Writing Prompts: designed to shake up your writing sessions

I’m just delighted to share the news that my new little book, Writing Prompts: 99 Karate Chops to Writer’s Block has just been released! It’s an e-book, so it’s easy to get hold of (so to speak) and there are no shipping charges.

FINAL VERSION WRITING PROMPTS

I wrote this book in between other projects, mostly as a way of doing something creative and fun. When the intense focus on a piece of research got to be too much, I’d draft a writing prompt or two to shake up my brain a little. After a few months, I had over 100. I sent them to a few friends to review and to vote on the ones they like best … these are the 99 that made the cut!

 What is a writing prompt, you ask? Here’s my note from the book’s introduction:

“A writing prompt is a short, punchy idea, question, or image. It is meant to get you started with a writing session. It can be a warm-up (like stretching muscles before playing sports), or it can help you get unstuck when you’re stuck with writer’s block. A writing prompt is often light-hearted and fun. It gets different parts of your brain and imagination working. I usually switch from a prompt to my main project, and I find the writing flows more easily.”

I hope that Writing Prompts will help you kick-start your writing projects, shake up your imagination, and let all those thoughts and emotions you’d like to share flow freely into the world!

See the reviews here: https://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/product-reviews/B075FGRPX5/ref=dpx_acr_txt?showViewpoints=1

Find it at Chapters/Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/writing-prompts-99-karate-chops/9781537847771-item.html

Or at Amazon (USA): https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/dp/B075FGRPX5/

Or at Amazon (Canada): https://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/dp/B075FGRPX5/

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS, and teaches theology and the history of Christianity.

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The Whisper of Witness

I received a text last week from my childhood pastor Allan Saunders.  He wanted to let me know that a beloved Elder in our home congregation was nearing the end of his battle with cancer.  Larry’s struggle with cancer was brief.  Diagnosed in the spring, he was near death by mid-summer.  I contacted Larry’s wife Carol and expressed my love and appreciation for his life well lived for Jesus.  I reflected this week on the various ways that Larry demonstrated his love of Jesus in my life.  As a teenager Larry volunteered to teach the rather rambunctious junior high bible class on Sunday mornings at our church.  Larry loved teenagers and in his quiet and thoughtful manner he was open to all our crazy questions about life and God.

When my Father died when I was 14 years old, Larry came alongside me in supportive ways taking me out for dinner on a regular basis for a good steak at the Keg (he had a glass of merlot and I had a coke!) as we worked through what I was feeling and where God was in the midst of all that.  When the local 9 hole golf course (where I had my “junior membership”) hosted its annual “Dad and son” tournament each year Larry gave up time with his own family to go around the golf course and help me participate in a day that I was often trying to forget.

In my university years, Larry played bass guitar in our church’s praise band called “Three Day Band.”  Together, with some of the finest Christians I’ve ever spent time with, we travelled throughout the prairies and led worship for farmers in little one steeple towns.  What struck me with all of these experiences was Larry’s quiet, dignified “whisper of witness.”  His trust in the Lord Jesus was clear and yet his winsome and cheerful way of walking through this pilgrimage of life was not “preachy” or “showy.”

I recall someone asking Larry on a Sunday morning in our teenage bible study how he could be so sure of his faith.  “Well, I met Jesus a long time ago,” Larry said matter-of-factly, “and when my life is done I’m willing to trust that Jesus will be waiting for me on the other side.”

Tomorrow, people gather in my old home town to worship God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to celebrate Larry’s life well lived.  I just hope he knew how much his “whisper of witness” impacted so many of our lives.  Heaven now has yet another face that makes me eager to run my race of faith with perseverance looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  The Communion of Saints is richer for Larry’s presence and our lives are fuller for his “whisper of witness…”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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Canada 150 and the Call to be Reconciled

“You’re turning 150? That’s so cute!”

So far, these words from Tom Jackson on This Hour Has 22 Minutes are my favourite response to Canadians’ sesquicentennial microburst of patriotism. He’s pointing, of course, to the fact that Indigenous peoples have been in this land far, far longer. While lots of red and white is hung up, fireworks are cued up, and barbeques are fired up, one does wonder if 150 years is really that big a deal.

Make no mistake: I love my country and my fellow citizens. I love the freedom and fairness we seek, even though we don’t always achieve it. I love the great, big, wide open spaces and (mostly) clean air and (mostly) clean water. I love the down-to-earth nature of most Canadians and the integrity, sincerity, and kindness I have known my whole life from most Canadians.

There are many shadow sides to the Canadian experience, too. You probably don’t need me to remind you.

The invitation I hear this week in the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation is not to more flag-waving or self-congratulation (although I am a big fan of fireworks and BBQ, make no mistake). It is a call to rededicate ourselves as people of faith to seeking the paths of reconciliation among nations, among peoples, with our neighbours, with those we love.

the-statue-of-reconciliation

The New Testament calls it katallage, reconciliation. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ together tell us the story of God’s desire to reconcile. As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Reconciliation insists, first, that we be honest, not naïve, about the realities of sin and evil in our world. It insists that we acknowledge what has gone wrong.

Second, reconciliation presses us to look to Christ as the source of our reconciliation, and to admit our frailty and inability to create this reality on our own through some kind of good-natured (but magical) bootstrapping.

Third, to be “given the ministry of reconciliation,” to have that message “entrusted to us,” means that we cannot be passive bystanders in a world of division, suffering, contempt, and violence. It means loving those we find difficult to love; embracing compromise; denouncing all that kills and diminishes the fullness of life that God intends; and living as if another world is possible.

And there is the good news: in the power of the Holy Spirit, for us, for all of us, another world is possible.

Photo: “Reconciliation,” Josefina de Vasconcellos, Coventry Cathedral

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Wait. Watch. Pray.

It’s time to wait, watch and pray.  I write this in an airport departure lounge on my way to Kingston, Ontario and the 143rd General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Debates on human sexuality are on the docket again this year, just as most mainline churches (Lutheran, Anglican, United, etc) have been focused on these matters for the last several decades.  The PCC is next up in this discussion/debate discerning the will of the Holy Spirit, the interpretation of Scripture, and the call for justice in the church.  Canadian Presbyterians look south to the PC-USA suffering losses in light of their pro-inclusion decision of GA Detroit 2014, and overseas with the on going movement towards full inclusion in the “Mother Kirk” – The Church of Scotland.  Meanwhile, like every other mainline denomination in the West, the PCC is facing significant decline in membership, resources and influence in society.

In her exceptional book on Canadian Church History The Church with the Soul of the Nation, Phyllis Airhart offers this little gem from the old Church Union debate in the early decades of the last century:

The day after the inauguration of the United Church of Canada, author Lucy Maud Montgomery mulled dejectedly over glowing newspaper accounts of its “birth.” In recent years she and her husband, Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, had made no secret of their opposition to the proposed union. Nevertheless, one of his two pastoral charges had voted to unite with the insufferable Methodists in Zephyr, Ontario. They now face the unwelcome prospect of packing up the family belongings and moving from the Leaskdale manse. Cynical about the claims made for union and embittered by the outcome of the vote, Montgomery wrote in her journal entry later that day, ‘in Nature the births of living things do not take place in this fashion…No, ‘tis no birth. It is rather the wedding of two old churches, both of whom are too old to have offspring.”

And so I sit here and prepare myself for more debates this week on a topic that I’ve been listening to for 30 years.  But I wonder about Montgomery’s cautionary note regarding old, mainline (offline?) denominations in the West who are focused on certain issues yet seemingly blind to others.  West Vancouver resident Douglas Coupland claims in his book Life After God that Gen X – my generation – is the first to be raised without religion.  While that may not be entirely true, perhaps we were the last Sunday School drop out generation, nevertheless we see the reality now with Millennials who are living their lives spiritually detached from the traditional church in mass numbers.  I would love to attend more church gatherings where the missional engagement of a post-Christendom generation is on the docket.  I would love to hear more conversation in the church about how we can effectively translate the gospel into the current culture and help make disciples for Jesus to bless and mend God’s broken world.  I would love to hear God’s people strategizing for how best to equip the elect, saved to be sent, into the world to witness to the glory of God we know in Jesus Christ.  Until then, it’s time to wait, watch and pray.

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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Jesus, Interrupted

Such a long road, from there to here.

Such a long road, from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Galilee to Capernaum to Bethphage to Jerusalem to Golgotha to empty tomb to Pentecost;

from Syria to my house; from North Korea to my church

to Halifax to Dartmouth to Sydney to St John to Calgary to Nigeria to Kenya to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem…

A long road, long in time, long in spirit, long in effort. Jesus walked it, taking the long way there, walking from birth to death, to resurrection to abiding presence.

Not a long earthly life, mind you, certainly not by our standards in the age of perpetual motion medicine. But still, a long road: full, measured, always focused on people.

What long roads have you walked?

Long-way-to-go

Have you walked the long road of suffering, or loss, or grief, or pain? Have you walked the long road of palliative care?
Or of chronic illness? Or of depression?
Have you walked the hard road of divorce? Or abuse, or betrayal?

Are you even today walking such a road?
Or the long road to get to the next payday?
Or the end of term?

These are long roads. Hard roads. And somehow, in some way, our faith tells us that Jesus walks them with us. Maybe even carries us sometimes.

When I think of the pain of this world, and the pain I know, and the pain I have seen in others, I do not want the kind of Jesus most often held up for us to consume and digest.  

I do not yearn for a Jesus who is happy-clappy, content and apart, distant, aloof from suffering. I do not yearn for an easygoing Jesus, surfer Jesus, serene, slightly medicated, snoozing under the radar of reality.

“Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
I could go a hundred miles an hour
Long as I got the Almighty Power
Glued up there with my fuzzy dice.”

(authorship disputed)

That Jesus is the therapeutic, insulated Jesus, who knows no pain and cannot walk with us down our long and hard roads.

When I think of the pain of this world, and the pain I know, and the pain I see in others, I want the real Jesus, the one in the Bible, who rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not a warhorse, like a conquering king.

I want the Jesus the crowds greeted with shouts of “hosanna” –
“hosanna” … meaning “save us – save now”
for they knew their need of saviour.  

I want that Jesus who looked at them with bright and troubled eyes,
that Jesus who had known their illness and healed them,
who had known their hunger and eaten with them and fed them, who had felt the depths of their desperation and wept with them.

That Jesus.

I don’t want a superstar who will anesthetize the reality of pain, but the Christ of Christmas and Calvary;
the Jesus Christ who has lived through the same pain,
and has walked the hard roads,
and knows the mercy and grace of God
in the power of resurrection.

Is Jesus all we want him to be?
Does he conform to our expectations?
Does he surprise us sometimes?

Is Jesus containable, portable, predictable?
Can we squish him into our narrow definitions?
Can we guess what he will do, what he will say?

Or is he somehow free even from us, free for us,
… free from the world and social convention,
yet free for the world,
precisely because he does not find his self-image
in the opinions of others,
in others’ approval?

Just as we think he’ll be the upright law-abiding type,
he tells his followers to swipe a donkey.

Just as we think he will call out the tax collector Zacchaeus
and chastise the cheating cheater that he is,
Jesus goes home with him for supper.

Just as we think he will fill the table of the messianic banquet
with the beautiful people,
he invites the rags, the beggars, the chronically ill.

Just as we think he will crash through the gates of hell,
he retires to the hills for prayer.

Just as we think he will force a showdown with the Pharisees,
he retreats to a garden to weep and struggle with God.

Just as we think he will pull off one last incredible miracle
and blast the enemies of God to smithereens,
he bows his head, accepts the shackles of his accusers,
and dies, broken and bleeding on a cross.

Just as we think he is dead and gone,
the third day dawns.

sea-dawn-sky-sunset

Even radical prophetic Jesus,
whom we love to love for his shameless disturbing of the peace,
had moments of simply turning aside to attend to the needs
he believed to be most pressing.

He did not care if the religious leaders liked him,
or if the powerful knew him,
or if the successful respected him.

He was on a mission, to do the will of the One who sent him.
After a miracle, he did not seek fame:
in fact, he told the crowds to keep quiet about it.

For Jesus it was enough to seek God’s Spirit in all of life.
It was enough to love the unlovely, the ugly, the rejected.
It was enough to eat with the excluded, the forgotten, the despised.

For Jesus it was enough to come into Jerusalem riding a donkey – not the warhorse of a conquering King – and while he received their shouts of joy and acclamation at the gates,
and heard the crowd crying “save now,”
and trod upon their cloaks,
and saw their palm branches waving,
 it was enough for him all the while to turn his face
toward Jerusalem and accept what was coming:

the shouts of joy turning into derisive cries for his execution;
the cloaks on the ground
turning into abandonment and denial;
the palm branches turning into faces turned away,
too ashamed, horrified, fearful
to look upon the spectacle of the murdered messiah.

As Paul in Philippians put it, it was enough for Jesus to accept human form, the form of a slave – to live among us and love us as we are so that we can become what God would have us be.

C.S. Lewis once said
that for the divine Jesus to become human in our midst
is something like what it would be for one of us
to consent to live like a slug among the trash of the garden.

Lowly and without desire to “get anywhere, have anything, or be anybody” (David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ, 30), Jesus accepted a life of obedience
for our sakes, to lead us to God;
he humbled himself to a death on a cruel cross
so that WE might have life.
 

And it was enough for God, more than enough,
that this human Jesus, this divine Jesus,
this bent and broken Jesus,
this denied and dead Jesus,
bleeding on a chunk of wood,
should stand in for us and become for us
the best pathway of all.

It was enough.

“It is finished,” cried the Christ on Calvary,
crying out with his last breath that
we shall no longer be separated from God by any means:

not by any sin, not by any wrongdoing, not by any error,
not by any mistake, not by any poor judgment,
not by any of the sad and sorrowful ways in which we manage to entangle ourselves and each other:

NO, cries the Christ: it is finished.

And the veil of the temple is torn in two and we, even we, may enter the holy of holies;
we may come before God in all God’s wonder and majesty and mystery and great shining love.

And through Christ we are called and welcomed into the household of God,
from whatever places,
whatever roads we have walked
or wheeled or whimpered or wandered.

Who is this king called Christ?
 
“Who is this?” That’s what the crowds in Jerusalem asked when the palm branches got thrown before him.

This is the lowly one, the Christ, the Son with no home.

Down the roads we walk, you and I,
roads of hope and horror and healing,
roads of forgetfulness and forgiveness and fear,
roads of despair and even death,
roads of renewal and the possibility of a new thing
that God is doing in the world …

down all these roads, this Jesus walks at our side.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Lordy, Lordy look who’s Forty!

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 40: 12

This week I celebrated a birthday.  I’m not sure if one birthday is supposed to be more important than any other, but this one had a nice round number.  Turning 40 with a celebration of family and friends (complete with a Murder Mystery party and John Calvin birthday cake) was a great blessing.

The occasion also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the experience of God’s grace in my life over four decades.  I give God thanks for being raised in a loving, faithful Christian household connected to a caring and dynamic church family.  I give God thanks for his steadfast love and faithfulness through my teen years when, in the midst of sorrow and strife, I heard God’s call to ministry for the first time.  I am grateful for my twenties and the opportunity to engage in theological education, fall in love and marry, serve wonderful congregations and learn the ropes of pastoral ministry.  For my thirties and congregational ministry in different parts of this great country, challenging and rewarding doctoral work, the joy of raising three children and the clarity of hearing God’s call into a teaching ministry in a seminary – I feel deeply blessed.  I look forward into this new decade of life and ministry aware of the psalmists’ instruction to number our days in order to gain a heart of wisdom.  I too am deeply grateful for the triune God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace at work in my life.  I too desire that wisdom from God as I grow and mature in my missionary discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ.

I enter this decade fully aware that for my own earthly Father it was his final decade of life and that there are no guarantees when it comes to how long God gives us on this earth.  I desire to be a good and faithful servant for the time ahead that I may be a vibrant witness to the risen Christ as long as I have breath.

How do you number your days?  How have you experienced God’s grace and goodness over the years?  How might you look in the “rear view mirror” of your pilgrimage in this world and be able to say, “Look – there is God at work” in order to encourage others in their next most faithful step towards a relationship with Jesus?

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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In Search of Civility: A Time for Tricksters?

Rabbi David Ellis of Halifax alerted me to a fine recent article by Martin Marty, the great historian of Christianity (a.k.a the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School).

Reflecting on the political and social upheavals underway in the modern West, Marty suggests that “revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite” (as Max Scheler [1874-1928] phrased it) are thriving in our contemporary societies.

“So much,” writes Marty, “for tolerance, civility, empathy, mutuality, and dialogue!”

reynard-the-fox

Marty points to the phenomenon of resentment (again drawing from Scheler) as a way to account for these troubles. Populism, elitism, scapegoating, and other social forces arise, he argues, from the sense that one is not getting what one deserves or needs.

I would add to Marty’s analysis the way in which capitalism has exacerbated the sense of entitlement among so many of us … and once one feels deprived of these material goods in any way, one starts looking for evildoers (scapegoats?) who are the cause of one’s deprivation. Mass media only gives a megaphone to consumerist messaging.

So there is the problem. Most or many of us will recognize it.

I have been aware of a sense of gloom and foreboding among those I know best in recent weeks. We fear the worst.

Perhaps—as persons of faith—we ought also to hope for the best. Indeed, we ought to seek and work toward the best.

As a Christian, I am a person of hope, though my hope continues to be lodged not in the human capacity for self-rescue but in the transformative power of Jesus Christ, who through the Holy Spirit can and will bring about repentance, transformation, and renewal.

But there may be hard roads ahead. And the way in which the triune God will judge injustice may yet leave us squirming. Core to my convictions is the belief that God does not wink at injustice and inequity, but actively seeks to overcome it.

Martin Marty describes as “ever more urgent the work of civil volunteers, humanitarians, religious providers of opportunity, humane activists … [and those who] manifest what one scripture calls ‘the more excellent way’ of love.” Such persons are dearly needed in our time. To Marty’s list I would add artists, musicians, clowns, jesters, and tricksters

Are you one of these people?

I wonder if you may have been born for a time such as this.

You can find Martin Marty’s full article here
Image: Reynard the Fox from Wikimedia.org 

Rob Fennell is Acting Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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