look in the mirror

It continues to frustrate me at how many Christians think they’ve got it all right. And then cloak their theological confidence with a sort of godly servanthood – “I’m just a faithful Christian reading my Bible.” How does that engender conversation, acknowledge that others may have alternative views that are also biblical, or at least display a moderate level of humility towards what we hold as truth?

This issue of theological certainty was again brought to my attention with the varied Christian responses to the earthquake disaster in Haiti. Most have already heard of Pat Robertson’s rambling conjecture on Haitian history and God’s judgment. Unfortunately, most global catastrophes bring similar responses from popular preachers and theological tacticians.

This morning I read Drew Tatusko’s description of the background to these responses, what he calls a “destructive theology” in which God’s mercy and judgment are seen as equal characteristics. And while proponents of God’s absolute sovereignty and judgment point to the Old Testament examples of God’s judgment to support mercy and judgment together, Tatusko refutes such a perspective – “It is entirely rooted in a logical fallacy focusing only on specific narratives of judgment without engaging the judgment of mercy in Jesus Christ.” Tatusko goes on to provide a compelling counter to the Robertson ilk by revealing how “in Christ, God is revealed as one who reaches out to the lost and the suffering and finds favor among them first.” I was reminded of a lecture I heard in the fall to which we were challenged, “Is our Christology high enough to go so low” and love “the least of these” (Mt. 25:31-46)?

Enough people - Tatusko my latest encounter - have exposed the inconsistencies in Robertson-like responses to suffering in our world. I think enough’s been said.

In the midst of the variety of Christian responses to Haiti, however, I’ve been reminded at just how diverse our views on God and the Bible really are. I actually don’t think our diversity is necessarily a bad thing, on a one condition of course: people need to look in the mirror and acknowledge their own presuppositions about God and the Bible instead of claiming to represent “traditional Christian doctrine” as is often the case. For example, Tatusko himself represents a particular view of biblical interpretation in which the person of Jesus Christ is the main interpretative grid. I happen to believe that same approach is essential to understanding the character of God. As my own denominational Confession of Faith states, “The person, teaching and life of Jesus Christ, bring continuity and clarity to both the Old and New Testament.” Realizing my own specific view of the Bible, then, I can least understand how someone like Robertson could come to his conclusions, even if I don’t agree with them (Donald Miller attempts such understanding here).

All this to say, when faced with difficult questions of faith and theology, I think our theological method should be likened to looking in a mirror – a way of exposing how our own beliefs and experiences shape our understanding of God and the world. Looking in our own mirror, our church’s mirror, and even Christianity’s mirror – humility in belief and practice – can hopefully begin to correct the multitude of misconceptions about God that our theological certainty has sadly spread.

this is how the world will end

Haiti has really been on my heart this weekend. And as I reflected on ideas around progress (see here), I've been wondering: what does progress look like for Haiti after such devastation?

So I showed this video in church today:

And if a certain light don't shine again,
Baby, this is how the world will end.

So I say it again, God help us - help us be that light...

progress and its perils

Despite poverty and natural disasters around the world, many of us wealthy folks (if your reading this, I’d consider you wealthy) still think the world is a pretty good place. I mean, all the really bad stuff happens out there (e.g. Haiti earthquake). We send money, but mainly we are just spectators. Thus we become immune from truly identifying with hardship. We think our world, with all its scientific and technological advancements, is pretty good.

Well, I recently came across an article in The Economist that questions our belief in progress (no, I’m not a regular reader of this magazine, but Santa put it in my stocking:). The article critiques the very notion that our world is on a one-way track to Utopia. Now realistically, I know at least some of us acknowledge not all is right with the world. Yet even in acknowledging modern society’s deficits, how we live doesn’t always correspond with a thoughtful realism, due in large part to a troubling sense of entitlement we’ve developed. In the words of the article, “people born in the rich world today think they are due a modicum of health, prosperity and equality. They advance against that standard.” Sadly, our realism for the perils of progress only applies to others. We still expect perfection, even at others' expense.

The article continues by suggesting that part of the problem is to equate technological and scientific developments with social progress. Has all science benefited humanity (e.g. nuclear and biological weapons)? Obviously, what’s intended for good and can be used for evil. As the authors suggest, “scientific progress needs to be hitched to what you might call ‘moral progress.’” This need for moral progress is even more telling in economics – a situation in which “it is good to go up in the world, but much less so if everyone around you is going up in it too.” The illusion of our progress is exposed as in our quest for individual success we realize there isn’t room for everybody.

Drawing on the work of philosopher Susan Neiman, the article closes with a sort of secularized alter-call. With too much emphasis placed on the elusory good of science and technology, “moral sensibility” needs attention - the principle that we should guide progress by “what is right despite the costs.” And while I agree willingness for “acts of principled self-sacrifice” would go a long way towards counteracting our often-selfish endeavours, I’m still left wondering who determines the content of moral sensibility? Me? You? God? Government? I’m not convinced that to suggest “moral progress…is up to us” really changes anything. It’s a rally cry, sure. But to what? Well, back to ourselves – the ones who created the problems in the first place.

As a religious person – a Christian – I still hold out hope for the input of religious ethics in our critique of social progress (Susan Neiman does to a degree as well, but through the lens of reason. See here). While I’m not ignorant of religion’s own culpability to fail, religious ethics can provide a content for conceptions of “moral progress” that generic human goodness fails to provide. Religious ethics provide a story of goodness, not just an idea - a story in which we don’t rely solely on our own ability to live well. Amidst the ongoing failure in humanity's so-called progress, religious ethics bring the simple acknowledge that we need help.

God help us!

On a lighter note (and much funnier!), this video offers a comical critique of technological advance, bringing into sharp reality just how absurd our assumptions around “progress” are:


Our view of theology and the Bible highly influences how we approach ideas of faith and life. Does theology provide a set of propositions that describe us and to which we subscribe? Or does theology tell a story about God and his people - a story we are formed by as Christians and reflects our own experience of life as a journey? While I don't think the two have to be pitted against one another, they often are, even if at a subconscious level. And sadly, a narrative approach to theology and the Bible is often seen as secondary - a means to an end.

In recognition of the Mennonite Brethren 150 year anniversary, our church has been retelling the MB story this month - the good and the bad. I think it's important to remember how our history has formed who we are today - as individuals, as local churches/communities, and as denominations. This Sunday I'm concluding our time by exploring the beginning of Deuteronomy in which prior to entering the promised land, Moses reminds Israel who they are. But he doesn't just repeat the Ten Commandments (which he does do) or give a theology lecture on the attributes of God. No, Moses tells a story. He retells Israel their own story - and relates it to the ongoing story of God's faithfulness to them. In a time of desperate need for Israel to understand God and their relationship to him – crucial concepts related to them faithfully following the call of God moving forward – Moses told a story. I think that's profound.

(This post is adapted from a conversation I've been having related to my post, "MB's Beyond 2010")

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day being celebrated in the U.S. today, I was reminded of a music video I posted awhile back. I pray the change MLK Jr. brought through his nonviolent revolution will propel not mere idealism, but concrete nonviolent resolutions to the brokenness and violence our world continues to endure.

MB's Beyond 2010

This month has seen its fair share of top ten lists, most reflecting on 2009 or the decade past. One such list reflects on the past ten years of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) movement, the Christian denomination to which I belong. As one hanging onto the notion that denominations can still serve a purpose in the grander scheme of the global Christian church, reflecting on recent developments can be a valuable exercise towards better understanding, and as Christians, hopefully better faithfulness. In discussion with the author, former MB Herald editor, Dora Dueck, I suggested an interesting exercise would be to explore the next ten years as well (not unlike Bono's list for the world in general). Dora promptly replied that such a task is likely better suited to the likes of the younger MB's. So I got the not-so-subtle hint (thanks Dora!) and decided to contribute yet another top ten list - "Beyond 2010"

Now, before I begin, I should probably qualify my list. By no means are these brand new issues as many of them have been percolating in the past decade and beyond. This list is more of personal interest to me, if anything else. In no way are my claims to be seen as predictors of the future or even substantive statements of fact. I simply see them as pressing issues from my vantage point as a younger MB pastor - I could be wrong!. And while I speak specifically into the MB situation, for those of you from another tribe (or no tribe at all), I hope this discussion can be relevant to any individual, church or denomination seeking to understand itself better in the years ahead.

So here goes (in no particular order):

1. Global identity – International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB)

While an issue for Christianity in general, it will interesting to see how the development of ICOMB and the continued growth of the global MB church affects ongoing questions of MB identity. For example, how can North American MB's learn from ICOMB's use of narrative in the international confession of faith?

2. Theological diversity

As recent gatherings in Canada have revealed, MB’s are a theologically diverse bunch. The question is whether this diversity will bring unity or division. For some the ongoing tension of Anabaptist-Evangelical identity will never be resolved - and perhaps shouldn’t be. For others, priority is given to either one over the other, depending on who you ask. How we handle our differences will continue to define us.

3. Community Hermeneutics

As discussions surrounding our definition of the atonement continue to percolate (rage?) in MB circles, the real issue, it appears, is our understanding and practice of the oft-expression “community hermeneutic.” Do we agree on what that means and how it should be practiced in study conferences and denominational gatherings? This question needs to be answered!

4. Denominational affiliation

I’ve heard rumblings of disgruntled churches in Canada and I can remember hearing on several occasions that the conference continues to struggle with drawing financial support from the whole constituency. And based on participation in gatherings and study conferences, my guess is denominational affiliation isn’t too high on the list of local church priorities, likely for many reasons. Have denominations run their course? As the next wave of MB leaders enter the fold, I believe they will have an opportunity to influence whether or not the current trends continue. Quite simply, do people still care? I know I do.

5. Leadership model and involvement

As questions persist around how to best make decisions regarding both programs and theology (e.g. possible theological chair on Canadian Conference staff), the question for me is this: what’s the MB philosophy for leadership? Does an underlying desire for efficiency and effectiveness (good things by the way) trump our theological identity as a covenant community (also a good thing!). Similarly, like each decade past, it will be interesting to see how upcoming leaders are integrated into conference leadership.

6. Missions shift

As missions in many denominations gets redefined towards a more holistic approach to sharing the gospel, both locally and worldwide - both for practical and theological reasons - I hope our missions board (MBMSI) is able to lead the way in creatively exploring what 21st century missions can and should look like. Some may lament this shifting landscape, but personally, I find this new approach refreshing and full of opportunities to "love our neighbors" in tangible ways.

7. Role of theological education

As the past decade has seen MB theological schools face several struggles - enrollment, controversy over shifting theological language, leadership changes - some serious decisions will need to be made in the decade ahead. Will the bottom-line force the bible-school model to adapt to offering more “practical” programs for students or will there be a renewal towards having a theological foundation prior to beginning one’s career? While it’s my hope, it will take a collective effort (both financially and philosophically) from parents, churches, and the MB denomination to make the latter a reality.

8. Church planting

It’s exciting to see the MB church growing in parts of North America. Vancouver has seen a significant number of church plants in recent years, many exploring creative and culturally engaging models for church. One concern, personally, is how these church plants will balance cultural engagement with their MB affiliation. Related to point #4 above, I fear MB theology will be downplayed for the purpose of growth and inclusion, creating a generic evangelicalism detached from the greater MB story. For some, this may be necessary and actually a good. Personally, I'm not so sure...

9. Homosexuality

As the integration of homosexual individuals and couples into society continues to establish itself in culture - Canada particularly - will the present MB position on homosexuality (see here) maintain a united response from local churches? As situations arise how will the ideological position translate practically? While unity is my hope, this could prove challenging in the decades ahead.

10. Theology of Culture

As I’ve become more involved with MB’s churches and the Canadian conference, I’m realizing a need to articulate an MB theology of culture. The past two study conferences have dealt with culture – “Culture, Gospel and Church” and “Confessing Jesus in a Pluralistic World.” But rather than leading to consensus surrounding faith and culture, these gatherings have revealed a great diversity in how MB’s view culture. I’d like to see the conversation continue, perhaps even expanding our confession of faith article (“Society and State”) to address culture in general.

Thoughts? Additions or deletions?

how long?

I always feel stuck in the face of global tragedy - the devastating earthquake in Haiti the latest example. How can I even begin to process the pain and sorrow of the those already impoverished people? Words just don't seem enough. Answering the deep questions of why, particularly from a faith perspective, seem to trivialize the fact that Haitians are suffering regardless of how we comfortable North Americans understand this tragedy. Instead, I join the psalmist in a plea of lament hoping the suffering of this world is not all we'll ever know:

"How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?" (Ps. 89) .

If you're interested in supporting relief efforts, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has begun it's campaign to offer both immediate emergency response as well as long-term relief. To read about their project or to donate, go here.

Not Avatar

While Avatar continues to rake it in both from both the box office and the movie pundits, I feel like one of the few who haven’t seen it yet. So I want to draw your attention to a different film – Up in the Air.

The movie has the elements of a classic story of personal victory, sprinkled with just the right amount of romance to make everyone happy. The main character, successful businessman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels the continent firing people for companies in transition (or bosses too afraid to do it themselves). His motto is that life should fit in a carry-on backpack – with the conscious refusal to embrace commitment and a settled life (I mean, how can you fit relationships in a backpack anyway?). On a quest for one million air miles, Bingham represents achievement and independence – a vision we all should strive for, right? He even finds a high achieving woman of comparable status to compare frequent flyer cards with (among other things). In a sense, the viewer is led to believe Bingham has it all.

I think we like these stories because it allows us to live vicariously through the adventures of someone else, knowing full well that those experiences will never be ours. We want to imagine an alternative life – a quick escape that the anonymity of a movie theatre offers. And so we are drawn to a story of success and freedom because in the monotony of everyday existence, we share in the adrenaline rush of success and adventure Ryan Bingham represents. But wait, Up in the Air doesn’t let the viewer’s experience end in escape.

As the story progresses, the narrative jolts the viewer from escaping reality – living vicariously through the escapades of Ryan Bingham – to confronting reality. Up in the Air forces the viewer back to real life. In the story, Bingham loses his job security and his romance forces him to question the value of unattached independence. Quite simply, the idealism of complete independence, success and adventure crumbles in a series of events that force Bingham to question his philosophy that life must always be a fast-paced quest for accomplishment. He encounters what the rest of us have known all along – life is normal.

And so it’s Bingham’s encounter with the normal parts of modern life that lead to his identity crisis. He connects with his siblings – regular folks caught up in the rat race of jobs, relationships, depression, families, etc… He falls in love and realizes the idea of “settling” isn’t as crazy as he once thought. By encountering normality, Bingham actually finds meaning. And so in the end, we – the normal majority – become the hero. In a way, then, the movie watching experience is flipped around – Bingham lives vicariously through us.

Unlike most movies Up in the Air teaches us that we don’t need to escape our normal lives to find meaning. Normal may in fact be the place true meaning resides.

happy 150th birthday mennonite brethren!

In the face of a perceived ritualistic faith in the Russian Mennonite Colonies, January 6, 1860 saw the formation of a group attempting to live a genuine Christian faith. 150 years to this day, the Mennonite Brethren were formed (read more here). This dissenting group declared their intentions forthright: “We herewith completely dissociate ourselves from these decadent churches, though we pray for our brethren, that they shall be saved. We want to be innocent of the souls of the erring. But Thou, O Jesus, equip faithful living witnesses, who will direct Thy children and the world Thy hands to Thee!” (“Document of Secession,” from J.A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church)

While history has sadly seen this original mood of dissension persist to varying degrees, the genuine desire to be faithful living witnesses has remained a driving force in Mennonite Brethren identity worldwide, continuing to confront uncritical acceptance of religious status-quo.

While challenges remain – and will likely continue – in defining Mennonite Brethren identity both individually and collectively, I cannot deny the impact the complex history of this relatively young movement has had on my life. In a culture full of overly-individualistic spiritual pursuits, I’ve found a home in a group that values authentic Christian faith to which most agree occurs in the context of community. To consider myself Mennonite Brethren means my identity is shaped by the community to which I belong.

And so 150 years is significant not just for the Mennonite Brethren religious movement, but for the Mennonite Brethren member. Values and beliefs of the past century and a half inform how we identify ourselves as Mennonite Brethren today (e.g. a legacy of cross-denominational influence continues to shape Mennonite Brethren theology, making our openness to diversity not all that surprising).

As the collective Mennonite Brethren story continues to evolve, then, we mustn't forget how as individuals we are shaped by this story in which we take part. As a Christian - a Mennonite Brethren Christian - I take solace in the reality that I'm part of something bigger then myself - a community in history that continues to explore together what being faithful living witnesses means.

Happy Birthday Mennonite Brethren!

Celebration 2010 from ccmbc on Vimeo.

a new law

"A New Law," Derek Webb

don’t teach me about politics and government
just tell me who to vote for

don’t teach me about truth and beauty
just label my music

don’t teach me how to live like a free man
just give me a new law

i don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
so just bring it down from the mountain to me

i want a new law
i want a new law
gimme that new law

don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
i prefer a shot of grape juice

don’t teach me about loving my enemies

don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
just give me a new law

what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
for one you can that cannot get you anything
do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

Derek Webb offers a sobering critique of our attempts at religion. Yet somehow, as depressing as the lyrics may be, this song brings me hope - hope that in understanding our religious failures we may actually move towards a greater faithfulness. The closing refrain reminds me that in our often unpredictable journey of faith, our transformation towards faithfulness isn't dependent on our religious know-how, but on the very promise that God is in our midst. And in the awesome presence of God, we encounter his comfort, "do not be afraid."

Emmanuel – God Still With Us

So we’ve come through Christmas and celebrated the Christ-child, “Emmanuel, God with us” - an event that we believe has changed history forever, providing a hope that God’s love was and is realized tangibly in this world. It’s very easy, however, more in step with the lull of post-holiday life, to limit our reflection of the God-with-us moment to just that: a reflection. And so come the week after Christmas and heading into the New Year, our meaningful reflection can easily become but a vague memory amidst our return to normal life. I find myself exiting the Christmas season feeling kind of lost or disappointed. I know something really good has occurred, often represented in valuable time with family and friends, but that experience - that feeling - it disappears. I guess you could say my Christmas spirit departs pretty quickly – Emmanuel easily becomes “God was with us” limited to an experience of holiday sentimentality.

This movement away from celebration - this post-Christmas lull - makes one wonder just how meaningful our “God with us” proclamations are? If God did in fact come 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus, does that make any difference in January? Does that make any difference throughout the year? Does that make any difference when around the world “God with us” leads to more questions than answers? Or perhaps when life’s circumstances may suggest the contrary, “God not with us.” So we proclaim “God with us” on December 25th, but what about the rest of year? Quite simply, now what?

For Advent, our church journeyed through Galatians 4:4-5:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Through this passage we found that time – our lives in history – is given significance by our Creator as he entered the world by his Son, both divine and human. And this entrance into creation brings reconciliation and a new identity for humanity – we are God’s children! At Christmas we tend to focus on the finality of the incarnation and the ultimate redemption that Jesus brings to this world – a declaration that in Christ all sin and brokenness is overcome. Through this final redemption we can accept our new identity as children of God. But continuing in Galatians 4, we see that the incarnation has an ongoing effect through the presence of the Spirit – “God still with us.”

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." So you are no longer slaves, but God's children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.

In preaching from this text on Sunday I proposed that “Emmanuel, God with us” is not a seasonal proclamation. Rather, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, journeys with us in our lives by the ongoing presence of his Spirit – God still with us.

The presence of the Spirit is the ongoing confirmation of our identity as God’s children, an experience of God that participates in the Triune intimacy of Father, Son, and Spirit, illustrated in the phrase, “Abba, Father.” And as heirs, we live in the inheritance of God’s presence with us – a life transformed by the presence of the Spirit.

So as we enter the post-holiday season and embark on 2010, may our Christmas celebration of God entering this world be an ongoing recognition that through the Spirit our lives testify, “Emmanuel, God still with us.”