Unfamiliarity with the Particular

In the most recent issue of my denomination's magazine, the MB Herald, I contributed an article titled, “Should Christian’s Own Sport Utility Vehicles?” You can check it out here. Subsequent to the publication I have had several conversations about the question in the title. Particularly interesting has been the online discussion here.

Well, self-promotion aside, these discussions have been quite revealing as to what I see as an unfamiliarity Christians have, myself included, with discussions around specific issues related to materialism. Responses to my article have ranged from expressions of frustration for feeling personally attacked, to uncomfortable jokes about SUV’s, to confusion over my point, to environmental crusading, to serious wrestling with the issue of materialism in general.

I think all of these responses in one way or another express a similar refrain, “So what?” Not in an unintelligent, who cares kind of way, but in a serious frustration for not knowing where to even begin to address specific issues such as this one. Essentially, asking the question about SUV’s has left many feeling handcuffed regarding the issue of materialism, in this case the ethics of vehicle choice. I am not sure, however, if that is something to lament.

Why I say this is because I think a major factor for the expressed frustration is the fact that this type of dialogue is so unfamiliar for Christian communities. The reason is that we are more accustomed to working with abstract issues. For example, the generic term “materialism” can be helpful to point out our propensity to over-consume our resources, a concept we can then apply to our lives as we see fit. It’s not too difficult to nod in agreement – as long as it doesn’t get too personal.

When the discussion begins, however, with a particular topic, one that we are all implicated in (i.e. vehicle choice), we are automatically forced to provide some sort of account, even if just to ourselves, about the ethical choices we have made for that particular situation. Naturally, this makes us uncomfortable (perhaps even angry at certain article writers :). I guess what I am trying to say, and what I have realized through writing and interacting with this article, is that when ethical issues hit close to home – when they become personal – having conversations with others becomes much more difficult as it requires us to acknowledge to them the discomfort we are experiencing.

I know for myself this type of relational transparency is far from my typical experience when it comes to issues surrounding materialism, and because I prefer to remain comfortable in my faith experience, I find it much easier to avoid particular issues such as this. All this to say, I think we need to be challenged towards more authentic ethical interaction, even if it means a little more vulnerability on our part. How this looks? Well, I’m still working on that…

All in all, publishing my thoughts has definitely been a unique (and vulnerable) experience and I have appreciated the graciousness people have expressed in the various conversations I have had.

NOTE: For anyone thinking I am personally skirting the issue of materialism by dealing with a subject (SUV’s) that doesn’t apply to me, I want to assure you that many other specific issues are not so easy for me to distance myself from (ie. housing, recreation, just to name a couple). Basically, I am not saying I am off the hook!

Preparation & Repentance

A few days back my Lenten wondering/wandering brought me to Luke 3. This passage tells of John the Baptist’s ministry, a ministry that called people towards preparation for the coming of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Integral to this ministry was John’s ministry of baptism, a baptism which he explicitly states as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – a baptism that echoed the prophetical witness to a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (Lk 3:3-6).

As I continue to reflect on Lent, a time to practice this preparation for the anticipated Messiah, I am struck by the notion of repentance in the context of preparation. For John’s followers, and all Jews, his ministry of baptism of repentance would have had major political significance – by political I mean that what he was asking, essentially, was allegiance to God’s kingdom. An allegiance, however, not dominated by militaristic strategies or pious moral reform. Rather, the allegiance John was calling for was about accepting a radical new identity, an identity placed in the turning away (repenting) from the political expectations of that culture – an identity placed firmly in the expectation of the coming Messiah – an identity that involved generosity, honesty, and contentment (vv. 10-14) as the practical form for preparing to “see the salvation of God” (v. 6).

In terms of Lent, then, repentance understood as the acceptance of a new identity, one that is formed by an expectation for the coming kingdom of God, insinuates that preparation not be taken lightly. To make the claim “Jesus is Lord” can be an utterance of mere sentiment without a consideration of what this identifying statement means for who we are. In a world of alternative visions of God’s kingdom, many watered down for appeal instead of faithfulness, the practice of repentance is a sobering reminder to continually prepare ourselves for accepting the implications of aligning with the kingdom Jesus has inaugurated.

May our Lenten preparation be more than outward practices or inward reflections, but a time of identity reorientation, of repentance, always having in mind the Messiah for whom we prepare.

Story-formed Lent

In a recent post, I made the following comment:

In my view, what makes the Christian life an intelligible possibility that can make sense of challenges we face, requires us to constantly be reminded of the story of God’s faithfulness – shown in the stories of Israel, exemplified in the entire ministry of Jesus, and continued through the presence of the Spirit in our lives and communities.

In my observation of Lent I have decided to practice the idea of story-formed living by reading through the gospel of Luke. I’m calling this “story-formed Lent.”

Lent is supposed to be a time of preparation for the Easter celebration, recognizing that the Christian life does not just involve participation in the victory of Christ, but involves suffering with Christ as well. To be completely honest, sharing in the suffering of Christ is not something I am particularly comfortable with or even sure I am required to do (didn’t his death on the cross negate suffering?). Yet I am challenged by the reality that God’s kingdom, while initiated by Christ, has not fully come, hence to continual suffering our world experiences. So while I place my hope in the ultimate victory of Christ, our broken world necessarily calls me to acknowledge the suffering I participate in.

And this leads to Lent – a time to actively reflect on the suffering of Christ and tangibly participate in that suffering. This is where story-formed Lent can be a helpful approach to entering into this participation. The question I am asking myself as I read through Luke is “How does this story form my understanding of Lent?” So far, the overwhelming theme in my brief bit of reading has been that participation in Christ’s suffering is no small thing, requiring allegiance of my whole being to Christ’s lordship. Reading the early parts of Jesus’ ministry, there is no sense of flippant or half-hearted participation. In a culture that assumes religion is primarily about self-fulfillment, a concept we are all implicated in adopting, this is a sobering picture of the Christian faith.

The purpose of Lent, then, is a chance to consider deeply the implications of our identity of Christians, an identity that not only reaps the benefits of Christ’s salvation, but participates in his suffering. In light of this, I believe a story-formed approach to Lent allows us the space to understand what participation in the life of Jesus means. A time of preparation can seem redundant when we know the ending, but considering the story as I am seeing it in Luke, Christianity without preparation is reduced to a cultural and religious affiliation, not a life transforming participation.

Once again, Lent is upon us

Once again I have been reflecting on Lent and wondering how to integrate this historic tradition into my faith practice (see my thoughts from last year here and here). In this consideration, I came across the following Lenten prayer:

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling within them.
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of all life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from worry; feast on trust.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility; feast on nonviolence.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on truths that uplift.
Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.

Gentle God, during this season of fasting and feasting, gift us with Your Presence, so we can be gift to others in carrying out your work. Amen.

Where I find myself overcome from some of the challenges in this prayer, I hope the time of Lent can be a period of growth towards not only recognizing these struggles, but also working towards constructively countering them in my everyday life. I realize that the transformation that this prayer suggests is far more complex than the simple utterance of ‘fasting and feasting,’ but at the same time I am encouraged when I remind myself of the source of this transformation – the person of Jesus Christ to whom this whole season points. It is this reminder that the practice of Lent offers, a reminder I believe we all could benefit from.

Blessings, then, on your Lenten endeavors!

Reality Check: The Truthfulness of Movies

Over the last several years I have found myself increasingly interested in movies. This interest has led me to reflect on what it is I like about films and how they impact the way I see the world (if they do at all).

Watching movies is by no means a formulaic experience, as I find myself engaging movies in a variety of different ways, particularly depending on the genre of the film. For example, certain films are primarily there to entertain, working as a sort of escape from the realities of everyday life, where I catch a glimpse into the often unrealistic, but nonetheless enjoyable experiences of various characters (i.e. Dumb & Dumber).

At other times movies encourage an artistic appreciation, as even while a little off track from the mainstream films, the level of creativity they display demands recognition. Or even other times, I find myself interested in films as a form of cultural engagement, especially if ‘everybody’s seeing it,’ ensuring I won’t be left out of the next conversation on the latest films.

More recently, however, I have found myself engaging films in a different manner, a way that applies to most movie genres if you ask me. I am calling this type of movie watching the ‘reality check’ approach. What I mean by this is that I think all movies give a window into some aspect of the human experience (good ones at least). While often over-exaggerated in portrayal, I find that at certain points in a good movie, I find myself in agreement, saying, “Yup, that’s the way the world is.”

This form of movie watching struck me most recently when I saw the highly acclaimed film, There Will Be Blood (not recommended for the faint of heart). Daniel Plainview is the main character, acted brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is driven by an overwhelming desire for success in the oil boom of the early 20th century, a success to be achieved at all costs. At one point in the film, in a rare moment of vulnerable self-reflection, Daniel comments on how it is his pent-up hate for everyone around him that ‘protects’ him from weakness, allowing him the strength to literally succeed over and above everyone else. I was struck by the truthfulness of his statement, exposing the loneliness that accompanies, or even is required, for power-hungry individuals to achieve success. In this moment of honest vulnerability, Daniel reveals a sobering truth of the human experience. As I watched this scene, then, I encountered a ‘reality check,’ a glimpse into the truthfulness of our world. To the creators and actors of There Will Be Blood, I am grateful.

As a Christian, the idea of recognizing truthfulness in the stories being told around us, through film in this case, witnesses to the formative nature that truthful story-telling has in our lives. As we Christians claim the biblical narrative as the story that forms us, the smaller stories we encounter in our cultural experience compliment the story-forming nature of our faith. Therefore, anytime I am offered a ‘reality check’ through film, I take it as an opportunity to be impacted by the truthfulness that I hope will continue to form me as a person and the world I live in.