old radicals

Inspiring!

Old Radicals from matthew leahy on Vimeo.

“The last thing in the world I'd want is a personal relationship with God”

“The last thing in the world I'd want is a personal relationship with God.”

What!?! Serious!?! Evangelical Christians – a group in which I place myself – retort, “Who would say such heresy!?!”

Well, in a recent interview, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas made the provocative remark. But before he’s thrown off the orthodoxy bus, here’s the larger context of his comment:

Question: Christians often describe their faith as a "personal relationship with God." Is that a useful category for those who are looking on at Christianity and trying to figure out what it's all about?

Answer: No. The last thing in the world I'd want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. Without the church we know not God. No Israel, No God, Know Church, Know Jesus. Our faith is a mediated faith with people formed through word and sacrament. So I 'd never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God.

I’ll admit I resonate with Hauerwas’s comment. He provokes a critique of our normal categories in Evangelical Christianity that is greatly needed. Let me elaborate:

“Personal” – Perhaps a more accurate word would have been “private,” as really, that’s what Hauerwas is rejecting – faith where the primary expression is between God and the individual. Yet how often does the phrase “personal relationship with God” refer to faith/spirituality practiced in privacy? Lots! In a culture where everything in our lives is private – finances, sex, ethics, to name a few – religion and spirituality is expected to be private as well. And the extent Evangelicals promote a “personal relationship with God” only serves to further the retreat of religion into the hearts and minds of individuals. Hauerwas’s critique, however, isn’t only driven by sociological developments in North American religion. For him, the privatization of faith is a theological disease. A sickness with only one remedy: church.

“Church” – If you’re one who considers the word “church” a derogatory term – likely for very good reasons both personally and socially – Hauerwas’s proposal seems absurd. The last thing we need is more control, more legalism, and more abuse of authority. I agree, as I think Hauerwas would. That church, whatever it is for you, is a church that retains control. We must catch Hauerwas’s distinction, then, in defining the church: “people formed through word and sacrament.” This vision for church, for community, for the people of God, isn’t defined by the typical leadership values of the modern Western world or the bleak past of Christian authority. This church isn’t self-sufficient or controlling. And this church isn’t simply an impersonal God-less reaction to overly individualized faith either. Far from it. Hauerwas’s vision for faith is one in which individuals journey together as a people formed by the narrative of God’s action in the world (word) as experienced in their worship together (sacrament). You could say this is the church out of control. We don’t determine who we are and what we do. I don't determine who I am and what I do. Rather, relationship with God in the biblical narrative is by nature corporate – transformed individuals reflecting the kingdom of God in the world together as the people of God. One person cannot make up the people of God.

I’ll close with a quote a friend passed on to me:

When asked if Jesus Christ was his “personal saviour,” a monk replied with a smile, “No, I like to share him.”

Here is the full video clip from which I got this Hauerwas quote (which occurs around 05:45):

Friendship and Community from CPX on Vimeo.

The Office - lessons in community

As a pastor and one who’s done Master’s work in the area of religion and community, it’s not surprising I expend a fair bit of energy on this blog reflecting on this cultural buzz word, “community.”

I also like The Office.

And as I sat in anticipation of the premiere of the 7th season of the show, my community-radar began to sense some pretty obvious connections between The Office and community. Let me explain.

Diversity (with a dose of dysfunction) - The show has a host of characters ranging from somewhat normal (Jim and Pam?), to geeky (Dwight?), to anti-social (Creed?), to zany (Michael?), all navigating together the realm everyday work life. Through the interactions of these people, The Office portrays the complex diversity most people encounter on a daily basis in the various environments we inhabit. Sure, some of the stories are far-fetched, but seriously, who hasn’t had their version of office Olympics or had their boss burn his foot on a George Foreman grill? My point is this: diversity (often in weird quantities) is a reality we all live with. For community’s sake, accept it!

"Come on, stir the pot. Stir the melting pot, Pam!" (Michael Scott on Diversity Day)

Perseverance - considering their diversity and the regular crises the Dunder Mifflin community encounters, it may be a surprise to some that they stick together. But they do. It makes me realize that community - sticking together - takes work. How many of you actually thought Stanley would still be working at Dunder Mifflin? And despite Michael’s unintentional best efforts to ruin Stanley’s life and just about everyone else’s, their togetherness is a lesson in perseverance we should all take note of.

"I wake up every morning in a bed that’s too small, drive my daughter to a school that’s too expensive and then I go to work to a job for which I get paid too little. But on Pretzel Day? Well, I like Pretzel Day…" (Stanley Hudson on Pretzel Day)


Fun - From office pranks - my favorite is still the jello stapler - to office games, to holiday parties, to more pranks, the folks at Dunder Mifflin know how to have fun together. In fact, from what little we know of the characters’ personal lives, sometimes you wonder if they have more fun at work than anywhere else. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend the day at the beach with your boss in a sumo suit? Or take part in a “Run for Rabies” in honor of a coworker? I do, however, think they are onto something. Success doesn’t have to eliminate fun. Effective community should be fun. And in a day and age where relationships supposedly matter, including in the business world, we could take a page of out the Michael Scott leadership manual on this one (but definitely not everything!).

"Hey! Who put my stapler in jello again?" (Dwight Schrute)


I’m sure there are many more lessons we can learn, but for now I encourage all to participate in better community by persevering with the diversity of people we encounter. And don't forget to have some fun along the way. Cause hey, if the employees of Dunder Mifflin can function in community, anyone can!

For those new to this blog, you may enjoy these “Adventures with Dwight” from a few years back. He currently resides on my office desk.

image of Jesus

I couldn't help but pause and reflect on this description of Jesus and his world as I prepare to introduce a sermon series on the Gospel of Mark:

“The image of Jesus as a gentle shepherd sitting in verdant pastures teaching enjoyable but inoffensive parables to audiences who all loved him, is far from an accurate assessment of the situation. Both the situation and the way Jesus addressed it were full of incident and danger.”

(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark)

paying attention on a busy sunday

"The way the 148th Psalm describes it, praising God is another kettle of fish altogether. It is about as measured as a volcanic eruption...The whole of creation is in on the act—the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven’t taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything because most of creation doesn’t deal in words...We learn to praise God not by paying compliments but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Learn how to say Hallelujah from the ones who say it right."

Frederick Buechner (h/t Artisan Vancouver Blog)


Psalm 148 - an alternative reading

1 Pay attention to the LORD.
pay attention to the LORD from the heavens;
pay attention to him in the heights above.

2 Pay attention to him, all his angels;
pay attention to him, all his heavenly hosts.

3 Pay attention to him, sun and moon;
pay attention to him, all you shining stars.

4 Pay attention to him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.

5 Let them pay attention to the name of the LORD,
for at his command they were created,

6 and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.

7 Pay attention to the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,

8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,

9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,

10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,

11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,

12 young men and women,
old men and children.

13 Let them pay attention to the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.

14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the attention of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Pay attention to the LORD.

30 years later - the miracle that is Terry Fox

I grew up in the decade that began with the inspiring journey of Terry Fox. I knew about him, but not firsthand. Well, now I work in the community Terry grew up in - Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada. This coming Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of Terry’s run, and posters and banners decorate Port Coquitlam and much of the lower mainland inviting all to re-live his marathon of hope. But the Terry Fox Run is more than an annual gathering to remember a hero. It’s a living legacy.

Despair and hope. Pain and perseverance. Joy and struggle. Life lost and life gained. Terry’s story illustrates the tensions of life in our beautiful yet hurting world.

Now involved in Terry’s home community, I have a growing interest in his story. Scanning a series of his quotes, I was struck by Terry's perseverance in the face of pain and unknowns. He commented,

If I ran to a doctor every time I got a little cyst or abrasion I’d still be in Nova Scotia. Or else I’d never have started. I’ve seen people in so much pain. The little bit of pain I’m going through is nothing. They can’t shut it off, and I can’t shut down every time I feel a little sore.

It’s this never-give-up motto that inspired and continues to inspire so many in their fight against cancer and life’s many other challenges. And such perseverance, for Terry, wasn’t a lonely journey:

When I ran through that tiny little Sparks Street Mall, the road was so narrow, yet people were running behind me and all these other people were lined up, clapping for me. It was quite a long way down the road where all the people were and I was just sprinting. I was floating through the air and I didn’t even feel a thing. I felt so great. That type of memory you can never take away.

Terry’s story inspires me to share my life with others. Change in a hurting world usually only happens when we join together in our common experiences of struggle and triumph. When it came to Cancer, this was Terry’s vision:

I'm not a dreamer, and I'm not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.

And while we may never find a cure for cancer, the legacy of Terry Fox may just be the miracle itself, in the fight against cancer no doubt, but also in the inspiration gained by all who follow his journey in one way or another.

In the trailer (see below) of the deeply personal account of Terry’s run, Into the Wind, there is a quote that sums up his story well: “Terry Fox - a symbol for all of us.”

May the legacy... No, may the miracle live on!




To watch and listen to the Terry Fox story, watch this account from ESPN marking the 25th anniversary of his run:

"informational overindulgence" and religious dialogue

The very fact that you’re reading this blog illustrates the accessibility of information in this an age of technology. The reality is this: via Google, Wikipedia, and other such tools, we have the ability to know anything. We know now and we know fast. As a happy user of Hotmail since 1996 and one immersed in blogging, Facebook, and other social media outlets, computer technology has become an integral part of my life. And I’m glad for that. Sometimes.

Other times, I realize my own tendency towards “informational overindulgence” as Quentin Schultze describes in his thought-provoking book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart. The following quote sums up the issue well:

Our tendency to adopt every new information technology uncritically - without discerning the options, setting appropriate limits, and establishing humane practices - is simply irresponsible. North Americans are largely unreflective, voracious consumers of cyber-novelty and informational trivia... Although information technologies increase our capacity for acquiring and disseminating information, the resulting informational practices usually foster individualism and self-interest over community and responsibility (16-18).

Of particular concern for me, is how the access to information has effected my interaction with others, especially those who possess different perspectives on life and faith than myself. Recently I’ve been in dialogue with individuals from a variety of non-Christian backgrounds - Baha’i, Jehovah Witness, and Objectivist. As a Christian, how should I interact with these friends?

As a somewhat technological savvy Christian, you’d think the answer is obvious: I should google each stream of thought, likely using Wikipedia as a starting point, all as a way of gathering relevant information on each subject. Fairly simple. I can become an expert in three contemporary religious and non-religious movements in a few clicks of my mouse! And if this is in fact the case, the Internet should be revolutionizing inter-religious dialogue.

But wait, I tried that. It didn’t work so well. Sure, I acquired some relevant information on the interests of my friends that was helpful. But when it came to dialogue with my friends, the swallowing of basic information failed to bring understanding. Here’s the problem: If we limit our engagement with others to googled information, we fail to notice important nuances within particulars religions or worldviews. And by itself, cyber-dialogue can miss the subtleties individuals possess in relation to their worldview.

Now, I’ve heard it said that knowledge doesn’t equal wisdom. I tend to agree. I’d also extend that in our technological age and this tendency towards “informational overindulgence,” knowledge doesn’t equal relationship and understanding.

So I’ve decided to mostly put compiled Internet information aside for my inter-religious (or non-religious) interactions. I’d rather be an engaged learner. I try to meet regularly with these individuals (yes, face-to-face!) and have also been reading material from these people written from their perspective (e.g. Baha'i individuals writing about the Baha'i religion). I’m trying to counter our tendency as Christians to only read about others from our perspective (e.g. a Christian’s description of Jehovah Witnesses). We end up only learning about why we’re supposed to be against something, hindering constructive dialogue as we only learn what’s wrong about others. “Them” becomes a derogatory term.

All this to say, the accessibility of information doesn’t always lead to constructive engagement between people of differing religions or worldviews. Google can’t replace a chat over coffee and Wikipedia entries are shallow (and boring!) compared to reading a good book. We need to be engaged learners.

If you’re interested, several others have been reflecting on this idea recently - online, of course :-) - searching for ways we can adopt an appropriate use of technology, particularly as Christians. The following links inspired my thoughts here:

"MennoFest" - aka. MCC Relief Sale

I’m not sure that Mennonites are usually known as the partying types. There is, however, one exception: MennoFest!

What’s MennoFest you ask?

MennoFest, actually just my wife's name for the event, is Mennonite Central Committee's (MCC) annual Relief Sale happening this weekend in Abbotsford, BC. It’s the combination of three things Mennonites new and old love: food, friends, and good causes.

Food: Filling one massive room, thousands gather to enjoy Mennonite delicacies from around the globe. From farmer sausage (Rempels!) and vareniki (perogies), to rollkuchen and portzekly (both a type of deep-fried dough), to homemade pies, to authentic Mexican, to bison burgers, the array of choices offer a challenge to the least gluttonous among us (not me!).
Friends: For most Mennonites food without friends is an oxymoron. MennoFest proves that. The massive room contains rows of tables where the food-gorging is done in true Mennonite fashion: together. I often heard that for Mennonites, the definition of fellowship is pie and ice cream. This isn’t far from the truth for anyone who’s attended this event. It’s like a holiday family gathering on steroids. You wander around chatting with folks you haven’t seen since last year’s MennoFest, catching up on one another lives, usually in line for seconds (or thirds!).

Service: Seriously, though, the work of MCC is the real reason for this gathering. Each year MCC faithfully works at promoting peace and reconciliation around the world. Much of this work takes place in the form of addressing global poverty, meeting the basic needs of the world’s most hurting people. This year, the focus is on clean water:

The annual MCC Festival at the Abbotsford Tradex on September 10 & 11, 2010 will help provide clean water for thousands of people all around the world. When water is clean and plentiful, people often give it little thought. But in many places in our world, water is scarce. By attending and participating at the MCC Festival, you will help MCC provide water so people around the world have enough to drink, enough to wash, enough to grow food and enough to share.

If you aren’t able to attend this year’s MennoFest, you can still participate. Besides tracking down some farmer sausage, perogies and assorted deep-fried doughs for your own MennoFest, I invite to donate money here (last year they raised over $700,000).
Oh, and don’t forget your pennies! Check out this fun (!?!) tune illustrating the “Penny Power” project:


Hungry for Life

We feel helpless to affect the kind of macro change that could quickly bring about justice and equity around the globe.

I don’t know about you, but these words describe well my typical reaction to poverty and suffering around the world. Faced with statistics and stories of extreme brokenness, I feel handcuffed to offer any real help. Most often I do nothing.

In his book Hungry for Life: A Vision of the Church that Would Transform the World, Dave Blundell does well to identify this frustrating experience many of us in North America feel. But in no way does he condone it. Doing nothing - doing nothing as Christians in particular - is not an option. Hungry for Life explores why.

The book is borne out of Blendell’s work with an organization he founded, Hungry for Life International, an agency committed to the “eradication of needless suffering” through the work of a transformed Christian community. The book is clearly organized in three sections. In section one, Blundell lays out the problem: “global imbalance.” This section is by far the most frustrating to read, not for anything the author does or doesn’t say, but because of the helplessness it invokes as I mention above. Thankfully, inducing guilt is not the author’s point.

The Bible is a far better authority for considering change. So for us theology-types, section two provides a solid presentation of a biblical theology for a “compassionate church.” I wrote in the margins things like “cause to pause” and “sobering” as Blundell presents a convincing imperative for the church to adopt a “biblical vision of compassion and justice.” The discourse focuses on compassion and justice in the whole biblical narrative, refusing to simply proof-text support for the argument. Blundell has clearly done his homework.

Section three provides an ambitious proposal: “nothing short of a historical, comprehensive, and prevailing transformation is required to wake the Western Church from her catatonic state in a way that would tip the scales of global resources...The road we are on today as a North American Church mirrors the same religious road traveled by God’s people in the Old and New Testaments and the same total repentance is necessary.” Working from the premise that holistic change in the Chrisitan church is necessary - not merely a few behavioral tweaks - Blundell discusses the implications of such change for areas of leadership, spirituality, and service. While at times Blundell’s idealism can be hard to concretely imagine - more stories would be helpful - the force of his message is consistent throughout: “true repentance will only happen when we are living different lives with different consequences.

Blundell’s desire for a complete shift in Christian values cannot be under-emphasized. His focus on identity and not just changing behavior is probably the strongest part of his message. Following Jesus is about our whole lives, not just what we do. Yet this is also the most difficult part of the book. I still felt overwhelmed in considering a response, both personally and for the church in North America. I guess I’m left wondering, is there a way we can have a discussion on compassion and transformation productively without completely overwhelming North American Christians? Or perhaps my angst just serves to further their argument: I should be uncomfortable with the current state of the N.A. church in the face of global poverty and biblical teaching. I’m just not sure if my feelings of helplessness will lead to the change Blundell seeks. Unfortunately, this is where I’m stuck.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book for anyone wrestling with the economic divide in our world. If you’re looking for an up-to-date discussion on global poverty accompanied by a convincing biblical theology for global compassion, Hungry for Life is for you. But be warned: there’s no easy reading when it comes global poverty and Christian faithfulness.


Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.

Mennonite Quilte

The quilte is a mid-calf-length garment that has been worn as the traditional dress of men and male youths within Mennonite culture since the 16th century. The quilte originated as a garment that was both functional and modest: it permitted its wearer to assume the bow-legged position required for stooking (the harvesting of grain stalks by hand), while ensuring that the private parts of the wearer were not open to public view. Quiltes are similar in some respects to the Scottish kilt, but are usually constructed of leather that has been rendered supple through chewing. Some ceremonial quiltes, usually worn at weddings, funerals, or the annual fall celebration of "Sobsenheizen," are made from brightly coloured patches of fabric in the well-known tradition of Mennonite quilting, which is undoubtedly the source of the name "quilte." The Low-German name for the quilte is "schmootzenhosen."

History

Little is known about the origin of the quilte. References to the garment first appear in Anabaptist tracts and culinary sources from the early 1540s. The earliest extant depiction of a quilte is a woodcut, reproduced in a treatise on poultry in 1587. Through the nineteenth century, under the influence of Noah Webster's simplified spelling system, "quilte" was sometimes spelled "kwilt."
In the early 20th century, quiltes came under attack from both the more conservative and more liberal sides of the Mennonite community. For the conservatives, the tendency of some youths to decorate their quiltes with homemade trinkets -- such as dried slices of farmer sausage, carved depictions of Anabaptist Martyrs, or pieces of lint twisted into ribbons -- devalued the original utilitarian purpose of the quilte. For the liberals, the quilte -- which was designed in part to constrain the male genitals -- became a sign of a repressive attitude toward sexuality. For the most part, these conflicting perspectives were resolved at the 1978 Steinbach Congress. Today, the quilte persists as the standard garb of Mennonite men in Canadian communities such as Kitchener-Waterloo and American cities such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
(Cited from the ever-reliable Wikipedia. Reprinted here presuming it's prompt removal from Wikipedia for lack of historical sources. h/t to historian and friend J for passing this along)

unrelated, undigested, and unillumined

I usually try to avoid only posting quotes, but again today I read a piece (from 1954!) related to my post, "enter to win...what!?!"

But no matter how high the doctrine of the church to which a particular confession may adhere in actual practice its congregations are a gathering of individuals who know little of Christian community in the biblical sense and expect little from it. Like secular clubs they meet in their various groups to hear speakers on a variety of topics which are usually unrelated, undigested, and unillumined by Christian faith. The Church’s theology, traditionally so triumphantly and vigorously theocentric, tends now to be dominated by anthropology, by volume after volume…on the nature of man and the basis of his social thought and action. The worship of the Church has been heavily influenced by individualistic pietism, concerned largely, not with the social organism, but with the individual’s need of peace, rest and joy in the midst of the storms and billows of life. The self-centeredness of the pietistic search for salvation tends to exclude vigorous concern with community. Hence, the modern Christian searches his Bible not unlike the pagan’s study of his sacred literature, the purpose being to find inspirational, devotional, and moral enlightenment for personal living, and nothing more. The sectarianism of the Churches, and their racial and national cleavages, are further expressions of an individualism which distorts the nature of Christian society and provides excuse for the world’s individualism.

(G. Ernest Wright, The Biblical Doctrine of Man in Society, quoted in Stanley Hauerwas, Unleasing the Scripture)