I dropped in on our local English training center for newcomers to Canada today. It wasn’t a planned visit, but I was having a conversation at a downtown coffee shop about how the Syrian families we sponsored are doing, and I said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re across the street right now in English classes. Wanna wander over there and see?”
On a brutally cold and foggy Friday afternoon, our local sponsorship group welcomed our new Syrian friends to our city in Canada. Several times as I was driving them from the airport to the home we had prepared for them, I wondered what must have going through their minds as they looked out on the frosty white scenes that greeted them. Have they dropped us off at the North Pole?!
I couldn’t ask them what they were thinking, of course, because I speak zero Arabic and they speak next to no English.
Sometimes, when I find it hard to pray, when faith, hope, and love are threatening to dry up, I zero in on a handful of desperate pleas from a handful of desperate people who come across Jesus in the Gospels.
On the way in to work one day, I listened to a radio interview with Anas Al Abdullah, a Syrian refugee who had recently arrived in Toronto. It was wonderful to hear about what the experience had been like for him during his first week in Canada. It was heartbreaking to hear about what he had endured. It was moving to hear about the longing he felt for family members who will be arriving in Canada shortly. It was inspiring to hear about the sponsorship group in Toronto and the ways in which they had prepared for Anas’s arrival and how they had walked with him during his first days in this strange new land.
And it was impossible to hear Anas’s story without thinking of our own situation here in Lethbridge, Alberta.
I was sitting in a hospital room one morning with a dear old saint whose last few years have involved being shuffled from home to home, to the hospital and back again, and whose next destination is unclear. At one point, this person looked at me with a mixture of sadness, resignation, and nearly defeated longing and said, “I’m a person with no address.”
I’ve been thinking about doubt. It started when I read a recent piece over at Pete Enns’ blog about a pastor who confessed his doubts about the existence of God in front of his congregation. It continued when a friend pointed me in the direction of The Liturgists podcast, and particularly the episodes where the host (Michael Gungor) and co-host (Mike McHargue, or “Science Mike”) discussed their de-conversion and re-conversion narratives.
Especially interesting was the shape of the faith that was eventually returned to.
We are bargain hunters, all of us. We make bargains with God, with reality or the cosmos or karma or whatever. We are convinced someone or something out there is keeping score, and that our lives are like a bet we are daily making that the things we do are somehow a reliable indicator of the things we will get.
I hate paperwork at the best of times. I hate filling out forms, grinding through the interminable bureaucratic labyrinths that seem to be part and parcel of modern life. Sign this waiver. Check that box. File this form. Send that release. Print it for your records. On and on it goes. Paperwork is slow death.
I hate paperwork even more today. I spent an hour and a half with a young Syrian woman in our city who is trying to get her family out of Lebanon and over to safety here in Lethbridge.
There are times when I despair at the possibility of human communication. In the last few weeks, this despair has often been triggered by opening up my computer each morning and discovering a fresh stream of vitriol and righteous indignation associated with a piece I recently wrote about Christian discourse around the Syrian refugee crisis that generated a fair amount of heat (and considerably less light, I fear). So many angry people who seem so resourcefully determined to interpret my words in such bewildering ways.
It was probably one of those Internet memes that flits about the ether, and gradually enters the aggregate stream of quotes and pop inspiration that we collectively contribute to and maintain. This one, however, had the ring of truth to it. I don’t know the source, but it was something to this effect:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
I stared at the headline for a while in mute silence: “Austrian police say up to 50 migrants’ bodies found in truck.”It’s the kind of headline that you read and think, “Whatever awful realities will unfold underneath those words, they surely shouldn’t be nicely filed there on the side bar of a website, right underneath news of Celine Dion returning to perform in Las Vegas or Apple’s latest “media event” or the latest round of lies promises being served up by politicians on the election trail today. They shouldn’t be nicely filed anywhere.
Gretta Vosper has been making headlines for a while now. She’s the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. She also claims to be an atheist. According to a recent article at Vice News, Vosper decided back in 2001 that the idea of a supernatural being who intervened in the affairs of the world was a very silly thing to believe. She has, nevertheless, been soldiering on in her church for the last decade and a half in the service of the more worthy and “progressive” concerns that she feels the church ought to be about.
Faith can be a hard road, sometimes. Earlier today, Richard Beck published a short piece on his blog in response to the question, “What keeps me holding on to faith?” His answer reflects the response that many of us would give, I suspect. We are drawn to Jesus. Not necessarily to theological doctrines about Jesus or official explanations about what he did and what it accomplished or will accomplish or whatever, but to the person of Jesus, to stories about how he lived and loved in and for the world.
There is much that we hope for, we who have cast our lot with Jesus of Nazareth. We hope for mercy, forgiveness, new life, eternal life. We hope for the promise of a new heart that—against all odds!—beats in sync with our Maker, as promised by the prophet Ezekiel. We hope for the relief from pain, for relational wholeness, for freedom from the burden of crippling doubts and unmanageable burdens. We hope for heaven, whatever that might mean.
The headline grabbed me right off the bat: Alberta couple blindsided after adopted girls turn out to have fetal alcohol disorder. The story was heartbreaking in the way that only stories about wounds inflicted from close proximity can be.
Most therapists will say that a key to finding any kind of viable and lasting happiness in the world requires coming to peace with who you are. Not some future self that you wish you could be, not the person that you imagine yourself to be in your best moments, not the person that you will undoubtedly be two, five, ten years from now. No, the person staring back at you in the mirror.
When I was young, faith often seemed to be about straight lines. Right/wrong. Do/don’t. Pure/impure. In/out. Faith/doubt. Virtue/sin. Blessed/cursed. Victorious/suffering. Innocent/guilty. Saved/damned. The lines were clean and true, and not to be trifled with. To suggest that the lines might not be so straight was itself evidence that you were on the wrong side of the line.
There was this radio program I was listening to recently. They were interviewing some guy who was the executive director of a Christian relief organization who had spent decades in war zones and around poverty and famine and diseases. Some guy who had traveled around the world doing good in the name of God.
Over the last few weeks, I have been mulling over an interesting passage from Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila. The Reverend John Ames, an elderly Midwestern Methodist preacher is in conversation with his much-younger new wife, Lila, who has come to find rest, shelter, and love after a brutally hard life full of abuse and neglect. The conversation is about hell and the final judgment. Lila knows little of theology and metaphysics, but she has questions. Hard questions. How, she wonders, could the many people she has known who struggled and suffered so terribly on earth be made to suffer further in eternity because they didn’t become Christians? Who could believe this?