Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seals and A Serious Man

I went to see the Coen brothers' latest movie last Saturday night. It is called A Serious Man and is a dark comedy about how we understand our existence and the meaning of life. As the directors are Jewish they have drawn heavily from their understanding of Jewish faith, customs, and the nominal Jewish culture of the 1960s. It has a message like many Hollywood movies which can be summed up in the words of a Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane song played incessantly throughout the movie: "When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, don't you want somebody to love?" The main character gets hit by Job-like catastrophes, has a King David moment on the roof of his house, and finds himself questioning all he has ever believed. The Coens seem to insist upon an absence of meaning in the universe and that the only answers lie in having a good hedonistic time with sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.

Now I am not a film critic or a philosopher, but as I walked home I found myself considering the message of this movie. If God is unknowable and the universe is meaningless then we truly are in a difficult predicament. I found myself talking to God and seeking to take every thought captive to the faith I profess. It occurred to me that the Coen brothers start at the presupposition that there is no God who communicates with us. I start from a place where I believe there is a God who communicates and so as I walked I prayed.

As I walked along the seawall of False Creek a seal popped its head out of the water and began swimming at the pace of my walk. A second seal raised its head and swam beside it. The two swam along beside me for a while before diving below the surface and disappearing. I commented to God that it seemed like He had given me a sign to reassure me but that it was so brief that it would be hard to know. As I continued to walk, the two seals appeared and kept pace with me again before diving and disappearing below the surface. I said to God, "If I were a man like Gideon I might ask for a third time." As if on cue, the two seals appeared beside me a third time, swam beside me for a few more meters, swam out into the middle of the bay, disappeared below the waves, and did not return.

I shared this story with a few trusted friends in my faith community. One friend said, "It made me chuckle, because it's not some miraculous display or even a small voice in your head, just this cute little show God put on for you to make you smile and give you a bit of reassurance."

Now skeptics will say that was all a coincidence and I cannot say it wasn't. There was no one around to witness this and even if there was what would that prove? Yet, I walked away from that moment amused and reassured. I felt that the Coen brothers were missing something in their understanding of life. Next time, I'm going to ask God to make the seals do tricks! :>)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


. . . we agree with Walter Brueggemann’s contention that one of the greatest dangers in our time is the “monopoly of our imagination.” Bowing before an idol, Brueggemann argues, is fundamentally a matter of “yielding the imagination” so that the world is experienced and interpreted in terms established by the idol. Consequently, “the key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of our imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.”*
What might be possible if we cultivated imagination? I don't mean the kind of imagination that dreams up the next reality TV show. I am not talking about imaginative ways to do what everyone else is doing. Imagination ought to lead to one-of-a-kind insights and creative new ways of thinking. Set aside some time to do some serious imaginative work.

*Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2004), 141.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Forgiving The Church

Henry Nouwen on forgiving the church:
When we have been wounded by the Church, our temptation is to reject it. But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ. When we say, "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church," we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness, at least not officially. But the Church as an often fallible human organization needs our forgiveness, while the Church as the living Christ among us continues to offer us forgiveness. It is important to think about the Church not as "over there" but as a community of struggling, weak people of whom we are part and in whom we meet our Lord and Redeemer.*
*Henry Nouwen,

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mud Pies

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.*
*C.S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory, 1949.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The God Who Woos

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis spoke of why it is that God does not make it clearer that He exists and is involved with our lives.
You must have often wondered why [God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.*
I have often thought of this quote when I consider the nature of miracles and prayer. Can we ever say that something was truly a miracle? And by miracle in this context I mean a "perceptible interruption of the laws of nature."#

Many times we are left wondering. We pray for pain to go away and it does but would the pain have gone away even if we had not prayed. We ask God to do something about a stripper bar that is a particular blight on a community and an offence to women and it suddenly closes down. Was it just a coincidence? We pray about a mass seen on a CT scan and the next imaging with MRI shows no evidence of the mass. The doctor asserts that the first imaging must have been wrong. Or was it? We pray for a terminal disease to progress slowly and it does. Is it the medicine or is it a miracle? We have ample evidence that God sometimes works behind the scenes in ways not apparent to the average observer. Take a look again at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Jesus turns water to wine and yet the chief steward of the banquet is not aware that a miracle has occurred.

I often think that miracles could be explained away by coincidence, delusion, or fakery. Yet, what if God does His miracles such that He does not over-ride our human will? Lewis says that God's felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated manner would indeed over-ride our will and cause us to have no other response but to bow before the One who had limitless power over our lives. Instead, God leaves the results ambiguous. He woos us with the possibility that He might be out there working behind the scenes to hear and answer our prayers.

*Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1980, p. 38, 39.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fifteen Books I Really Like

1. Til We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
2. Perelandra – C.S. Lewis
3. The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis
4. Night - Elie Wiesel
5. Going to Church in the First Century – Robert Banks
6. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard
7. Teaching a Stone to Talk – Annie Dillard
8. The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
9. Highlander’s Last Song – George MacDonald
10. Phantastes – George MacDonald
11. Lilith – George MacDonald
12. The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell
13. Children of God - Mary Doria Russell
14. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
15. Flatland – Edwin A. Abbott
16. Girlfriend in a Coma – Douglas Coupland
17. The Celtic Way of Evangelism – George G. Hunter III
18. Exiles – Michael Frost
19. Forgotten Ways – Alan Hirsch
20. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Okay, twenty.