Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Northumberland County has plenty of worship choices, especially if you are a Christian. From Anglican to Baptist, or United Church to Free Presbyterian we're inundated with different denominations. As a young pastor I never gave this denominationalism much thought. But then I got involved as a leader in an interdenominational spiritual retreat. Called Cursillo, it began as a Roman Catholic renewal movement. During the weekend event attendees are invited to reconsider their faith and the direction of their lives.

The highlight of the weekend was supposed to be a communion service. Here people from many different church backgrounds, or maybe none at all, joined together to celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection, as well as our unity in the faith. At one Cursillo weekend, my fellow leader was a Roman Catholic priest. At the moment of communion he got up and told the rest of us--about fifty men--that he couldn't participate. He wanted to, he said, but his Bishop forbade him to take communion with Protestants. So I would have to officiate by myself.

Furthermore, said the priest, he would stand by the communion table, silently observing communion while not participating, as a mute reminder that the church we thought of as one on account of our wonderful weekend together was actually broken and fractured. He hoped that his example would encourage us to work for more and more visible church unity.

In some ways the priest played it like a melodrama. On the other hand, his silent witness got to me. And, as a pastor, I began to wonder which doctrines that separated me from my Baptist or United Church friends really justified having separate churches.

As I walk up the steps to Grace Christian Reformed Church, I still wonder. And I now honestly think that there are very few doctrinal differences that warrant separate denominations. The time for arguing about who is right about when to baptize, or how to manifest the Spirit in worship, or whether or not evolution is something Christians can work with is long past. Much better to be curious about how other people make sense of difficult Bible passages than insist my interpretation is the correct one. In the words of Brian McClaren Christians need to start practicing a much more generous orthodoxy. We need to focus on the few things that unite us rather than the many that separate us. Why? Because, that is what Jesus wanted. His final prayer for the church was not that we get the doctrine of Original Sin or Eschatology right, but "that they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us [God and Jesus] so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

In fact, Jesus here suggests that Christian unity is a key strategy for convincing others that God, in his love for us, sent the son to the world in the first place. Do we really believe that?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Personal Relationship with Jesus?

A few years ago I published an article entitled, "A Personal Relationship with Jesus?" in Perspectives at Christianity Today picked it up and posted it on their Blog, "Out of Ur" at  A similar article by me was more recently published in Christian Century at It made a lot of waves, as you will be able to see from the comments. This article, significantly reworked, appears in my forthcoming book Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey From Faith to Doubt. Some people have asked for it, so I thought I'd post the links. Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Easter Runs On Empty

A large watercolor hangs in my wife's home office. On it you will find a dark mulberry bush, a few nightingales, and some Chinese characters. But mostly the painting is empty white space. The painting was a gift to us from a Mainland Chinese exchange student. Her mother painted it.

Emptiness is usually experienced as a quality devoid of happy associations. For example, Samuel Butler once said, "an empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed." Woodrow Wilson was of the same mind. He noted that, "in the Lord's Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach."

But my painting, for all of its empty space, is beautiful. I purchased a frame for it, and when I went to pick it up, the painting was hanging on display on the most prominent wall in the store. The manager said that she just had to put it up because it was so stunning. So perhaps emptiness does not always have to be negative.

John Calvin, for example, knew about the positive power of emptiness. He said our faith is an empty vessel that God has given us so that we can be filled with God's grace.

I've read that in Eastern cultures like China's emptiness is actually prized for its positive potential. The emptiness of a cup, for example, invites water. An empty room invites entrance and so welcomes the guest. The empty spaces in bamboo are what make it a strong construction material.

When I look carefully at our painting, I'm pretty sure that the artist spent more time planning her empty space than filling it up. Emptiness gives my painting its unique power. And in a small way, this helps me understand the Christian season of Easter with its commemoration of both Jesus' death and resurrection. With respect to death, Paul says Jesus "emptied himself . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross." (Phil 2:7,8). That is, Jesus demonstrated his love for us humans, says Paul, by pouring out his divinity rather than hanging on to it.

And with respect to resurrection, both Jesus' and ours, who could ever fail to note that three days later the tomb was empty too!

Harriet Tubman's Window on the Environment

Last weekend I preached about the environment. That got me to thinking about the antique stained glass window with a hand-painted picture of a bluebird chasing a butterfly that hangs in my living room.

The window is beautiful, but that's only the beginning. I received it as a gift from my brother. He died two years ago, in Kelowna, BC, of ALS. My sisters, mother and I looked after Art round the clock for over a year before he died. It was hard. My stained glass window reminds me of that time, and of the very precious time I was able to spend with Art.

Art got the stained glass window from of my grandparents' house in St. Catharines. Our extended family used to gather under that window, every Sunday, to enjoy each other's company. Twenty years ago, when my grandparents died Art bought the window from the new owners of my grandparent's home. So that window also reminds me of my Grandparents, and one of the happiest places in the world I ever experienced.

The family thinks my grandparents' house was a parsonage for the African Methodist Episcopalian church down the street. That church is a Canadian national historic landmark. We figured that since the house was a parsonage, its pastors and leaders must have met under the stained glass window. That means Harriet Tubman, the famous conductor in the Underground Railroad also sat under that window. So every time I look at it, I think of how, at its best, Canada can be a place where racism doesn't have the last word.

The window may be worth thousands of dollars. But owning it isn't about its economic worth to me. Its beauty and memories are not the window's most important qualities either. What matters is that my brother said, "Take it John. Keep it safe. Enjoy it." So I do.

And the environment? Well, it is beautiful too. We are often tempted to make lots of money or save jobs by letting the environment slip a bit. But most of us also have good memories of camping or hiking in the wilderness. Are these the deciding matters worth considering when it comes to keeping the environment?

No. What really matters to me is that according to our faith, the world and all that is in it was entrusted to us, by God, to care for. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." In fact, this is the first command that God actually gave humans, according to the Genesis story. It is what we were created to do. And if God says so, that is good for me, no matter what the cost.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The End of the World

A few months before Jesus was supposed to return, at least according to Harold Camping, I wrote an article for Northumberland Today about predicting the end of the world. It follows here:

In the wake of the tragic earthquake, tsunami, and reactor accidents in Japan this past week, several people asked me if this portended the end of the world and Jesus' second coming.

I don't think so. Besides, the Bible itself warns Christians that, “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 10:32).

Still, the history of Christianity is littered with mistaken predictions of Jesus' return. For example the great Scottish Mathematician John Napier, who first worked out the concept of logarithms, predicted Jesus would return in 1688 or 1700. He didn't.

About 100 years later, Sir Isaac Newton, the first person to describe the theory of gravity as we now know it, and perhaps one of the greatest geniuses of all time, predicted that the end of the world would come in 1944. It didn't.

The great Puritan Reformed scholar Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest revival preacher and Christian philosopher in the history of the church, predicted that Jesus would return in the year 2000. In spite of Y2K, he didn't.

Many well-known contemporary prognosticators, including Hal Lindsay, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, and Chuck Smith have been wrong about Jesus' return at least once. They respond to their mistakes by revising their numbers and publishing new books or by cannily substituting "soon," for a specific date, not wanting to be wrong twice. Not so, however, Harold Camping, who has been wrong more than once before. He predicts the world will end this May 21 and now has a fleet of RVs out on America's roads to get the news out.

Of course, end time predictions excite our curiosity and unbridle our appetite for mystery. I wonder how people breathlessly waiting for the skies to roll back can be very motivated to do the hard work of loving God and neighbors or seeking justice. We don't need more Christians getting the end of time wrong; we need more Christians responding to human need and tragedy on time. The right response to the recent tragedies in Haiti, New Zealand, or Japan isn't trying to read these disasters back into the Biblical books of Daniel or Revelation. We ought, instead, pray for those nations' relief and dig deep into our pockets to provide some.

(This article first appeared in Northumberland Today. Click the article title to go directly there).

Friday, June 3, 2011

The National Interest?

In 2009 President Barack Obama gave an eloquent speech in Cairo. In it, he promoted human rights and democracy. He did so in a country where America has warmly embraced a corrupt and violent dictatorship for the past thirty years or so.

Why does America support dictators like Hosni Mubarak? Or religiously repressive antidemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia's? Or even Israel, who's illegal and authoritarian occupation of Palestine is wearing thin even for those of us who strongly support Israel's right to exist? Why were human rights in China just a footnote in last week's visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jintao?

Because, as any American at the State Department will tell you, America runs its foreign relations "in the national interest." Whatever the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights may say about human rights and ideals of freedom and democracy, in practice these are for American consumption only. Similar rights in foreign countries matter only when it suits America's larger geopolitical or economic goals.

I don't criticize America lightly. I'm a Canadian-born American citizen. America's robust political democracy and fierce embrace of its freedoms is inspiring. In the end, I loved Canada first, because I was born here; but I came to love America for what it aspires to be.

Still, America is wrong send the universally-condemned Egyptian military nearly 1.5 billion dollars of weapons every year--the second largest recipient of American aid in the world, after Israel. Sadder yet is that in spite of this massive aid no one in Cairo's streets believes that America cares a whit for them.

All this, again, as they'll tell you at the State Department, because what really matters is "America's national interest." America will put up with a lot of nonsense from bad rulers treating citizens without regard to basic human rights if America thinks it helps its trade, economy, or military alliances.

It is time for people of good faith to demand an end to our nations' religiously promoting their national interest. It is a policy that puts us in bed with the Duvaliers, Husseins, Fahds, Shahs, and Vorsters of this world, and doesn't put values we would otherwise willingly die for, first.

For people of faith it is time to demand of our governments--American and Canadian--that we love our neighbors, first, instead.

(First published in March 2011 in Northumberland Today, at