Praying with the Forest

The digital thermometer in my car said it was -23°C. I was parked by the side of the road, wondering if anyone would show up. A couple of electronic regrets popped up on my phone. It was easy to understand, who wants to pray when it’s this cold. Or more specifically, who wants to pray outside, in the trees, in the snow, when it’s this cold. I’ve become convinced that it isn’t praying “in the trees”; it’s praying “with the trees.” There are two biblical passages that point me in this direction. One is Psalm 148, which speaks about creation praising God. The other is Romans 8, which suggests that creation groans for its liberation. Why do we think these passages are metaphorical and the ones the ones that refer to humans praising and groaning are not? The trees pray—that’s my conclusion. They praise and they groan. Continue reading “Praying with the Forest”

Christian Organizations and Climate Change

God’s creation is now facing unprecedented destruction brought on by human activity. Attentive hunters know this just as well as vegan environmentalists. Caring for the ecosystems that God created doesn’t need to be a divisive or partisan issue. Yet it has come to feel that way. Conversations related to energy have become especially contentious. This is challenging since the generation, distribution and use of energy represents the most significant long-term threat to creation’s well-being, including landscapes that many of us love. Continue reading “Christian Organizations and Climate Change”

A Eulogy of Home: On Nostalgia and Memory

Nostalgia makes my skin crawl. I’ve seen the damage it does, the exclusivity it masks, and the lies it tells. So it is strange for me to wonder now if what I carry in my heart is that pernicious thing.

Several months ago my parents sold the home in Pennsylvania where I grew up. The house itself was simple. It was one of those split-level models popular in the 1980s, with vinyl siding and fake shutters. Half of the basement was a “family room” and half a garage, a division that trades on the assumption that families receive their identity by watching TV. When I was young the house did not have an automatic garage-door opener. I remember stepping into the humid night air, bathed in the car’s headlights, and heaving the door up high enough for the springs to do their work. My parents installed a powered opener after my brother and I went off to college. Around the same time they bought a riding lawn mower and a snow blower. Before mechanization my brother and I mowed the sloping, root-infested lawn with a push mower. We worked together with grain shovels to clear drifts from the driveway after snowstorms. Continue reading “A Eulogy of Home: On Nostalgia and Memory”

Origins of Mennonite Mission in Northwestern Ontario

[The following is an excerpt from my research article, “‘Part of the Authority Structure,’ an Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario,” which appears in the January 2019 issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review]

Mennonite mission work in northwestern Ontario, an area whose current political realities were shaped by Treaties 5 and 9, began with the missionary work of a Pennsylvanian named Irwin Schantz.[1] Schantz started his work in that general part of the continent in 1938 in northern Minnesota. In the years that followed he found his way into Ontario, Canada, by moving north up the immense and fractured body of water known as Lake of the Woods. His outreach was largely funded by American Mennonites whom he kept informed through a series of letters. In one such letter to supporters, dated April 1, 1944, Shantz writes, “We are under the watchful eyes of God and the F.B.I., who are concerned about the young men to see if they are draft dodgers.”[2] Young Mennonite men, from this period through the 1960s, participated in work in “the north” in lieu of military service.[3] This is one of the reasons that many of those exposed to Schantz’s work in the following decades were Americans. Continue reading “Origins of Mennonite Mission in Northwestern Ontario”

How Not to Become Obsolete

Last fall the British newspaper The Telegraph ran a piece that highlighted the jobs most at risk from new automation technologies. The news is not good if your livelihood involves data entry, processing photos, preparing taxes, sewing by hand, doing legal research or repairing watches. Ibreadt isn’t much better if you are a model, credit analyst, insurance appraiser, sports umpire or a bridge/lock tender. What is safe? Well, the good bet seems to be on work like occupational therapy, mental health, audiology, managing disasters and doing front-line repairs and installation of mechanical equipment. I couldn’t find pastor on the list, so my own future is fuzzy.

Changes like these have happened since whenever it was that people first started dividing up labour. Someone set out to spend a lifetime chipping arrowheads and lost out to others who worked with metal. Someone repaired wagons and ran out of work unless they learned to repair cars. I can remember colleagues who earlier in their careers had been hired to run machines that graded multiple-choice tests or duplicated documents. When they started that was more-or-less specialized work. It’s important not to make light of how difficult such changes are for us. To have trained for something and become highly proficient at it, only to learn that your skill is no longer needed . . . . That would, I imagine, be deeply disruptive. I imagine that it would be hard to not think that it was ‘you’ that was no longer needed. Continue reading “How Not to Become Obsolete”

Colonialism and Mission – A Short Case Study

Churches have histories. Or to put it more generally, the church is not just an idea, it is an actual social entity linked across geography and time. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses: we are linked to the faithful that have come before us. The other side of that claim is that we are also linked to ventures that have been misguided, misdirected, and sometimes harmful.

Last summer I found myself doing something unusual: planning worship in an attic. I was collaborating by e-mail with one of our congregation’s worship leaders. He was near our church in Ottawa. I was in an out-of-the-way building in a small mining town on the other side of the province. I had traveled there to gain a better understanding of how mission agencies connected to our branch of the Christian family tree came to be intimately involved in a colonialist project. More specifically, for a period spanning roughly 1960-1990, Mennonite missionaries ran three schools that were a part of the government’s effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture.

Continue reading “Colonialism and Mission – A Short Case Study”

Legal Cannabis – Do We Need a Christian Response?

I used to tell my theology students that I could explain every concept we would encounter by using analogies from either baseball or marriage. Today I’ll add a third explanatory source—forests. As of today, cannabis is legal in Canada, making this the second country in the world (after Uruguay) and first major economy to take the step. Not far from where I work in Ottawa, one Ontario town, Smiths Falls, is already finding new life as a major center for pot production. The industry has created new jobs and given the town international visibility that it’s previous chief product (chocolate) never did. This all seems very new and very mundane at the same time. But in Christian communities the question still bounces around: Do we need some particular Christian response to these high times? Continue reading “Legal Cannabis – Do We Need a Christian Response?”

An Impending Storm and the Odd Parallel with the Biblical Concept of Heaven

“Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different.” Those are the words of an official explaining the seriousness of the hurricane currently swirling in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm is predicted to hit the eastern seaboard sometime on Thursday or Friday. The weather oracles are talking about a possible storm surge of ten feet, two feet of rain, a recovery that takes weeks, multiple states impacted . . . . People in the storm’s path are scrambling to get prepared. The rest of us are looking on with a mix of concern and fascination that keeps us glued to the news.

A storm is a real thing, a very concerning thing in this case . . . what could it possibly have to do with the old crusty topic of heaven? Well, probably not what you think. Continue reading “An Impending Storm and the Odd Parallel with the Biblical Concept of Heaven”