Groaning in Expectation

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22 NIV)
 
From politics, to violence and death, to apathy, to sickness and sorrow, there is no shortage of groaning in the world today. The world groans every single day. People groan every single day. And if we’re honest, we each groan every single day. 
 
Now, I’ve always loved Christmas, for many reasons: Connecting with family and friends. Enjoying traditions new and old. Engaging in the story of Emmanuel, "God with us." Overall, I get a genuine sense of "peace and goodwill" that brings life and joy. And advent, this religious observation of longing and expectation, is really just the opportunity to extend my enjoyment of Christmas celebration in the month leading up December 25th.

I find myself in a different space this year. Entering into advent, appropriately I think, has seen less excitement and more expectation, groaning even. Perhaps one change is there is less holiday busyness this year. My wife and I decided to limit our extracurricular Christmas activities for 2016. Less busyness, yes. But also less celebration (here I sit alone writing on a December Saturday evening – what!?!). But this year has also been particularly heavy for many people close to us. Family members and neighbours have lost loved ones. Friends have endured persistent sickness. Mental health has hit many in our community. Oh, and then there is politics. And wars. And, well, in general, just lots and lots of groaning. This is our "present time." It’s the world’s dire groans that make the advent themes of hope and joy and peace and love so significant, but not because we become immersed in hope and joy and peace and love. Far from it. Only in the absence of such things do we begin to identify with – participate even – the groaning of creation. Advent is for groaning:

We only know hope as we groan at so much hopelessness all around us.
We only know joy because we groan at the depth of sorrow felt daily.
We only know peace as we groan at the violence of our cities and countries.
We only know love as we groan at the reality of hate in so many forms.


And we only know Jesus – Emmanuel – as we groan in his seeming absence and await the promise of his coming.

In the groaning of advent, then, we need to pause. We take these days and weeks to sit with the discomfort. But we also realize that the groaning of creation comes with an expectation. Groaning is not for its own sake. Groaning has an anticipation that, however faint, the experience of hope and joy and peace and love – and Emmanuel – speak to a reality beyond our groaning. Groaning will not last forever. The expectation of advent longs for a time when the persistent pain of our world is met with a wholeness far beyond our present reality.

So while I find myself groaning this advent, it’s with an expectation beyond my own love for Christmas or my attempts to make sense of our crazy world. As I groan in the present reality, I know it’s because I long for a new reality:

Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:3-5 NIV)
 
 

Prayers and grief - let's do something

I read the headlines. I prayed with our church. But mostly, I felt numb.

Another attack. This time in Orlando. Prayers and grief amidst politicized comments on guns, religion, and sexuality. Again, really!?!

A few days have gone by. Commentary continues. Displays of social stupidity abound, but glimmers of hope emerge in stories of unity and service. My numbness is shifting; I do care. Yet I realize caring is risky. I might have to say something. I might have to do something. Yup, I do. 

To those of us who are praying: keep praying. For comfort and peace, yes. But also for healing and reconciliation. Pray for actions of peace beyond a sentiment of peace. But then be ready when your prayers are answered. Really. One thing I’ve realized as a Christian is that prayer is never a passive exercise. Scripture, history, and personal stories reveal that prayer is often answered not in the miraculous, but in the simple miracle of us being the answer to our prayers for others. This is not conceding God’s irrelevance or suggesting humanity has all the answers (we clearly don’t). In the way of Jesus, we are sent into the world to love like Jesus. We aren’t bystanders to the kingdom of God we pray for – we are citizens! In praying for comfort, then, we are led to offer comfort. In praying for peace, we live out peace. In praying for healing, we go to people in their sorrow and suffering.

To those of us grieving with the victims: embrace the power of solidarity that comes with mourning alongside others. As I read this week, "Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too" (Frederick Buechner). But remember that lasting solidarity goes beyond a one-time extension of care and concern. Whether it’s with the LGBTQ community or the Muslim community, initial grief is good, but solidarity goes beyond the trauma of this week and commits to walking alongside those on the difficult journey towards peace and joy. And even if our grieving begins as strangers, in authentic grieving with people, we receive the gift of friendship.

Prayers and grief are important responses to tragedy and injustice. But as I write from a place of privilege in North America (Caucasian, straight, educated, Christian), I realize my words alone sound hallow against countless examples of evasive silence at best and gross injustice at worst. I’ve said something. Now it’s time to do something. Will you join me?
What can we do?
  • Connect with LGBTQ friends and family members regularly
  • Advocate for minorities in your community through promoting positive attitudes (e.g. speaking against racist comments/attitudes) and supporting programs for integrating minorities.
  • Volunteer with local organizations focused on diversity and community development
  • Build a mutual friendship with a minority individual. In particular, as a person of privilege, embrace weakness and receive the gift of friendship (don’t create the friendship on your terms)
  • Support and vote for leaders who promote equality and peace

Bono & Eugene Peterson on THE PSALMS

This honest conversation between Bono & Eugene Peterson has just been released via the Fuller Studio. Below are some quotes that are swirling in my mind after watching...


 
 
"Art becomes essential, not decorative" -Bono
 
"Imagination is a way to get inside the truth" -Eugene Peterson
 
"Praying isn't being nice before God" -Eugene Peterson
 
"A lot of Christian art is dishonest...realize that truthfulness will blow things apart" -Bono


Waiting for the Cherry Blossoms

In the Vancouver area, spring comes with cherry blossoms. March (and sometimes even late-February!) brings the transition from barren branches to colorful displays of pink along streets and in city parks. It’s beautiful! But rarely do you hear someone point out the beauty of a dormant cherry tree. Or one that is just beginning to bloom, showing hints of color, but still a mess of sticks with a random spray of color. We may say it’s beautiful, but that’s usually from the perspective of ones who know what’s coming. We wait for the fullness of spring in the cherry blossoms.

Waiting for the cherry blossoms has become as symbol for me this spring – a symbol of life and faith that anticipates the beauty but realizes that the dormancy and partial blooming needs attention. Like a cherry tree in spring, life doesn’t skip to being in full bloom. Mending a relationship. Hoping for a better job. Yearning for peace of mind. The full bloom of spring is often furthest from reach. So we wait.

As we enter into Holy Week, I’ve been reflecting on this reality of waiting. First, Palm Sunday has always been a tentative celebration for me. Yes, as Christians, we celebrate our king. But as I’ve said before, our celebration is often misguided and full of confused expectations. If we’re honest, we wait for our expectations to be unfulfilled. Second, the Holy Week narrative, while anticipating new life, has intense waiting and confusion, including both suffering and death. Here the “valley of the shadow of death” is literal. Waiting for Easter is kind of like waiting for the cherry blossoms. To know the true beauty of full bloom, we need to await the process of blooming, this essential, yet not-so-colorful process of waiting.

So, looking towards Easter, we need to accept our waiting. Not without hope; resurrection is coming – the cherry tree will indeed bloom! But in the meantime, as we look at the incomplete cherry blossoms, we wait. And that’s okay. After all, much of life is waiting for the cherry blossoms.


You aren't helpless

If you’re anything like me, the ongoing news of the refugee crisis in the Middle East has you feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed. Where do I even begin to respond? I want to save the world (commence pat on back), but know that my efforts are trivial in the face of such immense tragedy and complex global unrest. I’m stuck.

We humans - and for me this occurs from motivations as a Christian - have grandiose visions of making all the world’s the hurt and pain go away. But if we can’t, well, our response, while maybe not spoken out loud, is this: “Why bother?” As the poet laments, “Meaningless, meaningless” is our reaction as we imagine any effort to make the world a better place will go nowhere. We can say the right things (or share the right Facebook post), but still have the nagging helplessness about the whole situation. “Boy, their suffering sure is hard for me.”
 
I had a similar initial response upon learning about Canada’s Aboriginal history - helplessness. But like then, I realize I need a reality check. We need to get over our discomfort with feeling helpless. While we squirm thinking about people - kids no less! - drowning in the Mediterranean or people dying in the squalor of refugee camps, people literally are drowning and dying. We unknowingly make the issue about our response, not the problem itself. So, let’s get over our discomfort. It won’t go away, but don’t let it dominate our response. Afterall, it’s our own preoccupation with our discomfort that leads to inaction or feeling helpless.

And then know this: you’re not helpless to respond. The people dying are the ones helpless to respond. So do something. For many of us, this will be something small. But small doesn’t mean insignificant or unimportant. Consider simple acts of support. Donate money. Volunteer with local immigrants or organizations supporting refugees. Advocate for projects already in place to sponsor refugees coming to your area. Pray. This weekend I’m leading a group of students to sort produce for the MCC Relief Sale and Auction. But sorting apples, plums, and peppers isn’t about making ourselves feel good. Our small response joins a larger collective effort to support the work that MCC is doing with refugees.
 
In the face of global tragedy we can’t do everything, but we can do something. You aren’t helpless.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Jesus - Luke 12:48)
 

Consuming Millennials (Part 2): From Consumption to Presence

Part 2 of my article has now been published in the Christ and Cascadia journal:

Churches will try just about anything to stay relevant. From music to mochas, countless attempts are made by churches to appeal to culture, especially the next generation. Don Draper, the famous advertiser from the hit TV show Mad Men, says, “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness.” And like Draper with his marketing savvy, churches often stop at nothing to make people happy. But with such a reality comes a warning:

We must learn to exist in a consumer culture but not forfeit our souls at its altar (Skye Jethani)

To retain the “soul” of the church, as Jethani incites, engaging millennials must move beyond consumeristic attempts at church retention (see part 1). Instead of competing for millennials, the Cascadia church needs to find ways to connect with millennials. The paradigm of “faithful presence” is one such way.

Contrary to slick marketing efforts, faithful presence roots discipleship in the character of God and the reality of everyday life. James Hunter Davison, in his book To Change the World, describes faithful presence as the church’s task to “bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God,” where Christians function practically as “a different people and an alternative culture that is…integrated within the present culture.” Deeply theological and necessarily practical, such a view challenges faith and consumerism in Cascadia, particularly when it comes to cultural engagement and local relationships in daily life...

Read the rest here.

Consuming Millennials (Part 1): How The Church Perpetuates Consumeristic Faith

The following was recently published in the Christ and Cascadia journal:

“Millennials are leaving the church!”
“Young adults don’t believe anything anymore!”
“The church has lost its voice in a wayward culture.”

These dire headlines describe the reality of faith and church for today’s young adults, often referred to as “millennials.” The hasty exit of millennials from the church is well documented, with Cascadia’s young adults often leading the way. The future of the church is literally disappearing right before our eyes.

But in many ways the church actually creates the problem of decreasing engagement. In particular, the church’s response to millennials is often overly reactionary and thus incomplete. Focusing too narrowly on retention, churches don’t foster mature faith, let alone actually retain millennials. Instead they risk encouraging ideals and practices centered more on selfish consumption than selfless discipleship. The result is unsustainable discipleship of millennials in Cascadian culture.

Read the rest here...