Am I just lucky?

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat with my wife, watching our three children run around a playground. We took a trip to celebrate ten years of marriage and we had spent much of our quiet time reflecting on how far we had come, what we had gone through together, and what we had accomplished. In many ways, we were watching our three greatest accomplishments (our children) and reflecting on another (our ten years of marriage).

And, it had been a great trip, experiencing the beauty of God’s creation by hiking up to breathtaking scenic lookout points and places of absolute serenity. Our kids hiked more than 7km over two days with almost no complaining. They approached each new park, hotel room and restaurant with excitement. My wife and I had nothing but happy memories to reflect on from our marriage. It was just a happy, happy time.

As I sat there reflecting, I said to my wife, “I hope we’re not just really lucky!”

This would have been the perfect time for her to say that no other man could possibly make her this happy. She could have listed off all of the conscious decisions and sacrifices we had made that had brought us to our present almost utopian reality. She could have pointed to any combination of our intelligence, faithfulness, and mostly humility as the cause of our current stability, but she didn’t. She just smiled and said, “Yeah, I don’t know. “

It would be great to be able to control our own narrative like that. It would be great to be able to say that each of us, sought out to find a companion, and because of some mixture of determination, divine providence and the proper criteria, we found what we were and should have been looking for.

Of course it is possible to tell another story; that we got lucky. Lots of people never find their soul mate, but somehow we succeeded. Lots of couples try and fail to conceive, but for us it worked right away. Then, of those couples who manage to get married, many don’t last for ten years, but we did. And we can’t say that we are somehow better and more deserving than these other people, because we know them. We know that they are as much or more intelligent, attractive, gracious, loving, faithful, and marriable than we are. So the question is obvious, why us and not them?

There are perils to embracing either story wholeheartedly. If I believe that my good fortune resulted only and completely from my work and actions, then the logical conclusion of that is that the pain and difficulties my friends experience is the direct result of their failures. So if someone were to complain to me about their plight, what could I possibly do but diagnose their failure and prescribe some kind of remedy. If I believe that I have earned nothing, then it would be best not to hold too tightly to my family because that which has come randomly will leave randomly. If someone asks for my advice, I dare not give any, because I wouldn’t have earned the right to comment on any situation, no matter how similar to mine.

There are benefits though too, and, as usual, it’s best to dwell on those. If I believe that I have done good things to earn my good situation, then I need to keep doing those things, or else I will deserve to lose those good things. In this world view, if my wife loves me, it must be because I have done something right, so I need to keep doing right by her. If my kids are happy, it must be because I have either given them a happy world, or because I have given them the tools to be happy in an unhappy world. Why would that change now? Keeping them happy and joyful will require more work. If I see my blessings as easy come easy go, then maybe I should hold them even tighter. From time to time random evil does happen; a child is kidnapped, a plane crashes, and vehicles accidentally collide. In those times all we can do is draw our loved ones closer and tell them, just in case it’s the last time that they hear it, that they are loved and valued and cared for. Shouldn’t I do the same thing all the time if my day-to-day fortunes are just as random?

You may have learned to be leary of any time a pastor presents opposing and flawed positions, but I don’t have a clever third option. I don’t even know where on the spectrum of in between options I would place myself. But I am truly happy to be where I am, and so I am committed to do whatever it takes to stay and I want to do whatever I can to demonstrate appropriate gratitude. Whatever the truth is, I want my response to be appropriate.

Donald Trump’s 3 Favourite Bible verses

As you can probably see just in the title of this post, and my spelling of the word ‘favourite’, I am Canadian, and so when I comment on American politics, I do so as an outsider, and that’s fine with me. Also, I feel that as a Christian, my primary allegiance is not to my own government either, and so when I discuss Canadian politics, I do so as an outsider here as well.

Recently, I was fascinated by an interview with front-running American Republican leadership candidate Donald Trump. Shortly before the interview, he had stated that the Bible was his favourite book. Using that as a springboard, the interviewers asked him what his favourite Bible verse was. Instead of answering the question directly, he insisted over and over that he didn’t want to get into it, and that it was very personal to him.

To me, we can take this exchange to mean one of two things. If we take him at face value, we have to presume that he is a man of faith, but that he feels his faith and his politics shouldn’t mix. This is a perspective we’ve heard before, but almost never from leaders within the Republican party. Is Donald Trump advocating the separation of church and state? So far he hasn’t been accused too often of being a liar. To a fault perhaps, he has been branded as a person who fearlessly speaks (what he perceives to be) the truth. So, maybe we need to take him seriously on this one. But, he operates in a political world where there are serious consequences to not knowing at least a little bit about his Bible, and so there exists the possibility that he might be lying. Maybe he has no favourite Bible verses. Maybe, just maybe, he was lying when he said the Bible was his favourite book. For a long time, people have been saying that America could never elect an atheist as president, but maybe Trump is about to prove that it is possible. Maybe.

As I reflected on this though, I wondered what verses he could have chosen. I came up with a few, just in case anyone from his campaign team reads this blog (they don’t) and in case he gets asked this question again (he will).

A verse that might actually inspire him, but he would never say

And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.” – Job 42: 10 (ESV)
Isn’t Job his best Biblical parallel? Except, unlike Trump, Job only declared bankruptcy once (granted, he declared it literally, a la Micheal Scott, not legally like Trump) and, unlike the Donald, he only got a new and younger wife once.

A verse that he could have actually used as a joke

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ they said. ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.” – 2 Kings 2: 23-24 (NIV)
This would have been incredible. It would have subtly communicated that he knows his Bible, that people should stop making fun of his hair (or lack thereof), and that there is a danger in picking a few verses here and there out of context. This is a tricky passage for sure, but it’s there for us to deal with, just like our politicians.

A verse that would have angered some (and surprised no one)

“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” – Matthew 26:11 (ESV)
This is not a favourite verse of social justice minded Christians, understandably so. I see it as a rebuke of Judas’ hypocrisy, the treasurer who would siphon off a little for himself, and a logical statement about the definition of poverty (ie. No matter how much we help the poor, there will always be economic disparity and we will call the people with less ‘poor’). But coming from Trump, it wouldn’t be clear if this was going to inform his economic policy, if he was discrediting the work of charities, or if he was speaking about himself as much as he was quoting Jesus.

Do you have any other suggestions for him?

Ruby’s Waitressing Dream

My daughter came home from the last day of school with a package of books, crafts and papers. It was the culmination of projects, journals and art from the whole school year, as well as information about the summer and information about the next school year. It was fun to flip through the various pages seeing her progress and seeing her journalised reflections of the events in our lives over that time. But one sheet of paper jumped out at me.

It was a print out of 25 photographs. At the centre was her teacher holding up a sign with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” All around that were the images of my daughter and her 23 classmates holding up signs with their answers. There were future doctors, artists and hockey players, and in the midst of all of their lofty goals was my daughter holding up a sign that simply read “Waitress.”

In a lot of ways, this didn’t come as a surprise. She loves organizing things and she loves serving people. When she plays with her friends, they often create menus together and then come ask the nearby adults which of the imaginary food options they would like.

Still, her choice stood out from the rest of the high paying, professionally certified and/or socially prestigious positions so much that I wondered if it reflected poorly on my parenting. In her defence, there were a few other children whose signs could also demonstrate a lack of professional ambition. A few boys had “gamer” on their placards, and while that could very well mean they just want to play video games all day long for the rest of their lives (they are already on the “can’t date my daughter” list) there is at least the potential that they want to be video game designers. One girl’s sign read “mother,” a job that often requires more ambition than I have, but is rarely held up as “successful.” I think motherhood doesn’t get the social prestige that it should, but at least you know that when a little girl writes that as her life goal, you know she has good parents. But waitressing is the kind of profession that almost nobody aspires to. The vast majority of restaurant servers are using the job as a stepping stone to something bigger, or using that job to pay the bills while they pursue other dreams on the side.

It crossed my mind that this could be some kind of cruel joke. I wondered if maybe the teacher had taken photos of the kids holding up blank sheets and then used Photoshop to write in the jobs she thought they were destined for, in a kind of Soviet style classification exercise. That might even explain the gamer label on a few of the boys (one of them was on the aforementioned list before I saw this sheet). But, in all of my interactions with the teacher, she gushed about how great my daughter was, in terms of friendliness, intellect and enthusiasm. So much so, in fact, that I was surprised when she didn’t win the academic award for Grade 1 (parenting bias may have influenced my surprise as well.)

But it isn’t that I don’t respect my restaurant servers. I am constantly impressed by their ability to remember complicated orders, deal with difficult customers, and spend the whole shift on their feet. Also, I aspire to treat everyone equally, and that has to begin with people who are put in a position to serve me. I am a good tipper and when appropriate, I like to engage our servers in conversation. I’m not claiming to be any particular waitress’ favourite customer, but I really hope that staff at the restaurants I visit feel respected in their interactions with me.

And it seems therein lies my success, and perhaps my failure. Does my daughter want to be a waitress because I have indirectly taught her that it is a position worthy of respect? Am I disappointed by that choice because deep down I don’t respect them as much as I aspire to? Either way, the odds that a person grows into the career that their six year old self chooses are quite low. Her career path will be determined by her hard work, natural skills and the opportunities that present themselves far more than it will be by the choices she makes as a six-year old. I can try to instill a good work ethic, I can do my best to nurture the abilities she has inherited, and I can do what I can to put her in touch with people and organizations that will give her the opportunities she needs to succeed. But more than any of those, I need to give her a view of the world where success is not measured by a paycheque or by the social prestige of the position you find yourself in. Success is living with integrity regardless of where life takes you, and part of that integrity involves treating everyone with respect, regardless of the status society gives them.

Soccer, an exercise in empathy

As a family grows and ages, there are certain things that are perhaps inevitable that would have seemed strange before, like buying a minivan, shopping at Costco for practical reasons, and sitting in a lawn chair at the park three times a week watching kids play soccer. This is our first year registering our kids in community sports. It was the first year our son was eligible, and I didn’t really think that our daughter who is a few years older would be interested.

Trust me, I know how that sounds. It wouldn’t be the first time I was accused of having stereotypical views of gender roles, and at times I have earned those accusations. I recognize that I may have been working on underlying prejudicial understandings when I didn’t register my daughter in soccer, but at least that wasn’t my intent.

I like to think at least that I am a pretty engaged father. I know my kids. I watched my daughter interact with her friends, and I never really observed competitive instincts, and they would always default to imaginative play, never physical play. I talked to her about school, and the stories she told about phys. ed. class were more often about getting trouble for not paying attention than they were about enjoying the sports. When I would watch sports on TV or in real life, she was never interested, except she had learned that a trip to the arena often included a trip to the concession booth. If I want to motivate her to do a chore or task quicker, it doesn’t work to suggest that it’s a race (I’m not sure what works, but that certainly doesn’t). There are of course other benefits of sports, but my daughter was already getting plenty of social opportunities through school, church and other community stuff. We would usually go for weekly family bike rides through the park, so the athletic component was taken care of as well.

My son on the other hand is constantly jumping off of furniture, bragging about how fast he can run, and walking around the house and our yard with plastic hockey sticks and golf clubs hitting balls, pucks, trees, shins and other assorted toys. He and I wrestle for fun. My wife and I have had to tell him more than once that a headbutt is not an appropriate greeting. Making a race or a game out of a task is a reasonably effective motivator for him. Soccer made sense for him, it seemed.

Fast forward to this past week, and you might understand my confusion. My son happily gets ready, is proud of his new cleats and shin pads (he can share the shin pads with his sister), and he might even run to the playing field, but the drills and the game itself soon outlast his attention span and his energy level. Not only that, but he still doesn’t quite understand certain aspects of the game. At home, we tell him to share, but on the soccer field he is supposed to take the ball away from people, but not from his own teammates. Four year old soccer players rarely pass the ball, but when his team has the ball I tell him to run up and help his team just in case some kid does get that inclination. There was one play in particular this week where he had the ball, and as the other team was collapsing in on him, he kicked the ball really hard, and it hit an opponent on the knee. The other kid wasn’t wearing shin pads, and maybe didn’t have the pain tolerance of other kids that age, but he started crying and got mad at my son. My poor boy was utterly confused. Hadn’t he done what he was supposed to do? Was hurting other kids a part of soccer? If so, he wanted nothing to do with it. Our team had fewer kids that day, and so sometime people had to play back-to-back shifts. He came off after and just wanted me to hold him. This isn’t what I thought soccer would look like.

Leading up to last night’s game, and a few games before that, my daughter had been complaining that all the other girls had scored already, but she hadn’t. Partly it’s because she younger and smaller than the other girls and lacks the speed and technical skill that the others possess. I also told her though that she is a responsible defensive player, and it’s tough to score when you run back to stop the other team from scoring, like you’re supposed to, and other players wait at half for someone to pass them the ball. Last night there was a play where a teammate was running up toward the net on the right hand side. I told Ruby to run up and help her team, even though 6-8 year old girls don’t really pass either. The other girl shot the ball, it bounced off the flexible post and rested in front of the net, and my daughter was there to tap it in. She didn’t really celebrate, except that her teammates all hugged her as they walked back to the sidelines. Other parents too were congratulating her. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t think that’s what soccer would look like either.

Gardening as an exercise in empathy

Unlike the last few years, this spring I planted some seeds. I thought it would help me connect with the land, and maybe it has and will continue to do, but I’ve already been surprised by how well it has connected me with other people and their stories.
I planted my seeds in what not so long ago was the territory of the Blackfoot people. As nomads, they relied far more on what grew naturally on the land than on what they had planted themselves. I’m not suggesting that the development of agrarian societies wasn’t good and/or necessary, but it does seem to represent a time when people switched from trusting the land and its Creator to relying on their own hard work and planning. I was trusting my seeds to the soil and its natural processes, but perhaps some people who had walked this land before me had demonstrated a greater level of faithfulness.
To do my planting, I set aside half an hour to scrape away the grass that was growing there, lay my new soil on top, plant my seeds, and then water them. However, that thirty minutes of labour actually represented a break. The rest of my morning involved reading, writing and communicating, all while seated at a desk. My time with the shovel and watering can was a welcome interruption, one that actually got my heart pumping and my skin perspiring more than anything else I would do that day. What a luxury it would seem to many of my ancestors that I could approach the task of turning and seeding the land with this recreational mindset. Pioneers and others, toiled away all their lives to clear and work the land, and they would have felt there was a nobility to their work, but the sense of duty they attached to their work was a stark contrast to the optional and novel approach that I was taking.
To complete the job that I had given myself, I had to draw on skills that were taught to me by my father. I wasn’t doing anything terribly complex, but I only knew how to plant a garden because my father taught me how. I did the planting myself, but even as I was doing that I was thinking about what kind of tasks I could invite my young children to help me with down the road. My father didn’t ask me to help in the garden because I brought with me some kind of expertise, or because my participation would speed up the process. The utilitarian value of bringing my children to help with my little patch would be small, but inherent in these tasks were important life lessons about hard work, the cycle of life, and so on. As I planted my seeds, I could identify with the man who tried to teach me these values.
With soil covering my seeds, I walked back to the shed to return my spade and to pick up a watering can. In between, I stopped in at my desk again where I found a few new emails that invited a reply. It took longer than I initially planned before I returned to water my soil. I hadn’t put much thought into the importance of the timing, until on my walk back to my patch I observed a number of birds sitting in nearby trees. I realized that my newly unpacked and loosely turned soil served as a fairly weak cover from hungry beaks. Maybe as a pastor I should have made the connection a little sooner, but in my worry about birds I remembered the words of Jesus about a farmer who sowed his seeds and some fell on the path where they were trampled by human feet and eaten by birds. Jesus told stories of farmers and seeds because it was a language that his first audiences would most easily connect with. My work as a teacher and sower of spiritual seeds can be no more effective than the proverbial sower whose seeds were eaten, choked, and under nourished as much as they were embraced and supported by good soil.
Recently, the people of nearby High River, Alberta were victims of a major flood, and for many residents, there was sitting water on their land and in their homes for weeks. If it was just water, that would have been bad enough, but these waters had picked up chemical and organic toxins further upstream, and when the waters eventually receded, these toxins were left behind. In the following spring, some residents were encouraged to plant sunflowers because these plants are particularly good at drawing those toxins out of the ground. I was planting sunflowers too, partly as a show of solidarity, but it struck me as I reflected on this story how far I was from that reality. My soil was not contaminated. No nearby buildings were water-logged. No nearby residents were kept from their homes. My ability to show solidarity in some ways depended on my privilege of not being affected by the flood in the first place.
I’m sure that if gardeners were surveyed, very few would list “solidarity” as their primary motivation. I wasn’t growing plants for food or even for beauty. In no way was I relying on them to grow for my own well-being. The pioneers of this land, and every farmer that have lived on it since, need their plants to grow and produce food. Without that, they and their customers would have starved.
Finally, I watered my seeds the first day. I came back the next day and watered them again. Then, the third day, and the fourth and the fifth, I was away, and it was hot. Was the land too dry? Would my new seedlings be parched before they could even get started? I was reminded that all of those times I had weekend plans that I didn’t want cancelled by rain, I was hoping against the deep desires of farmers all around me. It is easy for me to drive within my city, and from my home to another city, and completely ignore the dry fields and the farmers that are anxious about them. I can water my small patch, but large scale farmers face limitations that I do not.
Time will tell if my labours will be rewarded with healthy plants and flowers, but already the roots of this exercise have stretched out to connect me with the Blackfoot, the pioneers, farmers, flood victims, Jesus and my own father. So far no green sprouts have appeared, but the fruit may already be evident.

The Political Matters (or does it?)

One of the ways that I annoy my wife, is that when people call the house to ask if I want to take part in a survey, I almost always say yes. I agree, not because I’m a pushover (that’s debatable) or because it allows me to shirk other responsibilities at home, but because I am a numbers guy. While my profession and the degree I eventually got may not back this up, I am still very much interested in statistics and in statistical tools. A survey is simply a statistical tool designed to determine what a group of people thinks, and the outcome of the survey is the most reliable when participants like me are willing and honest. An election is really nothing more than a survey with more pressure to participate and more concrete results. That is really the extent of my political engagement.

During campaigning season, there is a lot of pressure on people like me to assign much more value to an election than that. They will point to the most recent election here in Alberta as proof that each vote does have the power to bring about change. But the power of each vote is the same, no matter what the election results are. At least the “your vote has power” message is the same from year to year. But it isn’t so much the power to change that I disagree with, but the value of the change or even the value of the status quo.

As I was thinking this through, I devised a test for myself. Whether you agree with my premise or not, you can follow along.

  • First we need to think of a few parallels. An election puts someone in power for four years, give or take, and maybe they stay in for longer. So we need a parallel thing that is part of your life for that long. It might be the vehicle you drive, the house or apartment you are living it, who your neighbours were, etc.
  • Then, think back to some of the biggest moments in your life. Think back to a new job offer, a graduation, a big trip, a religious conversion/awakening, the birth of a child, a marriage proposal or wedding, etc.
  • Then for each event that you think of, try to visualize it and see which details you can remember.
    • You might be able to remember the personal, ie. who else was there and maybe even what clothes you were wearing.
    • Can you also remember the secondary, ie. what vehicle you were driving, where you were living and maybe who was living beside you?
    • Now, try to remember who was in power, at a civic, provincial or national level.
    • For all of these questions, don’t think backwards. Don’t first think what year it was and then get your answers based on what you know was happening that year. Is there something inherent to your memory that brings those details out?

My guess is that many of us will be able to remember some of those personal and even secondary details, but unless a politician was part of the day, we won’t be able to link the political.

The obvious response would be that just because we don’t remember something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, but I think that it does help to recontextualize the kind of importance they have. Regardless of whether or not we are supportive or even aware of what they are doing, they are working behind the scenes (often behind closed doors) to ensure that we have new job opportunities to accept, schools to graduate from, hospitals in which our children can be born and roads on which our more memorable vehicles can drive on. The changes that happen on election day are much less drastic than ruling or opposition parties want us to believe. I’m happy to acknowledge that they are still important, but I would prefer to have their kind of behind the scenes importance be reflected in election ads.

Booking for clues

Not long ago I wasn’t really a big fan of funerals. I didn’t like how artificial they seemed and how anything remotely wrong a person did was instantly forgotten. I was uneasy with how morbid they were; that a bunch of people could casually sit in the same room as a dead body. Also, like most men, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of being a place where my emotions, grief, sympathy, fear, etc., might override my ability to maintain an outward appearance of keep-it-togetherness. So, it is still odd at times that I am now in a professional situation where I am called upon to not only participate in, but to lead these funeral services, to speak hope and comfort into an audience of mourners.

I got a random phone call from the hospital not long ago about a man on his deathbed that wanted to talk to a pastor. I went to see him and some family members and friends who had gathered at his side. I was there for an hour and a half, mostly listening and observing, but I also got to pray with him, which was a powerful thing to experience.

The gentleman passed away a few days later, and I was honoured when the family asked if I would perform the funeral. I asked if I could meet with a few of them ahead of time to talk about the man, to hear some stories and get to know a little bit more about him, so that when it came time to speak about him, I could speak from a position of honesty and understanding. They told me stories about his work and his play, but they also told me about how he would spend a lot of time, especially later in life, praying and reading the Bible. As a pastor I always love if I can use a part of the Bible as a building block to a public speaking opportunity, so I asked what he read. Did he read about the patriarchs, about the founding of the Jewish society, law and religion? Did he read the Psalms, the poems of praise and anxst? Did he read the gospels, the stories of Jesus and his followers? They didn’t know. I could tell they were worried that I didn’t believe them. He wasn’t always a church-going man, and his language was often more colourful than it was spiritual, and all of this was part of the reason I was randomly called in to the hospital than to have his normal pastor visit. They seemed worried, as though maybe I was trying to catch them in a lie and revoke my willingness to participate in and bless this service. I might have read them wrong, but I think for a moment they might have been reading me wrong.

“Can I see his Bible?” I asked.

A few of them looked around, unsure if they would be able to find it, but I already knew where it was. His Bible was sitting exactly where he had left it, beside the chair where he would sit and watch the birds, beside the pile of coasters on which he would put his morning cup of coffee, and among the photographs that showed memories of happier and healthier times.

I flipped through it, hoping to see certain passages underlined or highlighted, but even though none were, it was still clear that this was a well-read Bible. I held it up to the light, and I could see that the edges of the book that were once a shiny silver were now dulled and worn. A few pages were more crinkled than others, and so I opened it to those places. I could tell that he was the kind of reader who licked his thumb before turning the page, because there was a kind of round indentation on a lot of the top corners. The page with Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, had a coffee stain on it. The page were it talks about Jesus feeding the five thousand had a crease in it. The spine of the book was actually broken right where the book of Revelation starts.

Did he read these passages more? Did he like them? Did he hate them? Whatever these clues mean, I found this to be a highly spiritual exercise, to leaf through the pages that contained the words that brought hope to a dying man, and words that engaged his mind and spirit when he was more active. Maybe this will be lost in a generation that reads digitally. Maybe this will be lost when our whole society is spiritual but not religious. But maybe, someday someone will try to connect with me after I’m gone, and the things that I read and the things that I write will leave a trail for them to follow.

Set aside for suffering

I was supposed to have submitted this post this past Sunday, the 15th, but my schedule didn’t allow for that. The content is the same as it would have been, but since it’s not the 15th anymore, the numerical connection isn’t as strong. If that’s important for you, just bookmark this page, and read it again on April 15th. 🙂

You probably didn’t know that 15 was an important number in the Bible. You are probably more familiar with the 7 day cycle of work and rest, the 12 sons and tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 40 days and nights of testing, and maybe even the 144,000 elect in the Revelation of John. But what’s the deal with the number 15?

Jews will likely be far more aware of the Biblical signifigance of this number. A number of Jewish festivals fall on the 15th day of their respective month. Passover, when Jews mark the exodus from slavery in Egypt, falls on the 15th day of Nisan. Purim, the celebration commemorating their surviving the Persian conspiracy to destroy the Jews, falls on the 15th day of Adar. Sukkhot, Tu B’Shevat and Tu B’Av also fall on the 15th day of their respective months (Tishrei, Shevat, Av).

There are also fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Ps. 120-134) and when the pilgrims would arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, they would have to climb fifteen steps from the ground to the temple entrance.

It works it’s way into a few stories as well. During the flood, the story reads that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. Is that the highest mountain or some sort of average? That number is clearly symbolic. Later, in the book of Hosea, when his wife leaves to go back to her life of prostitution, Hosea buys her back, and the price he pays is 15 shekels of silvers.

Still, the Bible is full of numbers, and by sheer coincedence some of them will be the same as others, but the number fifteen is different for mathematical and religious reasons. You see, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have a separate set of characters for numbers than they had for letters.

As you can see in the table, one could easily put together any number from 1 to 999 using the same rules we use with our characters, except in Hebrew they read from right to left instead of from left to right. Everything works pretty consistently, except when you get to 15. To write it out with these characters, you would normally use the yodh (י) for 10 and the he (ה) for 5, except that this Y and H are the same characters that begin YHWH (יהוה), otherwise known as the name of God. So, out of respect for the name of God, they would use the tet (ט) for 9 and the vav (ו) for 6. The number fifteen is set aside and the appearance of these characters is a reminder that God’s people set things aside for God’s purposes.

Lent is supposed to be a time of setting things aside for God, with the idea that in whatever way we suffer as a result we should be drawn closer to God. This is tied to the old and often forgotten understanding that suffering itself brings us closer to God, as much or more than religious rituals. It’s a concept we’re all more or less okay with, as long as someone else is doing the suffering. We all want to believe that we have been set aside for comfort, that God is rewarding our past faithfulness with present and future comfort, so when the pain arrives, we often wonder what we have done wrong.

Near the beginning of the year I had suggested to our congregation that 2015 might be a year that we set aside for a special purpose, to discern a way forward and establish our vision going forward. That may still be happening, but it seems that maybe 2015 is a year set aside for other reasons. It’s only March, but already we know that 2015 will not be remembered as a year of good medical diagnoses and familial stability. The question is worth asking, is 2015 being set aside for us as a year of suffering?

Giving something up for Lent is probably the mildest example of a religious ritual designed to convey some measure of understanding using suffering as a delivery mechanism. One obvious flaw with this is that the things we normally give up, ie. coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fast food, reality TV, etc. are actually bad for us and in essence when Lent ends we choose to embrace our suffering once more. Another flaw is that this kind of intentional suffering is very often temporary. Suffering is not a machine that provides spiritual wisdom and then be turned off. We want to set time aside to learn and then get back to life as normal, but often time is set aside for us to suffer, and suffering becomes the new normal.

For me, this is still theoretical. As a pastor, friend and community member, I can try to lessen the suffering and I can do my best to empathize, but I am not suffering. The challenge for me, and anyone who would dare say something like ‘suffering produces wisdom’ is to not pity those who are suffering but to honour them. If we believe, and I think we should, that people are set aside for suffering, then we dare not set them aside to be excluded and forgotten.