The possibility of encountering something new and enlivening (from Christ? who makes all things new?).
The artistic vocation is multi-faceted, but a significant feature of this vocation has always been to undermine our habits of thought and life – to invite the receiver to see the world within a different frame of reference – to refuse to let neighbour or stranger be seen in the same way she or he has always been seen. Vocation: contending for an alternative coherence. Continue reading →
Image you know someone who has always dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China. It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that someone would want to visit the Great Wall. Parts of that wall were built as long as eighteen hundred years ago by the first emperor of China – most of it was built about 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It’s an historic, long and winding wall that was first built for the purposes of security and defense, and later was used as a means of regulating trade along the Silk Road. The oldest parts of the wall were made of earth and stone and wood – while the majority was constructed from brick and stone. The Great Wall of China now measures 9,000 kilometers or more in length and of course is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are tens of thousands of people who dream of seeing the Wall – this amazing feat of human engineering – tens of thousands who dream of having those ancient bricks and steps beneath their own feet.
So imagine this person you know, who has dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China – and imagine they are finally able to make the trip. They save up enough money to pay for the airfare. They put together an itinerary; they make reservations at hotels; they book a seat on a tour bus. And the day arrives when they finally get to the wall – they step out of the bus and walk up to the wall. Oh it is glorious. They see it stretch of endlessly in one directly and in the other – they walk up the few steps onto the wall, and for a few minutes they look this way and that.
And then they turn around, go back and get on the bus, and take their seat. “Okay, I’ve seen it, I’m ready to head back to the hotel whenever you are.”
Now that would be a very strange ending to the story, wouldn’t it? That great dream; that hope of seeing the Wall; those months of saving and planning. Only to get there, have a quick look, and turn around to leave. Continue reading →
In our daily lives, every situation and every person and every landscape can be seen differently. And what you see in a given situation or what you see in a specific person or what you see in a landscape before you – what you see, says a great deal about who you are. Going even further again: What we see in all of this makes us who we are. You just are a person who sees this, rather than that – or that, rather than this.
Perhaps we can get a little bit more specific. When you look out into the night’s sky and you see all those stars visible to the naked eye – when you see all those stars, which are just a fraction of the 300 billion stars that make up our galaxy – when you see all those do you see a universe that came from nowhere and is going nowhere? Do you see a universe that is accidental and meaningless? Or in seeing those stars do you see the mysterious and wonderful work of a God who gives the world as gift and grace. A universe within which we may find our own lives as gift and grace. What you see in those stars says a lot about who you are – it says a lot about the hope and peace that defines you.
We can bring this down to another level altogether, of course. When you see a dad dragging a screaming 7 year old through the parking lot at the grocery store, do you see a dad who has lost his temper; do you see a dad who is impatient; do you see child who is spoiled? Or do you see someone struggling to be a parent in the way that every parent struggles. Someone who knows how to love and is almost certainly learning daily how to love more faithfully? Continue reading →
This week I was listening to CBC radio one the afternoon, and the program was Shift with Tom Allen. Tom was at his witty and conversational best that afternoon. As you may know, Shift is the CBC program that makes the transition from classical music in the first part of the day to rock or independent pop music late in the afternoon. So at the beginning of the program you are likely to hear movements from a Beethoven symphony or violin concerto by Bartok. But by the end of the program you are likely to hear R.E.M. or Arcade Fire or Sarah Harmer.
And when I was listening to Shift toward the end of the program, Tom Allen introduced a song by telling a story about about visiting friends of his who own a guesthouse in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. These friends had a problem with bears in the spring, when the bears would come out of hibernation and would be hungry and on the prowl for food. The bears would show up around the guesthouse, trying to get into the garbage, scrounging for food. And so his friends had to chase away the bears – scare them off on a regular basis. One morning that he was there, and there was a bear out near the garbage area, they asked Tom if he wanted to give a try at scaring the bear away. And so he agreed – he went out on the porch and started shouting at the bear, yelling at that bear to get away. The bear didn’t even look up – this screaming city boy wasn’t going to startle a bear enough to send it running. Sort of like us with our raccoons, I suppose – you yell at them, and they just kind of look up at you like, “What’s your problem?”
But at that point, the woman who owned the guesthouse with her husband took over. She took a can of tomatoes with her, threw it at the bear, and shouted at the bear with an intensity and volume that Tom Allen just could not muster. And when the bear saw the tomatoes fly, and heard this woman deploying her vocal cords, it took off running. Continue reading →
This piece was recently on exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the exhibit “From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” I was struck by how thoroughly modern and contemporary this image feels – it could have been painted yesterday, but was in fact created in 1910 by Ernest Ludwig Kirchner. The curator of the exhibit suggested that the figure is daydreaming, but the notion that comes to my mind in looking at this piece is the notion of boredom. Boredom is a word that comes into its own, with something approximating its present meaning, in the 1840’s. It is a thoroughly modern concept and reality. This painting got me thinking and reading about boredom.
Does boredom express a deeply modern despondency about the lack of meaning in the universe? What is there left to do, after all, when the end result is and will be sheer emptiness and meaninglessness?
Is boredom an expression of the frenetic pace of our particularly modern lives, where we have lost the capacity to sit still for even a moment; in which we have lost the ability to live without distraction and entertainment and titillation?
Are you bored yet?
Would the figure in this painting be any less bored, or any less a representative of our boredom, if she had a smartphone in her hand? Or would that, perhaps, make her the perfect emblem of our boredom? Is our only answer to boredom, more boredom? Continue reading →
This morning we come to the end of the church year. Over the past twelve months we have celebrated God’s self-revelation in Advent and Christmas and Epiphany. We have recalled the suffering patience of Jesus in the season of Lent. We have walked through the darkness of Good Friday into the glory of Easter morning. We have faced the mystery and glory of Pentecost – the life of the Spirit given to create and equip the church. We have journeyed through ordinary time, listening to the stories of Jesus and God’s people.
And today we come to the last Sunday of the year, which the church celebrates under the banner of Christ the King.
We end the year with a statement of faith.
We end the year with a statement of hope.
We end the year with a statement of Christ’s glory.
We end the year with a decidedly political statement – Christ is King.
This declaration that Christ is King raises all kinds of important questions, of course, What kind of a king is he? What kind of kingdom is he bringing to our world? And the truth is that when we talk about that wandering rabbi, the language of kingship and sovereignty might not be the first thing to come to mind. In many cases kings have been absolute sovereigns – they have exercised power at will – they have commanded vast armies – they have gone to war without just cause – they have been wealthy tyrants – they have only too rarely served their people with integrity and grace. Continue reading →