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I’m walking, look at me

Sunday morning I challenged my congregation to do a few things.  I suggested they should pray more if they aren’t already praying regularly.  I also suggested that they could use the words of the Psalms as their prayer or at least to frame their prayer.  Those, while perhaps new for me, are pretty standard things for a pastor to suggest to his congregation.  The other thing I added was a challenge to go for a walk.

Walking is good exercise, better for the environment than driving, etc. but walking is a chance to get away from the worries of our life. Walking can be a profound time of closeness to God.

I have little control over who will follow my advice, but the biggest question isn’t will anyone else do what I say, the greatest question to me is will I do what I say.

So, tonight, I went for a walk.  The distance and the destination aren’t terribly relevant.  I walked for about half an hour, and it wasn’t long before my mind started cycling through the various pertinent issues of my life. But rather than arrive at some sort of epiphany, I simply replayed conversations in my mind. If anything I found myself re-convincing myself of the things I had already said.  This reminded me of another spiritual quest.

My memory can’t give me any new information, so what is the point of reflecting on it?

I’m likely not the only one who feels this way, but when I am in a conversation/argument where the same things are being said over and over again and there doesn’t seem to be any progress, I would rather not be there.  I would rather leave.  More than once I have left a conversation like that to go for a walk. When I go for a walk though, I keep hearing the argument played out.  I hear again and again what was said to me, and repeat in my mind the words that I said back. I reiterate why I was write to say those words.  But I cannot leave that conversation.  Not only am I reminded of my words, but I am reminded of the ineffectiveness of them.  When I go for a walk after a stressful conversation, I am putting myself in the shoes of my opponent. I hear my own words over and over again. I start to realize that they were not good enough, and I start to understand that I need to either say different words or say my words differently.

So, while I haven’t gotten any new information, the parts of memory have assembled themselves and I am farther ahead than when I left.

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He Still Believes

Do you know the Count of Monte Cristo?  You may have read the book, and if so, my hat goes off to you, because it’s quite long.  You may have seen one of the various film adaptations of it.  This epic tale told by Alexandre Dumas hits at something central to our understanding of the world.  It has become one of the main stories that is referred to when people are talking about revenge, one of the main themes of the book.

In one of my favourite movies, Shawshank Redemption, this book is donated to the library and the inmates are unsure if it should be filed under fiction or educational, since it deals with a prison break.  The recent blockbuster movie V for Vendetta refers to an older film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, available in glorious Technicolor.  All three of these stories, the original and the two that refer back to it, are stories of revenge and redemption.

Certainly redemption is a theme that I, as a pastor, like to dwell on from time to time, there is something else in this story that captures my attention, but there are other things about it that I love.

There is a movie version that was released in 2002, where the main character, Edmond Dantes, is played by Jim Caviezel.  This was his first big movie after playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  So it was an odd feeling to see a man who I had only recently seen as The Prince of Peace wandering around France on a quest to kill his former friend.

Spoiler Alert.  In the story, Edmond Dantes is imprisoned unjustly.  One day a fellow prisoner, who also happens to be a former priest, mistakenly digs a tunnel into Dantes’ cell and the two become friends.   The teacher-student relationship they develop is heart warming, but it is also fodder for some great quotes.

After admitting he once told a lie, the priest defends himself by saying, “I’m a priest, not a saint.”

Despite being centuries old, this tale presents to us a wonderfully contemporary approach to inter-faith dialogue. The priest speaks of God and Dantes, having suffered though years of undeserved torture, responds by communicating his lack of faith.

By far my favourite conversation is when the priest lays dying.  He is imparting final instructions on his friend and warns him not to carry out the revenge that is in his heart.  The priest quotes the Bible, “God says, ‘Vengeance is mine.’”  Dantes looks at him, bewildered that this priest has not yet understood that he has given up his faith and Biblical reasoning will not deter his plans.  “But I don’t believe in God,” is his response.  Without hesitation, the priest answers and says, “It doesn’t matter, he believes in you.”

For some this is a reassuring statement about the nature of God.  For others, this is simply a clever turn of phrase.  For me, this is a model of Christian-Atheist dialogue that our society is sadly lacking.  Our most prevalent example of this conversation is usually when a celebrity atheist is debating a prominent Christian and they are exchanging insults and referring to their non-overlapping spheres of knowledge to outdo each other.

On the surface, it would appear that this is no shortage of angry atheists who want to knock down the church by any means necessary.  They will point to countless unhealthy models of Christianity in the past to discount the church’s credibility as a moral institution.  They will point to scientific research to discredit the validity of various Biblical accounts.  They will appeal to political processes try to remove aspects of Christianity from our cultural institutions that are remnants of a different time. The church usually responds in kind, and often initiates the attack, calling atheists soulless, immoral and worse.  Without seeking to understand each other, this kind of conversation quickly deteriorates.

What I like about the conversation in the movie/book, is that the priest knows full well the abuse Dantes has suffered and knows how those events could sap a man of his belief in a benevolent Creator.  He knows the pain that went into Dantes’ renunciation of faith and still he offers this gentle assurance.  His statement is not a guilt trip, an academic challenge or a call to faith, it is simply a reassuring word.

I have gotten to know a number of atheists in my life.  Usually we decide not to make our disagreement about the nature of the universe as the defining feature of our relationship. I respect that they have come to their views for a reason.  I assume that we can coexist and cooperate on mutual interests. Like the priest in the Count of Monte Cristo, I am sure that God still believes in them, and so maybe I should believe in them too.

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I Love Atheists

Every now and then I get to have some fun with a sermon series at my church. This August is one of those times.  I have decided to talk about a group of people long marginalized by the church, atheists.

It’s no secret that some atheists make it hard for Christians to like them, some have made careers of it.  But I’m sure that there are even more Christians that make it pretty hard for atheists to like them.  While we may have a fundamental disagreement abut how the world works, I still think there is a lot we can learn from each other.

Both Christians and Atheists believe that their worldview will help to make the world a better place, so why can’t we agree to work together to make the world a better place rather than arguing abut our motivating factors. Just like people join the church and reject atheism for different reasons, people become atheists and reject faith for different reasons. So let’s take an honest look at why people reject our worldview and respond honesty t those criticisms.

My plan is to take four weeks to cover this topic.  Each week I will talk about a prominent atheist and the “school” of atheism they represent. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and some people might be embarrassed by their randomly assigned representatives, but this is the list I have chosen.

Week 1 – Richard Dawkins

Many people are atheists because they have embraced a fully scientific view of the origins of the world and they believe that leaves no room for a divine creator. Richard Dawkins is a prominent scientist who sees things this way and has written a book, “The Greatest Show on Earth” to spell this out.  He explains the origins and evolution of life on this earth and explains why the scientific view is not only logical, but also paints a picture of a beautiful natural world.

(A description of a recent CBC Tapestry program featuring Dawkins can be found here – http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2010/07/18/richard-dawkins-1/ – the link to hear the episode seems to not be working)

Week 2 – Ricky Gervais

Other people get caught up in the philosophical framework within with the church operates.  In his recent movie, “The Invention of Lying,” comedian Ricky Gervais postulates that a world without lying would have no church.  He also suggests that Christian notions of heaven and hell, sin and monogamy sound like someone’s desperate attempt at keeping people in line.

Here is a clip from his movie – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEMN64KEsKc The premise of the movie is that Gervais’ character is the only person on earth that can lie, and in this scene he is trying to cover for his previous lie about heaven by explaining how heaven works.

Week 3 – Adam Carolla

For some people, the idea that they have to label themselves by what they don’t believe in sounds ridiculous. They don’t believe in fairies or vampires either, but they never have to introduce themselves as afairyists or avampirists.  Whereas Christianity is a faith that people choose, sometimes atheism just means that people haven’t chosen anything, and they have no interest in choosing something.  Still though, their morality and even their vocbulary are heavily influenced by Christianity.  Ironically, there are many people who have little mre than a default Christianity, and their morality and vocabulary are more influenced by atheism than they are willing to admit.

Week 4 – Alain de Botton

A new wave of atheists are starting to realize that institutional religion actually did a lot of good in the world.  People like essayist Alain the Botton are starting to encourage people to embrace the structure of religion, even if they’ve rejected the belief in a divine being, etc.  At the same time, Christians all over the world are rejecting the institutional aspects of their faith tradition.  Are we facing an impending reality where there is organized atheism and anti-institutional Christianity?

Many of Mr. de Botton’s views on institutionalizing atheism can be found in his recent book, “Religion for Atheists” available for sale here.

I welcome any feedback about this initiative.  Please feel free to leave your constructive thoughts below.

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I always knew they were wrong

It might not look like it, but I am an egalitarian.  In Christian theological terms, that means I believe that (among other things), in the eyes of God, men and women are of equal value and that the traditionally understood Biblical list of spiritual gifts are given to men and women alike.

I understand that there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary.  After all, I am a Mennonite pastor, I live in Alberta, my wife adopted my last name and she generally keeps quiet regarding matters of church business.

My cultural background is probably the biggest reason people might be skeptical of me claiming this position.  Like most immigrant communities, the men I knew were much quicker to switch from cultural to mainstream clothing than the women were.  The women interacted less with the world around them and so they were slower to learn the language and other cultural norms.  Some of that was voluntary, some was externally enforced, and some of it was simply the reality of what they understood as their domestic responsibilities.

I grew up with five older sisters and no matter how busy they were or how unbusy I was, they were called upon to wash the dishes, etc.  I still assert that the jobs my dad invented that I needed to do were a lot harder than my sisters realized, but they did way more work than I did.

The church I attended had rules against hiring female pastors, but there were no women clamoring for the opportunity either.

The message I got was that I, as a man, was by definition stronger, smarter and a more capable leader than my sisters or any of my female counterparts at school or church.  That message was what I repeated back to others, rarely trying to be sensitive, humble, or even logically consistent.  The trouble, besides the offense I caused to my well-meaning teachers and classmates, was that deep down I knew that message was wrong.

The girls in my school classes weren’t just better behaved and more respectful, they were smarter than the boys, a lot smarter.  (I’m not trying to be had on these guys, but our culture didn’t push guys to achieve academically, so most of them didn’t try. Many of these guys would go on to demonstrate their considerable intelligence in a variety of ways.)  The girls at my church demonstrated a much deeper and more sincere spirituality than the guys did.  The girls were more committed to church teachings, they were more active in evangelism and they took ownership of what was happening at church, despite the fact that much of our activities were geared toward attracting more guys to come.  (The secret is that activities don’t bring guys to youth group events, girls do.)

Even though they could never dream of being ordained, even though they didn’t want to marry pastors or missionaries, and even though their talents could easily have led them to secular college programs with more lucrative careers, these girls attended Bible college in droves.

If us guys did as much as they did, the church would have interpreted that as a sign of leadership potential. Since it was just the girls, people wondered if they were just desperate to find boyfriends. (Desperate or not, the pickings must have been pretty slim.  Almost all of them graduated single and eventually had to marry less educated, less religiously devoted men.)

All of this evidence was in the back of my mind as I went off to college. There, I met women who were aspiring to be leaders.  I had the opportunity to visit churches where women were the pastors.  While I knew there wasn’t anything sinful about their leadership, I used the fact that their sermons didn’t inspire as my last shred of counter-evidence against women in church leadership.  Since then, I have realized a few things that have removed any and all obstacles.  I saw that there are a variety of speaking styles, and lots of other people were engaged by those other speakers. I learned that my level of engagement doesn’t determine someone else’s success as a leader.  I realized there are a wide variety of other pastoral duties that many women, including my wife, could do better than me.

My own marriage is a metaphor too.  I respects my leadership, and I respect hers.  Each of us has the freedom to correct the other, and when we’re in the right frame of mind, we might even listen to that correction.  I have different responsibilities, skills and opportunities, but we are in a relationship of co-dependence.  She relies on me, and I rely on her.

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Maybe Trayvon Martin stood his ground

These days, you might see more people wearing hooded sweatshirts than normal.  You might see more people eating Skittles than normal. If you notice this, don’t feel intimidated. If this warning sounds absurd, it should.

South of the border, there is a news story that is stirring up racial tension and is bringing to light some questionable legal decisions and processes.

There are a few indisputable facts in this story.

On the evening of February 26th of this year, a 17 year old man name Trayvon Martin was walking home and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. He just stopped at a convenience store where he had purchased an ice tea and a bag of Skittles.  He explained to his girlfriend that he was being followed, and, during the call, yelled back asking why the guy was following him. His girlfriend told him to run, and they hung up the phone.

The man following him was a 28 year old named George Zimmerman. He was a self-appointed neighbourhood watch captain who suspected young Mr. Martin was up to no good.  Mr. Zimmerman had called 911 about Martin’s presence. The dispatcher assured him that police were on the way and that he need not continue following, and they hung up the phone.

What happens next is up for dispute, but the end result is not.

Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher received other calls from that area, reporting shouting and a gunshot had been heard.  When the police arrived, they found Trayvon Martin lying dead, face down, with George Zimmerman nearby.  Mr. Zimmerman claimed that Mr. Martin had attacked him, and so he fired his gun in self-defense.  There were no other witnesses. The evidence at the scene seemed to corroborate his story, and he was released the same day.

This has caused an outcry in the African-American community because Trayvon Martin is black and George Zimmerman is white. Would law enforcement officers have been so lenient if the races were reversed?

Details continue to emerge about this story, and many of them are unflattering toward the victim.  At the time of the shooting he was serving suspension from his school for having been found with an empty baggie of marijuana.  Police say that the condition the shooter was in at the scene suggested a violent altercation had taken place, with the victim being the aggressor.

Besides the race issue, the biggest thing being debated is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.  A number of other states have similar laws in place.  It states that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”  This legal provision gives an individual great leeway to determine what constitutes a valid threat and it puts the onus on the courts to prove that the threat wasn’t credible.

So, in this case, George Zimmerman felt that was in imminent danger of serious harm, despite the fact that he was at least 25 pounds heavier, 10 years older and the only one carrying a gun, and so he was legally entitled to use deadly force to protect himself.  The popular opinion however was that Martin was the hapless victim and Zimmerman the violent aggressor.  If the story of Martin’s violent attack is true, that weakens that perception, but I think it points to a greater truth.

Zimmerman had been following Martin.  Zimmerman had a gun and was physically larger than Martin. The young boy would have had good reason that he was in imminent danger.  According to Florida state law, he was no legally compelled to flee and could use whatever force he deemed necessary to defend himself.  In theory, he could have beaten Zimmerman to death and been protected under the law.

I am exaggerating, but I am doing so to prove a point. If the story of Martin’s attack on Zimmerman is true (and video footage of Zimmerman later that night seems to suggest otherwise) it would obviously be an escalation of the violence.  Zimmerman had a legal right not to flee and he too could escalate the violence.  The result of this escalation is what we are dealing with now.

Traditional Jewish teaching was that “an eye for an eye” was suitable justice, limiting the victim to exact no greater harm than was caused to them.  Jesus brought a different message of love, forgiveness and prayer, not just for our friends, but for our enemies and those who persecute us as well.

The escalation of violence often begins when we see ourselves, either as a nation or as individuals, as victims. We use the status that we give ourselves to validate any show of force we have in mind.  But the path to peace, the road to reconciliation begins when one side refuses to exercise their right to escalate the situation.

This story is not over. So far the protests have been peaceful. So far cooler heads have prevailed and higher governmental powers have initiated due process to see if the recourse pursued was adequate. Whether or not that will not bring justice, we have been given a model of what happens when two sides are legally entitled to escalate violence.

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Brown-named handsome man

There are a lot of people who don’t follow the news because it’s too depressing.  Sometimes I am tempted to join them.

I wasn’t a huge music buff growing up, so I was never a big Whitney Houston fan. Still, her name was big enough that parts of her private life were common knowledge. I didn’t know who Bobby Brown was except that he was married to her.  I didn’t know any of his songs, or even recognize that he was a musician, but I knew that he had been physically abusive to his wife, and the two of them had abused drugs together.

A part of that sage ended on February 11th this year with her untimely death.  While the official autopsy has not yet released her cause of death, it would be hard to believe that it wasn’t somehow drug related.  And then, as if to prove that death could not end this conflict, there was a story that Bobby Brown left the funeral early after objecting to being asked to move more than once.  The Grammy Awards were held the next day and the program had a noticeably somber tone because of Whitney’s absence.

And then there was a scary coincidence, almost like we needed a reminder of what had happened to Whitney.  Bobby Brown’s name was in the news with Whitney’s passing.  The circumstances of her death reminded many that it was likely his influence that worsened her drug habit.  The day after Whitney’s death, her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, had to be hospitalized.  With all of this in the minds of everyone watching and attending the Grammy Awards, another Brown took to the stage.

Immediately after Jennifer Hudson performed a song in tribute of Whitney Houston, Chris Brown took to the stage a second time.  He also won an award during the ceremony.  There is no relation between Chris Brown and Bobby Brown, but there is a similarity in their stories. I don’t know any of Chris Brown’s music.  Apparently he’s good.  What I do know about him is that in 2009 he beat up his girlfriend at the time, fellow R&B performer Rihanna, so bad that she was admitted to the hospital.  A picture of her bruised and swollen face was released to the media soon after.

Chris Brown turned himself in shortly after the incident, and hired a crisis response team.  His official response was that “Words cannot begin to express how sorry and saddened I am over what transpired.”  Twitter would later give him an opportunity to find those words.

Many people have been slow to forgive Chris Brown, which may be partly be because he hasn’t asked for forgiveness or demonstrated contrition.  In response to a number of critics during and after the Grammy Award show, Brown wrote on Twitter that his Grammy win was an ultimate tell off to all his haters (I’ve cleaned up the words he used).

So what does it matter that a man who has been given a second chance by the music industry doesn’t seem apologetic over his social media?  Maybe it doesn’t, but what’s worrying is that Brown and Rihanna have been seen spending time together.  Despite the five-year restraining order placed on him, he was at her most recent birthday party and there is speculation that they have recorded music together lately that will be released for sale soon.

This may be a case of the media and regular schmoes like me sticking their nose in on celebrities personal lives.  Naturally I wouldn’t want people all over the world to be talking about my relationship developments on their social media pages either.  But since his private life is being played out in public, and his story involves a domestic abuse situation, I as a father and as a pastor am allowed to be curious and concerned.

Grass has not yet grown over Whitney’s grave and this story is unfolding in front of our eyes.  I don’t follow pop music except for the events that make it to the newspapers. I hope that the young people around me who listen to this music know how dangerous this situation is.

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Manning Up

Did you see that video a little while ago where the American soldiers were videotaped urinating on the corpses of deceased Taliban fighters?  It was disturbing, to say the least.  Understandably, it made newspaper headline all around the world.

What ever happened to that story?  Were the soldiers identified and brought to justice?  Was a formal apology issued?  Were other military personnel educated about the inappropriateness of those actions?  As a non-American civilian, I may never know.  I can speculate that all of these things would be a best case scenario.  Ideally some of these things would happen as part of a larger recognition of wrongdoing.  Hopefully the response would be as much about repairing harmed international relationships as it would be about saving face. One can dream.

While we don’t know what happened there, we do know what is happening in a similar case. A few years before this urinating soldiers video, there was another video released secretly that became known as the “collateral murder” video. It showed video footage taken from a US military helicopter. In the video, you can see unarmed civilians (two of them were later identified as Reuters journalists) being fired on and killed by the soldiers in the helicopter.  The video also provides audio of the soldiers laughing about the scene. Whereas the other one mysteriously appeared on YouTube all of a sudden, this one was released by Wikileaks, a website that invited people to anonymously submit secret information.

While we may hum and haw about what might happen to the soldiers in the peeing video, there is one person I hadn’t asked about.  What about the person who released the video to the public? The video was probably shot with military equipment, or at least by military personnel on military time.  Shouldn’t this person face military discipline?  But sure, you might be saying, surely someone who witnesses this kind of immoral and/or criminal behaviour is obligated to release evidence and should be protected when they do so.

In the second case, there has been no mention of what happened to the soldiers who fired on and killed unarmed civilians. There has been no explanation made of what, if anything, was done to apologize the families of those killed. There is however one ongoing criminal case, which had a hearing today, that is connected to this video’s story.

The man who released that video to the public has been held in captivity for two years, much of that time in solitary confinement.  During the arraignment hearing today, he chose not to enter a plea, which buys his defense team some time to strategize.  He faces 22 charges, the most serious of which is aiding the enemy.

Every now and then, there is an event that foreign journalists are more interested than the local ones, and this was it. Perhaps if this played out in the open, the military might lose the public opinion poll. Does a video like this aid the enemy?  Does this kind of thing enrage the enemy so much that more soldier’s lives are endangered?  If the answer to both of these question is no, and I believe that it is, then an innocent man is being put in prison for the rest of his life.

Not only is he innocent, but he should be help up as a hero.  After WWII, the Americans tried all sorts of German prisoners with war crimes.  The common plea was that they were just following orders.  The American judges declared that despite the political and legal climate at the time, each of them as human being were called to a higher level of dignity and should have refused the Nazi orders.  Even the American legal system requires that soldier report war crimes.  So, is it a war crime to shoot innocent, unarmed, uninvolved civilians and journalists, or is it a crime to release a video of that?

The trouble with war crimes is, that when you win, there is no one to try you for the crimes you do. This case, unfortunately has nothing to do with war crimes. It has everything to do with making the US military look bad.  Rather than punish the decision makers at the top for giving them a bad name, they punish the ones at the bottom who haven’t bought 100% in to the propaganda machine.

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Welcome

Thank you for visiting this website. I will be posting some writing as well as sermon podcasts. I welcome comments on both.

This explanation is available in the “About Us” section, but this is why I’ve chosen the name “Third Way.”

For centuries, followers of Jesus around the world have felt that there are only two ways to follow Jesus, the right way or the wrong way, the Catholic way or the Protestant way, the state sactioned way or the rebellious way, the orthodox way or not at all. In his life, Jesus rejected this kind of binary thinking, and he calls us to do the same.

People asked Jesus all sorts of questions and they would often give him only two answers to choose from. Was it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we stone this woman caught in adultery or break the law and let her go? Is it right to heal on the Sabbath or not? Each time Jesus faced a question like this he challenged the ones asking to look outside of their binary thinking.

Other teachings of Jesus reinforced the same concept. Often people have to choose between risking their lives and trying to kill the enemies they hate or saving their lives and accepting their status as victims. Jesus calls us to a radical third way. His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount tell us to refuse to be victimized but also to risk our lives and love our enemies.

That kind of third way thinking needs to inform the way we live and they way we see God.