artistry of confession

At the study conference – “Confessing Jesus in a Pluralistic World” – Thomas Yoder Neufeld, the main speaker, discussed the nature of God’s wisdom and peace as exemplified in Jesus. Jesus is the “personification of wisdom,” Yoder Neufeld proclaimed. Followers of Jesus “seek to find evidence of wisdom in places they may not expect” just as Jesus did in his interactions with others. And in the context of “a world where divisions ran deep,” Yoder Neufeld described how Jesus initiated a “giant recycling project” of which everyone is a part. Barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are shattered through the “tenacity of God’s embrace” as all people are invited to experience the peace that Jesus brought. The implication for all Christians is to seek the wisdom of Jesus and represent his peace in all our relationships.

Now, several times in his presentations Yoder Neufeld highlighted the artistic aspect of confessing Jesus. In the New Testament we see several examples of confessing Jesus through hymns and psalms (Jn. 1:1-14, Col. 1:15-20, Phil. 2:5-11). These are artistic expressions of God’s “manifold wisdom” (Eph. 3:10). We see an intentional creativity in the fundamental creeds and confessions of the early church.

What does it mean, then, for us to echo this artistry in our own confession of Jesus? Or perhaps more appropriate, how do we creatively confess Jesus beyond the sources of the CCLI website? (I don’t mean to offend worship leaders and song writers, but there needs to be more to Christian art than contemporary worship music)

In his presentation, Yoder Neufeld directed us to the work of the Holy Spirit. He suggested that we pray the Holy Spirit would “enliven our imaginations” to God’s wisdom, helping us creatively express to the world who Jesus is. As Stanley Hauerwas reflects, “creativity exhibits the peculiar way Christians are trained and encouraged to remember their story” (Performing the Faith).

For anyone tired of the “same-old same-old” in our churches, the call for creativity is invigorating, freeing us to explore the breadth in confessing Jesus, particularly relevant in our complex pluralistic world. And so I pray we don’t limit ourselves in exploring the artistry of confession as a fundamental part of being a follower of Jesus.

i'm glad

As part of the conference I attended on the weekend, the MB Herald is running a blog of reflections from participants. To see my own contribution, "I'm glad," go here (and feel free to read the others as well:)

loaded words

At a recent Mennonite Brethren study conference, “Confessing Jesus in a Pluralistic World,” I thought it would be interesting to note words and phrases that are “loaded” – words carrying multiple, often divergent, meanings. And when not properly defined, these words can lead to inaccurate assumptions made by the listeners and perhaps lead to unnecessary confusion (disagreement!) within the group. Here’s my un-exhausted list in no particular order:

Sin, admire, eternal life, wrath, community discernment, team, protect God, peace, murder, hostility, gospel, atonement, penal substitution, enemies, guilt, shame, appeasement, secular, pluralistic, application, discipleship, grace, redeemed, lost people, theological anchor, Anabaptist, evangelical, authoritative, mutual submission, confession, inclusion, salvation, them, justice, violence, dialogue…

These are just a few of the terms that were being bandied about as we explored together what confessing Jesus means in our culture. As you can probably tell by the list, the old adage, “define your terms” could go a long way towards achieving understanding in any large group, such as 200+ Mennonite Brethren leaders.

I hope to post more on the conference soon...

does peacemaking pick sides?

Reading the latest MB Herald, my denominational magazine, an article on Mennonites and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict caught my attention. The article raises some important issues surrounding the practice of peacemaking. Quite simply, does peacemaking pick sides?

The critics suggest three objections: "activists affiliated with MCC and CPT offer a one-state prescription for peace which fails to recognize that 'a Jewish minority would not be safe in a Muslim-and Arab-majority country in the Middle East'; 'ironic and hypocritical' Mennonite hostility toward Jewish sovereignty; and Mennonite 'inability to deal with the reality of evil and the power needed to confront it.'"

And the Mennonite Central Committee's response: "MCC decries all that acts of terror committed by Palestinian militants against Israelis, or Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands... We seek to engage in ‘preventative defence’ on behalf of the world by proactively working for justice and peace." When it comes to picking sides in the conflict, "MCC seeks to respond to the most vulnerable people." In many cases, the most vulnerable happen to be Palestinians.

Now, I'm no expert on Middle Eastern politics and I realize the issue of securing peace is extremely complex on many levels. But the reality is, MCC's mission is to actively seek peace for all people, not political goodwill for nation-states. Plus I don't think it's our Christian responsibility to achieve political harmony at the expense of justice for the citizens of any given country. I seem to remember Jesus' response to our world's injustice picking sides too - "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt. 25:40 NIV).

My response: keep picking sides MCC and may God continue to use you to bring peace to our broken world.

FYI - I have a book review published in the same issue - "loving means engaging"

parables of heaven

As I continue to adjust to the transition from education to career I have been doing a considerable amount of reading in the area of pastoral ministry – essentially, how to be a pastor.

A book that’s been helpful personally is “From Midterms to Ministry” – a collection of stories and insights on the joys and challenges of being a pastor. This book only reinforces my view that sharing stories is one of the most effective ways we can support and encourage one another in our lives as Christians. It reminds me that I’m not alone.

I was especially encouraged by a story shared by James Kay in which he describes his unlikely journey to pastoring in small-town Minnesota fresh out of his seminary education. Like most seminary graduates, Kay had strong views on the church and how he could implement those views. But as he encountered the unexpected, the frustrating, the broken, the down-to-earth, Kay’s view of the church began to broaden. His seminary-packaged view of the church was met by a complex group of people who didn’t fit into his notions of what church should look like. But these were real people with real issues. And as Kay learned, these people had real faith. Against his theoretical expectations, the rag-tag people of this small-town embodied the gospel, for “all that is necessary for a true church is the gospel of Jesus Christ; it is this story that creates the ‘ties that bind’ the multiple stories of ordinary and strange people into the common story of the uncommon people of God.” I like that. It takes some of the pressure off of finding (or creating) the perfect church.

Now, part of what unites these “ordinary and strange” people is our common experience of brokenness and sin. No one is exempt. Not even pastors! “Sins are not confined to non-churchgoers! As Martin Luther said, ‘God saves real, not imaginary, sinners.’ Every Sunday, the wicked and the violent walk into our churches, because the line between good and evil does not run between the religious and irreligious, or between the pastors and their people, but through them all.

Kay offers a sobering message to all church leaders, one that leads me, a pastor, towards humility and openness as I relate to my church family. No matter how hard I try, I don’t (and won’t) “have it all together.” But this realization of sin comes with a declaration of hope. Kay reminds us church folks that “what keeps us going in a world like this is something called ‘heaven,’ which is not only our final destination, but which also breaks into our life and death in parables that point us to what is finally true and real about ourselves and about God.

As I journey in my faith amidst the complexities of church-life, I take joy in the parable of heaven – the stories of redemption we share with one another and that permeate our everyday lives.

what's the point? - loving others

Ok, last point in my "what's the point?" series.

Loving others - Unfortunately loving God through our worship and care for one another can often lead to a distorted view of the greatest commandment. We forget the “love your neighbor” part. And sadly, our churches can easily make this mistake. Is the whole purpose of our faith to make ourselves feel better about ourselves? Is that really what Jesus taught?

"And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"Is like it…" Notice Jesus doesn’t say loving our neighbor comes next, or later, or if you have time. Loving your neighbor comes NOW – it accompanies loving God. And so our church programs should reflect Jesus’ teaching. And so hungry folks in a local park, or children in Africa with dirty drinking water, or strangers in line at the grocery store, or the hospital-bound cancer patient who sits alone waiting for treatment, or the rough-around-the-edges recovering drug addict whom we often cross the street to avoid, how we relate to these folks – these hurting people all around us – reflects our faithfulness as the people of God.

But do we enough? How much of our energy gets put towards loving God and each other in relation to loving others? Do we simply check loving others off of some sort of imaginary list of spiritually good works, or do we constantly wrestle with how to meet the needs of our neighbors as a fundamental part of loving God as his people? In our comfortable lives, we can all do more, not out of guilt or on our own strength, but as we are empowered by God’s call on our lives as the people of God. We can’t forget this!

Well, in sum, the church is the people of God – a community formed through the call of Jesus Christ on our lives to be a representation of God to this world. Not at the expense of a personal faith – an experience of Christ’s salvation in our individual lives – but the recognition that a personal experience of God finds its fullness in community as we seek together to love God and love others fully.

what's the point? - worship and care

If all we do in church is supposed to be centered on loving God and loving others as I suggest, what does this mean for our church programs – the things we are “doing” that make us so busy?

First off, what are we doing that falls specifically under the “loving God” part?

Worship - Ok, if there’s one area of church life that I’m tired of, it’s the discussion over worship “style.” It’s become too easy to define our worship gatherings around personal preference, not whether we’re faithfully loving God with our whole selves as specific churches in particular places. We all think we’ve got worship right… Unfortunately, people get distracted by the format and forget why they worship in the first place. Worship throughout the Bible is both a personal approach to life in commitment to God as well as a corporate gathering to remind the community of faith of their identity as the people of God. By reminding us of who we are, worship acts to call us towards greater faithfulness in loving God and loving others. Worship format, therefore, should always serve this purpose… And I’ll admit, this means the door is open for creativity as we gather to be reminded of who we are as the people of God.

Care for one another - I think how we relate to one another in the church is part of the loving God part. We help remind each other who we are as followers of Jesus within the people of God. Now, lots of programs in churches are often geared towards the church itself (e.g. Sunday school, care groups, social events, board meetings, prayer chains, etc…). I think this is a good thing, qualified of course with the assumption that all our programs – all our busyness – intends to encourage the church community towards more faithfully loving God and loving others. In doing all of these things, then, we are not merely making life complicated amidst an already hectic society. No, we’re following the admonition of Paul to “encourage one another” in our faith (1 Thess 5:11). Being part of a faith community is about sharing our lives with others, realizing that God has created us to need one another.

Next up - loving our neighbor.