All posts by Karen Stiller

The joy of Shrove Tuesday and the solemnity of Ash Wednesday

My entire family loves Shrove Tuesday. When the kids were younger, and we lived in a rectory that was beside the church where their Dad served as priest, they would dash over to the church as soon as they could to “help” and eat as many pancakes and sausages as they could manage.

The kids (and me!), loved it for that reason, but also the community spirit and warmth of gathering in a church basement and eating together with people we knew so well, and also the community members who would wander in for the free feast. Pancake Tuesday reminded us, and still does, that we are part of the family of Christ that worships together, but also eats and celebrates and enjoys maple syrup together as well.

For many Christians around the world, Lent is a penitent journey toward Easter.

And of course, Shrove Tuesday is the night before Ash Wednesday. In the church liturgical calendar, that is the special and solemn day that marks the beginning of Lent. And  Lent, of course, is the penitential season recalling the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, where he withstood temptation and prepared himself for all that lay ahead.

Christians all over the world fast during the 40 days of Lent (excluding the Sundays, which mark Christ’s resurrection, and so fasting does not occur on a Sunday). Christians who observe these times typically give something up during Lent (fasting from a habit or a comfort) in order to free up time or resources that can be offered to God instead.

If you have not been to an Ash Wednesday service, I highly recommend the experience. Find a liturgical church in your neighbourhood and you will likely find an Ash Wednesday service.

The service is moving, deeply spiritual, quiet, contemplative and beautifully poetic. The centrepiece of the service involves the “imposition of ashes” on your forehead by a priest or minister as you kneel at the front of the church. The ashes are made from the burned palm branches of the Palm Sunday parade the year before. The minister will gently trace a cross on your forehead and say these stark and wintery words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And off into Lent we go, penitent and reflective until the joy of Easter strikes yet again.

Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today. The painting in this blog was done by her father-in-law, David Stiller. 

A new way to engage with Lent: commit to care for creation

by Karri Munn-Venn

I used to take a lot of sugar in my coffee.

Several years ago, I cut it out for Lent. It felt good to skip the sweet stuff (while remaining highly caffeinated!). But cutting sugar from my coffee didn’t feel like much of a spiritual practice.

Citizens for Public Justice are inviting Canadian Christians to approach Lent a little differently this year. You can read the whole story in the Jan/Feb issue of Faith Today,

I tried a few different approaches. Then, last year, I finally hit on something that helped me to take my Lenten practice to the next level.

I pledged to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging and waste I was bringing into my home. No more cereal boxes – I have teenagers, so there were a lot of those! – peanut butter tubs, or bags of nuts, coffee, or dried fruit. Instead, I washed out a bunch of old canning jars, picked up a few larger reusable containers and made a weekly excursion to the bulk food store.

It was something I had been thinking about doing for a little while and it felt good to have finally made the shift. There was also something quite rich about bringing more congruence to my life; aligning my faith, my environmental concern and my consumption habits.

I did this as part of Give it up for the Earth! – a faith-in-action campaign that I helped coordinate as part of my work with Citizens for Public Justice. It was powerful to know that I was joined by other people of faith across Canada who were also making changes to reduce their personal and household greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Continue reading A new way to engage with Lent: commit to care for creation

Taking time for the cheeseball

Yesterday I whipped up a cheeseball — for when else do you have a cheeseball but at Christmas? — and we invited our neighbours and a few friends over for an impromptu gathering. We sang Christmas carols, quite badly for the most part, as it turned out, but that just added to the fun (we hope).

The thing is, it is so easy at Christmas to do all the things you feel you have to do, and not very much of the things you actually want to do. A lot of us, and I think particularly the mothers and wives among us, can become almost obsessed with creating a magical Christmas for everyone else, and we end up exhausted and disappointed at our own inability to achieve this.

Relax and breathe this Christmas.

It’s so silly when you think of it. His burden is light, remember? And it has nothing to do with the crazy way we often celebrate His birth.

Our family is always tweaking our Christmas, trying to fit in special family times amidst the busy schedule of a clergy household this time of year. Most people I speak to try to slow things down and simplify them almost every Christmas. Here are a few tiny steps we have taken  (and we’re not experts at this, that is for sure):

  1. Simplify gift-giving. We save up all year in a special account named “gifts” and out of that we purchase fewer but better gifts for our three almost adult children. There were years I would really fret over the gifts for other people, trying to make them perfect. I’ve discovered people don’t actually care that much. It’s all okay.
  2. We practice hospitality. Or we try to. This is not always out of an altruistic sense, but because we like to have fun with our friends, and singing together and eating cheese is part of that. You have to make those things happen.
  3. We volunteer at a Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day. This has been the single most important act that has transformed our Christmas celebrations. For us it has not been about the “feel good” of serving others, it’s been about being with others. There’s been something very healing about being with other Christ-followers on Christmas Day. Then we go home and have special and fun family time.

Here at Faith Today, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas. We hope you can slow down. We hope you can take time to read something beautiful. We wish for you moments of quiet and moments of community.

(And we would be remiss if we did not remind you of our two-for-one gift subscription deal that means you don’t have to go to the mall again, and someone on your list will receive Canada’s Christian magazine all year long).

Confessions of a tech addict

by Karen Stiller

Before I had my own iPhone, I judged harshly those pathetic, addicted people who always had their phones on, and on them. Always scrolling, fingers dashing from one app to another, sometimes barely looking up.

Check out our article on digital addiction and ancient disciplines in the current issue of Faith Today.

Then, of course, I quickly became one of them. My phone is almost always on and almost always on me. Our landline is a thing of the past, so, I can convince myself my phone in my pocket or my palm is necessary. How else would my kids find me on those rare instances when they still need me? More truthfully, how would I find them? What if something happens to my parents? How else will I know that my sister has made even more beet jelly, if not from Facebook? How on earth would I wake up in the morning if not for my phone alarm?

The reasons go on and on, but the truth is, I’m likely addicted to the pings and the alerts, the likes and the tags, all the amusements and the distractions. A lot of us are. And it takes a toll.

“We are not meant to live global lives,” says Rick Hiemstra. He’s director of research and media relations for the EFC, Faith Today‘s publisher, and he is one of the reasons we have such a challenging article in the Nov/Dec Faith Today, “Modern Devices and Ancient Disciplines.”

Like a lot of us, Rick is concerned about the impact of our devices on our souls and our lives and our time and our relationships. He sends us editors articles every now and then, and reads books on this topic. He suggested we do this article and we are glad we did.

Rick is also researching youth and their place in the Church, and he keeps bumping up against the digital world, and how deeply entrenched in it our youth are, and how this impacts them. By global lives, he means, of course, a life lived on the world’s stage for all to see, photographing and projecting all our edited moves for other people to like, or devastatingly, to not like, or maybe even worse, to ignore. And to be so connected to so many people that years ago we would have said farewell to and maybe run into them at some awkward high school reunion years later! Now we get to see and compare and feel better or worse on a daily basis if we want.

It’s a new world we are in, and the ancient spiritual disciplines might help us find ourselves again.

So, give this article a read, and then use that phone of yours to let us know what you think. Then set it down for a while and maybe go for a walk? That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today. Have you not started your Christmas shopping either? Check out this subscription deal/gift idea.

Tips and treasures: Sharing what churches have learned sponsoring refugees

Privately sponsoring refugees is a wonderfully rewarding adventure. It’s a great thing to do. But it is hard. The paperwork is onerous, the fundraising can be a slog, the details are daunting. Then the family arrives and the real work begins. Some things go wrong. Even your translation app might let you down! And lots of things go right. There are multitudes of surprises, both good and bad, along the way.

Some members of the Port Perry Refugee Support group celebrating a fundraising milestone. Our upcoming webinar will gather some of the vast knowledge out there on how to sponsor and help settle refugees well.

Now that so many Canadian churches are well underway in their refugee sponsorship journey, we believe there is a huge body of knowledge out there to be shared. The next EFC webinar, on Thursday, Nov. 16 is on that exact topic.

  • What have we learned about apartments and lessons and kids and school and translation apps?
  • What have we learned that can save other groups some trouble or problems?
  • What have we learned that can make life even easier for families settling into their new life in Canada?

Our three guests have worked at all levels of refugee sponsorship in Canada.  Brian Dyck has been the migration and resettlement program coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee Canada since February 2015.  Kathy Mercer is the coordinator of welcome and settlement for the Port Perry Refugee Support Group, a consortium of churches and individuals in the Port Perry, Ont., area who have welcomed four Syrian refugee families in the last 18 months. Jacqueline Derrah has been involved with refugee sponsorship with the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada since 2015.

We are very excited to have the opportunity to have a conversation focussed on the practical side of this refugee journey. And if you have ideas, we want to hear them too. Be ready to send them in live during the webinar. You can register for free here. 

It’s “us too” for Christian women, even in the Church

A couple of years ago a friend of mine and I went to the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.

There, we met another Canadian writer, an older Christian man whom I had met before. I introduced him to my friend and told him some of her impressive writing credentials. I should note, my friend is also a very attractive woman. Our fellow writer clearly noticed that too. Instead of asking about her many professional accomplishments I had just listed off,  he puzzled out loud about what TV star she looked like, even inviting other men sitting nearby to join in the guessing.

Ridiculous. Was this sexual harassment? Probably not. But it was demeaning and stupid.

I know women — friends of mine who live and move and have their being in church world — who  who have had their behinds touched by Bishops, had faith leaders kiss them on the mouth uninvited, been told how beautiful they were in a weird way by their brothers in the faith, and had their personal space invaded by hugging that felt inappropriate and was uninvited.

I just took a stroll through the EFC Ottawa office to conduct an informal survey about the “me too” phenomenon. You won’t be surprised to hear my small sampling resulted in a 100% yes.

In our next issue of Faith Today, we have a very interesting story that looks at the safety of young women on Christian campuses. I will give you a sneak peek and assure you that studies show those Christian spaces are generally safer and have less incidence of sexual assault.

That’s as it should be.

It would be profoundly disturbing to think that a strong Christian faith and organizational culture does not make any kind of difference when it comes to sexual assault and unwanted attention paid to either gender. But it would be naive to think it always guarantees a harassment-free zone.

The experiences of countless Christian women I know, and the stories that come pouring out when the door to conversation is opened on this topic, provide a sobering testimony to the presence of this kind of sexual sin/bad behaviour in the Church.

Of all people, we can do better.

Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today


That beautiful debate

It is a beautiful thing to have a debate about God and faith, right in the heart of the University of Toronto campus. That’s what happened just this past Friday night.

The topic of the debate was “Is God a figment of our imagination?” and the guests were Dr. Alister McGrath (the renowned Christian and prolific author) and Dr. Michael Shermer (the renowned atheist/skeptic and very popular author).

Dr. Alister McGrath and Dr. Michael Shermer at the “Is God a figment of our imagination?” debate, moderated by Faith Today’s Karen Stiller.

Faith Today was one of the sponsors of the debate, and I was the moderator, although I preferred the word “host,” and made sure I used it in the introduction. Words matter, after all. So, when I use the word “beautiful,”  here, I don’t mean what was actually said, but the fact that it was said at all. The dialogue was at times challenging, sometimes funny, at other moments frustrating. The guests were sometimes locked into each other’s points, sharing their insights, a smooth back and forth contrasting of ideas as befits two authors of their stature. At other moments, they talked past each other, which happens.

If you came into the debate a Christian, or even just a theist, I’d guess you left the same. If you entered Convocation Hall or tuned into the livestream as an atheist, you likely still think that way. Such is the nature of debates.

So, how was it beautiful?

In church yesterday, in that sacred space, with crying babies and communion, preaching and prayers, faith is nourished and nourishing. That matters. But in the debate arena, faith is stretched and challenged and survives. Yes, faith is strong enough to be debated. It is intellectual and rigorous. It is not a crutch. It has legs. And our atheist friends want to talk. They have good questions. There are good answers. They make good points and we should be bold enough to youtube and livestream how we respond to them for all the world to hear.

I like that Faith Today is a sponsor of the Religion and Society Series. I applaud Wycliffe College, the evangelical Anglican seminary on campus who started the whole thing and does the majority of the heavy lifting. I feel a solidarity with the other sponsors of the event, both Christian and non-Christian. These are people who aren’t afraid to talk, with no guarantee how it will all turn out. I really like that.

This is what Wycliffe says about the series: “The Religion and Society Series seeks to generate critical conversations on matters of faith, society and public interest. The purpose of the series is to play a catalytic role in helping shape discourse around topics that deeply matter to individuals and society.”

And that kind of talking really is beautiful.

Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today. You can watch Religion and Society Series events online

Is God a Figment of our Imagination? The debate is coming…

So far, it is Alister McGrath: 2, Michael Shermer: 1. That’s not actually a score, it’s my book tally as I prepare to moderate a September 15th “Is God a Figment of our Imagination?”debate at the University of Toronto.

In the last month, I’ve read McGrath’s Inventing the Universe and The Passionate Intellect, and I  finished The Believing Brain by Shermer. Now I’m reading Shermer’s The Moral Arc. And it’s a very big book.

Join us in person if you are in Toronto, or live stream anywhere around the world.

What have I learned so far? That my book tally will be the only real score kept surrounding this event. Both of these authors and thinkers are leaders in their field. And they are both very respectful of those with whom they disagree. I think this will be less of a debate and more of a deep dialogue.

As I picture Convocation Hall filling up on that night, and groups around the world live-streaming the evening and then launching into discussions, I think that everyone – whether Christian, a person of another faith, or a person with no faith at all – will be challenged. I know we will all learn something new and have to rethink something old. I have already just through my reading.

It is such a privilege we have in our society to disagree openly, to debate loudly, to interact and exchange ideas with those with whom we share the most important and fundamental beliefs about ourselves and the universe, and with those with whom we do not. So, come to this event if you live in the area. Or live-stream it with a rowdy group of friends. Engage in this conversation.
Continue reading Is God a Figment of our Imagination? The debate is coming…

It’s worth all the dirty laundry

Seven or so loads later, and the stinky, dusty dirty clothing and sleeping bags from a summer at camp have been laundered and folded. I was going to add “and put away” but a glance at my son’s bedroom floor tells me that is not the case, and maybe never will be.

All three of our kids (21, 18 and 17) spent the majority of their summer at a Christian camp, the same one they attended as campers during most of their childhood. This year they were all working there in various capacities: as an assistant camp director, as a section head, and as a chalet leader that included working with special needs or “inclusion campers.”

When our kids  were campers themselves, camp was a highlight of their year. It was fun. It built their faith and it resulted in great, strong, year-round friendships with other Christian youth.

We are grateful that we listened to the advice of a Christian leader years ago who told us to send our kids to camp even if we couldn’t afford it. That’s right. We went into debt to do it every single year. I’m not saying that’s what everyone should do, of course. But for us it was “good debt.” In fact, it was great debt. We knew it was an investment into our kid’s lives, and it has produced more valuable treasure than any other investment we have made, of that I am certain.

I can see the treasures in them now as they are stretched as leaders, while still receiving a level of spiritual support and challenge that I don’t think they would receive elsewhere. At camp, they have been loved and learned to love. They have been led and learned to lead.
Continue reading It’s worth all the dirty laundry

The passing of a great one: Haddon Robinson influenced many Canadian preachers

Years ago, I sat in a small room at the old campus of Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto and interviewed Haddon Robinson, who died last week. The scholar most recently from Gordon Conwell Seminary, known far and wide as one of the greatest living preachers, was in Toronto to speak at Tyndale’s President’s Dinner. I had already met Haddon because my husband was enrolled in a DMin program, with  Haddon as his supervisor. The one moment I remember clearly from the interview was Haddon growling, in his distinctive New York accent, that when he reads theology that is dense and incomprehensible, he just wants to “throw it against the wall.” That’s because he was a master of communication, and that’s what he expected from his students.

Like many, many Canadian preachers and church leaders over the years, Brent made a yearly trek to Boston to study under one of the greats. I would hazard to guess that this unassuming American preacher from a hardscrabble childhood influenced more Canadian preachers over the years than one could easily count. The Canadians in the program tended to drift toward each other, and that was no different in my husband’s group. Toronto church planter and writer Darryl Dash became a friend. I asked him, on behalf of the Canadian preachers who studied under Haddon, to share some thoughts.

Here’s Darryl:

I first met Haddon when I was assigned the task of driving him back to the airport in Toronto. His full name: Haddon Robinson, author of Biblical Preaching, renowned professor of preaching, named one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World” by Baylor University.
Continue reading The passing of a great one: Haddon Robinson influenced many Canadian preachers