Renouncing oblivion

(Christian Courier column, June 23, 2014)

Memory Wound

In March the winning design for Norway’s official memorial to the 77 victims of the 2011 massacre (carried out by right-wing extremist Anders Brievik) was revealed. I was moved by the thoughtfulness and grandeur of artist Jonas Dahlberg’s three-pronged proposal. One feature, the Memory Wound, will be a massive channel cut right through the Sørbråten peninsula, a physical gash in the very landscape, the altered geography creating a void to evoke the loss of the nation. The names of the 69 people killed on the nearby island of Utøya, mostly teens, will be inscribed on the headland wall, names that visitors will be able to see but be unable to touch, a “poetic rupture,” as Dahlberg terms it.

The stone cut and removed from the peninsula will be transported to Oslo to fashion a second memorial marking the deaths of eight citizens killed by Brievik’s detonation of a car bomb. Finally, trees from Sørbråten will be transplanted in Oslo to create a permanent amphitheatre called “Time and Movement.” Though the design has garnered global acclaim, the government of Norway has postponed the project for one year due to local concerns about the environment and also to address the objections of several victims’ families who felt they were not given sufficient opportunity for input.

More recently, on May 21st, another memorial, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, was opened to the public in New York City. In a kind of unspoken kinesthetic reversal of the imposing height of the original Twin Towers, the design of this memorial generates a powerful physical response as guests descend seven stories underground to the main exhibition. On their way down, they are confronted by actual wreckage, poignant personal artifacts and debris salvaged from the 9/11 attack. Deep below the city, the museum explores the weight of terror, referencing not only the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, but additionally the 1993 bombing of World Trade Center and the story of the Pentagon and Flight 93. What touched me as I navigated the website was especially this detail: a chamber called “In Memoriam,” where the individual portraits and profiles of the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who lost their lives in the assaults are assembled for respectful acknowledgement.

At his wounded feet

This memorial impulse to mark loss by name — by singularity, by individuality — in Jonas Dahlberg’s design, in the New York memorial and in other places like the Menin Gate or the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, strikes me as deeply Christian, regardless of the artist’s original intention. Each name testifies to the sacredness of life.

But it’s also a defiant act to erect a memorial — a protest against mortality, a primal outcry against extinction, a universal yearning for eternal significance. The title for this column is borrowed from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s wise and tender book, Lament for a Son. “If Eric’s life was a gift,” says this grieving father, “surely then we are to hold it in remembrance — to resist amnesia, to renounce oblivion.” He points out that the remembering is one of the “profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way-of-being-in-the-world. . . . ” We do not delete the past because “in history we find God.”

Wolterstorff’s contemplation upon his son’s death is not the elegantly parsed rational apologetic one might expect from a noted philosophy professor. Instead, with every other grief-stricken Christian, he places his pained questions at the wounded feet of a suffering and dying Saviour. In Christ’s rising from the grave he finds the hope of our own rising from our own graves, a portent of “death’s dying.”

In another wonderfully sensitive reflection, “The Art of Lament” (The Banner, August 2012), Wolterstorff examines the language of lament in Scripture. He points out two divergent paths that Christians sometimes take in their sorrow: either they give up on God and treasure their grief, or they stifle their grief, thinking that it somehow dishonours God. Rather, he says, and he says it with the consoling gentleness of one who truly knows, “a faith that incorporates grief is stronger and richer than a faith that sings only praise songs.”

May my faith have the breadth to carry grief. May every memorial and every headstone prophesy to me of a suffering, sovereign God who will wipe every tear from our eyes. Who will erase death and mourning, crying and pain. Who will ensure that the old order of things will pass away. O, Lord, haste the day.




God’s sinning child

(Christian Courier column, May 26, 2014)


Our latest church sign got me thinking about sin. “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.” Two admissions here. What popped into my head was not my own sin, but Rob Ford’s. I’d just heard about his leave of absence to enter rehab. The second thing that popped into my head was still not my own sin, but how surprising it was to see the word “sin” displayed so publicly and baldly. Even in Christian media, the word sin is used sparingly these days. We speak more tactfully about brokenness, struggle, addiction, dysfunction or moral failure. It doesn’t take much of a rundown through popular TV and movies to see that the flawed hero is de rigeur  — Sherlock Holmes and his drug addiction, Ironman’s anxiety, Batman’s vengefulness, Spiderman’s guilt. Our favourite protagonists are those with a secret failing. We want our heroes human, after all, like us.

I’m ambivalent about the theological implications of our sign, and maybe the grammar, too (grin), but the main point is pretty clear. We all sin. Pastors, elders and deacons, Christian schoolteachers and writers for Christian publications. I have sin in my life — the sins of my youth, broken relationships, recurrent envy of families where everyone belongs to Jesus Christ, occasional jealousy of published authors, an overly critical spirit, a mounting reluctance to add any more confession to this list . . . .

However, confession is what sin requires. Not so much confession to one another, though that has its place, too, for prayer support and accountability, but penitential confession to God, who never withholds pardon.


In “Why Confess Sins in Worship When It Seems So Rote?” (Christianity Today, December 2013), John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin College prof, lays out a helpful list, detailing the necessity of corporate confession in church. I found it instructive, not only to establish why confession is an important part of liturgy, but why it’s good for me, a sinner.

Here are Witvliet’s four points, considerably condensed.

  1. “Since sin is both individual and corporate, confession should be, too.”
  2. Corporate confession is practice, rehearsing together the words we instinctively balk at: “I’m sorry.”
  3. “Penitence orients us to grace.” Confession allows us to “set aside” our sin and become recipients of divine love and mercy.
  4. Corporate confession teaches us to resist “self-righteousness” and “triumphalism,” which he calls “two of the largest problems inside the church, and two of the biggest reasons people can’t stand the church.”

Witvliet goes on to describe the trinitarian roundedness of confession. It prompts the forgiveness of God the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus aided by the efficacy of the Holy Spirit to help us “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15, NRSV).

That last part — the growing up part, the maturation from forgiveness to living holy lives — seems almost as much out of synch with our culture as the word “sin.” It’s definitely catechetical (catechism teachers like me still love that word). Q&A 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism affirms that as a member of Christ, sharing in his anointing, I must “strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life.”

There is nobility in those old-fashioned words. No capitulation to brokenness, dysfunction, moral failure or even heroic flaws. No wallowing or surrender, but “striving.” A forward call — “to present myself as a living sacrifice of thanks.”

So it seems I don’t really have time to judge Rob Ford’s sins. I have a lot to do. I have to “set aside” the sins of my youth since they’ve already been forgiven and “hurled into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7: 19). I have to motivate myself to mend relationships. I have to attend to the daily discipline of entrusting my family members who do not follow Jesus into the hands of the Father who loves them infinitely more than I. I have to encourage and applaud writers who are using their gifts while practicing trust and submission regarding the Lord’s plans for mine. I have to curb my tendency to notice errors and omissions and nurture appreciation for all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Phil. 4:8). I have to take stock of all the other sins I have not confessed here and actively attend to their eradication. I have to “take time to be holy.”

All in the power of the Spirit who will witness with my spirit that, in doing so, I am a child of God (Rom.8: 16).





A Vespers Story

(Christian Courier column, April 28, 2014)

While I was snowbirding in Florida this past winter, I made a habit of attending vespers at our park. Imagine a huge hall. On Saturday morning it seats about 500 or more for coffee, donuts, announcements and singing. On Sunday night, it’s set up much more modestly for vespers — attendance about 100. You walk in and you’re greeted by smiling, nicely-dressed older people with name tags. You put your donation in a basket. You pick up a Celebration Hymnal and sit down. On stage a white-haired pianist is playing gospel songs. There’s a huge American flag beside a portable lectern. A plain wooden cross on a pedestal stands in the centre.

Normally I choose a seat in the middle somewhere. I like having singing voices all around me, hopefully some alto, tenor or bass. Normally I introduce myself and chat with the folks near me. I don’t know many of them yet.   One Sunday night I was slumped under a weight of sadness. Back home, my brother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. His cancer was spreading. I felt guilty, so far away from my family. Despite my mood, I wanted to go to vespers. I found a seat in the middle, but, preoccupied, I didn’t speak to the lady next to me. Just nodded a quick reserved hello. On my other side were two empty chairs.

Minutes before the service started, a very old, very shaky, very stooped man tried to sit in one of the seats beside me. He moved precariously. No cane or walker. I quaked at the spectre of a hard fall on the tile floor. Behind me arms reached out to steady the two chairs on my left. Voices encouraged him, “You’re almost there. You can do it.” It wasn’t clear which of the two empty seats he wanted. He hovered for an eternity. Then, ever so slowly, he folded his frame into the chair beside me. Once upon a time he must have been quite a tall man; now, even seated, I towered over his crumpled form. I smiled at him and the service started.

Enter his courts with praise

The guest pastor was from Zeeland Reformed Church in Michigan. He was confident and gregarious. Retired, but not really. Still does administration for his church, he said. Still preaches.

“Please stand for the opening hymn,” he boomed. Not his first time preaching at a 55+ park, I guess. I hoped the gentleman beside me would stay seated, but no. Shakily, using the chair in front of him as ballast, he rose. It was a gradual lift-off; I held my breath. At last he was up. It took all his concentration to stand. I shared my hymnbook, leaning in so he could see the words.

He sang beautifully. He knew all the words by heart. This old, old man, for whom every movement required supreme effort, was singing, ardently, about God’s goodness and grace. And suddenly, though I had expected to be too weepy to sing at all — suddenly, I was singing with deep joy and peace. I was holding the hymnbook, but he was holding me up.

The sermon was about Sarah’s laughter at the surprising announcement that she was going to have a child at her advanced age. God’s emphatic rebuke: The Lord can do anything. The Lord is powerful. The Lord has a plan and he will accomplish it. Age is immaterial.   After the message, the Harmony Notes, a ladies’ choir, sang a few numbers. The tempo was a bit slow for my taste, but they performed with sincerity. Then our ebullient pastor invited us to sing again. My partner rose creakily to his feet, his frame pitched so forward that his nose almost touched the page. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we sang.

After the service, I told him that it was fun to sing with him. I asked if he needed any assistance as he prepared to exit our row. He pointed at one of the choir ladies and quavered, “That’s my wife. She’ll come and get me.”

I walked home in the darkness softly singing the song again — the everlasting song, singing with the old man and all the sacred throng:  “And crown him, crown him, crown him; Crown him Lord of all.”



* My brother-in-law, Tim Gravelle, is now among the sacred throng in glory. He was called home by his Saviour on April 8, 2014.