Beyond Grasping - A Posture for a New Year

When it comes to the transition from one year to the next, we get inundated with talk of looking back and looking ahead, oftentimes with the unspoken - but ever present - reality of measuring our lives. "You can do better!" frames our remembering and resolving. But much of this exercise ends up with an approach to life based on grasping or striving for something that is usually far more complex than just setting our mind to it. And we risk allowing our failures or disappointments to define us. As a result, striving itself becomes our identity, not the actual goals to which we aspire. As a famous poet has said, we end up "chasing after the wind."

Taken on my visit to Pender Island (May 2014)
As I look back to 2014 and anticipate 2015, I'm hoping for a better posture to life than the frantic striving that so easily consumes. I want to get beyond grasping.

This passage was important to me in 2014, and I anticipate it will be once more in 2015:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Mt. 11:28-30 The Message)

Happy New Year!


"light shines in the darkness"

Merry Christmas!


"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)


Girls Are "Pretty." Boys Are "Cool."

The topic of beauty has entered our household as our 3-year-old daughter acclimatizes herself to a culture determined to unite self-esteem with a particular version of beauty. “Pretty” is a word we hear regularly, often only said in relation to something dressed up or done up.

On top of that, her notions of “pretty” are tied into burgeoning concepts of gender stereotyping, where only girls can be “pretty” and boys are “cool” (always in reference to her dad, of course).

As parents, navigating the realities of beauty and gender can be a daunting task. With so many voices of influence, it’s easy to become frustrated or cynical towards the impact culture can have on the formation of our daughter. We can be left wondering what influence we actually have on that formation.

Behind our frustration is the question of value - what makes a person valuable? What makes a person pretty? Or cool? “Pretty” and “cool” are often statements of temporary value, based on a certain look or a momentary characteristic - they are culturally limited statements. So when it comes to a person’s value, humanity needs more. Our daughter needs more.

We’ve tried not to overreact one way or another at what’s “pretty” and what’s “cool” in our household. Parents never seem to get it right anyway. But we are very aware that these phrases can’t be all our daughter hear when it comes to recognizing her value.

One my increasingly favorite phrases from the bible relates well to this issue. Upon creating the heavens and the earth and all that is within the earth, including humans, we get this description of how God views us: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Very. Good.

The Hebrew meaning is far more than situational or about appearance. The earth didn’t just look pretty. And Adam and Eve may not have been cool. Creation’s goodness wasn’t shallow or simply God’s opinion. Genesis doesn’t say God saw that it was very good. No, God saw it, and it was very good.  This is a value - a goodness - that is embedded into the world. And into humanity. We need to remember, then, that alongside the “prettys” and the “cools” - and yes, the “uglys” and the “uncools” - is the reality that the “it was very good” echoes into history and into our very lives. And into our daughter’s life. Yes, at times this goodness dims, hidden behind sickness, pain, sorrow, and sin - goodness needs to be restored where it is missing. But the inherent value of our very being persists beyond the pretty and the cool.

Girls can sometimes be called pretty, yes. But may they always know they are very good.

And boys can sometimes be cool too. But may they always know they are also very good.

Pretty and cool are fine, but limited. Goodness is permanent. This is a message my daughter needs to hear.  This is a message we all need to hear.


The Changing Religious Culture

The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of the Columbia Contact:

From mega churches to house churches to traditional churches to community churches, the diversity in expression for the people of God in cities is vast. Yet amidst all the diversity, there is one commonality among North American urban churches: they all exist within a changing religious culture. Whether a church chooses to adapt, engage, withdraw or reject such change, they can't deny that the church's role in culture is in fact changing.

Some church leaders have identified this changing culture as a state of liminality. Liminality literally means a threshold in which something or someone experiences ambiguity and disorientation. Related to the church, Anabaptist leader and writer Len Hjalmarson explains liminality as a time of transition for the church. “When the church is in transition…confusion surfaces. Even casual conversations can become complex, with people using language in very different ways. Words like church and evangelism and even Christian carry baggage they didn’t once possess.”  Urban churches face this liminal context everyday.

This cultural transition for the church involves many different social aspects of a city, from increased diversity and multiculturalism, to changing socio-economic conditions in specific neighbourhoods, to a general suspicion of anything related to traditional religion, be it Christianity or otherwise. Canadian churches are forced to navigate commitment to the way of Jesus in a culture that is hesitant to commit to anything.

First United Mennonite Church
Vancouver pastor at First United Mennonite Church, Greg Thiessen (Dip. ’03), describes the experience of liminality for their church with “the transition of our neighbourhood from ‘Little Berlin’ as it used to be nicknamed to a very multi-cultural and predominantly Punjab area of Vancouver.” Thiessen also notices that neighbourhood transience, especially for young adults and families, further complicates how an urban church can effectively minister in their neighbourhood. Rapidly changing neighbourhoods are part of a rapidly changing urban culture that the church is left to address in one way or another.

It's into this context of liminality that some urban churches are adopting a new spin on an old concept: parish ministry. Parish ministry stresses the importance of local neighbourhoods as the primary context in which the gospel is lived out and shared. Based in Seattle, the authors of The New Parish, refer to a parish as “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.”  First United Mennonite Church, for example, has responded to their changing neighbourhood by engaging their literal neighbours and building relationships with them, including increased involvement with local community events.

Artisan's Mt. Pleasant Parish gathers here at the Grand Luxe Hall 
Artisan Church, pastored by Nelson Boschman (BA ‘93) and Lance Odegard (BA ‘02), has adopted a parish model of church planting that focuses on "reproducing incarnational neighbourhood parishes that focus on discipleship through covenant community." Artisan organizes their small groups geographically as a way to maintain a consistent presence in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Boschman and Odegard stress that “each person's gifts are required” to make this relationally-based church model work, as each person is continually invited to “participate as ‘co-artisans’ in God's movement of renewing all things.” Artisan’s first parish was based in Downtown Vancouver and they are presently launching an East Van parish.

The focus on presence in local neighbourhoods with the parish church model is just one example of how urban churches are adapting to a changing culture while remaining faithful to the gospel. Columbia Bible College is excited to have the opportunity to lead students to grow in their discipleship as future residents and leaders in our cities. As Thiessen reflects on the impact of Columbia on his urban ministry, “Columbia has helped equip me with a sense mission that is not just professional in nature – not reserved for pastors and missionaries – but for all Christians to live out.  Columbia also helped expand my own horizons of what it means to look like a Christian – that it is not just the German-Mennonite mold I grew up with but reaches across cultures in diverse expressions and understandings.”

As Columbia continues to partner with urban churches, our goal is to continue developing students who positively impact their careers, churches, and communities in cities around the world.

Ugly and Beautiful

Where do we see the holy?
Where do we catch glimpses of grace?
Where is God most present in our world? 

Maybe we think of grand cathedrals, where centuries-old art and architecture reflects the beauty and glory of God. Or perhaps an experience of nature, say a glimmering ocean sunset where the light dances to a tune of divine artistry. Possibly we consider our most precious relationships, the loving look of a spouse or the comforting embrace of a friend that speaks to embodied love and acceptance. God, grace, and holiness are all around us if we just take the time to look.

But rarely will we think of a dirty homeless person rambling in the street. Neither did actor Ins Choi, who wrote and performs the provocative and moving one-person show called Subway Stations of the Cross, inspired by his own encounter over a decade ago with a homeless rambler. I had the pleasure of seeing Choi’s performance this recently at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver.

While lacking a narrative structure - the play is described as an “unpredictable, mashed up meditation on the sacred and the everyday” - the show wasn’t lacking in powerful moments of cultural insight and experience. The play is a series of ramblings as Choi embodies a nameless homeless man stationed on a cardboard mat, with only a ukulele and a microphone/speaker. Barefoot, and carrying a box that turns out to contain bread and wine, the man takes his stage and calls the audience to attention with a raw voice and words that  were probably my highlight of the show: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord/Declare ye the way of the Lord/Chocolate éclair ye the way of the Lord.”


The man proceeds to sing and talk about life and meaning and society in an abrupt, gruff, eccentric and highly creative way. Themes of socio-economic disparity, social stigma, and religious symbols are prominent but also not over simplified. “What can I do for you to love me?” is a question that resounds beyond the character’s actual asking of it as everything from the sparse stage, somewhat random order of themes, and abrupt end speak to our unease in giving value to someone such as this. In our discomfort - this is not an easy or even enjoyable play - we were left to experience the separation - and gift - of worthiness first hand. 

Initially, I was disappointed as the show ended. It was shorter than I’d hoped and didn’t seem to address enough of the actual experience of homelessness - I could have used a bit of biographical narrative from the character. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I appreciate the end. The final scene (spoiler alert) offered an audible and visual display of the messiness of incarnation - the embodiment God in flesh (bread) and blood (wine) hanging from a subway station mic-stand mixed together in a bag. Silence at first. And then the refrain “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” There was dissonance. Audibly it was moving, but visually it was just plain ugly. Maybe even insulting to some. Bread and wine - holy elements! - flung into a mere bag to hang unadorned and plain amidst the mess of a city. Yet from my understanding of what incarnation truly means, visually, it was beautiful at the same time as it was ugly.

Through rambling song and insight, unpredictable and messy though it was, I got a glimpse of ugly and beautiful together.

Ugly and beautiful...incarnation. God with us.

A Poppy and Great Great Uncle Frank

On a recent foray in the community my son asked for a poppy at one of the stores. Around Remembrance Day it’s common for local business to place a donation box and poppy pins for people to donate to the local Legion and commemorate our fallen soldiers. He's been learning a lot about Remembrance Day in grade 1, so he's been noticing various ways remembering Canadian wars takes place, a poppy being one of them. I didn't think much of it.

But as we left the store, the questions began...along with my attempt to provide some clarity to his inquisitive mind:

L: “Why the poppy dad?”

Me: “To remember those who have died in war”

L: Why should we remember?

Me: (trying to keep it simple) “Because they died and gave up a lot. It's sad that they’re gone.”

L: Why is it sad?

Me: (deep breath) “Lots of people die in wars, missing out on a lot in life. And we miss them.”

L: Why is that sad?

Me: (with this question I consider changing the subject - e.g. “Want some candy?” Instead, I dare a response) “Think of the great day we just had as a family? War takes that away for many people."

L: So the bad guys win sometimes?

Me: (Candy anyone!?!) “Well, it’s not that simple. All countries have bad guys and good guys. People die on all sides and it's sad either way...God never wanted us to fight to begin with, but we can't to get along. The poppy helps us remember this and the people in our country who have died because of it."

At this point I think he brought up candy, which I was more than happy to oblige as a new topic of conversation.

I’m not sure if I satisfied his questioning or if I was satisfied with my answering. Our dialogue highlights how difficult it is to make sense of death and war, but not just for a 6-year-old - for all of us.

Great Great Uncle Frank Bergen - RCAF WWII
When war involves our relatives, remembering takes on a whole new tone. I’ve seen many friends online post pictures and stories of family members who served Canada in the military, some dying in the field. For these folks, Remembrance Day is deeply personal. Which brings me to another conversation with my son. The day after he got his poppy he asked me a question after school:

L: “Do we know anyone who went to war a long time ago?”

Me: “I don't think so. Most of our family in the olden days didn't fight in wars. They didn't think it was right, so they did others things (like work in hospitals or forests). Oh wait, I think one of your Grandma’s uncles was in WWII, your great great uncle Frank.

L: “Uncle Frank?”

Me: “Yup.”

L: “Can I talk to him to say thank you for fighting?”

Me: “He actually died earlier this year.”

L: (As only a literalist 6-year-old would respond) “They killed him!?!"

Me: “No, after the war he came back and was a farmer, had a family, and had grown old. He was over 90 when he died."

L: “I wish I could thank him. I'm gonna tell God to say thank you for me” (he proceeds to look up and tell God to pass along the message).

I'm not too sure how to process this interaction with my son. As one who is firmly committed to active nonviolent peacemaking, I always feel a tension around Remembrance Day. But I also realize that my great uncle Frank's decision to go to war left him ostracized by many in his family and community. Mennonites weren't supposed to fight. Social violence was his reward - this was how he was remembered. I don't want that to be how my son remembers. Which is why I didn't discourage my son's engagement with Remembrance Day and wanting to thank his great great uncle Frank. It takes great courage to stand up and fight. And yes, it also takes great courage to stand up and not fight. We need to remember both. War is never as simple as fighting or not fighting, or as simple as good vs. evil. War is complicated. War is painful. And as we reflect on the legacy of veterans and our loved ones, it’s personal.

I wish I could have brought my son to see his great great uncle Frank to say thank you in person. Hopefully God passed along the message...

From Consumption to Engagement

At the recent Christ & Cascadia Conference a few weeks back, I had the chance to present a paper on my working view of discipleship and young adults. Here's the abstract from the paper:

“From Consumption to Engagement: Discipleship and Millennials in Cascadia”

Much has been written and researched outlining the hasty exit of millennials from the church in recent years.  Cascadia is no exception. Within the cultural pluralism of Cascadia, religious commitment is but one choice among many, and one that is decreasing in popularity. Cascadia churches that are intentional about engaging millennials do so in a variety of different ways. From a surging New Calvinism, to thriving experientially-based worship events, to a growing emphasis on gap-year discipleship education, to cultural adaptations for belief and practice, many sectors of the Cascadian church are attempting to alter the trends of millennials leaving the church. But is it working?

The focus of this paper is twofold: 1) I will briefly outline several approaches to discipleship with millennials in Cascadia, suggesting a propensity to adopt consumeristic tendencies;  2) I will provide an alternative approach to discipleship with millennials drawing on James Davison Hunter’s model for “faithful presence” as a way to avoid the common consumeristic tendencies (in To Change the World).  I will suggest that faithful presence requires churches to emphasize local relationships rooted in a theology of covenant and participatory leadership with a view of culture that explores faith in Christ in the midst of the tension between challenge and collaboration. In a culture as diverse as Cascadia and to a demographic as religiously complex as millennials, I will argue that discipleship centered on “faithful presence” can provide a sustaining faith and set millennials on a trajectory for a lifetime of authentic discipleship.

U2 and Serious Ridiculousness

I strongly believe that ideas are best understood when enacted in our lives. We need to avoid two extremes: irrelevant abstractions and thoughtless behaviors. By themselves, both display an ignorance to our interconnectedness as humans - the reality that we are both human beings and human doings.

Such self awareness may be naively optimistic in a culture that demands both instant knowledge and immediate gratification. We don't have time for self awareness. Perhaps this is why Ann Powers, in her recent article on U2, draws on Dostoevsky's concept of "serious ridiculousness" to describe U2's way of being in the world that demands the practice of belief. As a band, U2 invites participation from the audience - "...what people love and hate about U2 is the band's insistence that listeners not just watch or listen, but enter into an experience with them."

I'd describe myself as a casual U2 fan. I know the main songs, own a few albums, but am far from being a die hard fan. I'm inspired, however, by their example of engaging life through their music with a raw honesty towards life and meaning. They disavow both naïve hope and apathetic hopelessness. And whether you like the music or not, U2 presents an engagement with our world and the human experience - "belief as practice" - that we could all use a little bit more of:

Ordinary ridiculousness comes from not being aware — from either simply not thinking about bad or excessive choices, or from embracing blind faith in the self, a God or a system. A seriously ridiculous person is clear-eyed. She knows that idealism is a fool's game to begin with, and that every conviction carries the risk of closed-mindedness. But she takes on belief as a practice, a way of being around others that seeks common ground. The ridiculous man or woman has found a way to connect things within life's inevitably broken landscape. It's an act of reaching out that can never be fully fulfilled, but which changes things in the moment, which is all we really have.

You can read the rest here.

Christ & Cascadia - Scarcity or Abundance?

Cascadia: “Cascadia” is something called a “bioregion” which includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and pieces of Alaska, California, Idaho, and Montana. Its boundaries are not political—they are natural. By definition, bioregions like Cascadia share a common set of natural characteristics (animals, plant life, soil, watersheds, climate, and geology). That said, many observers have begun to argue that Cascadia shares a lot more in common than mountains, salmon, and rain—it shares some important cultural and spiritual characteristics as well. More than lines on a map, regional observers have begun to argue that Cascadia is also a cultural and spiritual state of mind (Matthew Kaemingk)

I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Christ & Cascadia conference recently in Seattle. The conference was a gathering of scholars, leaders, thinkers, bloggers, activists, normal folk, and not-so-normal folk, all conversing around the intersection of Christianity in this region called Cascadia. The purpose of the conference, as stated, was “to know and love this place.

Having grown up in Cascadia, I find it interesting to hear how people understand and process the particularities of Cascadian culture. In the area of religion, this can be especially interesting. Cascadia is often known as the home of the “spiritual, but not religious.” Or as journalist Douglas Todd has described, people here are “secular but spiritual.” Studies show that God and spirituality remain popular, but religious affiliation continues to decline. This is the land of “religious nones.”

For Christians, this can be difficult to accept. The reality of “religious nones” fuels a general negativity towards Cascadian culture, this pagan and irreligious place. Overall, from a Christian perspective, Cascadia culture is seen as insufficient, scarcely able to offer much of anything of value spiritually. And at a conference such as this, one could expect this to be dominant theme.
But it wasn’t.

In fact, many of the presenters, myself included, while not ignoring the challenges related to Christian commitment and a “secular but spiritual” culture, offered reasons for Cascadia to instead be seen in a much more positive light. As James Wellman, professor at the University of Washington, proclaimed, Christians need to drop their “none-zone theological prejudice” and also see Cascadia from another angle: “a place of abundance!” From the abundant beauty of the environment itself, to the innovative and creative impulse of many, to the desire for authentic relationships (be it in tension with a hyper-individualism), there is much to be celebrated in Cascadia. Are traditional forms of Christianity going to face challenges in terms of integrating a vibrant religious expression in Cascadia? Absolutely! But such challenges don’t have to assume a position of negativity or hopelessness in the midst of the culture we find ourselves. Instead, as this conference suggested, cultures are always a complex reality of opportunity and challenge, and to pay attention to beauty and goodness - abundance! - can potentially reveal the ways in which Christ is already present in Cascadia.

 
 

9/11 - Somber Hope

9/11 remains a significant date in history. America pauses to remember, particularly in New York City, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. And the rest of the world watches and remembers alongside them. Thirteen years later, it’s still a somber day.
 
It’s somber because…

  • ...of the lives lost and families forever changed.
  • ...of the ensuing patterns of violence and hatred that continues to this day.
  • ...it’s easier to become desensitized to injustice then actively respond.
  • ...while we say we remember today, tomorrow we quickly forget the impact of this tragedy and its similar daily occurrence around the world.

Yet not all hope is lost. Having a chance to visit the 9/11 memorial site earlier this year, I witnessed hope through the sorrow. In this and many other situations of death and sorrow, hope persists.

World Trade Center Memorial - Feb., 2014
There is hope because…
 
  • ...countless New Yorkers volunteer time to tell stories of courage and community in the midst of tragedy.
  • ...the legacy of the victims has brought life to many in many different situations through relief foundations and other charitable work.
  • ...violence and hatred isn’t the only legacy of 9/11, as countless individuals and organizations call for peaceful responses of love and forgiveness.
  • ...of a greater reality beyond what we see today: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Words are easy

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:5)

Words are an interesting thing. We use them in all sorts of ways. Ask.com reports that on average, adults say 16,000 words per day. What we say is a big deal, literally! And so it’s no wonder we find in the book of James a warning about how we speak. Words matter.

I wonder, though, how James would address our words today. In a social media culture, words are typed as much, if not more, than they are spoken. Gone are any fears or hesitations related to face-to-face interaction. Via the Internet or texting, we can say whatever we want to someone from the comfort of our own private space. Words are easy.

For James, he was concerned with people intentionally misusing words to distract or lead people away from faithfulness. The dangers of the tongue were quite obvious. Today our problem isn’t so much an intentional misuse of words. Our ‘cursing,’ as James puts it, is far more subtle. In the world of social media, our use of words is more of a naive indifference as we blindly type this or that without ever considering what we’re saying or who we’re saying it to. An overly expressive status update; a judgmental tweet; or an ill-timed ‘LOL’ reverberates into cyberspace much like the “great boasts” James warns against.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:8-10)

James is calling for consistency in word and deed. And while our audible words remain important today, it is just as important how we use our words online. So before you send your next text message or publish a status update, consider how James’ teaching can inspire a faithful use of your tongue, whether it’s heard or typed:

1. Pause: Do I need to share this right now?
2. Think: Is what I’m saying uplifting to God and others?
3. Seek Clarity: Can this be misunderstood as selfish or insulting (“boasting”) and how can I make my words as clear as possible?
 
 
A variation of this post first appeared on indoubt.

 

Pastor Tom Wright

This review first appeared in the latest edition of the MB Herald:

Besides offering an example of discipleship himself within academia, N.T. Wright isn’t typically known for his work on the topic of discipleship. Yet in his recently updated book, Following Jesus, we get insight into Wright’s pastoral side, an area often overshadowed by his scholarly accomplishments, but one I would say is no less important. Yes, Wright is a formidable New Testament scholar, but his years as a chaplain, bishop and a preacher provide a ministry context for his work that is worth sharing. Following Jesus is the fruit of such ministry, showing that discipleship and theology belong together.

Discipleship needs the church

Following Jesus is composed of several of Wright’s sermons from a variety of ministry contexts, giving glimpses into his view for theological discipleship. But the book isn’t an abstract presentation on a theology or model for discipleship (although it is deeply theological while also highly accessible). Rather, Following Jesus offers a window into how Wright sees discipleship occurring within the context of local worshipping communities.
 
These sermons reflect the day-to-day journey of discipleship within a church. And while at times they don’t fit together as seamlessly as many of Wright’s other books, the accessibility of his sermons more than makes up for any disconnection from chapter to chapter.

King Jesus makes the difference

Part one contains a collection of sermons from 1994. Naturally, some of the cultural references are dated, but these still contribute to Wright’s ability to connect theology and discipleship to the real world.
 
Each sermon in this section provides a summary of a biblical book from the lens of following Jesus. Highlights include an engaging and continually relevant sermon on Colossians that challenges disciples to recognize Christ’s kingship over all things. Contrary to the world’s way of leading by force, discipleship is about allegiance to the suffering king.
 
The reader should also note Wright’s sermon on Revelation both for his insightful treatment of the text itself and for the hope Revelation offers. To be the people of the King is to offer the tangible hope of the resurrection in the world.
 
In this whole section, Wright’s preaching and teaching acumen is on full display. He’s an example
to preachers in all contexts of how to deal concisely and clearly with vast information, without overloading the listener or simply skimming the content.

Following the God of resurrection

Part two has more variety as the sermons come from several contexts within Wright’s preaching ministry. Yet in multiple ways, all the sermons contribute to a broader task of offering a biblical model of discipleship.
 
The theme of resurrection continues in this section, with the sermon “The God Who Raises the Dead” setting an important tone for how we define discipleship: it’s God’s work in the midst of our failures and struggles that inspires our faithfulness.
 
Here Wright shows his pastoral heart, guiding the reader to accept that, while we live with much failure, we follow a God of resurrection.
 
The sermon on hell offers brief but challenging commentary on justice, humanness and theological priorities. Wright points out how what we believe about hell will impact how we live as Christians.
 
Finally, the book concludes with “New Life, New World”) connecting discipleship to Wright’s later popular themes around heaven (e.g., Surprised By Hope). It’s interesting to see these concepts percolating in Wright’s mind long before his wide publication of them.
Overall, in Following Jesus, Wright proves that discipleship and theology can go together. In fact, they belong together.
 
Discipleship without theology risks mirroring the legalism of ages past, and theology without discipleship risks becoming mere belief that creates an illusion of faithfulness. Together, however, theology and discipleship reveal the path of following Jesus to be about our whole selves, individually and together, as we seek to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength in all that we encounter in the world.

 

Presence and Place

I continue to be intrigued by the connection between the places we live and the people we are. Whether we know it or not, the places we inhabit shape the people we are becoming. And so I find it helpful to pay attention to various cultural shifts in how people and place relate. To this end, this quote from James Davison Hunter describes well current shifts in presence and place:

For millennia of human history, body and location were inextricably connected to experience. The worship of God, the cultivation of friendship, the conduct of business, and the expression of anger and hostility, the pursuit of romantic affection, the experience of the natural world all presupposed physical presence. The expressions on the face, the gestures of the hands, the body's mien, touch itself--by their nature, worked together to limit, expand, and shape communication and relationship. Place mattered no less. The towering reaches of a cathedral, the foreboding form of a fortress, the warmth and intimacy of a home or hostel, the beauty and power of the ocean or landscape, for example, were all inwoven with the experience within these places.

Both physical presence and place continue to matter to us, but neither matter as much as they once did. We are, of course, present in time, but less and less present by virtue of our physical presence. For example, when one can communicate with anyone at anytime from anywhere--whether through a cell phone, the Internet, or some other technology--presence and place simply matter less. They matter less to the cultivation and maintenance of relationships and less to the work we do. We are in a sense, released from the gravitational pull that presence and place once necessitated for both relationship and labor.

What is more, when the physical places we inhabit--whether homes, offices, gyms, shopping malls, interstate highways, airports, parking lots, cities--look alike, place seems to matter even less. What was distinctive about a place etiolates into space and we end up with what James Kunstler has called "a geography of nowhere"--where every place looks like no place in particular.

The development of new technologies of information and communication are clearly one of the sources of this cultural change. In a time such as ours, more and more of us inhabit our relationship to the world--at least increasingly so--through these technologies. Whether work, friendship, romance, rivalry, hostility, the natural world, or specific places in the world--all can be and indeed are increasingly mediated through programming. Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies.

The weakening significance of presence and place is but one way in which what we take as reality has dissolved. Like most things in the world, there is ambivalence about this turn of circumstances. There are ways that the technological changes that brought this about can be and are liberating and empowering. But they are not with cost, for in their net cultural effect, they can also be profoundly disorienting and, in ways, deeply incapacitating. As it bears on faith, the weakening significance of presence and place brought about by the broken trust between word and world cuts to the very core of what it means to believe--the reality of what we believe and the implication of our belief for how engage the world we live in.
Hunter, To Change the World, 238-239
 
  • How does your physical space shape your values and actions?
  • How do you shape your physical space?
  • How do you experience cultural shifts as liberating or disorienting?



Hope in a summer of loss

It’s been a difficult summer around the world and in the lives of many individuals.

Wars.
Deaths.
Depression.
Exclusion.
Violence.

And I feel at a loss for how to respond.

Two of my favorite songs have been on my mind at various points as I’ve encountered news of yet more loss in one form or another. Music has a way of illuminating our feelings in many situations, particularly in times of hopelessness. Coldplay’s, “Fix You” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” are two classics that poignantly identify our despair:
 
...tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace...

...When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough…

Tears are streaming. Our world has indeed had enough!

Yet there exists an honest hopefulness in these songs that doesn’t gloss over the deep hurt and pain of our lives in this world, but also doesn’t stay in the place of despair. That “light will guide you home” and the reality we can “hold on” knowing that we are not alone - “everybody hurts” -  speaks to a hope in the universal experience of death. To me, these songs have offered a hope in a summer of loss. And for that I’m grateful.




On the blog...

As my blogging has slowed for the summer, it's interesting to see what people are reading who find there way to my blog. Here's a sampling of what's being read:

 

"Gift of limitation"

Within North American Christianity, successful leaders are often described in certain terms: confident, independant, charismatic, driven, etc...

It's similar in generalizing about successful churches: growth, sustainability, clarity, virbrance leadership, etc...

None of these characteristics are bad or incongruent with faithful Christianity. Unless they become an end unto themselves. In the drive for success, Christians can forget and neglect the role of perceived weakness - failure even - as an accepted part of faithfulness. Such a concept can seem counterintuitive in our North American leadership context, but it's essential.

In the context of their discussion on the importance of a physical place for the church to inhabit, the authors of The New Parish summarize the role of accepting limitation in the context of a local neighbourhood (parish), a thought I think applies to our faith in general as well:

"God has given you the gift of limitation and responsibility. Limitations are a pointing to your need of the other, while responsibility reveals the other's need of you. What the phyiscal body is to a human person, the parish is to the body of Christ. The limitation is glorious. It is God's gift of enabling you to see and live into your need for others."

Praxis - The Video

Here`s a promotional video for Praxis - spread the word!!!

"Don't be afraid"

Some wisdom and good news for you and for our world...

Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think - 'Be good'? 'Be holy, for I am holy'? Or, negatively, 'Don't sin'? 'Don't be immoral'? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: 'Don't be afraid.' Don't be afraid. Fear not. Don't be afraid. 

The irony of this surprising command is that, though it's what we all really want to hear, we have as much difficulty, if not more, in obeying this command as any other. We all cherish fear so closely that we find we can't shed it even when we're told to do so...Every one of us has something on her or his mind about which we badly need a voice to say: 'Don't be afraid. it's going to be all right.' As the Lord said to Lady Julian: 'All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.' Let's make no mistake about it: until you learn to live without fear you won't find it easy to follow Jesus.*

From "The God Who Raises the Dead" in Following Jesus by N.T. Wright. 

*This quote comes from an advance proof of the book`s updated edition and may not be exactly as published.


A prayer for the church on Canada Day

I've reflected a few times on my ambivalence as a Christian to gleefully endorse my country around patriotic holidays (see here and here). I read a prayer this week that aligns with much of what I think the church should be focused on when it comes to faith and nationalism:

God of Reconciling Love,

We thank you for your reconciling mission, which is always inviting us to live in our mutual need of one another even before we recognize it. Teach us to love and to receive one another as Christ receives us.

Amen. 

Towards Hospitality

Some insightful thoughts on hospitality from the Center For Parish Development:

Contemporary images of hospitality—and of community—tend to be shaped by an “ideology of intimacy.” Such an approach emphasizes sameness, closeness, warmth, and comfort. Difference, distance, conflict, and sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs. A facade of harmony is maintained by eliminating the strange and cultivating the familiar, by suppressing dissimilarity and emphasizing agreement. Those who are strange—“other than we are”—must either be excluded or quickly made to be “like us.” The image is of homogeneous communities of retreat where persons must be protected from one another—and from outsiders—and where reality is suppressed and denied due to fear and anxiety...

It is true that the stranger represents an unknown and sometimes dangerous figure. Yet three key events in the New Testament—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—all recount the coming of a divine stranger. In each case the newcomer brings blessings and gifts which both disorient and transform. “The child in the manger, the traveler on the road to Emmaus, and the mighty wind of the Spirit all meet us as mysterious visitors, challenging our belief systems even as they welcome us to new worlds.”  The stranger plays a central role in biblical stories of faith and for good reason. “The religious quest, the spiritual pilgrimage, is always taking us into new lands where we are strange to others and they are strange to us. Faith is a venture into the unknown, into the realms of mystery, away from the safe and comfortable and secure.”

Don't try so hard

My sporadic blogging has come with a change of pace as I'm out of the office until August, doing some construction and spending time with my family. In the midst of this shift a theme has emerged a few times as I've reflected on this past year in my new job and adapting to life in a new-old community (I grew up here in Abbotsford, but have been away for a few years). The theme is around striving, or trying too hard. A line from Ecclesiastes that comes to mind is "chasing after the wind." The poet concludes that a life characterized by striving is, quite simply, "meaningless."

So in our family we trying to slow down and stop trying so hard, exploring what a meaningful pace is in day-to-day life. I'll leave you with a few passages from the Message translation that highight this theme well:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Mt. 11:28-30)

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Gal. 5:22-23)

 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
 

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Mt. 6:25-34)


Visioning the little things

I always feel a bit torn when it comes to discussions about an organization’s vision, be it a church, educational institution or business. Yes, clarity in direction and identity is important to achieving effectiveness, but the visioning process can create a sense of progress (i.e. lots of talk), without very much actual clarity or progress. Meetings and words create the sense that we are in fact doing something before anything has in fact changed or been done. In the context of Christianity, I think this is a real danger, what I call the “illusion of faithfulness.”

Having just been involved in a visioning process with colleagues, one in which we were aware of the danger of mere talk, I’ve been trying to focus on the value of simplicity, particular when it comes to visioning Christian engagement with world. In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne offers a helpful corrective, acknowledging the value of the little things in life and faith:

“Mother Teresa offers us that brilliant glimpse of hope that lies in little things: ‘We can do not great things, only small things with great love. It is not how much you do but how much love you put into doing it.’ Above our front door, we have hung a sign that says, ‘Today…small things with great love (or don’t open the door).’

It is easy to fall in love with the great things, whether we are revolutionaries or church-growth tacticians. But we must never simply fall in love with our vision or our five-year plan. We must never fall in love with ‘the revolution’ or ‘the movement.’ We can easily become so driven by our vision for church growth, community, or social justice that we forget the little things, like caring for those around us. An older charismatic woman told me, ‘If the devil can’t steal your soul, he’ll just keep you busy doing meaningless church work.’”


As Christians, we place our hope in a person (Jesus) not just inspiring words. Thus, in the most personal way, I hope to begin visioning the little things, a place to find love and meaning moment to moment, person to person.