God has already given us permission to love.

I’ve been reading J.B. Philips’ short book Your God is Too Small with a couple of colleagues. It’s a quick read and an interesting approach to helping us see who God is and all the ways we get God wrong. The first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve read, is about all the destructive, unreal pictures of God that people often have (the second half is about constructive views). The following paragraph stood out to me. It’s from a section on a god who we see as an entirely negative force in our lives, whose “whole Nature seems to deny, to cramp, and to inhibit” our own nature:

“They are bound by their negative god by their upbringing, by the traditions of a Church or party, by the manipulation of isolated texts of Scripture or by a morbid conscience. At last they actually feel that it is wrong to be themselves, wrong to be free, wrong to enjoy beauty, wrong to expand and develop. Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing. Disaster will infallibly bring them to heal, sooner or later, should they venture beyond the confines of ‘his plan for them.'” (p. 51, Epworth Press edition, 1975, emphasis mine)

“Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing.” Two things strike me about this:

1. I see this crop up among the youth at our church who want to be faithful to God in every decision, but who are stuck because they need God’s permission (or direction) to choose this job or that job, this college or that college. I’ve told the youth on a couple of occasions that they are free to make their own decisions about these things, as long as they are pursuing love of God and love of neighbour in their choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t listen for God (that’s part of loving God!) nor that God doesn’t have a specific call for them. But the tendency is to think that God has one, single, narrow path laid out for our lives, and we had better find and stay on that path if we want things to go well for us. Instead, I think there is a wide field of potential and opportunity that lies within the scope of loving God and loving neighbour and we are free to wander and discover and live within it.

2. In spite of what I tell our youth, I also find myself wrestling with this negative vision of God, without whose permission I often feel I can do nothing. In a strange and dangerous way, I subconsciously think that because I was called to pastoral ministry, I somehow have to be in line with God (within his field of specific permission) for every step I take along the way. But why should it be any different for me as a pastor than for a plumber, teacher, doctor, mechanic, or student? It shouldn’t. And yet there I often live.

God has already given us blanket permission to love him and others, and within that permission there is room for creativity, growth, change, risk, and so on. But some days it’s hard to believe this.

Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.

Thoughts on Revelation: The Mark of the Beast

Our youth small group Bible study has been working its way through Revelation chapter by chapter this year. Knowing that this particular book of the Bible presents readers with unique challenges, I’ve been doing some reading in commentaries and other books in advance as we go through. Yesterday, reading through Eugene Peterson’s excellent Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, I had a bit of a revelation myself.

Yesterday we talked about Revelation 14. Both that chapter and the one before it mention the “mark of the beast,” which goes on a person’s hand or forehead. The question of the mark of the beast and what it is has been a hotly debated question for some Christians, particularly in more conservative circles, for a long time: is it a barcode tattoo? credit cards? debit cards? chip implants? Every time some new technology comes out it seems like someone brings up the mark of the beast. This is especially true when the new technology involves financial transactions, because Revelation 13 says that people won’t be able to buy or sell without the mark.

I’ve always thought a mark on the forehead or the hand was an odd place to put a mark, but then for a long time I’ve also known that Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor and so there is much there that should not be taken at literal face value. So I haven’t thought about the mark much, until it came up in our reading.

Then Peterson made a connection I had never heard before, but makes complete sense, especially given how much Revelation (re)uses Old Testament imagery. The mark of the beast is on the forehead or the hand. Way back in Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks for God and says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (this is the “Shema“), and then he goes on to tell Israel to tie this command to their foreheads and hands. From this we get the phylactery, a small box Jewish men would wear (or put on their doorposts) containing a little scroll with a portion of the Torah on it, probably even the words of the Shema itself, which reminded them of who they were: people of the One God, the God they were to love completely.

This correspondence between the phylactery and the mark of the beast was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the mark of the beast made a great deal more sense. The phylactery is a symbol or mark identifying who a people belong to, who they follow, who they obey. It is a symbol of allegiance. It is a visible symbol of a life that is lived.

I realized suddenly that the mark of the beast is not about physical objects or marks like credit cards or tattoos. The mark of the beast is a way of life. Just as the mark of Christ, the seal of the Spirit, which the Christian bears, is love (and faithful endurance, to use the language of Revelation), so the mark of the beast is the opposite way of life (Revelation is filled with opposites, e.g. the Lamb that was slain and the beast that looks a like a lamb). Given the contexts of these chapters with dragons and beasts and buying and selling, the mark may play out in things like false religion (including perhaps most insidiously false Christianity), allegiance to a certain political system or market economy, self-interest, individualism, and all manner of idolatries, etc.

If the mark of the beast is a way of life then, on the one hand, the concerns of a more fundamentalist/literalist, end-times/tribulation focussed view—concerns about whether, say, debit cards are the mark of the beast or some future where we’ll have to make a choice about chip implants—largely disappear.

On the other hand, the mark of the beast as a way of life is much more insidious, because we tend to slide very easily and without much thought into the whatever current trend or way of life that comes our way, trends and ways of life that very often are or turn into idolatry. In other words, the mark of the beast is not necessarily something we consciously choose to receive, but something we may simply slide into without even consciously doing so.

This requires patient endurance from the saints indeed!

Why Do We Sing in Church?

(Originally posted November 18, 2017 at malmochurch.ca.)

Tomorrow morning we will gather at Malmo again, as we have been doing faithfully for 125 years or so, to worship together through fellowship, prayer, scripture reading…and singing.

Singing has been a part of Christian worship since the first Christians gathered. In fact, some parts of the Bible are widely believed to be taken from early Christian songs of worship. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 is often referred to as the “Christ Hymn”:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

These stanzas contain not only generic praise to God, but they tell a story—the salvation story, in fact: God becomes human, dies on the cross, is raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah.

But why do we do this? Why do we sing together in church, especially when some people don’t like singing or think they don’t have a good voice?

I can think of several reasons, and none of them have anything to do with being able to sing or carry a tune: singing brings glory to God; it helps us remember the gospel story; it is modelled and encouraged (even commanded!) in scripture; it brings believers together and encourages them (have you ever been at a concert or worship event where thousands of people sing along together? There are few things more unifying and beautiful).

(There are more reasons, I’m sure. In fact, here are a couple of further explanations for Christians singing that I have come across that you might find helpful: “The Three Rs: Why Christians Sing” and “Seven Biblical Reasons Why Singing Matters.”)

So as we gather tomorrow and in the weeks to come, consider: can I choose to participate in worship, including the singing, even if I (think I) don’t sing very well, even if I don’t fully understand why we do it?

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” Often we talk about worship, and especially the singing part of worship, as an expression of our feelings for God. That may be true, but there are some people who do not express their feelings for God in that way, and there are some days when my feelings for God are not great.

In a much more important way, whatever our feelings may be on a given day, our singing praise, our singing the gospel, plays a significant role in transforming us bit by bit over time, through low seasons and high seasons, as individuals and a community, into the people of God…if only we will open ourselves up—both our mouths and our hearts!

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

_________________________________
*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Do evangelicals give Israel a free pass?

Do evangelicals give Israel get a free pass?

I was thinking about this the other day as I listened to a podcast interview in which the guest argued that the gospel Paul presents in Romans is universalistic (we should take heed, she suggested, to Paul’s repetitive use of “all” in reference to both the consequences of Adam’s sin and the effect of Christ’s death). Whenever the subject of universal salvation or reconciliation in Jesus Christ—that is, the idea that in and through Christ everyone will ultimately be saved—comes up, my mind tends to go to the strong and dismissive opposition such an idea seems to get, particularly in evangelical circles. What about judgment? What about repentance? these people wonder.

Yet it seems to me that many of these same people give the modern nation-state of Israel, on the assumption that they are are the same Israel of which the Bible speaks and for (to me) vague biblical reasons, a free pass into salvation. Israel, it seems, will be folded into the Kingdom just for being Israel, whether or not they are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. For Israel it seems like judgment and repentance aren’t an issue, but for gentiles it certainly is.

I admit I do not pay much attention to Zionism (e.g., John Hagee) and its close associates, so perhaps I am mishearing them, but this is the impression I get.

(It occurs to me now that evangelicals also tend to think of salvation as a community thing when it comes to Israel, but an individualistic thing for everyone else.)

This is not, of course, itself an argument for universal reconciliation. This is simply to point out what seems to me, if my impressions are correct, an inconsistency in evangelical thinking about salvation.

Evolution, Genesis, and Discipleship

I haven’t blogged about the question of how we read and understand the Genesis creation accounts in a while, though it continues to be of interest to me. Today I happened to listen to and watch a delightful moderated dialogue between Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and outspoken atheist (to be fair, he identifies as an agnostic), and Rowan Williams, the former-but-current-in-the-video Archbishop of Canterbury, the sort of figurehead of the worldwide Anglican communion. (I don’t normally have the patience to watch anything on YouTube that’s longer than 15 minutes, but the whole discussion was 1.5 hours long and I was captivated. I must have been soothed by their English accents, particularly Williams’. Actually, it was a truly interesting exchange, and Dawkins was civil.)

Nothing particularly bloggable was said in the first hour, but just after the hour mark things got more generally interesting for a while in response to a question from the audience. Williams believes that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution, so far as we understand it, is how we got to now—at that level, he and Dawkins agree. Of course, as a Christian, Williams believes God is involved or present in this process (though in the discussion he does not explain how).

Here is a link to the portion of the video that I’m referring to (starting automatically at about 1:08:27 and you can stop listening at about 1:11:39, if you wish), but I will also include a transcript of the relevant bits below.

Moderator Anthony Kerr, quoting an audience question: “Surely if the truth is that the universe is billions of years old and life evolved, it would have been better when the Bible was written to say nothing about how humans began. Did the writers essentially get it wrong?”

Archbishop Rowan Williams: Probably [a question] for me…I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were, if you like, faced with a set of options, including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old, and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st century physics.

This is probably the most succinct way of explaining why we should not read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific textbook or manual. Williams goes on:

Williams: They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here, but I might as well come clean—and that means reading the first book of the Bible, what I look for is the basic information—this might be a different sense [of information] from what we were talking about just now: the universe depends on God, God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humans have made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture getting it wrong in the sense that there being lots of information available and they happened to get the wrong bits of it.

He goes on to say, in response to a follow-up question from Dawkins, that reading Genesis in this way is “something which isn’t just a 21st century invention, but it’s a way people have read Genesis from very early on.”

What does appear to be a 21st century invention, however, is an insistence on a strictly literal (in the sense of literal six 24 hour days of creation—a sort of reverse scientific literalism, I suppose) reading of Genesis, which I suspect is a reaction to overzealous conclusions about religion and the existence of God drawn by some from the scientific evidence.

In many respects I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t know much about evolutionary theory, nor do I have detailed knowledge of the evidence, so I can’t make an independent decision about its veracity. However, the vast majority of the scientific community, as far as I’m aware, including the many Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian scientists among them (including personal friends), agree that the universe is very old and that we evolved, so I have to deal with that fact.

At this point I’m not sure it matters what a person believes about this question. I think a person can be just fine believing in a 6,000-year-old earth and a one-week creation; I think a person can be a fine follower of Jesus and hearer of scripture and believe the universe’s age is in the billions of years and that life evolved.

Where this question does interest me is on the level of biblical interpretation and discipleship. I’ve talked about the question of how to interpret Genesis in relation to question of its intent (as Williams addressed in the video) and genre. The question of discipleship comes up from time to time, particularly in terms of teaching our young people in preparation for higher education. What should we teach them about Genesis and science? we wonder Some think that we should teach them to defend against evolutionary theory, that we should make sure we understand the (apparent) evidence against evolution and for a young earth to prepare them when they face all the (mis?)information in university.

I’m inclined to disagree with this approach, and not  because I think that it is true that life evolved (I remain mostly agnostic about this, largely because I don’t know enough), but for two other reasons:

  1. Jesus is the heart, soul, and centre of our faith, not how we read the opening chapters of Genesis. Genesis is very important to our understanding of the faith. I love Genesis. But it’s not the centre or focal point. Jesus is.
  2. I’m convinced that training our young people against evolution will, in the long run, do more to harm their faith than grow it. If we train them with biblical scientific literalism (my term) and then they go to university and are overwhelmed with evidence in favour of evolution, it might bring them to a crisis of faith, having to choose between faith and science. It’s a choice I don’t think is necessary to make, but we may force that choice on them, depending on how we approach the issue in our teaching.

Note that this is not about whether or not evolution is true. It’s a question of whether it’s a battle that needs to be fought, of whether the Bible requires us to believe something other than what the scientific community is (purportedly?) finding out about our world and universe. It’s a question of how we understand the Bible and how we teach our kids in relation to that knowledge.

The reality is, even apart from what we’re hearing from biologists, astronomers, and physicists, the church has historically been okay with not reading Genesis as if it reflects a scientific account of our origins. I can quote (and have quoted in the past) respected and influential theologians and Christian writers through the ages—people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and many more from the modern age—to make this point. These men can be wrong, of course, but the point is simply that literalism of the modern sort is not something based in historical theology and interpretation. If this is indeed the case, then why turn the question of evolution into a battle for truth? It seems to me to be entirely unnecessary.

In the end, I suspect the negative reaction is to people who have taken the evidence and the capacity of science farther than it can go, exemplified by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists,” but also carried forward by many in the general population: namely, that all of this “proves” that God doesn’t exist (or makes it unlikely that he exists or unnecessary to believe that he does). That is perhaps a battle worth fighting. But evolution vs. Genesis? No. It’s wasted effort, as far as I’m concerned, and quite possibly spiritually disastrous.

Comedy of Errors

This was just too funny for me to not record for posterity. As background, Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian coffee and donut shop) has two cold drinks with very similar names that my family likes to order: a Real Fruit Chill and a Real Fruit Smoothie. The Chill is like a slush, just fruit juice and ice; the Smoothie contains yoghurt. My family prefers the Chill.

Without fail the last three or four times at a local Tim Hortons, we’ve order a Real Fruit Chill and received a Real Fruit Smoothie instead. So I’m particularly sensitive to getting the order correct the first time. In addition, this was after our year-end youth party, during which I, out of shape and overweight, had been running around for a water fight and a giant slip-n-slide. The year-end party also marked the symbolic end of a really long busy stretch. I was exhausted at this point.

My encounter with the lady at the Tim Hortons counter:

I order two medium steeped teas, 1 milk, 1 sugar in each.

I order a small real fruit chill. “Chill, not smoothie,” I emphasize.

I notice that she has punched in a fruit smoothie, so I correct her, with an edge in my voice.

I order a chocolate glazed donut. She punches in sour cream glazed. I try to correct her several times. She keeps nodding and saying “yes”, but does not change her mistake.

I order a double chocolate. “Marble chocolate?” she asks.

Double chocolate,” I enunciate.

I order a bagel, buttered and toasted. She does not add a bagel to the order, but adds “toasted” and “buttered” to the double chocolate donut order.

I correct her. She adds the bagel.

We get our teas. She moves on to the next item and mumbles something that sounds like “smoothie.”

“Chill,” I say, just to make sure.

She brings us a Real Fruit Chill.

She comes back a moment later and says, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any sour cream glazed donuts.”

“No, we didn’t order a sour cream glazed,” I say. “I ordered a chocolate glazed.”

She then spends an inordinate amount of time rummaging through the shelves where the chocolate glazed donuts are not. Eventually we get our donuts.

We sit down.

There is cream in our teas.

*sigh*

I shouldn’t go to Tim Hortons in town when I’m tired.

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.

My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”

Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.

(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)

Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).

A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.

Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).

It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.

(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)

Defragmenting mind, heart, and body

“How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton

Today is the beginning of my first sabbatical—a three-week period for rest, recreation (play), and reorientation (study, prayer, silence). This sabbatical is a gift our church gives its pastors after every four years of ministry. It is a gift that will give back to the church, a gift with returns.

Another phrase sometimes used instead of “sabbatical” is “ministry renewal leave,” which is probably a more helpful term for people these days. An image that comes to mind is defragmenting the hard drive of a Windows PCs, which, back in the day at least, I would do from time to time to get my computer running more smoothly and faster. After a long period of use, system files get moved around—the system gets fragmented—because they’re shared with various bits of software, and so it takes more time for programs to gather their files and start up and they may run more slowly. Defragmenting is the process of putting the files back in the places they’re meant to be so that the system can operate at its best.

Similarly, after a period of years of ministry my mind, heart, and body gets fragmented as I leave pieces of all of them with people, situations, problems, ministry concerns, busyness, frustration, and so on. Some bits get lost altogether somewhere in the “system.” And I start to run more slowly, with less clarity, with less compassion and more grumpiness. A sabbatical is meant to defragment my life, to reset things, put my mind, heart, and body back together—or at the very least more together—so that I can operate at healthier levels.

That, at least, is the intention and the hope.

So I will spend a number of days resting and studying, and visiting with my mom and brother. And then I’ll spend five days at an Ignatian Retreat, being silent, praying, listening. Then the whole family will have a bit of vacation time. And I’ll have stints at home in between.

In some ways it sound idyllic, but things won’t go perfectly or as planned. I won’t accomplish all that I hope or expect to accomplish. I may get sick—that wouldn’t surprise me at all (in fact, I may feel it coming on right now). Five days of quiet retreat sounds fantastic—and I’m very much looking forward to it—but who knows what God might say to me when I actually take time to stop and listen? The mind can go to terrifying places. Perhaps more terrifying: what if I hear nothing?

Whatever happens, I hope this month to spend some time sitting with God and just being.

It’s time to sit in the sun for a while.