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

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

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

Grief and Distance – Responding to the World Wide Web

In our digital age it’s not always easy to register an appropriate or meaningful emotional response when sad or difficult news reaches us from far-off places, whether through our social media feeds or on the digital news outlets we frequent. In the face of such news we will certainly feel something – a sense of sadness or empathetic grief. But we may also experience surprise, or perhaps even guilt that our feelings are not as strong as seems warranted by some significant tragedy or sorrow. Our distance from the event in question, or the fact that we receive a steady stream of such news, means that our emotional responses are not as personal or deep as seems appropriate. This, at least, has been my experience with such news. Perhaps it is not only mine.

Last week, one such difficult event was in the news – we heard of a horrific house fire in the town of Kane, Manitoba, a fire that killed four young brothers. The boys were four of eight children that lived in the farmhouse with their parents. There is no way to describe this than as an utterly unimaginable and terrible loss for the parents and for siblings and neighbours and friends. To bring some deeper personality to the news, the CBC shared the names of the four boys: Bobby, Timmy, Danny, and Henry. Their family name is Froese.

On the day that I read this news story, last Thursday, I came back to it a number of times in my own thoughts. I came back to the house fire, to the reality of loss it represented, and to the whole question of our personal response to this kind of distant, difficult news. Obviously this news story isn’t really about me; it’s about this family. And yet we wrestle with our response to such suffering in the impersonal yet personal realm of the world wide web. Continue reading

a beautiful branch – wisdom for life

We have these amazing texts preserved and handed down to us in the prophet Isaiah. Beautiful texts that speak about the transformation of our world. Beautiful texts that remind us of what we are waiting for. We are waiting for God to come in judgment and grace to his people, a waiting that infuses every moment of our lives. Last week we explored one of these texts – one of these songs.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Ain’t gonna study war no more.

This is huge, world–transformative stuff. It’s about politics, and about the life of nations, and it’s about the possibilities for peace in the world – it’s about what happens when the kingdom of God comes in all its glory.

This week we get more of the same as we turn to Isaiah chapter 11. This week we read these astonishing words:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. Continue reading

thinking prayer with forgiveness

Over the past weeks we have been explored the possibility and reality of forgiveness. Among other things, we talked about the unconditional forgiveness of God – this forgiveness that undergirds our whole spiritual life – that God persists in loving us and seeking us and walking with us even when we continually fail. We talked about forgiveness as letting – forgiveness as the sometimes-difficult work of our letting go of anger and judgment and bitterness – as God forgives us, so we must forgive others. We also pointed out that within the Christian tradition forgiveness isn’t simply about our own personal healing – rather the trajectory of forgiveness is toward reconciliation.

This morning, before we move into the season of Lent next week, we are going to conclude this brief series. And as we do so I want to pick up just a few themes around the question of forgiveness. More specifically, I want pick up a few themes by thinking prayer and forgiveness together. How does our life of prayer relate to the possibility and reality of forgiveness in our lives. Continue reading

Taking my shirt off in protest? #crucifix #femen

Ok – that’s not about to happen – on top of which, no one wants it to happen!

But based on events of this past week, perhaps you’ll know I’m referring to the recent Femen protest in the Quebec National Assembly. If you’ve heard anything about Femen, you will know that this protest followed their usual modus operandi:

In a public place, in the presence of politicians and/or other person’s of power, rip off your shirt to reveal your breasts and a political message painted in black on your body. Simultaneously, you begin screaming your political message. There may be an anti-religious method to your madness/message, or it may be more secularly inclined (“don’t legalize rape” or “my body”).

crucifixThe Quebec protest was religious in nature. The slogan painted on the torso of one woman, as far as I can make it out under the grasping arms of security guards, insisted that the crucifix prominently displayed in the Quebec legislature should be re-located to a museum. Another body-painted slogan was “crucifix décâlisse”, which apparently means “crucifix go to hell.” Continue reading

Pastoral Prayer for Syria #PrayForSyria

pray-for-syriaGod of all compassion, in the name of your beloved Son Jesus we lift our prayer to you this day for Syria. As we approach you in prayer we also call upon your living Spirit to dwell in our hearts and minds, so that our inarticulate and half-hearted prayers may become worthy of you and of our identity in Christ Jesus – so that our inarticulate and half-hearted prayers may become worthy of those for whom we pray. They are your children, loved and embraced in your Son, our Lord.

We confess, O God, that we have not exhibited the love of Christ toward the suffering children and men and women of Syria in the past months and years – we have been failures in love. We have glossed over news that thousands have been killed, and tens of thousands have been displaced. In our heard-heartedness we have assumed that this is the way it has ever been and will ever be in our world. Forgive us our lack of compassion; forgive our heard-heartedness; forgive our willingness to abandon others to hell; forgive us our lack of hope.

We pray today for the most vulnerable in Syria, for children and women and men who are caught in the crossfire, literally and figuratively; who are without means of escape, without power to protect themselves, and without friends or leaders to advocate for them. We pray for those who have fled their towns and cities and are now displaced and homeless. We pray for those who, in the midst of their own life’s chaos and uncertainty, mourn the death of friends and loved ones. By your mercy and grace, and through the actions of those who live in and enact your love, grant to each of these a place of belonging and security and hope. Continue reading

Answered prayer?

Sending a child to kindergarten in Quebec can be complicated – particularly if you want to enroll your child in the English system. The year before Tabea went off to kindergarten, Becky and I realized we’d have to get a certificate of eligibility to enroll her in the English system. As you all know, to send your child to English school you have to prove that one of the child’s parents received their elementary education, in English, within Canada.

Now I figured this would be pretty straightforward. Becky went to elementary school in French in Ontario – which meant it was up to me to prove that I was educated in an English context. So I did the most obvious thing and wrote to the elementary school I attended in Beaverton, Ontario. I wrote to the principal and requested a letter confirming I had gone to school there from First through Sixth grade.

Well, I never received a reply to that letter, which I wrote in the month of September. So a couple of months later I called the school and spoke directly with the Principal. She said she hadn’t received my letter, and that in any case she wouldn’t have any records of my education there – in fact she made very little effort to understand why exactly I needed this letter.

To make a very long story shorter, the Principal of my former elementary school wasn’t much inclined to help me. It took me a number of phone calls, and at least four letters written to Beaverton Public School, over the course of four months, to get what I needed. I even sent the principal a copy of my Grade 1 report card – one of the few that my mother had saved – she happened to have put it in a scrapbook for me. Continue reading