#RunForWater - From Abbotsford to Ethiopia

Living in Abbotsford now, I had the chance to participate for the first time in what's become a hallmark community event - the annual Run For Water. And while people of all ages and all running abilities gathered to run a variety of distances (some more ambitious than the 5k I ran - my wife ran a half marathon!), our running in Abbotsford paralelled running of a different sort in Ethiopia. Where our running here is a community event, theirs is a daily event, not one of leisure or sport, but of necessity and sustenance. In Ethiopia, and countless other places, people travels miles a day to find clean water. Where we run for water (to raise money, awareness, etc...), they run to water. Hopefully the money raised ($253,000) can help change this reality in providing accessible water to more Ethiopians. From Abbotsford to Ethiopia, this video summary tells the story well of why I ran for water:

Envision Financial Run For Water 2014 Race Day Video from Run for Water on Vimeo.

Ordinary Faith

Life is extraordinary.

Life is ordinary.

Life is a blend of extraordinary moments intersecting with many more ordinary moments experienced in everyday life. We can all attest to this reality.

When it comes to this extraordinary-ordinary dynamic, where does faith take root? Or as Christians, how does one cultivate a committed life of discipleship over the course of all we experience in a lifetime?

Do extraordinary experiences most shape our faith journey? Conversion, baptism, marriage, tragedy, sickness, healing, and all a whole host of other things are tangible marks in our lives where in a way, positively or negatively, faith is shaped.

But what about faith in ordinary everyday life? Work, boredom, eating, friendship, parenting - all the “small stuff” takes up far more of our time yet can seem insignificant when it comes to an encounter with God.

Looking back at my own life, I'm prone to suggest it's the extraordinary moments that have most shaped my experience of faith. For example, my first summer at working at camp I was given opportunity to lead, discovering a passion to help others see God’s goodness while also experiencing this goodness myself. I'll never forget that summer and it’s set my life on a trajectory of continuing to lead others in their faith. This is just one example.

But while my memory says these type of extraordinary experiences are most formative, my everyday life tells a different story. Where I've had extraordinary moments of seeing God at work, ordinary life is all the time. And if “God is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), ordinary life cannot be dismissed as secondary when it comes to faith formation.

In some ways, such belief can seem counterintuitive - don't Christians seek to proclaim the spectacular glory of God in the world? Surely an extraordinary God deserves extraordinary testimony! Faith in “what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1), however, is one which extends beyond memories, doing the hard work of noticing the ordinary work of God.

No doubt such a recognition takes a certain honesty for how we do and do not experience God in the world. We may say faith matters in ordinary life, but experience tells us otherwise. The mundane is often more life taking than life giving. Doubt consumes everyday life, not faith. In the moment of honest doubt, then, we cannot retreat to extraordinary memories - the good ‘ole days of encountering God! - but have the courage to embrace our weakness as the path to ordinary faith. 

As Brené Brown describes, we need “ordinary courage” - 

“The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant to ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary” (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection).

Do you love your job?

I recently had the chance to listen in on a conversation amongst a group of Christian leaders on the topic of work. More specifically, they explored the question, “Can you do what you love?” The event was sponsored by The Regent World (a publication of Regent College) and Christianity Today and included a panel with Andy Crouch, RIkk Watts, and Josh Kwan interacting around the concept of work and fulfillment - or, as the event describes, “doing what you love, being part of something meaningful, and still getting paid in a messy and unpredictable world.”

I decided to live tweet meaningful ideas and quotes as I listened, both as a way of taking notes and sharing some of the wisdom with others. Here’s what stuck out to me as I twittered away:

Andy Crouch

"Change the world" is unhelpful. We need to realize our cultural influence has a limited scope. Instead: "be image bearers"

"Work in the world with its existing goodness...keep the good and add to the good"

"Alone, loving my work really becomes about self love. Work needs to be ordered to loving God and others."

Rikk Watts

"The bible is about rhetoric and design...this is what image bearers do"

"Be present to the water and the dish."
Rikk Watts’ perspective on menial day-to-day tasks such as doing the dishes. Presence can go a long way to sustaining our well-being in whatever we find ourselves working at.

"I'm amazed at how many people are just lonely"

Josh Kwan

"It's easier to be excellent at something you love"

"If we place all of our identity in our work, we put so much pressure on this trajectory of success."

A luxury?

During the forum there was opportunity for the audience to ask questions via Twitter. It came up from a few folks, but here’s how I framed it: “How does the luxury of this conversation in this time and place frame our view of meaning and work within history?”

How to do what you love for work is not a global question but a question of luxury, a question reserved for those in places of cultural privilege and wealth. To this luxury, there was general agreement that when it comes to work, it’s not so much what we do, but how we do it. Andy Crouch pushed back against the title of the forum itself, as “doing what we love” implies a relationship with our work in terms we should reserve for actual relationships. In this sense we can love within our work, but to actually love our work goes beyond the purpose of work itself.

Unfortunately time restricted greater interaction on this question. Overall, I found the forum to be a helpful discussion on how Christians can and should seek purpose when it comes to work.


To give or to receive?

Is it sometimes easier to give than to receive?
What does it mean to receive?

These are a couple of the questions I’ve been reflecting on lately.

In our culture of rampant individualism, leaders, particularly within Christianity, have to work stridently against the grain of selfishness. Servant leadership is our modus operandi and intentional self-sacrifice is the path to success. Giving is what good leaders do.

To a point.

I just finished a year leading a group of young adults in an educational and personal growth experience of faith in Christ and engagement with culture. It was exciting, inspiring, and humbling. I prayed for and created space for others to encounter God. It was similar when I was pastor. Personally I can’t imagine a more rewarding area of leadership.

But at times I’ve felt empty. I give much in helping others receive the goodness of God’s love in their lives. I even take pride in how giving I can be! Yet something is often missing. Others are fulfilled, but I’m not. If you’re a leader of any kind, perhaps you can relate.

Unfortunately, in the act leading and giving, this emptiness remains hidden. In my case, giving to others can lead to an ongoing self-neglect. Even worse is I’m often completely unaware of it.

Recently this emptiness became more present to me during a communion service. I entered the room and upon seeing the bread and the cup I instantly felt an intense longing. I’m not an overly emotional person in any circumstance, but my feeling of desire to eat the bread and drink the wine (it was juice actually!) was so persistent that I was overcome by emotion. And then it hit me. I needed to receive. I longed to receive. I had nothing left to give. As we broke bread and drank from the cup, I realized that’s the point. As leaders, we only have so much to give. As Christians, we only give because we have received.

It’s been a timely reminder for me to accept blessing from God and from others. I cannot give endlessly, nor should I. In fact, giving alone is not leadership at all. True leadership comes with mutual giving and receiving. I’m still glad I get to give to others as a leader. But I’m just as glad I get to receive as well.

We love because he first loved us. 1 Jn. 4:19

Welcome and Witness - Bruxy Cavey

With the statistics I referenced in my previous post about the current state of the church in Canada, inevitably churches are left asking, “Now what?” And, “How does this look?” Here I explore the second half of the World Vision forum I attended, “Shifting Stats, Shaking the Church.”

Bruxy Cavey, pastor of The Meeting House (Ontario) offered a few of the ways he envisions moving forward. (A bit of an aside, but I find Bruxy Cavey an anomaly within evangelicalism – Anabaptist. Mega church. What!?! Anyway, I think it’s helpful to recognize the context from which he offers his response to the reality of the church in Canada)

Cavey began his response with a foundational theological point: God is all about partnership. To miss this point is to miss how the church is intended to mirror God’s work in the world. As Cavey summarized, “Whenever God ever decides to do something, his next thought is, ‘Now who can I do this with?’” But once the church recognizes its role in God’s mission, how the church participates in this mission is central as well. In the face of a shifting religious culture, the church’s response isn’t about grasping at new strategies to somehow re-ignite waning interest, but rests on the truth that in scripture and in history "God repeatedly values relationality over efficiency." The church needs to stop managing itself and instead engage in being a community of people in relationship to God, to one another, and to the world.

For Cavey and The Meeting House such a perspective means everything they do as a congregation takes on a posture of welcoming. Relational connection is a priority in belonging to their church, not just attending a Sunday gathering. Relationships are practically experienced through house churches (they don’t have small group ministry), team leadership (Cavey is not the senior pastor), and an overall tone of openness to questions and dialogue (every sermon has a “Q & Eh”). And this is not about tweaking certain aspects of traditional church life – e.g. simply putting a stronger emphasis on small groups. “Evangelical Christians are a trendy bunch,” quipped Cavey, and if we expect slogans or programs to inspire authentic community, the church will miss the point. Instead, simplicity should drive community – “The best discipleship program is home church...life together.”

Unfortunately, time constraints shortened Cavey’s conclusion in which he discussed the church’s witness. Key here is recognition that the gospel is not the good news of theological abstraction, but the very reality of Jesus and his lordship in the world. In Cavey’s words, “The gospel is the best news you will ever get – as God has come to us through Christ to show his love, save from sin, share his life, and shutdown religion.” The church’s witness is to this good news – a message of salvation that then determines our allegiance in all of life. It would have been helpful to hear more ways in which The Meeting House lives out this witness, but with Cavey’s forthcoming book on the topic of the gospel, hopefully this will be explored further.

Overall, when I think of our Canadian culture and the changing religious landscape, a church actively practicing welcome and witness places hope in God’s relational work in the world, not our ability as Christians to somehow maintain relevance. As culture continues to change, instead of fear we are left with hope.

Shifting Stats, Shifting Church - Dr. Don Moore

I recently attended World Vision’s Canada-wide event, “Shifting Stats, Shaking the Church.” The overall topic was the church in Canada today. Looking at recent research and attempts to respond, the event sought to assess “the pulse of the Canadian church.” The main purpose of the event was to “spark awareness, start conversations, and stimulate thinking.” Speakers included Dr. Don Moore (World Vision National Church Ambassador) and Bruxy Cavey (Teaching Pastor at the Meeting House)

The event began with Dr. Moore giving an overview of recent research on religion in Canada. Drawing from census data and sociologists’ studies, Dr. Moore outlined the continuing trend of decline in church attendance and affiliation in Canada. Having read much of Reginald Bibby’s work and followed the general tone of religion in Canadian culture, I didn’t find anything particularly new or insightful with the data itself. It was helpful, however, how Dr. Moore presented the data. He focused the data around three categories: immigrants, families/youth, and finances/time/technology.

Immigrants: There are approximately 200 different ethnicities in Canada and thus multiculturalism remains a strong Canadian value and reality that the church cannot ignore. With continued immigration, along with higher religious affiliation among immigrants over native-born Canadians, Moore challenged the church to address this reality. How does the church incorporate and engage immigrants? To what degree are churches really willing to open their doors? I suggested the Life Centre (Abbotsford) as an example.

Families/youth: The main emphases here were on shifts in family dynamics (e.g. divorce, delayed/no marriage) and declines in religious affiliation among young adults and youth (younger = less affiliated). In both areas, the church must not remain static in how they understand what “normal” Canadian life looks like. With less and less families engaged in churches, less and less common knowledge about Christianity and church exist. To ignore this is to become (or remain) irrelevant.

Finances/time/technology: On finances, Dr. Moore highlighted astronomical debt as a major challenge the church cannot ignore, both for pastoral reasons but also in terms of institutional sustainability – “there is only so much pie to go around.” Collaboration among churches and ministries, then, will be vital for healthy churches. I found this line particularly insightful and challenging: “Too often [churches] look at the bottom line more in dollars than social good.” Additionally, in a culture that remains as busy as ever, churches need to simplify ministry rather than just make people’s live busier – we are beyond the point to decrying dual-income families. In terms of technology, statistics seem to suggest that churches who embrace technological change see some sort of positive impact (e.g. regular online giving). Adaptation to technology will be required so long as churches can “stay true to themselves” in the process.

Like I mentioned, I didn’t find the statistics particularly surprising or new. Canada has been on this trajectory for quite some time. Whenever I hear such statistics, however, I often wonder what an appropriate response is, especially towards declining numbers. Fear? Lament? Celebration? Hunker down and get on with the business of re-Christianizing Canada (or “transforming” or “redeeming” or whatever other word you prefer)?

I don’t think the response should be fear or lament. Pining for the “good ole’ days” won’t change anything. In fact, it’s such an approach that has led to many of the absurd conflicts amongst Christians in recent decades that turns so many people off from church (e.g. worship wars).

I also don’t think the response should be to sound the rally cry and make bold statements about us somehow reclaiming Canada for Christ. First, as Christians, we believe that all of creation is already under the lordship of Christ (Col 1:17). Changing statistics don’t change that reality. Second, the task of the church is to witness to God’s presence not enforce it. God redeems, not us. The church participates in the presence of God through our love of neighbor and ongoing experience of life together.

I appreciated Dr. Moore’s conclusion. He asked, “Where do we begin now?” For many, the declining role of the church is cause for uncertainty and anxiety. In light of this, his response was simple, but right on: listen, learn, and lead. The church needs to pay attention to Canadian culture, learning from the people we share cities and neighborhoods with. Only then can we lead the way in responding to these realities rather than only acting in reactionary ways.

How this looks will no doubt vary. But a posture of listening and learning is critical in a time when religion – Christianity in particular – has a declining public influence. This is the type of Christian leadership we need in Canada today.

Next up: Bruxy Cavey’s response.

Look up. But still use your phone.

Much has been said about perils of social media and the excessive use of smart phones. I’ve chimed in once or twice in the past. The latest rant has come via this clip, "Look Up":

I agree with much in the assessment of our obsessive phone culture and admit my own tendency to focus more on my phone then my surroundings from time to time. Smart phones and social media feed a lack of attentiveness in relationships and a general distraction in everyday life we’d all do well to avoid.

But I’m also uneasy with these repeated guilt-inducing tirades against the current state of society’s use of technology. And it’s not that I disagree with (some of) the problems. I just don’t think guilt is a healthy motivator. Or that the situation is as dire as suggested. To hypothesize around “what ifs” and suggest that unless I leave my phone at the door I will lack fulfillment and relationships just isn’t true. My phone won’t dramatically alter my life-course. Previous generations had their own set of problems to work through with technology (I rarely hear anyone today decrying the automobile as too efficient or electricity as too convenient). They wrestled through the impact of technological change in their day-to-day lives. So do we today. Messages of guilt only make us feel bad, perhaps creating temporary change or a tinge of regret. But shortly we learn to live with the guilt (if it remains at all) and we move on.

When it comes to smartphones and social media, I think we can do better.

Instead of saying, “Stop using your phone so much!” what if we say, “Start using your phone well!”? Phones are part of the problem, indeed. But we have a choice for how we use them. Smartphones aren’t going away. And like I said, guilt won’t help much. I want to suggest we explore a virtuous use of smartphones and social media instead.

Briefly, here’s how the cardinal virtues can relate to smartphone use:

Wisdom (Prudence): Use of our phones can enhance our understanding of the world, not just through mindless facts, but with the ability to know more about our surroundings than ever. Whether it’s becoming educated about important social differences or simply gathering information as we face decisions, smartphones can actually foster wisdom.

Justice: Yes, we can’t forget how technology contributes to much injustice in our world, from slave labor to cyber-bullying. But we can commit to using our phones as a tool for equality and wholeness, speaking words of encouragement and supporting companies with best practices in the industry. In this sense, a phone can foster justice in our lives not just detract from it.

Temperance: This one seems like common sense to me, and is likely what’s behind the video above, but the use of our phones really comes down to moderation. Yes, smartphones and social media can create a culture of impatience and self-indulgence. But this doesn’t have to be. We can set aside phone-free times and commit to not checking our phones at inappropriate times (e.g. in conversation or while driving). Controlled use of our phones can actually help us become more patient and self-controlled people.

Courage: One of the main problems with smart phones is mindless overuse, where we put little thought into how we use them. But what if we all committed to using our phones for good? Or to face our personal and social fears? Smartphones don’t have to be only about self-indulgence, but can offer countless opportunities to make a difference in peoples lives or towards addressing important social issues as we can communicate important information in the moment.

I do think we still need warnings and reminders for the ways we can become consumed or distracted by our smartphones. But in the process let’s be realistic and look for the positive instead of repeated guilt-trips that never seem to make a difference anyway. I won’t stop using my phone. And you probably won’t either. Let's look up and use our phones well.

Humble Participants in Culture

I do much reading and reflecting on the relationship of faith and culture, and in particular, the nature in which Christians participate in culture. Is culture good? Is culture bad? Is culture neutral? Is culture separate from us (and us from it)? Or are we inextricably connected to culture whether we like it or not?

These questions arise from the inevitable tension of Christian identity and mission - the call to be in the world but not of the world; the reality of living within the world as “resident aliens.” Engaging culture is unavoidable as citizens, yet in many ways Christians are called to avoid much. What to do?

There are all sorts of options: Christians should “redeem” culture, a phrase I’ve encountered a fair bit of late; or Christians should withdraw from culture (something we Mennonites are great at); or Christians should create culture. Niebuhr’s famous typology still provides a helpful foundation for the variety of ways Christians have and continue to relate to culture (Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox Christ Transforming Culture). All this to say there is no one way understand the dynamics of Christianity and culture.

Yet underlying the whole discussion of Christianity and culture is a definition of culture as something “other.” Culture is separate from who we are, and thus something we can respond to as we see fit. As individual Christians, or even as a community of Christians, culture is distinct from us and we from it. The task is choosing how to best establish our relationship with culture.

But what if that’s a choice Christians, or all humans for that matter, don’t actually have? Or at least not to the extent we believe?

I’ve had a lingering unease with many of the common conversations around Christianity and culture. All sides display an overconfidence in our ability to determine if and how we will relate to the world around us. Yes, Christians can create and shape culture. Yes, Christians can choose to remain distinct from aspects of culture. But we can’t neglect the reality that we exist within a culture and are shaped both directly and indirectly by this very culture. Culture is not simply an “other.” We don’t just relate to culture, but are participants or members of culture. I’m not sure Christians always get this.

And this shift reframes how Christians can discuss faith and culture. We are forced to acknowledge our own limitations in freely choosing our cultural engagement. If culture isn’t completely “other” then we aren’t completely in control of how culture and faith relate. The result, I hope, is humility towards culture instead of overconfidence. History shows the perils of Christian overconfidence. Christians still need to discern how we are cultural participants as followers of Jesus, but no longer from a place of disconnection and superiority. As humble participants in culture, Christians don’t begin cultural engagement with a theory or position but with a presence, continually discerning faithfulness to Jesus in all times and places.