The Very Scraping Bottom

Some time ago, I spent an afternoon with an old high-school friend and a few other buddies watching some football. My friend is not married and has no children. Now I love this guy – we go waaay back – but the more time passes, the more it feels like trying to have one foot on the escalator and one foot off. Eventually the pants are gonna rip. It’s a strange feeling growing up, getting older. We grow apart even though we are only being ourselves; our pool of common experiences is getting smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror.

The couches, the pizza, the big screen TV. The intimate knowledge of every player on every team in every sport, the multiple fantasy pools, the sports betting. I’ve no right to look down on all this, because I not only used to dwell there, I am the exact same way in miniature (okay – except for the betting). Their life’s orientation is my occasional indulgence; what they does with varsity-level expertise I dabble in as an amateur.

I don’t look down on it, at least I try not to, but at the same time I am ruined for it. A conflict arises within: in my times of lazy abdication I yearn and seek after this very thing, but which when held in my hands turns out to be so empty and slight. A parable for any lust. This is the land of which my escapism speaks to me in hushed whispers and crooked smiles – that grass more green – and yet it is all a mirage. The reality is a lonely belch echoing through empty bedrooms. Not to be too dramatic about it.

What I found myself wanting to do upon leaving was go home and kiss my sleeping children on the head, take in a deep breath of their hair, and pray a silent prayer over them.

Leaning against the doorpost in that darkened room and holding my wife’s hand, I am simply amazed by the loveliness of a child’s face.

To borrow from Marylinne Robinson in Gilead, those faces makes a claim on me, a claim that goes to the very scraping bottom of my soul.

And I, if the leap can be made, must make a similar claim on my heavenly Father, just by my existing. Now that is something.

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Thoughts on “The Book of Negroes”


Sometimes when I read a best-seller I wonder how the book ever sold more than 14 copies (think Twilight), but in this case, I wondered no such thing. This book truly is a masterpiece. It is the comprehensive story of an African woman named Aminata Diallo who is taken from her village as a child in the 1740’s, shipped across the Atlantic ocean, sold as a slave in South Carolina, and through an endless series of tragedies and opportunities, finds herself as an old woman in Britain working with the abolitionists to end the slave trade. The book is so human, so full of common grace, that it shines with a beauty that irresistibly resonates with one’s own humanness. Aminata is a beautiful soul above all, and the quiet simplicity of her wisdom is like a long sigh of relief for the heart.

The writing is simply excellent, the story truly compelling, the history downright chilling. It is fiction but a fiction rooted in history, a story that could well have happened. In a sense it is a true story, because it brings to life the forgotten and untold stories of countless Africans who were treated like animals by white men who were truly animals. I came away with a brilliant sense of the preciousness of humans, made in the very image of God, and the need to always, always, always treat one another in light of that reality. When we deny one another the dignity of being human, when other compulsions push us over that line, there is truly no atrocity, no cruelty, no unspeakable evil, that we are incapable of.

A beautiful story during a very sad chapter in human history. Now if only that chapter were truly closed. If only opportunistic men no longer stole human beings from their homes in order to sell them to others. Slavery has gone underground, but it is a reality worldwide, with slaves bought and held captive in every major urban center in the world, usually for sexual purposes. The amorphous reality of corporate sin, of communal guilt through the pervasive consumption of pornography, is undeniably linked with the global sex trade. The relationship between personal choices and the horrible realities of injustice and oppression is muddy enough to assuage personal guilt but tenacious enough to sustain a system of cruelty that will not be overcome until responsibility is laid plainly at the feet of even of the most casual consumer.

The Book of Negroes is beautiful novel about the ugliness of sin and the strength of the human spirit, the vestiges of the image of God within each one of us.

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Some Gushing Words about ‘Gilead’

Note: This was originally written in 2012 and slightly edited since then.


…and how good is a timely word! (Proverbs 15:23)

It was my Mom who first suggested Gilead to me. What a wise and blessed soul she was. At the time I’m pretty sure my response was something like: “Does it have helicopters? Spies? Global conspiracies? No?! Then it’s not for me.” I don’t actually remember what I said, but that sounds about right. At some point after that initial introduction to the existence of the book, I picked it up read a few pages. For some reason it didn’t draw me in at the time – probably the glaring absence of helicopters. It just didn’t resonate with my life and heart. I hadn’t suffered enough, hadn’t matured enough, and wasn’t yet asking the kinds of questions the book seeks to ask and answer.

What a difference a couple of years can make! This time when I picked it up and read the first few paragraphs, it was like a crisp breeze from an unseen window brushed my face, like a single ray of light from where the roof didn’t quite line up warming your skin. Now I’m not a very good writer, but that sort of description, slow, methodical description, and many, many commas, linked together in a way that would make most English teachers frown, at least the ones I had, to make epic sentences that somehow your mind follows perfectly, is kind of what you find in Gilead.

The quality of the writing is simply superb. There’s a reason this book won a Pulitzer prize. To a limping and parched heart, the beauty of this book was a river of grace. And not just indirectly, because the main character, John Ames, is an old man who’s been a preacher all his life, and his thoughts are filled with explicit and implicit usages of Scripture. The caliber of relational insight in this book is amazing. It’s one of those books where the relationships are so gripping because of the details, the looks, the unspoken words, the tones and inflections of voice, all coalesce together to paint an incredible portrait of human interaction in all of its beautiful complexity. The combination of that insightfulness with the gentle warmth of this old preacher’s soul reverberating through his writing (for the book is really a long letter that John Ames is writing to his young son) is what made the book so powerful for me.

As this old saint struggles to love within one particularly difficult relationship, he comes face to face with the humbling limits of his own character and sanctification. It’s an experience I can relate to, one that I think any believer can relate to. To see the internal struggle, the slow, prayerful processing that took place, was helpful for me. And that he divulged his innermost thoughts for his son’s future reading, making himself very vulnerable in doing so, was also special. Overall it’s just a touching book on multiple levels. Shoot – that really doesn’t do it justice. Why are you still reading this drivel anyways? Go read Gilead.

Another aspect that I really enjoyed was the simplicity of small town life that the author captured beautifully. The slower pace, the community inter-connectedness, the peaceful enjoyment of nature’s daily miracles like the sunrise, the light, the rain, the trees and the plants, the sunset, dawn and dusk, and fireflies. The writing was so good, so exquisite, that you really have to slow down and just enjoy each sentence like a delicious bite of your favorite food. And because I read too quickly through some pages, I am going to have to read it again some day and enjoy it all over.

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An Awfully Knotty Mess

From earlier this week at the ‘Great Gathering’of Republicans.


Many people have already pointed out the blasphemous and idiotic nature of this ‘benediction’ by Mark Burns at the RNC this week, so I won’t go there. But I do want to share a thought about the use of language.
I was listening to a discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the context in which he found himself in the 1930’s and 40’s in Berlin. The Christian church in Germany was by and large supportive of the Nazi regime, long after the true nature of its aims was made murderously clear. One of Bonhoeffer’s concerns was how to prophetically communicate Biblical Christianity to a culture where the language of Christianity had been corrupted and co-opted in the service of an evil political empire.
This is no small task.
We need a word to help us understand some of this. I propose syncretism, here defined by missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen:
Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures or worldviews of their culture. Syncretism, then, is the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture. Or, stated in other terms, syncretism is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity loses it distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.
Syncretism happens all the time and everywhere to varying degrees, but in this case it is particularly alarming because it is paraded on center stage at one of the most televised and closely watched events in America – an event which is supposed to represent the political beliefs of about half of Americans.
The end result of all this is that it becomes harder and harder to communicate gospel truth in a way that is clearly distinguished from the culture, in a way prophetically speaks to the culture.
Once you marry Jesus to the Republican Party or political conservatism, it’s an awfully knotty mess to separate them again.
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Lewis the Prophet

From the Screwtape Letters (letter 7):

“I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.
At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect. a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the enemy. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshiping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark.”


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The Pre-Scream Post-Thump Silence and the Incarnation

The first thing that happens is you hear a really big thump, which is the unmistakable sound of 40 pounds of human hitting the floor or the wall. The second thing that happens is silence. Now pay attention – the length of the silence will be in proportion to the seriousness of the injury.

The longer the silence, the worse it is. A short silence and you might as well stay sitting down. Anything longer than 2 seconds and you better move.

The third thing that happens is the screaming. Ah yes, the screaming. This too can serve as an indication. The particular timbre of the scream lets you know if this is a typical nothing-to-see-here kind of injury or if it requires an interruption of our regularly scheduled programming.

One thing that is tough about tending to injured kids is that usually you can’t do anything about the pain they are feeling. You rub the spot, kiss it, get their blankie, ask them what happened, and generally try to distract them. But when it’s a quasi-serious injury and the pain is pretty bad, I find myself scrambling for ever-better ways to comfort.

About a year ago, during one of these little incidents and in a moment of inspiration, I said to my son, “You know, I hurt myself like that too when I was a kid, and I remember how much it hurt.” Amazingly, this seemed to have a notably positive effect on him.

“Really, Daddy? You did this too?” he said, the crying turning to sniffling.

Encouraged by my unexpected success, I piled it on: “Oh yeah, tons of times. It hurt like crazy!”

And so this quickly became one of my go-to comforting techniques. Hit your head on the kitchen counter as you ran by? Done that. Fall off your chair during supper because you can’t possibly sit still or properly like a normal human being? I did that so much my parent didn’t think I’d ever sit with two cheeks on a chair. Fall off your bike? Mmmhmm – more times than I can count. Knee yourself in the chin while landing a leaping somersault? I know allll about it, kiddo. And on and on.

Soon enough, it was my son Jackson prompting me, in the midst of his pain, “Daddy did you do this when you were a kid?”

It’s almost like kids have a longing to know that the one they see as the strongest, smartest, and best person was once just like them and has experienced the same things they are going through. It’s almost like knowing the one who cares for us has shared our pain helps with that very pain. I wonder if we really ever grow out of that?

The more I think about it, the more I think we do not. And that is probably part of the reason why Hebrews 4:15 is such a cherished and oft-quoted verse:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

We still long to know that the One who cares for us knows what it’s like to be us; knows what it’s like to be bone-weary, to cry from joy and from a broken heart, to be misunderstood, to disappoint others, to be hated, and to be loved. To be human, and in this world. To be such as us, in such a place as this.

This knowledge brings comfort to children of all ages, even gray-haired ones. And such shared experience fosters intimacy in any relationship.

That is one of the many world-changing wonders of the incarnation.


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This Kind of Finger-Wagging Nanny

I saw this billboard while driving through Montreal a few weeks ago.


My first thought was: Good! Glad to see the government raising awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

But after reading it again, something about the choice of wording felt off. Never mind the word sport, which is odd but neither here nor there. No – the word I’m thinking of is criminal. Because that’s really the big punch of the whole thing. They grab your attention with the word SEX (or SEXE, in French, because, as you know, adding an E to the end of the word makes it more romantique). Then they hook you with the notion that you may be the victim of some misconception about buying sex. And, finally, the hammer of truth comes down: In Canada it’s criminal. Whabam!

Wait – really? Criminal? I mean, yes it is (for now!) and that’s good I guess. But that’s the best we can do? Something in my strange little brain says that word should be wrong. “In Canada (like everywhere) it’s wrong.”

Feel free to laugh out loud. Who am I kidding? Is this the 1870’s? We can’t make moral statements in public. We certainly can’t make absolute moral statements – my goodness! What kind of meddling bigoted hypocrite are you? What kind of sex-hating nail-biting Victorian Puritan are you? What kind of fun-hating, long-skirt-wearing, finger-wagging nanny are you?! article-0-045713D60000044D-93_468x352

A quick glance at the comments section of a local news article about this makes it clear that the peoples here are decided: leave it alone – people will do what they do and it’s not our business.

Ah. But of course the steady stream of robbed and raped girls and boys who are pulled and pushed into the sex industry to feed endless appetites are our business, as long as justice for the oppressed is our business.

The fact that we are now appealing to the assumed desire of citizens to not commit crimes in order to educate and dissuade sexual exploitation is rather telling, isn’t it? Hmm, that’s probably still too generous. We are appealing to not wanting to go to jail and be in the papers.

To me, that’s setting the bar a little low. In terms of a vision for human flourishing, that’s some thin gruel. Some thin, no-sugar-added, low-fat, nutrient-free kind of gruel. Not even a hint that some desires are good, some not so good. No clue that human dignity is part of the equation.

But that’s no criticism of the billboard itself. It’s a fine billboard – one for a time such as this.


All of that can get categorized under fumbling attempts at cultural commentary, which I personally find interesting, but ultimately falls well short of being ultimate. Now you might assume that I think this is a bad thing! And okay – in one sense I do. But that’s what I mean by it not being ultimate. It’s a bad thing that might lead to better things.

The gospel and God’s kingdom are ultimate in a way that society and culture isn’t. If Canada and the U.S. go headlong into moral relativism and all manner of ethical upsidedownery, as is the charted course, all the more reason why people will find themselves longing for an anchor for their heart and minds, and forgiveness for the wrongs which they can only deny doing for so long. It might all end up being a gospel opportunity – and I certainly hope and pray so.



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