The God of Silence – reflections on Endo’s novel, Scorsese’s film

My latest column for the Christian Courier, can be found here, or below.

How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?

Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.

The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.” Continue reading


how big is your world?

How big is your world?

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 1.32.15 PMYou are an individual. And from your particular body – from your particular time and space – from your unique set of experiences – you look out onto the wider world. How big is your world?

You are not the centre of the world (most of us know we are not the centre of the world) but at the same time, from some kind of centre you take in the world around you:

You see the world looking out from where you are.

You relate to the world and to others from your body.

You identify people and institutions that are important to you.

You pay attention to certain things and ignore other things.

You may not be the centre of the world, but you are at the centre of something. And from that kind of centre, what do you see? What are the things that register for you? How far does your gaze reach? How big is your world?

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 1.31.49 PMAs we think about who we are and what matters to us, perhaps we think about our past – perhaps we think about grand parents and great grandparents and their influence in our lives – or about the towns or cities or countries that our recent ancestors came from. 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

stewards of mysteries

Paul writes to the church in Corinth:

You seem to think Apollos and I are pawns to be played on the chessboard of your church battles. You seem to think that Apollos and I will carry your flag into war – that we are little more than figureheads who will represent your cause against brothers and sisters in Christ.

You have your petty squabbles with one another. You are divided from one another on theological grounds. You are divided from one another on cultural grounds. You are divided from one another on ethical grounds. And you have so obviously tried to conscript Apollos and me into your divisions, as if that’s all we’re good for.

But if this is who you think we are, then you are so badly mistaken. If you think we can just be conscripted into your battles in this way, then you need to hear another word. It’s about time that I give you a reminder of who we are. Continue reading

Representing Advent and Christmas

I am by no means an artist. In fact it’s only in the past number of months that I’ve begun putting pencil to paper – that I’ve begun taking baby steps in trying to understand how to use shading, lines and different pencils (2B 4b HB 6H) in service of an idea or image. And aside from being a total novice, I don’t exactly have a lot of time on my hands for drawing. Though I do find it a soul-nourishing way to make myself slow down for a moment, to reflect on life and its meaning.

Earlier this Fall the Presbyterian Record opened its annual art competition for the December issue of the magazine. I took the competition (and the reality of a deadline!) as a source of motivation to create something. It was an opportunity to think about how I would represent some aspect of Christmas. The end result is the pencil drawing, below, which I have also put through a “sepia” filter in iPhoto.

pensive smallerLike many within the church I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Christmas. On the one hand I have beautiful childhood memories of Christmas – of trees and lights and family celebrations. And even today I have a kind of delight  in aspects of the season. And yet beneath these positive aspects of memory and celebration is a deep frustration with the way Christmas (Advent is essentially bypassed!) has become a saccharine and tinsel-strewn affair of little or no substance. Worse, perhaps, the church often caters to this indulgent and superficial approach to the season, which means that our representation and celebration of Christmas is not as rich as it could and should be.

In submitting my own drawing to The Record, I had no sense this was a great piece of art or that it had any chance of making the cover of the magazine. It’s not, and it didn’t! The piece absolutely belongs in the small little corner they found for it toward the back pages. Continue reading

Praying from the belly of a fish. #sermon #exile

How do you pray from the belly of a fish?

At one level it’s a pretty basic biological question – and a basic biological problem.

In the belly of a fish, there isn’t any air.

In the belly of a fish, you’re wedged in tight, unable to breath.

In the belly of a fish, you can’t even speak.

So how do you pray from the belly of a fish?

To push these biological questions further, we have to ask whether anyone can actually survive in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights – let alone pray there. Could a person survive even one day and night in the belly of a fish?

What we’re asking at the outset, of course, is whether we should think that this ancient prophet actually got thrown off the side of a sailing ship – whether he actually ended up in the guts of a fish. On the face of it this seems unlikely for the simple reason that after three days and three nights in such cramped quarters he would he would have been good and dead. That isn’t to say that the creator of the universe could not have worked some miracle in this situation – couldn’t have preserved his life in that context. Continue reading

as surely as…

This morning we want to start out by saying a bit more about the city of Philippi. We’ve talked a little bit about the experiences of Paul – we’ve talked a little bit about Christian community in Philippi and about their experiences – but we want to say a little more about the city of Philippi itself.

The city of Philippi was founded about 400 years before Christ, and the city got its name from the king who founded it. His name was Philippos – he was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, there on the northern shore of the Agean Sea. Philippos founded this particular city for the typical kinds of reasons – there were gold mines in the area, and he wanted to control the gold mines – there was a well-travelled road passing through the region – and he wanted to control the road, too.

Now king Philippos was a relatively successful and powerful king within the wider context of Ancient Greece – and he had grand plans to expand his rule and his kingdom. It so happened, however, that Philippos was assassinated before he could implement his plans. But his son Alexander became king after Phillipos and pursued his father’s expansionist plans. The son of Philippos turns out to have been none other than Alexander the Great, who established one of the largest empires in the ancient world – from Greece in the West – to India and the Himalayas in the East. Continue reading

altogether joy?

My sermon from this past Sunday – the first in a series in the book of James.


This morning we begin a series of sermons in the book of James – a relatively short letter that comes just after the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The book of James, as we’ll see, gets down very quickly to the nitty-gritty of the Christian life – how to behave; what’s worth putting your energy into; what our relationships should look like. James gets down very quickly to the basics of Christian life and action. In many ways we may find this refreshing. We don’t always want intellectual discussions about theology. We don’t always want conversations about realities that seem to hover 15 feet off the ground – never touching down in the world where we live. So already in terms of the big picture of James maybe we are encouraged. Sounds like someone we want to hear from. 

But of course we have to get into the details of what James says. As we do so, the going gets tough, pretty quickly. In fact, listening to James is a lot like listening to the Old Testament prophets. Listening to James is a lot like listening to Jesus. The fact that James sounds a lot like Jesus probably shouldn’t come as a surprise since the James who wrote this letter was probably none other than Jesus’ own half-brother. Just as in the case of the prophets and of Jesus, in listening to James there may well be moments when we respond by saying – come on you can’t really mean that.

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Biographies of Faith: Joni

A sermon in my series on ‘biographies of faith’.

A couple of weeks ago we began a short series on biographies of faith. Over these few weeks I am doing something just a little different in my sermons as we consider the lives of women and men who are for us examples of the Christian life. As we sketch out these portraits of lives lived, we are answering this question:

What does it look like when someone is following Jesus?

And we are answering that most important question for ourselves:

How do we learn to really follow Jesus, to live a genuinely Christian life?

Two weeks ago we considered the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died as a martyr at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. This morning we turn to another biography of faith – to the story of a woman who is our contemporary. Continue reading

‘Yes’ or ‘No’?

A sermon preached today, Good Friday. In this sermon I largely follow the account of Jesus’ work and Jesus’ self-understanding as this is set out by N.T. Wright in his book Jesus and the Victory of God.



Approach the cross that is set before you on a hillside. Lift up your hands and feel the roughness of the wood against your fingers and your palms. This is not the lovely, sanded and varnished cross of a Christian sanctuary – this cross is coarse, weighty with grief. Run your fingers over the dark purple stains that mark the heavy knotted planks. See there on the ground the nails that pierced flesh – pick them up and feel their weight in your hand – the cold iron as cold as death itself, as cold as the grave that now holds him.


What is it you feel as you trace your hands over wood and feel the weight of nails?


You feel the reality and pain of exile. Exile. The people of Israel lived in exile in Babylon for generations – they were sent from their homes, sent from their land, split from their families. They were far from the land, the temple, the city, that made them who they were as the children of God. Of course their exile in Babylon was an event of the past in Jesus day, for they had returned to the Promised Land. Yet they live in exile still. The exile continues. Now they live under the imperial power of Rome in their own land – they live in their own land yet they are not free to embrace their identity and control their future. The exile is over but they are still waiting for an end to exile. They are waiting for one who will lead them out of exile, out of bondage and oppression.


What is it that you feel as you trace your hands over rough wood and feel the weight of nails? You feel the pain of exile. For Jesus enters fully into the exile of Israel. He enters fully also into your exile and my exile. For exile is the lot of the human. Exile is God’s judgment on human sin. We turned or back on God and God’s way, and exile is the price we pay.

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