Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear Riley,



Did you know that smart people have lots of answers but really smart people have lots and lots of questions? (You probably didn’t know that because I just made it up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true – and I am definitely sure that it’s true about you!) Thank-you for writing to me and thank-you for sharing your excellent questions with me.

Your first question, “Did God make all the fish and the Birds at once?” is a very good one. And if it weren’t for the last two words of it, it would be an easy one, too. Yes, God made all the fish and the birds (and everything else) – of course! – but did he make them at once? Hmm, maybe. Maybe God made everything quickly, like in a few days, but I think it’s more likely that he took a very, very long time. For you and I, it seems silly to take a long time to do something that we could’ve done quickly, but God is not impatient like us – in fact, it seems to me that God likes to take his time.

Your second question is: “Did God make all his creation from Dust?” Yes, that might be a good way to think of it. Of course, he made the dust, too. And he made whatever dust is made from. And he made whatever that stuff is made from, and also what it’s made from, and so on down to things so small that we can’t even see them anymore. (If you like, we can borrow Joe’s microscope next time you visit and look at all of the little bits inside a piece of dust.) I believe God made everything, from the very biggest things like planets and stars to the very smallest things like whatever is inside dust, and I believe he made it all out of nothing. I know that sounds impossible – making something out of nothing! – but God is able to do impossible things.
I think the reason the Bible says we’re made from dust is so we remember that all creatures – including you and I – we all depend on God at every moment: without his love and energy, we’d be like lifeless dust.

You also asked, “How old is the earth?” My best answer is: I don’t know. But I have a friend who studied physics and geology after high school, and she is very smart (like you). If you want, I could ask her how old she thinks the earth is. Or, if you’re in a rush, I could google it (ha-ha, LOL, jk.) But I can say this, Riley: people who think the earth is only a few thousand years old because they think that’s what the Bible says are kinda messy bible-readers, IMO. They’re very nice people – most of them – but nice people can make messy mistakes (for example, your dad: he’s very nice but sometimes smells stinky).
Imagine throwing rocks into the lake with some of your friends near Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Imagine that cousin Sean is there too, and that he is wearing his fancy baseball uniform. Wouldn’t it be strange if Sean said that you and your friends can only have three chances to throw your rocks properly, and that you have to run around a big square on the beach, and that if somebody catches your rock in the air then you have to stop playing and go sit on a bench? Those are baseball rules, silly Sean! We know that Sean really likes baseball and that he is very good at it, but I’d have to pick him up and throw him into the lake if he tried to make you and your friends play by his rules. Sometimes people who really like science and think they’re good at it try to make other people read the Bible according to their sciencey rules. But why do that? (Sometimes I think those people should just go jump in the lake!) The Bible isn’t a science book – it’s a totally different thing with different kinds of answers. Sometimes it doesn’t have the kinds of answers to fit the questions we want to ask – like this one of yours about the age of the earth. It’s a very interesting question, but I think it’s one of those ones the Bible doesn’t completely answer for us. The Bible does tell us some other important things, though, like however old the earth is, it was God who made it. In fact, the Bible tells us that God is still making it, every second of every day.

Your last question is my favourite: “Did God get burned when he made the sun?” To answer this, I’d like to ask you a question: did you get burned when you drew that picture of a sun on your note to me? (Ha-ha, of course not, silly uncle Paul!) I think God is so big and so amazing and so powerful that he made our sun and all the other stars even more easily than you drew that picture for me.

Riley, I hope you will always ask hard questions because they are usually the most important ones. But now let me tell you something that even a lot of adults don’t understand: many of the most important questions don’t have easy answers. In fact, sometimes the really hard questions don’t have answers at all. Or, if they do have answers, sometimes we only learn them slowly, over the whole, long stretch of our lives. We just have to keep asking, and keep exploring, and try to be patient.
Whenever I get an important and difficult question in my head I ask myself if God has already answered it for us or not. That’s when I think about Jesus. Jesus is God showing us who he is in a way that we can (usually) understand. Jesus shows us that even though God is big and powerful enough to make everything, he still loves you and I and everybody else very much.

And I love you very much.
Always,

Uncle Paul



Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Eleven questions from a former friend



My friend moved away. But she's not willing to just let our thing drop. So she’s asked eleven questions ‘to get to know me better’. Okay, AJ. Thank-you. Here you go:

1. Describe your transition from secondary school to post secondary school.

Accidental. It was midway through July, 1989 when I realized Grade 13 (an Ontario thing at the time) was optional. I was smoking tea rolled in Bible paper on a clandestine deck in the woods at the summer camp where I was working, and it was raining. I had an important lifeguard for a girlfriend at the time so I couldn’t give the decision much more than a couple hours attention. The ink ran on the paper but I mailed that college application the next day. In retrospect I don’t regret much about that summer but a little more thought about my choice of college might’ve served me better.

2. Where is one place you’ve been that you would tell others is “forgettable”?

Burlington.

3. Who was your favorite teacher growing up and why was that teacher so great?

Easiest question of the lot: Mrs. Walker, my Grade Three matriarch. Of all the forks in my road, the one she patrolled was almost certainly the most crucial.

4. Favorite Canadian band?

At the moment it’s Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans.

5. What kinds of books do you read just for the heck of it?

Robert Frost, Czesław Miłosz, Walt Whitman, Joseph Brodsky – their Collected Poems.

6. If there was just one thing that you wish you could be a little better at, what would it be?

I’ve had a persistent prayer since I was maybe 18 based on a recurring theme in the Psalms; it’s about the way wisdom and humility only travel together. I don’t know why it first occurred to me to offer it, or why it keeps popping-up, but the request comes from somewhere either deep inside me or, more likely, from somewhere or someone beyond me. I’m pretty sure it’s true: I could be better at both.

7. What do you wish you knew when you were 16 that you know for sure now?

Here’s a bit from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time."

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

8. How do you think you have the greatest influence in your work?

Probably in ways nearly opposite to what would be the most obvious answer to this question. Maybe it’s in whatever happens when I share a sandwich with my abrupt but gentle Ucwalmicwts tutor, or in that few seconds at my two o’clock appointment when I could’ve said something but didn’t, and just listened instead.

9. Describe what retirement will look like for you.


I expect Melanie and I will finally be finished with our adolescent jostling of wills and come again to naïve joy, holding hands.

10. You have a meeting with an important person to talk about an important thing. Who is that person and what are you going to talk about.

My guess is it’ll be with one of my parents about the recent or imminent death of the other. In a way I’ve been preparing for that conversation for years, but I won’t be ready for it.

11. What eating establishment do I need to go to if money, distance, and time were of no concern.

Buy a slab of Chinook salmon off the docks in Tofino and cook it in butter over a camp stove in Long Beach mist.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Still


The fullness of life can become either banal busyness or on better days something more like the marginally bearable heaviness of being. The choice is often triage. In a moment of stolen calm we can bend our necks and moan inwardly or look proverbially upward and sigh with gratitude. The decision seems minor at first because worry and prayer begin from the same place. But they are not the same: worry makes an immediate U-turn at the ribcage and festers ingrown while prayer rises off the soul like sweat from a horse’s flanks.

When Mr. Dale Wallace took the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ from his translucent thimble he threw it down the hatch with his chin to the ceiling and his eyelids shut in rustic ecstasy. Like he’d just busted through swinging saloon doors and slammed a gloved palm on the bar and growled for bourbon. His eyes wet with some unknown passion and his throat straight at the sky longing for more, it was clear to the other patrons that one should not come between this cowboy and his elements. The world itself waited as crushed grape blood clotted on the flailed wheat flesh in his teeth.

It still waits.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent Unplugged


I’m forty so I’m old enough to say things like, ‘When I was a boy, [insert simplistic critical anachronism here].’ And I’ve been a Christian for almost three decades, so let me tell you, when I was a spiritual boy, things were simpler. Back then, I meant it when I said, ‘Jesus is my best friend.’

But now it seems more like Jesus lived and died a long time ago, like I can no longer say, as I once did, that he and I ‘hang out.’ I do still believe that he kicked death’s ass; that he is somehow, somewhere alive and well. But – maybe I’m just getting old – Jesus doesn’t seem quite as chummy as he once did.

I saw a cougar last night. My eyes hadn’t quite adjusted, but I saw it, dimly, and I heard it move over the crusted snow, and I felt its presence with the hair on the back of my neck. Maybe Jesus is more like that? Like a mountain lion, out there in the dark, a predator, watching, more aware of me than I am of him, and very unlikely to follow me back inside for a BFF chat. True, there’s always the Holy Spirit, present and faithful, but I’ll curb my urge to be theologically correct for the sake of this point: God often seems just beyond my range of vision, like a suspicious silhouette in the shadows, ready to consume my selfish flesh in a thrashing if only I would yield to the pain and overcome my basic instinct to make a run for it.

It’s Lent. And I should probably know more about what that means, but here’s what little I do: it’s about the prep. Lent is a season of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. That's doubtless a simplistic explanation, but it makes sense to me. Because, really, if the incarnate Son of God willingly died by public execution, then properly acknowledging that event wouldn’t be something I could just stumble into. And same for Easter: if a man has been lynched and killed and was consequently dead but nonetheless is alive again, that too would be something I’d need a little lead-time to celebrate properly.

There’s one more thing I know about Lent: it seems usually to involve some kind of self-imposed dietary restrictions or otherwise uncomfortable penitential asceticism. Normally, I’m happy to dismiss such extremes as vain attempts to impress God. And isn’t that convenient? me-so-friendly with Jesus that I needn’t bother with legalistic rituals? and what’s on the tube tonight? and please pass the chips?

The thought started as a side effect from a recent Twitter hangover: maybe I’d be closer to Jesus if I tweeted less? (God help me, that sounds trite. But look: the Pope got a Twitter account, and now – only a few months later – he’s decided to abdicate. Just a coincidence?)

Now I’m thinking maybe I should take it up a notch. What about skipping the whole internet? Giving-up Facebook would be too easy, like a neighbour who quit broccoli a few years ago. And my erratic blog behavior wouldn’t suffer for the interruption. Dropping Instagram might make some of my more distant followers wonder what's become of me, but I doubt I’ll tumble into the abyss if I don’t stay LinkedIn for a few weeks. I’m pretty sure I can still write a sermon without the googles, and my phone, apparently, works as a telephone and not just a mini-computer so hearing it ring with a call instead of just ding with push notifications is a real possibility. I could set an automatic reply on my email with something hip and not-too-holier-than-thou like, ‘Hey, it’s Lent. And this is crazy. But here’s my number. So call me, maybe?’

What would happen to my spiritual night-vision if I stared at screens a bit less? I might be getting too old for the Buddy Christ but maybe my eyes could still adjust to the Lion of Judah. Granted, a few weeks offline is not likely to be the existential flaying I might need, but it couldn’t hurt.

Or, at least, I don’t think it could hurt. 

It probably won’t hurt. I’m pretty sure it won’t. 

No, of course it won’t. 

This won’t hurt, will it?


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weird

One of the weird things about being a pastor is the way this job requires me to love.

Love is always a strange experience, but that’s not my point. What’s weird is making a living by it. If I want to pay my mortgage and feed my kinds, I have to love people.

Also beside the point is how lovable these people may or may not be. The humans in my life are probably much like the ones in yours; they invite a whole range of interest and affection. But most occupations leave their practitioners to navigate that range at their own pace and inclination. Not so for clergy. Sure, every line of work includes people seemingly designed to expand their co-workers’ capacity for grace, but even the most mood savvy employer stops short of making unconditional love an element of workplace policy. Unless you’re a pastor.

Although I would normally resist the designation ‘professional’ for the ministry, l’ll use it here for the sake of putting this bluntly: To be a pastor is to be a professional lover.

That sounds weird because it is.

A profession with similar terms comes to mind, the parallels with which I’ll not explore too deeply, but suffice it to say that a prostitute is unlikely to be deemed less professional if she doesn’t love her clients. I’d guess the opposite is the case. She, or he, is paid to pretend, and the pretense is, no pun intended, explicit.

For the pastor, by contrast, play-acting is anathema. And rightly so. We’re supposed to be genuine. But there’s the rub. How can a person freely be something if they’re already supposed to be it? It’s the existential dilemma in vocational form.

I’m sure I’m not the first pastor to wrestle with this. All my ilk probably wonder at times if  the people we attend are sometimes suspicious: Is my pastor here because he cares, or because he is just doing his job? Good question. Sometimes I don’t even know. But I do know it’s hard to work with all that second-guessing and angst in the air. Therapists have it easy in this respect. Their wares are the one great modern alternative to pastoral attention yet they avoid our awkward bind because the terms on their couch are clear: they care when they’re paid to. Sure, the clarity of the arrangement might make it a tad chilly at first, but at least it would mitigate weirdness in the long run.

I am now approaching what on statistical analysis would be a long run in my current church. The average tenure of a pastor is apparently somewhere in the range of four years, and I’m at nearly double that. It seems odd to me that a type of work supposedly based on relationships could finish its course so quickly, but maybe that’s a symptom of exactly the malaise in question.

An awareness of the typical brevity of a pastor’s term was likely in play during a recent conversation I had with a financial advisor. The punch-line in his advice included the unsurprising suggestion that maybe I should consider a job somewhere else for the sake of a lower cost of living and a higher income. Listening to my own response to his idea was a case of hearing aloud a belief I wasn’t formerly conscious of holding: if my church didn’t pay me I’d drive a school bus or deliver firewood to stay in this town. The fact that my hypothetical solution wouldn’t be one at all is maybe a nod at why I found myself talking to a financial advisor in the first place, but that now obvious connection was lost on me at the time because I was stunned by a flash of catharsis: Of course I could go somewhere else, but I don’t want to.

On some days I’m not entirely sure I want to be a pastor. But on no days do I want to be one somewhere else. Why is that? Okay, true, the fishing is good here. And yes, I like the scenery. But a recent vacation supplied ample evidence there is a shortage of neither anglable water nor spectacular landscape elsewhere in this country. On the contrary, beyond this valley are fish and mountains as near the Platonic Forms of each as I could possibly imagine. I’d be happy to elaborate. But not now, this anecdote has a point.

My impromptu burst of pioneering resilience led me to a shocking realization: It seems my roots here are deeper than a thinly baptized hedonism. Strange, but I want to stay for reasons other than Blackcomb powder or Birkenhead trout.

And what might those reasons be?

Before I get to those, there’s another peculiar thing about the pastorate: its frequent and insidious deterioration into sentimentalism. I resist this to a fault – often cringing when a group-hug or a round of Kum-Bah-Yah might actually be appropriate – so rest assured, I don’t say this lightly: Could it be that I want to stay here because I love this place, and maybe even the people in it?

With no slight against the people in question, that would be weird. And it would only compound the original weirdness of getting paid for it.

It seems to me there is no way around it: love, to be genuine, must be free, and ‘free’ in both senses of the word. If I am only interested in someone’s problems because a perceived lack of concern on my part would mean a real lack of food on my table, then I am bound in the pretense by the price of food and my ersatz concern is the consequence of that bind. On the other hand, if I am free to earn my keep elsewise, and indeed elsewhere, but I choose instead to be a pastor, and to be one here, then maybe I am making those choices not because I am supposed to, but simply because I actually like, and maybe even love, the people here.

Alas, much hangs on those ‘maybes.’ But remove them – over-tighten the terms or reduce them to a professionally explicit arrangement – and the whole thing slips backward into a cave where whatever might have been love ends up a shadowy version of its absent ideal. Squeeze the mystery too tightly and I might finally get a grip on it, but it’ll be a lifeless lump, unrecognizable as the may-be miracle it could have been.

So yah, this is weird. But maybe that’s just the way love is. And, if I am going to be any good at this gig, maybe that’s just the way this pastor will have to be too.