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)

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!