Tears as Prayers

My latest in the Christian Courier. (October 11th edition.)

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Have you cried lately? If so, do you know the meaning of your tears?

It’s a complicated question. We humans are not fully transparent to ourselves—we are not fully aware of the experiences or realities that shape our emotional lives. Our tears in any situation may result from past experiences, diverse sensitivities, hormonal realities, and even how much sleep we’ve been getting. We may know there are tears running down our cheeks, but never fully know why.

This is to say nothing of the deeper biological and evolutionary bases of our tears. Perhaps human tears have been selected for because they invite sympathy and promote community well-being. Or perhaps our tears are a way of moderating anger in those who perceive them. Or maybe our tears relieve tension and allow us to function well in daily lives defined by stress.

There is so much going on when we cry. This means it is always a question of interpreting our tears, in the same way that we interpret scripture or other texts. We can do our best to explain our tears, but we likely will never fully understand them or have a definitive answer for their meaning.

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The other side of Goodbye #backtoschool

September is a busy and important time here at The Presbyterian College, with new and returning students arriving for studies. For six years now, as a faculty member here, I’ve been part of a team receiving students as they arrive in Montreal.

Often those students come from other places in the country, or even from overseas. They may be arriving from Charlottetown or Edmonton or Yaoundé. Having said their goodbyes to family and friends, they arrive in Montreal to settle into a new neighbourhood, a new culture, and a new pattern of life. One of our tasks at the college is to make students feel at home, to welcome them into a new community, and help them settle into a new rhythm.

This year I’ve also had a new experience in the return to school. For the first time, I am also on the other side of those goodbyes. What do I mean? Well, my wife and I have just dropped our eldest daughter off for her first year of university in Ottawa. This time I’m not on the receiving end of a student, helping her become oriented to university life and a new city. Rather, I’m on the side of saying good-bye and then driving away, leaving her to settle in. 

This time I’m on the other side of good-bye.

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Home Depot Prayers

It goes without saying: Worship has been dramatically altered by the pandemic. Some of these alterations have been less than desirable, of course, but some of them have also been worth celebrating. Among the gifts of the pandemic, I would suggest, is our increasing attentiveness to everyday work and workers. Over past months there has been a new energy given to our congregational prayers for front-line medical workers, for those who deliver online orders, and for staff in grocery stores. 

As we enter the new normal of worship in the days ahead, my hope is that our shared prayers for everyday work will be enriched and deepened—that we will remember that most of us participate in God’s mission through our everyday work; that our everyday vocations are a means by which we serve Christ in the world. As an encouragement in this direction, I offer these prayers for some of the workers I have encountered in just the past few weeks. 

O God who provides home and shelter, we lift to you those who install windows and doors. As they pry out old, rotted window frames, scattering dust and splinters of wood, they thwart drafts and mildew. As they install new windows and doors, they provide protection against wind and cold and rain and heat. Remind each one that their work with hammer and level and cordless driver are your work for the wellbeing of others. As we celebrate their work, O God, we also remember and pray for those who live without such protection from the elements; we pray for the coming kingdom of Jesus.

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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.
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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