Knowing Better

James Coates, a Canadian pastor, finds himself incarcerated. I found out about this development on social media, and now I’m trying to write a half decent commentary on the situation. Kinda like making dinner from dumpster pickings.

The most uncomfortable thing I have done so far today was roll out of my king-sized bed at 6:30am. Did you know Ugg makes blankets? They are just a cozy as the boots. I made my own breakfast (favorite cereal and full cream milk), bemoaning the fact that we had run out of orange juice. And now?

Now I am settled into my La-Z-Boy recliner ready to spew forth either sage wisdom or drivel, depending on the reader’s sensibilities. Nothing like jail, I suspect.

For the record, I may not have all the hard facts straight, but if I state something as fact, it’s because I’ve researched it and verified it to the best of my ability.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, here is what I know as of 7:15am, Saturday February 20, gleaned from multiple news sources, police reports and the church’s own website.

James Coates is the Pastor at Grace Life Church in Alberta, Canada.

Grace Life Church followed most recommended health protocols in the first months of the COVID pandemic. Since June 2020 they have held nearly normal gatherings, except for a 14-day period in July where they voluntarily shut down all in-person ministry when they discovered two people had attended their gatherings and subsequently tested positive for COVID.

Dec 17, 2020- Grace Life Church was ordered to abide by Alberta’s public health guidelines and fined $1200.

Jan 29, 2021- AHS ordered Grace Life Church to close its doors until all violations of the Public Health Act were addressed.

Feb 7, 2021- Pastor James Coates was charged with one count of violating the Public Health Act and released with conditions.

Feb 16, 2021- Pastor James Coates turned himself into police, where he was “arrest[ed] on two counts of contravening the Public Health Act and on one criminal charge for failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking.” My understanding is that he breached the conditions of his February 7th release.

Feb 17, 2021- A meme floated across William Scarrott’s social media feed about Pastor James being led away in cuffs and ankle chains, arrested for preaching. William rolled his eyes.

Feb 17, 2021 William Scarrott was unfriended and blocked for suggesting the meme might not be totally accurate. (Which is weird, because it was from a right-wing friend, and his right-wing friends all agree that they are totally reasonable, open to dialogue and only left-wing liberal wackos are closeminded).

Feb 18, 2021 An online petition floated across William’s social media feed, attempting to garner support for freeing Pastor James. He reposted the link, stating that he would not sign the petition. And just like that, his week becomes less boring.

So, my position is this: Pastor James is in jail because of his own decisions, and as such he should stay there until he makes different decisions, or he is released through the regular workings of the justice system.

Having listened to the entirety of Pastor James’ last sermon, entitled “Directing Government to It’s Duty”, I suspect he might agree with me. In his lecture he explicitly states that civil disobedience must be done while still maintaining a posture of submission to the god-ordained authorities, which he says we accomplish by “humbly and graciously accepting” the consequences associated with our actions. He has modelled this in the most courageous way possible, by turning himself in to the police voluntarily. He could also be out on bail, but one of the conditions, I understand, is that he is to cease holding church services, and he has stated that in good conscience he cannot abide by those restrictions.

Pastor James has explicitly said that one of the reasons his church is refusing to follow public health orders, is to practice civil disobedience in the hope that the government might refocus on defending the “inalienable rights” of their citizens. Basically, Grace Life Church thinks lockdowns should end, and citizens should be responsible to mitigate the risk for themselves. In his last sermon, Pastor James was clear that he is doing this in the hopes that all Albertans might soon be free to get back to their lives. Fair enough. And if their actions can somehow focus on the rights of all Albertans, then that will be cool. But this has quickly become hijacked as a fight for our own little right to do church.

For the record, I think lockdowns should end too. I do not think that they are a sustainable means of mitigating the risk that this virus poses to society. I suspect that lockdowns are likely doing more long-term damage to society than the virus is, but that too much political capital has been invested for any but the most courageous elected officials to chart a different course.

I also believe the government is limping along as best they can. I believe medical professionals know more about viruses and the health care system than I do, and I do not believe that I’m being maliciously hoodwinked. I will extend them as much patience and grace as possible. I just hope they are aware that the grace and patience of the public cannot be assumed to be infinite.

I believe that most of the leaders of our faith communities are brave and weary. The work they do makes them, for the most part, worthy of our respect. I believe we place too much of a burden on them, and they are too willing to bear it.

From what I can glean, Pastor James Coates is a man of deep convictions and courage, and as such he deserves an apology from me. I implicitly pegged him – and his congregation’s attempts at advancing the kingdom of God – as lazy, unimaginative, and cheap. The road they have chosen is anything but cheap.

And this is where things get difficult, because one should never say “I’m sorry, but…”

But I have been asked for my thoughts on the whole matter, and so I will provide a commentary on what, to me, does matter. To that end, I am going to use Grace Life Church as a caricature to articulate my angst with broader church culture as it faces increasing and inevitable marginalization.

Okay then, as Christians, let’s talk about rights.

We have none.

The Apostle Paul wrote that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. What rights do you suppose God has? Perhaps all of them? Yet Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. The secular writers of the time barely had the words to describe the utter contempt they had for crucifixion. It stripped its victims of everything that made them human.

That is to be our position and posture.

I was reminded recently that this same Apostle Paul made use of his rights as a citizen of Rome, but a reading of the account and its context suggests that his motivation is the advancement of the kingdom of God.

This situation is not about the advancement of the kingdom of God. At best it’s a big kerfuffle because we’re heartbroken over having to pull the plug on our little version of it.

The government of Alberta is in no way hindering us from following the Way of Jesus. The current restrictions are… the strongest word I can come up with is… inconvenient, in this respect. Let me clarify: it’s hell on our Sunday Morning endeavours, but does not restrict us in any way from following the Way of Jesus. We were not prepared for this. We were still enjoying the afterglow of Christendom, when from the Roman Emperor Constantine right up until maybe a generation ago the church was at the center of western civilization. Count yourself blessed to be able to speak with your elected officials at all. If something supposedly granted only by God – the right to worship – is taken away so easily, could it be that it isn’t the right to worship we’ve been practicing in the first place? Perhaps we’ve been settling for shadows and forms.

One of the things Grace Life Church has said they’re fighting for is the right to worship “as we always have”. What is that exactly? One and a half hours a week? Oh boo frickin’ hoo. Most Sunday mornings have little to do at all with strategically advancing the kingdom of God. We’re spending crazy money and dolling out ridiculous volunteer hours building grain bins while the crops go rotten in the fields. How many parishioners, myself included, have critiqued another worship set, another sermon, under the guise of “Worship can be better if we do such and such’, when what we really mean is “What I like is…”? And we’re entitled, because we’ve paid for it after all. And how many pastors have I met who left the distinct impression that the church exists to help them fulfill their calling? Too many.

I wish I could cradle the face of the church in my hands, look into her eyes as her rights and privileges in society fall away and say to her, “It’ll be okay. Those weren’t yours to begin with.”

I wish we had the humility to discern when there’s a difference between knowing Jesus and knowing better.

Chasing Twilight

All of my life I’ve been chasing twilight.

Where all the hours in the day went, I don’t know. There was a time, I’m sure, when I worked and played in the warmth of the sun. Those days were spent on swing sets, chasing girls, playing cops and robbers, or in the summer building forts in the woods at the edge of my Grandpa’s farm. Immortality was so obvious that we didn’t think about time at all. We only knew that the world was spinning because our moms told us to come in for dinner. Oh ya, we’d think, food. We should eat.

That was long ago. What’s left of dinner is just dirty dishes piled in the sink. They’ve been there for years, while we chase twilight.

Yesterday, when we were kids, we didn’t enjoy bedtime. Life was fun, and dreaming about it was second rate. Night was an annoyance.

Now the end of the day scares me. When did that happen? The sunset has become a sign that tomorrow will come too fast.

Honestly, I’m chasing twilight because I don’t know if I have what it takes to spend another 24 hours clawing my broken fingernails into the clay while the world hurls itself through space, trying to spin me off. Maybe it would be better if I just let go…

I’m chasing twilight because if I can catch the sun, the day doesn’t end and I don’t have to face another one.

From where I am, the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains: imposing slabs of stone linked intimately together, silently brooding and communicating all too well that following is forbidden. Their shadows reach out toward me, engulfing everything. Because when you’re too slow to run after the sun, what you really need is a reminder that you’re also feeble and small.

If I had a little more time, I think to myself. A few more minutes in the day. Then they’d see:  I’m a good father. A loving husband. I’m worth my living wage. The company is better off because I work there. I’m not a disappointment to myself and others. I’m not broken. I’ll put myself back together. I’m definitely not insecure. I’m Blue Collar and fucking good at it.

Just give me a little more time.

So I chase twilight, but every day see the sun tuck those fantasies away just out of reach on the other side of monstrous granite teeth. I didn’t make it. Not even close, really. So tomorrow is on its way with another opportunity to not quite get there.

Being a Christian, this is simply unacceptable – not just the failure, or the profanity, although there’s that too – but being mentally and emotionally…finished…with a body that is well on its way. I know that I should be able to send a cutesy little scriptural meme down the black hole of social media, eat more fibre and eventually feel better. At this point, though, I may as well disappoint God too. There’s something to be said for consistency.

Thing is, I adhere to a strange brand of Christianity that is about more than me and how I feel. It is infused with ancient scriptures and prophets and such. One prophet named Malachi, who lived about 2500 years ago, wrote this:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings…”

What does it means for the sun to rise with healing in its wings? It means that when all hope is gone, we’ll see the sun rising in the west, rays of light carving their way back through those mountain passes carrying everything we thought we’d lost, all the things that we assumed were forever out of reach.

There is one part of me left that believes it.

The shadows that almost swallowed me are in retreat. The atmosphere is infused with new colours as the sun slips over the Rockies to touch the foothills with light. Hope comes from the same direction that it disappeared so long ago. The scent of pine and cool water dance softly in the air.

All of a sudden I’m building forts at the edge of Grandpa’s farm. Looking between the trees I can see Grandma walking out to him in the field, because its teatime. My sister is in the playhouse. I still don’t know why she is old enough to light the wood stove and I’m not, but I don’t care any more. She’s cool. My brother is taking my toys apart. I think it’s cute, and I’m kinda amazed that he knows how to put them back together again. Mom and dad aren’t divorced, and all that bad stuff didn’t happen.

I glance down, a little curious about the ashes underfoot. A small part of me wonders if something bad was once here. Then the sun filters down to me and suddenly I can’t recall what “bad” is.

What “bad” was?

What “what” was?

I dunno.

I need a stick for my fort.

Someone says, “Hey Billy!”, so I turn around and there He is, with a smile on His face and just the branch I’ve been looking for.

Christmas Memes 2018 Part 1

This year for the holidays I’m trying to see things from inside the story, and I’ll share my thoughts with you with quick notes for your leisurely meditation. Here are a few I’ve already shared from my personal account on social media. More to follow as I get inspired, get insomnia, or get overly caffeinated. Merry Christmas, friends! Keep it real!


The Way Forward

If the eyes are truly the windows of the soul, we need not be afraid of the dark.

At the top of the stairs I hesitate in what we call morning, but it’s dark like the night and I do not wish to plummet into the day. So I wait. Soon – though still wrapped in a shroud of drowsiness and perhaps a hint of sadness – the way forward dimly reveals itself, for my eyes have adjusted.

But my soul, afraid of falling closes itself tight, and attempting to turn back from the first small step toward the unexpected and unwanted finds the way back a wall pressing tight, intruding upon my precarious foothold. I freeze, terrified.

It doesn’t need to be this way; we can learn to wait in the dark. Keeping our souls open in the scarcely lit places of life allows the deepest parts of our being to expand. With courage and a little patience we begin to perceive glimmers hope and fortitude where once there was only fear, pain and anger. The way forward is always there, but can only be seen by those who are brave enough to wait.

The open soul forgives, and in the way forward you’ll discover healing.

So wait, let your soul stare into the darkness, and be one of the few who can step into the unknown. It’s a glorious thing to be wide awake and at peace when the sun comes over the horizon.

Smashing Snowglobes

As far as I know there is only one way to have a perfect Christmas. Every expectation has to be jammed together into a space so small that it cannot sustain human life, drowned, and encased in glass. We call these places snowglobes. They are pretty, quaint, and while sometimes expensive they hold no real value other than to demonstrate to guests your distain for dusting.

In a snowglobe you can have a church service on Christmas Eve, go carolling, live in a warm cottage, and drink apple cider beside a perfectly decorated tree that guards an unholy amount of colourfully wrapped presents. Sometimes there is enough room for a well behaved family sitting down for a lovely turkey dinner.

What there isn’t room for is imperfection.

Nobody in a snowglobe is too busy. I’ve never seen one that contains a mall stuffed with anxious, bewildered husbands or screaming toddlers. Its styrofoam snowflakes never settle gently upon the collars of the homeless and estranged.

How nice, for those who live in a tempered glass bubble.

Somebody give me a hammer.

You can also purchase snowglobes that contain little baby Jesus. They are sublime. They don’t smell like manure, contain despots who murder infants, or have poor blue-collar families becoming refugees. Sometimes you can wind them up and they’ll sing a lullaby to a porcelain child who doesn’t breathe or cry. Look inside and you’ll find that the Virgin Mary found childbirth to be an inspirational event and Joseph – tasked with providing for his family – wasn’t at all embarrassed to tuck the newborn into a feeding trough.

On the other hand, for me the actual Christmas Story is filled with wonder precisely because it stinks. It fills me with hope that God might look down from heaven trying to find some way to connect with his children, see nothing but a manger filled with poverty and desperation, and say,”Perfect. I’m on my way.”

One of Jesus’ nicknames was Emmanuel, which means “God With Us.” No fragile glass barrier separating the holy from the common, or the sacred from the profane. Just a God who will go to lengths we can’t begin to comprehend in order to save us from ourselves.

My prayer is that Jesus will show himself to you this Christmas even if (especially if?) you have very little room for him, and what isn’t cluttered has a peculiar, barn-like odour.

And should you prefer the snowglobe version, I’ll try to be there for you when life gets clumsy.