Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What a sheephony!

One of the great experiences of my time well spent in the Arrow Leadership Program was a day of preaching. If you think this sounds exceedingly dull and like being court-ordered to some religious management course, you’d be dead wrong. That day was like sitting in on the Kingdom Symphony Orchestra.

We Arrowheads are a diverse and beautiful mix—a variety of leaders from different countries, ethnicities, denomi-nations and vocations. Each is unique and on that day we were each given the monumentally minute task of delivering a three-minute sermon.

I have rarely been so nervous. The mix of trying to impress—that’s not very holy, but it is honest—and seeking to compress the gospel into 180 seconds was enough to drive one to Pepto-Bismol. But a day spent hearing the good news of God’s love declared and embodied through the dynamism of such diversity was divine. What a symphony!

This inspired our church’s elder retreat this fall, where we asked some of our leaders to deliver similar three-minute homilies. It was fun watching them sweat. But it was even better hearing the uniqueness of the gospel declared through their uniqueness and passions. What a symphony! It was, once more, a potent reminder that we need a preaching people, not just a preaching class or profession.

The gospel is not merely a concept or another in the great rivalry of moral ideals. It is the power of God (Romans 1:16)! It is yeast and salt. It is light in the pervading darkness, a whisper of hope amidst the moaning cacophony of the age. It is God’s Word stealthily gossipped in dark alleys and unashamedly shouted from rooftops. The Word becomes flesh. It moves into the neighbourhood and speaks our language. The gospel is a living declaration of good news, a clarion call of another world, of the gregariousness of grace, of a different kingdom that is at hand. And for those who have subscribed to its regular delivery, the gospel is a vocational call to declaration, proclamation and demonstration.

To believe God’s good news is to become a preacher. To “preach” is to proclaim glad tidings. Is this not the task of every believer? The communion of saints is a preaching community. We are sheep hailing our Shepherd. We bring good news of great joy that is for all people. Equipping this preaching community, this gospel band—this flock—is the task of those labelled “preachers.” Those asked to teach regularly are actually called to light, stoke and pour gas on the fire within the believing community and watch it spread. Sadly, we have trained the flock to be dumb sheep instead of roaring lambs.

This is far from the biblical vision. Moses longed for the whole of the Lord’s people to be prophets (Numbers 11:29). Paul yearned for the same beautiful reality (I Corinthians 14:24-25). Jesus, the logos of God and a simple carpenter’s son, declared that the Holy Spirit would release a diverse symphony of good news witnesses on the world (Acts 1:8). We are all to be ready to give a reason for the hope we are convinced of (I Peter 3:15). Preaching is for the people, by the people, through the people, and for the sake of people who need to hear from and see in loving action the sheephony of heaven. Who is waiting to hear you bleat?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Shop Till You Drop

Well, it would appear our insanity is confirmed. With Thanksgiving thankfully behind us in both the United States and Canada we can psychotically engage in mass consumerism for five glorious, unbridled weeks before starting all over again on Boxing Day. What sport.

The god of the age, however, is demanding sacrifices. On Friday, November 28, 2008 Jdimytai Damour, a temporary worker at a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, New York was trampled to death as two thousand bargain hunters surged through the store’s doors at 5 a.m. Yes, that’s right, 5 a.m.! Economic turmoil, I suppose, demands we rise from our slumber early and rush madly after things we don’t really need no matter what the cost. We have lost the plot. We have lost any moral authority to call ourselves civilized. Jdimytai’s death is a pox on all of us.

As followers of Jesus we must take responsibility for our part in what our culture has become. Let us cease our hand wringing and holier-than-thou finger pointing. We are not as pure as our rhetoric declares. We live in the midst of an unclean people and we are they. We ought to bear some of the heart of Moses who pleads for his people. We ought to share the heart of Jeremiah who wept for his compatriots. Are we responding prayerfully, prophetically, honestly, truthfully with what we have become? Or, are we browsing the flyers for the next early morning sale?

The grip of mammon is secure on western society. So sure is the grasp of this false god on us that we are blind to it. In our congregation we recently hosted a whole weekend on faithful, God-honouring stewardship of life and resources. We barely drew fleas. “Don’t go there” seems to be our strident opinion. “Don’t challenge my wanton spending.” “Don’t confront my out-of-control debt.” “Don’t threaten to bring this area of my discipleship into the light of day.” No, we’d rather offer our sacrifices at 5 a.m. under the cover of darkness.

Come now, let us reason together. Let us come into the light. Let us confess, as Neil Postman has written, “we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.” Rather than the fast the Lord has chosen (Isaiah 58:6f.) we are gorging ourselves. Overfed, over-entertained, over-indulged, we are the fat cows of Bashan that Amos mocked (Amos 4:1-3). This will not go unchecked.

The solution, however, is not simply to be found in teaching handy stewardship principles – as important as that is. The solution will not be found in the markets. Even well intentioned prophetic responses risk being received only as a law to those prone to shop for our salvation (this is worth checking out). The solution is spiritual. The remedy must go straight to the heart. The consumer is first and foremost a worshipper. So, the call must be to the surrender and sacrifice and discipline of a life of worship to the only Living God. The call is to repentance. This is not a popular message to be sure, but it is the only solution for the ache in the postmodern soul that is convinced our only hope is to shop till we drop.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Liquid Times

At the risk of sounding overly academic I’d like to invite you on a brief sociological journey.

In his book Liquid Times sociologist Zygmunt Bauman presents a very interesting picture of the age in which we live. He writes of the perilous place western civilization, indeed the whole world, finds itself in.
To summarize, Bauman points out that the “liquid” nature of society as we know it means several realities.

First, rapid change means we can’t keep up. Things morph so quickly that even well planned and well intentioned responses are outdated almost before they can be put into action.

Second, power is shifting away from local political spheres to broad globalization. We feel locally hopeless at the enormous global challenges (which is perhaps why we’re ready to elect anyone will promise us hope).

Third, this aforementioned power shift makes any sense of community sound “increasingly hollow.” That which holds us together is temporary and fleeting and we are withdrawn and estranged from those nearest to us.

Fourth, all of the above has caused us to live only for the now. We have forgotten our histories and the future. After all, anything we thought we knew feels useless given the current global challenges and rapid changes. The great new skill is being able to forget what you’ve learned.

Fifth, when it boils right down to it we are a society that has moved “the responsibility for resolving the quandaries (of this volatile age) onto the shoulders of individuals.” The individual has been saddled with the responsibility to solve problems that are beyond the capacity of politics, history, and community to solve. No wonder we are medicating ourselves to death!

Having effectively stated that what we have created is an outrageously individualized society midst a globalized and complex world, Bauman declares something paradoxically astonishing: “The future of democracy and freedom may be made secure on a planetary scale – or not at all.” What? Please pass the valium…on the rocks! In essence what this world-renowned scholar seems to be saying is that the only hope for a society with a case of hyper-micro-individualism is deliverance on the hyper-macro-scale! So, we only think about ourselves and yet are somehow to find a solution to our globalized dilemmas on a planetary level!? We’ll get right on that, right after our show is over and the beer has run out.

At first blush Bauman’s words seem startlingly impossible. And they are, until we begin to think theologically, until we think about God, his Word, and his salvation. Isn’t the essence of the mystery of the Gospel the wonder that the global solution has been revealed and this radical Good News Kingdom begins within the individual, who is then connected to a redeemed community who together reveal the wisdom of God as far out there as the heavenly realm (Eph.3:10)? Wow! God must read Bauman!

As those redeemed by grace through faith let us cling to the revealed hope that has somehow captured our very individual hearts. And, let it not stop there, let us be communions of hope, ambassadors of reconciliation, legions for peace in a world taught with a tension that cannot be resolved without Divine intervention

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Buck-licking good times

Recently my son and I saddled some bikes to explore the flora and fauna in another part of the country. To our great delight, we came upon a handful of grazing deer. Hardly bothered by our presence, this photogenic bunch, led by a relaxed buck who obviously has some thinking to do before hunting season, even allowed my son to snap some extreme close-ups. Then, astonishingly, the buck poked out his nose and licked my boy’s hand. Wonder. Smiles. Simple pleasures.

I far too often complicate and petrify life. I can even do this to faith. Let’s face it, the faith and wonder of a child is quickly lost as we grow. I hesitate calling such growth “maturing” because, really, the most mature ones I know have an infectious wonder of simple things. They seem to revel in buck-licking good times.

As the church these days seeks to respond to a world with the dry heaves, we can—even in our call for simplicity (a mesmerizing Mennonite pastime)—lose sight of simple pleasures. Instead of receiving life as a gift, and celebrating the joy of breath beneath the benevolent gaze of our creator and his lavish love in Christ for struggling sinners, we heap guilt trips on the faithful. I confess I can be found wanting here.

In our grand attempts to “save the world” we feverishly tie Pharisaical burdens on people that neither we, nor our ancestors, can carry. Many voices like mine, while hopefully saying some important things, are at risk of making faith a joyless, guilt-infused trip into some religious wasteland. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket and we’re happy to place blame. Unwittingly, grace, hope, joy and love begin playing second fiddle to our laments, complaints and new legalisms. Church is seen as a problem rather than the bride of God’s great delight.

Calm down, I still believe our following of Jesus should be marked by radical differences, but shouldn’t joy and enjoyment be part of a Christ-centred life too?

Think the Scriptures through with me. Nehemiah reminds the sorrowful Jews to stop their blubbering and celebrate because of the joy of the Lord (Nehemiah 8). Ecclesiastes calls us to enjoy simple things like food, drink, friendship, marriage and love. Even sex gets a wink of approval; ever tried to read Song of Songs without smirking?

And what about Jesus, who unashamedly hangs out at uncouth parties and employs things like treasures, lilies, fields and fluttering sparrows to reveal the heart of God. His first miracle was intended to keep a party going, not end it. His last miracle did not transform his slain body into some other-worldly, higher-plane, world-bashing avatar. No, the resurrected Lord seems at home on the beach grilling fish and enjoying redeeming friendship. The Lord’s Supper, which we take with great seriousness, is celebrated in simple things: bread, wine and company. Even Paul’s communion instruction to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11), although steeped in strong corrective language, reveals an unwillingness to wait for each other and recognize the simple wonder of being saved by faith together.

So can we lighten up a little, please? Is it okay to smile and enjoy God’s good gifts? Can we have some more buck-licking good times? Or has life and faith as we know it become far too serious to make room for a Lord who lavishes and laughs?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The grind of pastoral life

Some chats with leaders from across Canada and denominational lines have unearthed some disturbing pastoral realities: weariness, despair and quandary.

One pastor friend, sporting a different brand of kingdom wear (he’s Reformed—I still love him, but of course I was predestined to!), reminded me that recent U.S. statistics show 1,500 church leaders leaving ministry monthly because of conflict, burnout or moral failure. They’re not taking a break; most have no intention of returning to the grind of pastoral life.

All this makes the whole idea of the “pastoral life” a horrible oxymoronic and sarcastic kick to the nether-regions. “Pastoral life” can conjure up images of quaint log cabins or hillsides dotted with cud-chewing, tail-swishing cattle. What I’m hearing—and granted this is not every leader’s current experience—is that the life of a pastor is anything but tranquil. This, of course, is nothing new. Leaders have always been fair game from without and within. Those who have experienced the church under persecution realize that the enemy always aims for those living the pastoral life first.

These current trends, however, are a revealing indictment of a church not facing overt persecution. Perhaps the enemy is using more subtle tactics. As an under-shepherd with my weary brothers and sisters, allow me make the following observations:
• The pastoral life is being made weary by the unrealistic demands of consumerist religious idolatry.
This sounds harsh, but a culture demanding what it wants, expecting what it wants, and generally getting what it wants, has invaded our churches without anyone asking for proper identification. We are idolatrous consumers who expect a church life that will feed our spiritual, fee-for-service, drive-through appetites.
Leaders are weary and burned out trying to meet these impossible demands. Too many have been told their job is simply to keep people happy. Too few have been given the charge to simply do the will of the Father.
• The pastoral life is plagued with despair by the dysfunctional mess of our age.
Every era has its quirks, but a unique challenge of this age is the rapid unravelling of the home. While the mess left by a hurricane through your home can produce some wonderful clean-up stories, pastoral leaders are dealing with increasingly complicated family dysfunction that leaves them without answers when they are expected to have them.
Too many pastors are being told they bear responsibility for fixing messes they didn’t create. Too few have been freed to call for the responsibility of the individual and the community to the repenting, embracing and healing process of increasingly broken lives.
• The pastoral life is left in a quandary by the unstoppable shift of culture.
The boundary lines have moved. The church no longer functions anywhere near the centre of cultural conversation. We are a side-show, a nicety for the old, unscientific and ignorant; at least that’s what the culture believes.
To be a leader of this chastised remnant of yesteryear is not a title many clamour after. Many leaders are baffled why pews are empty or their best-laid plans produce nary a blip on the radar.

We wonder if we’re still necessary when Oprah is more popular than Jesus, even in the church. Too many pastors have been told they must simply do what has always been done. Too few have been released to lead their community into full-fledged missionary engagement with the world as it now is.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Prime Time Elections

The two most northern nations of North America are facing general elections this fall. The United States will choose to anoint either President Obama or President McCain in early November. In Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an election for October 14 (circumventing the law his Conservative Party introduced in 2006 to hold elections every four years).

In the US the 2008 election has been front-page news since, it seems, shortly after the Revolutionary War. I am trying to remember a newscast without mention of McCain or Obama and can’t conjure it up. With great respect to my American friends, your elections are quite entertaining and are almost full-blown soap operas with scripts you couldn’t even dream up: a first woman seems a shoe-in only to be booted to the sidelines; a second woman rises from nowhere (as a hockey mom from snow-land you’d almost think she’s Canadian) only to become the butt of jokes. Throw in a pregnant teen, a war hero, a first-ever candidate from the African American community, a stock market crash and eye-popping bank collapses, a mortgage Armageddon, and the incredible graphics and banter of nonstop news broadcasts who can make headline news out of even the glasses the candidates wear and you’ve got a hit! Wow, how do you pull this stuff off? It seems like American Idol, the Washington version.

In Canada, our elections are truly boring by comparison. We barely know who the spouses of our potential Prime Ministers are and I don’t see anyone running out to Canadian Tire or Zellers in search of Stephen Harper’s sweater collection. We have a separatist regional party that runs on the national stage. Where we once had two parties to choose from we now have five (although that’s only in Quebec. English Canada has the mind-numbing choice of four flavours). The leader of the Green Party will in this election be on stage in the televised leader’s debate even though her party has no elected members of parliament … ever! Well, maybe we’re not so boring … just banal … and redundant, since we seem to go through this about every 18-24 months.

The political process and leadership of two truly great nations have been reduced to sound bites and who can go negative best (does that make “negative” the new positive?). It’s easy to see why many, especially younger members of the population, have become disinterested or are seeking ways to challenge the current ways and means. Here in Canada the idea of Proportional Representation has been floated, but even more interesting is the vote swapping that is characterizing this election. The questionable ethics of voting now seems to be running neck and neck with the ethics of those seeking the votes.

So, what are we as Christians to do in a world of Prime Time Elections (I’m still waiting for the TV station that will have the courage to voice over their coverage with the guy who does the Monster TRUCK … truck … COMMERCIALS …commercials – it would seem humourously fitting)?

Despite the quirks and quandaries, or actually maybe because of them, Christians must engage themselves in the process. Now, of course, we could debate endlessly whether the “Religious Right” or the “Socialist Left” is most proper for the Christian to support. That, however, would be the wrong place to begin. Christians should engage themselves in the process for two primary reasons:
• First, this world is the locale both of wickedness and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. However sarcastic or disappointed we may be with the state of our unions the reality is that we are placed here and now and we have a responsibility to work, as followers of Jesus, for the good of the city to which we have been called for such a time as this. The party politics and banter are sideshows that we must avoid, but to excuse ourselves from working for the good of the land is unbiblical. Even the Israelites in exile were told to settle in and help Babylon thrive while keeping their eyes on the only true and enduring Kingdom. The forced exile of Christians from the public sphere in the twenty-first century does not excuse us from being prophetic and prayerful regarding our nations in hope of seeing resurrection and Kingdom life emerge and prosper. As Lesslie Newbigin writes, “The Christian … has no right to become indifferent to the good working of those authorities which God has ordained for a good purpose but which can easily become instruments of wickedness.”
• Second, we ultimately do not find our hope in the politics of people. This might sound contradictory. If the world is going to hell in a hand basket why not let it go there? This is negative advertising at its best, no? I want to suggest that our working for a better way and more just and righteous world is actually an important prelude to the gospel (please note, however, that it is NOT the gospel as some Christians have been want to conclude). We work and involve ourselves for good in order that the beauty of Jesus may be more clearly seen. If the followers of Jesus engage this broken and wicked world for good, for wholeness, for shalom, imagine what Jesus must be like. In addition, since even our best laid plans and policies ultimately fall short, prove inadequate and need re-working yet again (and sometimes election after election), doesn’t our involvement in the process reveal a humility that allows us to point to our Lord as the one who will ultimately fulfill all our hopes and aspirations for the just society? We serve – and that is a key word - not in futility, not in self-centeredness, not with pompous political prowess, but with a keen awareness of ourselves and a vision for what will one day be. In our political involvement we are not fooling ourselves that somehow we will usher in a utopia – that is the failed modernist vision that we still hear from some political types – but seeking to create another window into the just and whole society that God alone can bring. Our hope is, in John Howard Yoder’s famous words, in the “politics of Jesus.” As our resurrected Lord’s disciples therefore, as those who know the way of the cross politics can lay upon those with truly hope-filled vision, we serve for the sake of Jerusalem, Babylon, Washington, Ottawa and every Adamsville and Zurich in between.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Balanced Attack

I’m coaching baseball. Teaching ten year old boys the difference between force plays and tagging up is an agonizing art. It really is like herding cats. Then there’s the fine line between patience at the plate and swinging away. Recently our only hope of winning is if our pitchers toss a shut out and we score a run with a bases loaded walk. Putting good pitching and timely hitting together in the same game has happened with about the regularity of the passing of Haley’s comet and the Cubs winning the World Series. We are in desperate need of a balanced attack.

I’m observing something in the men around me. Beneath the polished veneer, “how ya doings?” and conversations about gas prices and the weather there runs a tight rope over troubled waters. We live with the tenuous tension between what we have and don’t have; who we know and don’t know; what we do and don’t do; who we are and who we wish we’d be. Many of us don’t know whether we’re coming or going, where we’re headed, or who we are. We sometimes hit, sometimes throw strikes, and often feel like we’ve dropped the ball. We are in desperate need of a balanced attack.

I coach boys to become men, not just hitters and fielders. But, they already seem torn and tossed about; small versions of their tattered dads sitting in the stands. They are over-the-top self-conscious, critical, seemingly bearing the weight of the world on their boney shoulders. A culture tells them million dollar contracts rest on the next pitch; that they must own the latest tech-toy or movie; that they should be what everyone else expects them to be. Their souls are cluttered and busy beyond belief; they lack peace. They have no concept of wholeness, of that ancient biblical notion of shalom.

A man of shalom who can find?
Shalom is a beautiful old Hebrew word translated “peace” in English Bibles. But, it doesn’t just mean peace – as in no shots being fired or that glorious moment just after the kids go to bed. Shalom means completeness, well-rounded happiness, soul rested-ness; prosperity from the depths. It is what we secretly yearn for. It is the stillness of the batter’s box from which life can explode into action. Shalom is the source of the balanced attack. And, shalom is a gift received from God when we cease our striving; when we surrender; when we heed his ways; when we believe.

If the boys we coach, employ, and put to bed grow up to be like us, what will their futures look like? The prospects are rather unnerving. The future is beginning to look like an ADHD, fast food, credit card, celebrity-driven unstable mishmash.
If we – I’m talking to the big guys now – are men not bound by faith to the Ancient of Days and the Prince of Peace we have no shalom. Without this sure footing we have nothing but the frantic chaos and tensions of the world and ourselves to offer those boys with bats on their shoulders and the world at their disposal.
Convinced we must experience a piece of everything we are not leading ourselves or the next generation into peace at all. We avoid the wells of the Spirit where we must wrestle with our own darkness, our own inner tensions, imbalances, complexities and sin. Consequently, we never find the source of true joy, freedom, forgiveness, brotherhood and hope. If we are to have a balanced attack we simply must go to these peace-filled deeps.

Without shalom our vision is blurred. We look at the proud man, the loud man, the crowd man and he looks so balanced. He always seems to hit home runs and throw strikes. He seems destined for fame and fortune. But, look more closely. Think more biblically.

I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree…but he soon passed away and was no more…Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for a man of peace/shalom (Psalm 37:35-37).

A man of peace you can find. A boy of shalom can rise from your influence. Wholeness, rest, and peace can be had, but you can’t buy it or strive after it. You have to surrender your way into it. You might even need to strike out a few times. But, having found God’s wholeness – even the hard way – you will finally know and coach a balanced attack.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ripe for a new harvest

For the past few summers our clan has bustled about Ontario’s threshing and steam-era shows and small town festivals making and selling homemade ice cream. It’s the continuation of my late father-in-law’s vision to fatten up the population one creamy spoonful at a time. Our kids very much enjoy Grandpa’s vision and Grandma’s recipe!

To be honest, I’m mostly a fish out of water when it comes to these shows and the 1928 engine I’m somehow supposed to know how to run and occasionally fix. I grew up rural and worked on farms, but there’s a good reason cows kicked me!

Actually, it’s really not so bad. We get copious amounts of family time, meet lots of cool people with interesting stories, and there’s nothing quite like a steam engine whistle at five metres to shake loose the cobwebs that build up from reading too much theology. It’s like a call back to where the writing meets the road.

I’ve actually been learning valuable lessons from these jaunts down memory lane.

That whistle is a shrill reminder of a day we hardly imagine existed. A mere century ago things were very different. Cities now sprawl and the countryside is latticed with pavement and patterned by fields worked by tractors the size of the houses the first settlers raised a dozen kids in. There was a time when people actually cleared bush to survive. There was a time when land was worked for the very first time. Those old tractors with steel-studded wheels were groundbreakers in more ways than one.

For me, the sunny days of dust and constant drone of putt-putts has given new vision to my glazed-over screen-saver eyes. Comfortable in our advancements, affluent to a fault, thoughtless and deconstructionist of our pasts, we need a rekindled pioneering spirit. The spirit that shaped much of what made Canada and the United States unique—and which yet can be seen in the lives of recent immigrants—has cancerously become what historian Jacques Barzun simply calls “decadence.” We’ve settled in, hunkered down, upgraded the implements and lost our drive to find space where no plow blade has turned the ground. If personal cost or discomfort is involved, we’re against it. As much as this is true in many of our lives, it is certainly true for the vast majority of churches.

The Apostle Paul was always looking for a place where the gospel had never been preached, but we act like he pretty much swallowed up all the possible real estate. We have memories of an adventurous, entrepreneurial, missionary past, but now buy the secular line that such zeal is unnecessary, misguided and probably mean-spirited. All this works to close our ears to the commission to go, to be compassionate, and to be Christ-centred and Christ-sent people who pioneer with our Lord in inner cities and vacated hamlets.

Where is there ground yet to be broken for Jesus in your neck of the woods? For all of our new-fangled gadgetry, the land around us is spiritually dry, overgrown and unstewarded. The wildness and weeds are choking out life.

Who are the pioneers willing to take long-term, faith-filled initiative for a new day? Is there any room for this pioneering spirit in our churches?

What might the implements of a new pioneering season of Christian mission look like? Someday they too will look out-dated, but Lord knows we need them now. After all, just look to the fields, they are ripe for harvest.

Monday, September 08, 2008

For God's Sake

It’s harder to live your convictions in the trenches than to nod your head at the confessions in the pews.

Traditionally the expanse between our theological statements and our practice of the Faith widens over years inevitably creating a hunger for reformation, revival, or renewal – pick your revitalizing label. What is stated and what is lived effectively become two different realities and someone, somewhere concludes with the monks of yore who discovered the Gospels, long ignored in a monastery basement, “Either these are not the Gospels, or we are not Christians.” I’m wondering out loud if perhaps our practice is betraying our convictions in regards to the good we do, and why.

Consider our propensity to fundraise, as an example. Is it not the tiniest bit troubling that we increasingly give only if we get something in return? We have meals, accept trinkets, and definitely expect that income tax receipt. In addition, and we especially do this with youth, we expect that they will do something – like feed us, sell chocolates, or shovel driveways – to earn our generosity. All this work to earn subtly models selfishness and teaches that you have to work to earn favour in the Kingdom – and how does this shape their understanding of God and grace? Secondarily, funds raised tend to be spent primarily on ourselves – programs for our kids, conference trips, or to replace that gaudy 70’s orange carpet (okay, maybe this last one has some merit). Is this the essence of service? We should be asking how Kingdom-minded all this really is.

Two theological inconsistencies are at work here – we give to get and we expect what is given to be earned. How does this reflect the nature of God whose grace and salvation is neither earned nor deserved? A deep spiritual ailment has beset us.

Having been wooed by the pleasures of 21st- century ease we are unwilling to part with our hard-earned cash without some earthly return. We revel in Mammon rather than God and only do good for our own sakes.

What has happened to doing good for God’s sake?

Any truly God-centered good is selfless and if I expect something in return I either don’t really believe it’s worthwhile or I’m not truly doing good, but simply performing an act of covert selfishness. If it is worthwhile it is worthwhile because it is good for God’s sake alone!

Sacrificial missionaries raising their own support are questioned by the godly in their new cars as to why they need so much. Youth rarely look toward voluntary service or ministry or seeing all they have and are as mission, but are encouraged (even by parents) to grab as much of this world as they can. We pump dollars into our ourselves, we’re proud of our spires or of not having spires, while the world screams to make poverty history, to solve the epidemic of AIDS, to heal racial divides, for an end to terror, for something to fill the hole in our souls that all our excess has not satisfied – the world cries out for salvation. Meanwhile we, whose commodity ought to be grace, demand to receive in order to give. Is it just me, or does something smell like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Our practice betrays our theology. Stop this heresy for God’s sake.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Revive us again

A friend and I discussed the nature of genuine revival while travelling Ontario’s busy summer highways as we reflected on the most recent “revival” people are flocking to in Lakeland, Fla.

“Revive Us Again” was a song sung many times in my childhood. The song implied that whatever it was we once had, had left the building, and the way we sang it made me think it had to be true. The song had a holy groove, even if we didn’t.

The church always needs revival. There must always be a sacred thirst for more of what we have thus far sipped of the divine. Hence, our attempts to rekindle the fire we once knew, most of which we then market as “new”: New leader, new program, new “anointing,” new building, new music style, new social cause. Surely something new is the next avenue of the truly holy and will miraculously revive our comatose spirits!

The disconcerting thing is that this “newness” actually does work . . . for a time. Drive to Florida to take in Todd Bentley or Mickey Mouse, and you will probably experience a new “high.” In fact, you’ll probably come home with a skip in your step while becoming completely frustrated with the shallowness of the people around you: If they’d just received the “impartation” you did, we’d see Parliament Hill parlayed into the Mount of Transfiguration.

But such spirituality tends to produce “super-saint” elitism or it works like a religious drug. We suddenly have all the answers for the dry bones among us or we become spiritual versions of the addict straining for just one more “trip.”

I propose that this is not revival at all. Revival is not an event attended, a blessing sought, a victory won, or a cause championed. No. Revival is obedience to the person of Jesus Christ.

When Peter, James and John find themselves in the cloudy presence of Elijah, Moses and Jesus on the mysterious mount, they marvel at the sheer wonder of it all. Peter seems determined to open up a campground and theme park. Surely this is the moment they have been waiting for.

Wrong! God interrupts Peter while he was still speaking and says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Even further, Jesus instructs his awestruck followers not to tell of the glorious vision at all. Instead of turning the experience into the point, they were to remember what the Father had said: Jesus was historically unique and was to be obeyed.

Whatever “spiritual” experience we might have, if it does not produce a deeper, more faithful obedience to the living Jesus it isn’t the real deal. Where “revival” does not awaken individuals and the church to a renewed, daily commitment to the person of Jesus—God the Son—then it is counterfeit, no matter what signs and wonders may be attached.

If we look to any “new” thing—like going ‘green’ or going to Florida—as our religious remedy while our radical commitment to follow Jesus as the unique Lord of all is not more selflessly obedient, then we simply are not hearing the voice on the mountain. Jesus is the centre of genuine revival and I fear many—of all revivalist persuasions—have set him aside in favour of our consumerist, religious and pagan visions.

Revive us again, indeed!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Saying Sorry

On June 11, 2008 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was sorry. Unlike many other remorseful politicians, however, Harper was not confessing some adulterous escapade that had come to the attention of the masses who enjoy a little spice with their elected officials.

In fact, Harper wasn’t apologizing for his own misdeeds at all, he was apologizing on behalf of us all: on behalf of we white Europeans who thought people different than us could be abused, cajoled, and assimilated into church and colony through some proper education and retraining. Surely if the native populations learned like us they could be, indeed might even want to be, just like us. (It’s eerily ironic that this seems to be the similar tactic being unwittingly employed by the increasingly dominant secular-humanist perspective on those not sharing their “religious” convictions, but that’s a whole other column.)

The goal of the residential school program, run jointly by church and state through the 19th and mid-20th centuries, was to civilize the "savages". Instead, we are only now recognizing how savage the “civilized” world really was. While there are many whose experience of this policy was positive, the repeated tales of children ripped from their homes to be raised as “Christians” by priests and nuns, only to be maltreated and have their identities and century’s old traditions mocked and scorned is heartbreaking. The story is very similar in the United States. This chapter in our histories is not something to be proud of during this week when we celebrate both nations’ birthdays.

In May 2007 I attended Canada’s national prayer breakfast in Ottawa. Two of the featured speakers were Christian aboriginal leaders. Both men are godly and upstanding citizens who cherish their people’s unique identity and follow Jesus, and desperately desire that more natives and non-natives do the same. A year ago I also had the honour of meeting a young native woman whose love for Jesus fires in her a passion to serve her people and build healthy and strong community where currently so much pain and brokenness exists.

What boggles the mind is that these amazing people, so marked by the mistakes of colonial powers and the religion that piggy-backed its way into North America, follow Jesus at all. One Canadian Member of Parliament was, in fact, blown away that after all that has happened there are aboriginals who call themselves “Christians” at all. What is it about this Living Lord that makes him so beautiful even through ugliness?

When Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and said, “The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of aboriginal peoples for failing them so badly,” he voiced what urgently needed to be said. Yet, at the same time, we should not lose sight of one thing: Jesus is drawing all nations to himself. Our temptation can be to assume that in the midst of the mistakes church people have made the problem is somehow with Jesus and that we must apologize for him, too. Let’s fess up where we are guilty, let’s walk in humility and honesty, but let’s not throw Jesus out, nor let him be thrown out, with our dirty bathwater. And to follow this analogy further, the problem for a dirty boy is not the soap, but the mud he keeps returning to.

All this necessary apologizing should remind us is that all people, of every tongue and continent, including aboriginals, have reason to be sorry; and should say so. And, as those of every tribe who follow Jesus seek to rebuild what has been destroyed, may we make it clear that we are apologizing not for Jesus, but because of him.

We are sorry we have not lived as the Spirit would have us. We are sorry we used his cross as a sword and did not take up our own cross instead. We are sorry we believed our own hype. We are sorry we couldn’t get beyond our modern prejudices and enlightened snobbery. We are sorry his word to love our neighbour had strings—and purse strings—attached. We are sorry the commission to make disciples was done with such wicked force. We were wrong; and that continues to prove that Jesus is right. Jesus never needs to say he’s sorry.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Let the youths run wild.....

Most of us have at least one story we’d never want Mom and Dad to know about. Something we did that we think is best left between us, some co-conspirator and the fence post.

This cranial hiccup, combined with thoughtless experimentation, strange music and head-shaking fashion fads, causes our culture to assume that during adolescence the human being is borderline ape. Indoctrinated that we are mostly hairless super-primates justifies our belief in, and marketing of, a life stage that resembles a zoo.

Our culture paints adolescence so appealingly hedonistic that now even supposed grown-ups hardly want to leave the land of monkey-business and acne. Perpetual immaturity is the bedrock of goldmine industries: Witness the line-ups of twenty-somethings sleeping on sidewalks outside stores to buy the latest video game that they will take home to play in their parents’ basement. Now, that’s the life! Just think of the bright future for those able to jam on fake guitars or be consumed by vicarious car heists?

We have made teenage-dom just plain dumb. It’s a travesty—a great tragic adventure in shooting ourselves in the foot—because the youths and young adults I know are far from dumb. I wish the broader culture would stop insisting they be so. Even more so, I wish we would stop doing this in the church!

I recall a conversation among adults about baptism. They were wondering whether a young person, repentant of sin, confessing faith in Christ, evidencing the fruit of the Spirit, and seeking to be discipled and make disciples, could be considered a full member of the church before “adulthood.” What an absurd question. Not only does this reveal an unbiblical notion of the church, by leaving spiritual community defined by state classifications, but it disparages the Spirit’s work in a tender life as somehow second-rate. Does God think teens are dumb too? What happened to the faith of a child?

Further, many churches segregate youths from mature adults. We conclude they don’t want to be with the big, boring people. I wonder if this is just an excuse to keep their inquisitive minds from challenging our own shallow discipleship. Fear not, they notice it anyway. So we turn to a few “cool” adults to entertain and keep the “kids” busy, and present to them a hip Jesus who is Orlando Bloom with tattoos. No wonder Jesus’ call to radical, selfless discipleship goes over their heads!
This knee-jerk reaction to the drift of the wider culture is a ministry of fear. Rather than accept the young as co-sinners in need of redemption, as co-apprentices in the footsteps of Jesus, who need a community of believers to train them up, we insist that pizza and fun are the only things they respond to. The fruit of such ministry is, let’s be honest, not that bountiful. Many who came through such programs are happily absent from the church or are some of the most consumerist Christians in history.

Recently, Tom Roes, our pastor to youths and their families, surveyed both adults and youths at Zurich Mennonite. He learned that our teenagers overwhelmingly had a positive view of adults and the church, while the adults overwhelmingly assumed teens were negative about both. It seems adults believe the cultural lies, while youths are seeing through it. Who are the wise ones here? Perhaps it’s time to let the youths run wild so that the rest of us become less tame.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I willingly have to

Every Sunday morning a stream of people make a stupendous countercultural declaration. They decide to gather as the church.

Although some youths might disagree, there are very few people who are dragged against their will to gather with Christians for corporate worship, where they experience life beneath God’s Word, Christian conversation, mutual encouragement and pre-Swiss Chalet coffee.

Long gone are the days when stores were closed, playground swings chained and the western world screeched to a Sunday halt out of respect for the gathering of the faithful. These days we shop, golf, play hockey, read the paper or go to work without anyone so much as blinking an eye. Every day is mostly like every other.

This is the day of the truly voluntary, willing church. It should be wonderfully encouraging that anyone gathers at all, given the myriad of options and distractions, work schedules and family realities. For possibly the first time in Canadian history, the church gathered is a willing countercultural statement, and most Christians don’t realize how rebellious they really are. If only they would!

We come together not because we are forced to, but because we have to. Perhaps that sounds contradictory, but there is an enormous chasm between “force” and “have” in this case. No one in our culture is remotely forced to gather with other believers. There is no overt state pressure to be together. There is nothing in the wider culture that encourages or supports the corporate gathering of the church on Sundays, or any other day for that matter. Christians gather—whenever they gather—because of Jesus, because the Spirit draws, and because we have to.

So, we’re not forced, but how is it that we “have” to gather? We have to because we who have determined to follow Jesus with shouldered cross need to be “unperverted.” While it’s true that the whole of life is given to God, that my whole life from breakfast to coffee-break to midnight snack is worship, I live in a world in which I am ever swimming upstream against a raging torrent of consumerism, idolatry, selfishness and indifference. Given that the following of Jesus is increasingly a lonely journey on the street corners, in the factories and in the schools of our nation, it is increasingly necessary for Christians to gather. If we don’t, we inevitably catch the common “cold” of our world, lose the fire of our first love, miss how beautiful Jesus is in the face of our neighbour, and begin to wither.

We simply have to be together as more than two or three—not simply so that hymnals get used, pastors have something to do, or offerings get collected—but because every day we are hammered by the perversion and ungodliness of our culture and we need the time together to “unpervert” ourselves, to remember who we really are, to support one another, love one another and hear the Word again, all in order that we may be re-commissioned to love the world as Jesus does.

We are a peculiar people. We’re really quite strange. Every time Christians gather we are making a shocking declaration that there is another way and only one Lord. We gather because we willingly have to. So, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).

Friday, June 06, 2008

Boycott Bejing?

China's Olympics and the World's Response

On the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 the focus of the world – at least the consumer and athletic world – will be on Beijing, China when the XXIX Olympiad begins. Will you be watching or will you boycott?

In March much of the shine went off China’s first foray into the Olympic-host family as their long standing and occasional violent dispute with Tibet garnered great world-wide attention. The timing for the Chinese couldn’t have been worse since the start of the Olympic torch relay in Greece just happened to fall a few days after this latest round of Tibetan/Chinese unrest (there is a long history of love and hate between Tibet and China – a history worth telling but goes well beyond the scope of this column).

The torch relay, designed to circle the globe in order to support the great vision of the Beijing Games to celebrate “One World One Dream”, gave the perfect platform for very public protests of the Chinese treatment of Tibetans and their Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The relay through cities like Paris and San Francisco turned into nearly comical games of hide and seek. There have been fervent calls for “free” nations to boycott Beijing by keeping their Olympians at home until China frees Tibet by Free Tibet – an organization based in London, England; ironically the home of twentieth century colonial expansion that shaped much of the current situation, along with the rise of Mao Zedong and Chinese communism in 1950.

Interestingly, the last time there were Olympic boycotts Communism was front and center as well. In 1980 most western nations boycotted the XXII Olympiad in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (strangely there were no boycotts of the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York and the Soviets were not barred from attending though the “miracle on ice” may have been humiliation enough). Four years later the eastern bloc countries returned the favour by skipping the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games because of anti-Soviet hysteria.

Isn’t it interesting that now, twenty-eight years later, western nations are in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and boycott-lingo regarding a Communist regime remains? This world is a very peculiar place indeed! Who knows what things will look like should the wordy tarry another two decades?

Some governments – like Canada and France – have said they will not send heads of state to the Olympics’ opening ceremonies in protest of China’s human rights abuses. That’s all well and good and melodramatic, but it seems the good-old days of the full-scale boycott are gone. Goodness knows we can’t afford a full protest of China, since we risk empty dollar stores should they respond in kind. In truth, since the 1980s the Olympics have become more than a big track meet where we learn which political ideology can produce the greatest pumped-up athletes. Now the Olympics are big business with North Americans, Europeans and the Chinese bowing freely at the altar of the almighty buck, euro and yuan. We can’t boycott Beijing, our god won’t let us. Human rights make great headlines, but nothing moves us like money.

What is even most striking for those who follow Jesus ought to be something even more disturbing than western society’s schizophrenia when it comes to who is bad and for what reasons and at what cost. While the oppression of Tibetans deserves justice and righteousness – and Christians ought to join and even lead such calls – where have been the outcries from western nations for a boycott of China because their outrageous persecution of Chinese Christians? Had Tibet not made the news in March one wonders if any of this political hand-wringing would have happened at all. Have any of us heard any news about the Zurich Statement of the Church in China (PDF) issued by the Religious Liberty Partnership also in March?

As Christians we are to stand with those in chains (Colossians 4:18) and even join our brothers and sisters in being willing to suffer for the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:8). Have we done this sufficiently? Have we, midst all the ballyhoo about boycott raised before our governments not just the trouble in Tibet, but the unjust suffering of those who know Jesus in the very country the friendly games will be hosted this summer? Or would that cost us too much? Might that not force us to reveal what race we are really running and where our allegiance lies?

One begins to wonder where the citizenship of those called Christians really lies when we seem disturbed by the ongoing political struggle between two nations and sadly silent about the intense persecution of those whose example of Christ-like devotion and mission ought to humble us. We will too quickly forget about boycotts once gold medals start getting awarded in August.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Malthusian Nightmare

I live in a small town in southwestern Ontario. When forced to wait for more than a few cars at the main intersection I begin to wonder what’s wrong and why people don’t just stay at home and stop pushing my road-rage buttons.

Here most everyone knows your name. And that’s not just a cheesy Cheers cliché, they really do. Increasingly, however, there are new faces in our town of 900ish. That’s not a bad thing at all – it has the potential to deepen the gene pool which can only help – and, seeing as this is a great spot to call home, I suspect this gradual population hiccup will continue.

The United Nations predicts that 60% of the world’s booming population by 2030 will be city dwellers. Most likely the spill over will mean that boondocks like my back yard will receive increased bumper-to-bumper traffic, but can you imagine what cities will look like by then? To give an example of how potentially disastrous is the urban explosion afoot, consider that in 1950 Lagos, Nigeria had less than 300,000people. Today, only 58 years later, an incredible 10.9 million people live there and UN projections place 16.1 million within the Lagos city limits by 2015 – an incredible 15 years short of 2030. What awaits such mega-cities? What awaits us all?

Recently my wife and I had a conversation with my cousin and her husband who have been drilling wells in Haiti for several years. They had just escaped or been evacuated (depending on your perspective) from their Caribbean home as food shortage protests and riots caused the virtual shut down of the country they love. Their report was that almost overnight the price of rice increased by four times the already inflated amount. The result, understandably, was considerable unrest among the irritated and desperate population who are already among the poorest on the planet.

All this brought me back to 1798. Yes, over 200 years ago an English economist named Thomas Malthus introduced a theory that has become known as the “Malthusian nightmare” – the moniker given to the dreadful possibility that population growth might surpass our ability to feed ourselves. Malthus wrote his observations in light of the growing slums of London during the Industrial Revolution. Somehow we survived back then – or did we? Could it be that we are only now falling into a sleep deep enough for the nightmare to really become reality?

Truth is that places like Haiti and Lagos are only just becoming the industrial playgrounds London was 200 years back. What London was then, the whole world is now or is rapidly becoming. The staggering possibility is that, given the growing grip the “American Dream” has on the world, it may only be in these days that we begin to taste what hunger and want might really be like. What does this all mean for country bumpkins and city slickers alike? Even more important, what does it mean for anyone anywhere who names Jesus Lord?

While there a plenty of big problems in need of big solutions that will surely produce some big headaches for lots of big shots, let me say this to the body of Christ: we may be entering one of the most crucial times and fruitful seasons for the church to really be the Church as Jesus intended.

Imagine the witness of hope Christians can provide these days and years to come in light of the need, rampant selfishness and price-gouging that is sure to hit numerous places? The work of organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), Ten Thousand Villages and other such Christian organizations is at a critical juncture. They need our support and prayers.

Furthermore, where Christians in locales of any size work to grow godly, healthy and even prosperous businesses and household practices and then share and give away their God-given abundance, this will increasingly become an astonishing counter-cultural declaration. In addition, it may mean that not only our potlucks, but our gathering around the Lord’s Table will take on deeper and more evangelistic meaning than we ever imagined. So, the establishment of strong missional churches and the making of radical disciples who think both globally and locally is a job of mega importance.

From small towns to big cities the nightmare may be our great postmodern opportunity to demonstrate now what the banquet table of the Lord will be like forevermore.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The new energy crisis

Slightly northwest of my home near thawing Lake Huron stands a mammoth windmill. This attempt at the greening of our energy needs was raised skyward a couple years ago, but has yet to work. It just sits there, towering over cattle that seem as baffled by this overgrown propeller Popsicle as the rest of us.

This recent move to harness the wind seems like the “Wal-Marting” of the old mom and pop windmills that occupied a space on many farms for generations. The problem with this particular megaton man-toy is that, apparently, no one thought through how it might connect to the grid. So there it stands, monumental and motionless, a reminder that we’re still trying to figure things out.

There are parallel realities facing this new energy crisis and the forms of church life we know. Our fast-moving, power-sucking culture is being forced to figure out new ways and forms. This is good, but it will take time. Furthermore, there appears to be a rediscovery of what the ancients already knew—hence, windmills.

In our churches an equally profound and confounding shift is taking place. Much church life these days seems disappointing, frustrating and tired. A few generations ago we, in the words of the late British prime minister Winston Churchill, shaped our buildings and then they shaped us. Many of the forms we have relied on for passing on the faith are burning us out, sucking us dry, and lack signs of life transformation. One generation can’t figure out why no one will step up and another can’t understand why anyone would want to. Much of what we’re doing is proving unsustainable for a new world where the church is increasingly on the margins. The church has its own energy crisis.

Allow me to propose a blueprint for moving forward:
• First, we must rediscover the gospel and the Holy Spirit. Jesus and his good news do not change. He, his cross, his kingdom and the breath of the Spirit are our true energy. We are not going to program or politically manoeuvre our way out of this. We need a miracle!
• Second, we must resist the temptation to over-reliance on what we know. No forms will ever adequately contain the power of God. In fact, they might hinder it once we entrench them and become blind to the fact that they’re no longer hooked to the grid.
• Third, at the heart of every form (program, gathering, household and life) must be disciple-making. If we aren’t making disciples, we’re not being disciples. Many of our forms keep us busy but really don’t form radically obedient disciples of Jesus who have picked up their crosses to follow him and usher in the kingdom wherever they go.
• Fourth, we must learn from ancients and currents. Most of what we’re frustrated with has been found wanting previously and renewal has always come from those able to harness the wind for a new day. We can gain courage and creativity by looking back and by being students of current fresh movements of the Spirit, which are often found where we’re not looking.
• Fifth, we must remember that God’s focus is people. Our forms should serve people, people shouldn’t serve forms. God loves people and uses forms; we must be wary of loving forms and using people.
• Sixth, we must return to our knees. It is pathetic how much of what we do is done with nothing more than token prayer. Having erected our forms with our hands, we rarely call on God to stretch out his. No wonder we have an energy crisis.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

When the Mighty Fall

Baron Black of Crossharbour has downsized his living arrangements from mansion to prison cell. Conrad Black, newspaper mogul, king of the hobnob, British citizen – who voluntarily revoked his Canadian citizenship in protest because then Prime Minister Jean Chretien would not bless his call to peerage in the British House of Lords – is now bringing the Ritz to an American penitentiary for fraud. He is a man of varied international abode.

In Canada Black’s little visit to the big house makes front page headlines in the very national rag he founded. Even more fun, Conrad has become a smug, stuffy, and rich punching bag for columnists and comedians alike. Smug is brought low and we’re all gleefully amused by his Icarus-like fall from the heights.

From Lord Black and Enron to Martha Stewart and Brittany Spears this culture that worships Mammon boisterously celebrates the removal of any ahead of us at the altar. Of course, each of these vilified corporate/celebrity monsters broke the law or, in Spears case, abundantly show that make-up hides more than first imagined and sexy clothes don’t reveal nearly enough. These are troubled souls who seem convinced they are above the law and abuse wealth while schmoozing with people like them, who probably don’t really like them at all. Meanwhile, the rest of us feast on check-out aisle paparazzi and sensationalism, gorging our morbid curiosities and need for a distraction from our own inconsistencies and wishful thinking. Black’s fall makes us feel less concerned with our own shortcomings.

I have no desire to defend what the Baron of Crossharbour has done; far from it. He is the glossy poster-boy of wealth, power, injustice and selfishness run amuck. Yet, at the same time I find myself mourning for Conrad and his ilk wondering, what is a true Christ-centered response to these modern day Zacchaeuses and Rich Young Rulers?

Jesus’ interaction with professional level criminals like Zacchaeus was strikingly straight-forward and redemptive. He never ignored his misguided idolatry nor the need for abundance to be generously and justly shared, but at the same time he didn’t protest outside his doors. Instead he entered them. He walked into relationship, supping in Zaccheaus’ lap of luxury for the sake of redemption. In the case of the Rich Young Ruler he looked with compassion, even pity, on humanity crippled by a lie and curse.

So, as our culture – and even some in the Church – enjoy watching the mighty fall, I am wondering how my response can be more redemptive, grace-filled, and compassionate without abandoning the prophetic call to new life and new living in and because of Christ. How, pray tell, will evil become righteous without a willingness of those graciously redeemed to see rich and poor, oppressed and oppressor, prince and pauper through the eyes of Jesus who compassionately and prophetically related to the one and championed the unfathomable need of the other. Both, it seems from the life of the Son of God, deserved to be loved and freed in opposite directions – directions that converged in his abundance and his poverty.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sinner and a movie

The arts have a powerful way of helping us know each other. They wrestle with the human condition frankly, often leaving us very uneasy. In fact, the arts may do a better job of defining sin than the church these days, what with our tendency to think that everything should have a happy ending in this world.

The Academy Awards presented five films for best picture this year. The show’s host, Jon Stewart, noted that the nominees—save one comedy about a teenage mother—were rather psychotic in nature. “Tonight we look beyond the dark days to focus on this year’s plate of psychopathic killer movies,” Stewart quipped. “What happened? Does this town need a hug? All I can say is, thank God for teenage pregnancy!”
Hollywood sees the world darkly. But how is the church responding to this sarcastic cry for mercy? The church goes to two extremes: It misrepresents sin, on the one hand, and shrouds the power of redemption for a culture needing a hug, on the other.

The first—with its overemphasis on the inherent goodness of humanity—too flippantly dismisses the depths of our depravity. Sin is downplayed and explained away as outdated or too brutal for our fragile self-esteem. The cross of Christ is merely the symbolic act of a “super-dude in sandals” who inspires us to good things, only to leave us completely distraught because, alas, we simply don’t, won’t or can’t do it.

The second extreme, with its overemphasis on our darkness and sinful acts—especially sexual misdeeds, foul language and tattoos—too flippantly degrades, dismisses and judges people by mere appearances. The cross of Christ becomes a formula or weapon over against the lives of those who aren’t like us.
Both extremes tend to be knee-jerk reactions to the other—not a good foundation for sound biblical reflection.

Sadly, both miss the same mark. They leave redemption in our failing hands, thinking a good pep talk or talking down to can raise us from the dead. Both keep us shackled to ourselves and ultimately without hope, as we carry a weight even our ancestors were unable to bear. Both extremes deal in externals and offer the same thing—a diagnosis of our problem that simply requires we read the right literature and abide by a new regimen until the symptoms of our pathology pass. This is a bogus gospel. This is not good news.

This age in need of a hug requires we speak clearly about sin as our individual and collective condition. Sin is the human disease and we are without natural immunity. It is our inevitable bent to choose our way and justify it at all costs, even with religion. It shows up in sins we can’t outgrow¬—like pimples on an adolescent—in hidden and visible actions, attitudes and asinine self-centred, idolatrous choices.

We ache to be free from sins that hound the race, but we need to be redeemed from sin first. That this is possible in Christ’s cross has always been the hope-filled message of the gospel that has embraced sinners in every age. And this age, like every one before it, requires a people speaking with honest courage: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).

So, while the movies keep crying out, may our communities be living pictures of redeemed art.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Separation of Church and Plate

In December 2007 a retired United Church of Canada pastor named Joanne Sorrill made the subversive and treacherous decision to renew her Ontario vanity license plate. Suffice to say this was no Wittenberg door moment. No, poor Pastor Joanne just wanted to do what any law-abiding citizen is chomping at the bit to do – pay for the permission to slap a cheap piece of aluminum on her bumper and drive Ontario’s fun winter roads. Goodness, with the huge amounts of snow we’ve had thanks to global warming so far this winter (sigh), you can barely tell if a vehicle has plates at all! But, I digress.

Here’s where the whole clash of worldview ignorance, the new-old idol of the State, postmodern paranoia, and sheer politically correct stupidity roar into the intersection, each completely ignoring their stop signs. Turns out that though Pastor Joanne has for years used the cute moniker, “Rev Jo,” on her license plate, this time – in these very tolerant days of the early twenty-first century – it was a threat to the public good and perhaps western democracy as a whole.
The makers of such monumental decisions – who knew even this needed to be over-managed – concluded that “Rev Jo” was no longer appropriate on three fronts.

First, it apparently encouraged road racing. All she needs now is to pimp her ride, garner a sponsorship from the Gideons and Welch’s and she’d be set for NASCAR or F1.
What young man in a hip-hop Honda hasn’t been goaded into a street race with a silver-topped retired woman by her vanity, uh, plate? Perhaps in Florida or Arizona, I suppose.

Second, it promoted Christianity. As a pastor myself, burdened with the institutional title “Reverend” I can tell you that putting “Rev” on a license plate is about as likely to evoke some mass neo-Christendom overthrow of liberal-consumerist-humanist Canadian culture as advertising Chia pets has caused people to stop buying puppies and kittens at Christmas. In fact, it may just speed up the mass religious exodus if the first objection has any merit. If the State believes that Christians are now resorting to vanity license plates as a form of cultural influence and evangelization than they know something we don’t and we’re in bigger trouble than I thought. I can only imagine the angel chorus that will result when we all have PTL plates.

Third, it was felt that “Rev” referenced an alcoholic beverage and may encourage drinking and driving. Perhaps they missed our willingness to be sponsored by Welch’s. Who, on God’s green earth, has really been influenced to do anything because a license plate told them to do it? If the government is concerned that their stuff (a license plate after all is government property) will be used for corrupt purposes perhaps they ought to stop handing out income tax forms too, heck, we might as well ban money while we’re at it. The whole thing is so absurd that I can’t believe you’ve taken the time to read this.

Thankfully, and as a sign of the total ludicrousness of the current climate, the Premier of the province himself had to step in and instruct the committee – who must have been early and deep into the chicken milk (that’s what my four year old calls eggnog) – to let this ride slide.

Is there anything to learn from this little anecdotal evidence that there is a cultural earthquake afoot? Well, let us at least realize this as those who would follow Jesus before any other Lord: the subtle hostility and outright ignorance of the State toward the Church is nothing new and, perhaps, ought to be welcomed.

First, it may drive us back (pardon the puns here) to what really matters and to what sign posts ought really define us – repentance, a humble walk with God, justice, righteousness, a prophetic voice, Christlikeness, and a mission to make disciples of all nations who will radically love one another and their enemies. The end of happy cultural co-habitation draws nigh, and our vocation may only now be coming into focus – we may finally have to live it with our lives rather than slap it on our bumpers.

Second, we ought to exit onto the straight and narrow. There is a broad way that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14) and we, you and I, must be among the few who find it; actually, who find and cling to Him. Christians simply must be on the way of grace. The new legalism of western liberal postmodern secularism is as enamored with minutiae as the many religious Pharisees they mock. Legalism is legalism whether liberal-humanist or conservative-fanatical. There is nothing new under the sun except the Son himself – His narrow way is grace and freedom, let us be on the King’s highway.

Finally, let us be reminded that stupidity requires no license and the church can be as prone to that as anyone else. The greatest thing we have to offer is Jesus, in fact, He’s all we have to offer. So when they see us, and even our vanity, may they stumble only over him and his undeniably peculiar stamp on our lives and our communities of grace.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Democracy Watch

These days a plethora of images revealing the state of democracy worldwide are staring us in the face. I am far from a political scientist, no pundit of all these power-broker dynamics, and about to comment on systems and cultures that are diverse beyond imagination. Hence, these thoughts are presented for our thoughtful and Christian discernment humbly, perhaps presumptuously, but wholeheartedly nonetheless.
Image #1 – The White House Sweepstakes
As a Canadian observing our friends in the world’s current Empire work their way toward the crowning of a new Emperor I am struck by the sheer simplicity and complexity of it all. Watching home-based caucuses in Iowa consisting of Skeeter and his cousins given as prominent a role on CNN as a University polling station is remarkable…and strangely intriguing. At the same time, candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars promoting their image and a smattering of their vision over and against the in-party enemy causing one to wonder if this isn’t simply a grade school popularity contest on steroids (oh, sorry, that’s baseball). And then there is the dainty dance between the political and the religious. Again, as a citizen of the Great White North, it amazes me to see candidates of both American parties speaking in churches on Sunday mornings with as much ease as they do at the union gathering on Monday. In Canadian society such a move would be outright political suicide. In Canada politicians have to closet their religion – especially if it is Christian – and lock the door to remain credible. For all the talk of the separation of church and stat both appear keenly jealous of each other under Uncle Sam’s watchful eye (the First Amendment, by the way, seems quite misunderstood in the USA – at least to this Canuck – and misapplied in Canada, where the constitutional clause doesn’t even exist and yet we love to claim it as a popular Canadian “value”). The White House sweepstakes, for all its peculiarities, seems to reveal that the interests of the democratic state and religion are inescapably linked…or are they?
Image #2 – Eastern Experimentation
Some of the most recent experiments in western democracy are observable in Eastern locales. Places like Pakistan, where assassinating the opposition is one way to make your point; Iraq, where the long, hard road to a new world order is daunting at best even with the dictator six feet under, and Russia, where a President completes his full term and then finds a way in through the back door to hold on to Czar-like power, reveal that planting democracy – at least the western version of it – in lands with different histories and cultural thought patterns is like trying to teach your weathered hound dog to beg like a toy poodle. We are in the midst of – are you ready for it – a long term experiment in democratic global domination; what if it doesn’t work? Have we hitched our horses to a wagon designed for paved roads and now we’re in the gumbo of the prairies in a downpour? And, for the Church, has our identity become so linked to this political vision that we’ve lost our own distinct mission and prophetic song with which to love and embrace these peoples who are so different and yet so similar to ourselves?
Image #3 – Kenyan Chaos
December 2007 democratic elections in Kenya, a relatively stable and predominately “Christian” African nation, really didn’t go well. Fourteen years after Rwanda we sit teetering on the brink of another tribal disaster fed by imperial and tribal colonialism, monarchy, and now democracy. It’s all mercilessly hodge-podge, confusing, regrettable, and seemingly unstoppable. The reach for power and the slippery grip upon it can cause peace to disappear in the time it takes to mark a fraudulent ballot. We in the West watch images of machete-wielding mobs and shake our heads at their inability to appreciate what we’ve brought them…or is it the other way around?
I’m not saying the solutions are simple or that democracy is inherently evil, far from it, but I do believe the time has come for Western Christians to reconsider our politics and our mission, for it seems the two have become tragically enmeshed, on both the right and the left, and among conservatives, liberals, and anabaptists alike. From the White House – whose resident depends on some form of religious ascent – to the East – where our politics is assumed to be Christianity in action – to Kenya – where our form of governing only awakens old divides, we seem to have concluded that the world is us and we are the world. We can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t want it our way. We have assumed our politics rules the day. But, if we are Christian at all, we must say this is not true. Neither we nor our politics rule, only the LORD Almighty does and he has never been bound by any particular form of government nor opposed to using any form for his greater purposes. What he has done, time and time again, is seek out and form a people within the nations who are citizens of another politic altogether, who fix their eyes on what is unseen, and who receive the high and holy task of being a blessing to the nations because of their faith in and allegiance to One high and holy King alone.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

X = Bridge

Driving along in my automobile, my son beside me at the wheel, we are listening to a radio station play “classic” tunes from the 1980s! Besides the fact that “classic” and “1980s” should never be used in the same sentence—Do you remember the synthesizer, leg warmers, New Coke, PTL Club and the Hyundai Pony?—I nostalgically sing along and answer a child’s questions about the good old days.

Despite the Duran Duran influence, this was a divine moment as I became keenly aware of the synthesizing of my thoughts into crushing reality: I was born in the last century and I am old.

Many of you will think this a ludicrous statement. At 35, I am a spring chicken, a young pup, a mere bud on the branch, to probably the vast majority of those reading these words, but that is precisely what troubles me.

My generation—labelled X—is increasingly caught betwixt and between, and indifferent about both poles. We are halfway, but we’re not sure what we are halfway from or to as we begin to find our legs, voice and place in the world, let alone the church. Many of us are floundering because the world of our parents and the world swallowing us up are equally strange. Communism has been traded for terrorism; Pacman eaten up by Halo; the Walkman overtaken by the iPod; Ethiopian famine eclipsed by AIDS; and the VCR, which we’re still teaching our parents how to run when we don’t even use them anymore, by the PVR.

Let’s just say we who inherited the radical challenges and culture-quake of the Boomers are really caught between two worlds. We don’t understand the traditional world our Boomer parents sought to dismantle—even the most conservative of our parents dismantled something—nor this strange place in which we must raise our children, which is maybe why many of us are unsure about having kids at all.

The X of my generation marks confusion. This, however, reveals a challenge I throw at my generational comrades in hopes some catch it: Can we Christ-following Xers already turn our attention to the first true post-Christian generations? It will be our turn in the next few years—if it isn’t already—to embrace the leading and shaping of a church and culture. Like others before, we will be tempted to champion our right to build it to our specs. Dare we lay aside this right?

Thankfully—and what a gift of grace this may turn out to be—we mostly laugh disparagingly at our “good old days.” We can’t take them seriously. Perhaps we knew even then that the times were in transition as we created a culture symbolized by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk (going backwards while appearing to go forwards).

Our mission may very well be to embrace the cost of laying ourselves down as a bridge. We are a demographic caught between a fading age and an emerging, yet fuzzy one. What great joy it may be for us to lie down and get walked on! First, by our Boomer parents, who will mourn a world that is no more. Then by our children, who need us to be a sure Christ-centred foundation, their link to a new day in which the naming of Jesus Christ as Lord is an affront to the Empire.

Because we don’t know who we are or where we fit, I propose we are the perfect generation for this glorious task.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Confessions of a Guilty Bystander

After returning from a morning walk through the heart of Ottawa. Me, myself, and the Lord had a very good conversation, though I talked too much. Here at the core of all things powerful and pompous I am internally seething.

It’s a sad kind of angry; a mournful rage has built in me after I had dropped my family off at friends one night. I was overcome, crushed actually, by a profound loneliness. Not solitude – that’s a gift of grace – but true aloneness and the troubling sense that this capital is not the center from which life in Canada springs, but the melting pot into which our collective angst is democratically mixed with one great big sorrowful, though stately, sigh. You might not describe it that way. I am, after all, only one person and this may just be my personal dysfunctional moan transferred onto the rest of you without consent.

Still, I need to confess something and maybe my vomiting of the soul (what the Puritans called confession and repentance) can become yours and ours together. I confess that I am a selfish prig and fail far too often to share the holy rage of God for the way things are, how they stay that way, and my culpability in the whole bloody mess. It is disturbingly true that talking is easier than walking and that sight can be blind and feeling callous. I want to cry. I want to weep over my own sin, my own complacency, my own unwillingness to engage the Kingdom of heaven as it is birthed in my heart and mind’s eye by the Holy Spirit. I am disturbed enough to change the world so long as my experience of it stays the same and I can fit it between commercials. Woe is me in a world of mass distractions.

Here I think is the crux of my laptop confessional: I want the world to change, but I don’t want that change initiated in me. I wouldn’t even mind bringing about change, so long as I can be an arms-length lobbyist or consultant who can maintain a sterile, safe existence and leave others to work out the ills I point out. Yet, troublingly, it is in me, in the capitol of Phildom, that the mustard seed of the Kingdom must first find fertile soil and root. If it does I know things will be different, which is what my entire being screams for. But can’t someone else be the prophet or evangelist? Won’t someone else visit the prisoner? Can’t someone else build that relationship? Won’t someone else shelter the orphan? After all there’s a hockey game on tonight that will help me forget all this for a while, and maybe even longer if I’m lucky.

I so don’t want my personal discipleship, and the tidy packaging I’ve stuffed it in, to crash head-on with the residual effects of sin in the world (my thanks to Bill Janzen at MCC Ottawa for feeding this insight). That would only bring about the confusion of both – the unwanted realization that my discipleship is cheap and my view of sin too indifferent. I want a personal Jesus not a powerful one with his peace-wielding sword. I don’t want the violent peace of the cross to disrupt my journey toward a restful retirement. And yet my life of following Jesus, if it is genuinely about taking up my own cross, must ultimately conflict with the stuff I don’t like about this world and don’t like about me. Heck, it must even collide with the things I do like and rather enjoy. Jesus would have that all of me be relentlessly engaged in the thoroughness of his love and transforming infiltration of all things – of things personal, corporate, sacred and secular. Will he be Lord of all?

I believe this is what he seeks: selfish prigs who increasingly lose themselves and their priggishness in Him and discover a bittersweet satisfaction in holy rage; who smile with tears because life as we’ve accepted it, or even named it, is not life as he intended it and who willingly make the confession of a guilty bystander and thereby stand by no more.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A bureaucracy of barrenness

Professor Barry Walters recently proposed in the Medical Journal of Australia that a lifelong carbon tax be levied on families having more than two children to compensate for the inevitable carbon footprint this extra life will stamp on the planet. Even further, he suggests carbon credits be given to those willing to embrace sterilization or a tithe to Trojan condoms. It seems this obstetrician is determined to make multiplication as difficult, joyless and fearful as the church has.

Most institutional-infected denominations have made it very cumbersome, almost discouragingly daunting, to plant churches and multiply. In effect, we have taxed the church away from her mandate—indeed her purpose and great pleasure.

I have had the privilege of walking with a “fellowship of the king” in southwestern Ontario that is trying to understand what it means to drop anchor, reject church contraception and be a multiplying kingdom community. They are incredible people who have not been afraid to raise and adjust their sails while reading the signs of the times, so we not just multiply, but have multiply-ability.

Is it time for some reproductive conversation around your potluck table?
Alan Hirsch, in his treatise The Forgotten Ways, says, “. . . we have now reached the vexing situation that the prevailing expression of church (Christendom) has become a major stumbling block to the spread of Christianity in the West.” In other words, what we have made church to be institutionally, structurally and economically, is the equivalent of championing contraceptives and sterilization over new life. We have virtually made ourselves bureaucracies of barrenness.

If we can only imagine that a real church requires a multi-function building, a “seminary-strained” pastor, denomination-speak, boatloads of committees and programs, and even our charitable status, then we may well have imagined the impossible and even worse. Since God can at least do the impossible, we may well have sterilized our own imaginations and traded faith for flummox and fear.

Can you imagine the current form of your local fellowship quickly, effectively, joyfully and with faithfulness to the Trinity, multiplying into a neighbourhood near you? Does the prospect give you a headache? Have you even talked about it? If you have, how long did it take someone to point out that the whole idea, while noble and even strangely enticing, just won’t work? Let’s be honest, what we have created is over-taxed and sterilized; we are virtually un-multiply-able.

The good news is that the problem is not the message, but the medium.

Need we be reminded that the early church multiplied quite nicely without any of the “necessities” we cling to? They had true multiply-ability. If you pay close attention to the wildness of Acts, you notice that multiply-ability is the very breath of the Spirit that often needs storms to be released. There is something inherent in Jesus’ people that will spread like wildfire if given the opportunity.

This, essentially, is what we are re-learning as a fledgling multiply-able community—to trust ourselves and our ways less and go with the DNA and fire of the Spirit more. We are asking more often: Is this multiply-able? Is what we are doing here reproducible or are we unwittingly sterilizing and over-taxing ourselves?

Is it time for some reproductive conversation around your potluck table?