Last words are interesting things. I vividly remember my mother’s stern admonition, after a fight with my siblings, that my hurtful words could prove to be their last memory of me. (It was in the same genre as the warning that children in China were starving while we left food on our plates, and it had the same fleeting impact.) But having done funerals for 25 years – and watching how last words are carried in the souls of the living – I’m reminded of the value of treating our words as if they were our last.
But there are also less ominous last words. Among them are the last words that come with the closing of chapters. They are the last words that lead to new chapters even as they mark endings.
Snaphots of joy and heartbreak
For most of the past 25 years, my articles have literally been among the last words in the conversations the MB Herald brings to our churches. Often they were vignettes seen through the eyes of a pastor. There was the story of a woman who interviewed me as the perspective pastor to do her funeral. “If I don’t forgive him, will I go to hell?” was the opening question. Hmmm.
The most moving response to that story came from a woman who identified herself as a survivor of the infamous Pickton murders. “I was a Pickton girl,” she told me after a lengthy exchange about forgiveness. Oh…that changes things. She had come to faith in an MB church. There was a safety and blessing in a big congregation, but she just needed someone to talk to. Where does a person with that much to forgive fit in, and who would possibly understand? Tracking down a writer in another city somehow worked, and we talked several times. I still pray for her, though we have never met.
And then there were snapshots of motorcycle rides and a crash, of a cancer journey, and our daughter’s teenage pregnancy. In the latter case, what began as a calamity is now my 15 year-old first mate. But the nine years he spent in our home closed off with the question, “Grandpa, could mommy take the dog and could I stay home?” His question has been repeated back to me many times, often with eyes filled with the perplexity of blended families.
But I have not just been a writer of vignettes. When I ventured into theological zones, sparks occasionally flew; most wildly when I suggested Philip Yancey was “impugning” the church in his book Soul Survivor; or that along with passion for evangelism, Mark Driscoll brings bad manners to the table; or that we should finally just jettison the word “evangelical.”
On more than one occasion, I would feel the hand of one of my elders pressing my shoulder at a conference gathering. Invariably, it was the precursor to a “James, we need to talk” conversation. What followed was a collection of exchanges that are among my fondest memories. This includes one in which the crooked patriarchal finger of J.B. Toews seemed to be attempting to drill itself into my soul.
However, it is when I engaged our MB family’s identity and its future that writing was the most difficult. Who are we as MBs? What is our centre, and what are the things that follow from that centre? What is the road forward? How do we honour and build on the foundations that have been laid down for us?
Here, a set of crosshairs presented themselves. On the one hand, this is not a personal journey filled with pathos. It’s about drawing lines in the sand – and these are not just abstract lines. We can agreeably disagree about whether Brian McLaren or Mark Driscoll are heretics because they aren’t us. But when it comes to who we are and the decisions we make on that basis, the stakes in the exchanges feel very high.
I do, however, hope that we will not avoid these conversations because they are difficult. We need stories because they touch us in deep places. We need arm’s length arguments because they test our words and thoughts. But we also need the hard conversations that define who we are.
Thank you to all those who have encouraged and blessed me over the years. I have shared my stories, and many of you, in turn, have shared yours with me. Equal thanks goes to those who have challenged and contested me. I have several outstanding friends who began the exchange by telling me what I wrote was plainly wrong.
It has been an honour.