Earlier this month, I drove out to the mountains to pick up my son from a 12-day wilderness/adventure/ education camp. As the sun set over a gorgeous summer evening in the Rockies, we were treated to a closing program that gave us a glimpse into what the 12 days had looked like.
When I was a kid, I was often puzzled by the way Jesus responded to people in the Gospels. From callously telling someone to “let the dead bury their own dead” to calling a Samaritan woman a dog to saying that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword, Jesus often seemed a bit obnoxious (at worst) and enigmatic (at best). One such vexing encounter in the Gospels that irritated me as a kid was Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
I was warned. Me and a few hundred others who had gathered for a funeral. Me and a few hundred others who sat, silently, grimly, in a cavernous and spare sanctuary while a stern man in a black suit stood in an elevated pulpit and admonished us with grave fingers wagging. I was warned that death was coming for me and unless I renounced the ways of the devil and repented of my worldly pride and attachments, that my fate would be a fiery and tortuous one. I was told that there was nothing good in me and that I could never stand before the righteous judge of the earth. I was told that God has his elect and we must never question God’s ways. And for a moment—just a tiny moment—it was exhilarating.
Pope Francis got himself in trouble last week for suggesting that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages being celebrated today are “invalid” because couples do not fully appreciate that they are making a lifetime commitment. The fact that this statement would draw criticism is puzzling, on the face of it, because who would dispute this after even a cursory glance at the world we live in? Apparently conservative critics objected to his use of the word invalid.
A few years ago, I was asked how long I had been a pastor. I forget how long it was precisely, but it must have been somewhere in the window of two to three years. I told my questioner this and the response was darkly humorous: “Oh, so long enough to disappoint some people.” Indeed. I was having a conversation with a friend recently about the broad strokes of our city’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
When I was younger, I imagined that people who inhabited the pastor role had some specific set of skills that made them uniquely suited to sift through the wreckage of human pain that they encountered. I imagined that they strode confidently into rooms where people were coping with tragedy and death and doubt and loss and grief and crushing pain and anger and fear armed with just the right words for the job, just the right Bible verses, just the right insight into when to give someone a hug and when to give them space, just the right prayers, just the right ability to project just the right combination of warmth and decisiveness and spiritual authority (whatever that might mean), just the right combination of attitudes and attributes to make bad situations somehow better. And then I became a pastor.
This morning I started reading an(other) article about how the Internet is destroying our brains and rendering us incapable of paying sustained attention to anything for longer than 45 seconds, but I ended up musing about the honor of being called a sinner. An unlikely trajectory of reflection, perhaps, but I’ll try to explain myself.
Why do we eat soup during Lent? The question from a church member caught me a bit off guard as I was scrambling to get a few things together for a soup and bread Lenten lunch that our church was hosting last week. I don’t remember exactly how I responded. I think I vaguely gestured toward Lent being a season for embracing self-discipline and simplicity.
“You know, in Germany there are hordes of young Syrian men raping German women.” The statement hovered in the air menacingly. I suspected that I was in for an interesting encounter as I watched him stride determinedly toward me after I gave a presentation on the Syrian refugee crisis, and how a group I'm part of has sponsored two families now living in our town in Canada, at a local church recently. His jaw was set and his brow was furrowed.
To err is human, Alexander Pope famously said in his Essay on Criticism. Yes, it certainly is. And the more experience I have with this being human business, the more evidence I am afforded of this unpleasant truth. The season of Lent is about self-examination and repentance, so I decided to grit my teeth and take a bit of an erring inventory.
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.
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.