Thinking Out Loud

September 3, 2017

If It Seems Creepy, Cut Your Losses

Filed under: Christianity, ministry, personal — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:23 am

I was a blue-jeaned 17-year old who had come out to my youth group as a half-competent piano player. He was a well-dressed mid-20-something who the church frequently sent out to traditional, small churches as a soloist. He needed an accompanist.

He came by the house with a brown leather briefcase stuff with more sheet music than I knew had ever been printed. Church soloist stuff. Arrangements of classic hymns. Growing up in church I knew many of the songs, and the ones I couldn’t read note-for-note I could play well by ear. Not my usual repertoire, but at least a chance to serve.

He left the briefcase and encouraged me to “dig through it.”

I dug.

At the bottom were what I can only describe as a collection of erotic poems. Tame by today’s standards to be sure, but shocking and unexpected given the context. Pages of the stuff parked almost adjacent to Gaither’s “The King is Coming” and Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer.”

I was no prude. My high school friend Mark and I had the book, a pocket sized pornographic paperback we had found on a walk in the woods. I’ve never seen anything else that particular size and shape. We traded it back and forth a few times.

But I wasn’t putting myself out there as a “music ministry ambassador” for a large church. The hypocrisy of it was evident to me even at that age. And the fact that he wanted me to discover these photocopied, typed and hand-written pages was just… creepy.

I played the one church I agreed to play, and then told him I couldn’t do this moving forward. I’m not sure if I went into details. Years later, I find myself recalling the incident, but can’t think of the guy’s name or what happened to his singing career.

I had been aware enough to discern that something was wrong, but didn’t necessarily catch all the imagery in the poems. At that stage in life, I made the choice to stay blissfully ignorant.

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August 5, 2017

A Memorial Cortege

I had already planned to take a different route on Friday. Normally, I take the freeway and drive two exits to work, but I had to pick up three boxes from someone’s house, so pulling out of the driveway, I headed in a different direction.

Several minutes in, I realized these side streets were quite busy and it was easy to deduce that the highway was closed. The backup intensified so I turned on the radio.

There had been a fatal accident twelve hours prior involving a transport truck and two cars. Two people died.

For me, from that point on, with the traffic so tied up, it was like we were all part of a funeral procession, cars slowly moving past given points in honor of the deceased. It was sobering and cast a shadow over the entire workday…

…When you live near a busy motorway, there are always markers. This is where the person laid a sheet over a body at the on-ramp, this is where the teenager chose to take his life, this is where I saw the car spin out of control and roll over just before leaving for holidays.

It’s a sad but ever-present reality. On some days the highway is simply quiet. Sometimes for 15 seconds; other times for 3-4 minutes at a time. On those days you wonder what is going on. You worry…

…On your best days, a car or van is a death-trap. The drivers of the big rigs are usually the most responsible people on the freeway, but when things go wrong, they can go terribly wrong. Some question the theology of praying for “traveling mercies” but asking God for protection is probably as much a reminder to us of our vulnerability as it is a request to him.  We do our best, we drive responsibly and trust him to prompt other drivers to do the same.

July 22, 2017

A Place Where God Isn’t

Filed under: Christianity, personal — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:43 am

Crowds in Prague are looking upward, not for some spiritual reason, but rather waiting for the 12:00 Noon strike of the Astronomical Clock

First of all, let’s deal with the theological error in today’s title. No, there is no place where God is not present, but I’m sure there are many places in this world, beyond the ones that we explored, where it seems that way.

Our last tour guide said something to the effect, “Most people here [Czech Republic] do not have a religion because we’ve [collectively, historically] tried religion and we see that it doesn’t do anything [help, solve problems].”

Again, we need to look at a statement like that theologically as well, because if the Bible teaches us anything it shows that when it appears “there is no one left” it often turns out that God has a remnant of people who have stayed loyal to him.

Peering through the glass doors at the back while a Priest leads a small group in a midweek 5:00 PM mass.

In the 2011 census, 34.5% claimed no religion and 44.7% did not answer the question. That situation leaves us with 10.4% Roman Catholic, 0.5% identified with an Evangelical denomination there and 0.8% claiming affiliation with “Christian churches not exactly stated” along with even smaller percentages of other groups.

However, we know that historically, under Communism, answering a question about religion on a government survey would be unwise. It’s possible that in that combined 79.2% saying they are ‘nones’ or skipping the question there is room for belief.

Still, it stands in contrast to the vast number of cathedrals and churches and synagogues (0.01% present membership) that are clustered throughout the cities and countryside. It stands in contrast to the degree to which religious belief is interwoven throughout the country’s history.

At the end of June, a four day rally or festival was held in Prague, the third such summer event held as part of the Awakening Europe series begun with Nuremberg in 2015 and Stockholm in 2016.  On their website, one of the organizers wrote:

Even though it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world outwardly, to my heart it seemed like Nineveh, caught in the valley of decision – not knowing where to go. There are many cities like it all across Central Europe…

That’s how I felt. Despite the history. Despite the beautiful churches. The words of the tour guide keep echoing as I write this.

On the second last day, I told her that for some of us, the Jesus story is real, and vital, and life-changing and something we commit our lives to daily. She was cordial, but I felt like I was being met by a blank stare.


Awakening Europe (June 29 – July 2) on YouTube. Organizers from the UK’s GOD-TV seem to have brought a Charismatic worship style, but I hope they presented a strong apologetic that would rationally and intellectually present the Christian message to seekers. My other concern with this event is that possibly the majority of attendees were simply Christians from other parts of Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

July 18, 2017

Mingling with the Wealthy

Filed under: Christianity, personal — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:01 am

River Cruise ships are quite different from ocean liners. The long rectangular design would fit well with Ken Ham’s vision of Noah’s Ark. This was home for seven nights. We were on the middle level. The weather never started getting rough and the tiny ship was not tossed, in fact it moved seamlessly through the course of the river.

Before I get into some of the previously mentioned titles in a series of posts about our first mega vacation, I want to address the elephant in the room: The price of such a trip.

We were in some respects out of our league here. First of all, most of the people on the trip were veterans at cruising; both in terms of river cruises and ocean-liner cruises. We were complete newbies. Secondly, although the “formal” dress code in effect for the evening meal was not strictly followed by everyone to the letter, clearly my wife and I do not shop in high end establishments.

For one meal, I decided to wear a tie, since I had brought two with me. I certainly remembered how to tie it, but it felt awkward, like Saul’s armor. In our little town, about an hour’s drive east of Toronto, there is a saying that if you see a man in a suit, that’s the Funeral Director. Church is casual. Our pastor and his two sons were leaving for Africa on Sunday and as they commissioned them in prayer, I saw two guys onstage wearing shorts. It is in that type of dress code I am more comfortable. For the last year, I have worked with a dress shirt that is not tucked in. Frankly, it makes more sense for the physical requirements of the average day. I am not at home in a tie, or a belt, or clothing in general. Local bylaws do not favor any expression of the latter condition, however.

The other thing is that I am not fully comfortable in any fine dining situation that runs 2¼ hours long. While I think we both quickly adapted, the wait staff could be quite intimidating if you’re not accustomed to pampering. At least at breakfast and lunch there was a buffet format. Oh, and as an aside, I might not always know which knife to use with the fillet, but I do know if a knife hasn’t been washed properly. But one hates to nitpick.

The other thing that is always awkward in our lives is dealing with the question, “What line of work are you in?” Yikes! I don’t even know the answer to that myself. It was gratifying a couple of times to be able to say in all truthfulness that my wife co-founded a non-profit that works with the economically disadvantaged. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that for decades we’ve been economically disadvantaged ourselves.

A few times I mentioned that we “once owned a chain of bookstores and now are down to a single location.” That’s absolutely true. And I said I was a writer. Also true. But I also mentioned “ministry” and “working with churches” and “Christian publishing” to more than a few people. More on that in a future article.

And then there was the guy the very first day who summed up our situation with, “You’re here on an inheritance.” Well, yes in a way, but we also managed my mom’s finances for 13 years after my father died without receiving any compensation for doing so, nor having access to any of the funds. Some of the investments we picked for her performed well, and I have no qualms about spending some of that interest income. (Full disclosure: My mother paid my wife $200 a year for doing this. 200 Canadian dollars.)

So perhaps everybody knew we were fish out of water, and perhaps we were even the subject of some conversations. I don’t really care. At least we didn’t show up in the dining room in slippers, as one person did; nor were we rude in saying “These seats are saved” when we wanted to sit with someone who, as it turned out, wasn’t saving the seats for anyone. (I avoided the phrase, “What am I? Chopped liver?”) I got the feeling that among some of our fellow-travelers, there was a certain sense of entitlement.

So we mingled with the rich and with those spending an inheritance and with those whose how-they-got-there stories we’ll never know.

We thanked God that we got to have such an experience. Even when there were times I wondered if we really belonged.

Attending a classical music concert is something with which I do in fact have considerable familiarity. This one at the Palais Liechtenstein featured orchestral and operatic music as well as ballet. We were on the front row, which means Ruth came extremely close to being drafted for the waltz demonstration.

 

 

 

July 16, 2017

We’re Back from Europe

We are back from eleven days in Europe

In the early days of my reading faith-focused blogs — approximately 2005 to 2009 — I was often disappointed to turn to some of my favorite writers only to learn they had taken the day to talk about their latest vacation. This occurred at a time when even an out-of-state (or province in our case) trip would have been impossible. Over the years there have been four significant factors preventing us from going anywhere. In order:

  • Raising children, including one who would have been considered special needs at the time.
  • My health; though we did take some road trips.
  • Economics, especially in the sense of affording air travel.
  • My parents health which perhaps wasn’t always as much a barrier as we thought, but certainly did require us to be in daily contact, which would have complicated an overseas holiday.

So when the opportunity to catch up arose, we selected a package which took us to Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. We also passed through Slovakia which I later got to visit more closely while Ruth took a different side trip.

I knew nothing of these countries prior to leaving and did not have time to do much research. I probably could have pointed to Germany on a map and said something about wiener schnitzel, polka music and beer. (For the record, I don’t remember hearing an accordion and my beer consumption consisted of splitting one with my wife on the last day of the trip.)

As familiar as sightseeing destinations are in Paris and England and Rome, the recent terrorist activity in the first two doesn’t lend itself to worry-free touring. (I’ll grant that Germany has not escaped such events.) So we chose this particular set of countries. They were different. They were unknown. They were a nine-hour flight away.

The trip was certainly eye-opening. As I sit typing this at 5:45 in the morning — my body confused by the six hour time difference — I am reminded particularly of our reaction the first day to the historical sections of Budapest on our first full day, and our first glimpse of the old town of Prague last Wednesday. It was surreal.

We were there. It wasn’t a movie set. We saw it. We felt the bricks. We walked on the cobblestones. We pinched ourselves a few times to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

In North America, generally speaking nothing old is older than the late 1700s. Our old buildings are mostly mid-to-late 1800s. In Europe, tour guides speak of a structure saying, “this was erected in the year 921” as casually as they are reminding you not to leave personal belongings on the bus. “…And the one on the left was built in the 1100s.”

Europe is also all about cathedrals. Our last tour director — the trip was in two stages — told us that many travelers reach a the ABC stage, meaning “Another bloody castle.” But they might also say, “Another bloody cathedral.” You know your brain is saturated when, knowing the ornateness and beauty that awaits inside, you pass by because you are simply cathedraled-out.

But it does offer the opportunity to consider a number of faith-focused things. Tomorrow we’ll look at the emergence of a new group of conservative Christians in Germany, and then move on to look at

  • The very not-seeker-sensitive synagogue district in Prague
  • Resenting the church’s wealth
  • Church funding in Germany
  • Meeting people who grew up Godless

and other topics as I think of them and go through our pictures.

So that’s the line-up for this week, plus hopefully a return of the link list on Wednesday.

If you don’t want to hear about someone’s holiday excursion when having one of your own seems remote right now, please understand I totally get that.



The Eugene Peterson Thing

On the last few days of our trip an interview Religion News’ Jonathan Merritt did with Eugene Peterson blew up into a major tempest and then within 24 hours, as quickly as it had begun, the gale subsided. We’ll obviously be focused on other things this week, but here’s a 7:00 AM Sunday morning update from Religion News in case you missed it:

  • Jonathan Merritt’s column was actually the third in a series of Q&As with the author. | Read the story
  • Merritt’s question to Peterson was by no means unfounded, especially given what he said in this 2014 video. | Read the story
  • Our summer intern Madeleine Buckley looked at other prominent Christians who’ve had a change of heart on LGBT issues. | Read the story
  • Commentator Jacob Lupfer says the controversy shows that Peterson is exactly where most non-mainline Christians are — “confused, conflicted, and torn between fidelity to beliefs … and compassion for people they know and love.” | Read the story

Note: I thought what Peterson said about engaging in hypotheticals in interviews like this was brilliant; it’s hard for a pastor to answer a question which begins if there was a gay couple and if they were Christians and if they asked you to marry them…

June 27, 2017

Knowing Your Vulnerabilities

Filed under: Christianity, Faith, personal — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:51 am

Note: Some will find this article is built on a rather pessimistic or negative premise, but I hope you’ll buy in and see the lesson in this.

If you’ve read The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel you’ve seen a reference in the first chapter to Charles Templeton, once a leading Canadian pastor whose faith was suddenly shattered and he spent his prime years in agnosticism. There is a story that Billy Graham was once asked about his calling and said something to the effect, ‘I’m only doing what Charles Templeton started and didn’t finish.’

My father was a big part of the music ministry surrounding Templeton’s work, and said he felt that the trigger for Templeton’s atheism was a massive fire that took place at his Toronto church. (Parenthetically, my father was constantly reminding me that you can’t fix your eyes on an individual leader; the focus has to be on Christ.)

As I started thinking about that, I realized that a fire is a rather superficial reason for abandoning the faith, though I can’t say what bitterness could steal my heart in similar circumstances. I have often said to close friends that I become an atheist every night around 4:00 AM when after several hours of tossing and turning I can’t get into some deep sleep. I hope they know what I’m saying and don’t take it too literally. Again, superficial things.

Last week I started thinking what superficial factors could plunge me into a cycle of questioning the reality of the Christ story. I don’t mean this in the sense that I’m having a faith crisis, or that any such factors would be successful, but I wanted to better understand my own vulnerabilities. Here are two I came up with.

1. Natural disasters. This is of course a reason often used by non-believers for not embracing the idea of deity. “How could a loving God allow this to happen?” But as I watch World News Tonight with David Muir each evening and see peoples’ homes washed away, it does seem a great moment for divine intervention that didn’t take place. Remember, we’re talking about potential vulnerabilities here.

2. The actions of fellow Christians. This was the one C.S. Lewis said could prevent just about anyone from becoming a Christian. When I think of the hurt I’ve endured at the hands of fellow believers, I can very easily imagine a person of weaker faith abandoning ship.

So…what about you? Have you ever looked toward the horizon and imagined the proverbial straw that could break the proverbial camel’s back. As I said at the outset, some of you are perhaps reading this at the outset of the workday and it may seem like a very negative thing to consider, but I think it’s important to be aware of our vulnerabilities. I think it’s implicit in the warning of Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (NLT)

What personal circumstances or things in your life have the potential to eat at your core faith? What is the weak link in your faith chain?

So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall.” – 1 Cor. 10:12 Berean Study Bible.

 

 

April 8, 2017

When April Showers Come Your Way

Filed under: Christianity, personal — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:21 am

For years I’ve watched American network news and witnessed the increasing number of weather based stories. Flooding in The South and Midwest are common, but also occasionally on the west coast. I’ve always been thankful that I’ve lived in a part of the world where the roads and freeways are articulated in such a way that they don’t flood, and that homes are built to withstand the toughest winters.

Especially heartbreaking is to see families returning to damaged homes only to find that everything they’ve held near and dear has been impacted by water damage and that all such furniture, linens, pictures, toys; even sections of wall must be broken up and carried to the street before mold sets in.

And then two Spring seasons back we noticed water coming in our basement.

It was our turn. Our basement floor seems to be disintegrating.

This year it was particularly bad. Yesterday my wife filled and emptied the wet vac over 100 times. I had to work and wasn’t home to help her.

The water was never more than a couple of inches (4 cm) deep, and it was not as bad as the woman who told me of opening the door to the basement only to find the cat sitting on the top step of the stairs, as the water was up about five feet.

Complicating matters is that the basement is filled with a lifetime of files and memorabilia belonging to myself. Some of these are clearly trash, but as I go through them it’s hard not to get stuck reliving memories, or worse thinking about accomplishments for which I really have no other proof that they happened…

…In western society, a house is the most valuable asset people own. To realize its vulnerabilities is simply heartbreaking. We need to actually patch the cracks in the concrete this year and think about landscaping the front of the house to draw the water away from where it’s saturating. Neither of us are terribly skilled in these areas, but I suppose we’ll learn by doing.

 

April 6, 2017

April is a Cruel Time

Filed under: Christianity, ministry, personal — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:57 am

This image reflects a U.S. tax deadline. Fortunately we have until the 30th in Canada, but that just drags out the agony.

I don’t know how it works in the United States, but in Canada, when you own your own business, April is the worst.

First, we have to complete all of our bookkeeping for 2016. I know people who have computerized operations and are able to plug numbers in within a few days of the following year; but by law, the inventory is supposed to be a physical inventory, and in our environment with the limited staff we have, that takes time. Our overall system is computerized, but there are a number of sections that still need to be done manually, due to the nature of the business.

Second, on top of that, we also have to complete the first quarter of 2017. That’s one of the consequences of having a value added tax with quarterly filing. Don’t get me wrong, I like keeping things done throughout the year instead of having to play a massive “catch up” game at the end of the year. But in the 1st quarter, it means two things are due, one routine (the quarter) and one more involved (year end profit and loss statement.)

To add insult to injury, we’re as much as ministry as we are a business. Should I have set it up as a non-profit. I think there are a host of reasons why that wouldn’t work in the early years. But now, I’m looking at a profit for 2016 of $1,953. For the year. The whole year. And all the work that went into that. Our staff got paid. We do not take a salary. Back in the day we could pay some personal bills from the business, but those were the days of multiple locations. Good think I have my massive blog income to fall back on. Oh wait…

At least we have until April 30th, not April 15th like our U.S. cousins. But I’m always reminded of this particular song by the band Deep Purple, even though I’m sure the writer wasn’t thinking of bookkeeping. (Warning: It’s 12 minutes long, and somewhat depressing.) I wonder if the band was inspired by T. S. Eliots “Burial of the Dead” which begins, “April is the cruelest month.” 

April is a cruel time. That’s for sure. It certainly is for us.

 

April is a cruel time
Even though the sun may shine
And world looks in the shade as it slowly comes away
Still falls the April rain
And the valley’s filled with pain
And you can’t tell me quite why
As i look up to the grey sky
Where it should be blue
Grey sky where I should see you
Ask why, why it should be so
I’ll cry, say that I don’t know

Maybe once in a while I’ll forget and I’ll smile
But then the feeling comes again of an April without end
Of an April lonely as they come…

February 25, 2017

ThInKiNg OuT LoUd TuRnS 9

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, personal, writing — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:52 am

TOL Banner Red

 It’s our 9th Birthday…which means we’re now in our tenth year!

Who would have thought I’d be doing this 9 years later? I thought this year, instead of taking the time to reminisce and blow my own horn, we’d look at you guys, readers. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, thank you for your support. If this is your first day, welcome.

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First you guys have forced me to discover who I am. Yes, the various labels are annoying sometimes or a caricature of what people truly believe, but writing every day and interacting with such a broad base of news stories and opinion pieces have helped me clarify my positions on a variety of doctrinal subjects and crafting a personal theology.

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Second, you readers have inspired me to read some really great books. There are times I got on the bandwagon of trending authors and now wish I’d focused on different types of material — more from IVP perhaps — but I appreciated tracking with the titles that have frequently topped bestseller charts.

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Third, the off-the-blog fellowship that has resulted from this project is something I greatly treasure. True, it’s often still confined to the world of electrons — emails and direct messages on Twitter — but I’ve also been blessed to meet a few of you face to face.

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Finally, without Thinking Out Loud, there would never have been a Christianity 201, which has benefited me spiritually in so many ways. I thank those of you who tell me, “I read both blogs;” it is humbling to think you spend that amount of time with me on a daily basis.

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So this time around, it’s Happy Birthday to you the regular readers here at Thinking Out Loud. Thank you for keeping us among the top Christian blogs in North America.


TOL Banner Teal

February 14, 2017

I’d Marry You Again

Filed under: Christianity, family, marriage, personal — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:30 am

ruth-3-pictures

In addition to Valentine’s Day, it’s also our anniversary. Not just any anniversary, but one of those special ones that ends in a ‘5’ or a ‘0.’ A really special one.

Where did the time go?

I decided that for today’s article, I would share the text of a poem I found on a card that my father sent my mother on an equally special anniversary. Last week I put it in a very safe place. You know how those things go, right.

It was titled, “I’d Marry You Again.” You’ve possibly seen it on cards and on plaques and on goodness knows what else. But the one you’ve seen is probably the version credited to Anne Peterson. It ends,

…With all the ups and downs we’ve had
In learning to be friends
I know that in this heart of mine
I’d marry you again.

In looking around online however, I found Lynette, a blogger in South Africa who had posted a version of the poem credited to Carla Flamm. Lynette’s blog seems aimed at creative crafters and scrapbookers and I clicked the header to see if she was still writing and she is. She says her blog is, “The place where I am free to share my love for my Lord and Saviour.” That header reads, “My life: Perfectly imperfect.” So for all those reasons, this poem seemed to fit like a glove

Do you know how much I love you
How much you mean to me
I can’t imagine my life without you
My world would be empty

It seems like only yesterday
I first looked in your eyes
But the years have passed so quickly
Much to my surprise

The life we’ve made together
Our children and our home
The memories we have to cherish
How much our love has grown

Through the good times and the bad
You’ve been right by my side
You’ve made me smile, made me laugh
And wiped my tears when I have cried

You are my partner, my companion
My lover, and my best friend
If I had the chance to do it over
I’d marry you again.

I’m writing this a few days ahead, and things are a little hectic. It’s a perfectly imperfect day. But I have so very, very much to be thankful for looking back over all these ends-in-a-five-or-a-zero years. I really married up. I got the better of the deal. And it’s just for that reason that she would never admit this. She accepts me despite my brokenness, my sometimes cold responses, my frequent inability to make decisions, and even the odd bad habit. I have the greatest difficulty accepting that; accepting that I am so very blessed.

Happy Anniversary, Ruth. We’ll celebrate that in a few months when the weather is warmer. You are so intelligent, so gifted and so wonderfully unpredictable. For today, Happy Valentine’s Day.

I’m so thankful I have someone to say that to.

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