Thinking Out Loud

November 1, 2018

Doing Evangelism Inside a Brothel*

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, Faith, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:31 am

When I started blogging 10½ years ago, I vowed to keep the thing faith-focused. I prided myself on avoiding distractions such as the technology itself, or posting pictures of the latest family vacation in a pre-Facebook, my-life-is-perfect manner. With Twitter, I relaxed the standard a little, but try to avoid getting dragged into the trending topic of the day.

About a month ago, I realized the overall lack of civility and the need to vent anger for which Twitter is famous was seeping into my own writing here on WordPress. I wrote two pieces condemning two Christian leaders for whom I felt the judgment was a rather open-and-shut case, only to be met with those who were willing to support actions which went against the way of Jesus but somehow fell into the catchment area of grace toward a beloved individual, even as the facts stated otherwise. “Our football team doesn’t really have a designated quarterback, but I know we’re going to win the State Championship.” Believe what you want, I suppose.

I also wrote a piece in praise of another Christian leader only to be condemned myself for my support; this from people who have not spent the time I have examining his writing and his sermon podcasts.

At that point — having already granted myself permission when I was away in July — I allowed myself the freedom to simply skip days of writing here for only the second time since the blog’s inception 10+ years ago. I needed the time away.

For me, the whole thing had become analogous to doing evangelism in a brothel.* There’s nothing wrong with the motivation or the message or even the methodology, but the location isn’t exactly desirable. Even as I write this, and I look at the state of social media in November, 2018, I have to ask myself if this platform has the worth it had when I began. It’s become a dark place. The people who say, “I don’t do the blogs;” struck me a decade ago as people who were missing out on some stimulating information and discussion. Today they seem like the wise Magi in Matthew 2 who have opted to ‘take a different route.’

For that reason, I have freed myself (again) from the constraint of needing to publish daily. There are other ways to be an influencer, such as using the same amount of time to have coffee with a friend, or sending a series of emails to someone showing a common interest in a particular Bible teacher or teaching.

Would Jesus be on social media?

I think it would exist but he’d assign one of ‘the twelve’ to maintaining the blog and Twitter account. His life and ministry were about real world encounters with people in need; not lengthy tomes defending a certain position.

When the discussion got too heated — “then they picked up stones to kill him” — he simply retreated or disappeared for a few days.


*with apologies to those who in fact, really do evangelism in a brothel, such as xxxchurch.com who set up display booths at adult-entertainment industry trade shows, or author Greg Paul whose ministry through Sanctuary Church in downtown Toronto actually does attract sex-trade workers looking for a place for weekend worship. You have my utmost respect.

further apologies to UK readers who’ll note that ‘football’ was used here in the American sense.

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October 12, 2018

Another Blogger Lost to the World of 280 Characters?

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:03 am

A milestone last night!

Visit anytime at: https://twitter.com/PaulW1lk1nson

The nice thing about Twitter is that nobody there is ever angry.

[pauses for ironic moment]

In case you now find yourself wanting to hear the song, here it is:

September 22, 2018

Handicapped Access: Mixed Feelings

Filed under: Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:14 pm

Depending on how search engines pick up today’s headline, this could be blogging suicide. How much of a Grinch do you need to be in order to deny people in wheelchairs access to things to which everybody else has access?

But the fact remains that as we as a society try to do to the outdoors what we’ve already done to the indoors, certain compromises will be required.

That’s what was in my thoughts were a few weeks when we returned to an area which has always held very strong memories known as the Waterfront Trail. We live on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Well, actually we live in a house on the north shore. Uh, technically we’re more like 2-3 miles north. So we have access to beaches and parks along the shoreline, including a section of partly wilderness-y trail. It’s been far from ignored; much work has gone into maintaining it over the years, but you do get the effect of being removed from everything urban.

So it had been awhile, and some friends had never seen it, so we went for a hike.

The changes were more shocking than anything. In order to provide a fully accessible experience, many trees had been cut, paths had been widened, and the entire route had been reconfigured at one point. To me, it had lost much of the heart of what had made it special over the years.

Yeah, I was being a jerk about the whole thing.

But here’s the key point: To our friends, who had never seen it before, it was beautiful. These are the memories that they will always have, having never seen it before…

I write all this because they’re now doing the same type of thing in a beautiful section of ravine that I’ve always held as the best place to experience a worship moment. One of my favorite places in the world. I know it’s never going to be the same, and I lament the loss of its natural look. Hopefully they don’t go as far as to put down asphalt or add artificial lighting, but I realize we do need to share the space with those who otherwise wouldn’t get to see it.

Plus, given different circumstances, that could be me in the future.

And I would probably want to see an approximation of what I remember, than never get to return again.

So the conclusion is: Ambivalence. It probably applies to much of life.

 

March 8, 2018

Who Does This?

At least once a week, after she’s packed the 7- and 8-year old off to school and the 3-year old is still sleeping, Marion goes to her computer and opens WordPress and shares something from the previous week with the entire world. That world, according to statistics, consists of 15-20 people per post; at least six of which are relatives and another half dozen are friends; all of whom get a notification on Facebook that she’s written something new. Of course, she has more Facebook friends than that, but apparently many aren’t interested enough to click through. She’s glad she doesn’t know who’s who.

The other 3-7 people daily? Could be anyone who is anywhere on the globe. She’s had some interesting comments, including recurring ones from someone who, after tracing the IP address, is somewhere in Idaho. She feels like she’s getting to know this person better than the so-called FB “friends” who can’t be bothered to tune in when she posts her thoughts.

I got thinking along these lines yesterday when I decided to see what my own writing looked like on my smartphone, given the significance of the day. “I’ve done 400 of these;” I said to myself; adding, “This isn’t normal; normal people don’t do this.” It’s true. Most people, if they have a social media platform that permits anything more than a paragraph, tend to write less frequent, less researched compositions. Yesterday, Wednesday Link List #400 took hours, several of which involved deciding how to collect and arrange screenshots of the various versions which had led up to the standardization of the WLL name…

My wife and I have discussed this before with respect to worship leading. Attending a church of hundreds, we noticed that very few aspired to standing up before the entire assembly and open their mouths and start singing. Many would be embarrassed to be up there doing anything, others would simply be frozen at the ‘what do I wear?’ stage.

But both her and I do this as second nature. Not only singing, but choosing the songs and preparing the congregation for some of them with a verbal introduction, or what is traditionally termed a Call to Worship. At least once someone suggested to me that people aren’t clamoring to replace us, which got me thinking about many different aspects of our particular area of local church service. Do we look a little strange doing this? Aren’t most people afraid of public speaking? Could we just get on with the sermon? Should I pay more attention to what I should wear?

As I’ve mentioned before, the WLL has something in common with other things I have done, such as, a long time ago, hosting a Christian radio program. For me, that was all about choosing the songs. It’s based in a desire to want to share musicians and songs with people for the first time that they will then want to have playing in their home or vehicle or workplace on a regular basis.

Or starting a Christian bookstore. Again, who does this? For most people starting a business — any type of business — is rather daunting. It’s also about connecting people and resources. I don’t always get to pursue my own agenda — there are some Christian authors in my personal library who simply wouldn’t appeal to my store customers — however, introducing people to new writers happens on a regular basis, though not to the degree I’d like. (Recommendations by their pastor or favorite televangelist remain the top influencers.)

One day we started a bookstore in just a few hours. We drove to a town we’d only been through once or twice before, met with a local pastor, viewed a location, checked out two or three other options, drove back to the first one, picked up a copy of the lease, arranged to purchase the fixtures of an adjacent store which was closing, called the utilities to arrange for power and phone service… and then we looked at the clock.

It was lunchtime. We went to the food court of a local mall and walked around and considered the possibility that the day was young, and we could drive to another city and do it all over again before suppertime. We didn’t, but it would have made for a great story.

Repeating the question, who does this? I guess we do.

Space does not us today to consider the projects and initiatives my wife has begun. I don’t think either of us are particular Type A people. We’re not up at the crack of dawn. Our house looks like a robbery just took place. We habitually procrastinate.

There is a similar temperament; at least we get each other.

Probably many other bloggers do the link/roundup thing. They’re not all like Marion, the Mommy Blogger. At the heart of putting your writing out there in a public forum is the idea of sharing, be it your own opinions, or links to others who have good ideals or analysis.

 

February 23, 2018

Ten Years of Thinking Out Loud

Today and tomorrow we’re celebrating ten years of this blog’s existence; ten years without missing a single day, as far as I can remember. Because the anniversary falls on a Saturday, I thought we’d spread this out over two days, but then again, we might take our cue from the wedding at Cana, and just let things go on for a week. Here’s some things gleaned from earlier anniversary notes.

Year Zero – The blog began in 2008 by accident. It was a continuation of a newsletter I was sending to a rather limited number (about 250) of people. Someone commented that they really didn’t like the newsletter itself, but they liked the little editorials I would add to it. I had a huge catalog of material to post so there were at least two items daily. In December, 2008, there were 70 posts. Not sure I could do that now.

Year One – Blogging was a big thing in within the Christian community in 2009. People were actively leaving comments all over each other’s pages and there were fewer trolls. Much of my best material was posted as comments on other blogs. There was a huge connection to whatever Christian publishing was releasing. Bloggers made many Christian bestsellers happen. As a book guy, I was now being flooded with review copies that had never happened in Christian retail, even though the stores need to sell the product for the system not to collapse.

Year Two On that anniversary I wrote, “I also want to continue to make this a blog for the ‘spiritual commoner.’ That’s the person who feels he or she has a real contribution to make to the life of their church, Christian fellowship or broader community, but isn’t as resourced as today’s modern pastor who, already equipped with both an undergrad and graduate degree, is still taking courses and jetting off to conferences.” In 2010 a lot of people were still on dial-up internet, so we were the blog that was kind to them and didn’t embed videos. We made up for it later.

Year Three – I began with, “I remember years ago participating in a discussion about the ’emerging’ internet where the main concern ran something like this, ‘How are they ever going to get enough content to keep those websites supplied with fresh material?'” I guess that problem solved itself. Thinking Out Loud enjoyed a good run in terms of blog stats due to posting things about the financial problems at The Crystal Cathedral and pictures of televangelists homes. No other blog writers found either interesting at the time, but if you needed to know Google was quite happy to send you here. Also noted, “Some of the best things that happen as a result of all this online activity are never seen online.” So true today as well.

Year Four – Blog anniversaries were routine by then, so I could be more whimsical: “On our stats page, ‘Akismet has protected your site from 294,600 spam comments already.’ I don’t know how that compares with the big boys, but I’m honored just to think that on 294,600 occasions Russian models and manufacturers of imitation European handbags found this particular blog so worth spamming. And while the rest of the blog stats may pale in comparison, just think how quickly they are about to rise now that we’ve used the phrase ‘Russian models.’”

Year Five – At the 2013 anniversary mark, I took time to mention the blog’s greatest spinoff effect: “And then there’s Christianity 201, which is very much a part of the Thinking Out Loud story. If you have trouble maintaining a steady Bible study and devotional habit, then start a Bible study and devotional blog. Seriously. Even if nobody shows up to read, it is its own reward…” I’m not the poster child for spiritual discipline, so doing this blog’s ‘little sister’ faithfully every day — even if some days I work on three articles at once — since April, 2010 has probably contributed to my own spiritual walk and, dare I say it, preservation. Christianity 201 is something I needed to force myself to do. A few days after that anniversary, I also joined Twitter.

At one time, blog counters were quite the rage, but you could rig the starting number before it kicked in.

Year Six – For 22 months, the Wednesday Link List became part of the Christianity Today family. I will always be grateful for that opportunity; it has always had, and still has, a stellar group of writers associated with it. In 2014, I wrote,”I still believe it’s a greater thing to make the news (in a good way, not the weird stories) than it is to simply write the news. But I don’t mind playing scribe if it means I get to choose some things I think are worth noting as part of each week’s passing scene… I enjoy simply giving away content here each day as long as people come by even though this, combined with my equally non-remunerative vocation was recently calculated to represent a loss of income over the past 20 years in the neighborhood of $1,000,000.00; The phrase “Do Not Attempt” should be at the bottom of each page.” This was one of my most candid posts, and one where I began to lament the situation whereby the blog has visibility and is read by people in many different countries, but in terms of local churches here, I’ve never been invited to the ministerial table. I still don’t get that.

Year Seven – I was becoming increasingly aware of the tribalism in Christianity at the same time I noted that, with some exceptions, blog platforms like WordPress were losing readers to short-form platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I also noted that, “I am forced to read the widest variety of Christian news and opinion pieces from a vast field of writers I might not otherwise consider. I may disagree totally with what they wrote Thursday and Saturday, but if they make some good points on Friday, I want to be able to celebrate that. I’d like to think that I am capable of sitting down for coffee with any writer who has trusted in the atoning work of Christ on Calvary for salvation. I do know that some of them might not want to reciprocate that. That is unfortunate and I believe grieves the Holy Spirit… I guess I’m just grateful for what this writing platform had done for my own Christian growth and understanding of the Church, the body of Christ. I’m also thankful for the books it compels me to read which enhance my understanding of God and His ways. And last, I’m thankful for you, the faithful readers whose page views and link clicks demonstrate a shared interest in these things.” That’s true today as well.

Year Eight – By design, I don’t talk much about my personal life or include pictures of myself here. Two years ago, I did a Q&A format anniversary article and attempted to fill in some blanks: “My beliefs are each rather hybrid in nature. On church government, I’m congregational but I believe in structure and accountability. On women in ministry, I am more sympathetic to the egalitarian position, but with a recognition of God-ordained differences between men and women. On eschatology, I believe ‘we see in part and we prophesy in part’ and that many of the models currently taught are still somewhat insufficient. On worship, I prefer doctrinal substance over empty emotion, but at the same time think that we can be passionate about God, about Jesus and about theology in general. On supernatural spiritual gifts such as miracles and tongues, I calculate that if 50% of the people are faking it, that means that 50% are having some type of genuine experience… Some doctrinal issues are above my pay grade. This is one of the few blogs that has risen to prominence that is written by someone who is not a pastor, not a seminary professor, not a local church pastor. I believe we can appreciate the complexity of a subject like substitutionary atonement or divine foreknowledge without having to dissect it, just as one can be a connoisseur of fine foods without necessarily being a great cook. If I can, in my lifetime, fully master just two things — incarnation and atonement — then I will have accomplished much.”

Most of our readers either love or hate the Wednesday List Lynx, Thinking Out Loud’s most recurring character. But he (or she; we’re not sure) wanted to wish us a Happy Anniversary.

Year Nine – Eventually you start repeating material, so last year I mentioned the value of all the books I have been privileged to review; the off-the-blog interactions; the development of the C201 blog project; but I began with, “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. Thank you for keeping us among the top Christian blogs in North America.” (The anniversary post last year was a day late, because of the sudden impact of the Family Christian Stores closing. I do try to respond to breaking news, though not each and every story.)

Year Ten – Which brings us to today, or more accurately, tomorrow. Not sure what we’ll do. I would have liked to include some quotations, but most of what appears here only works well in its full, original context. Besides, that would be a bit narcissistic. If you’re away tomorrow, don’t forget March 7th is the 400th edition of the Wednesday Link List.

December 26, 2017

Of a Christmas Yet to Come

Filed under: Christianity, Christmas, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:31 am

This is the third of the four stories we’re presenting over the Christmas season; two by myself and two by my wife.

by Paul Wilkinson

The Winterfest parade snaked its way down the main street and stopped near the town hall where, as had been the custom of the past few years, local performers entertained the crowds which had followed the parade’s last float.

You could still sense a little unease, particularly among the older residents at the changes which had taken place. By the start of the 2020s the so-called “silly debates” about saying “Merry Christmas” had ceased and had been replaced with genuine interest in the historical roots of the season. But now, here we were a decade later, the few remaining local churches had lost their tax exempt status and the mere verbalization of partisan religious sentiment had become a misdemeanor.

I was so relieved not to have to have this event as an assignment. The reporter for the regional news organization I work for didn’t dare use the C-word, and even when covering things in an historical sense, or clarifying the laws, I had to get special permission to include it in an article.

Especially upset were those who had held membership in local churches which had closed. I stood next to two men who I’d seen in one church the week of its final services.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No it isn’t,” said the other.

They left it at that, speaking a forced code because city police were milling about and any sustained references could constitute an unlawful assembly. Better to save that for the living room of a private home.

It is strange though how they look the other way sometimes. It was widely rumoured that a few weeks before the 25th about 60 of the faithful attended a house meeting in a suburban neighborhood, parking their cars at the mall to avoid attention. When nearby residents confronted the situation the town said they knew about the event and that it was a “discussion of philosophical and ethical concerns” to avoid it escalating into a mass confrontation.

I remember just a few years ago when business owners were told that signs and decorations bearing “Merry Christmas!” should not only be removed, but that they should be taken to large bins where they would be pulped and recycled. “Season’s Greetings!” and “Happy Holidays!” replaced them, but in quiet whispers I often would tell friends that the word holiday actually means… well, you know. I don’t think anyone envisioned how far things would go.

As the talent portion of the program began, I chose a spot standing next to Mayor Jason Herold whose reputation is such that everyone else is afraid to be anywhere near him. We know each other personally, and generally get along.

The selections this year were especially traditional and they had invited some talented younger vocalists from other cities to participate; I wondered if perhaps they had won a contest or something like that. First, a girl from a nearby city did a jazzy version of Winter Wonderland and then a boy from a town several miles west with an incredible vocal range did Sleighride and at one point we all sang Deck The Halls.

Next, a young man stepped to the platform and completely unaccompanied began to sing,

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed.

Everybody knew where he was headed with this and a few people turned around to glance at Mayor Herold at the same time as two members of the police also looked as though waiting for a cue from the Mayor.

“Let him finish it,” was all he said.

…Mary was that mother mild.
Jesus Christ, her little child.

Mayor Herold left the spot where we were standing and slipped backstage as the young man, his voice shaking, sang all five verses. As he left the stage he was escorted by the two uniformed officers into a waiting cruiser, his eyes filled with tears.

As my colleague would post to our website, “The talent portion of the Winterfest parade was marred when a guest ameteur artist performed a song which was deemed inappropriate. He was charged under the recent act banning public religious expression and released several hours later to await further trial.”

In the meantime, I decided to walk nearby where the two men I’d seen earlier were standing.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No it isn’t,” said the other.

As I made my way to the parking lot, I heard more than one person humming the tune. It seemed that with each try to suppress Christmas it seemed they were making it stronger. As I keyed in the code to unlock my car I heard a woman singing openly,

…Mary was that mother mild.
Jesus Christ, her little child.

Seconds later, who should walk by but the two men I’d been watching all day.

“Mayor Herold seems quite upset,” said the one.

“Yes, they must have contracted out the printing of the evening program to some place where they don’t know him,” said the other; “They’ve misspelled his name without the letter “l” in all three places.”

I turned around to go back to grab a souvenir copy of that since it was a sure bet he’d find a way to get them reprinted before the event started.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No…” said the other, “If you look back, I think it’s always been like this.”

 

 

December 21, 2017

Merry Little Christmas

Earlier this year, my wife and I participated in a Christian Christmas short story contest writing two stories each. The competition was tough. This story is actually part of a series of stories she wrote featuring the same characters. We’re sharing all four of our stories here; this is the second.

by Ruth Wilkinson

This was Tony’s first Christmas on his own for, well, ever, really. First with his parents, then with Meg, then Meg and Shane. Last year, with Meg moved out, Shane had been with him, then off to his mom for New Year’s.

So this was Tony’s first real single guy Christmas and he wasn’t going to let it suck. He was going to decorate and play the tunes. Eat tourtiere, eggnog, and nanaimo bars. And not feel sorry for himself.

Christmas Eve was going to be OK. He’d found a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board at work for a charity hockey game. One of those 24 hour things to raise money for the hospital. A few guys had already signed on, and Tony thought it sounded fun. He hadn’t played in a few years but he hadn’t been bad in his day.

Over coffee he told Walt all about it. Walt had become a good friend since the winter when Shane had set out to make money shovelling driveways and ended up adopting him and Esther as extra grandparents.

Walt smiled and said, “Sounds like fun!” Then, more seriously, “Now what about Christmas Day? You’re on your own?”

Tony shrugged. “Looks like it. No plans, exactly.”

“Same here. Let’s get together! Christmas dinner!”

“Great! I didn’t know you could cook.”

“I can’t. I was hoping you could.”

Having established that neither of them knew one end of a turkey baster from the other, Walt asked around. He found out about a church downtown having a turkey dinner on Christmas day that was open to everybody, especially the homeless. He was excited. Tony less so.

Oh, well. If nothing else, it would be an adventure. And, Tony thought, I won’t be in any danger of feeling sorry for myself.

He wondered what to wear. Seemed like you should dress up for Christmas dinner, but in the basement of a downtown church where most of the diners would be homeless or slightly better off?

Walt would wear the same thing he always wore. Shiny black shoes, neatly pressed trousers with a matching suit jacket, a snappy fedora and, of course, a tie. Walt had the most amazing tie collection. Dozens of them. Some spectacularly “vintage.” He’d told Tony that he’d kept buying them over his years of wearing priestly black with dog collar. He just kept buying ties, promising Esther that someday, he’d wear them. Every single one. She’d just laugh. His favourite sound. Gone now.

Aside from the occasional hideous cravat, Walt was sharp, neat, respectable. Not a wrinkle, not a speck of lint. Tony had never known such a tidy person. He was kind of looking forward to seeing Walt surrounded by rumpled street dwellers.

❄❄❄

The Saturday before the big day, Tony launched an expedition into the crawlspace under the basement stairs. It was amazing how much stuff was crammed in there and even more amazing how all the stuff you wanted was behind and under all the stuff you weren’t looking for.

He ploughed through the foothills of disco albums and old clothes only to get lost in the forest of yearbooks and hockey equipment (there it was!) He waded knee deep through Shane’s toys, ages 1 through 9 — no mean feat, bent over at the waist — to get to the Christmas decorations in the far back corner. Crouching in the dust and cobwebs, looking back across the great landscape he’d just traversed, imagining the return journey with each of 4 boxes, his enthusiasm faded a bit.

Buck up, Tony, lad, he thought, You’ve come this far…

Soon enough it was all out and it only took a few minutes to make his spine the right shape again.

He decided it would be tree first, outdoor lights second, and finally the creche. Start with the worst, end with the easiest. He hated putting up the tree.

It was the one he and Meg had bought when they got married. Ugly as dirt. Kind of green — sort of an army tank colour. There were some nice ones now that almost looked real. This one had no such pretensions. It was wire and plastic, all bent in strange directions from sitting in the box for 11 ½ months. Dozens of assorted bits that had to be laid out on the floor and sorted by size so your tree didn’t come together upside down or worse.

But it was his and he loved it. Or maybe he just had no intention of shelling out for a new one. Maybe a bit of both. Sentiment is not always a pure thing.

He put on a few really good Christmas albums — Cockburn, Guaraldi, Motown, Cash — and a couple of hours, half a pound of shortbread and one beer later he had an honest to goodness Christmas tree.

By then it was dark – no time to go out and hang lights, so he dug out the creche: a little stable kind of thing, a ceramic donkey, a couple of sheep. Three wisemen, two shepherds, an angel. A little manger and a baby that fit in it. Mary, dressed in light blue. Joseph. A carpenter. Like Tony.

He held Joseph in his hand for a minute. Picked up his drink. Took a sip. Sat down.

He’d never noticed the look on Joseph’s face before. He looked a little stunned.

Tony smiled. Yeah, well, you probably were, mate. Stunned.

Thought you were going to marry a pretty girl, settle down, build things, have a family. Probably had a nice workshop at home, full of tools, a few unfinished projects waiting until you got back. Back from a trip to someplace you didn’t want to go. A trip that wasn’t nearly over yet.

Doing the right thing. What you were told to do. Being faithful. Being brave. Protecting and providing. Looking after a kid that wasn’t even yours. Because it was right.

An ordinary man doing ordinary work. But it was what God had told him to do. God had gone to a lot of trouble to tell this ordinary man to just keep doing the ordinary right thing. Don’t be afraid, be true, look after your family.

God had told him to do that.

Such a small thing, but it mattered. A lot.

Just a little family. That changed the world.

❄❄❄

Christmas Eve.

The game was about half over. They’d started at 8 that morning. They’d finish at 8 tomorrow. The stands were surprisingly full. Tony had his old skates and new sticks and he was having fun. This was a good day.

He was sitting in the box when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hey, dad! Dad!”

He looked over his shoulder. There was Shane, halfway up the stands. He was standing beside Walt and — oh. Meg.

Shane and Walt were wearing big foam hats with ‘TONY’ painted on them and big foam fingers that they waggled at him, and red rubber noses, grinning like idiots, each wearing three of the ugliest ties ever to see daylight, two straight and one bow.

Meg sat and looked bored.

He grinned and waved. Shane and Walt waved back. Meg made a gesture that was half wave, half checking her watch. Tony wondered whether she’d practised that move in front of a mirror and got annoyed. He thought, She didn’t have to come.

And checked himself. No, she really didn’t have to come…

Shane shouted, “Score any goals?”

Tony nodded, took off a glove and held up 3 fingers. He’d got lucky. Then he was back on the ice.

Waiting for the puck to drop, one of the guys asked him, “That your family?”

Tony glanced over at his son, the old man he was just getting to know, and his ex-wife. He took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, that’s my family.”

And he laughed and wondered whether he looked stunned.

He’d take time later to ask God for help — help to do the right, ordinary thing.

He was kind of busy right now.

December 19, 2017

Christmas Sunday: The Best Music and the Toughest Theology

Filed under: Christmas, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:56 am

Over the last several months, my wife and I participated in a Christian short story contest. I’ve never actually entered one of these before; it was blind judging so the process by which you remit your entries was rather complex. We each submitted two entries, but apparently the competition was fierce. Over the next two weeks we want to share them with readers here. This story appeared here before in a slightly different form.


by Paul Wilkinson

Doug and Gary were always the last to leave the office and this day was no exception. Doug always turned off the lights as Gary set the alarm and as it was the weekend, he turned down the heat.

“It’s December, Gary,” Doug reminded his co-worker; “It was freezing in here on Monday morning; the company’s not that broke.”

If it was a Friday, Gary always asked Doug if he wanted to join him for church that weekend. Usually the excuse was sports related. In summer, a weekend at the cottage or heading Stateside for some cross-border shopping. In the winter, a child’s hockey practice or cross country skiing with his brother’s friends. So Gary was a little surprised by the response.

“Actually, I’m going to church with my wife on Sunday,” Doug replied.

“Oh right. I forgot. You’re a CEO,” Gary said smiling.

“A CEO?”

“Christmas and Easter only.”

They both laughed, then Gary continued, “You know it’s good that you’re going, but you always pick the two hardest days.”

“I know,” returned Doug, “The parking at that church is miserable at Christmas.”

“No, that’s not what I mean; you always choose what we could call incarnation and atonement Sundays. They’re the toughest ones to grasp.”

“Wait a minute, I thought you wanted me to attend church.”

“I do, but think about it; if you show up for The Good Samaritan, the message is ‘love your neighbor,’ that’s easy! And if you show up for Mother’s Day and the preacher’s text is ‘husbands love your wives,’ well, two minutes in and you’ve got that one. Come with me on Thanksgiving and the message is ‘give thanks.’ But incarnation –“

“Do you mean the flower?”

“No it’s the idea of God becoming man, God becoming one of us. People who study theology have wrestled with that for centuries. How can I describe it? See, God is like those triplicate forms we use to requisition materials from head office. The kind where what you write on the top part goes through to all three. It’s one form, but with three parts. But then God Himself rips out one of the pages — let’s call it the middle one –“

“You know, Gary,” Doug began, “I did go to church when I was younger and I’ve heard people talk about the trinity before, but that triplicate form thing is a first. Did you just make that up?”

Gary was on a roll now and ignored the interruption. “– and then the letter to the Philippians tells us that that part of God took on the role of a servant and entered into the human condition, even to the point of experiencing human death, and a rather excruciating one at that.”

“So you’re talking about Jesus. Incarnation is saying he was 50 percent man and 50 percent human. Like a centaur?”

“No it’s not 50/50, more like 100/100.”

“So that’s gotta hurt. Why would he do that? Why bother? Why go to all that trouble?”

“Well that’s the Easter part, the atonement part; the part that tells us why bother. In another letter, to a young disciple named Timothy, the same writer wrote that ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I’m the worst.'”

“The guy who wrote part of the Bible said he was the worst?”

“We’re all pretty much the worst, when you think of how pure God is. Jesus himself said he ‘came into the world to look for and save people who were lost.’ In another part he said that he came into the world to give his life to pay off a debt for all of us; and in yet another written account of his life we read that he didn’t come to condemn — which is what a lot of people think church is all about lately — but that through him everybody could have life that never ends.”

“Preach it! You really know this stuff. So now you’re talking about going to heaven when you die?”

“Well, actually, eternal life starts now.”

“How come I never heard that at a Christmas service before?”

“You did, but you probably weren’t tuned in to it. You’ve gone to church for so many Christmas services…it’s like…well…did you get a flu shot?”

“Of course I did; you know that.”

“Then tell me this,” Gary asked, “What did you get? What was in the shot?”

“I think it’s an inactive form of the flu strain. The body reacts to it and boosts your immunity.”

“Well, that’s you. You’ve showed up at so many Christmas Eve services that you’re immune. You sang the carols, and you enjoyed the soloists and maybe some years your kids were shepherds or sheep in the play, but you missed the connection between incarnation and atonement, and you can’t have the one without the other. Ultimately, Jesus — the baby in the manger — came to die for the world, for me, for you. The people in your church already know this so they don’t stress the big picture story. They get locked into the micro details to the point where they forget to explain the big story arc for CEOs like you.”

“Well…” Doug paused for a few seconds and then added, “Thanks for explaining that.”

By now a light snow was falling and it was time for both guys to get in their cars. “Don’t get me wrong;” Gary concluded, “The details are amazing, but our churches tend to forget to connect the dots in the macro story for those on the outside. Once you’ve got the big picture, it’s a story that you can’t ignore; it begs some type of response.”

While they’d been talking, a light snow had started and some flakes were sticking on the parking lot. Doug was thoughtfully mulling over all his friend had said. He opened his car door, but Gary had one more thing to add; “I think I can also help you with the Christmas church parking problem.”

“How’s that?” Doug asked.

“All you need to do;” Gary smirked, “Is show up at church ten minutes earlier.”

December 10, 2017

Deleted Content

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, personal, writing — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 am

I bookmark articles I think will be useful to myself or to readers. Occasionally, I return to some of these only to find the writer has deleted that particular item. They continue to post daily, but I guess they want their site to reflect well on them, or perhaps they’ve recanted certain perspectives, or perhaps something that was quite current at the time is no longer relevant or even amusing.

The internet’s ability to be updated is both a blessing and a curse. I will often write an article, hit “publish” and then minutes after the subscribers got their copy, I’ll notice an omission, a spelling or grammatical error or a lack of citation. Some pieces are subject to constant revision over the course of the day.

A few of the earlier pieces here are perhaps a little embarrassing. I didn’t fully understand the nuances of an issue. I weighed in on an issue that was above my pay grade. I quoted a source I would not endorse today. I predicted an outcome which never took place.

But delete them? It never occurs to me. It’s what I wrote that day.

These things are called blogs because it’s an abbreviation for web-log. It’s like a diary. You wouldn’t rip out pages out of your personal diary just because…well…okay, some of you might.

We sometimes operate them more like websites than blogs, and at that point we lose the personal aspect. Yes, I have some training in journalism, but this is also my personal online diary. It contains the things I was thinking out loud that day.

Deleting content would be revisionist. To use a journalistic term: Stet. Let it stand. Leave it as it is. Warts and all.

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

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