looking back...looking forward

I'm not sure why, but I felt this picture (taken this week on a walk in my neighborhood) was inspiration enough to put perspective on the usual New Years' practice of looking back and looking forward. There's something about sun and snowy mountains that offers a cause to pause...

Happy New Year 2011!


(It's been a great week with family and friends and I look forward to more regular blogging starting up next week)

light of the world

Related: light in the darkness

Darkness, the absence of light, the growing shadows at dusk, a blackness emerging, hiding all we see.

Darkness, a daily cycle transferred into human experience – fear, loneliness, despair, sickness, frustration, apathy, gloom, wickedness, questions, brokenness, misery…

Light absent in so many places. Darkness, too often without a dawn.
Darkness, that inescapable reality haunting us each day, confirmed each long night.

We live in a world of darkness. Darkness, at times, is all we know.
And we wonder: will life get better? Where is the light?

Yet hints of light infringe on darkness’s dominion. We’re told we’re “the light of the world,” which spurns us on to be bearers of light. We bring light into this dark world.

We care for one another. We listen, give, embrace, console, rescue. We answer questions, reveal meaning, share our love.

We think our light is enough. Where darkness remains, we’re encouraged to “get it together” or better yet, to “see the light.” But we get tired. Our light begins to fade, to burn out.
The light we offer is incomplete, partial, a dim reflection of a greater light, a broader light, a full light. THE light.

Amidst the prevailing darkness. Amidst our own clamouring to provide light. The unexpected occurs. The light doesn’t go out – “darkness has not overcome it.” This light grows.

“A light has dawned. The light shines in the darkness.”

This growing light is not a distant power like the sun millions of miles away. Nor is it a worldly power, aligned to influence from a position of cultural light. No, this light is profoundly simple – God’s light invades the corners of everyday darkness. A light shining first in a small village, in a dirty barn, in a farm animals’ manger. A light shining now in our small lives, in our hurting communities, in the messiness of human experience.

“Christmas is about Jesus Christ entering the darkness of every time and place (including ours), to bring light, healing, forgiveness, renewal and abundant life. Christmas is about Jesus coming into the darkness with God’s promise that some day all of creation will be bathed and illuminated and renewed by the healing light of God. May we receive and walk in that light today” (Dan Nighswander)

Christmas. The birth of Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. The light of world has come…

God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Open our eyes to Christ's presence in the shadows of our lives and our world, so that we, like him, may become beacons of your love, God, we thank you tonight for being our light – for being the world’s light. Amen.
  

love all

Ok, last installment on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

#3 [Give More]

#4 [Love All]

“For God so loved the world...”

This familiar phrase sums up the Christmas message. “God is love” tangibly expressed in the very midst of human experience. “Immanuel, God with us” - with us as human. With all of us. Advent Conspiracy is rooted in this reality.

Yet for Christians, especially in a multicultural society of often-competing worldviews and religious celebrations, it can be tempting to think the Christmas story is mainly for us. Hence the fight to hang onto the true meaning of Christmas, better known as the “war on Christmas” or the “Christmas Controversy.” I wonder, however, if this desire to dictate the celebration of Christmas has more to do with Christians’ stubbornness than their faithfulness. Christians want to have their voice; and somehow it’s expected that secular culture will be a primary vehicle for the message. In the language of feasting (appropriate this time of year), it’s demanded that Christmas be one of the main courses at the religious smorgasbord of modern N.A. culture. While all this may be true to some degree historically and culturally, the fight for Christmas by Christians, I believe, has become a distraction. Christmas has become about us: Our celebration. Our traditions. Our God.

This last theme of Advent Conspiracy acknowledges the full message of Christmas: God loves all. And so should we. As the website points out, “When Jesus loved, He loved in ways never imagined. Though rich, he became poor to love the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked and the sick. He played to the margins.” If you think back to the first Christmas, who was first to celebrate the birth? Royalty? Religious folks? 'Normal' people? No, it was shepherds. The people we might call “blue collar” nowadays. Or worse, people we might simply label as “them.” In the Christmas story, you see, all people have been included from the beginning.

As you gather with family and friends to enjoy feasts, exchange gifts, worship together, remember that the story - the reality - of God with us isn’t just for you. It’s not your right to celebrate Christmas. It’s a gift - a gift for all.

I'll leave you with the song I've had in my head all week - "Feed the World"

“it's time to take baby Jesus out of the manger”

“It's time to take baby Jesus out of the manger.”
What’s your reaction to that statement?

Well, this was the solution offered by comedian Stephen Colbert in a recent satirical (and "weirdly prophetic" as my friend Ryan suggests) tirade on the meaning of Jesus and Christmas.

You can watch the whole clip here.

I think Colbert’s main point is this: wherever people fall on the Liberal/Conservative spectrum, most define Jesus how they want him to be. And often such descriptions of Jesus create environments of exclusion where the very people Jesus talks so much about (poor and needy) are excluded from our telling of the Christmas story. So why not replace Jesus with “something that’s easier to swallow” Colbert proposes with tongue fully in cheek (something Christians are often guilty of already). In a world where so many are left out, Colbert’s conclusion, while humorous in presentation, is chillingly honest and incisive in its truth:

“Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are; or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition. And then admit, that we just don’t want to do it.”

Sad, but in many cases true. Colbert’s is a refreshing honesty in a world of sanitized feel-good religion.

give more

And some more on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

#3 [Give More]

“Give more” is rooted in God’s action in the nativity story:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).

Now consider Mozambique. In their dry season, lush fields and forests turn brown, and streams evaporate. Many women begin their days before dawn, waiting in line hours to scoop water from an open hole, or walking to a distant river. Sickness and death come from a lack of clean water. God with us?


Or think of those we often call the “outcasts” in our society, many of whom have never participated in the simple act of sharing a Christmas photo - a tangible reminder that you are not forgotten. Without a picture to give or receive, however, these people feel - and even are - forgotten. God with us?




Or picture your favorite Christmas memory. Now picture it alone. Somehow it’s not the same, right? Yet for many people around us, this is their experience of the holidays. Your family is far away; you’re estranged from your siblings; you’re depressed; you’re sick. Christmas only serves to heighten your loneliness. God with us?

Sadly, “Immanuel - God with us” isn’t always a reality. Rather, Immanuel comes in the form of a question: God with us?

But in Matthew’s gospel, “God with us” is a declaration, not a question - a declaration according to the Christmas story and the life of Jesus which is a reality. “Give More” finds its basis in this reality. Give more - God with us!

A leader in the Advent Conspiracy movement makes the following observation: “Many of us remember to repeat this name (Emmanuel) at Christmas each year and tell each other what it means—but do we allow it to permeate the way we live during the Advent season? Is it possible that even our gift-giving could be drenched with this beautiful moment when God gave us his presence in a unique, flesh-and-blood way? The apostle Paul writes that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. God had a face and a voice and he lived with real people. There’s something incredibly tangible about God’s gift. What can that teach us about the way we give Christmas gifts?” For God, giving meant his presence (not presents)

Upon Jesus’ birth, the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the good news. They didn’t give a theology lecture. They gave an introduction. But not an introduction to information - an introduction to a person. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:11).

As someone else has commented, we know from Jesus’ life that “he intentionally cultivated relationships. He paid attention. He listened. He noticed. He did everything that people in a hurry forget to do.” He met needs appropriately – each person or situation was addressed in a personal manner. In the language of today’s often generic, impersonal gift-giving, there were no gift cards from Jesus! God’s giving is incredibly personal – “a Savior has been born to you.”

In Philippians, Paul describes how Jesus came as a servant – “made himself nothing…taking on the very nature of a servant…humbled himself…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:7-8). God’s gift in Jesus wasn’t the easy route. It involved entering into our world, where sin and brokenness affects everyday lives. One of my favourite verses is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” God giving more means he felt what we feel, lost what we lose, suffered where we suffer. The one bearing the name, “Immanuel – God with us,” sacrificed his ability to escape reality in order to fully love reality. And this was costly: long nights, long days, frustration, conflict, violence, travel, interrogation, uncertainty – all as a gift – “God with us.” God’s personal presence was risky – it was costly.

Matthew does something neat in his gospel. “God with us” isn’t only a nativity term or a reality referring to the physical presence of Jesus in his 30-some years on earth. The familiar passage goes like this: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20) “God with us” didn’t end with Jesus’ birth and life. God giving more didn’t end 2000 years ago. Giving more continues today. “God with us” lives on…

Now back to Mozambique. As the Mennonite Central Committee reports, they are “working with the Christian Council of Mozambique to drill wells with manual pumps and train local residents to maintain them. By bringing a new source of water to a community, this project also reduces the time people must wait in line at older wells, giving women and girls, who traditionally gather water, additional time for other work or schooling. ‘When you don’t have good access to water, it affects virtually every area of your life—your time, work, relationships, health, cleanliness,’ says Dan Wiens, coordinator of MCC’s food and water programs. This project helps provide water, a gift of life.” God with us!

Or remember those forgotten individuals around us. The Province Newspaper recently reported this moving story: “For the hundreds of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside residents who filed into Carnegie Centre Saturday, December 4, getting their picture taken was a big deal. They climbed the old, well-worn marble stairs to the second floor to take part in Help-Portrait, a global not-for-profit event that brings together less-fortunate people with professional photographers to have their portraits taken, free of charge. "With photographs, you have the opportunity to show people that they are somebody, that they mean something," said photographer Jonathan Cruz. "We're just human like everyone else," said participant Tom Delvecchio, who came to the event with his longtime girlfriend, Tracey Morrison. "We might be poor. Maybe some people are just down on their luck. But we're still human." God with us!

Help-Portrait Vancouver 2010 (Thank You) from Steve Tan on Vimeo.



Or when we think of those who are lonely, imagine this: The new immigrant gets invited for Christmas dinner with a family that came to Canada five years ago. A group of siblings meet for a New Years Eve party for the first time in 12 years. A person attends a Christmas Eve service and for the first time doesn’t have to sit alone. A growth group decides to bring Christmas baking to someone’s parent sick in the hospital. Someone without any family gets invited for a family Christmas dinner and feels complete belonging. Loneliness is met with love and generosity. God with us!

This post comes from a recent sermon I preached at my church. You can listen here.

Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

In my mind, Bill Watterson's cultural commentary in his comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, is genius. His accurate portrayal of North American culture is particularly engaging in his Christmas themed comics.

And as I explore themes of Advent Conspiracy, Watterson brings a humorous, if not challenging, contribution.





And finally, this great quote from Calvin's dad I believe (I couldn't find the comic itself):

Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food and beer. Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment and spirituality would mix so harmoniously?

emmanuel prayer

God, we thank you for your gift of Emmanuel
God with us!
Where there is pain, sorrow and sickness
God with us!
Where there is healing, care and comfort
God with us!
Where there is addiction, abuse and brokenness
God with us!
Where there is recovery, belonging, and meaning
God with us!
Where there is loneliness, conflict, and despair
God with us!
Where there is belonging and reconciliation
God with us!
May we live our lives and our lives with others in your presence
Emmanuel, God with us!

spend less

More on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

How we spend says a lot about what we value. And I’m not just talking about money. How we spend our time, our energy, our resources and even ourselves reveals a lot.

I’ll admit, “spend less” is probably my least favorite of the Advent Conspiracy themes. It’s difficult to imagine and can quickly develop into guilt or misguided decisions. I know it's not supposed to be Scrooge-like, but spend less on what? Unless we’re all ready to move into the mountains and remove ourselves from society, spending less can become a confusing chorus that echoes impulsive non-spending. Don’t get me wrong, I think we could do with a lot less spending, especially on things we don’t need. Let’s just be clear on why we’re spending less (or at least spending differently).

I’d actually prefer the theme “spend well.” I think our excessive spending problem is largely the result of excessive ignorance - we don’t think about how we spend our money (or time, energy, etc...). Spending well means thinking through our priorities.

If we look at the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph likely had to do some serious thinking around the direction their lives took those few angelic visitations. It’s clear Joseph wasn’t impulsive. He rationalized a way out of the situation (divorce), yet became convinced to “spend less” on his own reputation by following through with the marriage to Mary (Mt. 1:18-25). The journey to Bethlehem; the birth in a stable; a detour to Egypt - all examples of re-prioritizing their lives. Their decisions were focused and informed by a knowledge of their role in the world - parents of “Emmanuel.” Interestingly, we never consider the financial strain being parents to the son of God could have put on Mary and Joseph. What would have happened if they refused to re-prioritize? Refused to "spend well"? In a way, God relied on their re-prioritizing for his plan to be fulfilled.

Hmm...there’s something to think about...

the hopeful judgment of advent

We typically don’t associate Christmas with bad or negative news. I mean, from a Christian perspective, the incarnation of Christ is the beginning of “the good news” - Immanuel (“God-with-us”) is a reality!

Yet one of the Advent texts in Isaiah goes like this:

The LORD Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,

for all that is exalted

(and they will be humbled),

for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,

and all the oaks of Bashan,

for all the towering mountains

and all the high hills,

for every lofty tower

and every fortified wall,

for every trading ship[a]

and every stately vessel.

The arrogance of man will be brought low

and human pride humbled;

the LORD alone will be exalted in that day,

and the idols will totally disappear.

People will flee to caves in the rocks

and to holes in the ground

from the fearful presence of the LORD

and the splendor of his majesty,

when he rises to shake the earth.

In that day people will throw away

to the moles and bats

their idols of silver and idols of gold,

which they made to worship.

They will flee to caverns in the rocks

and to the overhanging crags

from the fearful presence of the LORD

and the splendor of his majesty,

when he rises to shake the earth.

Stop trusting in mere humans,

who have but a breath in their nostrils.

Why hold them in esteem?

(Isaiah 2:12-22 NIV)

Hmm. That’s not very Christmasy, is it? Well, I read a reflection this week that stated the good news of Christmas must include the "hopeful judgment" of this Isaiah passage. Read this piece carefully, as I think it helpfully nuances a positive view of judgment (literally, “making things right”):

The problem is that good news without prophetic critique invariably is a cover-up. Good news that will not openly and honestly confront that which perpetuates brokenness and sin is not good news at all. An Advent without judgment isn’t Advent at all. It is a secular Christmas with store-bought peace.

Isaiah will have nothing of such cheap grace. If the day of the Lord will be a day of justice, mercy and shalom, then it must be a day against all cultural life that fosters injustice, cruelty and war...


And so we must discern what the day of the Lord is against in our culture. What are our symbols of cultural prestige--a BMW? Our places of idol worship--the shopping malls and the stock exchange? Our structures of autonomous security--skyscrapers and military systems? Our implements of economic prosperity--NAFTA? Do these dimensions of our cultural lives arise out of a worldview pimped by idols? If they do, then they with their idols will all utterly pass away on the terrible day of the Lord.


But is that really bad news? Is all of this against language really as depressing as it at first appears? Or is there a profound hope in this prophecy of a day of judgment?...this abandonment of idolatry is fundamentally good news...

To live with an Advent hope is to anticipate the day when idols will pass away and we will no longer feel compelled to pay them homage. Such a hope engenders faithful living now, no longer subject to false gods of death and oppression because we are subjects of a coming kingdom of life and liberation.

Not unlike Mary in my previous post, Advent confronts us with a challenge of allegiance - who/what will we worship?

container village - VOTE SOME MORE!!!

So, last time I appealed for your support of Container Village, they were trying to make it into the semi-finals of the Aviva Insurance Community Fund contest. Well, thanks to a final push, they squeeked in (thanks to all who voted!).

Now it's time to vote some more. And it doesn't matter where you are or where you're from. You have the chance to participate in the making a tangible difference in the lives of hundreds of homeless people in the Tri-Cities region of B.C. (part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District). Please help!

SIGN-UP HERE (please take the time - it's for a good cause)

VOTE HERE (reminder: you can vote once per day until Dec. 15th - they need all your votes!)

Here's an overview of the project:

Container Village is a "temporary" shelter idea for the Tri-Cities (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody), a suburb of Vancouver With civic approval they are responding to a community concern to shelter the homeless by creating a "Container Based Homeless Village" out of donated specially altered shipping containers. Every room is heated, fireproofed and offers reading lights.

VOTE HERE (in case you missed it)

If need musical/visual inspiration, watch this:



Also, check out this artist's rendering of the finished project:


VOTE HERE

worship fully

I mentioned earlier that our church is participating in Advent Conspiracy again this year, with each Sunday of advent reflecting on one of the four themes of the project: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Each week of advent I’m going to reflect on these themes on my blog. So, theme #1:

[Worship Fully]

The Advent Conspiracy folks put it like this:

It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

It’s important to understand what is meant by "worship" here. Much more than a Sunday service or singing along to your favorite (or least favorite) religious radio station, worship involves all of life. Eugene Peterson explains this idea of worship well in his translation of Romans 12:1: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (MSG). I think this is a the type of “holistic approach” Advent Conspiracy aims to inspire us towards.

For Mary, the mother of Jesus, you could add pregnancy to this list of ordinary everyday experiences. While her call to bear God’s son was immensely spiritual (Holy Spirit conception), the fact is, she was pregnant - one of the most ordinary (and extraordinary!) down-to-earth experiences of human life. Having journeyed with my wife through pregnancy, I know there is no sanitizing of this 9-month experience of both wonder and tribulation. And we see how for Mary, worship is important in the midst of her situation. She doesn’t wait till Jesus is born to express her adoration and commitment to God. And if she only knew what awaited her! Yet worship bursts forth from the very reality of Mary’s physical experience. Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is a reality that warrants response - worship:

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
(Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

In a season where our commitment - our worship - is constantly competed for (watch TV for 10 minutes if you don’t know what I mean), Mary’s response confronts us with a challenge: will our everyday experience of life - the “ordinary” - bring us to worship, where in all we do, our “soul glorifies the Lord”?


songs from the old school

With a two-year-old in the family, my encounter with kids music is increasing dramatically. Now, I don't know about you, but when I was young, kids music was pretty basic. Often one instrument, some simple lyrics, and story or theme, and away you go. Fred Penner and Raffi are legends in my mind. Perhaps reflecting music industry shifts in general, kids music nowadays is highly produced (drum tracks and all) and overstimulating if you ask me ("less is more" anyone?).

Well, I have been pleasantly surprised by one of my son's current favorites: "Fire Truck" by Ivan Ulz - a raw bluesy/folk song about - you guessed it - a fire truck. Oh, and I love Ulz's website-tag: "Songs from the old school . . . for very young children." Enjoy!


called to be human

If you were to ask Christians, “What are Christians called to in life?”, what do you think the answer would be? Likely there would be a variety of responses: evangelism, social justice, follow Jesus, love God and love your neighbor (my favorite), etc… And really, is there one answer?

Well, I recently had the privilege of hearing N.T. Wright (in person!) make a proposal that Christians – all people for that matter – are “called to be human.”

Called to be human. That’s it!?!

Wright traced the concept of “image of God” to support his case (Gen. 1:26-30). Displaying considerable breadth and depth, Wright showed how “image of God” is a reality throughout the Bible, not just “in the beginning.” Furthermore, “image of God” isn’t what we usually think it is.

We often think of “image of God” as a sort of invisible spark of divinity within humans – a characteristic no other creature possesses, referred to as rationality, soul, being, etc… Along these lines, “image of God” is thought as a spiritual concept - intangible. Wright presented otherwise.

“Image of God,” Wright suggested, refers to humanity’s role in the world – image bearers for God, displaying God’s glory in how they rule over creation (Ps. 8). To be “genuinely human,” Wright argued, is to live out this image role. And while sin prohibits our ability to fulfill this role, the command remains. This image-bearing role carries through the Old Testament – Israel was to be “representative humans” – culminating in Jesus, the “unclouded version” of God – the “true Adam.” In Jesus, then, we have both the example of true humanity and the commission to be true humanity as the people of God. “In Christ we are called to be truly human.” And from this perspective, all humanity shares in the task of image bearing, with only Jesus himself presenting the full picture.

The greatest difficulty with Wright’s project is translating what seems so straightforward into action. Who doesn’t want to be “genuinely human,” right? While Wright hinted at “risks” and “dangers” in attempting to align oneself with true humanity fashioned after Jesus, these difficulties were understated at best. To his credit, Wright did trace out some cultural implications of image-bearing, but this seemed quite brief. Unfortunately, the message comes across idealistic – hard to imagine.

Yet despite this idealism I can’t help but get excited by Wright’s proposal (I’m a natural idealist after all). I like that being human has implications for here and now (not always the message Christians communicate). God didn’t create humans simply to one day escape this world. No, we’re here for a purpose, to display God in the world through our role as his image bearers. In all our struggles, failures, conflicts, sorrows, and defeats, we live in the reality of Jesus Christ as both the example and empowerment to be “truly human.”

"Image of God" has as much (or more?) to do with how we live in the world than who we are. Or another way of putting it: who we are is how we live.

Lots to think about anyway...

peace is a choice (4)

Here's another installment of MCC's "peace is a choice" reflections:

Speak truth...using passion and compassion

There is a lot of "untruth" out there. Advertisers, salespersons, the media--all are guilty of telling untruths at times. And so are ordinary people. To build peace, it is important to speak truth with honesty and integrity. Sometimes, however, in our eagerness to unmask lies, we often use language and a tone of voice that is harsh and judgmental. This can cause others to be defensive and to dig in their heels. When you speak, balance your passion with compassion for the feelings of others.

"It is not how much we are doing but how much love, honesty and faith is put into it" (Mother Teresa)

You would think this idea of "passion and compassion" would be common sense in our diverse culture, yet so often we turn to fear in the face of opposition or alternatives to what we believe is truth. I realize this reflection perhaps oversimplifies the challenging reality of our pluralistic society. I think, however, the word is timely if peace is to indeed become something that inhabits all aspects of life. And missing directly, of course, is the reality that as Christians we don't simply try harder. Rather we seek to live in the ongoing presence of God's Spirit - a life full of "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23)

What are your thoughts on Advent Conspiracy?

Advent is almost here, so I want to ask a question: what are your thoughts on Advent Conspiracy?

The basic premise of the project is to redirect the celebration of Christmas away from the often-uncritical embrace of a consumeristic holiday, towards a recognition that “Christmas can [still] change the world” in more ways than the accumulation of stuff. The project is straightforward: “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.” These four practices are summed up with the call to “give presence.” Last year my church participated in the program, giving time to a local homeless shelter and raising money for a clean-water project in Jordan. Advent Conspiracy helped us rethink how we emphasize Christmas as a church. I think it went quite well and we plan to do it again.

As a Christian myself, I find it troubling when the Christian community completely buys-in to the commercialized side of Christmas, especially when such participation leads to unnecessary debt. The refrain “God with us” too easily becomes “debt with us.” The story, it seems, makes little difference in how we actually live our lives. And so like the rich young ruler in Mark 10, we turn away from God, even if unknowingly.

Yet too often read passages like Mark 10 and then we hear of projects like Advent Conspiracy and think: "Oh, that’s easy. That'll fix us!" Not so fast warns Stanley Hauerwas:

This tendency for us to acquire more and more things is particularly true in our society, and I expect is particularly troubling for those who have money. For us, if you’ve go it, it is immoral not to spend it. If you do not spend it, you throw people out of work. You can talk all you want about learning to do with less or our need to create a smaller world, but if we do not learn to want and need more things, the result is that some people will be out of a job. Getting rid of possessions is no easy matter.

We need, as a result, to be careful not to moralize Mark 10 - that is, to turn it into text that can be applied to our lives in a rather direct fashion. For example, some are tempted to read this text as an incipient pre-Marxist attack on the rich. That seems all right as long as I do not have to think of myself as rich, but then some suggest that the problem is deeper because the issue is possessions themselves. So the text is not about how much you own before you are rich - does owning a house count? - but rather the issue is any possession, whether we are rich or middle class, that has power to possess us. The issue is not about possessions in and of themselves, but rather about our attitude toward our possessions. If that is the case, I must admit that I would rather have an attitude problem about a Porsche than my Toyota station wagon.

This manner of construing the text has the virtue of reminding us that dispossessing is no easy matter. Few of us know how to dispossess...I suspect generally we would all be better off if we learned to travel lighter, but I do not think that is what Mark 10 is about. Rather this text reminds us that we are on a journey. Not just any journey, but a journey that begins with a very particular beginning and ends with an equally definite end.
("On Being De-possessed" in Unleashing the Scripture)

It’s this last comment that highlights what is easily missed in participating with Advent Conspiracy. We can make all the changes we want for how we spend our money (or don’t spend it, putting friends out of work!), but these changes need to be rooted in more than just a reaction against consumerism. As Hauerwas concludes, how we celebrate Christmas is rooted in our journey - a journey of “God with us” that began in a stable and led to a cross. Ours is a journey that follows Jesus on his journey. Advent Conspiracy, then, isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be. But that’s only because following Jesus isn’t easy. Thus we need Jesus’ own response:

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mk. 10:27).

remembering well

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the US. We pause as countries to remember and honor fallen soldiers from wars past and, sadly, wars present. Memory has a powerful way of solidifying national unity as we reflect on both victory and loss. Our stories as countries keep the present in perspective. Whether we like it or not, we've come from somewhere.

As Christians, remembering is also crucial. But we have a different sort of remembering. We remember our story not just as our story, but as God's story. And so as we recognize the reality of violence and the suffering of both soldiers and victims, we remember as the people of God. On Remembrance Day or Veterans Day, then, our remembering is in the context of our hope for peace. Our remembering is done in the reality of peace Jesus points us towards and calls us to embody. Our remembering recognizes the reality that peace will have the final word amidst the chorus of violence in the world. May all Christians remember well this November 11.

I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:1-3, 14).

Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am givingAlign Center you this day (Deut. 8:11)

video


h/t to MCC's Peace Sunday resources for the video.

tell all the stories

We work very hard at our faith; we agonize over it; we struggle with it; we grimly and determinedly set our jaws to make it through. The empty tomb is a monument against that. Persons active in religious leadership very often become patronizing to God, treating him as someone we must take care of. We think that what we do determines his effectiveness, and fail to see that that is the position of a pagan toward an idol, not a creature bowed before the Creator.

When we reflect on our projects as Christians, we are good at telling positive stories: an orphanage built in Thailand; numerous church plants in British Columbia; fundraising to support a local Bible college. To repeat Peterson above, “we work very hard at our faith,” and many times, this is a good thing. So we rightly tell these stories. They bring a necessary inspiration to continue making a difference in the world. We need to know and be reminded, I believe, that change is possible.

One problem. These aren’t the only stories to tell. And in our enthusiastic cheers for success, I think Peterson offers a sobering reminder: Christians can make idols of their success. We forget that change isn’t always possible. Or at least not in the way we envision. And we don’t always tell these stories.

Which is why my attention was caught when I recently read this news update from my denomination (Canadian Mennonite Brethren):

The Agora, a 13 year-old MB church located in Halifax, N.S., officially closed its doors on Sunday, Sept. 26…

How do we process this type of news? The congregation’s own response was mixed. Reflecting on their final gathering, the consensus was this:

We do so with grief in our hearts for what is no longer, but also with thanksgiving for our history and hope and expectation for the future,” said several long-time supporters in the congregation. “The formal institution is ending, but the mission of the church and the relationships that have been formed and cultivated live on in its people.

I was encouraged to read the peoples' reaction. Their disappointment is clear, even if understated. But their 13 years weren’t a waste either. Failure – if we even venture to call it that (I’m not sure closing a church has to be considered a failure) – isn’t wasted.

I’ll admit, I don’t particularly like to hear the “unsuccessful” stories. Yet I need these stories. We all need these stories. In them we’re reminded of our own frailty, our own inability to make everything work out for the best. I like how John Stackhouse puts it:

Most of us live in a world that is grayer than these black-and-white options, and some of us earnestly want Biblical guidance for such living. Indeed, most of us make our way in a world in which success means asking for ten, hoping for eight, and settling for six. We experience compromise, disappointment, unexpected impediments, and unintended consequences (Making the Best of It).

By being realistic about our experiences in the world, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus – the Church – we are exactly that: followers. We’re not firstly creators of human institutions, but imitators of a creative, yet subversive God; a God who’s highest point of victory (resurrection) came through a submission to failure (death).

So as Christians, let’s keep telling our stories. Let’s just make sure we tell all of them…

reflections on “God doesn’t micro-manage the universe”

In last week's post, I asked a few questions based on this video:

Greg Boyd Chat from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.


How does God interact with me? And the world?
How does suffering relate to God's sovereignty?
What is human freedom?

Well, I'll admit these are questions I can't easily answer. But here's some reflections I had after watching the video:

Have you ever heard this phrase, or something similar?

“God placed you in this exact place for a reason. Just trust him.”

This is fine and dandy when life is swell. Because God is love, right? It makes sense. But what about when life isn’t so rosy? When relationships break down or you lose your job? Or someone close to you dies? Or you’re depressed? Or, (insert problem here). You know what I mean.

So what do people mean when they say “God has a plan for you”? One option is to say “yes,” all those nasty things in my life are part of God’s plan for me. As a finite human, I just fail to glimpse the bigger picture of God’s infinite wisdom. My hardships are really a blessing...or something.

Hmm... Really?

My preference: “God is with you in this exact place for a reason. Just trust him.”

In the Bible, I think language of predestination refers mainly to our identity as the people of God - individual and corporate (Eph 1:5-6), not simply the specific situations we find ourselves in. You could say, then, that before time, God declared or "predestined" the character of his people and his unfailing love for them (Ps. 103) But usually not their location (think African AIDS child) Or hair color. Or spouse (gasp!). Along these lines, we primarily trust God for who we are, not what situations we find ourselves in.

God isn't controlling, but God isn't absent either.

I realize this doesn’t answer the why question - if God is present, why does he allow bad things to happen? - but I’m not sure we can always know the answer to why (I’m thinking of Job here). Job didn't get a logical answer. But he did encounter God. God's plan is his presence.

it's all in the family

Considering my busy week and lack of blogging-time, I thought I'd point out (brag about!) a few projects going on in my family:

GUITARO - JJ's Crystal Palace

GUITARO consists of Heather (my sister), Jer (bro-in-law) and Mark. Navigating the transition from Winnipeg to Vancouver (not to mention children!), this trio has displayed a persistent creativity that would make any younger brother proud. October saw the release of their album, JJ's Crystal Palace, ending an 8-year hiatus. This latest record combines compelling digital backgrounds (including percussion), with strong guitar/bass, topped with some real soothing male/female harmonies (check out "Blastok" - my favorite!). Their website describes it best:

On this second full-length release, GUITARO adds a bit of disco rock to the mix. Lush boy/girl harmonies, walls-of-guitar and '80s synth sensibilities crystalize to make this record shine.


Give it a listen here!


David Bergen - The Matter With Morris

David Bergen (my uncle) is incredibly diligent (and talented!). Working most of his adult life as a teacher, he chipped away at his writing skills, publishing short stories and eventually novels. In 2005 his diligence paid off (publicly anyway), and he was awarded the prestigious Giller Prize for The Time In Between. Well, his latest novel, The Matter With Morris, reveals his diligence remains - he's been nominated for a second Giller Prize. And while some may find the blatant honesty of his writing offensive, it's his ability to poignantly describe the reality of human struggle that I find so appealing. This review summarizes his writing well:

“Immaculately written, trenchantly honest, hugely compelling … For all its darkness, this novel about mourning and melancholy remains an optimistic book; in it, we are presented with some of the irresolvable ambiguities of human existence by a character who is twisted up inside, who at the same time successfully asks to be recognized as sombre and tender and wise.”

All this to say, way to go family!

“God doesn’t micro-manage the universe”

Recently I watched the video below from Alter Video Magazine. Greg Boyd, who's stated mission is "provoking thought", gives us lots to ponder, especially if these are some of questions you face:

How does God interact with me? And the world?
How does suffering relate to God's sovereignty?
What is human freedom?

These quotes were especially thought-provoking:

“God doesn’t micro-manage the universe.” “Decisions matter.” “Salvation is participating in the life of God.”

I plan to reflect more deeply next week, but for now watch and consider (and comment if you'd like):


Greg Boyd Chat from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

container village - VOTE NOW!!!

Anyone living the Greater Vancouver area knows that homelessness is a reality we cannot ignore. And thankfully, people in the Tri-Cities (Port Moody, Coquitlam, and Port Coquitlam) where I work aren't willing to stand idly by in the face of this reality. Which brings us to a special project everyone can participate in, even if don't live in the Tri-Cities: Container Village.

Container Village is a shelter project that provides temporary shelter to individuals in the community, along with bathroom facilities, a hot shower, and a meal. While plans are underway for a permanent shelter, Container Village offers an immediate remedy to address homelessness. But it takes money. And support. Which is where you and I come in. To help make this happen, Container Village has applied for funds through the Aviva Community Fund, but needs our votes to be selected.as

Here's how another local project, Linwood House Ministries, describes the project:

The Aviva Community Fund is a $1,000,000 pool, available to community groups who have an action-oriented project that will make a tangible difference in their communities. The winners will be selected by... you and me, so voting is critical.

Here's what you need to do to help:

  1. Learn more about the plan here
  2. To vote, you must first register with the Fund
  3. Voting for Phase 2 runs from October 25 to November 5
  4. You can vote once a day for those 10 days, so please do!
  5. Go to ContainerVillage.ca and join their Facebook page
  6. Help spread the word
  7. Vote
  8. Vote
  9. Vote
  10. You get the point

So, wherever you are, please take 2 minutes out of each of the next 10 days and vote for Container Village. VOTE NOW!!!

And if you need motivation, check out this snazzy rap video supporting the project:

October's obsession

I love sports. And while I grew involved in various athletic pursuits, adulthood leads to a different sort of participation: watching sports. It’s no surprise, then, that this is one of my favorite times of year in the sports calendar, what I call “October’s obsession.”

To the avid sports fan, I don’t need to explain. But for everyone else – you know, those people who only like hockey ;-) – October sees all the major North American sports leagues running at the same time (you could say April is also significant, but I’m a big football fan, so I prefer Fall). Just about any night of the week you can turn on your television to find some sort of meaningful competition. Major League Baseball has finally exasperated its 162 game schedule to play games that mean something. The National Football League has a monopoly on people’s Sundays that is an envy to many a pastor (speaking from experience). Friday nights sees a weekly clash in the Canadian Football League (yes, I said Canadian Football League. It does exist. And see Cameron Wake in case you doubt its validity). And from a Canadian perspective, who doesn’t find themselves drawn to the broadcasting altar each October as the National Hockey League's seasonal ritual resumes: Hockey Night In Canada. Oh, and I think the National Basketball Association starts too (go Steve Nash!). Combine all this with an ever-expanding sports broadcasting industry (TSN2, SportsnetONE, ESPN-who-knows-how-many-by-now), and watching sports in October is a couch potato’s recipe for resounding success. Sports truly is October’s obsession.
As I celebrate this October reality, I’ve been wondering: why this magnetic pull to immerse myself in sports? Positively, I think there are many great things about sports culture and being a sports fan. There is something about the context of athletic competition that relates to all of life. Competition, camaraderie, perseverance, toil, failure, victory constitute much of our human experience. In this sense, you could say sports were reality TV long before Survivor hit the scene. And because we relate to it, we rally around it. We cheer for our favourites. When they win, we win (sorry Canucks fans – one day…). In a sense, we live vicariously through the athletes and teams we follow; their risk to become our adventure. To quote the famous phrase, we participate in “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.” In following sports, you could say, we are embracing the reality of human experience.

More negatively, however, I’ve wondered if this embrace of reality is actually more of a distraction from reality. Like the trend in the entertainment industry in general, it seems that living vicariously through athletes and sports teams insulates us from dealing with our own reality. We’d rather see Wayne Gretzky hoist another Stanley Cup then put the time and effort it takes to overcome our own challenges; or worse, not unlike the Bills of the 1990’s, put in time and effort only to fail anyways. Sports, then, is an escape. On its own, in the words of Ecclesiastes, our love of sports ends up as “a chasing after the wind” – a sort of exhausting pursuit of victory that coalesces in October’s obsessions but which is never fully satisfied. The clock always runs out. The game always ends. The euphoria subsides. And it’s back to reality.

Thankfully, like October’s obsession with sports, “chasing after the wind” isn’t the full picture. Rather than escape reality, the author of Ecclesiastes call humans to embrace it: I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God (Eccl. 3:12-13 TNIV).

In the midst of October's obsession I’m trying learn how everyday reality is a “gift of God”; how simple activities – eating, drinking, and yes, toiling – aren’t something to be escaped in the hopes of seeing a World Series no-hitter. I don't think I'll stop loving sports. I can, hopefully, temper my love of sports by embracing the everyday reality of life as a gift from God.

"October's reality." Ahh, much better...

cyber-accountability

It's not popular in our day and age to submit our to someone else's authority in our personal lives, especially our religious or spiritual paths. And considering a lamentable past in Western history - Christian history in particular - it's not surprising (perhaps warranted in many cases) that individual commitment to a form of communal authority is unpopular.

So I realize my participation as a member in a local church as well as an organized denomination (so old fashioned, I know!), runs against the grain of popular culture. Yet I persist in believing and promoting this idea of Christian community (see here and here) and strongly support the following statement:

The church is a covenant community in which members are mutually accountable in matters of faith and life. They love, care, and pray for each other, share each other’s joys and burdens, and admonish and correct one another. They share material resources as there is need. Local congregations follow the New Testament example by seeking the counsel of the wider church on matters that affect its common witness and mission. Congregations work together in a spirit of love, mutual submission, and interdependence.
(Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith)

Today I want to reflect on "admonish and correct one another," the type of phrase likely responsible for much of the hesitation to commit to church in our N.A. culture. It's a loaded phrase full of sad memories for many people: broken relationships, abuse, legalism, narrow-mindedness, lack of understanding, insensitivity, and the list goes on... Today, in fact, I had a few of these negative stereotypes confirmed myself. I was notified (h/t Ryan) that I'd been flagged on a blog who's stated mission is to "shine a spotlight" on the Mennonite Brethren world - i.e. they seem to take the role of heretic hunters or theology police. Reviewing MB blogs, here's what their anonymous critique had to say about me:

Another blog by a pastor of a BC Conference of Mennonite Brethren Church seemed hopeful, until it became evident that he has been blogging about lent, Henri Nouwen, and resonating with Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet, thanks to Regent college.

Hmm... Besides the absence of real engagement with what I actually wrote about the above topics - lent and Regent College, seriously!?! - my real issue is with how mutual accountability takes place in cyber-space. Now, I realize I've intentionally committed to be in relationship with others in my faith community (both in my local church and denomination). And yes, I believe this invites others to "mind my business" as a pastor friend so eloquently puts it. I get that. But in the above quote from the MB Confession of Faith, there is an underlying assumption missing from my anonymous MB brother/sister's critique of my blog: relationship.

If we are going to take mutual accountability seriously - and in our technological culture, I guess this includes cyber-accountability - then the patient path of transparency and honest dialogue is required. Critique isn't the problem, anonymity is. In my opinion, you can't be anonymous in Christian community, however tempting our cyber-freedoms make it.

REPENT and BELIEVE!!!

REPENT and BELIEVE!!!
REPENT and BELIEVE!!!
REPENT and BELIEVE!!!

No doubt, this phrase evokes certain reactions, memories, and even emotions: Street preachers making fools of themselves and the religion they represent; Christian protestors rallying for a cause in counter-Christian ways; or hellfire and brimstone sermons preached with a commanding zeal more reminiscent of a drill sergeant than minister of the gospel.

Well, this Sunday I had the privilege (challenge?) of preaching from the passage in Mark where Jesus says these very words:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Mark 1:14-15 (NIV)

This is a loaded text. And as I’ve shown, “repent and believe” is a loaded phrase.

Typically Christians have defined repentance and belief quite narrowly.

Repentance: Sometimes described as the “negative side of conversion,” repentance is the catch we don’t want to tell people lest they get turned off from the Christian message of grace. In this line, the focus is on personal morality, the call to live Christianly. The idea of “turning around” or switching direction as the word literally means, is applied to individual living. Repentance is about behaviour, our actions.

Belief: If repentance is about our actions, then belief is mainly about our intellect. Often translated “faith” or “trust,” this word refers to our intellectual system of beliefs and the decision to apply those beliefs to our life. Hence we “trust” God and have “faith” in what we “believe” is true about him from Scripture and our experience in the world.

These two common definitions aren’t wrong. We are called to turn from sinful behaviour (repent). We are called to put our faith in Jesus (belief). But if we make Jesus’ message primarily about a personal morality or faith experience, we undersell the reality of this good news Jesus proclaims: the kingdom of God is here.

Instead of viewing repentance and belief as primarily a personal choice of religious devotion, Jesus’ words offer an invitation to participate in the present reality of God’s action in the world. In fact, for Jesus’ Jewish audience, “repent and believe” only made sense in relation to how they defined “kingdom of God.” As N.T. Wright describes, the Israelites had a specific vision for how God should treat his people:

“If the kingdom meant the end of the space-time universe, and/or the literal descent of the earth, riding on a cloud, of a human figure, this obviously had not happened. That, however, would have made little or no sense to a first century Jew. If it meant that Herod and Pilate were no longer ruling Judaea, and that instead a Jewish kingdom had been set up under the direct rule of Israel’s god, this too – though it would have made excellent sense to Jesus’ contemporaries – had obviously not happened. The problem, though, is that Jesus spent his whole ministry redefining what the kingdom meant. He refused to give up the symbolic language of the kingdom, but filled it with such new content that...he powerfully subverted Jewish expectations” (Jesus and the Victory of God)

For Israel, Jesus was calling them to redefine their expectations for the kingdom of God, to turn away from their own agenda to set up a government through political will or even brute force. Repentance goes beyond a moral ethic, becoming a radical redefinition of what it means to be the people of God.

Along these lines, then, the message “repent and believe” is not exclusively an invitation to ‘them,’ the outsiders who need to accept their need for forgiveness and new identity in Christ. No, “repent and believe” is for ‘us’, the religious folks, not unlike the Israelites, who have certain ideas for how God should operate in the world. We do not create nor do we control the kingdom of God. Rather, we participate in the reality of God’s kingdom. This is Jesus’ call for repentance and belief. It is bigger than ourselves. As Christians, we are God’s people, the new Israel to which the message of Jesus still applies:

"The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

Will you participate? Will we participate?

sounds like... what!?!

Acceptance, celebration, relationships, and footwashing. Sounds like...

InSite!?! - a safe-injection site for drug-users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. What!?!

In a recent article, "Why I help Addicts Shoot Up," by InSite nurse (and Regent College student), Meera Bai, we are offered a poignant glimpse into the work of InSite. A picture, a face, a life, and yes, even a beauty, is seen in describing the day-to-day activities at InSite. Writing collaboratively with her professor (and my former professor!), John Stackhouse, Meera describes how her Christian faith is the primary motivation not only to support the type of project InSite represents but also to participate in the work herself. As a theology student, she comments, “Insite is a great place to work...because it contextualizes all the learning. No point to studying God if we don’t act on what we know.” Hmm…

Acting on what she knows is precisely why Meera is so adamant in her support of InSite. She strongly believes the work of InSite is ”offering participants a chance at redemption of both body and soul.”

But if you’ve heard of InSite, you’ll know there is no shortage of controversy among Vancouverites and Canadians about its operation. In fact, the reigning Conservative government in Canada, which perhaps in a drop of irony draws much support from Canadian evangelicals, has constantly pushed for InSite’s closure during their four years in office (BTW, I’m not offering a political opinion by this statement – I voted Conservative in the last election). The obvious good Meera pursues, it appears, is not so obvious to others, even other Christians.

I’ll admit, I’ve been skeptical of the InSite project. Will giving space for safe drug-use really address the issue, or just push the public to a greater acceptance of destructive behaviour? I don’t want to support destructive behaviour. But these concerns of mine (and many others), are exactly why Meera’s voice is so critical in the matter.

Hard drugs (and other social ills) are often viewed as faceless evils needing eradication from society. And Christians can be quite good (bad!) at protesting these apparent evils. While I don’t typically support Christian’s public protest, I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise against harmful behavior. Except for the faceless part.

And this is where Meera comes in. The story of her work with InSite – the struggle, the joy, the love – reveals the human side of destructive behaviour. It’s sad, harmful, dark and broken. No one disputes that. But it’s not faceless. As Christians, accepting this brokenness in people is difficult when we claim to know and experience so much more. We believe the primary call of Jesus, then, is to get your act together because God has a better life for you. Easier said than done. Which is why I think Meera has a better – and more biblical – handle on the situation:

“In the real world—the only world there is and the world Christ calls us to love—sometimes the best we can do, at least immediately, is make things less bad—and in the case of InSite, much less bad.”

“What we provide is reachable steps towards an ultimate end goal of self-worth – which of course includes valuing yourself enough to stop injecting drugs into your system. This is part of the Kingdom of God – which is coming, but not yet here.”

We live in a time in-between. A time where we get glimpses of restoration – the kingdom of God in this world. Yet we are continually bombarded with devastation and brokenness. And so we wait. But our waiting is not an idle wait. No, as Christians, we join people like Meera in following Jesus’ way, reaching out to the broken and hurting people of our world. However dark things get, we have an opportunity to provide the glimpses of restoration and redemption our world so desperately needs. At the very least, it’s a glimpse that people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside need. At the very most, it’s a glimpse we all need.

"Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live 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...I am making everything new!" Rev. 21:3-5 NIV