no greater relevance

A pastor was reflecting on the debate over how churches should be relevant to their surrounding culture. Noticing that Jesus had some good things to say, he asked him, “Out of all the ways we can be relevant to culture, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: Hear, O Church: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater relevance than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the pastor replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all cool music, hip pastors, edgy sermons, seeker sensitive programs, and Facebook pages.

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions about relevance.

(paraphrase of Mark 12:28-34)

rendered absurd

As a pastor - one with a specific role of connecting my local church to the surrounding community - I’m constantly wrestling with the question of relevance (as this blog continues to reflect). How does what we do as a local church impact our community? Would our neighborhood change if our church wasn’t here? How do we make church appealing in Greater Vancouver suburbia?

But I’ll be honest, sometimes I think Christians try too hard. Frustration and failure result. Being culturally relevant is like “chasing the wind” (Eccl. 1:14).
I think the journey through Lent puts our striving in perspective. As we pattern our lives around Jesus’ suffering, we can recognize how Jesus modeled relevance. In his Lent reader, Walter Wangerin Jr. helps redirect our focus in his description of Jesus’ trial before the Temple leaders:

“Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’

‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’”
(Mk. 14:60-62 NIV).

Only now, finally, does Jesus publicly claim the office of Messiah...Now is the best time. Now is the Christ’s time, because this is the Christ: a prisoner and a failure.

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus charged those who experienced his power to say nothing about it....When he was at the height of his ministry (as the world assesses height, as the world assesses greatness) he demanded no one say he was the “Christ.” When he was dazzling crowds, confuting enemies, causing shepherds and lepers and kings to ask, “Who is this man?”; when masses were “astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well, the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak!’”...Jesus commanded them “to tell no one about him.” Apparently none of this was the real work of the “Christ.”

The world would have misunderstood the glory.

The world might have expected a warrior-king, someone triumphant in its own terms. A winner, you know. A number-one, against-all-odds, pride inspiring, tear-in-my-eye, flat-out, all-round, good-guy winner! A hero.

Only when that characterization is rendered absurd and impossible does Jesus finally accept the title “Christ.”

It is only in incontrovertible powerlessness that he finally links himself with power...This, then, is the Christ that Jesus would have us know and accept and reflect: One who came to die.

One who, in the assessment of this age, failed - an embarrassment, a folly, a stumbling block. An offense!

(Wangerin Jr., Reliving the Passion)

Kind of puts relevance into perspective, don’t you think?

my Orthodox experience

Okay, as promised, here’s a few observations from my experience with the Orthodox Church.

Centrality of communion

The ”Mystery” of holy communion forms the basis for everything Orthodox Christians do in their life of worship together. They believe the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ in communion. "How" is the mystery. To say they take the Eucharist seriously is a huge understatement. This was clearly evident in the service I attended. The whole service builds towards partaking in the communion elements. Prayers, readings, songs, and actions of the priest are all geared towards this communal event with the divine. And the Orthodox view of the literal body and blood of Jesus in communion makes it a physical experience in addition to the spiritual reflection us evangelicals are accustomed to. At the gathering I attended, it was communicated how the nourishment of communion brings strength to our weary bodies, literally. I think mystery is often a missing category for evangelicals and oftentimes our emphasis on the symbolic nature of communion neglects the this-worldly implications of faith in Jesus. And as a worship leader and pastor, I realize communion shouldn’t simply be “tacked on” to the end of worship service if what we profess in the event is actually what we believe.

Worship style

I’m sure my Orthodox friends won’t like me referring to their particular “worship style.” It’s that type of language that drives many away from Evangelicalism towards the Orthodox tradition. Yet it is a specific style, let’s be honest. It’s just a style that hasn’t changed much...for almost two thousand. Attending their liturgy gathering, my observation is that instead of attempting cultural relevance the Orthodox concern themselves with historical relevance - consistency with how Orthodox Christians have worshipped throughout the centuries. And I’ll admit, this is a big stumbling block for me. Thankfully they do everything in English, so there is some willingness to adjust culturally. Yet the incense, chanting, icons, and other Orthodox worship practices don’t transcend cultures easily. I found it hard to connect. But for them, that’s okay, perhaps even the point of staying the same. I heard someone comment that you don’t adjust Orthodoxy to suit the tastes of culture - you adjust your tastes to the Orthodox tradition. And so I wrestle with this one. I prefer singing over chanting and the incense made my eyes water :-). Yet at the same time, for us “relevant” Evangelicals, I think there’s a lesson here somewhere... a point

I really appreciated the open and inviting atmosphere at the Orthodox gathering. The people were very welcoming, even though we were outsiders. Father Lawrence took time to personally greet us beforehand and give us a brief introduction to what we were about to experience. His warmness helped ease any anxiety in the strange surroundings. We were also invited to stay for a potluck gathering afterward. Even observing the regular participants, I sensed a strong connection with one another throughout the evening. And seeing the little kids free to participate in their own way was great (one even attempted to bring some “rhythm” to the hymns). The absence of pews also creates an informal (yet highly intentional I think) connection with one another and with God. I did struggle with not being allowed to take communion. I felt left out. Yet I also understand why (it’s like a family meal that only Orthodox “family members” partake in). I’m still working on what I think about this one.

Anyway, those are few quick observations after attending one Orthodox Lent liturgy. Much to learn, I know. I’ll be honest, though, I don’t see myself converting to the Orthodox Church (no offense to anyone:-). I do, however, hope my continued interaction/experience with Orthodox friends and ideas will deepen my own faith and how I practice it in my Mennonite Brethren tradition.

ancient attraction

Following my posts on church shopping, I got into some interesting discussion with a couple of former schoolmates from my days at Columbia Bible College. Since our time studying together, one of these friends has left his evangelical faith...for the Orthodox church tradition.

Among many things, this friend was drawn to the historical consistency in Orthodoxy. What about church shopping? Or theological preference? What church shopping!?! What theological preference!?! Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy. It always has been. As Wikipedia describes, Orthodoxy “considers itself to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ and his Apostles almost 2,000 years ago.” Schisms, conflict, denominations, church splits, and the like are said to be absent. Orthodoxy has been the same for 2000 years. And in our age of shallow attempts at relevance and depth, I can see the appeal in such a long-standing, consistent tradition - a sort-of ancient attraction.

I’d like to offer more comment, especially on some of the interesting aspects within the Orthodox tradition, like the beliefs around salvation and personal transformation. And their dedication to liturgical worship is intense, personally and corporately (e.g. Lent and fasting). But first I’d like to experience it in person.

So upon invitation, I’m going to check it out tonight - date night! Julie and I are going to attend a Lent liturgy (similar to a church service, but not called that) at Saint Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. I’m quite looking forward to journeying through Lent with these brothers and sisters in faith that I know so little about.

And if you’re unfamiliar with Orthodox gatherings, this little read was quite interesting in preparation to attend: "12 Things I Wish I'd Known...First Visit to an Orthodox Church."

Look for a reflection on my experience next week...

"Hold Us Together"

I’ve had a song by Matt Maher ringing in my head for a few days now:

Love, will, hold us together
Make us a shelter
to weather the storm

And I'll, be, my brothers keeper
So the whole world will know
That we're not alone

I hear this song and think of the graphic images coming from Japan. The earthquake/tsunami tragedy continues to haunt many around the world as we try to process the immense loss the Japanese continue to endure. May our prayers remain with them, but also our actions. In these days and the days ahead, I hope Japan experiences how they are not alone.

I also think of Christians around the world and even a little closer to home. It seems even more petty in the face of natural disaster, but us Jesus-followers continue to fight with one another. All I have to do is say, “Rob Bell,” and many will know what I mean. His book, Love Wins, is finally released today. So is Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality. Sadly, these two authors illustrate how followers of Jesus tend to accuse, vilify, condemn, write-off, or ignore each other when we disagree or don’t like one another. Too often, love doesn’t hold us together.

But I also just think of life in general. How do I relate to my wife? How do I treat my neighbours? Or people in rush hour? Or children at the park? My parents? My coworkers? People I like? And people I don’t like? You get the point: How do I treat EVERYONE?

And then I think of these words I shared on this past Sunday at Neighbourhood Church in Nanaimo (where we also sung “Hold Us Together”):
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12 NIV).
God is love...Love one another.

Japan. Christians. Everyday encounters. LOVE ONE ANOTHER!

Now that’s something to hold us together!

narrative of lent

Lent isn't exactly a new topic on this blog. I've spent time reflecting on Lent for a few years now. Yet each year I find myself drawn to reflect on Lent once more. Not having grown up in a liturgical faith tradition, I feel I'm only beginning to understand the value in of the season.

("Dust to Dust" - Linda C. McCray - Christian Seasons Calendar)

My friend Phil, someone with a similar background to myself, recently asked, "Is Lent a good idea?" Phil explores Lent and the implications for an integrated life of discipleship, not simply a 40-day practice of superhuman spirituality. His thoughts got me thinking.

On their "Lent" entry, Wikipedia suggests:
The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer - through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial - for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Preparation for Easter is characterized by this practice of spiritual disciplines. At it's worst, however, Lent can easily become a guilt-laden exercise in ascetic futility. Like unattainable New Year's resolutions, Lent exposes our spiritual un-discipline. However helpful or needed a little guilt-induced spirituality can be (I'm not convinced it's helpful at all), we complete Lent even more frustrated followers of Jesus than before.

Plus, think about Easter, our celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death. Really, what's there to be so serious about? Jesus wins, right!?!

If Lent is supposed to be an intentional way of life, one in which we identify with Jesus' journey to the cross, I wonder: does the focus on spiritual disciplines require more?

I made this comment on Phil's post:
I’m learning to appreciate Lent not only in terms of spiritual discipline, although that’s part of it, but also as an intentional focus on the narrative of Jesus’ life. The road to Jerusalem is marked with struggle and pain, yet wrapped in a persistent hope we see in Jesus’ comfort to his disciples and then ultimately, in his resurrection. But if we simply live in Easter-Sunday-mode, we neglect other important aspects of our discipleship journey – “take up your cross” (Mk. 8:34) anyone?
At it's best I think Lent reminds Christians that Easter, and Christmas for that matter, doesn't stand in isolation as the pinnacle event in Christianity. They are pinnacle events, it's true. But without the in-between narrative of Jesus' life and ministry, the good news of Easter has no real-life context. Lent reminds us that Easter is only good news because Jesus identified with human suffering in this world.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16 NIV)

I'm looking forward to the narrative of Lent.

heaven, hell, and...humility

The afterlife is quite the topic. Christians have long-debated the inhabitants of eternal destinations: heaven and hell.

Dante’s graphic images of the afterlife portray places of literal fire and torment, fueling a legacy of afterlife prediction that remains until today. Bible believing Christians, it’s thought, must hold to this type of literal view of hell. Some people, perhaps even most people, will be excluded from heaven.

At the same time, however, modern sensibility tells us that exclusion of any sort is wrong. In a culture where tolerance is the virtue, talk of a literal hell as a place of eternal torment is simply politically incorrect. And so we hear the popular generic spiritual mantra: “all paths lead to God.”

Rob Bell, influential writer and speaker, wades (dives!?!) into the issue of heaven and hell in his forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, slated for release on March 29. From the sounds of it, Bell's usual thought-provoking ways are no different in this presentation. Google “rob bell, love wins” to witness the stir he's caused among Christians across the interwebs. And the book’s not even released yet!

Here’s the book’s promo video:

I look forward to the book. In his past writings, Bell provides an accessibility to important theological issues that some theologians aren’t able to produce. I suspect that readers of N.T. Wright, Miroslav Volf, and perhaps even C.S. Lewis, will find in Bell’s project an accessible exploration into some of the ideas of these deep thinkers. We’ll see. But as to the firestorm of controversy over the book and it’s supposed universalism, I agree with Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington: read the book first!

On the subject of heaven and hell itself, well, I refuse to make my own conclusions. How can I, a “mere mortal” (Ps. 8), pass judgment on eternal issues out of my control? Much humility is required, lest we forget Jesus’ teaching on judgment (Mt. 7:1-5).

Facing questions of eternal destiny, I choose to place my hope in this final vision of reality, hoping all encounter this restoration from the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:7-21):
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell 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!” (Rev. 21:3-5).

Perhaps a tad ironic, but Bad Religion’s song, “Sorrow”, is one of my favorites, communicating this hope I have: