Imagined Irritability

I don’t mind hanging out at airports. It means I’m financially comfortable enough to be able to afford to fly somewhere. It means I’m about to go somewhere exciting or I’m about to go back home and be close to my kids again.  Not everyone feels that way. That may be an understatement. It’s hard not to overhear conversations between people complaining about the ways they were inconvenienced and the injustices they experienced by having to wait longer, switch planes, move seats, etc.

The airport is an inherently divisive place. They are setup to highlight and exploit the divisions between the haves and the have-way-too-muches. The airplane itself is no different. If you have extra money and are willing to give it to the airline, you get to board the plane first and get off first. You get access to better food and drinks, bigger seats and more immediate service. On top of that, all of the other, less wealthy passengers have to walk past you and see your comfort in contrast to theirs.

I’ve recently returned from a long trip with long travel days. Buying the cheapest tickets possible meant that both leaving and returning I had two layovers and full 24 hour days between initial take-off and eventual arriving at my destination. It’s not always fun, but I can handle it. But this time something happened that had never happened to me before. I started to feel claustrophobic.

Lots of people I know fly with anxiety and so they sit by the aisle to give them the most freedom. I enjoy looking out the window, so that’s where I sit. I means less space and greater inconvenience if I need to use the bathroom, but I have a good blatter and enjoy the challenge of trying to see where we are by recognizing something I see out the window. My crisis began on the first of three flights on my way home. I arrived at the airport at 11pm and used the bathroom soon after. Upon boarding my plane at 2am, I thought about going again, but it would have been a hassle and I figured I had gone recently enough. We were maybe an hour into our four and a half hour flight when the claustrophobia set in. I was by the window, so already a smaller seat. The person beside had a larger than average frame, which ate up a bit of my precious little space. And, my checked bag came in a bit overweight, so I had to carry a few extra items with me so my lap and the storage area under the seat in front of me were both full. I took off my sweater and my shoes, which helped, but I still felt restricted. My mind filled with images of me violently stretching my arms out regardless of who might be in the way, then barging out past my seatmates where I would run screaming up and down the aisle until I was subdued and tranquilized. Instead I sat with my eyes closed using every mental trick in my arsenal to calm myself down, thinking I would only survive the ride minute by minute.

On my last flight that day, another strange thing happened. A child had made a fair bit of noise on the flight, and when we were finally disembarking, the father of the toddler apologized to everyone around him, but he did it by voicing an apology from the child. “Sorry everyone, for all the noise I made. I’m just a kid. I hope you can forgive me.” It was silly. I don’t mean him speaking as his child. I did that all the time when they were babies. I still do it. I even add fun voices. It was silly that he didn’t think we understood. Most of the people around were also adults over thirty, the vast majority of whom were entirely unphased by this. I didn’t like it, but I’ve been there myself a few times. I get it. The whole situation sucks for all of us. I would cry too if anyone would care. How could any of us hold any ill will toward that child? When I was in that situation, I worried about what people around me thought too, but I was worried they were judging my parenting, not my child. What he didn’t know is that many of us would have traded places with him, some of us out of nostalgia, some of us because we think we would do a better job. He put almost no work into quieting the child, and when he did, it was clear that the child was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of being told not to do things.

Back to my brief stint with claustrophobia. I didn’t want to trouble the people beside me. I hate doing that, especially at 3am when we’re all trying to sleep. I wanted to walk up and down the aisle, but that would have bothered even more people, including the flight attendants, so I couldn’t do that. The only thing I could do was go to the bathroom as an excuse to walk around, but how could I return to my captivity once I’d had that freedom? Finally, my seatmate at the aisle got up to go to the bathroom. The person in the middle seat moved, so I knew they were awake, and I took that as my best chance to get up. While I was waiting for the lavatory to be free, I started thinking back to my big supper, how much water I had to drink there, and how maybe this was the whole problem all along. By the time I got back to my seat, my psychological problems were gone. It turns out that my body problem combined with my social problem became a brain problem. Not only could I relax, but in the same confined space I got something resembling sleep.

The woman beside me wasn’t inconvenienced at all when I asked her to move so I could use the bathroom. Nobody looked grumpy when this toddler apologized to us through the words of his/her father. Maybe the other travellers aren’t as bad as we think. Maybe the scariest thing about travelling is that we imagine everyone around us to be the grumpiest version of ourselves. We justify their imagined irritability because in the same situation we would want our annoyance to be justified too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care what other people think. We are all connected. We should care what other people think and feel. What I’m saying is that if our greatest fear is that everyone else thinks how we think, then they aren’t the problem, we are.


The Fresno Fiasco

A lot of talk has been happening in the Mennonite twitter world (which is a pretty weird overlap of two very different realms) in the last few days about changes in a Master’s program at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Mostly connected to this article. Since I am a student in that program, I thought I would write out my thoughts publicly as well.

So, what is the program? The Masters of Arts in Ministry, Leadership and Culture is a distance ed degree offered by Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, which is a Mennonite Brethren school and part of Fresno Pacific University in California. Three big name pastors with some level of Anabaptist/Mennonite affiliation and/or conviction were signed on as guest lecturers, namely Bruxy Cavey of the meetinghouse in Ontario, Brian Zahnd of Word of Life Church in Missouri and Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. The program has weekly online classes (or synchronous sessions, whatever that means) where these pastors would each spend half an hour once a month teaching the students on various topics and taking questions from them. There are also annual residency weeks, where these pastors would fly in and give lectures and workshops. Videos of some of these lectures are available on youtube.

So, what’s the problem? While these men are leaders of large churches and authors of popular books, they are also no strangers to controversy. One central issue is that none of them hold to Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory as the fullest and only way to explain how God saves the world. Essentially PSA says that God can only forgive humanity and set aside his murderous rage towards sin and those who commit it because of Jesus’ sacrificial death. These three men, and I would argue a growing number of other pastors and theologians also, say that the Bible paints a bigger and more beautiful picture of atonement and the PSA paints a narrow and ugly picture of who God is. For some schools of thought (namely the neo-Calvinist school) to argue against PSA is to argue against the gospel, as though if God doesn’t save by blood, God doesn’t save at all. Also, Greg Boyd holds a theological/philosophical position called Open Theism. He argues that the future isn’t knowable, and so, while God knows all possibilities and has a plan for all possibilities, God doesn’t know the future. Many of the same people who defend PSA also see Open Theism as an attack on God’s omniscience (all-knowingness). It just so happens that many of the people who see Open Theism and other atonement theories as a threat to the church are also donors to the US MB church and Fresno Pacific University. Leaders within the University and the Seminary were taking regular angry phone calls with threats to withdraw donation money, and so the decision was made by the university and the denomination to disassociate with these three pastors.

So, how do you feel about this as a student? I’m disappointed by the decision, I’m disappointed by the lack of communication as the decision was being made, and I’m disappointed by the anger and narrow-mindedness that necessitated the decision. I’m not going to withdraw from the program over it, but I certainly wouldn’t have signed up for it without them. The seminary faculty are wonderful people, brilliant scholars and people of profound faith and I have enjoyed learning from them. To say that they universally endorse this decision would be inaccurate. The other students in the program have become dear friends whose company I cherish. Most them are more upset than I am, would use stronger language than I do to communicate their frustration.

A lot could be said about freedom of education, about the need for diverse voices in the pursuit of higher learning. I could say more about the need for churches to support their schools, their professors and their young students. I could easily rant about the corrupting influence of wealth, dogmatism and nationalism. All of those things inform the current crisis, but the more pivotal issue that I would like to address is the ongoing question of Mennonite identity.

Up until recently Mennonites have happily relegated themselves to minority status within the global church. Call it a kind of theological PTSD after being persecuted by more established churches during the Reformation. More and more over the years, we Mennonites have tried to claim a seat at the theological table. Whether or not we should be doing that, we’ve been so worried that we won’t fit in, that we try harder to prove that we belong there. Now, there have been basically three different approaches to that process of fitting in; some say we should fit in on the right, some say we should fit in on the left, and others say we should crawl back into the hole we crawled out of. I don’t have a problem saying there are merits to all three of those positions. Sure, we need to proclaim Jesus, build big churches and expect to fill them. Sure, we need to give to the poor and radically welcome outsiders. Sure, there is corruption in the world that we need to protect ourselves from. What happened at FPU is that the seminary said that they were going to take a seat at the emerging table and big MB churches said, “No! If you sit at that table, we won’t be welcomed at THIS table.” The funny thing is that they aren’t leaving old fashioned Mennonite reclusivism behind, they have simply switched colonies. They have simply taken the old Mennonite colony mindset into evangelical world and behaving just like the ancestors they think they have left behind. They’ve forgotten the lesson we learned that made us want to leave the colony in the first place, that when you build walls to keep people out, you will always find Jesus on the other side.

Creative Writing Fairy Tales

Vichy the Squishy dealer

This story is based on Matthew 13:  45-46.

When Jesus walked this earth, he told stories about “the Kingdom.”
He didn’t just want to help people go to heaven when they died, he wanted to show them how to live in the Kingdom now.
One of the stories he told about the Kingdom went something like this.

There was once a girl named Vichy.
And she was like a lot of people, so she liked colourful things, and she liked cartoony type things, and she especially loved squishy things.

Well, when Vichy found out that there were squishy toys, called squishies, she had to have one. And then she had to have two, and then she had to have five, and then she had to have one hundred.
Pretty soon, Vichy wasn’t just collecting squishies, but she was also buying squishies and selling squishies. Everyone knew that if you want a squishy you talk to Vichy. She would buy the small squishies for one dollar and sell them for five dollars. She would buy the big squishies for five dollars and sell them for twenty-five dollars.

Vichy started visiting toy stores and then toy factories around the country. The more squishies she bought, the more customers wanted to buy them from her. Then she started travelling around the world to squishy factories in Japan, Italy and South Africa. She was asked to join squishy design focus groups and to sit in on squishy testing circles.

One day, when she was visiting a factory that was famous for making the best squishies, she saw a squishy in a glass case. It was colourful, it was cartoony, but Vichy didn’t know how squishy this squishy was. She talked the factory owner.
“That is our most expensive squishy,” the owner said.
“Okay, but how squishy is that squishy?” asked Vichy.

The owner took the squishy from the case and put it in Vichy’s hands. Right away she knew, it was the squishiest squishy Vichy had ever squished. Then, this squishiest squishy became Vichy’s greatest wishie. But Vichy couldn’t afford the squishy.

So, she went back home, and started to sell off all of her squishies. Then, Vichy brought all of her money back to the squishy factory to buy that squishiest squishy.

So Vichy didn’t have one hundred squishies anymore. She didn’t have five or even two. Vichy had one squishy, and it was the happiest she could ever be.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like Vichy and her squishiest squishy.



I don’t try listen in when other people are talking privately. Especially not the other day, when I had gone to a local coffee shop to find a quiet place to work. Just the right number of people and all of their sounds drown each other out. Their presence becomes a kind of accountability too. But sometimes, some conversations are hard to ignore. Two friends were sitting close to me, and try as I might, I couldn’t help but pick up on everything they were saying.

They hadn’t seen each other for a year and had some catching up to do. They showed each other pictures of their children. One added another photo she had recently taken of a flower growing in her home, and explained how at that moment the sunlight was shining in through the sunroof at just the right angle to make an especially beautiful picture. The friend agreed that it was beautiful, but explained that the timing of the light was not random nor artistic timing, it was divine providence. “Because you were focusing on beauty,” she said, “that light manifested itself in your home, and you were there to capture it. I don’t think it’s coincidence at all.” This cosmic understanding seems to be increasingly popular, that the universe is primarily composed of energy, we can manipulate that energy with our thoughts, and that our emotions and feelings are the ultimate reality.

The discussion continued, and one casually mentioned the she had been recently divorced. The friend responded with concern. She apologized for not knowing this had happened, and asked if she was okay. She responded by saying that everything was fine, that she felt the marriage had run its course and that time had come for her to spread her wings. The friend asked again how she felt, and she insisted that she was fine. “I feel free, to be honest,” she said.

For all I know this could have a screen, masking her pain and hiding the stories of abuse and neglect that would warrant her sense of freedom. Those deeper reasons may have been too private for this friendship and were certainly none of my business. None of this was my business, but the conversation happened right beside me, at a volume I couldn’t ignore. While there may have been deeper, darker validations for the divorce, this surface level rationale for divorce is given more often than you might think. The friend, also divorced, went on to joke with her about how so many people are concerned, or even worse, disapproving, of their situation. Their discussion about the narrow-mindedness of their friends and family was interrupted by a phone call.

On the other end of the call was the teenage son of this newly divorced woman. He went on to explain (in a voice that I could also hear, through no effort of my own) that he was tired and wanted to call in sick for work that evening. His mother communicated her displeasure. He went on to explain that he was tired, and that he no longer felt the same as he did when he first agreed to work that shift. Whether it was intentional or not, he was using her logic and her words to defend his feelings and his desires (and lack thereof). And yet, even with her sentiments mirrored back to her, she was unmoved. “No,” she insisted, as any good mother would, “you made a commitment and you need to stick to that.” She went on to explain that he had given his word, and that mean the had to stand by it. He needed to stick by his word when things were difficult and when things were easy.

“I don’t miss those days,” the friend, whose children were now grown adults, said after the call ended.

I was still trying not to pay attention, and I was trying even harder not to draw their attention to what seemed like pretty obvious hypocrisy to me. They went on to talk about the difficulties of parenting teens and adults. For my story-telling purposes, it would have been handy if they said something like, “You know, you try to influence your kids, but they pick up bad habits” or “They’re going to need to learn that their actions have consequences and you just hope that when it happens, nobody gets hurt.” They may have said those words, they are the kind of things parents say about children entering adulthood. Again, I wasn’t listening to everything, so I might have missed some important details. But they probably didn’t say anything like that, because if they did, it might have been too much for me, and I would have been tempted to break the sacred bond between adjacent strangers, that we not involve ourselves in or develop opinions about each other’s lives.

I hear you teenage son. You have been taught to trust your feelings, but when you follow the example of the ones who are supposed to teach you about commitment and integrity the support and affirmation comes to end. What’s happened is that your feelings have come in direct contrast with theirs. You are both learning about consequences, and it will hurt.


Anabaptism Book Reviews

TV show review: PURE (CBC)

Back at the beginning of the year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation released a new TV show called “Pure.” It was set in a Mexican Mennonite community in southern Ontario, similar to mine in a lot of ways (and different in some key ways too). It’s a rare privilege to get that kind of media attention, but since the fictional community was involved in the cross border drug trade, most of the Mennonites I know were quite critical of the portrayal.

Since there were only six episodes, and there is no word on a second season, the odds are that if you were going to watch it, you would have already, but in case you are holding out until now, I’ll help you decide if it would be worthwhile for you. All six episodes and some extra features are still available on the CBC website here.

This show is not for everyone, including a lot of Mennonites I know. A lot of people, because of their values and sensitivities won’t be able to enjoy Pure. So, if you are disturbed by the sight of people getting shot, dead bodies (including children) being dragged away to be disposed of, or inaccurate portrayals of Low German Mennonite culture, you probably shouldn’t watch this show.

There was a clear parallel between this show and Breaking Bad (which I haven’t watched, but read people’s tweets about it); an unlikely figure gets caught up in the drug trade out of desperation, and through a combination of virtue, determination and cunning, stays one step ahead of the evil knocking at their door (or do they?)

A lot has been written about the cultural inaccuracies. Their depiction of clothing, transportation, and acculturation are inconsistent with Canadian Old Colony Mennonite life. I suspect those choices were made intentionally to appear believable to the mainstream Canadian audience, rather than a lack of research by Pure’s producers. The use of Low German in the show proved that they had done research, and the actors were clearly coached, and while I wouldn’t expect them to get the accent right, some of the Low German scenes were quite good.

Like most shows, it’s easier to enjoy it if you simply watch it for entertainment without reading cultural statements into the content. That’s just easier to do when you aren’t part of the cultural group being depicted. While lots of people pointed out that their use of horse and buggies was inaccurate, nobody was offended that they didn’t use Chevy Suburbans instead. The offense was because of the insinuations that producing and distributing drugs and the murder and corruption that comes with it is commonplace among Mexican Mennonites. In their defense, the CBC did base this story on real events. There continue to be Mennonites in Mexico being used as mules to bring drugs across the border into the US and Canada, just like there are Mennonites here that produce, sell and consume those same drugs, but that isn’t the majority and shouldn’t be the only story that is told of my people. Fortunately, most people watch TV for fun, without attaching cultural labels. Very few Harry Potter fans are trying out real witchcraft and Breaking Bad fans aren’t asking their local chemistry teachers for drugs.

The truth is that for the Mennonites to be used in this story this way is a compliment. The corruption of these Mennonite characters is the ongoing twist of the show. You don’t expect them to be involved in drugs, but they are. Just like you don’t expect the bad guy to be good, but he sort of is, and you don’t expect the inept policeman to be capable and determined, but he is. The whole story hinges on the positive reputation of the Mennonite people. It would be an easier compliment to take if the opposite wasn’t also true.

The CBC also recently produced a TV show called “Little Mosque on the Prairie” which was based around a Muslim community in a prairie town and their daily struggle to reassure their neighbours that they weren’t terrorists. While it was a comedy and Pure was a drama, the underlying question was the same; have you ever considered that your stereotypes of this religious minority are inaccurate? The Old Colony Mexican Mennonites in Canada aren’t as crooked as the characters in Pure and the Muslims in Canada aren’t necessarily as quirky and charming as the characters in Little Mosque on the Prairie. I have met fantastic people in both communities, models of hard work, graciousness, religious devotion and piety. I’ve also met people in both groups that fall short of their own communities’ standards. It’s just that if your culture is going to be portrayed inaccurately, you would hope it’s a positive portrayal.

In order to get the most out of your Pure viewing experience, you need to be prepared to walk the fine line between valuing the Mennonites’ positive reputation and acknowleging that it isn’t always true. You have to want them to make good decisions and then be prepared when they inevitably make bad decisions to discuss what other bad decision they would be more likely to make.

I regret not watching and analyzing the show sooner, but the experience has given me a lot of food for thought, so this will be the first in a series of blog posts about the show.


Sad songs, happy people

Usually, the podcasts I listen to are sermons from other churches, so that I can steal ideas from be inspired by other preachers. I also listen to a few other thinkers and sports commentators, including quasi-Canadian, quasi-Mennonite Malcolm Gladwell. His podcast is entitled “Revisionist History” and in this most recent season (which you can find here), he had an episode called the King of Tears. In it, he contrasted the sad and complex songs in country music to the simplistic and happy songs in the popular/rock music sphere.

This was not a new debate to me. My parents grew up loving country music and were quick to critique the loud, abrasive rock music (or schunt as my father would call it in Low German, meaning garbage) and they feared how the songs about sex, drugs and wild living would influence us.

They wouldn’t have had the ability or desire to analyse the complexities of the songs or the musical styles, but they liked country music at a profound level. They liked how easily you could sing along to country music. They appreciated the sounds of the steel and acoustic guitars. They were drawn to the personalities of the country music scene, upstanding men and women with pretty smiles and clean-cut western clothing. But something was amiss.

Mom and Dad had collected vinyl records before we kids came along and absorbed their disposable income, and we enjoyed listening to those albums too. One song on one of the albums had the lyrics, “wham bam thank you ma’am” on it. My brother and I were too young to know what it meant (and if my older sisters knew what it meant, they didn’t tell us), and it was fun to sing along. All of a sudden that record disappeared from our music collection.

As a teenager, even though I didn’t listen to a lot of rock music, I grew tired of the moral superiority of country music fans. Certainly the industry had good, clean musicians singing good, clean songs, but there were no shortage of exceptions. I could easily find examples of how country songs and the artists who performed them were no more morally sound than rock stars. I happily used those examples to point out the hypocrisy of my parents and others like them. Now, I’ve come around, but I still have questions.

My parents loved Johnny Cash and June Carter’s song “Jackson.” And why not? It’s a fun song performed by fantastic musicians and beautiful harmonies. But it’s a song about a couple celebrating their failing marriage and impending infidelities. “Ring of Fire” is on that same album, a song June Carter wrote about falling in love with a man she shouldn’t and suffering the consequences of that illicit and immoral attraction. The Revisionist History episode I mentioned focussed on George Jones’ song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song about a man who spun into depression, drug abuse and alcoholism after his wife left him and how he was only freed from that heartbreak and its destructive cycle by his own death. That song was almost a biography of George Jones’ life, as he needed to pull out of a similar destructive cycle just to record that song.

In some ways, you would think that my parents didn’t belong in that world. My dad once got a novelty bottle opener as a promotional gift at some event. The first thing he did when he brought it home was to try to scratch the name “Labatt’s” off the front of it. I’m sure if you asked my parents to explain what the phrase, “snort a line of coke” meant, they would be utterly incapable of the task. Their marriage had issues like anyone else, but when they found about a couple they knew getting a divorce, they participated in the collective Mennonite experience of shame, mourning the demise of a sacred union. This wasn’t always the case, but I now credit most of that to them as righteousness.

So, why did these clean living people sing along so heartily to the sad songs of alcoholic, drug-abusing divorcees? I really think it’s just the rural pop culture equivalent of the songs of lament that our Bible is so full of. We can only climb the mountain tops of Hallelujah after we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 137: 1-4, CEB
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Book Reviews Resourcing the church

Movie Review: The Shack

For this review, I contemplated ranking my experience of The Shack among my other most profound movie experiences. It was difficult to come up with a list. It might be because I’m getting older and my memory is slipping, but I think there are other factors at work. Sometimes the movies that seek to inspire fail to entertain and so they fail to engage the mind, at least for simple people like me. Sometimes the movies that inspired me did so accidentally because I only watched the movie to be entertained.  Accomplishing both entertainment and inspiration is a rare feat. The profound movie experiences that I remember are the final scene of Das Boot (a german movie about a WWII submarine crew), No Man’s Land (a movie about the Bosnian war), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood is a lonely, racist white guy, and then he isn’t). I watch faith-based films from time to time, but they sometimes fail to inspire because they are trying so hard to inspire and because the content is pushed through the fine filters of orthodoxy that very little of what get’s through (including the reaction of the viewers) is genuine.

If The Shack is filtered for orthodoxy, it wasn’t filtered very well.  I don’t say that as an attack but as a compliment. The story is genuine. The questions, the pain and the tears are real.

The movie, based on the book by William Paul Young, tells the story of a man stricken with grief over the abduction and murder of his young daughter who receives a strange invitation to visit the Shack where her daughter’s killer had stayed. He accepts the invitation and, at the shack, he encounters God, asks some of his own questions and is guided through a process of healing and release.

Inevitably, there has been controversy around this book, and there will be around the movie. Because it presents a Christian message, it will be rejected on both sides; both for presenting truth claims that people don’t like and for not being Christian enough. It’s a no-win situation, but here are some of the controversies/complaints the movie will set off, and my response to them.

The portrayal of God – The most vocal controversy around the film is the presentation of God as a black woman, and later as a First Nations man (played by Canadian Oneida actor Graham Greene). God is also addressed by the seemingly non-reverent title of Papa. There are elements of racism behind the objections to these portrayals, but they are also connected to another problem the film seeks to address. We should broaden our palette so that we can see majestic and revered figures portrayed by actors that aren’t just white men, but we also need to deepen our understanding of God so that we can see God as weak, humble and different from us.

The answers God/Papa gives – I don’t think there are any churches who would say that all of the answers given are what they claim to teach. Most pastors I know would cringe at some answers and/or want to add words above and beyond other answers. The God from this movie is never angry, isn’t uptight about rules, and loves and forgives everyone for everything. People want to believe in an angry God who punishes evil people, and not just rigid theologians and pastors, but people who hear and experience stories of the murder of children. Whether it’s therapy or theology, sometimes we want an angry God, and so this depiction should be controversial and should stir up good and necessary conversations.

The film medium – A book is a limited medium by which to tell a story. Whether a person buys or borrows it, they have to commit hours and hours to focus on it, engage with its content and mentally imagine the scenarios. A movie makes it much easier. A person just needs to sit still for a while (The Shack is long at 2h12m) and the pictures are presented, and very little engagement or thought is necessary. But a film is also limited. Only so much can be presented on the screen. Special effects budget, acting skills and editing deadlines all impact how the story is received. This generally a weakness for faith-based films and this one is no different, but it also touches on deeper questions. Some argue it isn’t good to portray God in human form at all, and then on top of that, each other role that these actors take on risk tainting these portrayals of Christianity’s most revered figures.

The portrayal of pain – I’m not interested in film critics who hate the movie or in theologians who hate the theology, there will be many of both, but I want to know if people resonate with this presentation of pain and the response to it. That’s the real controversy here. There is no more sacred space for me than to walk with people through their joy and pain. I know that for me as an outsider and even as a spiritual leader to try to explain away or contextualize people’s pain is pretty shaky ground. My greatest regrets in ministry are things I’ve said to hurting people. The measure of this movie will not be it’s Hollywood credentials or its theological orthodoxy, but whether it responds to pain in a way that is real and right and good.


Hockey Knights

From time to time the National Hockey League looks around to see if, by any chance, they have left money on the table somewhere. Recently, businessmen in Las Vegas, Nevada expressed interest in buying a sports franchise, and when they were willing to pay the $500 million expansion fee, the NHL gave them a franchise. They struggled for a while to come with a name that hadn’t already been copyrighted by someone else, so when they were ready to announce their name and logo to the world, they made a big deal of it. And whenever people make a big deal out of something, the twitter world responds.

Call me crazy, but I don’t mind the idea of a hockey team in Vegas, and I am okay with the logo and the name, but by gauging the online response,  I may be in the minority. The name they came up with was the Vegas Golden Knights and their logo is a simple green and gold helmet in front of a black crest.

Negative responses were pretty predictable, but one hockey fan in particular latched on to a few things that others hadn’t noticed. As a history scholar, she took issue with inaccuracies and misrepresentations in their branding. First, what else could it mean to be a golden knight, she asked, except that their armour would be made out of gold, and given how soft and valuable gold is it would make that knight weaker and bigger target. Also, she said that the helmet was a Corinthian design, which predates the medieval understanding of knighthood by over a thousand years. She was irate, in a twitter kind of way, that these glaring errors would have been overlooked in the design and branding phase.

The day after her rant, a friend of hers responded, trying to point out something that she might have been missing. He said, “The helmet forms the shape of the letter V.” Not everyone sees it right away, apparently, but it is a central part of the logo, the central part maybe. The V isn’t made out of the metal of the helmet, though, it is found in the empty space around it. In artistic terms, it is created in the negative space. She still didn’t like the logo, but at least she could understand where they were coming from.

This woman isn’t alone in her inability to see shapes emerge from negative space, but that doesn’t stop designers from trying to employ it for that purpose.

Many of us also use this kind of negative space tactic, but in entirely different ways. I hardly drink any alcohol, I don’t cheat on my taxes, and I’ve never been to a strip club. All of those are intentional and they reflect, in some ways, the kind of person I want to be, but if I try to build my identity around them, I would fall short. We cannot create an identity out of what we are not. We cannot be defined by the negative space of our lives.

Christians are especially vulnerable to doing this. We take pride in the rules that they follow, calling them to avoid certain temptations. We also want to distance ourselves from other believers who we see as wrong about God, so we are Christians, but not that kind of Christian. Yes, I’m still part of the church, but I don’t go to that church anymore. There are atheists like this too. While they are adamant that there is no God, they are very specific about the God they don’t believe in.

The trouble is that this is a much easier way to define ourselves. Rather than doing the hard work to see what makes sense in the context of a hurting world, rather than looking close enough to see the grays where we once there were only blacks and whites, we recline into what is most comfortable. Rather than carving out an identity based on what we do, who are and what we believe, we fan the flames of other people’s animosity by assuring them that we are not the ones they hate. But it’s a futile game. No matter who you are and what you stand for, people will hate you. So take a chance, own who you are and what you believe.


Moving on up

Jerry Seinfeld famously put ‘helping someone move’ just below ‘driving someone to the airport’ on the scale of things you can only ask a good friend to do. I know some people resent being asked to do this kind of favour, but not me. My line of work leaves me with a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and calling, but not manliness. I don’t know what masculinity would look like in a pastor, and I don’t know if it would be a good thing. But when I’m at work, I don’t swing a hammer, I don’t throw sacks of grain over my shoulder, and when I come home, I don’t need to shower or even change my clothes to look presentable. In my current hobbies, I don’t take slapshots or kick fieldgoals or try in any way to exert my physical dominance over other men. Helping friends move is one of the few ways I have where I can connect with that kind of masculinity.

Now, I recognize that me equating many of those things with what it means to be a man is maybe part of the problem. I do get to “feel like a man” in other ways. When my wife and children come to me for protection, I feel like a man. When they feel that can rely on my love and support, when they know they can count on my continued presence, and when they implement the lessons I’ve taught them and are better off for it, I feel like a man too. Of course these are not the exclusive domain of men, or fathers and husbands. Still, for right or wrong, this is how many of us are wired.

So, when I was asked recently to help some friends move, I was happy to assist. As often happens, the tasks were divided along gender lines; the organizing and cleaning was being done by the women and the heavy work of lugging stuff around was being done by the men. It isn’t just grunt work though, we men were doing problem solving too. We needed to optimize storage space in the moving van, navigate stairwells with long and oddly shaped furniture, and then position the van to best facilitate unloading.

But as we started bringing things into the new place, I observed something interesting. None of us men, even the Man living there, felt comfortable determining where to place things. That kind of decision making fell on the Woman. All of us waited with varying sizes of loads to take instructions from her. Anyone watching from the outside would say that she was in charge, and yet none of us felt inferior for needing her direction. There were no jokes about anyone being emasculated or whipped and no accusations of the wrong person wearing the pants. One might simply say that we all understood our roles within the larger task of moving. We could maybe pat ourselves on the back at being modern, liberated men who have created and are now enjoying an egalitarian paradise.

This exampled is a little overstated, but it does reflect a larger parttern that many people have ben observing lately. More and more, it seems, in churches and various community organizations, the decisions are being made by women, who were perhaps all along better suited for the process of sitting around and talking about the options, weighing the pros and cons, and evaluating if the necessary resources could be made available. And the men, who no longer seem interested in sitting on committees and attending meetings, show up to do the work. The minutes might not show who pushed the wheelbarrow or who sanded and then repainted the equipment shed, but the job got done.

Traditionalists have long worried that women are taking over. All of this has made me ask myself if/when then that happens, and if it’s done right, will the men even mind?

There are a number of tangible and intangible rewards for heping a friend move. The intangibles are probably enough; a hug and a handshake of appreciation, a strengthened friendship, new friends made, the sense that the favour may some day be returned. The tangibles help too; a cold drink in the shade and a hearty meal when it’s all done (I didn’t have time to stay for the food in this instance, sadly.) But this time, each of us men were also given a Starbucks gift card, as a token of apprecition, which at least one of the guys and I immediately gave to our wives when we got home.

* I recognize that much of this post relies on gender stereotypes that can easily undermine the contributions of a lot of valuable people in our society. I know that a couch can be carried effectively regardless of who is holding up the other end, a wall is painted and a committee is chaired well regardless of who is in charge. I don’t pretend to fully understand the nuances of what it means to be a man in today’s society, nor do I pretend to be able to prescribe what modern womanhood can and should look like.The roles of men and women in our world are changing, and from the haze around those adjustments, I offer these thoughts.


Permission to feel pain

It’s fun to watch a group of adults when children are playing nearby. The parents especially interesting, because while they are mindful of their children and any inherent risks involved in their play, for their own sanity they like to interact with other adults while they can. Of course, the civilized discourse is inevitably interrupted by a child screaming, but before any parent or caregiver goes running to respond, they all listen to see whose child it is. It is remarkable to me how a parent knows immediately that their child is screaming, but nobody else has any idea who it is. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, but these parental instincts come in handy.

I’m not sure on the science of it, but, in some ways, this works because parents are, in some ways, wired to feel the pain their children are feeling. Our son has tested this empathy a few times lately. A while ago, Sebastian woke up fine but very soon started crying. Another instinct I developed as part of a large family was telling the difference between a cry born out of pain, anger or just the desire for attention. My children are capable of all three, but this was definitely a cry of pain. There was no indication that something had happened, no external marks or bruises, and little to no explanation was possible through his cries. Since it seemed to be an abdominal pain, I suggested he sit on the toilet, while I went to talk with his mother about how I had no idea what the problem was, whether or not we should administer pain killers and who was prepared to take him to the clinic. While we talked, we heard a light chuckle from the bathroom. “I’m better now!” he declared. This cause of immense pain, that we were unable to diagnose, was simply a full bladder.

Another time we had returned from a family drive and the two girls were awake, but when we pulled in the driveway, Sebastian was asleep. Rather than wake him and transport him to a bed, I decided to stay in the van until he woke up. I sat reading social media updates on my phone while his napped continued. Again, he woke up, looked around, and then started screaming in pain. I investigated his leg wher he said the pain was coming from, and again there was no bruising or any evidence of something poking him. None of the more dramatic possibilities made sense, so amidst his assertions that it really, really hurt, I asked if it felt like a whole bunch of little needles were poking his leg. He agreed that this was a reasonable description of the pain he was feeling. So, I tried to do for him what I always do for myself when my leg falls asleep, and that’s to massage the muscles until the feeling goes away. He insisted that it was making things worse, not better, and didn’t let me do that anymore.

I had to stifle a laugh that the cause of this great tragedy was simply a lack of circulation, and not all of the more serious possibilites I had conjured up. I continued to reassure him that it would go away soon, and as I did I realized that from time-to-time, I would like it if someone would sympathize with my pain when my legs go numb from sitting the wrong way.

A time will probably come when he can laugh at the notion of these sensations creating those anguished cries, but in the meantime, he has a right to feel that pain. Grief, sorrow, anxiety and pain can make us act differently than we normally would. Other people who are unfamiliar with our pain can often make things worse with their lack of empathy, but that doesn’t mean that our pain is any less legitimate. I believe that pain is part of a God-given process that tells something is off, in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our world. Pain is often our trigger to repair the problem, and so it is a necessary, albeit unpleasant, part of the solution as well (when a solution exists).

This world needs fewer people criticizing the pain we feel and the ways we respond to it, and more people to walk with us in our pain towards a healthier body, community, and world.