Archive for category Spirituality

Rest in grace this new year

“… it is mainly for some clue to where I am going that I search through where I have been, some hint as to who I am becoming or failing to become that I delve into what used to be.”  Frederick Buechner

There’s alot about New Year’s to love.  Besides the gatherings and good food (I have a special fondness for this artery clogging Dutch treat called oliebollen), I love the unmarked calendar, the eager anticipation from 365 open days of “who knows what they might hold.”  And I value the opportunity to both recollect the past year, doing an inventory of sorts, and to anticipate the new year.

Remembering is a really important practice for the spiritual life.  Our sense of who we are is really a collection of memories.  Press the erase button and we don’t know who we are anymore.  Life and a healthy identity is unimaginable without a vivid memory.

One of the practices in our house is to stretch a scroll of paper across our dining room table and over the course of a day draw out the events of the past year.  It’s an exercise in remembering, a record of the good and hard parts that have shaped who we are as individuals and a family.

Today, why not find a quiet place and space to simply look back on this past year.  Piece together a chronology of important events from 2014: how did those events form you?  Take note of who were the significant people who shaped your life this year – why were they so significant?  Ask yourself where and how you have become more (or less) like Christ.

And while you’re at it, take time to look forward to the new year (a rear-view mirror glance is important but you can’t drive without looking ahead).  And I don’t mean resolutions – I think that whole tradition needs a good burial.  Instead, I’m thinking anticipation, which alongside of remembering is an equally vital faith practice.

In the biblical mind, the future grace of God is always breaking into the present.  That’s why Jesus repeatedly urged people to keep watch.  God is at work, in our world and in your life, up to something very good.

As you take time to think about the coming year, can I urge you to resolve less about what you need to do and rest more in what God has promised to do.  A promise, of course, has everything to do with the new year because it concerns the future.  Think of its Latin origins, meaning pro – forth, and mittere – to send.  God’s promises are like packages of grace sent from the future; they are declarations which announce the coming of a reality that does not yet exist today.

This New Year’s, I’m wondering how can I cooperate with this grace that is coming at me all the time and around me everywhere.

Reflect on God’s promises and try to imagine how they might take shape in your life in the coming year.  How would your life and our world be different if God’s promises took shape in the present moment?  Ask yourself, where would you like to see a specific promise of God come alive in a new way this year?  When you answer those questions, you’ve got a solid, grace-framed agenda for the coming year.

As you enter and anticipate this new year, watch for the breaking in of God’s good reality in your life and our world.

But before you do all that, take 3 minutes to check out the following spot-on video – it sets the right context for thinking about the coming year.

And happy new year to you!


The crime of living cautiously

Ours is an age of anxiety; we idolize security, seeking to live ruling out risk or failure.  Exhibit # 1,043: helicopter parents hovering protectively over their children’s bubble-wrapped lives.

Doesn’t that seem a bad way to live?  Jesus seemed to think so.  I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus’ parable of the talents, the master says to the cautious, one-talent servant “It’s a crime to live cautiously like that.”  In the end, the Master did away with this servant: “get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.” 

Why?  Because risk seems to be an important part of God’s economy of love; because you can’t love without risking; because love is the power that cannot co-exist with anxious fear – it drives it out.  In God’s Kingdom, there’s a shocking freedom to risk because there’s nothing that can put you beyond the reach of God’s scandalously beautiful grace.  I’m so easily seduced into thinking this is a dangerous world.  There’s a weight of evidence that leads to question there is a good God at the helm.  But Jesus keeps telling me the Father is good and keeps calling me to follow, to risk, just like God.

Because God is love, God risks.  Didn’t God take an awful risk when he created us in the liberty of love, free to love and follow him or free to flip him off and reject him?  Crazy risk; crazy love; crazy, beautiful God.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asks a question I need to pose every day to myself: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”

Think about that … and then watch the Flight of the Frenchies below.  You won’t catch me walking a slack-line over a mountain gorge but the Frenchies remind me of the freedom that comes from living with a powerful awareness that I am held in the hands of a very good God.

<p><a href=”″>I Believe I Can Fly (Flight of the Frenchies) – Trailer</a> from <a href=””>sebastien montaz-rosset</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Saints? for sure (part 2)

A few weeks ago Pope Frances canonized two pontifical predecessors, Paul XXIII and John-Paul II.  In my last post on Saints, I looked at the fairly chronic aversion to saints and yet explored the warm biblical use of the term and concept of saints.  Ok, so what now?  How then might saints function in the Christian life?  How can we recover the promise of saints without abusing or discarding them?3eb15771c96932ab491a1f54acb16b9c

The most basic response is to recognize who we are.  Here’s the truth: you and I, we are saints – St. Jeremy and St. Jane, St. Theresa and St. Todd.  More often than not, that’s hard to believe about the cranky senior, the mother who makes her children the target of her temperamental anger, the middle-aged man who creates discomfort among young women with his breast-high gaze or the sullen teenager.  Yet by naming you and me as saints, the Bible provides a lens through which we can being to see one another more clearly.  Recovering the status of saints trains us to see in others more of God than of the sin that smudges our lives and trips us up.

But what about the larger company of saints: all those Christians who have gone before?  Is there a place and a role for them in the Christian life?  Indeed, saints can function in a way that is analogous to good theology.  We value and appreciate the health demonstrated in clear, sharp thinking about God, which, in turn, helps us to respond in love to God.  Sharp theological understanding is vital to the life of faith.

77-3-1Equally indispensable are the courageous examples of gospel lives that the saints provide.  As one character notes in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “What is Christ’s word without an example?”  North America has a cultural pantheon of celebrities and politicians who give polished performances in how to live badly (remember now, I live in the city of Toronto).  In this “bad as you want to be world” of Charlie Sheens and Rob Fords, we could use a few saints to show us how to be as holy, gracious, and human as Christ calls us to be.

Saints, then, are witnesses to the truth.  They call our attention to the gospel in the ordinary conditions of human living.  They are, as author Kathleen Norris notes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.” (The Cloister Walk).  They offer fresh demonstrations of the holiness and grace of God in the everyday moments of our lives.

Very often, however, the life of a saint is rather unsettling, which may explain some of our wariness about them.  Saints of the past have been misunderstood because, to be honest, they are a rather curious crowd (think, for example, of the pillar of peculiarity, Simeon of Stylites, who sat perched on a pole for 30-odd years).

Saints are very much like the characters in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, who suggested that for people to hear the truth, she had to create exaggerated characters.  Similarly, G.K. Chesterton once noted that “a Saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.”  Take Therese of Liseaux, for example.  In our success-oriented age of “bigger is better,” Therese’s obscure and apparently insignificant life teaches us of the beauty in simplicity and smallness.  Or what about Francis of Assisi, who demonstrates a life of abundance not in material wealth but in the sheer goodness and bounty of creation?  Saints from ages past provide a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace.  They offer a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of the gospel.

We need the saints.  They are gifts from God to the church, teaching us how a holy life works, showing us the exuberance of aSaint_Bridget gospel life.  The wonderful biblical truth is that God has placed us in a long and large historical community of believers, the “communion of the saints.”  It is a bloodline of sorts, a family tree filled with a fantastic collection of wild and wooly characters, all animated by grace.

So while the Roman Catholic Church officially declares of John and John Paul II to be what the gospel proclaimed they already were in this life – saints – why not locate a few saints whose lives freshly demonstrate the gospel in beautiful ways.  Take a moment to inventory some of those people whose lives are the gospel brought to life – who is on your list of saints?  Thank God for their lives and let them challenge you to more grace-filled living.

But better yet, go to your church, reminding yourself of what the gospel declares of these people and yourself, and enjoy the company of the saints right around you.

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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)


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.


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.