constrained freedom

If you watch or read the news, likely you’ve heard the story of the genderless baby. A family in Ontario has decided to keep the gender of their baby - named “Storm” - a secret, so as to not allow social expectations around gender influence the development of their child. In the words of the parents, “We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation.”

As you can imagine, their choice has caused quite a stir.

It got me thinking though, how does/can/should society influence our development as human beings? Or more close to home, speaking as a parent myself, what role do parents play in their child’s identity? For this family, they say as little as possible. Unconstrained personal freedom, they suggest, is the path to true humanity.

This approach to human identity is nothing new. Ancient philosophers, medieval mystics, modern rationalists, and postmodern spiritualists - and yes, Oprah! - often approach identity from this individualist perspective. Freedom to choose one’s own path is of utmost importance. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves to protect our fundamental freedoms: "Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”

But I wonder, is “unconstrained freedom” realistic? Or even healthy? Much of the emphasis on freedom is placed over and against the countless examples in history where authority is abused (e.g. Communist Russia, residential schools, abusive parents, etc...). And true, the many examples provide good reason to maintain the freedoms we protect. But if I put these easy targets aside, I wonder: is it possible, necessary even, to have a positive view of constrained freedom? I think so.

As parents, this starts with the basic fundamentals of life in the world - e.g. teaching our kids to look both ways before crossing the street. We accept this constrained freedom as necessary for the well-being of our kids. Beyond this obvious example, however, I think a level of constrained freedom can be healthy in many relationships, not just parent-child interaction. Sharing wisdom, maintaining accountability, and mentoring are all examples where individuals can speak constructively into each others lives providing opinion and direction to positively influence our development as people. In our haste to reject abusive authority, we tend to forget the possibility of positive influence in our lives.

I realize this issue is far more complex than this brief reflection identifies, but I think we need to consider the possibility that constrained freedom doesn’t have to be negative or harmful. We should heed these words from St. Paul: “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11).

"theologically dazzling"

A recent video circulating the interwebs once more brought up the whole issue of heaven and hell that Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, already initiated. It got me thinking some more around the issue. But not about heaven and hell itself. Rather, I’ve been thinking lately about how our process of understanding truth, how we understand God, faith, and the Bible.

In Christianity, theology (the study of God) is often presented as an intellectual pursuit. Sure, belief isn’t the only thing - spirituality, worship, faith, etc... help express the emotional and experiential side of our religion. But these are often separate from theology, separate from what we believe. And so there are thousands upon thousands of books, confessions, tracts, and now podcasts and blogs explaining the intellectual viability of Christianity in one form or another. Even Rob Bell, for all his creativity, sticks mainly to considering belief in the abstract concepts of heaven and hell. Not much in the area of theology could be described as "theologically dazzling." Sadly for many, "boring" would be a more fitting term.

Which got me thinking, what about other methods of understanding? Plays? Novels? Movies? Paintings? In understanding our beliefs, are these genres given the same weight as a theology book? Is Calvin superior to Shakespeare? Is N.T. Wright better than the Coen Brothers? If we look at the genres of the Bible, we realize pretty quickly how diversely truth is communicated - poetry, imagery, exposition, narrative, and letters all combine to reveal what we know about God.

After reading Love Wins (and reviewing it, in case you missed it), I’ve decided to read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Perhaps it’s the intriguing narrative or perhaps it’s the brilliant characters, but I think Lewis was on to something by doing so much of his theology in novel format. It’s real. It’s honest. We can relate. And it’s fun to read!

And speaking of The Great Divorce, Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre is currently running a stage production of the book. Talk about a great way to do theology! I hope to check it out. Here's the write-up:

Hell resembles nothing so much as a dreary industrial city in the north of England, its denizens free to leave whenever they like — aboard a bus bound for a heaven that’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined. A theologically dazzling journey studded with memorable characters, mind-spinning dialogue and images of human folly and sublime hope that will forever change the way you see eternity.

Our world could use a little more creativity to help bring some "dazzle" to our often narrowly intellectual discussions around faith and belief in God.

tough love

I couldn’t help but quote N.T. Wright’s commentary on 1 Cor. 13 (our wedding passage), on this our 8th wedding anniversary. I’m so thankful to be married to my wonderful wife Julie. It’s been a great journey so far!
“First Corinthians 13 is one of the best-known passages in all of Paul - partly, I suspect, because many couples still choose to have it read in public at their wedding, though if they reflected on it line by line they might find it quote a daunting challenge:

Love is great-hearted; love is kind,
knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
not puffed up, no shameless ways,
doesn’t force its rightful claim;
doesn’t rage, or bear a grudge,
doesn’t cheer at others’ harm,
rejoices, rather, in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things;
love hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails...

Fair enough to hold before yourselves that astonishing portrait. But don’t imagine that you can just step into it on a cheerful sunny morning and stay effortlessly forever. The last lines tell their own story: bearing, believing, hoping, enduring, never failing - all these speak of moments, hours, days, and perhaps years when there will be things to bear, things to believe against apparent evidence, things to hope for which are not seen at present, things to endure, things which threaten to make love fail. The phrase ‘tough love’ now sounds hackneyed, a relic of social debates from the day before yesterday. But the love of which Paul speaks is tough. In fact, it’s the toughest thing there is.” (N.T. Wright, After You Believe)
Thanks for the continual “tough love” Julie! I love you!

the gift of “friendship with God”

As I read on this theme of friendship with God, I continue to be challenged in how I define my faith. This quote also jumped out at me:
"...a life of friendship with God should create a church of distinctive character and witness and, therefore, special responsibilities. At the very least it suggests that people should be able to look to the church and see embodied there genuine joy, peace, mercy, kindness, generosity, hospitality, and a people who are not afraid to be truthful with one another. What a gift the church could be if people really could see these qualities alive in it today.” Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship.
I especially like Wadell’s comment on the church as “a gift” to the world. How Christians relate to one another determines how the world will see God. Now that’s a sobering thought! Yet it’s also inspiring. Too often consider our faith as Christians as an idea or worldview we need to communicate to the world. And it is. But it is so much more. Our faith is “good news” embodied in our lives together. Friendship with God, then, challenges us to go beyond an abstract, individualistic, and spiritualized faith to one which takes seriously the words of John, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God...God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8).

This is the gift of friendship with God.

"friendship with God"

I'm not sure what comes to your mind when you hear this phrase: "friendship with God." Likely it produces a variety of response, ranging from positive affirmation for a relational faith to outright rejection of an overly-romanticized faith of the "falling in love with Jesus" variety. I'm afraid we often throw around the concept of friendship with God rather loosely, not really grasping the nature of what it means to be in relationship with God. We describe our relationship with God on our terms, when in fact, it is so much more than that.

Reading and reflecting on this dynamic, I couldn't help but pause as I read this quote:
“To speak of friendship with God can sound so cozy and consoling, as if we are all snuggling up to God; however, there is no riskier vulnerability than to live in friendship with God, because every friendship changes us, because friends have expectations of each other, and because friends are said to be committed to the same things. Suddenly the metaphor is not so comforting because it suggests that any friend of God is called to faithfully embody the ways of God in the world, even to the point of suffering on account of them. There may be grace and glory in being a friend of God, but there is also clearly a cost.”

Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship

rooted in relationships

Relationships…

With friends. Lifelong friends vacation together each year. They seen each others kids grow up. They supported in sickness, shared joy in achievement, and had many a late night discussing faith and life, usually over a good drink (coffee or coke of course) and a game of cards.

Relationships…

At work. A cohesive team completes tasks efficiently and effectively. Each team member’s contribution is valued. At other times, a grumpy manager or a lazy co-worker make going to work a chore, draining energy beyond the value of the paycheck.

Relationships…

In marriage. Day after day – a commitment to love one another brushes up against the stress of busy suburban life. Conflict can easily overpower intimacy. Yet in the dance of marriage, intimacy can beautifully weave its way in-between and out of struggle. Raising kids, paying bills, moving, vacations, going for walks, making decisions, laughing, crying, loving.

Relationships…

In loneliness. No one likes me. Something is wrong with me. No one wants to be my friend. Loneliness and exclusion. Relationships are what's missing!

Relationships…

In church. Sunday after Sunday, weekly meeting after weekly meeting. We meet. We pray. We talk. We might even fight the odd time. Life and faith ideally shared with each other, but at times hidden from each other.

Relationships…

Whether we like it or not, life really is rooted in relationships.

As Christians, we like to think we have lots to say about relationships. I mean ,we have the Bible, right!?! Yet rather than giving us answers, or an ideal to strive for, the Bible gives us more of what we already know in our own lives: an honest dose of reality. This makes some people uncomfortable. They want answers, not reality. But I like how this quote describes the function of the Bible when we consider the reality of relationships:

“[The Bible] invite[s] us into the complexities and depths of life as we experience it. We can see our own conflicts and problems and may even find comfort in seeing ourselves in the company of these ancient family members of Jesus. If we think our lives are a mess, look at what they went through! And God never abandoned them. God’s grace somehow managed to work through all of their imperfections. Perhaps we can lean, then, on the promise that God’s grace will never leave us, and even trust that God is working through our struggles...We can see reflections of ourselves in their messy and troubled escapades...The twists and turns of relationships and brokenness of being fallen humans are all there in these stories. Yet it is in those broken places that we catch glimpses of God’s grace and healing, of God silently reaching in to touch the wound, and often, of fragile and broken people stepping up to do what is right” (David Garland, Flawed Families of the Bible).

This post is an excerpt from a recent sermon I preached - “Rooted in Relationships”

Review - Rob Bell, “Love Wins”

If you frequent the blogosphere, you’re probably glad to see the recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell subside. I know I am.

But amidst the aftermath of Love Wins’ release, I had the privilege (?) of reviewing the book in the May edition of my denominational magazine, the MB Herald.

You can read my review here - “Heaven and Hell, Here and Now.”

I’ll admit, I was a little nervous publishing my opinion on what has become such a polarizing issue. I didn’t anticipate so much prayer going into a book review! Likely I’ve pegged myself in some way - Bell sympathizer? Evasive? Fair? Unfair? We’ll see. There isn’t a comments function for the online version of the article, so it will be hard to gauge people’s specific response (maybe that’s a good thing!).

But the process got me thinking about the role of pastoral ministry. In particular, the public nature of being a church leader. Prior to my life as a pastor, my wife helpfully reminded me that there are times when I’ll have to make up my mind on issues. Leadership rarely happens on the fence. Wise words from a wise woman!

And so I offer my review of Love Wins tentatively, yes, but also confident in my assessment of the book. I don’t want to get caught solely trying live up to others expectations (or perceived expectations at least). For the review, I wondered, what will happen if I’m not critical enough of Rob Bell? Or overly critical? I tried not to let this sway my opinion. It was my book review after all.

I also think good leadership is more than authoritative opinion. If I reflect on leaders I admire their lasting influence usually relates not to their ability to provide authoritative answers to difficult questions, but how they lead others through the transformative process of answering these questions for themselves. Christian leadership, then, is about whole-person discipleship not just authoritative opinions. I wonder what would happen if people could read Bell and others through this leadership grid?

Hopefully my review is seen as but one voice on the journey of faith and life as people wrestle with the reality of heaven and hell, here and now...

"pray for each other"

I recently received another reflection from MCC's "peace is a choice" series, which I've been posting on my blog from time to time. I've been meaning to post this one for awhile, but with recent world news, this week seems quite appropriate (albeit very challenging!):

Pray for each other, remember that we are all children of God. When God created the world, God made man and woman in God's own image. Each person on earth is a child of God and is precious in God's sight. This includes people that we dislike the most. It includes our enemies. It is important to remember that no human life is outside of God's care. Worshiping and praying, either alone or with others, helps us to remember that we are all children of God.

...have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do repay evil for evil; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called. 1 Peter 3:8-9

denominations?

This past weekend I was in Kelowna attending the BC Mennonite Brethren annual convention. It’s the one time a year where churches across the province gather to process our denominational business as a group. You may be thinking: BORING!!!

I actually look forward to these events. It’s a family gathering of sorts as I get to connect with friends from across the region and hear stories of God’s work beyond my little realm of experience. And hey, who doesn’t like a good road trip! I’ll admit, my enjoyment is mostly selfish.

I still wonder, however, as we gather to do our “business,” are denominations really that important? Is what my church does in Port Coquitlam related to what others are doing in Prince George? Or Kelowna? Or Abbotsford? Is committing part of our annual budget to a provincial conference worth it - what’s the pay-off? How does a provincial leadership team really impact our little church? Does anyone beyond a few old-timers and pastors really care? Do you care?

It’s easy to get cynical about denominations if we think of them mainly as centralized power and control - they tell us what to do and what to believe. Our denomination has several important programs that most local churches would have trouble pulling off. Summer camps, Columbia Bible College, leadership development, and church planting are all large-scale projects requiring specific leadership and resources. My church can’t do all that. But still, aren't these just a bunch of programs removed from the local church? Wouldn't we be better off investing our time and resources locally? It’s easy, you see, to remain cynical.

Which is why i think we need to hear the stories beyond the programs. During this weekend's reports we heard several moving stories. An autistic boy’s realization of God’s love became a face for summer camps. The journey of faith for a wealthy immigrant brought to life the challenges of church planting in Vancouver. Story after story. God’s story extending beyond me. Beyond my church. There are stories all around us. Stories behind the programs.

So, rather than see denominations as power and programs this weekend helped me see them as an extension of God’s story of transformation in the world. A story worth telling, one denomination at a time!