How do you see?

I like paying attention. I’ve talked about attentiveness before, but there is something about observing one’s surroundings, soaking in the sights and sounds, observing the complex intersection of lives on so many levels. To notice how so many tiny details collide and create communities and cultures can be profound to observe as it unfolds in any given moment.

Interestingly, however, is as I cultivate my attentiveness, I develop a new level of self-awareness. And I don’t always like what I find. For example, as I observe people around me, my default judgements aren’t always pretty. Labels and assumptions can quickly begin directing my observation. This was illustrated in this ad I saw this week (see below)

The caption challenged me to a new level of observation. Where I often look at what I see around me, I’m realizing I also need to assess how see. Is my default to see through a lens of judgement? Selfishness? Or compassion?

Next time you take a walk, look around. What do you see? But then observe, how do you see?

Or has Jesus taught,

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
   you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
   they hardly hear with their ears,
   and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
   hear with their ears,
   understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."
(Mt. 13:14-17)

calm before the storm?

I’ve had the phrase “calm before the storm” on my mind quite a lot this week. As I anticipate my first year of full time teaching beginning next week, I’m facing the reality that solitude and quiet will soon be replaced by the bustling noise of a new school year.

And yet at the same time I’m realizing that “calm” often isn’t the right descriptor, even in times of quiet and anticipation. For one, I feel anything but calm. I’m busy. My to-do list keeps growing and there are still moments when I pause and reflect on my new responsibilities. Director. Yikes! I also realize that times of waiting, even if paced differently, are rarely calm. Excitement, stress, and busyness all characterize this time.

I’m realizing that waiting and preparation are rarely passive, or in this case, calm. Someone noted to me this week is more like the swell before the storm. In sailor’s terms, the swell is the choppy water that comes before a storm. On the water, one can’t be passive while waiting for the storm to arrive. The swell brings it’s own worries. It’s the same in life.

Amidst all the to-do’s, meetings, and last-minute preparations, I engage each day with its mix worry and absence of calm. Such is life in the swell before the storm.

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Mt. 6:34).

Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness” (Ps. 86:11).

"It's not you, it's me"

In romance, the receiver of “it’s not you, it’s me” rarely, if ever, takes it at face value. If anything, the heartbroken flip the phrase completely, agonizing over the countless ways they have failed their once-beloved to the point of receiving this verbal slap in the face.

Now, sorry if I disappoint (!), but this is the extent of my romantic commentary. Instead, I want to apply this phrase to church and culture, particularly in how churches understand the cultural trend of declining church attendance. Much more exciting than romantic politics, I know.

There’s been quite a bit of talk these days on why people are leaving churches (or already gone). Blogs, studies, and strategies have been produced in attempts to analyze and respond to this cultural phenomenon. And where the culture may iterate the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me” to a beleaguered church, the church quickly adopts the predicted response: of course it’s me!  The church, Christians believe, must be doing something wrong.

Much energy is then spent determining exactly how the church is failing. Theology is seen as culturally irrelevant. Beliefs ranging from God, salvation, justice, and sexuality are thought to be old-fashioned in a culture built on innovation and diversity. If not theology, the church itself then takes the fall. Worship services, small groups, missions just don’t connect with an increasingly post-Christian culture. The church needs to regain relevance for a generation who has grown up in a post-Christian culture. And beyond theology and church, leaders takes their fair share of the blame. Preachers don’t preach good (or right) enough. Pastors don’t pastor well enough (not sure how you measure that one!). Leadership teams don’t lead well enough. All this to say, there are countless ways in which Christians take the blame, completely ignoring the reality that culture’s “it’s not you, it’s me” may in fact be right.

Don’t get me wrong, these are still valuable discussions and we should be considering the role of theology and church practices when it comes to current trends in the church participation. But I’ve wondered sometimes if we haven’t put too much focus in our ability as Christians to maintain cultural relevance. With blogs, studies, and strategies, how quickly forget we forget Jesus’ words to his first followers: “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18).

I read an interesting article this week that discusses our tendency to make these trends theological while often ignoring the sociological realities. Author Dave Barnhart asks the following insightful questions:

I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

Much of our energy is spent addressing the elusive missing generation without analyzing how the church can or should address the changing social issues of our time. We try and try and try to maintain and regain the church’s place in culture all the while oblivious to the actual dynamics of why times are changing. If we understand (not just protest!) the changing culture, Barnhart suggests we can then find ways to respond, just perhaps not in the self-blaming way we are used to. Changing economics, family values, and social injustice are just of the areas churches can both better understand as well as engage. These social realities cannot be ignored.

In the tenuous relationships of church and culture, “It’s not you, it’s me” may be right after all.

beyond stereotypes: preaching and evangelism

There are two topics I’ve often wrestled with when I consider Christianity’s, and particularly, the church’s role in our world today: preaching and evangelism - two topics full of stereotypes (some right, some wrong).

Preaching faces many challenges: mediocrity in preachers, consumerism in congregations, celebrity-status for preachers, uncertainty around the role of the Bible, biblical illiteracy, and on and on...

Evangelism has it’s own challenges: cultural misperceptions, insensitive evangelists, overly-aggressive evangelists, non-contextual evangelism, distraction and lack of motivation to evangelize, and on and on...

Add to this an over-individualized culture where preaching and evangelism can become focused solely on the individual - both individual benefits (e.g. what did I get out of that sermon) and individual works (e.g. how can I convert that person). In both cases the role of the community of faith is simply a means to an end, a tool for personal growth we consume. Neglected is the centrality of covenant community in the life of faith.

As one who’s led and pastored in various churches, I’ve had to face these problems head on, often asking: Why preach? Why evangelize?

In the face of bad or failed examples of both, the temptation is to resign myself to a simple “don’t bother” and move on - preaching and evangelism are outdated and beyond repair.

But then I hear stories and encounter individuals and churches with the same questions and struggles I have. But instead of giving up they are creatively exploring how preaching and evangelism can remain central to the preaching task. As I’ve mentioned before, the writing of Mark Gornik has been one such source. And here, his comments on preaching and evangelism in the context of a rooted and connected community are exactly the type of faithful expression that gives me hope for these two misunderstood and badly practiced aspects of the Christian faith.

On preaching:

“When people know they are deeply loved, cared for, accepted, and wanted by a community, they are transformed by the experience. And preaching that flows out of community life and serves its formation, rather than being the artificial focus of the church, is similarly transformational” (To Live In Peace, 74).

On evangelism and witness:

“Christian witness is about storytelling--the body of Christ bearing witness to the story of God’s salvation.” And Quoting Orlando Costas, Gornik reiterates this central role of community: “The base of evangelization is the congregation. As a community of love, faith, and hope, the congregation is God’s instrument for the transmission of the gospel. Its life should be a continuous perpetual proclamation, ‘a fifth gospel,’ the incarnation of love, faith, and hope, the reproduction of the good news of salvation in its social context” (To Live In Peace, 90).

Considering all the challenges, such a vision for preaching and evangelism within a rooted community is good news indeed.

What brand am I?

“Who am I?”

How often we find ourselves asking that question as we ponder not only our own dreams and aspirations, but also process the opinions and expectations of so many others in our lives. It can be one of the most liberating and debilitating questions to ask, all at the same time.

In the meantime, anyone who operates on a daily basis in public (which should be most of us to some degree!), in whatever profession or activity, develops a perceived identity as people observe and interact with them. Roofers develop a reputation based on good work, be it reliable, sketchy, or some other descriptor. Teachers build an identity over years of honing their craft and interacting with students - engaging, boring, intense, unfair to name a few. Writers communicate stories and ideas, leaving an impression of themselves based on the impression they’ve made on others - creative, inciting, insightful, shallow, crude, etc. And celebrities...Well, celebrities garner a following based on a host of often bizarre and random characteristics that the general public just loves to follow (e.g. fashion tastes and romantic inclinations).

This reality reveals a trend - not new by any means, but amplified through the accessibility of social media - of branding ourselves. For most it’s not a conscious choice. For some, most celebrities, it’s required for success. But regardless, we all participate at some level in marketing ourselves, even if we aren’t making any money at it. Whether it’s our social media posts, our daily public interaction in our profession, or the overall perception of ourselves that’s developed over time, we have a type of brand. And while we’re likely not cashing in literally, we end up striving to cash in socially. We may not want to admit it, but our brand is worth something, valued by the social currency of the day, be it a share, like, or tweet.

Earlier this week Rachel Held Evans wrote an insightful post on her experience of this as a Christian blogger. She reflects on the just how pervasive viewing ourselves as a brand can be...

...these days, you don’t have to have a book deal or a literary agent to cultivate a “brand.” You just need a little online real estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or some sort of blogging platform...Over time, as your life gets distilled into these little pixels, it’s easy for the people who see them—be they friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers—to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening, as you gather feedback and gain friends/followers/subscribers, you can start to believe it too. 

In a culture obsessed with branding, our true selves get lost - we’re only known as “little pixels” in cyberspace. And the difficulty is just how unavoidable this whole branding trend is. Even social media resistance relays a certain perception - resistance becomes the brand. Which is why Rachel's conclusion is so important:

But we are not our messages, no matter how much we believe in them. We are not our filtered photos, or our tweets, or our political and religious ideologies. We are not even the stories we tell, no matter how carefully and truthfully we tell them...We are not our brands.

“Who am I?” is still a very important question. Yet in an age of expansive communication and intense social pressures, how, who, and what forms our answer is just as important. And hopefully it’s not your brand, or my brand, or a celebrity’s brand who determines your response. We are worth too much to be a brand.

"The small stuff is the big stuff"

Wherever you live, how do you view your community?

For example, if in Vancouver, do you see yourself as from Vancouver? Or do you refer to a particular neighbourhood, be it Kitsilano, Yaletown, or Kerrisdale? This question applies to wherever you're from.

Basically, in describing your community, is your default big picture or small? City or neighbourhood?

How we understand our community will invariably influence how we understand our role and place in that community. If we view our community as one monolithic place, we tend to generalize our descriptions of that place (e.g. Vancouver is full of young, healthy people). Viewing a community a network of neighbourhoods, however, highlights the various nuances and particularities of a community (e.g. Vancouver has a huge variety of people, including some very unhealthy people!).

Interestingly, Christians can be prone to ignoring these aspects of a community. Instead of recognizing the trends, Christians give much attention to their own place, oftentimes revolved around a building or meeting space. The people create and identify with a separate community within the larger neighborhood and community. The danger is an insulated group of Christians whose only community connection is with themselves.

In response to this reality of church and community there is a growing movement to restore and redefine the practice of parish for Christians and churches. Traditionally, parish refers to the neighbourhood that a church resides in and cares for, a vestige of Christendom where everyone, by default, was connected to the parish church. This traditional understanding of parish is clearly outdated, especially when in many city neighbourhoods few people would identify with the church on their block and Christians themselves travel miles to attend churches in other neighbourhoods and cities. In a post-Christian commuter culture, the traditional parish just doesn't make sense. So why the renewed emphasis on parish?

Importantly, along with the renewed emphasis on parish comes the attempt to redefine the concept altogether. Talk of parish is not some vain attempt to regain the past role - and power!- of the church in cities and neighbourhoods. The focus is much simpler. And I would suggest, much better.

This week I had the privilege of meeting with Tim Soerens, co-founder of Parish Collective, a group of individuals and churches who desire to seek renewal in their local neighbourhoods. As Tim shared inspiring stories of individuals and faith communities engaging their neighbourhoods, a key value kept emerging that describes well this renewed emphasis on parish: “faithful presence for neighbourhood renewal.” Living in Wellingford, a neighbourhood in Seattle, Tim doesn’t have a grand visions for a church that reaches the entire city of Seattle. How does one leader, or one church, reach the diversity of neighbourhoods that comprise a city? Instead, Tim, along with many others, are thinking and living local. Faith gets translated differently for different neighbourhoods. Church expression begins to reflect neighbourhood dynamics. The generic concept of Christian mission becomes the very particular task literally loving your neighbour. And in the process, Tim emphasized, you realize how in the day-to-day reality of neighbourhood life everything finds value in the good news of Jesus - “the small stuff is the big stuff.”

In a time when people - and Christians are no different - gravitate towards the sensational, ask yourself this: What “small stuff” gives meaning to your life? To your neighbourhood? To your city?

marvel and terror

It began when with the amazement only an 8-year-old boy can muster as he looked intently up to the sky. He saw it before he could hear it. A black speck in the distance growing larger with each moment. He started running. He needed to get the best view. He scrambled up a small dirt hill on the construction site behind his house. Reaching the top of the hill he could see over the rooftops and trees of his yard, the clear sky a backdrop for a spectacle beyond anything his young imagination could ponder. And he waited. As the dot on the horizon grew, so did his wonder.

Another dot appeared, the opposite end of the sky from the first. Moments later, proximity shortened, the dots took shape, revealing the aerodynamic marvel of F-16 fighters.

Speed. Noise. Power. Time seemed to stop as the boy took in the sight.

As the jets neared, the boy gasped. It looked like a sure collision. Yet in that same moment both jets banked upwards, flying parallel in perfect formation, curving through the sky like nothing he had ever seen.

The jets now coming right towards him, the boy instinctively ducked for cover behind a large rock. Peeking around the edge of the stone, filled with both fear and curiosity, he almost missed the jets as they screamed overhead. A deafening roar followed close behind, shaking ground and eardrum. The rumbling engulfed the boy. He remained huddled by the rock, paralyzed by the whole experience.

And then it was over - the jets gone faster than they had appeared.

[This story has two possible endings]

#1. The boy scrambled back down the hill to his home. He needed to catch his breath. In the shade of his treed backyard, the boy calmed down, reflecting on his close encounter. He heard rumbles in the distance, signalling the jets weren’t finished. Looking up in anticipation, he waited for the next encounter. Such is the marvel of the modern North American airshow.

#2. The boy scrambled back down the hill to his home. He needed to catch his breath. In the shade of his treed backyard, the boy calmed down, reflecting on his close encounter. He heard rumbles in the distance, signalling the jets weren’t finished. Looking up in anticipation, he waited for the next encounter. Such is the terror of the modern Middle Eastern air raid.

I wrote this story from my own experience growing up a few kilometers from the Abbotsford International Airshow, which is taking place this weekend. I can still remember my childhood awe and wonder of this summer tradition - my eyes glued to the sky for an entire weekend. My ears ringing for days. The annual airshow was a thing to behold. It still is.

Yet I can’t help but feel a tension as our community celebrates the technological innovations of aerospace. My words from awhile back express well what I feel:

As I grew up, however, my airshow appreciation waned, particularly as I became aware of the history of violence and what the evolution of the airplane has done for modern warfare. To be sure, I still marvel at the sights and sounds of an F-18 screaming through the sky. The airshow remains an amazing spectacle. But I'm hesitant to celebrate it. I’m no longer an innocent child in awe. I live in a globally connected world where I know that one jet’s show in Abbotsford is paralleled by another jet’s reality in war-torn regions of our globe.

This is the tension I sit with as the roar of jets mingle with the roar of violence.

I’m not naive enough to think I can resolve this tension. Sure, I pray for peace. I work for peace. I long for peace. But my very presence in North America makes me complicit in global violence to some degree. And yes, I still marvel as jets loop overhead. Rather than be crippled with guilt or mired in ignorance, however, I think there is value in living with and acknowledging this tension.

In the Bible, God’s love and light doesn’t come only when sin and darkness are gone. No, love and light come into the very midst of the world’s darkness. Before tension is removed it is faced. Personally, then, faced with the tensions of human experience, we may not see or experience resolution. But we can find God’s presence.

And so with every roar overhead I think of our common humanity, beautiful and broken, and pray for God's presence...

Lord, have mercy...

Hope In Shadows

I've been reading through a collection of stories from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside called "Hope in Shadows." The book is based on the popular calendar of the same name produced by the Pivot Legal Society. Filled with honest stories and observations related to life in what's often described as Canada's poorest postal code, the stories provide a raw glimpse into the paradox of human brokenness meets hope and community.

In place renowned for its drug abuse, prostitution, and crime, the following quote strikes at the heart of how often community and hope is found where we least expect it:

"Community is important down here and believe it or not people come here to feel safe. To fit in. That baffles me because it's the Downtown Eastside. Worst drug place in BC. But here you never pretend to be something you aren't and anyone can fit in."

Purchase your own copy.

"church born from below"

As I continue to prepare for this upcoming year leading Praxis, I’m continually inspired by the teaching and example of others in the area of faith and culture in an urban context. I’ve quoted a few times in recent posts and tweets from Mark Gornik’s book, To Live In Peace. He articulates a vision for the inner city that combines thorough cultural and biblical analysis through the lens of his inner-city church in Baltimore - this is theological storytelling at its best.

As one who maintains there is still relevance for the church in our world, I found the following passage particularly inspiring, insightful, and inciting:

If it is the church’s mission to speak of and witness to hope and redemption, to life against death, and to peace over the violence of the powers, then the following agenda, while partial and preliminary, is important for the church in our cities. Our frame of reference is a vision of God’s new city of peace; our practices are rooted in the gracious demands of God’s reign; our sense of what is possible is engendered by the Spirit. And our most basic commitment is that any agenda must meet the demands of reality as experienced on the streets.

At the forefront of an agenda for the urban future must be the development and renewal of grassroots Christian churches and networks. In a changing urban environment, vibrant, healthy, holistically oriented churches with a parish commitment are vital because they are normative institutions that enable families to negotiate a changing world. As such, they are agents of proclaiming the good news and generators of the social and spiritual bonds that contribute to the revitalization of communities. On a daily level, the church clearly can make the difference that allows for survival, given its very personal, political, economic, social, and spiritual interest in people’s lives. The church fulfills this role not by downplaying its distinctiveness but by recognizing that it is a community “on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

When we survey the inner city and the larger world, we realize that the future church is a church of the suffering and the poor. The importance of the church born from below is, at the deepest level, bound up with God’s redemption of the world...

The future of the church in the city depends on taking up the gospel, the good news of Jesus and the kingdom, for the prisoner, the poor, and the outsider, not as the pretext for a mission strategy, proselytizing, or a programmatic enterprise, but as a living truth and movement that transforms...Born of the Spirit, the church of the poor that impacts the city reads Scripture in communion, practices decentralized leadership, and is committed to holistic ministry.

In a celebrity-crazed world where power and influence often come at the expense of someone or somewhere; and when socio-economic gaps perpetuate division and conflict; and where even Christian ministry to the poor only further alienates and divides, Gornik’s words on church, gospel and solidarity are timely:

Church of the poor...
Church born from below...