marking time - do we really need a party?

Do preschooler’s really need graduation?

I ask this question as the proud father of a son who just finished preschool, graduation ceremony and all (the start of many graduation ceremonies ahead, I surmise).

This week was also my birthday, so I could ask the same of birthday parties.

I’ll admit, I can be a bit skeptical towards what seems to be becoming an over-hyped celebratory culture as we mark the passing of time - EVERYTHING is marked with some sort of significance. Whether it’s participation ribbons, stickers for good behaviour, gobs of money spent on birthday parties, ceremonies for every club, sport, and school one participates in, marking the time has become a sort-of cottage industry. We need to know we’re important! But I wonder, when we have celebrations for each and every milestone and transition and event, do we risk devaluing the very importance we intend to acknowledge?

But I also think marking the time with ceremony (and even some moderate excess!) is a very good thing. As we mark growth, achievement, change, transition, these ceremonies are as much celebratory as an exercise in self-awareness - a much-needed grounding in reality. Our son knows change is afoot and a preschool graduation helps him navigate such change. He needs to know that the transition from preschool to school shouldn’t be taken lightly. And when it comes to birthdays, despite all our frenzied attempts to prolong aging, a party can serve as a healthy dose of reality of time’s relentless march forward.

Yes, my skepticism tells me we could pull back a bit on the extravagance of our parties (and even some of the things we celebrate), but I’m realizing such skepticism can’t come at the expense of reality. Change happens. Why not party in the process!


Do's and Don'ts

Morality and living the 'good life' is a universal topic that transcends religions and cultures, albeit how the topic is understood varies greatly. In its own particular way, every culture has a set of do's and don'ts meant to guide people into right living, however that's defined. Ideally, people will approach morality with a balance of do's and don'ts that combine to form a (somewhat) coherent moral life - e.g. do treat your children with love and don't speak badly of others.

Yet so often religions and cultures are perceived, and even understand themselves, as being one or the other - you are defined by do’s or don’ts. Christianity is no exception.

In terms of do's and don'ts, what are Christians known for? What is the Bible known for?

For many in North American culture the answer is clear: Christianity is a “don’t” religion and the Bible a self-limiting rulebook full of countless prohibitions. Relating the Bible to modern conceptions of the 'good life' is an oxymoron for many. And sadly, Christian history doesn’t do itself any favours in dissuading this notion (e.g. 20th Century Evangelical Fundamentalism).

More difficult is the fact the Bible is full of passages calling people to refrain from attitudes and activities thought too worldly for the faithful (e.g. 10 commandments!). We can’t ignore the “don’ts” of the Bible.

And certain contexts do require certain prohibitions. For example, the summer camp I’ve been speaking at this week has a staff rule to not date other camp staff. By itself, said to a bunch of lively young adults spending the summer together, such a rule (however necessary), serves to perpetuate the “don't” perception.

But we need to ask one more question: What is Jesus known for? 

For many, the perception changes when applied to Jesus. He’s more known for his “do's” - love your neighbor, love one another, take up your cross, etc...

How have the perceptions of Christianity and the Bible become divorced from Jesus? It shouldn’t be!

I recently suggested the need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Whether it's his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, or his countless parables, or his profound actions, Jesus doesn't live up to the perception of Christianity as a “don't” religion. There are still prohibitions, no doubt, but these alone don’t define the way of Jesus. Prohibitions are only known in the context of empowerment, where even the term “command” is framed positively - “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 commandment greater than these” (Mk. 12:30-31). 

To return to my example from camp, the “don’t” message to staff turns positive, an opportunity to treat one another with honor and respect, not just modeling an appropriate restraint (i.e. "don't"), but modeling healthy positive relationships between men and women to kids who may never otherwise experience such interaction. This is the "do" of Jesus.

It seems obvious, but we need the reminder: the way of Jesus needs to inform our definitions of Christian morality and the good life, hopefully changing perceptions as we live out Jesus’ way of positive actions rooted in a life of a love (Phil 1:27-2:11).

summer camp - the good news of belonging


I’ve been speaking up at Stillwood Camp this week, helping the summer staff prepare for all that a summer at camp brings. Having spent five summers working at camp myself I have a particular interest and desire to see summer camps be a meaningful place for all.

A common phrase at camp is “camp is for the campers.” And boy, does one see all sorts of kids throughout a summer at camp: Cool kids. Lonely kids. Excited kids. Nervous kids. Confident kids. Shy kids. Loved kids. Unloved kids. Bullying kids. Bullied kids. Big kids. Small kids. Happy kids. Sad kids. Angry kids. Quirky kids.

A big part of the staff training at camp is trying to make sense of how to give a great week to such a variety of kids- how to ensure camp is indeed “for the campers.” From my experience, this is no easy task. Yet when successful, it’s one of the most rewarding!

The theme at Stillwood Camp this summer is “mystery,” referring to Ephesians 3:4-6

4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles (outsiders) are heirs together with Israel (God’s people), members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

Image courtesy of Stillwood Camp
It’s no surprise that at a Christian camp, Jesus is the basis for all that happens. Introducing kids to God’s love in Jesus - this “mystery of Christ” - forms the foundation for all the energy and resources that go into running a Christian summer camp. Yet easy to overlook, but profoundly impactful, is this message is lived out day-to-day and week-to-week at camp. The passage above describes the result of the “mystery” that determines so much of what camp is about - the reality that the mystery of Christ is all about belonging.

For so many kids, belonging is exactly what they don’t experience in much of life. All they know is difference and exclusion.

Camp, then, provides an alternative experience of life for many kids. Through all the craziness that is summer camp, kids get a taste of belonging from beginning to end - an experience that for some will truly be a mystery in a world often defined by the absence of belonging.

This is the good news Jesus. This is the good news of belonging. This is camp.

“The Word of the Lord is eternal and true”

“The Word of the Lord is eternal and true”

What’s your first thought when you hear this phrase?

Likely, part of your response is a thought about the Bible, perhaps negative or positive, depending on your perspective.

The first day of our vacation I observed part of a beach church service at our resort in Hawaii. Yes, the term “beach church service” is fodder for a post itself - I think every Sunday the congregation is a whole new group of people as tourists come and go! But I digress. It was a fairly generic evangelical service with some praise songs (“Shine Jesus Shine”!!!), prayer and scripture reading. And then somewhat out of the blue, there were some comments about not capitulating to the culture when it comes to biblical interpretation. Yes, it was a bit of a rant, with a bit too much fear-mongering for my liking. But overall, the sentiment wasn’t unreasonable in a time when the Bible is often disregarded loosely. I just didn’t like the tone.

Following the rant, we were invited to speak this phrase together as a collective affirmation:

“The Word of the Lord is eternal and true”

I’ll admit, I had some discomfort repeating this phrase. Following the rant, the tone of the service seemed more about digging in our religious heals than worship. Something was missing.

As the group quieted following the corporate confession of “the Word,” one last statement was offered from someone at back of the group. A man in a wheelchair, not really fitting the tourist persona with his torn jeans, sunglasses and colorful tattoos, quipped loudly in the growing silence,

“Jesus is eternal and true”

Ah ha! that’s what was missing.

Jesus.

Up to that point, the whole service was using the Bible to point to...the Bible. Unawares, the Bible itself became the focus of our adoration. It took an unlikely source (actually, perhaps not so unlikely) to direct our attention to why Christians believe the Bible is still relevant.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (Jn 1:1;14)

The Word is a person. This person is Jesus.

And so responding to a Bible-skeptic culture, we shouldn’t present the Word by thumping our Bibles louder. No, we present the Word as the personification of love in the world that fulfills all that we know and understand about the Bible.

“Jesus is eternal and true.” Amen.


vacation reality

West Coast of Oahu
We just got back from a week in Hawaii celebrating our 10th anniversary. It was a welcome time of rest and relaxation in the midst of very busy season of life.

During out time, along with the hoards of Hawaiian visitors, we visited several popular tourist spots. Two things I noticed. First, the Hawaiian tourist industry loves to tell the stories of Hawaii - myths of gods and volcanoes, kings, and of course, hula dancers. Secondly, tourist spots are full of friendly friendly friendly employees. From tour guides, to restaurant servers, to hotel staff, “aloha” rings in your ears the minute the plane hits the tarmac.

In both cases, while I appreciated for the overall tone of positivity, I realized that life in the tourist-realm of Hawaii is more an illusion than reality. The reenacted legends are packaged with catchy tunes and bright colors, giving the impression that pre-modern island life was one big luau. And the smiling greetings can get tiresome when you get “aloha” from the same person every two minutes you walk by. In this environment, vacation ends up vacating reality. 

Yet I wouldn’t trade our week in Hawaii for anything, as I also encountered a better vacation reality. Our time to connect and refresh as a couple was invaluable. And beyond the shiny tourist culture we found our way off the beaten path a few times, catching glimpses of this better reality: reality in the beauty of the wildlife, waves, and waterfalls of this tropical wonderland - reality in some of the people (such as one local who warned us from swimming in some very dangerous waters on one of the less touristy beaches).

In case you think I’m being a bit too cynical, I should clarify: I really don’t mind being a tourist, so long as I keep my experience in perspective. Vacation shouldn’t mean we have to vacate reality. And if I have to go to Hawaii to learn this lesson, well, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make! ;-)


finding rest - a vacation psalm

This coming week we are headed on a vacation to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Thus I’ll be silent on the blog for a bit. But I thought I’d leave with this slight tweak I’ve done of Psalm 62. It captures what I anticipate in the change of pace vacation brings:

Psalm 62 - Anneke Kaai
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
   my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my constant and my salvation;
   he is my abode, I will never be disoriented.

How long will you distract me?
   Would all of you vie for my attention—
   this eager consumer, this scattered mind?
Surely they intend to overwhelm me
   from my place of control;
   they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
   but in their hearts they curse.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
   my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my constant and my salvation;
   he is my abode, I will not be distracted.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
   he is my clarity, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
   pour out your hearts to him,
   for God is our calm place.

Psalm 62:1-8