Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Do You Mean, "Peace?"

           A few weeks ago the big multi-colored light show went up in Cobourg’s Victoria Park, a few blocks from where I live. The park is full of snowmen and Santas and sleighs. I have to admit, too, that the whole thing is quite pretty.

            Of course, the lightshow makes no mention of Jesus. As far as the Cobourg goes, there isn’t any room for Jesus in the park. I have to admit, even though I understand that secular government has to make reasonable accommodations for those of other or no faith, I am a bit grumpy about it. Though it brings a smile to my face to see how St. Peter’s church, across the street, responded to the town’s secular light show with its own tiny, perfect, subversive little manger scene on the front lawn.

            But before we blame the town of Cobourg too much, perhaps the Christians among us ought to ask whether or not we’re guilty of the same thing. We often water down the meaning of Christmas too. Take, for example, how we debase the word “peace.”

            Let me illustrate. So far I have received nine Christmas cards. Three mention peace. The first one says, on the front, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace.” On the inside it adds, “May the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Just in my heart? So what happened to peace on earth?

            The second card has a pretty picture of a cute country church with a horse and sleigh on the cover. Inside, it says, “May your Christmas be filled with the gifts of joy and peace.” This peace is nothing but a romantic nod in the direction of nineteenth-century Christmases past.

            The third card says, “Winter Wishes,” and inside, “wishing you the quiet beauty of a peaceful holiday.” That’s it. Here peace is nothing more than a warm fuzzy for my heart.

            None of these cards gets close to describing something like Biblical peace. Isaiah says that the Prince of Peace is working for a time when every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be fuel for the fire. Biblical peace encompasses an end of all the world’s wars. The Biblical idea of peace is shalom, where each one of us is in right relationship with God and every single one of our neighbors all around the world, from Canada to Palestine and North Korea and beyond.

            And Christians are supposed to be ambassadors of that peace, today—ambassadors of reconciliation, says the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. We are called not merely to speak just to people’s hearts or hopes for a quiet, tranquil dose of Christmas cheer, but we are called to be God’s ambassadors to speak to the powers of this world.

            A daunting task. But, if nothing else, Christianity is an invitation to live large. God invites us all to be part of a cosmic peace process. Question our government’s choice to fight offensive wars rather than serve as peace-keepers. Reject the need for bloated military spending on ever more high-tech fighters that can only serve the military needs of our neighbors when our citizens are freezing in the dark in Attawapiskat. Condemn the sale of armaments to despotic regimes. Write politicians. Support peace organizations like Amnesty International and Doctor’s Without Borders. When you pray for healing for Aunt Sally’s gall bladder, don’t dare to forget to pray for an end to heavy losses of civilian life in places like Afghanistan and Syria in the same breath.

            My friend Mark VanderVennen recently wrote a book about peace entitled Hope in Troubled Time. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from South Africa, wrote the foreword. In it, he said, "peace is not a goal to be achieved but a way of life to be lived."

            The bottom line is this. Let’s not debase or water down the peace language of Christmas. As much as Jesus cares for our souls and wants us to feel warm fuzzies, what he actually wants is for our feet to follow his in the struggle for world peace. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Second "Not Sure" Video Posted by Eerdmans

Eerdmans did a television interview with me at my Grand Rapids launch. I posted part one yesterday, and here is part two. The interview covers topics such as why one can't really have a personal relationship with Jesus, ethnic churches, why prayer isn't about power, and the kind of response I've had to the book so far. It comes in four two-minute segments. Check it out!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Not Sure" Video posted by Eerdmans

Eerdmans recently interviewed me about my new book, Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt. I've never been able to speak off of the top of my head as well as I can write, but I do think these turned out pretty good. Check them out!

Interview with John Suk about faith and doubt

Monday, December 5, 2011

Does the Gospel Have a Short Shelf Life?

(This is a sermon I preached on the theme of "gospel," based on Isaiah 61 and Colossians 1:1-8. I asked for advice about what to say about the gospel's relevance on Facebook, and incorporated some of that into the sermon. So, I'm interested in knowing whether or not you think I got the relevance of our good news out there in this effort. And thanks for everyone who helped me think it through. John)
            Have you heard the good news? Western society, as we know it, has been saved!

            In fact, Western Society as we know it, from to McDonalds to Wall Street was actually saved 2500 years ago, just before the flowering of classical Greek civilization. In the years just before Plato and Aristotle and Sophocles and their invention of drama and philosophy and science, evil Persia was trying to conquer Greece. But at the Battle of Marathon, the forces of Greek Athens defeated the violent, repressive Persians and their strange ideas. Winning the war against Persia was such good news that Philippides ran all the way from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens, 42 kilometers, without stopping, to announce the good news—“We won.” And then Philippides died of exhaustion.

            Now, doesn’t the Athenian victory at Marathon just make your head spin? Doesn’t it make you want to party and dance?

            Or not?

            That’s the trouble with good news, isn’t it? Good news usually has a short shelf life. For example, one day you are single, then you meet the right guy, and you fall in love, and pretty soon you’re engaged. Good news! So you tell all your friends and they “Like” your announcement on Facebook and they plan a Jack and Jill party for you. The next Sunday everyone crowds around you at church and looks at the ring and oohs and aahs and then, just like that, it’s over. The next Sunday no one asks you about your engagement anymore. People have moved on. Good news has a short shelf life.

            And that is a problem for the Bible, and the story of Jesus too, don’t you think? Isaiah says the Messiah will be anointed to preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, and he will proclaim freedom to the captives. Good news!

            And, in fact, that is exactly what Jesus did. Even more, he died for the sins of the world, too. Even rose again on the third day. Paul, in our text from Colossians is still beside himself when he talks about it, even 30 years after the resurrection: “We always thank God, he says, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have . . . the gospel is bearing fruit and growing.”

            But it is now 2000 years later. Are we still elated, with Paul? Are we so excited about the gospel that it continues to bear fruit and grow among us, in surprising and new and numerical ways? Do you stay excited about the gospel even when you have tests to take, or weddings to attend, or jobs to keep? Or has the gospel of Jesus, like the good news of Marathon, passed its “best before” date?

            Besides, some of the reasons given for being excited about having a Messiah back then just don’t seem to resonate much in our day and age, anymore. We have OHIP and modern medicine for healing; welfare, unemployment insurance and food banks for the poor. We have counselors for the brokenhearted, and the church will even pay the bill, if you use our CAP program from Shalem. On top of that, unlike the people Isaiah was writing to, we’re not exiles in a foreign land. And unlike the people Jesus ministered to, we’re not living under a foreign dictatorship. Life is actually very good for most of is. So what makes the gospel good news in the middle of our already much better than average lives?

            In fact, there are some great Biblical & theological reasons for thinking of the gospel as good news. I was reminded of that this week, on Facebook. I put up a post saying I was writing a sermon about how the gospel was good news, but then added some comments to the effect that it seems like old news that doesn’t get anyone excited. I asked my Facebook friends if they had any ideas about how to convince people that the gospel is still good news for today.

            I got lots of suggestions. One CRC minister said that, quote, “the good news is that god continues to move in and through us as the body of Christ as we bind up the brokenhearted, as we share out coat with him who has none” and so on. That is, the gospel will seem like good news if we do the wonderful but difficult things the gospel asks of us. I thought that was a good answer, as far as it went. It is true. But . . . is that tidy theological explanation really going to make our teenagers, or a middle-aged long-time member bored with church going to sit up and take notice? Will it make us dance?

            Someone else said that “how can experience of the God that we’re ultimately made to be in relationship with be anything but good news?” Well, for those who have the experience, great! But he is in heaven and that is a long ways away. And what about all those people who don’t have that experience, people who are distracted, or people who are bored by church, or people who have doubts, or people who are depressed, or people who can’t really be bothered to study the matter—which covers a lot of people!

            Another Facebook friend said it is all about the already and not yet . . . that is, Christ has already risen but he has not yet returned, and we have to somehow concentrate on what we know has happened and thus imagine how it is going to be when Jesus returns. But then, in a moment of light-hearted honesty, he also said, “tough stuff! That is why you get paid the big bucks. I’m sure they listen to you.”

            But it is tough stuff, because the gospel is ancient, and there just are a million and one excuses, or reasons, or whatever for leaving this building and never coming back because you have decided it isn’t relevant anymore, or it is just old, old news.

            So I have to say something about why you should never leave. I have to say something in defense of the goodness of the gospel, even after 2000 years. So here it is:

            The gospel is still good news, because even if you ignore it, even if you are distracted by your toys or responsibilities, and even if you find church boring--the God of the whole cosmos is really here and really did the things this book [The Bible] said he did. Even if your life goes on without you hardly noticing it, nothing in you, good or bad, can cancel out the overwhelming cosmic reality of a God who wants you all for himself, who wants you so badly that he was willing to die for you, in spite of all your hang-ups, distractions and shortcomings. None of these things can make God, or what he did, go away.

            The birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all just as real as the air you breathe. The love of God for you is far more certain, and costly for Jesus, than anything anyone is ever going to do for you. And all the wonders of nature, the birth of Alys (who we baptized today), the starry skies on a moonless night or the fish that swim in Rice Lake – all these wonders are nothing compared to what God has really done in Jesus or the fact that God wants you and I to be his love in a broken, violent, and dangerous world.

            Listen. I know you might have to do a bit of digging around in scripture to convince yourself. I know that you may have to look past some of the shortcomings of the people in this church—or any church—to really get a sense of the power of it. I know that you may have lots of reasons to prefer being distracted than applying yourself to considering what I have said. But I also know that none of this makes it any less true that God loves us fiercely. He wants your knee to bow and your tongue to confess along with every other knee and tongue in creation. And he wants it so bad that even though he was God, he became human to convince us, and died on a cross to make it so.

            That birth and death was a long time ago. Like the Battle of Marathon. But the love? The eternal hope? The life he has given you to live in love? The adventure of it all? That is for today. Like Isaiah says, “Now is the year of the Lord’s favor.” And like Jesus says, when he quotes our passage from Isaiah. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Good news.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Idiot Box

My wife and I do not own a television. We never had. Judging by the reviews of this year’s TV season, so far, we’re not missing much.

However, our refusal not to purchase a television isn’t really related to our dislike for what’s on television. My pet reason for not having a television is that many scholars suspect that watching even a small amount of television detracts from the ability to read well. Repeated exposure to TV develops the synapses and neural pathways in the brain that decode television; but this brain development seems strongly correlated to lack of development in the reading center of the brain. For Christians, who are people of the Word—undermining the ability to read well and deeply is a spiritual issue.

Even Camille Paglia, a famous culture critic best known for celebrating television’s role in the “repaganization of Western Culture,” understands how television is dangerous in this respect. She writes that in the second command God forbade the use of all images in heaven above and earth below because God understood that such images create a powerful, spiritual urge to ignore words. So Paglia calls for “the enlightened repression of our children,” by which she means rigorous word-centered education to the exclusion of TV, if we want our kids to become all they can be. Commenting on this insight, Neil Postman said, “With the Second Commandment, Moses was the first person who ever said, more or less, “Don’t watch TV; go do your homework.”

So what about your TV watching habits? I have a few suggestions. First, inform yourself about the State of the discussion when it comes to the benefits and risks of TV viewing, especially for children. I’d recommend Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. In my book, Not Sure, you can find a long bibliography on the relation of television to reading on page 42.

Second. Make reading together a family-time priority until well after the kids are reading on their own, a lot, with pleasure. As an added benefit, you’ll double and triple your cuddle time. My wife and I took turns reading to our children for an hour a day until the oldest was well into high school. That daily hour is easily one of our kids’ best memories of growing up.

Third. Don’t ever allow the television to play when a parent isn’t watching along. Children of all ages need instruction and wisdom about what they see on television because television mostly portrays a fanciful world without God where greed, envy, and several more of the deadly sins carry the day. That’s a very jaundiced view of how things really are; kids need another perspective to interpret TV for them.

Finally, if you don’t have time or energy for the above—and I take it that includes a lot of this blog's  readers—I have one final suggestion. It cuts through all the difficulties that go with having a television. Get rid of it.

Our family fell into life without a television when I was in seminary and couldn’t afford cable, much less the television itself. Somehow that circumstance has become a blessing that continues to give and give. Over the years we’ve avoided countless hours of uncommunicative stupefaction and had discussions, reading, and lots of other fun activities instead.

The bottom line here is that all the time and energy it takes to watch television responsibly may simply be out of reach for most of us. On the other hand, all those extra hours without a television could provide a rich, rich resource for raising kids in the way they should go. All for the price of a trip to the trash can.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

News About Not Sure, Upcoming Events

Bob Cornwall, a Disciples of Christ pastor, Fuller Grad, and church historian from Troy, Michigan, has written a review of my book, Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt on his blog. Very thoughtful. Check it out at

I have two upcoming events, one in Grand Rapids, and the other in Sarnia, Ontario!

I'll be talking about my book at Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, this Thursday at 7 pm. They are located at 2140 Oak Industrial Dr., NE. We expect a great crowd.

The next day I'll be in Sarnia, Ontario, giving a talk and signing books at The Green Room, DeGroot's Nursery, London Rd., at 8 pm. There will be goodies, too!

I'd love to see many old friends and acquaintances at these two events. Come on out!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's Take Christ Out of Christmas

            I say, let’s take Christ out of Christmas. It would solve a big problem for us religious types.

            The problem, of course, is the commercialization of Christmas. Sometime between Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving, say in mid-November, the Christmas season begins in earnest. North Americans make pilgrimage to their malls to shop and to see Santa and his little helpers in their crimson miniskirts. None of us is very surprised when our little kids ask if the wise men came to Bethlehem in a sleigh pulled by Rudolph.

            The bottom line is that even though we all dutifully tip our hats to the real meaning of Christmas, all of us know that Christ comes in a poor second to parties and decorations, gift giving and receiving, shopping and credit card exhaustion.

            So, I say let’s turn the other cheek. Instead of letting modern culture squeeze Christ out of Christmas, Christians should just volunteer to take Christ out of Christmas, and pick another day to celebrate his birth. December 25 was always a sort of suspicious date, anyway. It was the Roman Emperor Constantine (312-337) who chose December 25 for Christmas, since nobody knew when Jesus was really born. But he chose that date because he wanted to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the day on which the sun is “reborn,” with a holy day celebrating another birth. The Romans may have been okay with giving up paganism, but they didn’t want to give up the partying.

            But now so little is left of Christ in Christmas that I don’t think anyone would notice if Christians moved the celebration of his birth to some other date. December 25 could then be officially renamed “Xmas.” Just think of the advantages. Christians wouldn’t be faced with the difficult task of keeping the real meaning of Christmas alive for our children anymore. We wouldn’t have to hassle with conflicts between Sunday School Christmas programs and office Xmas parties. We could open presents on Xmas morning without feeling like we are shortchanging the memory of Jesus’ birth into a life of rejection and suffering. We wouldn’t have to explain how Christmas joy is about a lamb being born to the slaughter rather than about eating as much turkey as we want.

            A less-hyped Christmas would also help us properly stress the celebration that is the real heart of the Christian calendar, Easter. That is, assuming we can hold the line against the Easter bunny and chocolate egg hunts.

            Let’s move Christmas to another day. I think Jesus would approve. It doesn’t much matter what new date we choose for the real Christmas. I’m thinking June 25 might work. You see, my wife’s birthday is December 25, and I’ve already figured out that by honoring her birthday with a gift on June 25, her birthday doesn’t get lost with everything else on Xmas Day.

            And in the end, isn’t that what we want for Jesus too? That he doesn’t get lost?

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Wallet

            Just over forty years ago my grandfather, Arend Schuil--Opa, as we used to call him—put on a heavy apron, picked up his sheers, and cut into a piece of rawhide. He knew what he was doing, since he had spent his life cutting leather to make the special orthopedic shoes he sold to customers all over the Netherlands. But now that he was retired, the shoe molds and rubber soles that used to fill his shop were long gone. Instead of leather uppers, this time he cut the leather to make wallets for his grandchildren. I received mine, my last gift from him, in 1967.

I still have that wallet in a drawer of my desk. I keep special papers in it. Opa sewed it together using tiny, perfectly symmetrical, stitches. Even now, the leather is soft and supple—the softest thing I own.

I only met him twice, for a few weeks each time, on his rare visits to Canada. He taught me to play chess on long summer afternoons under a shade tree beside our house. We didn’t talk much, since my Dutch was poor and his English non-existent. Still, it never felt awkward. Quiet with him was restful, relaxed and happy.

Genealogy is my hobby, so by studying old church and civil documents in the Netherlands, I’ve learned that my Opa’s ancestors had been making shoes in the Dutch province of Groningen for the better part of three hundred years. But now my wallet is the only tangible link I have left to all those centuries of toil.

I’ve also learned that some Schuils wanted more out of life than making shoes. Among my great- and great-great grandparents there was one who helped buy a new house for the local preacher. Others were volunteer organists and choir directors. My grandfather would have loved to become a preacher himself.

But back then most people didn’t have a choice about what they would do with their lives. Formal education was a luxury. Most people did what their fathers did; you took up the business and learned as unpaid child labor. And that was if your family had a trade. My grandfather on the Suk side had to quit school to work the potato fields as a day laborer by the time he was eleven or twelve. His father peddled groceries door to door out of a dog cart. They got by, but sometimes only barely.

And my wallet reminds me of all that. My wallet is like a hinge, really. It connects me—with all my opportunities, choice, and postgraduate education—to an era in the very recent past when what you did with your life, workwise, wasn’t a unique “calling” you had the luxury of making a decision about. No, in those days, people didn’t have “callings.” They had “tellings,” and did as told, workwise, whether they wanted to or not.

That wallet reminds me that having the opportunity to go to school, and choose a career is a big privilege. Thinking back on my family history, my hope is that my grandkids will understand just how great a privilege that choice is. Of course, they’ll have to study hard borrow money and work hard to make their dreams come to pass—but I’ll urge them to do so.

             But, at a deeper level, that wallet also reminds me that whatever job I land on God’s good earth, my ultimate vocation there—and always—is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [my] God,” (Micah 6:8). Just as my grandfather, the last of the shoemakers, always tried to do no matter what he did to earn a living.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Wretch Like Me

            I just paid a big speeding ticket in New York State. The officer pulled me over at the Gananoque bridge, wrote a ticket, smiled and left. He was pulling over people at a sneeky speed-trap where drivers have to slam on their brakes to slow from 65 to 40. This officer never gave me an opportunity to argue my case. The bill arrived in the mail two weeks later. I felt wretched—the dollar damage was more than I dare admit in public.

            This reminded me of a speeding ticket that I talked my way out of, a few years ago. One Sunday, when Irene and I lived in Manila, The Philippines, we were on our way to a lunch engagement on the other side of town, after church.

Unfortunately, on Makati Avenue I ran an amber light that turned red by the time I was through. A guy in a funny yellow t-shirt tried to wave me down. Without thinking I swerved round him and continued on. I said to Irene that he looked an awful lot like a street-sweeper. But deep inside I suspected he might be a policeman. Like an idiot I made a few unscheduled turns in the hope of losing him. Soon I was stuck in traffic.

Unfortunately, my intuition was rewarded when my yellow-shirted policeman on a 100 cc scooter pulled up beside me, easily weaving in and out of the cars that surrounded me. He motioned for me to roll down my window.

            I told him I mistook him for a street cleaner. This did not impress him. He asked me to hand over my license. I refused, knowing that he could demand a huge bribe if I asked for it back. So I said the law did not require me to ever hand over my license, even to a policeman. This was true, but made him angry. He suggested we ride over to the police station to resolve matters. I asked him if there was anyway we could avoid the trip and settle matters now. I was hoping he would just write me a ticket. He looked up at me with narrowed eyes and asked “what do you mean?” He was hoping for a bribe.

I suddenly remembered how, years ago, a Nigerian driver I was with had refused to pay a bribe to a teen-aged soldier who just happened to be waving a machine gun through our car window, roughly in my direction. “Christians don’t pay bribes,” my driver said. The soldier scowled and let us through the roadblock. Inspired by the memory,  instead of offering a bribe, I said, “Please officer, forgive me.”

The Manila policeman was even less impressed than the Nigerian soldier had been. I forged ahead with the him anyway. “Sir, forgive me. I did wrong. Kasalanan ko. It is my fault. Will you please forgive me? I will not ever go through a red light again. I have learned my lesson. Sir, please forgive.” All in one breath.

Ask and you will receive, says scripture. I’ve never heard a sermon that tried to explain those words as literally true, and strictly speaking, they didn’t apply in this situation anyway. All the same, they came to me as the police officer told me that if he ever saw me go through a red light again, he would throw the book at me. Then, shaking his head, he got back on his bike and left.

I’m not sure what went through his head. Was he sad to have missed out on a bribe? Did he figure a day in the police station, arguing about fines, would cut into his opportunity to extract bribes from other, more willing, traffic violators? Was he utterly amazed by my non-Filipino willingness to lose face by admitting guilt and begging for forgiveness? Or perhaps I just misread the situation from the start, and he wasn’t looking for a bribe at all. Maybe, he was just a gracious person.

I’ll never know, for sure. But I guess a wretch like me was saved! 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ontario Election

The provincial election is just around the corner. I’ve been thinking about how to vote. Naturally, my values and faith contribute to my decision. So I’ve come up with a list of Ten Commandments for voters. The focus is on Provincial issues, so you won’t find much here about Federal matters such as trade, defense, foreign aid, or pensions. But there is still a lot of ground to cover.

1. The Lord God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and—within  memory—most of Ontario’s voters or their ancestors from some other far-away land. Which parties make embracing new immigrants and their unique challenges a high priority?

2. The Judeo-Christian God doesn’t want us to bow down to images. That’s because humans are his real image bearers. And what did God create his image bearers to do? The prophet Micah says humans must act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. For that matter, they should so walk with their neighbors too. Which party's values best match that high, human calling to be like God?

3. The third command warns against misuse the name of the Lord. Language matters to God, and it should matter to politicians. Civility doesn’t have much of a role in question period anymore, judging by my last visit to Queen’s Park. Which candidates are committed to dialog rather than personal slurs and negative campaigning?

4. The fourth command mentions that God made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, including people. Then he told Adam and Eve to take care of it, nurture it, and keep it beautiful. When you vote, remember that according to the Creation Story God’s first command to humans, even before the ten, was to take care of the earth and its creatures. Which parties take this responsibility for creation care as seriously as God does?

5. Honor your father and mother. They are getting older and so, by the way, are you. A host of policies impact our elderly neighbors. Which party will best protect universal health care for all, regardless of wealth? Which party will do the best job making sure that retirement homes, nursing homes, and home care for the elderly are designed to allows the elderly to be as independent, engaged, and healthy as long as possible?

6. You shall not murder. In my tradition we like to restate this command positively, like this. To keep the sixth command is “to love our neighbors as ourselves; to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them; to protect them from harm as much as possible; and to do good even to our enemies.” Political parties seem to think that voting is about me, myself, and I. It isn’t. Spiritual voters have the best interests not merely of themselves, but especially of their neighbors in mind when they vote. It isn’t about my pocket book; it is about building a just and loving community.

7. You shall not commit adultery. Vote for the party that is willing to make a long-term commitment to the people of Ontario, rather than a short-term affair until the writ is next dropped. Vote for the party willing to speak the truth in love and strive for the ideal rather than the one that falls into bed with the tempting policy flavor of the day.

8. You shall not steal: The Bible has more to say about how Christians should handle wealth than any other moral issue. Steven Colbert—not usually noted for his religious commentary--put it this way on network TV. “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” Vote for the party that puts the poor first, because most of us have way more than we really need.

9. Do not give false testimony. When you vote, don’t just consider a party’s promises about the changeable future; consider how they did—or did not—keep their promises in the unchangeable past

10. You shall not covet. Every party covets power. But when you vote, consider which party or candidate is nevertheless the most committed to serving those out of power: the least, the last, and the lost. For ultimately, these citizens have always been God’s favorites.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Strangers in Our Midst

I live a few blocks from Cobourg’s Victoria Park, right on Lake Ontario. Every weekend this park is full of new Canadian picnickers. I can’t be sure, of course, but as I walk through the park, I think I’m seeing immigrants from Pakistan, Jamaica, The Philippines, and beyond. I’m glad to see them. Partly, it is for purely selfish reasons. These new Canadians, most of whom are young, are the same Canadians who will be contributing to my Canada Pension Plan when I retire. If Canadians had relied only on Canadian-born to make those contributions, there wouldn’t be enough to go around!

But I’m especially glad to see them because they remind me of my own family history. Nearly sixty years ago, my parents immigrated to Canada too, from the Netherlands. On Saturday afternoons, my family and our Dutch-immigrant friends in the Niagara Peninsula used to take over huge swaths of parkland in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Now I wonder if the people who lived in that village complained about our barbecues, cars, noise, and garbage. 

Further back, my ancestors immigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, France, and Switzerland. I immigrated--for nearly twenty years--to the United States. It is the human way, I suppose. We’re all immigrants or the children of immigrants.

No nation or group has ever been able to claim any patch of the earth as their own, forever and ever. Roman legions retreated before the barbarian--European--tribes that swept into their empire fifteen hundred years ago. Europeans shoved America’s first citizens aside to take over the Americas. These days hungry Somalis trudge to Kenya, Mexicans try to scale the border fence into the United States, and people from all over the world look for a better life here in Canada, just as my grandparents did after war had ravaged their homeland.

In a way, all this moving back and forth across the face of the earth is perfectly understandable from a Christian point of view. Christians believe that ultimately, no land can really be said to be ours alone because it is all a trust from God. We’re just workers in the vineyard. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). According to the Bible, Christians, in particular, are strangers and aliens to the world (1 Peter 2:11) who are actually ambassadors of reconciliation sent here from the Kingdom of God (2 Cor 5:20).  

Unfortunately, most of us, including Christians, nevertheless struggle with prejudice. We forget where we’re from and what our lives are supposed to be all about. We’re unsure, perhaps even afraid, of those who look and sound different than us. We are impatient for newcomers to lose their distinctives and become just like us. We blame strangers for upsetting our apple carts. 

Borders may be a pragmatic way of regulating the flow of people back and forth over the earth for the benefit of all. But Christian hospitality, kindness to strangers, and forbearance in the face of what seems to us to be odd habits and dress--Christian love for neighbors--all these are God’s way for making sure that immigrants to Canada find a new home away from home.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Introduction to Not Sure by John Suk

                   The introduction to my book, Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt, is available by clicking the title link. The introduction explains why I value doubt, and tells (in part) the story of how I arrived at that conclusion. Check it out!

          You can order the book from, or or .ca. You can also buy it at, or order through your local bookstore.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wish I Could Be Afraid

I wish I could be afraid. Like Peter was afraid, once.

It happened this way. One day, after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus told Peter to throw the nets out on the other side of the boat. Peter thought, "No way. Wrong place; wrong time." But to humor Jesus — who had, after all, just healed his mother-in-law — Peter did as he was told. And according to the story Luke tells, Peter caught a huge load of fish. It seemed a miracle.

The next thing Peter knew, he was stepping out of the boat and falling on his knees before Jesus. Something about what had just happened — something about Jesus — terrified him. So Peter said, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man."

I wish I could be afraid like that. Even if it only happened once, for a minute, I wish I could feel the breath sucked out of me like Peter’s must have been when he guessed, before he had words to say it, that Jesus was the Christ, of God (Luke 9:20).

This is why: my life is all about Jesus. I have gone to church all my life. I spent twenty years going to Christian schools, including seminary. I now preach about Jesus weekly. I pray to him daily. He is rarely far from my thoughts.

Yet I have never held his hand. I have never laid eyes on his face. I have not put my hands in his wounds. I have not heard him preach. I can't get him to slap me on the back or pass the wine or even to tell me where to fish. He seems distant — almost unreal. Just once, just for a moment, I'd like to taste that mysterious, awful, painful, fear that seized Peter when he guessed who Jesus really was.

I don't know how exactly to say it. I think this would be a good fear, even if I could only hold onto it for a minute or two. A good fear — maybe like the longing fear a virginal bride and a virginal groom have at the foot of their wedding night bed as a whole new world of intimacy and trust opens up to them.

I think Peter's fear must be something like that of a teacher facing her first classroom alone. She trusts her training and doesn't doubt her skills, but she is terrified by the enormity of her job and all the kids she'll help shape. She's just one, all alone, at the beginning of the rest of her life.

I think this fear is something like the fear that those who love extreme sports look for. They want a rush, a brush with death, the exhilaration of being on the verge of losing it even as they know they will make it to the other side.

This good fear is deeply spiritual. It is rooted in wanting more life than a body can stand, in wanting to look around the corner, at death, maybe even touch it — without having to embrace it.

Some Christians claim to have encountered Jesus in this way — to have tangibly felt his immanence and the holy fear that it inspires. I can’t speak, of course, about the truth or falsehood of anyone else’s claim to have experienced this kind of fear. All I know is that I’ve never felt it. Not like Peter did.

But as I carry on in faith, which for me includes this persistent struggle with doubt and uncertainty, I wish I could know — even for a moment — what Peter felt that day, and what Jesus' words cured.

(This post appeared earlier this week on Eerdword, at Check it out!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

End of Summer Booklist

Labor Day is just around the corner, and so perhaps you are looking for that one, last great book of the summer. I've read a few, and maybe one of them will appeal to you.

My wife, Irene Oudyk-Suk, is a couples and sex therapist ( One book she asks many of her clients to read (or watch on video) is Canadian therapist Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.” The book is a popular and practical exposition of the new neuroscience of love. Her approach to therapy is based on John Bowlby's attachment theory, and is usually called Emotionally Focussed Therapy. Don't let the ten-dollar terms scare you, though. This is a very practical and readable book about committed relationships. If you want to figure out how love actually works, pick it up.

One book that has been making waves in Christian circles this summer is Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In this book Bell tries to explain why the heart of Christianity has to be the story of God’s grace, and how the heart of Christianity has nothing to do with eerie tales of hell and punishment. A noted Evangelical leader, his book has upset the status-quo apple cart. You’ll need to read it to make up your own mind, but I thought it was a great read.

My PHD is in Communication Theory. One question receiving a lot of attention in those circles is, “does use of electronic media effect how we think?” Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle argues that we have traded the world of ideas for one of “comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans and a celebration of violence.” Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading and the Brain, looks at the issue from the perspective of neuroscience. Amazon just delivered Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. I haven't read it yet, but he asks what this all means for Christians who are, after all, supposed to be “people of the word.”

No summer reading list is complete without fiction to fall asleep by--or not! I’m a fantasy and science fiction buff, and really enjoyed reading bestselling George Martin’s A Game of Thrones. This summer I also found Robert Sawyer’s Hominids, which combines my interest in human evolution and sci-fi. Sawyer is easily Canada’s best known science fiction writer. With the upcoming provincial election in the air, I’ve also purchased Terry Fallis’ Best Laid Plans. This book, about the inner machinations of Canadian politics, was CBC Radio’s 2011 Canada Reads contest winner. I'll read it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for Ontario's upcoming provincial election.

Finally, a bit of a dream. I'm trying to talk Irene into retiring to a sailboat--at least for a few years. I'm not sure when we'd do that (I'm thinking soon, Irene wants to wait fifteen years!). But in the meantime, we should probably learn to sail! So I bought, and devoured The Sailing Bible: The Complete Guide for all Sailors. Living on a boat sounds like it could be a blast. Not much in there about being becalmed and swarmed by flies, which I hear is one of the occupational hazards of being out on the great lakes, at least. We'll have to see--maybe Irene and I will try sailing for a week next summer?

What late-summer good-reads would you add?