Canada's Religion - "The Golden Goal"

United.
Devoted.
Moved.
Emotional.
Connected.
Focused.
Joyous.

Such words reflect common ingredients of corporate religious experience.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of one of the most significant collective memories in recent Canadian cultural history - “The Golden Goal.” Over 2/3 of our nation (based on TV ratings) united to not only observe, but also participate in this cultural event through attire, food, and celebration. It’s not a stretch, as I think many suggested at the time, that Canada indeed does have a type of common religion: hockey.

Yes, looking at a definition of religion, the focus of reverence shifts from a concept of divine being to a sports team. But religious worship is incredibly diverse in the focus of adoration. Clear expressions of devotion and attention towards an object of reverence is a shared focus between Canadian hockey fans and the religiously devout. No more was this evident than on that day three years ago.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s fair both to hockey fans or religious folks to push this comparison too strongly. To many hockey fans, religion, as it is for many Canadians, is irrelevant in our culture - privately held opinions at best. Those who believe strongly in adhering to a single religion, yet also find themselves fervent hockey fans - such as myself! - no doubt find such analogy and comparison problematic. Hockey and religion are very different. But as I think of the time, attention, and not to mention the money, that goes into Canadian hockey devotion, perhaps some discomfort with the analogy should be more telling than problematic.

All this to say, culture and religious life is often more connected than we think, hockey in Canada being just one example.

And as I reflect on the goal that shot a nation into united celebration, even if for only one day, I’m reminded of the potential for religion and collective experience to bring good into our world.


language matters

Discipleship. Mission. Church.

Key words in my life as a pastor as I seek to partner and lead with a group of people in faithfully responding to the way of Jesus in our community and in the world.

This week I had the privilege of attending a Forge Canada event to hear from Stuart Murray-Williams (I’ve blogged about his book The Naked Anabaptist). Murray hails from the UK and is involved in leadership with important missional groups there, such as The Anabaptist Network and Fresh Expressions.

In three engaging sessions, Murray-Williams helped us reflect on discipleship, mission, and church, not as three separate categories of Christian living or ministry, but all as part of the integrated path towards us individually and together being more fully human. Several times Murray-Williams paused to lead us in reflection on the importance of language. This zinger has lingered: does our language "enhance humanity or dehumanize?"

These mini-communications lessons were not merely offering a pedagogical change of pace. In a post-Christian culture, where caricatures of religion tend to trump religious truth, key words such as discipleship, mission, and church - words many Christians take for granted as commonly understood - need careful reflection, definition, and use. As Murray-Williams distilled the importance of “cultural discernment” for 21st Century Christian living, it became clear that such discernment is as much about self-understanding - intentional language! - as it is about cultural understanding.

It’s along these lines that I offer a few highlight ideas and quotes from Murray-Williams that provoke thought around our language of discipleship, mission and church:

Discipleship:
  • "We don't need a dependency culture but an interdependency culture"
  • "Becoming human is not something we are created to do by ourselves"
  • Imago Dei - "Glory of God is seen in a human life fully lived" -Irenaeus
  • Cultural discernment is essential: “unmask the idols co-opted by values in our dominant culture.”
  • “Do our practices develop Christian reflexes?”
  • The goal of discipleship is “being human, not loyal church membership.”
Mission:
  • "WDJD? - what did Jesus do?"
  • "How do we adapt to a changing culture?"
  • “What is God already doing in your neighborhood?”
  • To avoid extremes of cultural rejection or accommodation we need to realize the interconnectedness of mission and discipleship.
Church:
  • Metric for church success: "breaking new ground in our culture.”
  • Creative idea for church life: "idol of the week: everyone bring an idol to church." (as a friend pointed out, kind of sounds like show-and-tell!)
  • On old churches: "Euthanasia with churches is entirely appropriate...we need to help churches die well."
  • On pioneering leaders: “The difference between a pioneer and a pain-in-the-neck is often very thin.”
  • “We need each other to resist dehumanization.”

"To This Day"

To anyone who has suffered bullying, or been a bully themselves, this clip speaks for itself in describing the devastating effects of how we treat one another - and offers a deep honest hope that cannot be forgotten.

 

The Gospel. In. History.

One glance at history and it’s pretty easy to make a case against the cultural relevance of Christianity: Crusades; Slavery; Inquisition; Colonialism - to name a few examples.

These major blemishes upon the record of Christian faithfulness cannot be ignored, nor can they be easily explained or justified. Yes, one could also make a good argument for the cultural relevance of Christianity: Renaissance thought; Abolition of slavery; Arts and Culture. But such positive examples don’t reverse the effects of the negative ones.

One could say, then, that history is actually a detriment to the gospel. We should focus, rather, on the foundational principles of God and Jesus as a way to distance the good news of Christianity from the bad news of Christian history.

Add to the colored history many personal experiences of disappointment and hurt at the hands of institutional faith, be it authority figures or the church in general, and it’s easy to see the appeal of a “pure” Christianity. Positive principles counter historical and experienced failures. Love, grace, community, and salvation are principles of truth and hope over and against the examples of hate, exclusion, loneliness and judgement. In this sense, we do need to get beyond the history.

Yet we cannot forget our history either. In fact, in any quest for a pure form of Christian faith, an honest engagement with history may be exactly what we need to arrive at a full understanding of the gospel, historical blemishes and all. I like how David Bosch summarizes an engaged view of Christian history, one which accepts the challenge of faith spanning centuries, but acknowledges that such challenge provides the repeated context in which the gospel comes alive:

“We should...with creative but responsible freedom, prolong the logic of ministry of Jesus and the early church in an imaginative and creative way to our own time and context. Christianity is an historical faith. God communicates his revelation to people through human beings and through events, not by means of abstract propositions. This is another way of saying that the biblical faith, both Old and New Testaments, is ‘incarnational’, the reality of God entering into human affairs.” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission)

Yes, such “human affairs” aren’t always pretty. But here we need to be honest, not forgetful. We need to recognize the human struggle to live out and experience divine reality. With such recognition, any form of pure Christianity, like the first church in the Book of Acts, isn’t found in spite of human failure, but in the very midst of it. Such is the way of Jesus bringing light and life into history. Such is the way of Jesus transforming people - transforming us! - in the very midst of day-to-day life in the world.

The Gospel. In. History.            


"Why I love Religion"

Spiritual, not religious.

Jesus hates religion.

Religion is violent and divisive.

Religion is ridiculous.

All common sentiments in a culture often more suspicious of religion than submissive to it. Sadly, such sentiments are often valid in light of personal encounters and a history of religion mired in bad examples of religious 'devotion'. This spoken word clip by hip-hop artist - and Catholic Priest! - Fr. Pontifex suggests an alternative perspective:


You are your leader?

“You are your leader” is definitely an overstatement in defining Christian identity and community. But this week’s news about the Pope’s resignation (first time in 600 years!) has me thinking about church leadership, community and Christian identity. A few thoughts:

Foundational to any definition of leadership in the church is the belief that all people’s identity is found solely in Jesus. All authority rests in God, revealed in the person of Jesus and endowed on humans through the presence of the Holy Spirit. People don’t possess church leadership; church leadership is a gift. Even the Pope receives his authority from God, empowered by the community of Cardinals. In theory, such broad definition of religious authority derived from God alone is universally shared by Christians.

Yet one glimpse at church history and doctrine reveals great (!!!) diversity in how such leadership authority is expressed in the life of the church: from Catholicism with the Pope at the top; to Orthodoxy with a slightly different take on a similar hierarchy; to Protestants and their less-centralized, yet complex network of bishops; to Evangelicals and their myriad of leadership philosophies from celebrity-pastor to lay-pastor; to my own tradition, Anabaptism, in which there is an emphasis on theology and organization around the priesthood of all believers. All this to say, leadership diversity abounds!

I know I’m making broad generalizations, but it’s interesting how for each of these traditions, faith and practice reflect their leadership model. Leadership identity shapes corporate identity. This is true of denominations. This is true of local churches. Speaking from my experience as a pastor, one can’t avoid the unique connection between congregational and leadership identity. Oftentimes individuals and congregations want their church to reflect the identity of their pastor. And in many ways, this is a normal and expected result of social life and leadership.

But here’s my problem: leadership approach and corporate identity is rarely identified and rarely understood. Rather, leadership influence on corporate identity just happens. Sadly, this lack of self-awareness tends to breed complacency, or frustration, or oftentimes conflict among God's people - such problems we all have no trouble identifying.
 
To denominations wrestling with how to remain a faithful body of churches across regions and cultures, have they identified how leadership influence and identity relates to the specific challenges they face?

To local churches discerning meaningful connection together and in their community, have they outlined the specific needs of their congregation and community in seeking healthy pastoral leadership for their given situation? Do congregations notice how the identity of the pastor will determine their answers to this type of questioning?

No doubt the Catholic Cardinals will be asking such questions in their pontific deliberations in March. No doubt the next Pope will leave his mark on what remains the world’s largest united group of Christians. No doubt as my own church currently asks these types of questions, we'll begin to develop a level of self-awareness that has already brought great encouragement to me as I consider the health and well-being of my own community of faith. No doubt the synergy between leadership and community influences your own life and faith whether you’re aware of it or not.

No, you aren’t your leader. But recognizing their influence can help us both personally and corporately develop a stronger identity in the foundations of our faith (Jesus!), not just leadership and institutional expressions of it. My suggestion is this: Know your leader. Know your church. For better - and sadly, sometimes worse - they can’t be separated. And in the process, cliché as it sounds, don't forget to know Jesus.


Stigma and Solidarity - #BellLetsTalk

What’s wrong with him?
Why does she keep doing that?
She’s so anti-social!
Who would hang out with them?
He doesn’t contribute anything!
He’s weird!

Stigma. Judgement. Labels.

Social Stigma is a disapproval of, or discontent with, a person on the grounds of characteristics that distinguish them from other members of a society. Stigma may attach to a person who differs from social or cultural norms.

When it comes to mental health, stigma abounds.


I don’t usually follow the dictates of my cellphone provider too closely (!!!), but today is Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative aimed to raise awareness and create discussion on mental health (along with a bunch of money - $4 Million last year). No one is removed from the influence of mental health, be it personal experiences or that of the people in our lives. Yet we maintain these social stigmas, despite how challenges of mental health affect all of us. Such stigma ends up pushing people away. Isolation, not solidarity, is the lot for many.

Movements such as Bell’s Let’s Talk bring an important topic to our social conscience. Absolutely, let’s talk about mental illness. But more important, let’s talk and build relationships with everyone around us. These movements are as much about mental health as they are about building solidarity. Hopefully days like this are only the beginning - awareness leading to connection, acceptance, and the knowledge that indeed we are all loved.


Truth Happens - N.T. Wright

Too often truth and beauty are separate categories of understanding and experience. In this clip, N.T. explores how the two need to "marry up" in order for us to find wisdom - "wise beauty."

Adapting Religion

The Golden Rule (UN Photo/ Milton Grant)
I share this post in part to recognize World Interfaith Harmony Week. With our world’s storied history of religious conflict, strides towards mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among all people is a welcome endeavor. Here I offer some thoughts on adapting religion:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever - Hebrews 13:8

Such a proclamation is central to Christian belief and practice. Foundational doctrine such as this is shared by most religions in the world. Whether it is a specific belief in God (e.g. YHWH, Jesus, Allah) or a certain description of ultimate reality (e.g. Dharma or Brahman), the centrality of these beliefs is integral to the identity of these religions. Such foundational concepts then shape much of how these religions are practiced in all areas of life.

I recently had the privilege of attending an interfaith dialogue event that addressed some of these connections between beliefs and practices - “Bridges of Faith - Thoughts and Practices On Birth and Death.

It was fascinating to hear presentations from two religions practiced by many in the Greater Vancouver area. Two Muslims reflected on their rituals around birth and death, highlighting the key role of family/community in both these monumental moments - reliance on others symbolizes the limit of self-reliance both in this life and beyond. Two Mormons then reflected on their theological perspectives on life, mortality and immortality, underscoring how the pursuit of truth can bring peace to ultimate questions around life and death. Following these presentations we discussed these themes around tables, at which I had the chance to share engaging conversation with Buddhist, Sikh, Agnostic, and Christian individuals. The openness and respect, combined with heartfelt conviction, made for an enriching experience all around.

As different people shared I was struck by how difficult it is to separate cultural practices from religious belief. The various stories revealed how foundational beliefs combine with family history, country of origin, personality, conviction, and cultural influence. The result is a rich, though often complicated, approach and understanding to issues of utmost importance, such as life and death.

During the conversation and following the event, a question has lingered for me - one which I believe all religions need to address throughout their history and culture, whatever the time and place: How do we adjust to changing cultures while remaining true to unchanging religious convictions? Or as would be the case for most in my table group, how do we engage a secular N.A. culture without losing our particular religious identity?

To take an example from the event I attended, many religions practice a very engaged process for family and friends following someone’s death. The body is washed and prepared by family. Periods of mourning place people in close and intimate community for long durations of time in order to properly process their loss. There is no distance from the reality of death - it’s confronted and integrated into the mourning rituals. These types of practices reflect a cultural-religious blend that is often counter to current trends in N.A. culture around the process of death. How or even will these practices adapt in a culture that increasingly distances itself from the physical reality of death? Funerals are replaced with memorial services. Cremation replaces burial. We have professionals to deal with awkward, practical, and no doubt emotionally difficult aspects of saying goodbye to our loved ones. Will certain religions continue to boldly confront death when all around them the culture is denying it? And if change is accepted, how are foundational beliefs maintained? Such shifts are a reality that every religion cannot ignore.

I pose this question of adapting religion for reflection. And I don’t think there are easy answers. Extremes of rigid traditionalism or complete cultural acceptance will likely fail to sustain religious vitality in an ever-changing culture. One thing's for certain, however, religion and culture will continue to mingle in the complex, yet often beautiful, reality that life and meaning, rituals and practices, connect with the lives we live. Our religious foundations will no doubt remain strong, but our experience of such truths will always need adaptation. Such is changing culture and adapting religion.


"Kids on the block!"

I parked on a side street away from the disorder and risk of East Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. I figured “better safe than sorry” when visiting this notorious neighborhood, especially since we had our kids with us.

I’ll admit, despite my usual open-mindedness, I was hesitant to walk this area with my wife and two kids. What happens if they do something to put my family at risk? After all, they are at-risk people - drug addiction and mental illness abound in these parts. And we were walking right through their neighborhood. They might harm us. I was out of my comfort zone.

As we rounded a corner onto the busy street, I heard it for the first time: “Kids on the block!”

At first I thought it was just some random, drug-induced shout - one of them displaying the type of erratic behavior that was the source of my dis-ease to begin with. I pulled my son closer and paid that much more attention to the crowds that lined the busy street. My suspicions, I figured, were being confirmed.

But then I heard it from someone else, “Kids on the block!”

Suddenly I realized what was happening before my eyes - or more accurate, in my heart: they weren’t the ones with the problem.

I noticed many of them were making eye contact and smiling at this suburban family skirting awkwardly in their midst. Several wished us well. One offered some good-natured wisdom, encouraging our kids to avoid the traps of addiction and be sure to get an education. Some gave a humble “Hello.” One woman’s face lit up, “You’ve brought angels to visit us today!” And yes, more smiles.

To top it off, after finding out the group of volunteers we’d gone to meet were a few blocks away, a local resident offered to take us where we needed to go. This meant another walk up the same crowded street. I was still a little nervous, though not so much. Our guide walked at our pace, in no hurry to get to his own destination. As we strolled along, he began to tell us a bit of his story, an honest glimpse into his life like we’d been long-time friends. And while his story was no fairytale, honesty breeds hope. I could tell he had hope. Perhaps not surprisingly, his honesty gave me hope. As he led and shared and watched out for us, I realized how in his case, welcome and trust was assumed. I wish I could’ve said the same for myself a few minutes ago. My skepticism - judgment even - was met with hospitality. “Who’s got the problem?,” I wondered again.

Along the way, our new friend’s graciousness was shared by others on the street. They gave us more smiles and friendly greetings. “Kids on the block!” was relayed a few more times, yes, as a reminder that there are many un-kid-friendly happenings in our world worth sheltering kids from, but also to tell us that we are welcome by them.

Our world is full of them and us. Many times such distinction is an unavoidable reality of our complex society. But such social distinctions don’t have to guarantee division or conflict. We were welcomed with warmth and hospitality as we meandered along East Hastings Street. 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.

Hospitality and love, echoed with the repeated shout, “Kids on the block!”

This experience came when my wife and I recently took our kids for a mini urban plunge to visit some students from Columbia Bible College who were volunteering at a housing project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.


"people need more than your used clothes"

I've spent a fair bit of time lately talking about the reality that Christianity is fundamentally relational - our presence with God, with others, and with the world around us. Christianity isn't simply right belief, or right action, but right relationships.

This week's clip highlights the need for "presence."

“People need more than your used clothes. They need more than that. They need your presence.”
– Dr. John M Perkins