2013

Here are the top 5 posts from 2013. Thanks to all who read and interact with what I'm writing and processing. I look forward to what 2014 brings!

...The lines between us and them became blurred. I wasn’t the one bringing blessing “to the least of these” (Mt. 25) as we are so oft to approach such situations. I was the one needing blessing and I was the one being blessed. They looked out for us. They embraced us. And in those moments of genuine connection, us and them became we...

...In a house church gathering, the very practices of eating together and having open discussion reflect a centrality of faith and community. In a megachurch gathering, a format of teaching and singing that aims at developing a vibrant personal faith has community as an extension of such faith.This isn't a right or wrong issue. But it is different...

...Driscoll suggests pacifists promote a “pansy Jesus,” as if North American machismo is the standard for masculinity represented most clearly, for Driscoll, in a sword-wielding Jesus of a literal reading from the book of Revelation. As Preston Sprinkle points out, it seems Driscoll has traded the crucified Lamb for the crucifying Lamb...

...If we accept polarizations, Sider may sound too socially minded to some and too Christ-centered to others. But by saying we get both word and deed in the gospel, polarization is no longer an option. How do you polarize “both”?...

...perhaps we all need to reflect back or observe those naive kindergarteners, and adopt the lens of wonder in the ordinary...



Alleluia, Christ is Born


He came in the quiet
Underneath a falling dark
Hardly more than a whisper
A hushed and lowly start

Shepherds cold and waiting
Huddled around their fires
Then in the sky a bright breaking
The host of heav’n a choir

Alleluia, Christ is born, Christ is born
Alleluia, Christ is born, Christ is born

So step outside on your front lawn
There before the city wakes
Watch and wait in the morning
To hear the angels say 

 

Presence of Peace

At Christmas, we hear so much about peace: “Peace on earth, good will toward men” the angels pronounce. The long-awaited Prince of Peace is here!

Yet some 2000 years from this beloved advent, peace on earth can just as easily be noted for its absence. Ongoing violence in Syria. Yet another school shooting. Continued tensions in Palestine and Israel (where I have relatives working with MCC). In a world flooded with violence (and literal flooding along with war), it’s easy to wonder, peace on earth?

“Flood waters rise” describes well the world we live in, as singer/songwriter Josh Garrels reflects in his song, “Flood Waters.” But he doesn’t stop there. The absence of peace is not the absence of hope for peace. The song continues,

Flood waters rise, but it won’t wash away
Love never dies, it will hold on more fierce than graves

Such persistence of love is the why the incarnation is so critical to Christian belief. In the midst of so much violence and hurt and sin and brokenness, the incarnation reminds us that God is with us - "God taking the risk of showing up in the flesh" as Parker Palmer relates. And Jesus’ words, “I am with you always,” were not just parting words for memories’ sake. No, incarnation remains the way of Jesus in the world. Peace is not just a future hope (Rev. 21-22). In the present absence of peace, we get the presence of peace.

Homelessness: "people, not just issues"

While my blog has been a bit silent as I wrap up my first semester teaching full time, I did find time to send a letter to a local newspaper on homelessness in my city:



House and home - belonging at Christmas

At Christmas there is much talk of house and home. People are heading “home for the holidays.” Some are decorating their houses to celebrate the season. To others, home is that gathering of family and friends in an experience of belonging that only holidays brings about. Our desire for house and home reflect our human needs of physical care and relational belonging.

Housing is so critical to the global human experience, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being on earth has a right to housing. I would suggest the charter implies belonging (a sense of "home") as well. House and home is a basic right of living.

And yet many go without. No house to decorate. No home to belong to.

Homeless camp in Abbotsford, BC.
Yet addressing the right to house and home is often rife with conflict. There is an ongoing debate in my own town regarding a proposed housing project. Currently people are currently camped in a downtown area, protesting the city’s approach to addressing homelessness. In the meantime, there is a proposed social housing project in same downtown area. Beyond the central location (“not in my neighborhood!”), the housing first model is troubling for many. A common refrain goes as follows: “What right do people have to housing if they aren’t willing to work for it!?!”

Citizens are torn between charity in providing housing and not wanting to further enable destructive behaviors. Yet from this perspective, housing is seen through the grid of personal property. House and home is
mine, something I work for and deserve (If I contribute appropriately to society).  

While I resonate with the concerns of my fellow citizens around safety and fiscal responsibility, I also wonder if the grid of our right to house and home is part of the problem. My right to a home can come at the expense of others’ right to the very same thing. We only agree on the right to housing under certain conditions. In this sense, housing isn’t a right but a privilege.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3495257-beyond-homelessness
As I observe these issues unfold in my own city, I’ve been reading an insightful and challenging book, Beyond Homeless: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh. In the book the authors address these issues directly. I offer a few passages that have helped in my own engagement with homelessness in my city.

On housing, economics, and belonging:

“If economic life is all about fruitful and inclusive households, then ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the household is foundational. The reason we need social policies that will guarantee to everyone an adequate income, secure housing, equal access to healthcare, clean air and potable water, basic education, and a genuine opportunity for meaningful employment is not because the economy is a tightrope and we need to have a safety nets for those who fall; rather it it is because the economy is a household that demonstrates its health only in its care for all its members.”

On the housing first model (citing Ed Loring):

“Housing precedes employment because you can’t hold down a decent job without secure housing. Housing also precedes sobriety, because the despair of homelessness will often need alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. Housing precedes education, because you can’t do your homework sitting in a shelter or on a park bench. And housing precedes both physical and mental health, because homelessness is a breeding ground for disease, and it makes you go crazy. Housing is an absolutely essential precondition for human health and well-being.”

And lastly, a word to the church (quoting Ed Loring):

“No church ought to call someone to accept Jesus Christ until it is ready to bring that person into a house and assist in the arduous task of making that house into a home.”

And so as we rush to celebrate Christmas in house and home, as we experience of these “rights” of humanity, we can’t ignore the disparity and despair still present in our midst. Yes,  celebrate the joy of belonging in house and home. And then, work to ensure this belonging isn’t conditional or limited to economic privilege. House and home is right for all.

At Christmas especially, such belonging is at the heart of the good news of Jesus:

"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."
-Thomas Merton
 
 

Engaging the Complexity

I’ve just made it through my first semester teaching a class called Ethical Reasoning. It was definitely one of my more enjoyable teaching experiences, particularly examining the many ways of assessing morality in relation to various contemporary moral issues.
  • Utilitarianism and violence
  • The Bible and sexuality
  • Ethical Egoism and social justice
  • Relativism and religious ethics
  • Social Contract theory and government
  • The Sermon on the Mount and everyday life.
These are just a few of the things we got to reflect on together. Considering such diversity in ethics, one word came up several times throughout the semester: “complexity.”

To some, accepting complexity can seem like a cop-out to addressing difficult moral issues. And yes, there is the risk of accepting complexity  as way to end discussion on difficult matters - “Oh well, that’s just too complex to really know the answer to.” Yet to ignore complexity in today’s discussion of Christianity and ethics is to be...well, ignorant.

One of my goals for the course, beyond recognizing where complexity lies, was for students to engage the complexity. Not run from it, but not just embrace it either. As Christians, I think we have a responsibility to honestly engage the world we live in. And yes, this is hard work. It takes time. It takes others. It takes prayer. It takes discernment of biblical texts and current culture. In a word, Christian ethics is complex. And so my aim in this class - and life in general - is to not only seek answers to the complexity of ethics today (we did some of that), but also explore what it means to live faithfully in the midst of the complexity.

In many ways, the advent of Immanuel (“God-with-us”) at Christmas provides a needed grid for life and ethics. Engaging the complexity, we find God with us in the complexity.


#AdventTweets

Share the Advent wisdom! - #AdventTweets

During the end of semester busyness and the craziness of the Christmas season, let’s not forget about Advent – a time of reflection, anticipation, and preparation for the God-with-us (“Immanuel”) celebration to come. You’re invited to join in sharing bits of Advent wisdom (in 140 characters or less!), or just follow along for daily thoughts and inspiration.

Post or search at #AdventTweets.
Or follow me: @warkd

Here's a sampling so far:

https://twitter.com/warkd



Black Friday is...

Honest questions: how can or should Christians understand and approach Black Friday (or Canada’s corresponding Boxing Day/Week)? How do these mass movements of (excessive) consumption relate to biblical teaching on justice and stewardship?

I see a few common options (all of which have biblical support of some sort):

Black Friday is…
  • a chance to make frugal/wise use of our money - saving is good, right!?!
  • not related to faith and spirituality whatsoever.
  • okay as long we’re not greedy.
  • should be avoided altogether (even if we then buy the same products another time, perhaps at another sale).
  • okay as long as we give on Tuesday as a way to assuage the guilt of overspending on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
  • should lead us to speak out against economic injustice and inequality.
I'll admit, I don’t have a clear sense of how to respond to cultural events such as Black Friday. I lean towards not being greedy and speaking out when possible (hence this blog post!). But saving money is good thing, right? But is it the only thing? Maybe another question is to ask what are we saving money on? Are we buying into (literally) an unjust economic system of excess that is contrary to the way of Jesus? Stewardship, then, isn’t just about saving money, but having a posture of trust in God and care and concern for others, themes emphasized consistently throughout scripture (e.g. Micah 6:8; Isaiah 58:6-12; Mt. 6:19-34; Mt. 19:16-22).

I’ll conclude with a thought-provoking (and convicting) quote from the book Kingdom Ethics (while written in an American context, the ideas apply far beyond the U.S):

“Christians living in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the powerhouse of global capitalism, are daily subjected to the most sophisticated enticements ever devised--enticements not just to buy certain products but to buy into a certain way of looking at and living life. It is a way of life that ascribes inordinate value to the acquisition of material goods and indeed thrives based on the creation of new ‘needs’ and then cut-throat competition to fulfill those ‘needs.’ If Christian ethics is following Jesus, it must involve a clear-eyed analysis and finally repudiation of an economic ethos that ratifies the ‘deceitfulness of wealth’ and makes Mammon a national idol.

This is no mere theoretical preference. As I write I think of lives ruined by this ethos: those who deteriorate into essentially soul-less creatures pursuing the latest goodies with zombie-like intensity; those who have no access to adequate work and no way of provide for their families; those around the world who live in squalor and misery; those whose lives could be turned around by a small commitment on the part of unhappily prosperous people who will never pause from their quest for the latest redemptive gadget to consider the needs of the least of these. This latter is a condition that has been called ‘affluence,’ and according to Jesus, it is terminal.”
Glas Stassen and David P. Gushie, Kingdom Ethics


Theology Through the Arts

http://www.eyekons.com/art_and_psalms/Anneke_kaai_psalm_24
Anneke Kai - "Psalm 24"
Art and theology have an interesting and interconnected history. Visual arts, for example, has interacted with faith and theology in many ways over the centuries. From ancient depictions of various gods, to the Renaissance portrayals of the biblical narrative, to devotional art of the greeting-card variety, to the mystery of the divine in modern abstract paintings, we see that theology and the arts go together.

Part of the interplay between theology and the arts is how we understand the relationship between the two. Jeremy Begbie, professionally trained musician and theologian at Duke Divinity School, reflects on two common ways we can articulate the connection between the two (see video below for more):

One approach utilizes theology for the arts. We understand art in light of a Christian worldview. An example of this would be the website Plugged In, which examines types of art in popular culture from a specific Christian and biblical perspective. Theology informs how we interpret the arts. Art is deemed good or bad depending on how it lines up with biblical teaching. 

Another approach utilizes the arts for theology, a perhaps subtle, yet important switch from the previous approach. Here Begbie describes how the arts can help us "unlock the great Christian truths." Good art points beyond itself as a symbol of truth and reality. In this sense, the arts become "vehicles of discovery" as we understand more about how God is present in the world. The arts inform how we interpret theology.

Begbie's work reflects this latter approach, what he calls "theology through the arts." His books Sounding the Depths and Beholding the Glory are great resources that reflect deeply on this dynamic. The arts aren't  mere tools or simple illustrations used to serve theology. Rather, the arts in all their beauty, honesty, and wonder, are integral sources and inspiration to see the beauty of incarnation ("God with us") in our midst.


Deep Justice

One of the biggest challenges to addressing social issues in our culture is what I’ll call the “pat on the back” mentality - the tendency to offer charity and handouts that meet someone’s immediate needs, but are as much about our own desire to feel good about ourselves then it is about genuinely helping others.

Giving money to a homeless person; volunteering at the food bank; sponsoring an impoverished child - all great things! - become a matter of checking off the “loving my neighbor” box of Christian faithfulness. The result is a segmented life where loving others is only something we do occasionally instead of an overall posture to life in the world. I think it’s clear that we need more.

In her book, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, Mae Elise Cannon cites this helpful distinction between service and justice.

Not-So-Deep Service
Deep Justice
  • Service makes us feel like a ‘savior’ who rescues the broken.
  • Justice means God does the rescuing, but often he works through his great and diverse community.
  • Service often dehumanizes (even if only subtly) those who are labeled as receivers.
  • Justice restores human dignity by creating an inclusive environment which all involved ‘give’ and ‘receive’ in the spirit of reciprocal learning and mutual ministry.
  • Service is something we do for others.
  • Justice is something we do with others.
  • Service is an event.
  • Justice is a lifestyle.
  • Service expects results immediately.
  • Justice hopes for results some time soon but recognizes that systemic change takes time.
  • The goal of service is to help others.
  • The goal of justice is to remove obstacles so others can help themselves.
  • Service focuses on what our own ministry can accomplish.
  • Justice focuses on how we can work with other ministries and accomplish even more.
  • Service is serving food at the local homeless shelter.
  • Justice means asking why people are hungry and homeless in the first place – and then doing something about it.

Missional Megachurch?

I've spent a fair bit of time (on this blog and elsewhere) reflecting on the concept of the missional church. A common theme in the discussion is contextualized ministry - engaging the specific needs and issues of a particular place. As a result of contextualized ministry, there is great diversity in what being missional looks like. House churches, church plants, multi-site campuses, traditional, liturgical, denominational, and nondenominational can all be successful contexts for missional identity. It’s the missional paradigm that counts, whatever the context.

Yet quite often in the missional discussion, megachurches (weekly attendance of over 2000) are left out. In fact, megachurches can easily become the prime examples for everything missional churches are not. It's assumed that all megachurches emphasize only attractional outreach (programs inviting people to the church building) and operate largely to sustain themselves as an organization. Stereotypes abound. Unfortunately, such stereotypes can fail to notice megachurches that do work towards adopting the missional paradigm.

http://northview.org/
This week I took my class for a tour of Northview Community Church (Abbotsford, BC). While there is no shortage of common megachurch characteristics (e.g. dynamic preaching ministry, excellent children's programs, and a state-of-the-art facility), being a megachurch doesn't disqualify them from being missional. It's quite the opposite. Are there still challenges to being missional and a megachurch? No doubt! But for Northview, embedded in the general megachurch ministries is a deep engagement with contextualized ministry. For example:
  • They acknowledge the challenges of their location at the edge of town, focusing on relational connection into congregants' neighborhoods.
  • They have a ministry for families with special needs children which allows families to engage in worship together as a family (as opposed to one parent staying home).
  • They have an open-concept office space where everyone shares the same space (including the lead pastor) as a way to symbolize their unity and maximize collaboration across departments and roles.
  • They partner with several organizations in Abbotsford to help meet needs of the community.
  • They are exploring ways to serve the community with their property.
  • Their primary evangelism strategy is relational, where all people in the church are encouraged and equipped to share Jesus within their spheres of influence.
There are still challenges to being a missional megachurch. But there are challenges towards being missional for all forms of church, from house church to megachurch. But as Northview illustrates, challenges shouldn't disqualify any one form from the missional discussion.

Related: "The Missional Megachurch" by Ed Stetzer

Finding Resurrection

At the recent Survival of the Weakest Conference, Shane Claiborne pointed us to imagine signs of resurrection in daily life as illustrated by The Simple Way’s inspiring project of turning guns into garden tools. To see redemption in such a practical symbol moved us as a group. In fact, as we arrived in downtown Seattle we decided to spend some time observing the city through the lens of Claiborne’s phrase, “signs of resurrection.” We wandered the streets observing and taking pictures that pointed to life, to resurrection. It was beautiful to find so much life amidst the bustle and buildings of downtown. These are just a few examples of where we saw signs of resurrection:


Recycled seats
Piano on the sidewalk
The famous gum wall

Bird watching and paying attention to God

Bird watchers see birds everywhere. And not just birds in general, but they see the various species in a way that the untrained eye doesn’t notice. Becoming attuned to such detail is a skill developed over hours and hours of diligent observation and study.

In Praxis, we’ve been focusing on learning to pay attention, learning to see the world around us with all its intricacies, absurdities, and wonder. During our tour of Seattle I asked Tim Soerens, co-founder of Parish Collective, if there is something in terms of faith and life he wished he had known earlier in life (yes, typical teacher question, I know :-). He shared about a friend who is a bird watcher, and then connected it with faith. For all our attempts to serve God faithfully we can forget to attune ourselves - to pay attention - to what’s happening around us. And like bird watching, this takes time and practice. Too often we dream big for God in the world, when what we really need are the eyes to see God’s dream for the world around us.

Property in process at Emerald City Bible Fellowship
Tim took us to the Rainier neighborhood of Seattle, telling the story of Emerald City Bible Fellowship. Today they are an inspiring example of faithful presence in a community, partnering to build an affordable housing complex, running a health club in one Seattle most overweight neighborhoods, and utilizing space to foster creativity and the arts in local youth. But the story really began over 20 years ago, where for years they persisted in their life together as a church. Their current achievements are no result of a flashy community development project or hyped-up vision, but the sustained discernment of people seeking the good of their neighborhood. The church has patiently sought to discern God’s dream for the community, seeking ways to be a part of that dream. Tangible results haven’t always been clear. Obstacles have been clear. All this to say, paying attention to God’s dream takes time. Paying attention takes patience. But ask this church and they’d say paying attention is an essential practice. 

A bird watcher can’t see a bird without knowing birds. A church can’t serve a neighborhood without knowing a neighborhood. We can’t see God without paying attention to God’s dream for the world.