Archive for category Spirituality

Free us from self-fascination

Lord Almighty, we say we want to serve you, we say we want to help others less fortunate than ourselves, we say we want justice.  But the truth is, we want power and status because we so desperately need to be loved.  Free us from our self-fascination and the anxious activity it breeds, so that we might be what we say we want to be – loved by you and thus capable of unselfish service.  Amen.

(Prayers Plainly Spoken, Stanley Hauerwas)

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An icon for my existence

This image of my mother and me has become an icon of sorts for the divine love, a lens through which I can better understand something of God.

I’m aware that God has revealed himself most clearly through the image of a father in the pages of scripture (although God does employ some maternal images).  But I’m able to savour a glimpse of God’s heart through the lens of this image of my several month old self, held, nuzzled and loved by my mother.  I’m able to see the steady gaze of the Lord’s grace through it.

On birthdays (and it was mine today) we remember the when of a life; but far better to know the why of your life.

Why me?

Well, look at the picture – I am the beloved.

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I need a mountain – Friday photos

 

 

 

 

I miss the mountains.

City life in Toronto is outstanding.  I’m still smiling everytime I come out of the Spadina St. subway station into the city, feeling the energy, diversity and vibrant life all around me here.

But I miss mountains.

 

 

 

For the past 20 years of my life I’ve lived in the Coastal and Rocky mountain ranges – and the places we live shape us.  And I’m feeling a mountain-shaped hole in my heart (remarkable, isn’t it, how much you can fit into your heart?)

 

I miss seeing the mountains as my constant horizon, a reference point, a regular reminder of how small I am.

I miss how they test me, push me beyond myself, daunt me, force me to face my fears.

Most times out hiking or for a scramble, the first half-hour I would hike quietly.  The mountains can kill you in dozens of ways - weather, exposure, bears, stupid mistakes, avalanches, falling rocks, me falling.

A mountain is utterly indifferent to me and does not care one wit for my survival.  You enter the mountains on its terms, not yours.  There’s a fierceness to that wildness and wilderness. None of this naive romanticism about the wilderness please.

That first 30 minutes was a memento mori (“Remember you will die.”) type of moment.  I miss the healthy spiritual cleanse that gave my soul (I’ll have to substitute that with a regular walk through a cemetery – somehow not quite the same).

 

 

 

I miss how the mountains made me contemplative.  I would become keenly mindful, alive and attentive to everything around me.   Aware of my breathing, the rhythm of my steps, conserving energy.  I don’t know how else to call it but contemplative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure there’s an urban or Ontario equivalent of these but right now I’ve got a mountain-shaped hole in my heart I don’t know what to do with.

I miss the mountains.

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Farther along

A surprising thing happened last week – I was inducted as the 14th Senior Minister of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto.  Not that this induction was unexpected – it was a five month wait for myself and the people of Knox.

But surprising, nonetheless.  Ask the “five years ago Phil,” and I would’ve never guessed I’d be in the heart of Toronto, in a different denomination, serving a lovely, historic, crazy community of Jesus followers.  As the service unfolded, words of promise given and received, I grinned with this sense of “how on earth did I land here?”  I was filled with grateful wonder at the hand of love that brought me here, at the larger story that I’m invited to play a part.

The words of Samwise Gamgee, from The Lord of the Rings, came to mind:

We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?

In theological conversations, there’s a prickly dilemma of divine sovereignty and human will.  Which is it?  Certainly there’s a divine priority but it’s a both-and mystery isn’t it, never quite knowing where the fingerprints over my life are those of God’s sovereign hand or of my free will.  Which makes life, at the same time, both wildly adventurous (can you believe we get to be part of this grand cosmic story of God’s?) and incredibly secure (don’t flatter yourself to think you could possibly blow God’s plan and ruin your life).

This unlikely journey started long before I was ever born, took form in my genetic inheritance, shaped by parents, friends and teachers, moved by life’s joys and losses, my own choices and indecisions.  Then a seed of a desire is planted in my heart, a growing heart hope for thriving churches in city centres, a dream pursued but then met with dead ends.  But then redirection – a lunch conversation with unexpected advice, shifting me to discover a church’s search process, a prompting to throw my hat in the ring with the resigned sense that “this will never go but at least I tried.”

And here we are today.  By grace.  Crazy.  Beautiful.

Life is not a journey we understand in the moment.  Or looking forward.  Mostly we pray for enough wits to take just the next step, trusting that farther along it will make sense, remembering that no choice we make will put us beyond the reach of grace.

All of which fills me with a gut-deep joy for the road ahead.  Adventure and security.  A sovereign God is a good thing, indeed.

There’s a Josh Garrels song that I would’ve loved to have sung at my induction service but wasn’t sure how it would work.  So here it is now, a lovely hymn of wonder and faith at the incongruent glory of this sacred journey we call life.

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On wallflowers and kite-flying

Today is the greatest wall flower Christian celebration of all time and yet one of the most powerfully hopeful days – Ascension Day (admit it, you missed it, didn’t you?).

I love this day for all sorts of reasons: it is the culmination of Christ’s ministry, it is the next stage of God’s mission, and it tells us one of the most life-changing truths of our faith, that there is now a human being residing within the Trinity.  Think of it – one of the members of the Trinity has opposable thumbs, DNA strands, blood and a nose.  And so, the ascension of Jesus – very human, very God – is our guarantee that one day we, too, will know and enjoy the beauty, grace and love that inhabits the Trinity.  It’s the life we were always meant for.

And one final reason to love Ascension Day?  It’s the one Christian holiday that has no parallel celebration, historically or culturally.  It flies completely under the radar of our culture, and therefore isn’t likely to be commercialized or commodified.  It might be the purest Christian holiday to celebrate.

Listen to N.T. Wright on this:

Jesus is Lord – This, of course, is the great truth that Christians celebrate in the Ascension. Jesus is exalted as the Lord of the cosmos, supreme over all the powers. It is perhaps significant that this is virtually the only Christian festival that has no pagan analogue, and which has not been taken over by the pagan materialistic forces that wreak havoc with Christmas and Easter. The shops do not fill up with Ascension presents, nor can you buy cards saying ‘”Happy Ascension to my Dear Granny.” Perhaps (although it would be risky) Christians should begin to celebrate the Ascension more explicitly. Presents or cards might be exchanged, but preferably homemade and symbolic ones, not ones that merely reinforced the prevailing materialism. There is room for new family festivals to be created around this season, parallel with Christmas or Easter celebrations but taking care, again, to avoid collapsing back into paganism. Here is scope for imagination and experiment. (N.T. Wright, Bringing the Church to the World)

So how to celebrate Ascension Day?  Well go find a worships service near you.  And if those are in short supply, try this great Ascension day practice – go fly a kite.  Gather up your kids, or your child-like spirit, and set a kite to flight.  Watch it flutter and unfurl in the wind, catch sail and soar in the sky.  Imagine what it must’ve been like for those disciples doing just what you’re doing, gawking up into the sky.

And then hear the question of the angel: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  It’s a “don’t just stand there” missional question because the ascension thrusts the church on its mission, announcing and inaugurating the reign of Jesus in the whole world.

So go fly a kite already.

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The new normal and Sabbath keeping: practicing 24/6

In the last post, I observed what I’m seeing as a changing worship pattern – twice a month as the new normal.  While these trends in worship patterns are interesting data to observe, the more important question is about how we practice Sabbath.

The changing worship patterns are, in some measure, a reaction to the more legalistic notions of Sabbath keeping. If I’m honest, I’ve gladly allowed other “freedoms” to creep into a day of sabbath.  But how much of the good practice of Sabbath-keeping have I laxly lost?  I can’t help but think Eric Liddell (cf. Chariots of Fire) had something on us today with our lovely Sunday ease.  I wonder if a healthy pendulum swing back towards an intentional reclamation of the practice of Sabbath-keeping might be so needed for many of us, starting with myself.

The worrying thing behind the changing worship trends is what it says about our understanding of Sabbath.  Do we know how to practice Sabbath?  Has our hyper-connected, 24/7 pace of life created an indifference to the importance of this practice, an inability to stop and rest?  Maybe we value the rest part of Sabbath – we’re all for a day off.  But have we missed the vital role of prayer and worship in this practice?

One of the fine writers on Sabbath is the Jewish scholar/rabbi Abraham Heschel.  What Heschel emphasizes is the importance Scripture gives to time even over place.  He writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept the premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.”

The illusion of our clocks and watches is to convince us that all time is equal, simply a measurement.  But there is a created rhythm we are very much a part of, we are creatures in time.  How we need to better understand time, understand the gracious nature of Sabbath.  I love the biblical cycle of time, including the grace-saturated rhythm of sabbath.  And I can learn something from my Jewish spiritual cousins, as they begin their Sabbath in the evening with a shared meal and a night’s sleep, waking to a day not of our making.  Think of Sabbath as the gift of sacred, rest-filled time, a “good-for-nothing” day to be frittered away with God, beautifully wasted in prayer and play (but never a time to be killed).

I was listening to Eugene Peterson talk about Sabbath who wisely noted the social nature of Sabbath-keeping. “I don’t think you can keep the Sabbath by yourselves … it’s a social thing.  It requires a lot of relationship, a lot of help … There’s just too much going to distract you.  The most important thing we did in keeping a Sabbath is getting help.”

I know I need that help.  The people I’ve begun to live and serve with here in Toronto – busy city dwellers constantly pressed for time – they need help of others to do this.  I talked with someone who regularly has to work on Sundays, wondering how they and others like them, might find encouragement to this vital practice.

I think, together, this is possible.  There’s a fabulous example of this in the theatre district of New York City where a Jewish theatre troupe called 24/6 was formed for Sabbath-observant Jews.  Members in 24/6 are not required to rehearse or perform on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, freed up to pursue their faith convictions and their vocations.

Are we serious enough about our Sabbath keeping to do something like that?  To surround those in our faith-community faced with tough challenges, providing creative solutions, even material support?  Does that seem too radical or has our work (or leisure) taken too high a priority?

How about we start simple – start encouraging one another to prepare for a Sabbath already on Saturday night.  Instead of a late night out, leaving us predisposed to take a rain check on corporate worship the next day, why not intentionally prepare to enter a sacred time of rest with a simple meal and a quiet evening?

Isn’t some of our changing worship patterns symptomatic of a diminished discipleship, a shallow Christian community, or a plain failure to practice grace, working it into the fabric of our week’s rhythm?

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The Hunger Games in Holy Week

While I walked through Holy Week, considering the cross and Christ’s sacrifice, I was also reading The Hunger Games.  With the recent cinematic splash of the movie version, I figured I better get up to speed and dove into the first book (I’m hooked so I’m reading through the whole trilogy).

As I finished it in the early days of Holy Week, I was struck by how current all the basic theological concepts of the cross of Christ remain.  It’s not unusual to hear critiques of the theology surrounding the cross, how concepts like sacrifice, propitiation, atonement are relics in our guilt-free culture.  And while there’s not a prayer to be heard or a single reference to any deity, The Hunger Games provides a disturbingly relevant exploration of this rich Christian theology.

The Hunger Games pictures a dystopian North American future where a privileged class (the Capitol) oppresses and subjugates “the districts” after a rebellion.  As President Snow reminds, “It was decreed that each year, the 12 districts of Panem should offer up a tribute of one young man and woman between the ages of 12 and 18 to be trained in the art of survival and to be prepared to fight to the death.”  Children are offered up to the empire and this whole spectacle of violence is broadcast for the entertainment of the Capitol citizens while all the districts are forced to watch in horror.

Author Suzanne Collins picks up antecedent threads of human history (the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome), literary works (the Greek myth Theseus, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery) and current culture (The Truman Show and most reality TV), weaving it all into a narrative rich with theological themes. All the tributes in The Hunger Games are scapegoats, atoning for the sins of a past rebellion.  Within the brutality of the games, we see the obvious juxtaposition of those living for self-preservation or self-amusement and those sacrificing themselves for others.  Katniss Everdeen volunteers for her sister who’s name is first chosen in the reaping.  She substitutes herself, laying down her life in her sister’s place.  Another character, Peeta, suffers sacrificially, absorbing an attack to protect Katniss.

It’s a compelling read showing our easy default towards scapegoating violence no matter how sophisticated we become; its a prophetic critique of our society, amusing ourselves with violence at the cost of others, our propensity to live sated lives at the expense of impoverished people around the world; and it’s a disturbingly relevant echo of the need for divine atonement, our desperate need for a sacrificial love to undo evil, end violence and change the world.

It was surprisingly helpful Holy Week preparation to freshly appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God’s common grace given to better savour his saving grace.

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Will my smartphone make me stupid?

Hello again – I’ve been absent for a while, dealing with a major life transition (same wife and kids – thank God – but new job, new location, and what feels like a new life).  But enough dust has settled and boxes unpacked to make writing possible.  So here we go:

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I’m moving into the world of smart phones and will get my very own shiny little handheld tomorrow.  I’m feeling this strange mix of giddy attraction and dread – I’ve played with one before and what they can do is dazzling and dizzying.  But then there’s this sense of foreboding – what am I invoking in this smartphone?  Will this phone become more than just a phone? (actually, it’s not called a phone but a device.  What’s behind that language?)  What place in my life do I want to give this thing?

I could be making this a bigger deal than it need be but then I should tell you about my Pac-Man problem during university.  Besides, the manufacturer of this phone claims it will change everything (sort of like the ad above claiming a phone will save us).  As of tomorrow, my life will never be the same again, transformed because of my phone … er, device.

And according to a growing body of research, those claims are not that far off the mark.  I will be changed indeed, just not in ways I might hope.  Here are a few canaries I’ve spotted lately flying out of the technology coal mine:

Professor Sheryl Turkle, in her book Alone Together, outlines the effects of technology on our intimacies.  “Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

Then in a sobering “this is your brain on technology” piece, a New York Times article chronicles how our devices change the way we relate, the way we think, our capacity to respond, the very shape of our brain.  A blog piece at ThinkChristian reflects on the whether our copious time before screens leads to objectification of people.

And recently I was listening to Q a while back (a fine arts and culture radio show on CBC).  It spring-boarded off of an incident you might recall, where a concert at New York’s Fisher Hall was stopped by the conductor because of a smart-phone ringing. The host of Q, Jian Gomeshi, wonders about the limits of our phones and whether we need to (gasp!) turn off the ringers and alarms because they’re distracting us from art.  I’d go much further and wonder if they distract us from much of living.

Gomeshi asks: “Maybe we’ve become a weaker species with the advent of mobile devices.  If we can’t relinquish our connectedness for Moller, Kronenberg or even for a child’s recital, what have we become?  Here’s to being brave and missing a text or two.”

How about the courage to think hard about the role and place of technology.  Enter Albert Borgmann, one of the finer thinkers on technology.  He notes that technology is less a neutral tool and more “an inducement, and it’s so strong that for the most part people find themselves unable to refuse it. To proclaim it to be a neutral tool flies in the face of how people behave.”  I’ve seen too many gatherings of people with everyone staring at some form of screen or another to argue with him.

While technology promises to make life easier, Borgmann wonders if there are certain burdens we should not want to get rid of.  It seems so contrarian, but are there things in life we should not relinquish because they are difficult or inconvenient?  Perhaps the quest for convenience actually deforms us?

I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m glad to get a voice mail instead of a real person.  I can quickly pass on a message or avoid a longer conversation and get on with things.  But just maybe there’s a difficulty here that would be more important for me to embrace than convenience or efficiency?  What if the burden of depending on someone else and asking for directions is better for me, more community building, than downloading directions?  Perhaps the inconvenience of attending a worship service with average worship and preaching is more life-giving than listening to a podcast in my pajamas?  Maybe the challenge of revealing too much in a face-to-face conversation through my tone, body language and presence is more enlivening than a 140 character tweet or Facebook update?

Borgmann reminds us that technological devices, like a smart phone, are not the enemy.  Rather we must ask “How do we gather technological devices together into the good life? Nothing by itself makes for a better life.”  That’s why I’m feeling mixed about my smart phone – it is not the enemy but it’s not a neutral thing either.  How can I allow this device in to make for a better life?  How can I be street-smart about my smartphone before it turns me foolish?

One of the ways to think and talk about the place and role of technology, Borgmann writes, is the need to place “reasonable bounds on their use … how we sit with technological devices in our home is morally significant.”

So here’s a few commitments I’m making as I gather this device into my life:

  1. If I’m meeting you for lunch or coffee, I will keep my phone off the table, generally out of sight.
  2. I will honour the person who is giving me the gift of their presence instead of an incoming call, text or email that might barge into that conversation or meeting.
  3. I will keep a weekly technological sabbath, a day of unplugged living as a practice to remind myself that I am a created, embodied being not a virtual one.

Again, hear me well Facebook fans and Apple cult members.  I’m not a Luddite or calling for an Amish renewal, I’m not at all saying technology is evil, the internet is the great Satan, and my new cell number the mark of the beast.  I’m simply wondering about the proper place and role of technology, and how we might guard that place and role.

How do you place reasonable bounds on technology in your life?

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Saying our prayers, part V – praying in community

(Today I’m adding to a series of posts on the ancient Christian practice of praying the daily office – here are links to part I, part II, part III, and part IV).

The ancient practice of praying the daily office was radically ahead of its time, anticipating the transient, mobile world we now inhabit.

The practice of communal prayer happened mostly through Sunday worship and often in a mid-week prayer meeting.  The mid-week practice is largely rusting away, largely a victim of a variety of factors, certainly including our highly mobile lives.  We’re less local, less quick to cross town to get to that location for a prayer meeting (and isn’t part of the reluctance to publicly pray with others our discomfort about doing something rather personal and intimate with others around, a performance anxiety of sorts). And so the good practice of praying in community suffers a setback.

But here’s the genius of praying the daily office, the “slightly ahead of its time” element.  Praying the daily office is a way to “be together when you’re not together,” perfect for a virtual, highly mobile society (and it provides an accessible way to pray with others for all those who are really uncomfortable doing that in the same room).  When you pray a daily office, you do so on your own.  But then think of this: if others are praying the same prayers, in a beautiful way you are connected to a praying community that transcends space and time.

I recently spoke with a friend who told me that his wife was using Seeking God’s Face as a way of staying connected with God and her far-flung group of friends.  Her circle of friends spans several North American time zones and so they decided to pray the book together as a way of “being together when we’re not together.”

This was one of the dreams I imagined as I wrote and compiled the book – people gathered in prayer, not necessarily in the same room but together over the same scriptures, united in saying the same prayers, together forming one community of prayer.  I know of several churches who are making this a community-wide practice, groups of friends, clusters of missional leaders, or even denominational boards who are finding themselves together in prayer through the daily office.  I’d love to link all these groups together to let them know they are connected in a wider community of prayer.

Who knew that this ancient practice of prayer could provide such a meaningful contemporary venue of unity and community so needed in a mobile, transient world.  A community of faith in constant prayer – together in prayer, when we’re not together in person.

So let me invite you to join in this community of prayer for the season of Advent (which begins this Sunday).  You can check out the Seeking God’s Face page on Facebook, where the publisher will be posting daily excerpts from the book – you can find the Facebook page here.  Or better yet, pick up a copy for yourself.  There’s a crazy good sale going on right now at Faith Alive - and free shipping to boot. (and if you think this is an author’s crass, brazen, consumeristic self-promotion, check out this blog post by another author on the realities of book publishing and author royalties).

One of the church communities using Seeking God’s Face as a communal spiritual practice is New Hope Church in Calgary, AB. Earlier this year, one of their pastors, Heather Cowie, talked about praying the daily office and, specifically, using Seeking God’s Face as a church-wide spiritual practice – you can watch it below.

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For the love of work

This week I began work again after a time of sabbatical.  And it is good to be working again.  The structure for the week, the purposefulness of a place to go where your skills are engaged, the craft of it, the mind/body engagement.  It’s good.

I missed my work; I was itching to get back at it.  This is a basic human impulse I’m feeling.  The gospel has a very high view of work, understanding it as intrinsic to a created, material world, to our nature as image-bearers of God.

And yet there’s been a long apartheid of faith and work at play in Christian circles.  More times than I can recall, I hear people concluding – mostly unwittingly – that only effort with ecclesiastical or pious connections is holy.  If that is the case, then the 88,000 hours an average person gives at work, from first day of work to retirement, is out of the range of the gospel, which makes for a very small, inconsequential faith.

Here’s a more beautiful truth the gospel opens up for us – your work is holy.  When you give your self to craft a table, feed a child, plan a meeting, repair a wall, compose a poem, heal a hurt, or design a product, that is something very good and sacred.  When you work, you are like God (throughout the Bible, God’s reality is unpacked through a variety images from the world of human work; he is a gardener, shepherd, tentmaker, builder, architect, farmer, composer, winemaker, potter, clothes designer/garment maker).  Our work – whether it draws in a huge salary or is freely offered, whether it is recognized and celebrated or unnoticed and undervalued by others – is a response of love to a deep call, to a created identity fashioned in you by the Maker of all things.

Labor Day is a good time to remind ourselves of the good, holy thing work is.  I recently read an old essay by Dorothy Sayers called “Why Work?”  It is a really fine piece that unpacks the radical and transforming nature of a Christian perspective on work.

Let her words remind you of the holiness of your work:

Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. The Church must concern Herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: She must concern Herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation – that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul destroying, or harmful. It is not right for Her to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

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