Just Stop Caring

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Bumper StickerOne of the things we like for people to know, is what we really care about. Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I grew up, we used to advertise what we cared about by putting a bumper sticker on our car. For some reason, we all felt the need to tell the people driving behind us that we cared about the Blue Jays, or about saving the whales, or about Pierre Trudeau’s energy policies. We didn’t know the people behind us, but we still wanted them to know what we cared about.

This was true when I was growing up, but today it seems like we are pushed more and more to tell the world what we care about. Something in our culture today tells us that we really should care about the things going on in the world—both profound and trivial.  Social media is a big reason for this, because it makes it hard not to care. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of invitations to care about one cause or another, and to advertise my care through liking or re-tweeting the latest meme of TREMENDOUS IMPORTANCE. We all do it, myself included. Thus, my Twitter stream is littered with the things people simply must know I care about.

So, we all care about a lot of things. What’s the problem with that? Aren’t Christians supposed to be caring people? Isn’t it good to be concerned about the world and its goings-on? I think the answer is no. I think that, because Christ didn’t tell us to care. Instead, He told us to love. Those things may seem like they’re the same, but they’re not.  There’s a big difference between them, and if you miss it, you’re liable to condemn yourself to a life of both anxiety and self-righteousness.

Trump Hair MemeThink for a moment about the things crying out for our concern. Maybe it’s the election in the United States or a spending scandal in the government, or a war in a far-off part of the world. These are important things. They affect real people’s lives in serious ways. When we are in a position to do something about them, it is our Christian duty to do so.

However, when I am most honest I must admit that I can’t do anything about them. In fact, my care about these things usually has the opposite effect: they occupy my mind and distract me from the things I actually can do. My care can even puff up my pride, where I pat myself on the back for “caring” about the right things, without actually making any of the sacrifices that would make a difference. Instead, it tends to breed inaction and self-righteousness.

One of my favourite blogs is on a site called Glory to God for All Things, written by Stephen Freeman, who is an Orthodox priest in Tennessee. In a recent post he writes about this phenomenon, saying:

We “care” about something, but we have nothing in particular that we can do about it. We are angry over extended periods about things that are greatly removed from our lives. Our attention itself becomes a passive response rather than a directed movement of the soul. Our lives largely become an experience of manipulation – only it is we ourselves who are being manipulated. Against this is the life of Christian virtue.

He’s right. For all our concern, we aren’t actually growing much in real virtue. This tendency of modern life—the tendency to care passionately about things we cannot change, while ignoring the things we can—is deeply destructive to our souls. It’s hurting our ability to love the people we can actually help, and leaving us more shallow, more distracted and more self-absorbed.

We so easily chase after likes and tweets, and we worry ourselves over having the right opinion, but are we aware of what happens to us when we do this? What being immersed in the world of caring for things far away from our lives, really does? It doesn’t make the world a better place. What it does, is train our hearts to crave distraction instead of lovingly attending to the reality God places in front of us.

Notice how different this is than the way Jesus shows us. Jesus’ way is different from what our modern world offers us. He doesn’t tell us to express concern for abstractions or shout out what we like. No, he tells us to love our neighbour, and holds this up as the highest ideal next to loving our Creator Himself.

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan

Jan Wijnants “Parable of the Good Samaritan” Image in the Public Domain

To love a neighbour means more than to be concerned, or to feel a certain way. It means more than having the right opinions. Instead, loving our neighbour means learning from what Jesus tells us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: to actually help the people God has placed in our path. To the Samaritan, loving his neighbour meant taking the risk of helping someone who might hurt him in return. It meant sacrificing some of his time and money for a Jewish stranger, even though he knew the Jews hated his people. It meant doing these things because he knew that God had placed this injured stranger in his path, and was calling him to help. This is what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves. It means loving people in real, tangible ways—often at great cost to ourselves.

So what are we to do, when the world presents us with so many things to care about? Here are a few suggestions. First, be honest with yourself. Really honest. Is there anything I can do about this? If not, give the situation to God in prayer, and do your best to forget about it.

Second, where important issues are too big for you to fix yourself, are there ways you can still make a difference? Global warming, for example, is a serious threat imperilling our planet. Neither you nor I can fix it, but are there things we can do locally? Can we drive less, walk more or advocate for better zoning? Before signalling your concern about global issues, are there local actions you can take which make a difference where you are?

Third, start incorporating into your prayer life, a request that God help you see clearly what He has placed in your path. Is there someone you work with or live with, who you should be paying more attention to? Or a situation you can and should be improving? Maybe you’ve been letting a friendship weaken through indifference, or you’ve not been paying attention to the things that matter to your child. Perhaps there is a conflict at your workplace which you should resolve, or a sick person you should be visiting. If so, then resolve to pay attention to the real people God has given you rather than the abstractions which clutter up your twitter feed.

Finally, when some issue or situation works its way through social media, stop before you like or re-tweet. Ask yourself, will this accomplish something? Will it inform people who need to be informed? Will it improve the lives of those who are likely to read it? Will it support someone who needs support? Or will it just tell everyone you have the right opinions? If that’s all it does, don’t post. The world doesn’t need more virtue-signalling.

We live in a complex world, full of wars and rumours of wars. But Jesus tells us not to let these things trouble us. The world we live in is fallen, and true sorrows are sure to come. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to concern ourselves with what lies outside of our ability to change. Instead, He reminds us that we have a Father who knows our needs and takes charge over the things we have no power to control. So, instead of worrying about the things we cannot change, why not open yourself up to His grace and change the things you can. Let your prayer be as the psalmist once wrote:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 131, ESV)

Fr. Stephen+

A New Tribe

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Book given to U.S. veterans in 1919 to help them readjust to civilian life by William Brown Meloney

Book given to U.S. veterans in 1919 to help them readjust to civilian life
by William Brown Meloney

This summer, I finished reading a book by Sebastian Junger called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger is a war correspondent, who has seen some pretty terrible conflicts from the front lines. While much of his writing has been about war and violent conflict overseas, the focus of this book was on war’s aftermath: what effect does war have on the soldiers who return home? How well do soldiers re-integrate into peaceful society, and why do some find it so hard to do so?

What he finds, is that the journey of healing and reintegration varies dramatically between cultures. While some cultures today and in the past, have done well in helping soldiers transition back into civilian life, others are quite unsuccessful. Surprisingly, his evidence suggests that soldiers from modern, western nations tend to have a much more difficult time readjusting than those in most other cultures.

While these facts are interesting, what I found most interesting about his book was his conclusion about why this reintegration is so hard in the west: it’s because we’ve lost our tribal identity. Junger argues that western nations have dissolved the deep social bonds typical of tribal societies, and which make reintegration easier for them. He suggests that for people to flourish under adversity—such as reintegrating after a war—they need a strong social network which values what they do, and sticks with them through the difficult task of working through their trauma. These social qualities are particularly weak in western culture, he says, which is a big reason PTSD is such a problem. Jobs are now transient, families are breaking down, and people aren’t joining the churches, fraternal clubs or charitable organizations which once provided sources of friendship and belonging. People give lip-service to the sacrifices soldiers make, but few really invest in helping them heal. Loneliness and alienation are the sad result—and prove devastating to those in need of real support.

This is strongly contrasted in more traditional, tribal societies. These are places where social bonds are stronger and people value what soldiers do for their community. These are the kinds of societies which have very low rates of PTSD and other forms of mental illness. The author concludes that the close-knit nature of these cultures is what works to help soldiers reintegrate despite suffering great trauma. If we are to take PTSD seriously, Junger suggests, we in the west need to work on rebuilding the value society places on soldiers, and most of all, need to ensure they form deep social bonds upon their return from war. In other words, to provide them what tribes traditionally provide. They need to know they are valued, and to know that people will make sacrifices for them when they’re in need.

While PTSD is a serious issue in its own right, Junger’s conclusions have some very important implications for western society as a whole and for the Church in particular. The problems soldiers face are problems all of us struggle with on some level. We live in a culture with unprecedented levels of material wealth, medical care and entertainment—wondrous things which most of our ancestors could never have dreamed of. Yet, the western world is afflicted by some of the highest rates of depression, suicide, poor health, anxiety and chronic loneliness in human history.

Even those of us who are functioning well, have probably experienced the odd sense of being surrounded by busy people and beautiful things, while still feeling strangely alone and unsatisfied. How many of us have felt unsettled in the dead of night, and been crushed by the awareness that we had no one we could call on for relief? That we had no one who would really want to know we were in need of help? There is a sense of alienation in many of us, which isn’t being relieved by our entertainments and wealth. We so often feel that we’re alone in a disenchanted world.

Baptism of NeophytesWhat Junger points to is a deep problem underlying our entire culture: despite all our glittering successes, we live in a society which fails to answer our deepest longings for meaning, intimacy and belonging. In such a society, it should shock us that the Christian Church is in decline—for meaning, intimacy and belonging are the very things the Church is supposed to be providing.

Centuries ago, when the Roman Empire was in decline and social breakdown haunted the Mediterranean world, the Church grew incredibly quickly. In the midst of a society where the poor, the broken and the handicapped didn’t matter—and where the rich and powerful wasted their days in pointless entertainments—the Church grew because she told people their lives had meaning, and backed it up by forming deep personal bonds which showed how much value each person really had. In the middle of a fraying social world, Christians formed a tribe not based on race, class or wealth, but on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Faithful Unto Death by Herbert Schmalz Public Domain

Faithful Unto Death
by Herbert Schmalz
Public Domain

Christians died in the arena because for them, even in death Christ had more meaning than the pagan life their tormenters were offering. Slaves were shown that their lives had as much value as their masters’. Women were shown that they bore God’s image as much as men did. Sinners of every description were shown that they were not beyond the reach of God’s grace. In times of poverty, the rich shared their wealth with the poor. In times of plague, the healthy risked their lives to tend to the sick. Widows and orphans—otherwise alone in the world—were not alone because their brothers and sisters in Christ treated them as family.

In other words, the Church didn’t grow because she was full of perfect people. She grew because her members understood that to be part of the Church was to be part of a tribe with a profound mission: a mission to draw God’s children into the glorious Kingdom of God. Christians thrived because they submitted themselves to this mission with longsuffering patience and sacrificial commitment, forming a tribe of very diverse people knit together with bonds of love.

Is this how our culture views the Church today? A place where the routine and senseless aspects of modern life are filled with new meaning, wonder and joy? A place where the lonely find friendship, where the flawed find acceptance, and where the broken-down find real, practical support? Of course, we know that this isn’t how our culture views us. At best, it sees us as folks who waste an hour on Sunday mornings. At worst, it sees judgmental fools with no genuine care for the people around them. That view needs to change, but it won’t change until the Church gives good reason for it to change.

It’s easy to criticize our society and point out the ways it views us wrongly. What’s hard is to make the changes needed to show we’re different than it thinks. To change requires more than telling others they’re doing it wrong. It requires honestly inquiring of the Lord what needs to change in us—to ask how we can be the change He wants to see—and then having the courage and obedience to put it into action.

Here’s how I think we need to start: by taking more seriously Christ’s call to sacrificial love of neighbour. If I’m honest, I’m not often willing to invest a lot in relationships. My wife and children are clearly the kinds of relationships God expects me to invest a lot in, and I do. But of course, it’s easy to justify the ways I fall short: I need “me time”, I’m stressed out, or work is making demands on me. At times, these reasons have real merit. But then I reach a point where I suddenly realize days have gone by when I’ve not really been there for my family. What seemed like reasonable explanations now seem like excuses for avoiding what God demanded of me: to love my wife and children as myself. How much more so is it for the brothers and sisters in Christ, who cross my path each Sunday? What am I really investing in them? I’m friendly (most of the time) but am I really a friend?

Have I remembered that this man’s father is ill, and given him the opportunity to talk about it? Have I invested enough time and showed enough vulnerability with this woman to feel confident asking how things are going with her job, or her children? Have I given any effort to putting a new person at ease and finding out how she might feel more at home with us? These are the kinds of things that matter to people. These are places where people feel like someone is connecting in an authentic and meaningful way. These are the kinds of deep connections Christians need to make with each other—to see making them as essential parts of following Jesus—if we are to recapture what drew our ancestors to the faith. Only then will the Church once again be known as a place of deep meaning, authenticity and belonging.

We live in a community where Facebook “friends” are made at the click of a button, but where so few have anyone real to count on. What if we were known as a place where things were different? Where the lonely and broken encountered a Saviour who was willing to be abandoned and broken for them? Where flawed people—by the grace of Christ—offered authentic, loving relationship to the flawed people who walked through our doors? Where sinners experienced the love of God from fellow sinners, knowing Christ was working through them to bring hope where there was once despair?

None of this comes without cost. As we take up the cross and follow Jesus, he asks us to love people who are hard to love, to give time to people when time is in short supply, and to take risks in caring for those who may not appreciate it. Yet, Jesus showed us that this is the way of the cross. It is what creates meaning out of despair, and which forges a real community of love—the kind of community which reveals the riches of God’s grace.

So why not take the first step? Why not invite someone you don’t know well out to lunch? Why not write it down when someone at church tells you about their job—so you don’t forget to pray about it and ask when you see them again? Why not let someone see more of the real you, than you usually show? Why not make a point of noticing something good about a person you find challenging? And most of all, why not tell Jesus you have decided to try and love the sisters and brothers he has given you? He’ll give you the grace you need to get started.

 

Stephen+

Chillin’ for the Lord

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I once heard a story about a man walking by a lake. As he went round a tree by the shore, he spotted a boy fishing. The boy was lying on the ground, with his head resting comfortably on an exposed root. A straw hat was pulled down over his face, and he held the fishing rod loosely while the line bobbed gently in the lake. So the man stopped and said to the boy, “you are the most impressive picture of laziness I’ve ever seen. If you can think of anything lazier, I’ll give you a quarter.” The boy didn’t move a muscle, but replied “just slip it into my pocket”.

As a culture, we have mixed feelings about relaxation. On the one hand, we know that it can be refreshing, and we all enjoy doing it. On the other, we also can feel a nagging sense that there’s something wrong with it—like we should be doing something more useful with our time. That ambivalence leads us to some challenges when summer comes around. We plan our vacations, but we leave with a nagging feeling that there are things which need doing at the office. Often, we end up with the worst of both worlds: we don’t enjoy the relaxing, and we don’t get anything done either.

This summer, perhaps it’s time to consider the value of relaxation and the place it has in our work-filled lives. God gave us a command to do both—to work and to relax—so it’s worth considering how to do both well.

First, let’s consider rest and relaxation. Did you know, that if you live to 75 years of age, you will probably have spent around 25 years of your life asleep? That’s over 9,000 days of unconsciousness. Isn’t that odd? Why did God engineer our lives, to require that we spend so much off-time? Why force people to spend so much of their lives, being unproductive? Aren’t there plenty of better ways we could spend our time? Part of the reason He made us this way, I believe, is that it provides us with a pointer to what our life’s purposes are: we are people who live in reliance on our Creator. In the end, it is He who provides for our needs: not just us.

In sleep, we are helpless and defenseless. We do not feed ourselves, or plan the next day’s shopping, or produce manufactured goods. We just rest. We also learn something each time we wake up: when we awake, we discover that the world has kept turning without our help. We get out of bed and find that the sun has risen without a bit of encouragement from us. The birds have started chirping, even though we didn’t remind them to. In fact, every time we wake up, we are reminded that things keep running without us. In other words, we are reminded that we aren’t God. While we were flat on our backs, as unproductive as babies in the cradle, He was doing all things necessary for this world’s provision. In this way, sleep reminds us where our true hope lies: not in our productivity, but in in a Creator who watches over us, and provides for our needs.

There is something similar going on, when God commands us (it’s right there in the 10 commandments!) that we are to take a Sabbath every week. This is time each week (for Christians, it’s traditionally Sunday) where we resolve to do nothing “productive”, but instead seek out those things that renew and refresh us. Vacations are similar: times where we seek out relaxation and rest. God pushes us to do these things because they are so powerful in reminding us of who really is in charge. Each time we come back from vacation and find that the world hasn’t crashed and burned in our absence, we are reminded that God is God. And that is good news.

Second, let’s consider why we work. If the world doesn’t depend on our productivity, then why work? Why not be like the boy in the story we began with, and wait in laziness until God slips a blessing in our pocket? Here’s a suggestion: perhaps we work because work is indeed part of God’s great plan for us, but those plans aren’t for the reasons we think. We don’t work because the world depends on it. We work, because by God’s grace we get to join Him in what He is doing in the world.

A_travers_champs,_1887,Brooklyn_Muséum_of_Art

“End of the Working Day” by Jules Breton – Public Domain

Think back to Genesis, at the start of the Bible. When God creates Adam and Eve, He gives them important instructions: that they are to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28). That sounds like a lot of work. So why make such a command? They’re in a garden which God planted. Fruits are growing in abundance, and they live in harmony with creation. Why spoil the tranquility with something as mundane as work? Why not tell them to relax and let grapes fall into their mouths? I believe it’s because God is a creative, hard-working God. We are made in His image, and so working is part of what it means to be fully human. God is labouring always for good, bringing forth the fruits of the earth and feeding His many creatures. When we do virtuous work, we aren’t just working on our own. We are joining God in His labours, and thus we more fully live out the image of God in us.

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Preparing the Altar of our Hearts

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Elijah the ProphetOne of the most fascinating group of stories in the Bible, is the stories involving the prophet Elijah and his protégé Elisha. Found in the Old Testament in the books of First and Second Kings, these stories tell of the Israelites weighed down in terrible ways: despotic leadership, famine, violence, drought, immorality and idolatry all take their toll on a struggling people. The stories tell us how Elijah and Elisha pursue the thankless task of calling people back to God from these places of bondage and despair. It was a message many didn’t want to hear, and something both men often grew tired of telling.

What interests me most about the tales of these men’s ministry, was how much they display the difference between a life devoted to idolatry, and a life devoted to God. These tales certainly revealed the hardships which could come for the prophets of the Lord, but the prophets’ lives showed God to be good, active, and powerful. His power worked in and through them, to sustain them in hard times, and bring about great things. The lives of idolaters showed the opposite: that the power of idols was an illusion which could bring no real abundance or flourishing.

A good example of what I mean comes from a famous showdown between Elijah and the priests of Baal. First Kings, in chapter eighteen, relates how Israel’s royal couple—King Ahab and Queen Jezebel—abused their subjects through corruption and violence. They had killed many of God’s prophets, and promoted the worship of an idol named Baal. The Israelites were oppressed by their leaders and led astray by idols, but God was not content to leave them in this state. He resolved to show forth His power to those who were willing it see it. The Lord sent Elijah to challenge the priests of Baal to a contest—a contest to show whose God was real.

Rival Sacrifices - CranachTo do this, Elijah had the priests of Baal set up an altar to the idol, load it with wood and a bull for sacrifice, and then call upon their god to send fire from heaven to consume it. The priests did as they were told, and called on Baal.  For hours they sang, wailed, danced and prayed. Nothing happened. No spark came, and no power descended from above.

After all the priests’ efforts came to nothing, Elijah stepped in. He set up another altar. He constructed it of rough, unworked stone. Then he piled on wood and a sacrifice, and called upon the Lord. Fire came from the heavens and consumed it all.

That moment made something vivid and clear to all who witnessed it: the Lord was truly Lord. Baal was not. The altar dedicated to the Lord brought the fire of heaven. The altar dedicated to Baal brought nothing. God’s power was shown for all to see. Baal’s impotence was made just as clear.

In this time of Lent, that picture keeps coming to my mind: the picture of Elijah preparing an altar for God to ignite. It leads me to wonder, what kind of altar am I building with my life? Is it an altar of folly, dedicated to an idol which can never help me flourish? Or is it an altar dedicated to God’s glory, ready for the fire of His Holy Spirit to ignite?

Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this, because Lent encourages us to lay aside the things we value in order to appreciate what’s most valuable—our Lord. For this reason, at this time of year many of us have decided to give up something we have come to rely on, and which we spend much time chasing after. Perhaps this has meant giving up on things like eating rich foods, watching television, keeping up with social media or shopping for new clothes. I’ve given up on some things as well.

In giving things up, we follow a long Lenten tradition. But have we taken this time of deprivation, to consider how it might reveal what kind of altars we are building? For example, consider rich foods. If you have taken a step back from it, ask yourself if eating has been leading you to deeper gratitude for the goodness of His creation. Do you find yourself praising His Name for the pleasure of nourishment? Or have you been fooling yourself? Have you been building an altar to the idol of gluttony—something incapable of granting you joyful, abundant life?

Take social media as another example. When we use social media, are we forming deeper bonds with our neighbours? Are we sharing common interests and encouraging one another? Or are we constructing an altar to the idol of vanity and pride? Are we constructing a life online, which brings no improvement to the life we actually live?

Lent inspires us to ask questions like these: to take time to reflect on what we have really been building with our daily actions, thoughts and attitudes. Like Elijah was called in the Old Testament, God calls to us to build an altar. He asks us to take the things we have been given, and use them to build the kind of life which shows His power, His grace, and His love.

One of the most important lessons for us and for our church to learn this Lent, is that God’s power, grace and love are just as active as they always were. He is the only One capable of renewing our church and making her grow. He is the only One capable of renewing our hearts and transforming our lives. The God who sent fire from heaven in Elijah’s day, can do the same in our day. But it is through dedicating ourselves to Him—building the kind of life which pleases Him—that we set up the conditions for Him to send down His fire.

Now, as we enter the home stretch for Lent and move closer to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, let us work at making our lives the kind He wants to use for His glory and for the benefit of the world He loves. For when we are building that kind of life, His fire is bound to come.

Peace.

Fr. Stephen+

Let the Children Come

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Magi_(1)Perhaps you can relate to this recent family episode: my wife and I decided to celebrate Epiphany as a family, by having a special dinner and blessing our home. Epiphany marks the end of Christmas and the last great festival of the season: we celebrate the wise men and their visit to the infant Christ. It’s also the time when tradition dictates we take down the Christmas decorations.

So, eager parents that we are, we thought this would be a great chance to involve the children in an ancient tradition and bring the season to a happy conclusion. We combed through Pinterest to find dinner ideas, craft projects, and blessing liturgies. We shopped for almonds and puff pastry to make a king’s cake, pulled out the incense-burner to light up some frankincense and got the kids excited about our great feast.

King's CakeFast forward to Epiphany evening, and I find myself sitting in the basement taking a self-imposed time-out, asking God why I ever had the bright idea of celebrating this dumb festival. I’m stressed out, the kids aren’t interested, and the hope of a blessed Epiphany is slipping through my fingers.

That whole episode highlights for me what sharing the faith with our children entails: gritty determination in the face of many disappointments. So why do it? Why put in the effort, when we already have children’s ministries at church who teach it for us? I think we are called to do it for the same reasons we are called to help our children with their schoolwork: because parents’ active encouragement is vital to their success.

Most schoolteachers will tell you that one of the best predictors of a child’s school performance, is how active her parents are in encouraging her education. Do they read with her? Do they tell her that education is important? Do they take an active interest in her school performance? Do they help with homework, and engage their child when she has questions about the school or life? Children whose parents can answer yes to these questions, tend to do better in their studies and in life.

This is even more true in the life of faith. While our culture at large still values education, it no longer does the same for faith. Fewer encouragements arise to encourage a child to walk in the way of the Lord, than once did. That means that the role of Church and parents is becoming even more important as time goes on: if we aren’t carrying the torch, no one else will.

Statistics bear this out. In her provocative book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean notes that “research is nearly unanimous on this point: parents matter most in shaping the religious lives of their children…” but she also notes how rarely faith formation is happening in American homes. The result is that children are growing into adulthood without their faith maturing with them. She and other researchers note that modelling in Church and home are pivotal to making faith take root in the lives of children, and giving them the support they need to live into an adult faith. Children’s faith depends less on what they are taught in class, and more on what they see in their interactions with family and Church members. How do they see their parents and members of their church live: in marriage, parenting, friendships and service for others? How do the people in their family and church talk about faith? How do those people weave spiritual disciplines into their lives together: things like bible study and prayer?

I read books like hers and I think of times like Epiphany night—where I wondered whether the extra effort was worth it. But then I remember that as she says, my kids are quietly noticing the importance Tabea and I place on faith. We may get frustrated at our attempts, but it says something to them when we stick with it in the face of our frustration: when my wife and I persevere in praying with and for them, when we make time to celebrate the church year, and when we think of ways to make faith seem more real to them.

Adult and Child Hands

So, for parents, does that mean everything depends on us getting it right? No. In the end, it is Christ who calls to us and it is up to every person to decide how to respond to His grace. None of us can choose this for our kids. But it does mean thinking seriously about how to live our lives in ways that make faith workable and attractive for our kids. Are we working on a routine of bible reading and praying with them, without stretching us beyond our capabilities? Are we initiating conversations with them, and with our spouses about faith and what it means? Do they see us leaning on our faith when times are bad, and giving God the glory when times are good? These are the things which provide an environment for faith to take root and grow.

 

Our Epiphany night turned out well in the end. I got over my frustration, and owned up to setting my sights too high. My wife convinced me to just enjoy what was working and drop what wasn’t. We ate supper. We then gathered in the living room to read the story of the wise men from the children’s bible, we walked through our house while the kids took turns spraying holy water around and giggling, and the oldest drew 20 C+M+B 16 on the door to remind us of the magi’s visit. And we kissed them good night and tucked them in. Weeks later, the kids are still talking about it, and were excited enough to tell their friends how they spent their evening.

I don’t know what will work for you, but remember that it’s worth trying. Do what you can, and don’t get hung up by what you can’t do. Routines will vary from home to home, but what matters most is that you love Christ and want to live a life that honours him. As you do that, think of how to let your kids see your faith in action. Let Him capture your heart and let them see He has captured it. God will make a way to capture their hearts as well.

Peace and blessings.

Fr. Stephen+

An Idol Mind

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GoldCalfCommandments aren’t easy things to keep. They are by definition, things we have to be told not to do, because we tend to want to do them otherwise. It’s not surprising then that we break them. We’re told not to bear false witness, but then we find ourselves telling a little fib now and then when the truth seems too hard to say. We’re told to honour our father and mother, but they can be trying at times. Sometimes our temper reaches its boiling point faster than we can control it. We all struggle with the commandments. Each of us struggle with some of them more than others. However, I suspect that if most of us were to pick the hardest commandment to keep, we probably wouldn’t pick idolatry.

Yet, two whole commandments are devoted to forbidding it: take no other gods before me. They seem obvious enough, and they don’t seem all that difficult to keep. After all, how many of us bow down to statues or worship emperors? We worship God or we don’t, and since Christians gather every week to worship Him, the commandments seems pretty easy to keep. But they’re not. They’re placed at the top of the commandment list not only because they’re the most important, but because they are the easiest to break. For idolatry is more than bowing down to carved images. Idolatry is putting something before God. And Scripture tells us, this is something everyone does.

Don’t believe me? Try this thought experiment. Take a moment to ask yourself what regularly captures your imagination. What fills you with delight at the thought of having it, but dread at the fear losing it? For some, the answer will be money. For others, it may be comfort, career success, a relationship, health, romance, beauty or popularity. Answers will be different, but however you answer that, it will say a lot about what you think is ultimately important in life. And once we believe that something is essential to our life, we instinctively make decisions that make sure we get it—even if it means saying no to God.

Consider this example. A man has a well-paying job, which is highly demanding of his time, energy and strength. He notices over time that the job is getting to him: he is short with his wife, rarely has time for his kids, and gets angry at the demands the family makes on him. He feels guilty about this because he knows God demands he take greater responsibility for his family’s wellbeing. But he never considers taking a different job—one that would demand less of him. Is it because he doesn’t love God, or his family? Maybe. More likely, it’s because in his mind, he believes that without that job he will be nothing. Somewhere deep inside, he has decided that this is the one thing he cannot afford to lose. So he puts his family in peril. And he remains in misery.

Consider another example. A woman works in an office where gossip and back-biting are common. At the lunch break, she always sits with a group of people who engage in it, even though it makes her feel terrible. She feels badly about it. She knows God disapproves. So why does she not sit somewhere else, or explain she won’t join in when the conversation turns to dark things? Because somewhere deep inside her mind, she has decided that the group’s disapproval would be more than she could take. Their approval has become an idol. So she joins in, turning her back on what God has commanded. And she hates herself for it.

This is the power of idols. They convince us that we must have them to be happy, that they are more important even than God. But they lie. They don’t bring happiness. When we yield to them, we become their slaves. We choose them over the things that really matter. And our souls are diminished.

Broad_chain_closeupWhat are the things that enslave you today? That leave you feeling like you’ve been trapped and cannot escape? Addictions, irrational anger, gossip, pornography, despair and all the many sins which bind us have under the surface an idol which needs to be named and destroyed. All our failures in life can be traced back to those things which lead us to trust in something more than we trust in Christ. We will never change for the better until we recognize the particular ways our heart is resisting the gospel and the authority He alone has over us.

Tim Keller, one of my favourite preachers, has written about idols and the part they play in our lives. He suggests there are 3 things we need to do in order to escape from their power: identify them, dismantle them, and renewing our love of Christ. Here are the steps he suggests we take in unseating them from their thrones.

First, identification. One of the best ways to expose the idols in our lives is through recognizing the presence of problematic emotions. If you find yourself getting angry, take time to ask if this is revealing something that might be too important for you—something that has become an idol. Are you angry because you are blocked from getting something you think is a necessity but is not? Then that thing is an idol.

If you find yourself in fear and anxiety, take time to ask yourself if this is revealing something you wrongly think you have to have. Is this why you are scared? Because something is being threatened which you falsely believe to be a necessity? Then that thing is an idol.

What about despair or self-loathing? Ask yourself: am I despondent because I have failed at achieving something I falsely believe to be a necessity? Then that thing is an idol.

Second, dismantling. Idols won’t be defeated by us. We don’t have the strength in ourselves. But this isn’t bad news. They can be defeated through the power of God’s grace. That grace becomes alive to us in the process of repentance. Here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Name the idols for what they are. Bring them to God in prayer, and admit to Him that you have built your life around them. Tell Him you have made others’ approval an idol in your life. That fear of being poor, or out of work, or being rejected has captured your heart. Tell Him that you now see it for what it is, an idol that you need to be freed of.
  2. Unmask the idols by showing them for the weak substitutes that they are. Idols try to tell us that they are more powerful than they really are. We can begin to see them for what they are when we stand back and get some perspective. Turn to Christ and tell Him: “This thing claims to be absolutely vital to my happiness, but I know that it isn’t. You are important in a way that this thing never will be. It cannot give me worth, but you have shown my worth by dying for me. Remind me that you are the source of my joy and my strength, and help me to trust you when I am tempted to despair.”
  3. Recognize how dangerous idols are to your soul. Idols hurt us. The more power we give to them, the more damage they do to us. Turn to Christ and ask for His aid against these powerful foes.
  4. Ask God’s forgiveness for having other gods before Him. God wishes us to be free from idols, because He knows how damaging they are to us. It hurts us, but we cannot forget that by indulging them, we also bring Him grief. When we follow idols, we are telling our Saviour that though He died for us, it is not enough. Idolatry is an ingratitude which requires our Lord’s forgiveness. Confess this to Him, and seek His pardon for following idols instead of our rightful Lord.

Third, renewing your love of Christ.  Keller notes that when the bible talks about growth and change, it often talks about two elements: putting to death sinful things, and setting our mind on things which are above (cf. Colossians 3). In other words, that real growth and positive change require not only repentance, but also turning more fully to Christ. When we say no to something that has been foundational in our life—financial security, others’ approval, physical comfort, or whatever it might be—we need something to say yes to in exchange. Something that replaces the particular need that the idol was addressing in us. As Christians, we can do this by reminding ourselves that Christ alone is sufficient to meet our deepest needs. We find new freedom from the idols which have enslaved us, when we learn to value what Christ brings to us instead. This comes through turning to Him regularly, to remind us who He is and what He brings us.

Idols promise so much to us, but deliver so little. They lead us to despair, and make us weary of pursuing goodness. It is not so with Christ. When your idols are unmasked, and you refuse to accept the false satisfaction they give, remember this: Christ is our joy and delight. Take time to rejoice in Him. Do the hard work of reflecting daily on His goodness, peace and love until your heart rests in Him. It is then you will find what real satisfaction looks like.

Stephen+

Back from the Dead

Lazarus by RembrandtWhat brings a man back from the dead? As Lazarus found out long ago, it’s by being called forth by Jesus.

I’ve been dead to the blogosphere for a good two years now, but I believe I’m hearing the voice of my Lord calling me forth once again. I’ve changed parishes and changed cities, but I’m still working out what it means to be faithful in a time of exile.

So, God willing, I will be back at it as I sing the songs of zion in this strange land.

In the short term, I’ll be posting some of my recent parish newsletter articles. But expect new material as I think out loud.

Peace and blessings.

Stephen+

A Churchman’s Lament

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Hayez Destruction of Temple

Jerusalem Destroyed

One of the Sunday readings for this past week was from the Book of Lamentations, which must be the most depressing book in the Bible. If you’ve never read it (which is pretty likely considering how rarely it gets read in Church), make sure you schedule something cheerful after finishing it, because it’s a doozy. It’s short–only five chapters–but its poetry reflects the author’s despair in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonian army. It’s hard to read it without being moved.

Here’s how it starts:

How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave.

These few verses give a picture of what the whole poem contains–a heartbreaking lament.  Jerusalem, the once proud city in which God’s holy temple sat, is a smoking ruin. Her hopes have been dashed, and those in whom she trusted have abandoned her:

She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.

Now alone, she lies desolate. Once the centre for worship of the Lord, her praise has been silenced and the festivals of the Lord are abandoned:

The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate;
her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted,
and she herself suffers bitterly.

The picture is bleak, and heart-breaking. These ancient sorrows still provoke our sympathy because they are not so different from what we see in the world now. The horrors of war and the pain of searing loss are common enough in the headlines today, sadly.

But hearing these words on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think beyond the sorrows of this ancient city and the calamity of war. I thought instead of the Church in North America today. Because today’s Church is facing her own calamity, and perhaps it’s time for us to sing our own lamentations.

Detroit Abandoned Church

An Abandoned Church in Detroit

In the West, at least, we are living at a time in the Church’s history where few come to the festivals, and where many a priest groans under the weight of shrinking budgets, declining attendance, and an apathetic public. The Church’s voice goes virtually ignored by the world around her. And she languishes. It is sad to see. Even sadder to be part of.

As I think about it all, I can’t deny there’s a strong urge for me to curl up into the fetal position and have a good cry. Unfortunately, I haven’t found this to be much of a long-term coping strategy. But neither is it much of a strategy to downplay the precariousness of the Western Church’s position. We are in trouble. Pretending that we aren’t, can’t be a good idea either. So what then?

I think we need to go back to where this reflection began: with a chastened Jerusalem. The lamentation at her downfall is painful and real, because her downfall was painful and real. Our lamentation should be just as painful and real because our humbling is painful and real. And it will get worse. No positive spin will hide that. But as hard as it is to face up to this, we should remember that it was in the midst of Jerusalem’s lamentation–when she had no choice but to admit to her bankruptcy–that the seeds of hope for her renewal were found.

Tissot_The_Flight_of_the_Prisoners

A Remnant Leaves Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s destruction was the culmination of a long, suicidal infatuation with idols. Though the Lord was her husband, she gave herself to other lovers–and they abandoned her, leaving her naked and alone.  Idols always do, for they never fulfill their promises. But it was this very abandonment which purged her of idolatry. For when they abandoned her, she found that her husband did not. The Lord preserved Israel while she languished in captivity, and brought her back. And she has never forgotten that. Israel since has clung to many sins, but idolatry is no longer one of them.

The Church in the West looks back to a time–not long ago–when she was the object of many affections. Politicians, academics and the wealthy of this world all showered her with compliments. She enjoyed these baubles, but confused them with love. They weren’t love. When her influence faded away, so did her admirers. Now only Christ, her husband, is left.

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

Just as Israel knew the quality of her husband’s love only when she was left destitute, our decline may yet teach us how deep the love of Christ really is. We have wandered, and failed, but He is still here. He still gives Himself to us as we gather at His table. He still makes Himself known in the preaching of His word. He still comforts His afflicted lambs, seeking out the lost. He is the one who won’t leave, who won’t forsake, who won’t match faithlessness with faithlessness. He is faithful and unchanging, and His loving grace is more than enough for us. And that is something which our humiliation may finally let us appreciate.

We are challenged today to fall on our knees and lament where we have brought ourselves–to repent of our misplaced affections and wayward direction. But we are not to despair as those without hope. We lament, but we know that Jesus our Lord is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Therein lies our hope, and in that hope we are secure.

Stephen+

Hungry for the Word

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William Tyndale Portrait from Foxe's Book of Martyrs

William Tyndale
Portrait from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

I’m in the middle of reading If God Spare My Life by Brian Moynahan. It’s a biography of William Tyndale, one of the first and most influential translators of the Bible into English. Tyndale lived from 1494 to 1536, when he was executed at the behest of King Henry VIII. The crime for which he was sentenced to death? Having the temerity to translate the Bible from its original languages of Greek and Hebrew into the English vernacular (the common speech of the people).

At the time, the Church forbid the translation of the Bible into the common language, as it feared that people would interpret the scriptures in heretical ways. So, once he began translating, Tyndale was pursued by King Henry’s agents, at the insistence of his adviser Thomas More. He was tracked down in Belgium, convicted as a heretic, strangled and then burnt at the stake. It’s a fascinating read, full of intrigue and villainy.

What I am finding most fascinating however, is the fact that Tyndale would risk so much to translate a book. And not just that, but that so many would risk so much to get their hands on a copy of what he translated. Moynahan’s account is full of stories of common Englishmen taking incredible risks just to read a portion of the scriptures translated by Tyndale. His goal, related in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was that “the boy that driveth the plow” might have more knowledge of Scripture than the learned clergy of his age. And learn they did.

Laurence Chaderton

Laurence Chaderton

The hunger that Tyndale awoke was impressive, and long-lasting. One anecdote stands out in my mind, about Laurence Chaderton, one of the translators of the famous King James Bible, produced 70 years after Tyndale’s death. Chaderton was asked to preach on the Scriptures, and in his zeal to do so preached a solid two hours. Finally, he drew his talk to a close, remarking that he had tired his listeners enough. But the congregation cried out in unison “For God’s sake, sir, go on, we beg you, go on!” Chastened, Chaderton returned to the pulpit to preach for another hour.

Needless to say, that’s never happened to me! I’m humble enough to recognize it has a lot to do with his superior skill in preaching. But the larger point I thought of is: why did the reading and explaining of the scriptures bring such passion to the people of Tyndale’s and Chaderton’s age, when it seems not to do so for the people of ours?

A 16th Century Printing Press

A 16th Century Printing Press

A key reason for the Reformation’s occurance is the availability of the Bible in a language common people could understand. The move to translate the Bible, along with the recent introduction of the printing press to allow its cheap production, revolutionized the Church and sent shockwaves through Europe. The word of the Lord shook people profoundly, and inspired them to new heights of devotion.

Years later, the revolutionary growth of Christian faith in Africa can be attributed to the same source: the ready availability of the Scriptures in the common language of the people. People are hearing the stories of the Bible, listening to the concepts as they are preached, and are finding themselves transformed by it.

Available at a Book Store Near You!

Available at a Book Store Near You!

Contrast that with North America today, and the differences are striking. Never have we had more versions of the Bible available for study: different translations, different study guides, different packaging and cost. But every census, we see the same story: fewer Christians, fewer churches, more indifference. For all the Scripture around us, there is so little in us. We are like a people dying of thirst and drowning in fresh water at the same time.

Here’s what I am wondering. What if we as a church, and we as individual Christians recaptured what was once a hallmark of the faith: the disciplined reading of the Bible? What if we recaptured that quaint old practice of memorizing Scriptures, and chewing them over through the day? What would God do with that? If God has given us this Word–a Word which sparked revolutions–what might He do with it in us, if we let it in? I suspect He would do things which amaze us.

Let us pray:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

TBH

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For you luddites, the title means “To Be Honest”.

honestyHonesty is one of those virtues which are supposed to be fairly universal. It’s what we want in advertising, what we want from financial advisers and politicians, and certainly what we should want from the Church. Being caught in an open lie is one of the surest ways of losing the respect, and ultimately the support, of the people whom you’re trying to influence.

But what about when the things you once held to be true are no longer what you hold to be true today? What do you do then? I have been thinking a lot about this over the past few weeks, but an event this past weekend finally made me want to come out of my blogging silence. It was a political convention.

220px-NDP_NPD_1997.svgThis weekend, the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada held a policy convention, where they took the huge step of altering their constitution to remove some of its most stridently socialist language. The NDP continues to approach things from the “left-wing”, but the assertion of things like social ownership, and suspicion of business seems to have been deliberately downplayed at this convention. Though there was some debate, the motions to make these alterations passed overwhelmingly. Presumably, this is because the party no longer identified with what their constitution said. At the same time, the people at the convention still felt that the party was the natural heir to that socialist tradition–even if it had strayed from its more dogmatic roots.

What I thought about this when I read about it, was that I appreciated the honesty of the party in doing so. I mean, it has been clear for some time, particularly under the leadership of their previous leader, Jack Layton, that the party no longer wanted to be seen as a doctrinaire socialist party. This convention just made formal what had already been understood informally for some time. Regardless of what I might think about the relative merits of doctrinaire socialism, I appreciate their willingness to state clearly where they really were at.

Resurrection of ChristNow, this whole thing caught my eye because some things have been moving in the church world which have made me consider the importance of honesty in the church. Easter always seems to bring this out, but a whole rash of decisions by major figures in the Episcopal Church of the USA (our sister church in the US) have led me to wonder if we Anglicans have the same honesty as politicians do.

Exhibit A: Bishop Marian Budde is the bishop of Washington, and posted this in her Easter blog message:

To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.

In other words, the Christian faith doesn’t hinge on the resurrection of Jesus being a real, historical event. And she, though a bishop in the Church, doesn’t know if it was such an event.

Exhibit B: Bishop John Shelby Spong, bishop emeritus of Newark, was asked to lead a series of Good Friday meditations at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Richmond, Virginia. Famous for his denial of much of the Nicene Creed, the good bishop spent his time in the pulpit declaring that the Creed was a “radical distortion of the Gospel of John” and needed to be discarded. The service was presided over by the diocesan bishop, Shannon Johnson. That goodly bishop also distinguished himself by the next exhibit:

Exhibit C: Bishop Shannon Johnson of Virginia invited John Dominic Crossan to lead a Lenten clergy day for his diocese. Crossan is a known for his denial of such Christian doctrines as Jesus’ divinity, his resurrection from the dead, and an afterlife.

Similar examples are abundant enough, and though we keep a lower profile, the Canadian Church could provide these kinds of examples too.

Bishop OrdainedI don’t think very highly of these kinds of theologies, for many different reasons. If you’re lucky, I will share some of them in another post. But here’s a problem with them that I would have thought was a no-brainer: they aren’t honest. Every bishop in the Anglican Church, as part of their consecration, swore to be a guardian of the faith expressed in the Creeds. So what are bishops doing denying core tenets of the Creeds? And why aren’t they doing anything to prevent their clergy from doing so?

I get that folks have doubts, even clergypersons. I have plenty of them myself. None of us are 100% committed at all times. It’s in the nature of being fallen human beings, so that’s not surprising in itself. I also get that we can’t be complacent about the faith. We need to be open to being challenged on the things we believe in strongly, because we need to be open to the truth. That means being open to hearing evidence which might contradict our beliefs. If we are wrong on what we believe, we need to be open to changing those beliefs. That’s a matter of basic integrity, and so I get the need to give hearing even to a guy like John Crossan.

But at a certain point, I have to wonder what message we are sending when we move beyond hearing those who disagree, and into giving them a platform as teachers of the faith. At what point have we moved from openness to new facts, and into a positive rejection of the things we swore to uphold? We pledge our conformity to the Creeds in our baptism and, in the case of clergy, at our ordination as well. We affirm the Creeds each Sunday. How can we honestly do this, when out of the other side of our faces we deny the very things we just affirmed? It sounds like we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too: to enjoy the spiritual inheritance of our forefathers without being constrained by their beliefs. At the very least, it says we are just dishonest. We can do better. We should demand better from our leaders, and from ourselves.

If politicians–not a profession generally known for its honesty–can see the importance of aligning their platform to their actual beliefs, then can’t we do the same? Something’s got to give. My only hope is that what gives, is our willingness to turn a blind eye to heresy. Until we wake up to it, the rot will keep eating our church alive.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.