god with us

A family struggles to make ends meet. The father faces sporadic work. The mother endures chronic illness. Three kids. Two in school. One just born this fall. Eviction notices greet them monthly as they just barely scrape together enough to pay the bills – a roof over their heads for one more month. This year’s Christmas hamper smaller than usual. 2012 looms with much of the same. They just want to get back on our feet.

A young man lives with rejection. Last year’s holiday included a marriage proposal. Joy. Elation. Expectation ran deep. Plans were made. But then plans have changed. Well, her plans changed. Last year’s expectation is this year’s loneliness and despair. He just wants to be happy again.

She has a great family, career, home, church – independence. “The good life” many would say. She loves her husband and 10-year-old son. But in the rare moments of quiet and self-reflection, dissatisfaction creeps from the shadows. Life is a blur. Christmas only increases the busyness. She barely has time to enjoy this good life she’s made for herself. Success hasn’t brought fulfillment. She just wants some peace and contentment.


At Christmas, the search for happiness and fulfillment is present in many ways, for all people...

Perhaps you hear parts of your story this Christmas in these stories here. We all, in different ways, long for fulfillment in our lives.

The right amount of money.
The right relationships.
The right spirituality.
The right, well, anything.

Everything is fair game in the search for personal happiness. “It’s all about me” is the world’s mantra.

And it’s the same for religious folks. Only now it’s me with God. My ability to connect with God. “Me with God.”

It’s an age-old search, this desire for fulfillment.

But...

all our striving,
all of history’s examples of societal bliss,
all of religion’s attempts to get the spiritual formula just right
all our attempts to have a successful life
all these things are revealed to be, in the words of a wise old man, “a chasing after the wind,” meaningless even. Meaningless in the sense that self-created happiness fades away.

If it ever comes at all.

Striving for happiness and fulfillment, this idea of “Me with God,” is a tragic reversal of the actual reality of Christmas.

It’s not “me with God,” it’s “God with us.”


We read about it. We sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” – come, God, with us!

The picture is profound, but not in the way we’d expect from the Creator of all things. Not in an “out-there,” esoteric, spiritual way, God identifies with the very reality of human existence; life in this often confusing and broken world.

You know the story:

A questionable couple. A dirty barn. Farm animals. Stench and loneliness intermingled in a picture of physical and social struggle. And then the he comes. The Messiah, the Son of God, Immanuel. Names suggesting royalty, power. But here?

This One comes not in power but in weakness. A baby. God with us in weakness.

We know weakness. In our striving, we fail to find fulfillment. If we’re honest, we’ll never get enough money, or find that perfect relationship, or be continually content with life’s circumstances.

But we don’t walk this journey alone. In our search for fulfillment we're confronted with a different picture altogether. Not God-fixing-everything-in-our-life-so-we’ll-be-happy-all-the-time-with-no-reason-to-complain-ever-again. No, our lives will likely continue to mirror the life of an outcast family in stable of a small obscure town. But weakness meets God’s presence.

God immerses himself in this common part of human experience. Identifying with weakness is God’s avenue to overcoming brokenness, pain and death. After all, what begins with the birth of a baby culminates in the re-birth of new life, resurrection.

No more tears.
No more death.
No more striving for that elusive fulfillment.

After conquering death, rising from the grave, Jesus reaffirmed the Immanuel message of his birth. “I will be with you until the end of the age.”

Our hopes and dreams for this life – and the next – can be complex, filled with a combination of hope and uncertainty. Christmas sometimes brings these to the forefront. And in that moment of trying to figure everything out in our lives, we pause.

We remember
We remind
We treasure
We share
We place our hope
We rest in the presence

of “Immanuel, God with us”

Christmas – all of life! – God. With. Us.


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!

hum of the holidays

Is it just me, or does the week leading up to Christmas have a buzz in the air? Literally. You could almost say that Christmas is actually audible. Call it the “hum of the holidays.”

At Christmas, there is just more of everything.

Traffic.
People.
Food. LOTS of food.
Conversation.
Music.
Drink. LOTS...oh wait...No :-).
Honking.
Advertisements. LOTS of advertisements.
Gatherings.

My initial reaction is to say this is the sound of busyness. Each individual aspect of Christmas coalescing into a holiday carol that transcends them all - this “hum of the holidays” chorus. And depending on your personal disposition, this all-encompassing noise can be either exhilarating, exhausting, annoying, or simply go unnoticed. For me, it depends on my mood. In general, though, I think our world could do with a little less busyness. So when such busyness is amped up like at Christmas (who controls the volume dial?), part of me cringes and wonders if this is the way it has to be. I hope not.

But before my inner-Scrooge takes over, I need to remember that not all the verses of this cultural carol have to sing of the dark side to busyness. The song isn’t called “The Negativity.”

Perhaps one verse sings of connection - relationships strengthened in a time that for some reason, people are that much more ready to commit to a few extra hours together. We are relational beings after all. Being together can be a bright side to busyness.

And maybe another verse sings of generosity. Despite the consumeristic selfishness lurking behind the tradition of Christmas gift-giving, the premise itself remains a good one. As we celebrate the ultimate gift - Immanuel, God with us - our gift-giving reflects our nature - a nature made in the image of a self-giving God.

Lastly, as a parent, I can’t help but think another verse has to be for the kids. And not just in a fun "Frosty the Snow Man" or "Jingle Bells" sort-of way. There is something about the wonder and mystery of Christmas from a child’s perspective that shines through the busyness (be it the Santa-version or the Jesus-version). Trust combines with awe combines with expectation that - although at times infused with sugary-induced, present-crazed zaniness - should inspire wonder and hope in the most cynical of holiday observers. Jesus was onto something.

Connection.
Generosity.
Wonder.

As we continue to participate in this cultural carol - “hum of the holidays” - may we remember to sing these important verses loudly, harmonized for all to hear.

Rob Bell, celebrity pastors, and...a baby

Popular American pastor Rob Bell has preached his final sermon in advance of moving on to pursue other opportunities. You can read the transcript here. (h/t Kurt Willems)

Whether you like Rob Bell or not, there is no denying his departure from Mars Hill Bible Church will impact the mega church. Observing his transition, and reflecting on leadership transitions in the church in general, reminds me of just how much emphasis Christians put on good leadership. And while there is biblical basis for strong leadership, in a culture that highly values trained expertise, Christian leadership has become a sort-of subculture itself, separate from the church it’s supposed to serve.

As a result, churches can easily become dependant on their leader, not the fact that they are a dynamic group of Jesus-followers called to gather in life together regardless of who leads them (Acts 2:42). Like a celebrity-endorsed product, too often the church’s success depends on the pastor - the celebrity.

In his final address, Rob Bell calls out against this danger, offering an alternative vision for his church family:

when people ask 'what about mars hill?' or 'what's mars hill
going to do?' it's as if mars hill is a disembodied reality with a life of its own.
here's the twist: the church is not an inanimate, impersonal product. there is no 'mars hill' in theory.
there is no abstract, disembodied entity mars hill apart from the people in this room who ARE mars hill.
so when people say what's going to happen to mars hill? they're asking what's going to happen to you.
what are you going to do? how are you going to respond?
you are the answer,
because you are the church.
mars hill is not a product,
it is a gathering of people.
you.


The cynic in me thinks Bell’s church will struggle in his departure. Whether he likes it or not, he is a celebrity leader to a lot people. But the optimist in me sees hope in Bell’s words - hope for the broader Christian church in general. The church is not a product, it is a gathering of people. As a pastor myself, this is an important reminder.
Such a message is especially relevant this time of year - a time of year when the Nativity story redefines the categories of leadership, blatantly opposing the celebrity pastor model.

A questionable couple. A dirty barn. Farm animals. Stench and loneliness intermingled in a picture of physical and social struggle. And then the leader comes. The Messiah, the Son of God, Immanuel. But he comes not in power but in weakness. A baby. This is the church’s model for leadership. This is God’s model of leadership - “servant...humble” (Phil 2:7-8).

What does the success of Mars Hill Bible Church depend on? What does the success of your church depend on? What does the success of the global church depend on?

The greatest leader to ever live - a leader who’s strength is genuine weakness.

Our leader is a baby.

a story of waiting

During Advent, Christians often focus on the parts of Christmas story leading up to Jesus’s birth - Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and the angel Gabriel, Joseph’s dream, the Magi beginning their journey.

But the events surrounding the nativity story go even further back, years before Jesus’ birth...


There was this young Jewish man – he encountered God, not unlike the prophets of old. The Holy Spirit was upon him. To others, he was always distracted. His attention was never on the present. In the marketplace, in conversation, in his home with family, and especially in the Temple, his gaze – his attention – was always on the horizon. It was like he lived in a constant state of waiting.

Because he did. You see, he’d received a promise that he would see the Messiah of Israel in his lifetime. “The Messiah?” he thought. “Wow! The One who will restore our nation back to greatness; restore God’s favour like it was in the days of David and Solomon!” What a message! It was an exciting time. It was distracting in the most hopeful of ways.

His expectation ran so deep he moved to Jerusalem and made of point of going regularly to the Temple to worship, committing himself to this waiting, often telling others of his hope.

But time passed. Waiting got difficult, monotonous even. Excitement waned. Yet even in uncertainty,, the man kept going to the Temple, committed to the promise that his waiting was not in vain. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Waiting. Waiting for the consolation of Israel.

The man was still waiting in old age. His body aching. His mind wandering. He was tired. Navigating the slopes of Jerusalem streets got more and more difficult. Yet, he persisted. He didn’t lose hope. Seeing this hobbling old man day after day - often muttering strange things under his breath - the people in the Temple wondered, “What is he waiting for?”

Yet the man wasn’t the only one waiting. There was an old woman in the Temple who didn’t join the others in questioning ridicule. She could relate. Hers was a similar story.

As was the norm, she had married at a young age. But tragedy struck, and she was widowed shortly after marriage. But rather then remarry, the woman dedicated herself to worship and prayer, choosing a life of simplicity and devotion, day and night fasting and praying in the Temple. It was here that God met her.

At first, people were surprised to see this young widow of seeming insignificance hear from God. She developed a reputation as one with great wisdom, a prophet even. All of this despite her obscure family background from one of the Northern tribes of Israel, a place God was thought to have abandoned long ago.

Nearly 70 years passed. Day and night in the Temple.

She could remember the day the man first showed up, young and full of excitement for this great promise he had received. But where others doubted his message, she believed him. “The Messiah was coming! Our oppression at the hands of Romans will end. Our limited freedom to worship as Jews will be gone. The king of David will reign again!” She was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. She joined the man in his waiting.

But that was decades ago.

Now in their old age, even she wondered if the promise of a Messiah would be fulfilled. She was weary, often dozing instead of praying - hunger pangs that much more intense as her aging body endured the toll of regular fasting again and again. She was getting weak.

But like the man, she persisted. Waiting wasn’t a curse, but a blessing, accompanied by the presence and promises of God.

Together, the man and woman found purpose in their waiting. The words of the great prophet Isaiah remained their hope:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.

They watched together, their daily commitment spurred on by the prophet’s promise, “They will see it with their own eyes.” Where some in the Temple lamented Israel’s waiting, the man and woman found hope in the very act of waiting. Waiting wasn’t passive. Waiting wasn’t to be avoided.

For Simeon and Anna, waiting was holy.

Where is the Advent music?

I've been thinking a lot about waiting this Advent.

I also like Christmas music. I don't mind spending the month of December listening to cheesy holiday music breeze the airwaves in home, car, mall, etc...

But most Christmas music isn't Advent music. There isn't much waiting.

O Come O Come Emmanuel is about it - which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas songs.

So I was surprised to note the lyrics of one popular Christmas tune that I'd never noticed before.

When a Child is Born - my favorite version is by Boney M - places the good news of Christmas firmly within the context of waiting - waiting in hopeful expectation that sorrow of this life won't reign forever. The hope of the baby's birth is meaningful in the very fact that we wait. It's good news because we wait.

...And all of this happened
Because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no one knows
But a child that would grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace
And everyone to everyone's neighbour
Misery and suffering would be forgotten forever...

This comes to pass when a child is born...

In a time of countless shallow Christmas songs, the depth of this song - even in all its cheesiness - has enriched my Advent journey.

Any other good Advent songs to recommend?


For your listening and watching pleasure, check out this music video of the Johnny Mathis version of When A Child is Born:


conspiracy fatigue?

I’ll start by saying this: I like Advent Conspiracy. I’ve shown my support several times here before. The call to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all” during this season of incessant me-centered spending is greatly needed. I continue to lead my church through the project (we’re conspiring now for the 3rd time).

But I wonder, has Advent Conspiracy run its course? I’ve noticed less cyber-buzz as in past years. Have we reached conspiracy fatigue?

Here’s the problem as I see it. I’m not convinced a conspiracy can sustain itself. Can and should Christian faith and practice (in this case, Advent) be framed as a conspiracy? I like the counter-cultural undertones, yes. Jesus was very counter-cultural himself. So was the early church and many other examples in the past 2000 years. No, my concern is that conspiracy is a limited concept. People conspire together for a specific task, like the overthrow of a government. A conspiracy by definition, is temporary and measurable.

Advent - the season of expectation and remembrance of the coming of Christ into the world - is in many ways unlimited and immeasurable. We celebrate it every year. You don’t overthrow the government every year (I hope not at least!). And more importantly, I believe, is the message that Christ’s coming is a permanent reality that calls for a radical change in our whole lives - to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all” are not just practices to seasonally conspire at. I worry that Advent Conspiracy becomes a droning “do do do” that, ironically, ends up mirroring the very busyness it’s trying to conspire against.

I don’t mean to be negative or cynical. The movement has wonderfully raised millions of dollars for clean drinking water and hopefully inspired millions of people to reconsider how they celebrate Christmas. And I pray that continues. But as a conspiracy, I worry that the change in behavior is temporary, which I don't think is the intention of the movement. Perhaps Advent Conspiracy has served it’s purpose. It’s raised awareness and new action. But in our conspiracy fatigue, perhaps it’s time to move on.

I want to suggest that the conspiracy needs character. Perhaps a new name is in order: Advent Character (boring, I know). Instead of practices just at Advent we need character to sustain us the other eleven months of the year. The fruit of the movement needs the fruit of the Spirit! The traditional Advent themes - hope, peace, joy, and love - are needed to sustain our conspiring actions. Worship, giving, and love, while represented in the actions of Advent Conspiracy, are rooted in our character as God’s people. We are worshiping people. We are giving people. We are loving people. As we embrace this character of our identity, practices will come naturally. We don’t need a conspiracy if we have character.

No doubt my suggestion won’t become popular. Or turn into a movement. Nor should it. If we’re honest, the path of Christian character is difficult and frustrating. Our ideals bump up against the reality of sin and brokenness every day. Darkness overwhelms glimmers of light. It’s hard to wait for the world to get better.

But that’s what Advent is all about, is it not? Waiting. Advent character can help us as we wait.

dealing with destruction

“We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” (MB Confession of Faith)

This phrase is part of my denomination’s confession of faith, asserting the centrality of the Bible for the Christian life. I have no trouble accepting this assertion...usually.

Stories about Jesus and phrases like “God is love” and “love one another” (1 Jn. 4) form some of the best testimony for the world to follow Jesus.

But there is a problem.

The Bible also includes some words and sections and images that provide some of the worst testimony for the world to follow Jesus. Old Testament records of judgment and destruction portray a God bent on wrathful destruction not loving embrace. In the New Testament, grotesque apocalyptic images from Revelation are enough to scare anyone away from God.

In today’s world, as much as love is a common reason to accept God, judgment and destruction are common reasons to reject God. How do biblical texts about wrath and judgment fit with the message love? This is a common objection to Christianity. “God is love” is seen as a facade, hiding the real God - a wrathful, destructive, judging ruler of the universe.

As Christians, how we respond to this objection is crucial, especially if we want to hold onto the view that the Bible is still authoritative in matters of life and faith. Dealing with destruction is no small task.

But Christians often quickly leap to answering the how and why of God’s judgment as we find it in the Bible, without taking time to pause. And be honest.

Christians are allowed to struggle with God’s judgment too.

Already in my early tenure as a pastor, I’ve had three sermons I didn’t particularly enjoy. God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19), David defeating the Amalakites (1 Sam. 30), and God enacting various forms of judgment on the world (Rev. 8-9). On the surface, there are very few, if any, redeeming features in these biblical texts. If anything, they just confirm the negative image of a mean God held by so many people. And so for each sermon I’ve started out by admitting my hesitation to speak of God’s judgment. I don’t like it.

And only then do I go about dealing with destruction. Answers come, for sure. Perhaps another post is warranted. But before answers comes honesty: I don’t like wrath and judgment. Considering God’s intention for humanity (Gen. 1-2, Rev. 21-22), I don’t think I’m supposed to.

patient Advent

Advent.

Literally means "coming."

For Christians, Advent is about anticipating, waiting, and imagining the kingdom of God in the world - a kingdom marked by love, gentleness and humility. A kingdom beautifully revealed in birth of a baby - Jesus. Power and might unexpectedly small, understated. In fact, power and might redefined by God's self-giving love. "Emmanuel, God with us!"

The celebration of Advent, then, is a reminder that our faith, victorious indeed, is also about waiting:
But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me (Micah 7:7 NIV)
Or as Stanley Hauerwas remarks about Advent:
Advent is patience. It’s how God has made us a people of promise in a world of impatience...And Christ has made that possible for us to live patiently.
During the Christmas season, as the busyness ensues and impatience ends up reigning (and ruining!) the day, Advent offers a chance to step back - a chance to step back and accept an alternative way of living in a world bent more towards what's hectic than what's holy. Advent teaches us that waiting is holy. Patience is holy.

Have a patient Advent!

branding our faith

A consistent image in the New Testament is allegiance. Allegiance to God or the world is the dilemma facing the early church. In Revelation 4-5 allegiance is portrayed in “bowing down” before the throne of God - a clear sign of allegiance to God and a radical portrayal of human identity in a culture where the Roman Emperor demanded allegiance (worship) to himself alone. For 1st-century Christians, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9-13) was as much a political statement as a spiritual one.

Not living under the rule of a dictatorial emperor, we may think it’s now easier to declare “Jesus is Lord.” We are, after all, free to choose the religion of our choice, at least in the West. But such freedom comes with a cost: we neglect the reality that allegiance remains a central theme in life and faith. While allegiance no longer comes with the threat of death, it remains nonetheless. For us today, allegiance is subtle.

Back to branding. The process serves to illustrates the subtlety of allegiance. Companies no longer just market a product or service, but an identity. The popular Apple commercials are a great example. Often unawares, in the process of buying an Apple computer, people are buying an identity, showing an allegiance to certain image - cool, hip, edgy, etc... Quoting Skye Jethani again, we live in a “culture that values style over substance, image over reality, and perception over performance.” We end up showing our allegiance to these brands, these identities we are marketed and sold on.

Christianity buys into this paradigm - Christian music, art, movies, entertainment. Flashy worship services geared to attract people and provide something they are looking for.

It’s no wonder Christianity and the church struggles to retain members. We buy into trying to present an attractive brand, which ends up cheapening allegiance to mere style, image, and perception. It’s shallow. Christianity is simply another brand to choose from.

We need to remember that while Jesus is indeed Savior (Jn. 3:16), Jesus is also Lord. To ascribe lordship is to give allegiance. Faith in Jesus is our whole life. Christianity is a way of life. It makes sense that Jesus called this the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Mt. 22:37).

As I said before, brand that!

inefficiency wins

I have had some good discussions this week around what it means to be a peacemaker, pacifist, or hold a “love and nonresistance” position. In a time when wars continue to wage around the globe, and violence and abuse of many kinds is perpetrated in our very own communities, Christians need to continually consider what it means to follow Jesus’s way of peace.

My denomination has this to say in our Confession of Faith:

Believers seek to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, and to be peacemakers in all situations. We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace. In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible. Alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice are ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.

I agree.

But a common rebuttal to peace churches asks this question: what about injustice? Surely you can’t sit idly by and watch someone suffer, can you? Sometimes violence has to beget violence for the greater good, especially the victim, right? Call it “redemptive violence" if you want. It’s a make-the-best-of-it, common sense way of loving your neighbor in a violent world. The way of peace is impractical, inefficient, and idealistic. I’ll admit, it’s hard to argue this one.

Although I’m not convinced.

Part of the problem is with the measuring sticks: practicality and efficiency. And while I’ll concede the idealistic critique - I see this as a compliment - I think our categories of practicality and efficiency are challenged when we look at Jesus. In fact, Jesus doesn't seem to care much for success in the way we like to define it. He taught a subversive response to violence and abuse (Mt. 5:38-48) and modelled creative engagement with the authorities in times of injustice and confrontation (Jn. 7:53-8:11). But there was no guarantee of success. In fact, you could say that with Jesus’s death, his way of peace is the most impractical and inefficient model we have. Weakness. Suffering. Death.

Yet such a path ended up bringing life. The way of the cross, however inefficient, ends up securing life and peace (Jn. 11:25-26) that outlasts any violent revolution or overthrow of unjust rulers. Inefficiency wins.

For us, then, to accept Jesus's way of peace means giving up our categories of practicality and efficiency, trusting that with the potential of lost life, there is the promise of new life (Mt. 10:38-39).

Remembrance Day - "The Peaceable Kingdom"

On this day of remembrance for lives lost and violence exacerbated for better (but usually worse) I offer this perspective and hope - God's intention for life in the world - "the peaceable kingdom."

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10 NIV)


Picture by Will Bullas - "Peaceable Kingdom with two olives"

what’s your favorite brand?

What’s your favorite brand?

In our consumer culture, branding is everything. For example, Starbucks and Apple don’t just market products and services. They sell an experience, an identity wrapped up in their product. It’s common to hear, “I’m an Apple girl.” Or, “He’s a Starbucks guy.” Brands reflect who we are, our very identity.

The problem is when we associate Christianity as just another brand. Our faith ends up being a sort-of accessory or label we wear, often without the transformed way of life taught by Jesus himself. Faith becomes shallow. “I’m a Christian” is professed in the same breath as “I’m a Canucks fan” (often with less passion). Christianity ends up as just another choice among the many choices we make each day. And then we wonder why we struggle to be competitive and offer a product that is appealing to the masses! This is a troubling reality.

In The Divine Commodity, Skye Jethani offers an inspiring alternative:
Rather then putting on a “Tommy Hellfighter” T-shirt, a “Got Jesus?” bumper sticker, or “Jesus Is My Homeboy” underwear (all real products), why not follow Paul’s advice and focus our energy toward putting on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). This is how our identity is revealed, not by the brands we display, but by faith working through love. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Christ’s true people are branded with love.
'Successful' Christianity, then, while deeply counter-cultural, is profoundly simple: "Love one another" (1 Jn. 4:7-21). Brand that!

sacred consumption

Why faith?

Why God?

Why Christianity?

I ask these questions not for the point of abstract or intellectual interest, although much has been said or written on these ideas themselves.

No, I ask this question in terms of our personal perspective on God and faith. For those of us who carry a religious/spiritual bent why do we choose the path we're on? Or "why not" for non-religious folks? What's your motivation to follow the particular religious path you are on?

Wary of blind/ignorant/naive religious devotion, the question of "why?" (or "why not?") can form a helpful backdrop to our religious choices, helping us maintain some consistency between what we believe and how we live day-to-day. Keeping the "why" in mind helps us live with at least some level of self-awareness. This is a good thing.

It was with this "why" question on my mind that I read with interest a quote from one of my current reads, The Divine Commodity. Author Skye Jethani examines the influence of a consumeristic mindset on how we view God and religion, suggesting,
"The reduction of even sacred things into commodities also explains why we exhibit so little reverence for God. In a consumer worldview he has no intrinsic value apart from his usefulness to us. He is a tool we employ, a force we control, and a resource we plunder. We ascribe value to him (the literal meaning of the word "worship") based not on who he is, but on what he can do for us."
God is only beneficial is his direct value to us. The "why" question really asks, is God worth it?

For many of us, if we're really honest, this is the only question we know. We want God to relate to our experiences after all. So we choose God because it works for us. Or it makes sense to me. Or it gives you comfort, hope, and peace of mind. All good things, no doubt.

But I think Jethani makes a crucial point in making the connection between pervasive consumerism and our choice of God: it becomes solely about us. The reality of God - is God worth it? - is completely dependent on our ability to make that decision. But if you're like me, you have doubts, disappointments, struggles, and inconsistencies that left to our own devices, will lead us to reject God, perhaps even demanding a full refund for lost time, often paid out in the currency of bitterness or apathy.

If such sacred consumption is our only grid to faith, God, and religion, God is a tough sell. In fact, I think the God of the Bible, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, is an impossible sell when value is based on consumer satisfaction. As I said, God's existence is dependent on us. But is that really even God?

Interestingly, with all its talk of faithful living and right belief - the idea that individuals need to respond to or "choose" God - the Bible consistently emphasizes that all of life is created and sustained by God. Life is "good" not because we declare it so, but because God made it that way (Gen. 1:31). Life with God isn't dependent on our ability or desire to believe and follow him, but finds basis in his sustaining presence as the loving creator of all things:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.” (Rev. 4:11 NIV)
Sacred consumption demotes God to nonexistence, irrelevance, or at best, sentimentality. God as a product is just not worth it my opinion.

Which is why I need this reminder: the source of life is not a product of life.

Who is God?

"I AM WHO I AM" (Ex. 3:14)

Jesus was sacrilegious

Jesus was sacrilegious.

This is the message of the book, Sacrilege: Finding the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus by Hugh Halter.

Using the Beatitudes as a guide, Halter asserts that Jesus’s message and mission was anything but religious - it was sacrilegious. “To commit sacrilege means to disregard, disrespect, or be irreverent toward those things that have traditionally been considered holy, venerated, or dedicated as sacred.” This is what Jesus did in the face of the religious leaders, over and over. As someone who makes a living in religion - leading people to encounter the sacred - for me the book was a practice of examining assumptions throughout. And while this could have turned me off - insulted me even - it didn’t. Halter has a straightforward openness, makes his point through engaging stories, and desires to take the words of Jesus seriously. Reading the book was a breath of fresh air to one (me) who runs the risk of getting bogged down in the heavy air of religious ritual.

And Halter lives what he preaches. He’s part of a faith community in Denver, Colorado that seeks to embody Jesus’ kingdom in the culture they find themselves. Traditional church things are held loosely. They don’t have a building. They occasionally skip Sunday worship gatherings (everyone!). They don’t have any full-time pastors. On the surface, some might say they are a bunch of jaded, anti-church folk. They’ve looked at Jesus’s sacrilegious teaching and gone too far, leaving the church behind. Not so. Halter’s clear disappointment in organized Christian religion is paralleled by an even greater passion for the church to remain central. The church community is of utmost priority. Halter offers an inspiring summary of Jesus’s teaching, “Although going to church is not that big of a deal to Jesus, being the church and becoming his winsome representatives does matter to him. A lot.” To all the religious cynics out there, I think this is Halter’s strongest point: “please don’t give up on your church. Find some friends and start being the church...The least we can do is stop bellyaching about [the church] and try to make [it] as beautiful as as Jesus intended [it] to be.” Each chapter resonates with common frustrations, but challenges us to consider creative ways forward. Again, this was refreshing.

I did have one frustration with Sacrilege, not limited to this book alone (e.g. Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christianity). The book follows a trend one could call the “find-the-real Jesus” trend. Mostly this is a good trend. It challenges what we take for granted and forces us to look seriously at what Jesus actually said and did. But I worry. The trend can do injustice to two-thousand years of faithful Jesus followers muddling their way through life and faith trying just as hard to find the real Jesus as we do now. It’s not as if we’ve all of the sudden stumbled upon a never-before discovered Jesus. I’m not saying Halter explicitly suggests this, but I’d prefer the term “rediscovering” over “finding” in the title. Alan Hirsch is more intentional in this manner.

All this to say, for anyone tired of religion, for anyone seeing an absence of “sacred” in the institutional church, and for anyone who thinks Jesus still matter, Sacrilege is for you. Halter offers a vision of hope for the community of Jesus followers we like to call church. And in a time when many bemoan this and that about the church, a little hope can go a long way. It did for me.


Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

challenging assumptions

Religion is full of beliefs and practices that carry with them a whole host of assumptions that are taken for granted, yet oftentimes profoundly impact the way religion is lived out. Evangelical Christianity is no exception.

Personally, I've found it helpful to consider the assumptions I've adopted. Such consideration prevents my faith from becoming a bunch of routine practices or shallow and naïve beliefs. I want to know why I believe what I believe and why I act how I act. I think such questioning is a natural part of maturity, regardless of your religion/worldview.

So I was challenged to read this list of evangelical assumptions from Hugh Halter. He offers them to point out how easy it is to stray from what Jesus actually taught. While caricatures, no doubt, see if some of these resonate with - and perhaps challenge - your assumptions:
  • Western ways of doing things are intrinsically superior to Eastern ways.
  • Truth is ultimately a body of propositions rather than a Person--a doctrinal download that we are to download to others.
  • It is wise to invest my money in financially prospering neighborhoods because I will get the best return on my money rather than investing in a poor neighborhood where the return might be eternal but not monetary.
  • The kingdom is in the afterlife, so there's no need to help folks on this side of eternity. What matters is whether we get them into "the kingdom," another word for "heaven."
  • Jesus prefers me to spend most of my time with other Christians.
  • The best investment of time and energy in relationships should be determined by what I get in return.
  • My family should have the best of everything, and I define "best" as life in a safe neighborhood with good schools and where government and social services work well.
  • My job as a parent is to protect my kids, avoid anything that could hurt them, and pray that they will always stay in church. Never mind preparing them to live a life of sacrificial mission in a wider culture.
  • Stewardship is giving God 10 percent of my money after taxes instead of seeing everything as truly his to be used for his purposes.
  • An increase in my income is a way to enjoy a better lifestyle, not a way to bless more people.
  • Planning for retirement means laying aside enough money to ensure that I can maintain the lifestyle I am used to and comfortable with.
  • Holiness is defined in terms of what I don't do instead of how much I act like Jesus did, with the kind of people Jesus loved. Holiness is separating me and my friends and family from the dark and dirty world.
  • The Good News is a message I should communicate verbally. Good deeds are for those liberal churches. My job is to get the message out, and if people don't respond, they'll sadly burn in hell.
  • Salvation is only for those who have prayed the right prayer of repentance to God.
  • Discipleship is growing in head knowledge about God and not doing any of the "biggie" sins.
  • My relationship with God is "personal," with very little emphasis on faith in the context of a committed community.
(Hugh Halter, Sacrilege: Finding Life in the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus)

The Road to Missional

Recently I asked, “what is missional?”

After reading Michael Frost’s latest book The Road to Missional, I have a better idea.

Seeking to clear up confusion around the term “missional,” Frost offers a clear presentation of key concepts for how churches can become missional. The problem of the concept’s growing popularity, as Alan Hirsch points out in the preface, is that “when everything becomes missional, then nothing becomes missional.” Basically, talk is cheap. And so far, for many, the church and missional has been primarily a shift in language only.

As the one who first coined the term, Frost wants more than words. For the church be missional, it has to be more than “just another way of saying get-out-there-and-invite-your-unsaved-friends-to-church, which it is definitely not.” This traditional paradigm for the church’s role in the world places the impetus on us. And wrongly so. Frost clarifies the alternative: the church is missional only in its relation to God. Mission, then, must start with the Missio Dei - “the reign of God.”

When the church is about us, mission can turn into a mere sales pitch amidst the competing marketing of anything and everything. Frost labels this the “market-shaped church,” where evangelism - sharing the good news of Jesus Christ - measures itself in terms of efficiency and initial impact, instead of acknowledging the “slow” work of alerting people to God’s work in the work. The chapter “slow evangelism” is an incisive challenge evangelicals would do well to hear (and respond!).

For the church to be truly missional, Christians must give up control, being reminded of the mandate to follow the way of Jesus as Lord and not just Savior (much more could be said about this important point). I think Frost’s phrase, “triumphant humiliation,” is genius in describing this way of Jesus (probably my favorite phrase in the book). In suffering, Jesus brought life through his resurrection. Humility brought triumph. The same is true for the church today. Mission, then, is about “participating” with God, not being gods ourselves. Instead of complex strategies to reach people, the church is with people in their day-to-lives (Frost offers some helpful practical ways the church can be present with the people around them).

I’ve read a lot of books on the missional church. I’ll admit, I was skeptical in reading another. The discussion can become a bit redundant (boring even!). Not so here. The Road to Missional is the best summary of the missional church I’ve read. It’s accessible and readable, but without compromising a rich theology and conceptual foundation. As well, Frost writes with integrity. He’s personally wrestled through the subject matter himself. To be sure, liabilities exist in any summary project such as this (e.g. Frost’s critique of pietism needs more clarification), but such points don’t detract from the greater value the project. Here we have clarification and inspiration on a topic (the church and its mission) so many confuse, abuse, or simply ignore.

Thank you Michael Frost!



Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

story sense

As I continue to adjust to life with a newborn, I'll keep sharing some of the meaningful quotes/ideas I encounter as I work up energy/motivation/inspiration for more original blog posts.

And so, consider this:

Churches are not franchises to be reproduced as exactly as possible wherever and whenever—in Rome and Moscow and London and Baltimore—the only thing changed being the translation of the menu.

But if we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves—participants in the unique place and time and weather of where we live and worship—we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church. The usefulness of Acts as a story, and not a prescription or admonition, is that it keeps us faithful to the plot, Jesus, and at the same time free to respond out of our own circumstances and obedience.
(Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, 119)

In a time when churches continue chasing after relevance, success, and popularity, these are wise words from a wise pastor.

what is missional?

What is missional?

It's a term bandied about with regularity in evangelical church circles. Missional has become a bit of buzz word if you or your church want to ensure you are "with the times" when it comes to being faithful Christians. But again, what is missional?

Is missional a new set of programs? Is it a synonym for evangelism, but more tasteful in our sensitive post-Christian (and anti-evangelical) culture? Is it a fad to sell more books? Is it being on a mission, not just doing missions? Google the word and you realize pretty quickly just how diverse this whole missional concept really is.

Would someone clear up the confusion!?!

Well, hopefully it's Michael Frost. I just received his latest book that looks to clear the whole missional discussion up. The Road to Missional sets out to do the following:
It has recently become acceptable, and even fashionable, to refer to one's church as "missional." But many churches misunderstand the concept, thinking of "going missional" as simply being a necessary add-on to church-as-usual. This domestication of what is actually a very bold paradigm shift makes missional nothing more than one more trick to see church growth.

With a light hand and a pastoral spirit, Michael Frost points out how church practitioners are not quite there yet. He reestablishes the ground rules, redefines the terms accurately, and insists that the true prophetic essence of "being missional" comes through undiluted. This clear corrective will take ministry leaders from "not missional yet" to well on their way.
I look forward to reading it and will share more in the weeks to come.

--If you're wondering why the relative silence on the blog, go here. Valid excuse I think!--

"dark beauty"

I'm blessed to share life with our new baby daughter. We love our "dark beauty"- Laila!

Laila Julianne was born October 3, 2011 at 8:54pm, weighing in at 8lbs.

hope in waiting

Waiting.

Waiting can be a big deal. Waiting isn’t always a simple action we perform (e.g. waiting for the bus), but can also characterize a part of who we are. Waiting, in many instances, is a condition placed upon our lives. And it's hard.

Waiting for the birth of a child illustrates such a condition. Three days past due, Julie and I are in the midst of waiting to meet out second child. And such waiting, while filled with much hope and anticipation, isn’t always easy. We are impatient. Come on baby, come out already! It’s a helpless feeling, really.

In our impatience to meet baby, I was led to read this famous Bible passage in Isaiah: “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31 NRSV). This verse offers a good reminder to place my focus on God and remember the promise that strength lies in God’s work in our lives. Timely words, no doubt.

Trouble is, the verse can easily become shallow sentimentality, not affecting the situation whatsoever. Nice words, but no difference to me. Or, we put all our energy on the renewal/strength part. But when renewal and strength don’t ensue, we get frustrated. Again, nice words, but for us, we want the baby out now (especially Julie!)! Insert your own pressing situation and I think you’ll understand.

We too easily neglect the waiting in the Isaiah passage. We think waiting, with God’s help, is the part to overcome. Yet in the Hebrew of Isaiah, waiting is an integral part to the experience of the faith journey. Not negative or passive as we often see it, the word insinuates intention on our part. Waiting is active. And more importantly, waiting is hopeful. Hence the NIV, “those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.”

As I find renewal and strength still absent (and likely the case in some ways for the next several months with a newborn baby!), I’m trying to place my waiting in the right context. It’s necessary, even good. But it’s still hard and I’m still impatient. Yet I’m hopeful. In the Bible, bizarre for us fast-paced moderners, waiting and hope are the same thing.

Waiting needs hope. Waiting is hope.

"gospelizing"

Gospel - literally, “good news.”

As Christians, we tend to think of the gospel in terms of ideas, beliefs, and religious constructs. To share the gospel - often part of our “testimony” - is to explain the significance of the Christian faith, making clear the credibility of belief in God revealed in Jesus Christ.

In the process, however, we neglect an important fact in the New Testament story: “gospel” is often a verb. Unlike a noun, a verb describes action. We don’t simply share “the gospel” as an idea (noun), but we live it out with our whole lives (verb). As Bruxy Cavey suggests, Christians go about “good-newsing” the world, “gospelizing” the people around us in word and action. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” means your whole life (Mt. 22:37).

So, how you drive, how you treat others in the grocery store, how you respond to the homeless women on the sidewalk, how you resolve conflict with your neighbor, how you treat your boss...all these things matter because they are part of the “good news.”

As we consider, then, how to share the gospel may we recognize that this “good news” isn’t merely an idea to agree with, but a whole-life-lived reflecting the ongoing transformation of Jesus in our midst - the gospel “written on our hearts, known and read by everyone” (2 Cor. 3:2).

This reflection is based on a conference I attended last week with pastor/teacher/writer, Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House.

life, death, and “happy Terry Fox”

Life: Existence, yes. But also all that brings joy, peace, wholeness and unity. Synonyms are vivacity, sprightliness, vigor, verve, activity, energy.

Death: The end of life. Destruction. The absence of joy, peace, wholeness and unity. Synonyms include decease, demise, passing, departure.

Life has been on my mind lately. Julie and I are eagerly anticipating the birth our 2nd child - the entry of new life into our family and the world. I can’t wait!

But death lingers in my mind as well, especially when my 3-year-old asks me, “Where’s Terry Fox Daddy?”

You see, this past weekend we took our son to participate in his first Terry Fox Run. We explained to him how Terry got sick and lost his leg. But then courageously ran with a metal leg. Our son liked that part. He’s mesmerized by video of Fox running. But he didn’t like the part about Terry Fox dying. “I want to see happy Terry Fox” my son exclaimed as we watched clips of Terry’s Marathon of Hope online. I found myself emotional as my innocent 3-year-old naively expressed this deep human aversion to death.

As I reflect on these mixed experiences, I realize how easy it is to compartmentalize life and death. The birth of a child - life! The passing of a loved one - death... But life experience tells me it’s never that simple. On the day our child is born, thousands of children around the world - just as deserving as ours - will suffer and even die. Ever since Terry Fox’s tragic death, life has been breathed into communities around the world, celebrating Terry’s example and raising millions of dollars to preserve life through cancer research. Life and death together. It’s perplexing.

In this messiness of life and death, I’m starting to realize that death doesn’t have to mean the end of life. On Sunday, amongst the crowd of Terry Fox Run participants, there was hope, life. People rallied to support a worthy cause. Terry’s inspiring memory leads people to create their own memories. In some ways, the annual Terry Fox Run is our attempt to overcome death, however limited or incomplete. In Terry’s death, there is still life. We are resilient.

As a Christian, I place such human resilience in the context of a greater hope. This life at the Terry Fox Run or through the birth of my child, are reflections of my ultimate hope in the face of death. This is a hope that my son’s desire to see “happy Terry Fox” isn’t merely sentimental. This hope is real - a hope that one day death will finally be overcome.

God 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 (Rev. 21:4 NIV).

Playing for Change Day

“Play a song. Change the world.”

Really?

“Yes!” according to people around the world on this, the first annual Playing for Change Day - “a global day of action where musicians of all varieties perform on stages, cafés, city squares, and street corners worldwide and raise money to bring music into the lives of young people.”

Playing for Change is an organization that believes there is uniting power in musiLinkc. They are “dedicated to creating positive change through music & arts education.” Gathering musicians from around the globe, songs are recorded, videos made, and money raised - all with the expressed purpose to make the world a better place. It’s an inspiring project - one which I’m happy to endorse.



questioning technology

Technology is everywhere.

And these days, the technology we hear about is related to all-things social - Facebook, twitter, Google+, on and on and on... And technology is often represented by those cool, hip devices that have an “i” affixed to their name and which we all have to own - purely for functional purposes, of course ;-).

This week I received in the mail (yes, and on paper no less!) a challenging set of articles out of Regent College discussing the understanding and use of technology from a Christian perspective. It’s well worth the read - available online here.

A few things stood out to me:

1. Technology can enhance existing relationships, but is limited in creating them. Dr. Albert Borgmann makes the interesting comment that while “we should certainly recognize [social media strengths] and use social media to reinvigorate parishes and families...if there is no existing community, then social media is unsatisfying in and of itself.” His comment made me think how when it comes to technology - social media in particular - the old adage “quantity vs. quality” still applies. That is, don't place too much value on your number of Facebook friends, or you Twitter ranking, or blog stats - these present an incomplete image of reality for who you are in relationship to others. A timely reminder for all.

2. Creativity is needed to break our technological addiction. Too often basic techniques of addiction therapy are applied to how we respond to overuse of technology. “To combat the addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance” David Stearn quotes about common practice. But Stearns feels such an approach is both unhelpful and unrealistic, failing to account for the complexity of life in our technological culture. “If we cannot realistically give up a new device or social medium, we are left feeling hopeless.” And in the process, Stearns suggests, we miss examining how we might envision “an active domestication that reshapes the device or medium to be more closely aligned with our particular social values.” We need to figure out how to use technology well, not just get rid of it.

3. Hesitant technology users (“Luddites” says Ron Wilson) are often looked down at. I'll admit, I've experienced this. The “what, you don’t have a cell phone?” of a mere 3 years ago (to which I finally relented) has already turned into “what, you don’t have a iPhone? You are a pastor, aren't you?” Any questioning of technological advance, especially regarding social media or personal devices, is seen as regressive on all levels, however relevant the questions are. Yet isn’t it good to evaluate our use of technology in light of pointed observations such as this one Wilson makes: “Technology has lulled us all into a belief that we are available, accessible, and responsible 24/7 (a claim that belongs only to the triune God!).” My wife and I like to say (only partially joking): if you can’t reach us at home, that probably means we don’t want to talk to you.

4. And this is just funny: Upon receiving a Facebook friend request from “Martha S (623 friends)” Iwan Russel-Jones offers this comical observation: “What!! Martha and I have been close acquaintances for more than twenty-three years, during all of which time she has been my daughter. But she, too, at this point in time, feels the need to be my friend.”


These articles set up nicely for a set of lectures next month at Regent College. Dr. Albert Borgmann will be presenting this years Laing Lectures on October 19-20, titled “The Lure of Technology: Understanding and Reclaiming the World.” Should be very interesting.

heaven: some things to remember

This is the final post in a series, Heaven: Out of this World?

When we reorient ourselves around a view of heaven that is not merely “out of this world” there are some important things to remember.

1. When considering specifics of the afterlife (heaven, hell, consciousness, etc...), we need to remember: don’t get caught up in the details. There is much ambiguity when it comes to the afterlife. For example, at one point, Paul describes death as a vague spiritual experience of resting “with Christ” (Phil 1:21). Elsewhere, however he talks extensively about our resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15). While “spiritual” (different than our current bodies), Paul envisions a future physical reality. Which view is right? Well, maybe it is both. There may be two realities after we die. N.T. Wright describes this distinction by saying there is “life after death” – this “resting with Christ” – and then there is “life after, life after death.” And it is this second distinction – this time in which Christ returns and gathers his resurrected people in the new heavens and new earth – that much of the Bible is talking about.

But we just don’t know exactly what this will all look like. What will “resting with Christ” be like? Conscious experience? Like sleeping? We can only speculate. And what do a new heaven and a new earth look like? Earth, but a little better than now? It’s something totally new, yet an extension of God’s good creation. It’s still physical. But really, who knows!?! Again, we can only speculate. When we try to figure exactly how this works, we run the risk of distracting ourselves from the main point of it all: the hope that resurrection - new life - actually happens!

2. Not getting caught in endless speculation, we’re then called to remember that life in this world – the physical world around us – still matters to God. The “it was very good” of the creation story carries forward in this vision of the new heaven and new earth. God is not done with the earth and the physical side of creation.

Things like caring for the environment, feeding the hungry, working for the common good of people around us can reflect God’s plan of redemption for the world. How we treat the physical world and those around us is our testimony as Christians to our hope in the resurrection and a new heaven and a new earth. Our actions can become a foretaste of heaven.

3. And finally, in relaying this hope, we must remember such a reality is not our own doing. God initiates the new heaven and earth. Jesus announces and initiates the kingdom of God in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are exactly that: followers – empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s plan of salvation for the world.

New heavens and a new earth. The kingdom of God. Future hope, indeed. But present reality as well. Revelation 21 sends us off with a vision of completion that is most inspiring to keep hoping in this salvation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev. 21:3-6 NIV).

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver BC.

"my kingdom is not of this world"

This is the third post in a series, Heaven: Out of this World?

Jesus once said, "My kingdom is not of this world...my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36).

By itself, you could say this is affirming an other-worldly view of God’s kingdom or heaven such as I outlined in my first post. Yet if we look at the Gospels, we realize that the Kingdom of God/Heaven is more about allegiance and action in the world, than a literal place out in the cosmos.

For example. if we look at the Gospel of Mark, Jesus announces, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15). Surely he doesn’t mean heaven is near? He said this some 2000 years ago and nothing has changed! Plus, Mark’s whole gospel elaborates how the Kingdom of God is the work of God through Jesus in the world – healing, miracles and transformation are all recorded by Mark in describing what it looks like when God’s kingdom is near. Even for Jesus, then, the kingdom of God/Heaven - is not “out there” in some strange metaphysical location no one knows exists.

So we need to realize this important point: Jesus may have said God’s kingdom was "not of this world," but he didn't say God’s kingdom was out of this world. With Jesus’ victory over sin and death through his life, death, and resurrection, God’s kingdom comes to us.
Through Jesus, then, we can realize there is a concrete hope in the image of “a new heaven and a new earth.” "Your kingdom come" echos in history, making the future hope of heaven a realized hope today.

Next I’ll explore some things to remember in light of this understanding of heaven.


This series is adapted from a sermon I preached at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver BC.

"a new heaven and a new earth"

This is the second post in a series, Heaven: Out of this World?

So, as I explored in my previous post, beliefs about heaven are fueled by cultural assumptions that skew our understanding of what the bible actually teaches about heaven.

I closed my post with a question: Is God’s “good” creation - “heavens and earth” - really describing two realities, one of which we’ll finally escape from?

The phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” (Is. 65:17, Rev. 21:1) helps us answer this question.

In Hebrew and Greek, the words translated “new” in English also carry with them a meaning of renewal or restoration. In Isaiah 65, then, it’s not surprising that the rest of the passage is loaded with images of a prosperous earthly kingdom (houses, vineyards, good health, and long life). For Isaiah’s audience, heaven was a this-worldly vision. But lest we think this is just Old Testament ignorance - the New Testament people had progressed in their metaphysical beliefs - Revelation 21 extends the Isaiah vision. Heaven is seen as the “New Jerusalem” not up in the clouds but as a physical reality that is “coming down” to us (Rev. 21:2).

This image of “a new heaven and a new earth” reveals to us a hope not in some sort of vague, intangible, ethereal, hyper-spiritualistic reality separate from God’s creation. We must remember, God didn’t create with different levels of importance (heaven up there, and now for fun, let’s create this earth place to keep things interesting for a little while). God created the heavens and the earth, and all of it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Isaiah and Revelation remind us that God’s plan continues – heaven and earth in full unity, “a fusion” as N.T. Wright puts it.

“A new heaven and a new earth” – shalom – life as God intended it – this is our vision of the future, and should be our hope for today.

But you might be wondering, what about Jesus’ words, “My kingdom is not of this world...my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36)?

Stay tuned as my next post will explore that very question.


This series is adapted from a sermon I preached at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver BC.

heaven: out of this world?

Heaven is an intriguing topic. Many people imagine what the afterlife will involve with a hopeful expectation that life in this world - oftentimes filled with sorrow and suffering - is not all there is. There has to be more. Human experience in some form will continue. We often call this hope “heaven.” But what shapes our vision of heaven?

Pop-culture for sure (Gary Larson’s Far Side comics come to mind).

And let’s not forget the influence of Platonism, or Dante’s Paradiso, or even the recent story of a little boy’s journey to the heaven.

Personally, my childhood naïveté helped shape my view of heaven, where all the talk of praise and worship actually made me a little hesitant about this whole heaven place. I mean really, I thought, who wants to go to an eternal church service in the sky!?! - quite uninspiring for an active young boy.

In all these examples, heaven is literally out of this world - a spiritual reality “out there” so to speak.

The Bible talks about heaven, no doubt. In it we see phrases like “new heavens and a new earth” and “Kingdom of God/Heaven” along with the apocalyptic visions of certain OT prophets and the daunting book of Revelation. But all too often we import our cultural assumptions to these biblical references of heaven. We can forget that while Gary Larson may have been a comic genius, biblical scholar he was not.

For Christians, accepting these assumptions can be problematic. If heaven is “out there,” distinct from any concrete form of experience here on earth, we can develop the idea that life is only about putting in our time until “real” life begins (i.e. heaven). We long to “fly away” to the “sweet by and by.” And while we wait we withdraw from engaging the world around us. It is only temporary after all.

With such an understanding both within and outside of Christian circles, it’s no surprise technology has become a source of fulfillment in and of itself (as opposed to a tool for engaging life in this world). It’s an escape. And at its worst, such escaping to cyber-reality - be it pornography, games, Facebook, or even blogging (yes, me!) - can consume us, where in our own minds we are only ourselves if we’re online. Our only taste of heaven in this world is to escape it. Which only makes sense if we accept the cultural assumptions of heaven in the first place.

But as a Christian, I need to ask, is this really the biblical vision of heaven? Is God’s “good” creation - “heavens and earth” - really describing two realities, one of which we’ll finally escape from?

I’m not so sure...

Next, I’ll explore the biblical phrase, “new heavens and a new earth.”


This series is adapted from a sermon I preached at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver BC.

stop: randomness ahead!

It's been a bit of a random week - one of those periods where my blogging radar hasn't been able to pinpoint a specific topic to consider. But these types of weeks don't always mean an absence of interesting thoughts and ideas - some of which could eventually turn into a blog post. So stop! And consider some (hopefully-beneficial) randomness:

A quote:
“If we don’t learn to live with one another we will not live. We will either love each other as neighbors or we won’t be. I believe that it is an insult to me as a Christian to say that I cannot love as neighbor somebody who thinks differently than I do. Where did we ever get that idea?” (Miroslav Volf)
A lame church sign: "Tithe if you love Jesus, anyone can honk!" Boy, there is an explicit plea for money if I ever saw one. Budget struggles anyone?

An idea in my upcoming sermon: "Jesus said his kingdom was "not of this world" (Jn. 18:36). He didn't say his kingdom is out of this world." Subtle, but important distinction if you ask me.

A free sampler of songs based on the Lord's Prayer: "Abba Father."

A cool website that let's you explore the Sistine Chapel (still not the same as in person)

And finally, a music video of Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's "The Scientist" with a very interesting story to tell: