"whimsical holiness"

Having already talked about sin this week, it makes sense to also talk about holiness. 

How do you define holiness? What makes a person holy?

It’s easy to think of practices of spirituality and devotion - prayer, Bible reading, piety, etc... - to describe our holiness. The more “spiritual” we are, the less sinful we are and the more holy we become. As our friends at Wikipedia suggest, holiness is primarily a “state of being.”

For Christians, one of the spiritual practices to express our holiness is worship. Regular corporate gatherings to sing, pray and read scripture together are integral to a holy life. This is a good thing. But I recently read a passage on worship that’s caused me to reflect on worship and holiness:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Heb. 13:15-16 NIV)

I’ve heard the first part many times in support of contemporary worship services and many of the psalms echo this. But I was reminded that the “sacrifice of praise” is described in both verses. Sure, we worship with our mouths, but we also worship with our actions towards others - “do good...share with others...”

Speaking of holiness, then, I think we need to apply the implications of this passage from Hebrews. Holiness can’t be limited to some sort of mystical connection with the divine, though it no doubt will include that. A life of holiness is a connection with God and others. I seem to remember Jesus had a few (!!!) things to say about that.

Unfortunately Christians - even “holy” ones - don’t have the best track record in the “loving others” part of holiness. Addressing the problem of exclusion for Christians - how we treat those who aren’t “holy” - Hugh Halter suggests “whimsical holiness” as a way to open ourselves up to others, even those who are different than ourselves. He queries, “What if whimsical holiness is simply ‘being like Jesus...with those Jesus would have been with?’ How might this definition of holiness change the way we view people and live our lives?”

"Whimsy" - Laurel Latto
“Whimsy,” Halter suggests, “allows you to be with people regardless of their angle of life without casting any judgment their way...Loving the person doesn’t mean you’re condoning their behavior. It just means you’ll be a trusted friend.” (The Tangible Kingdom). Adopting whimsy in our lives calls us to stop taking some things in life so seriously, and open ourselves up to the possibility of friendship in unexpected places.

I like that. Whimsy together with holiness leads to friendship and openness in navigating the unpredictable nature of interaction with others. Holiness, along these lines, is as much a state of being as it is a state of relationship - to God and to others.

May we all experience a little whimsical holiness in our lives with one another.

how do we talk about sin?

I’ll admit, sin isn’t my favorite topic.

As Christians, how we talk about sin has a way of being misunderstood or abused, creating unnecessary guilt and neglecting the goodness of God’s creation (Gen. 1-2) and the final vision of restoration (Rev. 21-22). And worse, fearing we’ll think too highly of ourselves, personal holiness can get twisted, measured by how badly we think of ourselves with a focus on how deserving we are of God’s wrath. Only once the absolute depth of sin is understood can we explore the gift of forgiveness and salvation - the “wages of sin is death” after all (Rom. 6:23).

But in the process we can forget that sin is NOT the main message of Christianity.

But this doesn’t mean stop talking about sin. How we talk about sin is the problem.

A friend shared a prayer this week that helps frame what I’m thinking:

Father in Heaven!
Hold not our sins up against us
but hold us up against our sins
so that the thought of You
when it wakens in our soul,
and each time it wakens,
should not remind us
of what we have committed
but of what You did forgive,
not of how we went astray
but of how You did save us!

(Søren Kierkegaard)

This prayer highlights where our discussion and focus on sin should lead - to God’s gift of forgiveness. The problem of talking about sin is when, often unintentionally, the focus stays on us. We can’t forget about sin (I agree with this), so we talk about our sinfulness and do things like confession and preach/teach to better understand how sin is a problem today. But the bad news (sin and death) gets more attention than the good news (Jesus and salvation). And here’s my concern: sin ends up being held up “against us” as Kierkegaard reflects. The focus on sin ends with guilt, not God.

Kierkegaard’s prayer offers an alternative. Talk about sin (step 1) doesn’t lead to talk forgiveness (step 2); talk of sin must be talk of forgiveness. Sin and forgiveness at the same time - the good news of Jesus bringing reconciliation, peace, holiness, freedom, faith, and hope (Col. 1:15-23).

weekly clips: "God is not a white man"

This one's been around for awhile, but I think it's still worth sharing:

This post is part of my regular series, "weekly clips"

What’s your impression of church membership?

What’s your impression of church membership?
I’m currently leading a membership class at our church that has got me thinking about the overall purpose and value of formal church membership.

Too often, however, church membership gets perceived as an administrative detail for the benefit of the institution. Whether it’s the hoops to jump through (membership classes!), a narrow theology, mode of baptism, a pushy leader, or an overbearing bureaucratic structure, there are many reasons to be skeptical about church membership.

But cut through the misconceptions and bad experiences and I think there is still great value in formal membership. And I say “formal” because many people contribute to churches without formally becoming members - in practice they belong just as much as formal members. But such commitment and involvement - call it “informal” if you want - shouldn’t lead us to drop the practice of membership altogether.

First, we need to remember what church membership actually is. I like how my denomination’s confession of faith puts it:

The church is a covenant community in which members are mutually accountable in matters of faith and life. They love, care, and pray for each other, share each other’s joys and burdens, and admonish and correct one another. They share material resources as there is need. Local congregations follow the New Testament example by seeking the counsel of the wider church on matters that affect its common witness and mission. Congregations work together in a spirit of love, mutual submission, and interdependence.

Second, we need to remember the value of marking significant occasions in our lives. Graduation ceremonies, wedding vows, birthday parties - all these things mark important events in our lives. But we do them for more than just to have fun. We have ceremonies to place specific moments and values into the broader context of our lives and what we value overall. We gather with others to recognize and remind ourselves who we are. We look back on those markers as reminders of where we’ve been and how the past shapes where we are going. Formal membership, if done well, has the potential to be one of these significant markers in our lives - a chance to say life and faith isn’t just about me, but about God and others (Mt. 22:36-40).

Leadership: critic or performer?

One of the trademarks of our current culture - call it postmodern, hyper-modern, or whatever - is the tendency to doubt, critique, and question. Coming out of a century chalk full of cultural arrogance yet littered with countless examples of cultural failure, skepticism is only natural (and needed!).

I can definitely tell I’ve been shaped by this cultural modus operandi. My life experience, education, and interests all lead me to question the world around me. “Beware of the bandwagon” has been a personal motto for years as I fear simply accepting what comes my way. As a pastor and leader I can tell critique ends up being a strong influence in my leadership. I want the best for myself and others, so I point out the worst in myself(maybe) and others! I’m a good critical leader.

Well, I read an excellent article from Faith and Leadership this morning that calls into question this paradigm for leadership. And as a good critic, I’m all ears.

This brief quote highlights the challenge:
“Our educational system, institutions and broader culture privilege critics. We are taught how to focus on the negative and tell others what to do, but we are not sufficiently equipped to learn how to take risks as performers. We receive information from learned instructors but rarely have the freedom we need to imagine and create ourselves.”
Hmm...maybe I don’t want this critique.

Makes me wonder: Do I tend to focus on negativity? Do I spread this negativity in leading others? In my critique, do I also contribute?

The authors open the article with the image of little children playing soccer - a scene of chaos, disorganization, energy, and fun. An environment, the article suggests, which can be key in the development of future leaders. Children are natural performers. They learn to perform as they navigate the zaniness that is children’s soccer. Perhaps it’s because they lack the disposition of critique (thankfully!), but many children thrive in this space. They don’t stand back and evaluate; they just play.

For leadership, then, I’m challenged: Can I redirect my critical disposition in order to live and lead in such a way that reflects the raw performance of children playing a sport? Can their joy, energy, and yes, even their distraction, inspire my own leadership to thrive in the moment - to just play? Can I make the shift from being a critic to being a performer?
“We can learn to shift our mindsets away from criticism and toward performance, ready to harness our creative powers to bear faithful witness to the kingdom of God.”

weekly clips: N.T. Wright on sin, self, and Jesus

I’m starting something new on the blog, “weekly clips” - an ongoing series of posts of video clips that have caught my attention. I may come up with a better name, but so far everything is pretty cheesy (e.g. "reel thoughts" or "considered on tape"[a spin of "caught on tape"]). We'll see...

Now, I realize video clips don’t always translate well to regular blogging - they take time to watch and at times I feel a need to offer commentary or explanation. Yet I have a growing list of good clips I’ve seen that are worth sharing. I figure a regular post where I just post the clip by itself may overcome the problems associated with videos in my regular posts.

So, on most weekends I’ll post an interesting, meaningful, or funny video to consider. Here goes...

Considered on tape: N.T. Wright on sin, self, and Jesus

pragmatism and mission - lessons from "The Samurai"

I’ve had several friends recommend novels by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Earlier in the year I read Silence and currently I’m reading The Samurai. Both books interact with the history of Christianity in Japan - attempts to propagate the faith that saw very little impact or influence on the Japanese people. Themes of colonialism and evangelism run throughout the two books.

In Endo’s depiction of Christianity, particularly in The Samurai, characters are constantly wrestling with the call to share their faith and the means to which achieve this call. Endo skillfully, and at times quite graphically, depicts the dark of side of cross-cultural mission - the tendency to justify injustice in the pragmatic drive for success.

This comment from one of Endo’s characters - a Franciscan missionary in Japan - illustrates it well:
Missionary work is like diplomacy. Indeed it resembles the conquest of a foreign land. In missionary work, as in diplomacy, one must have recourse to subterfuge and strategy, threatening at times, compromising at others - if such tactics serve to advance the spreading of God’s word, I do not regard them as despicable or loathsome. At times one has to close one’s eyes to certain things for the sake of sharing the gospel.
The desire for success, even at the compromise of values and beliefs, has me thinking about Christianity today. North American and European culture is often referred to as “post-Christian” - in many ways a cross-cultural mission field itself. All Christians are missionaries. If even partially true, I think we need to heed the warnings of history and past mistakes, such as those illustrated in Endo’s novels. And while our temptations may not be as explicit as missionary colonialism of centuries past, perhaps our problems are more subtle - thus just as important to avoid. Important questions still need to be asked:
  • What drives our mission?
  • Are we aware of how the desire for success can compromise the very core of our message?
  • Do we recognize that the medium (how we share the gospel) impacts our message (the gospel itself)?
  • Where is the pragmatism of “the end justifies the means” influencing our attempts to love our neighbors?

stories of life and death

As I reflected on the value of stories last week, I’m realizing it’s also important which stories we tell.

It’s too easy, especially in church/denominational settings, to only tell the stories of “success” (e.g. conversions, new church plants, healing, etc...). These are important stories, no doubt. They bring encouragement and inspiration to many. But listening to the stories of the recent convention, I heard other stories as well.

Two types of stories were predominant - stories of “success.” But also stories of “failure.” I heard over again and again, following Jesus involves death and life.

Following Jesus involves death of some sort. “Take up your cross” is no mere slogan (Mk. 8:34). Often death is what characterizes life as the people of God - the church.
  • Interpersonal conflict leads to the death of a relationship.
  • A church hesitantly engages in a lawsuit - a death, however necessary, of certain ideals.
  • A young church member dies unexpectedly halfway around the world from her family.
Death all around us. We are left wondering, “How long Oh Lord?” (Ps. 13).

But stories of death are accompanied by and reinterpreted through stories of life. Following Jesus brings life. Resurrection (Jesus bringing life out of death) was not a one-time affair.
  • A pastor observes an agnostic individual wrestle through questions of faith with friends. One of her friends finds new life and decides to follow Jesus through the testimony of this agnostic.
  • An adopted orphan finds deep friendship in a foreign country - love and acceptance begin to redefine her difficult life.
  • In the midst of tragedy, a family encounters the tangible love of God through the care and support of a local church.
"3 Days" - John Reedy
Life is also all around us. Rather than spiral into a cycle of despair, where “meaningless” (Eccl. 1:2) seems to be the only interpretation of reality, stories of life remind us we follow a God of life - death is overcome with resurrection.

Whether you’re part of an independent church or large denomination, we need both sides of the gospel story in order to make sense of complex beauty of this journey we are one as Jesus-followers. We follow Jesus to the cross and live in the light of the resurrection (Mk. 8:35)

I’ve said it before, let’s tell all the stories.

it’s beyond me

I just came away from five days with spent with pastors across British Columbia as a part of our annual provincial Mennonite Brethren convention and leaders retreat.

As an individual Christian and a participant in a local church, I often find myself wondering this: what does my denomination and what do these annual gatherings have to do with my local church? What relevance does a denomination have for, say, a stay-at-home-parent? Or a lawyer? Or a carpenter? Essentially, what do denominations have to do with following Jesus in everyday life?

And at times, due to misperception, misinformation, or unhealthy relationships (among other things) the value of a denomination can be questioned. The value of a denomination, you ask? “It’s beyond me” is a common, and at times valid, response. We have no clue.

A quick look in my blog archives and I realize these are questions I've asked before after attending denominational gatherings. A year ago I concluded, “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!

This week simply confirmed this conclusion.

This week I heard many more stories. Stories of hope. Stories of transformation. Stories of loss and loneliness. Stories of conflict. Stories of humor. Stories of death. Stories of life.

In these stories I’ve been reminded that my life and my church are part of something beyond ourselves. The bible is a story of God’s mission of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). History continues to tells this story of God in which we are participants. The global church - “the holy catholic church” (Apostles Creed) - continues to enact this story. This week I was reminded, through my denomination, that God’s story truly is beyond me. And for this larger community and larger story, I’m truly grateful.

“Have you ever wondered why the first four books of the New Testament are called ‘the Gospel’?"

In the midst of a busy week, I continue to consider the gospel as my recent posts have done. Today I share this reflection from Scot McKnight that has had me thinking:
“Have you ever wondered why the first four books of the New Testament are called ‘the Gospel’?

They [don't] focus on anything what we cal the Plan of Salvation, and they surely aren't shaped by our Method of Persuasion. No, all they are - and all four of them are like this - is story after story about Jesus and the power of God at work in and through him. So, as I sat there pondering that question of why they called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John 'the Gospel,' the answer came rather quietly in stages:

Maybe they are the gospel.
Well, yes, they are the gospel.
Yes the Gospels are the gospel!

What clicked was that I suddenly realized that Paul's 'gospel' [1 Cor. 15] was the Story of Jesus completing Israel's Story, and the reason the early Christians called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John 'The Gospel according to' Matthew and Mark and Luke and John was because they knew each of those Gospels told that very same Story. Paul and the Gospels tell the Story of Israel coming to completion in the Story of Jesus. The apostolic gospel, the tradition the apostles passed along, can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. It may seem patently obvious, but it's not to most: they called those books 'the Gospels' because they are the gospel. 

If you want to read the gospel, 
hear the gospel,
or preach the gospel,
read, listen to, and preach the Gospels." (King Jesus Gospel)

gospel for today

Today I offer some response to the question I raised last week: what is the gospel for today?

Part of the solution to translating the gospel for today requires a move beyond the simplified versions of the salvation-only gospel.

Four-spiritual laws, the Romans Road, and invitations to pray the “sinners pray” may still be appropriate in certain sectors of society. But not many. With a declining grasp of Christian beliefs and morality in the broader culture, a packaged faith just doesn’t translate well. In a post-Christian culture, people are very suspicious of religious messaging, especially calls for commitment. “What’s the catch?” is a common response to the presentation of the salvation-only gospel. And if we’re on honest, the salvation-only gospel has always had a catch: following Jesus - the whole joining others, living well, loving your neighbor, submitting your whole life (not just your mind) part. Pretty big “catch” if you ask me. It’s not surprising statistics don’t reveal a strong retention of young adults in the church - Christianity is costly (Mt. 10:38-39).

But I think we need more than just recognizing historical and cultural influence, although that helps. And we need more than just a more balanced presentation that is honest about the cost of discipleship. We can’t just tweak the Christian message if the paradigm of the gospel is incomplete. With personal salvation the gospel, the rest of the faith journey becomes secondary (e.g. Step 1: believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour - this is the MOST IMPORTANT step. Step 2 and beyond: follow Jesus and live a Christian life).

On the salvation-only paradigm, NT Wright reflects,
“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say, ‘the gospel.’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.”
We need a better paradigm. We need the whole gospel.

Instead of making personal salvation the hub of the Christian gospel or the gateway to discipleship, we need to place personal salvation as a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. An important part, no doubt. But a part.

I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s personal experience of salvation, but the gospel is bigger than you. Or me. And a response to the gospel requires more than my internal agreement or belief.

Jesus’ invitation to “repent and believe” (Mk. 1:15) was not like our ways of agreement or belief - an internal change in attitude. No, Jesus was calling people to a transformed way of life in participation with God and his people in the world (OT - Israel; NT - Church). And this remains the call today. Not only is the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection timeless, but the gospel of Jesus’ invitation is as well: “Come, follow me...” (Mt. 4:19; Mk. 10:21).