Who is Around Our Tables?

Last night we had friends over for thanksgiving, and it was a wonderful evening of food and conversation. We made the turkey and veges and they brought pie. Actually, they made three pies! Chocolate cream, apple, and pumpkin! Needless to say, I think we all had more than enough to eat.

Here’s the thing: I love having people around our dining room table. If I had my way, we’d have a much larger dining room and a much larger dining room table, one we could cover with plenty of culinary delights and surround with animated, enjoyable, maybe even serious conversation, the sort that resonates deeply with who we are as human beings. Suffice it to say, there’s something uniquely intangible and beautiful about table fellowship. The preparation may seem like a lot of work, but it’s always worth it. More than worth it.

The Bible affirms and teaches the importance of table fellowship. Think about Jesus. He was always going to peoples’ homes, sitting around the table eating and drinking. And, I imagine, laughing and having a grand ol’ time! He was even accused by critics of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). The religiously stuffy and arrogant chided him for sharing meals with the riff-raff of his day, people otherwise unacceptable in respectable company.

In the culture of Jesus’ day, table fellowship was a sign of hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Who you sat and ate with could be a matter of controversy. Take, for example, these words of Paul:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned.For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Galatians 2:11-14

Cephas here is also known as Peter, one of the more prominent of Jesus’ disciples. Having already been shown by God that the gospel is also for the Gentiles (non-Jews) (see Acts 10), Peter later separates himself from the very people God had told him to accept. He did so under pressure from people who were falsely teaching that Gentile converts had to be circumcised and obey the entire Law in order to be genuine followers of Jesus. Rather than enjoying a meal with his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ, Peter caves into fear. Paul openly rebukes him, seeing that the very nature of the gospel is at stake in Peter’s actions.

And all of this over who is sitting around the dinner table.

Who are we inviting to sit around our table? With whom are we breaking bread?

When I consider the state of our world, and especially the state of political and cultural discourse, I can’t help but think sometimes that there are people who just need to sit at the same table together. Break bread. Enjoy a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Rather than having a leadership debate before an election, maybe require the candidates to show hospitality to one another. Maybe if such leaders, who are at least in part called to model political discourse to the rest of us, could look one another in the eyes without the glare of TV cameras and a tight script to follow, they would be able to see one another’s humanity and find their way towards genuine compromise.

Jesus, of course, broke bread and shared wine on the night before going to the cross. It was around the Passover table that Jesus instituted what Christians observe as Communion or the Last Supper. Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, most of whom would desert him, one who would deny him, and one who would betray him. Hardly perfect company.

Having people around our tables means extending to others the grace of God. Hospitality is an act of love. It’s a gesture of peace. Gathering around a table to share food and have conversation demonstrates a willingness to see past differences and to become open to the other, rather than see them as a label to be easily dismissed. Every meal is a parable pointing to the reality of the kingdom of God. Feasting is a prominent image for the world to come, the new heavens and new earth. One day we will dine with the king of kings. And having people around our tables now points to a future reality we can joyfully anticipate.

So who is around your table these days? Who needs to be?

Politics, Society, and Human Nature

It’s safe to say, I think, that our culture is polarized. Not only are there are strong disagreements amongst people regarding politics and various societal issues, but we seem to be less and less capable of viewing those with whom we disagree as human beings worthy of respect. Instead of thoughtful dialogue, we have media outlets that serve one point of view or another. If you’re more to the left on the spectrum, there’s CNN or CBC. However, if you’re more to the right, there’s Fox News or Rebel Media. Rarely do voices from one perspective meaningful engage directly with the voices from another perspective. Neither seems very willing. It probably wouldn’t be good for ratings, social media attention, and their bottom line.

But is it all about political differences? Are we only talking about the policy differences between Republicans and Democrats or between the Liberals and the Conservatives (or the NDP or Greens)? Have you, like me, ever wondered where this polarization comes from? How do opposing positions become so deeply entrenched? Why does it seem as though people are, more than ever, at one another’s throats?

This week conservative podcast host Ben Shapiro discussed this very question and I thought his analysis was insightful and very helpful. You can watch the clip below. While the context is the US political situation, I think if you watch it all the way through you can see how it applies more broadly.

Essentially, when we think about politics, culture, and how we as a society deal with one another, some key questions to ask are: What does it mean to be human? What is human nature? Are human beings basically good and trustworthy or do we need to acknowledge that each of us contains both good and evil, right and wrong? How we answer these questions–and not everyone operates with the same answers in mind–matters because our answers impinge on the way we think we ought to organize society, government, and our relations with one another.

More and more, it’s clear that different and competing visions of human nature lie beneath different views of political authority and societal norms and expectations.

The Christian worldview makes clear that human beings are a mixture of good and evil. When God created human beings in his image, he said it was very good. But not long after the creation of humankind, things went awry. Sin entered the picture. People became enemies, both of one another and God. The image has been cracked and marred by selfishness and disobedience. The question is what happens to the way we think about society, culture, and politics when we ignore the realities of human nature? I don’t have all the answers, but it’s a question we should be asking.

Here’s Shapiro’s video.

Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Do We Want God?

Sometimes, I confess, I find myself asking the question: Where is God?

Where is God?

Now, you might ask, what do I mean? Perhaps you think, “You’re a pastor and you’re asking where God is?”

Here’s the thing: it’s one thing to know something and it’s another to experience something.

For example, I know God can do mighty things. I know he can act in spectacular ways. With the Lord, the miraculous is possible.

Yet so many of our churches and ministries are struggling. And sometimes—despite the theology I have in my head—I just don’t know what to make of it all. I mean, I can have some grasp of the cultural and historical forces that have led us to this moment we’re in. But God is infinitely bigger than and sovereign over all of this.

That’s why I ask: Where is God?

Or perhaps I should put it this way: What should or can we expect of God here and now? What should our experience of God be?

Over the last couple of years our world—and therefore our churches—have been pummelled by the realities of COVID. We’re all exhausted by the whole thing, one way or another.

Yet, I think it’s fair to ask: What do we want to see happen in our churches? What do we want from God?

But maybe that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it all. Maybe those questions are still “keeping-God-at-arms-length” questions. Maybe we need to be more willing to dig deeper. Be more self-aware.

God, after all, isn’t here to make stuff happen for us or to give us stuff we want. That’s a consumer Christianity God.

Our God—the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a living and active God, one who doesn’t fit into our boxes, traditions, and preferences. He moves. He acts. He reveals. He brings light into darkness. He does as he chooses.

Thanks be to God that he chooses to act in love!

Maybe we need to ask God for eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe we need to be open to his presence in ways that are painful and uncomfortable at first but ultimately healing and renewing. Maybe we need to wait and listen and be still rather than rush to human solutions and strategies.

And maybe even as churches we need to confess, to repent, to admit our own complacency and own our complicity in the situation we find ourselves in.

Our God also calls and invites. He beckons and woos. He seeks to convict and change us. He seeks to make something new of us. He wants to pour his transforming love and grace in us to overflowing, so that we become vessels of his good news. But do we want this?

We ask: Where is God? Isn’t it possible that God is right here? Isn’t it possible that he is waiting for his people to approach him, to beseech him, to fall on their knees before him, to acknowledge their desperate need for him?

Yes, we can ask: Where is God?

Maybe the better question is: Do we want God? Do we really want to enter the presence of this God? Are we prepared to let this God undo us and our ways? Especially if this is indeed the route to life, wholeness, and peace?

I conclude as I began. I confess that I don’t always want God. But I want to want God—more than I sometimes do. I have moments when I want God more, and moments when I want God less. My desire for God ebbs and flows. It can be a trickle one day, and a roaring waterfall the next.

Maybe once we as Christians and as churches begin wanting God more than what we want from God, our eyes and ears will begin to open. Perhaps then not only will we begin to experience answers to our prayers, but will find that our very prayers are changed because we find ourselves desiring God more than what he can give us.

Vaccine Mandates, Abortion, and the Cognitive Dissonance of Bodily Autonomy

Cognitive Dissonance: A term from psychology referring to the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval.

German-Swiss poet Herman Hesse (1877-1962)

We currently have national political leaders–Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Joe Biden–who believe in unrestricted abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Herein lies a quandary. You see, pro-choice political leaders advocating for mandatory vaccinations have a problem they will never admit to having–or perhaps be unable to realize even exists.

The problem is that of bodily autonomy. The idea of bodily autonomy is that each individual person has the freedom to choose what they will or will not allow done to their own individual body. No one can impose upon an individual a procedure or act upon a person in a way that violates that person’s choices with respect to their own physical body. And these two issues–vaccine mandates and abortion–connect because they both relate to the notion of bodily autonomy.

For example, the other day President Biden announced that all private businesses in the US with more than 100 employees must require proof of vaccinations (or weekly COVID tests) of those same employees (or risk significant financial penalties). The very same day VP Kamala Harris made remarks defending abortion (no doubt in light of the recent pro-life law passed in Texas) as a woman’s right to do what she wants (or does not want) to do with her body.

For many who advocate for a woman’s right to have an abortion, the argument of bodily autonomy remains fundamental. In other words, a woman ought to have access to abortion services (regardless of how far along a given pregnancy may be) because she can do what she chooses to do with her own body. To restrict abortion access, even in the earliest weeks of fetal development, is to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. Such autonomy is sacrosanct.

Indeed, the pro-choice position is seen as the height of our culture’s rhetoric of individual bodily autonomy and personal freedom. It has taken on an almost mythological status. Whereas in the Clinton-era Democratic party, the view was that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare” (there were those on the left who were more moderate and open to having restrictions based on the stage of fetal development), now the word “rare” is not only never used, but now abortion is very nearly celebrated as an intrinsic good.

So here’s the problem. For those who advocate for legal abortion on the basis of bodily autonomy, does not the principle of bodily autonomy extend to COVID vaccines? Do people not have the freedom to decide whether or not they will inject a substance into their bodies? Moreover, is it ethical for a government to impose restrictions or put mandates in place that punish or shame people for upholding the principle of bodily autonomy, a principle that most political leaders otherwise advocate for vigorously (especially in the case of abortion rights)?

Now, hear me clearly: I am not interested here in debating the efficacy of COVID vaccines or to make a case one way or the other about whether people should get vaccinations. I am not even arguing for a particular position regarding vaccine mandates. I simply want to point out the disconnect that so many political leaders either seem oblivious to or choose to ignore. How can someone say “your body, your choice” on the one hand but not on the other–that is, push for or support legal requirements that (in their view) respect bodily autonomy when it comes to abortion but then push for legal requirements that violate bodily autonomy when it comes to COVID vaccines? Why don’t they see the inconsistency?

Complicating this ethical quagmire is the fact that with respect to abortion, the whole “my body, my choice” argument is so out of date as to be laughable. Our present scientific understanding of fetal development makes absolutely clear to anyone willing to be intellectually honest that any child in any woman’s womb is not simply a part of that woman’s body. A child in utero is an individual human being, and has a body that is distinct from, even if dependent upon, that of its mother. Everything we know about human biology verifies this. Of course, the principle of bodily autonomy has never really applied to abortion, but those who continue to use such language in defense of unrestricted abortion rights are not doing what they would otherwise have the vaccine-hesitant do: that is, follow the science (Ah, the mantra of our age!). Those who argue for the pro-choice position because of the principle of bodily autonomy do so with no basis in scientific fact. On the other hand, those who argue that government leaders have no authority to mandate COVID vaccines (especially to maintain one’s livelihood and provide for themselves and their families) can easily stand on the ground that this principle provides.

If the argument for vaccine mandates is that they are needed in order to protect other people from harm, the only way for anyone to also support abortion is to advocate for the fatal harm of the unborn child. Indeed, if we were to talk about the need for vaccine mandates as necessary for protecting the most vulnerable, truly there is no one more vulnerable than an unborn child. Anyone who argues that vaccine mandates ought to be put in place should also be among those who advocate most vocally for the protection of unborn children. Put simply, to those who advocate for the mandates and for abortion rights: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

What I really find striking about all of this, therefore, is the cognitive dissonance that must (or should) exist for those who advocate for both abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Either we can choose to do what we want with our bodies without legal ramifications or not. Which is it? You can’t have both, not if you’re actually thinking it through carefully. Those who try to have both are either disingenuous or delusional. I don’t know how else to put it. Because when I hear Prime Minister Trudeau belittle another party leader for not requiring (actually, he used the word “forcing”) his candidates to get vaccinated (to have a needle poked into their bodies) and also say that we need to protect a woman’s right to choose (to kill another human being who has their own body), my head spins. I feel the cognitive dissonance. Why doesn’t he?

The conversation–not to mention the partisan arguments and the protests–surrounding vaccine mandates are front and center at the moment. However, underlying this conversation is a whole series of deeper questions that are complicated but fundamental. They involve what it means to be human, what it means that we have rights and freedoms as individuals, what authority do we want (and therefore allow) our government to exercise in our lives, and what our responsibilities, duties, and obligations are to one another. In an age of tweets and sound-bites, most of this gets lost in the media, as politicians and pundits alike banter back and forth. There is virtually no public forum where conversations of sufficient depth take place with respect to such fundamental concerns. As a consequence, trust in public institutions is understandably at a low point. These are challenging times. There are no easy answers that will satisfy everyone. But I certainly wish those who are our political leaders would at least show more signs of recognizing, if not the cognitive dissonance I’ve pointed out, then the genuine concerns those with whom they disagree have about these important questions.