Thursday, December 17, 2009

A pastor’s dirty little secret

There is a dirty little secret we pastors want you to know, but are reticent to share because we’re afraid. We’re afraid the flock will hysterically charge the fences if we’re honest. We know how woolly a sheep stampede can be. Mutton hits the fan, usually ours. So we keep quiet.

Enough fear already! You need to know this dirty little secret, so here it is: We need to be reminded what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Let me explain. We like you and love you, and we want you to like and love us. We know you do, we think. Actually, to be truthful, we’re not always sure you do. And since we’re so skittish, and because we’re very human sheep, we are prone to hedge on what we’re supposed to be doing.

Now don’t start thinking we’re a gaggle of hyper-active, insecure tweens desperately searching for acceptance! It’s just that as much as we serve because of God’s call, we can be easily seduced by the call to please God’s people—and there’s a fine but distinct line between the two. See, you pay our way, or at least some of it. You can vote us out if you don’t approve and we know that what we’re really supposed to be doing will not always receive your approval.

This is the minister’s great conundrum. And so to fan into flame what burns—or should burn—in us requires a few of you courageously calling us back to our primary call. It’s what we really know we must do, yet we need you, our sisters and brothers, to lead us to lead you to follow our Leader. You must ask and expect us to stay on task despite well-reasoned arguments and cultural pressure to focus elsewhere. If you don’t, many of us will cave in and then we’ll contribute to the caving in of the very church we all love.

Careful, though! You’re as sheepish as we are, don’t forget. Tempted as we are to please you, you are equally tempted to want us to please you. You’d like us to be therapists, bureaucrats, CEOs, social workers, social conveners, politicians of the left or right, and religious managers, while spouting theology that tickles ears and won’t put you to sleep, but won’t wake you up either!

So the secret is, we need you to remind us of what we’re supposed to be doing, but are you really willing to do it? See, if we reorient, it’s going to require your reorientation too.

Here’s what we need to be called back to, loud, clear and often: “[D]o not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord . . . but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel . . .” (II Timothy 1:8-10).

We must be unashamed lead witnesses among you of the person and power of Jesus. You must be unashamed in expecting us to focus on this task for your sake and for the world’s sake. It really is what we’re supposed to do.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On the Origin of the Torch

In three months my country will host the Winter Olympic Games. Vancouver and Whistler are incredibly beautiful places and that, like everywhere else on the planet, has its dark side. (See here and here and here.) The beauty and problems of a city are magnified the moment it is awarded the right to go into debt to schmooze the world.

There are plenty of opinions out there about whether the Olympic Games are worth all the effort and cost. National pride, big business, human solidarity and human depravity all mix together in these global gatherings that some love and others hate.

The Olympic torch is currently making its way across Canada. The relay will, of course, end up with a cauldron being lit during the opening ceremonies on February 12. That torch is creating a lot of warm fuzzies for the Great White North as it jogs its way across our wide-open spaces.

All this leads to the interesting question of origins and whether they matter. You see, the original idea for a great national torch relay, which has become the prelude to every Olympics since the end of World War II, belonged to none other than Adolph Hitler. It was part of Hitler’s desire to unite and redefine the German nation that led him to create the first torch relay for the 1936 Berlin Games.

Hitler loved the image of fire and found in the ancient Greek Olympic tradition justification for making it central to his moment in the sun. The torch relay was the tyrant’s way of linking the Nazi movement with the best of Greek history – or so he hoped. Ironically, the modern Olympics were intended to move humanity beyond our warring madness and into kinship and unity. Well, we know how that went and how it goes. We’re still not over our fighting and the torch is now just another commercial opportunity for soda pop and banks.

So, does the origin of the torch matter?

Perhaps the origins reveal more than we’re willing to admit. Hitler wanted to unite his dark dreams with a great ancient civilization. And, truth be told, he did that. Ancient Greece was equally built on warring and conquering, not just tubby philosophers in togas.The light that shines at the heart of the Olympics may unintentionally remind us of just how united we really are in our madness that no fun and games will ever coerce us out of.

The only hope for the Lower East Side or Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter, will not be torch relays or two weeks of fun and corporate games. The hope is the light of the world, Jesus Christ, and we who know him must continue to hold him high, resist the madness, engage our world counter-culturally, and not allow our light to be put under a bushel.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bandage babies

Ever noticed that strange addiction children have to adhesive ban-dages? What is it about those silly things that deceive us so?

If even once we have a legitimate “ouchy” that demands one of these, it’s as if some plasticized dementia takes root in us. Children will soon be asking for bandages to cover invisible wounds, to heal scrapes and scratches that are figments of their imagination. They become bandage babies and parents become bandage spoilsports, saying, “You don’t need one; there’s nothing there!” Still, the kid screams, “Yes, there is! I need one!”

A tug-of-war erupts where even the fail-proof solution of “kissing it better” is utterly rejected. Finally, in the interests of peace and the future of the human race itself, we find the parents digging into the medicine cabinet for a bandage on yet one more non-problem in order to maintain their own sanity.

One begins to wonder if we ever outgrow this:

• Sexual promiscuity, venereal diseases and teenage pregnancy riddle societies. The solution: Use a pill or a condom, or abort the fetus. Problem solved. Come on!

• Need more stuff? The solution: Use credit to pay off that super-duper-never-to-fail-fruit-scented-automatic-voice-activated-toilet-paper dispenser that was so amazing when seen on TV. Swipe it, accumulate stuff with debt, make minimum payments and my incessant need will be satisfied. Come on!

• Church trouble? The solution: Get rid of—or ignore—the leader or others you don’t agree with. Run to something fresh, or more to your liking, that will make you feel better about your unholy religious addiction and the problem is solved. Come on!

• Relationship trouble? Solution: Buy the book that will solve your partner’s problem and fix the marriage in six easy steps. Or better yet, avoid marriage altogether. Cohabitate and avoid at all lengths having to say “I do” to cover your fanny when you know you won’t. Problem easily solved. Come on!

On and on we go avoiding our depths one camouflaging padded sticker at a time. This is the story in our culture, in our neighbourhoods and in our churches.

Don’t you see? We love to cover things up and then conclude the work is done. But to celebrate this conclusion is to be deceived into a false security and identity. The result of our unwillingness to go to root issues means not just that real problems are ignored, but are, in fact, given increased power to control. Even further, we end up missing what we are actually desperately seeking: Joy. We become joyless, superficial and increasingly unable to see real issues.

To be a people of the cross is to avoid this bandage addiction, and enter a new individual and corporate reality. People of the cross move beyond bandages to open woundedness, confession, repentance and embrace. We cry out for grace and mercy. We seek not self-justification, but Christ-justification. After all, the cross is no bandage, but the freeing revelation that our healing is rooted in one great wound.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Question. Period.

I sat in a century-old church building surrounded by grandmas. I had been invited by a denomination I really didn’t know well, to talk with a women’s group about the kingdom of God and how we live that out. I began by asking questions to understand the way these faithful saints perceived the life of the church these days. Their answers were questions themselves: Where are the young people? How do we compete with the busy work and recreation schedules of people? What can we do to make church effective and alive again?

I understand their quandary. Many churches in my own denomination, I assured them, would ask similar questions given the opportunity.

We trip and stutter our way towards answers to those queries. Try as we may, this search only leads to more questions and plenty of opinions, many of them polarizing. There were even some sparks in that room full of grandmas!

It’s not that the conversation was heated; desperation would more describe the mood. Hanging in the air was the hoped-for wish that something we could do would change things. That was quickly followed with the despair of trying to figure out what that happy pill would be. I began to see that I was supposed to have brought the prescription along. Yet the further into the answers we plunged, the deeper the pit became.

Throughout the conversation a renewed insight came into view for me. It seems to me that we spend a lot of time asking the wrong question and then end up wasting time seeking answers that only leave us more confused, bewildered and befuddled. We become like a young child trying to undo a knot in his shoes by pulling in the wrong direction.

I am convinced that while many of us, legitimately and with right motives, seek to re-imagine the life of the church for a new day by asking the question, “What can the church do better?” we are actually posing a self-defeating question. Without fail, this leads to endless conversations, meetings and opinions that tend to go nowhere in the long run. The knot just becomes a frustration. Instead of discovering new freedom, we end up with schism and parties that resemble question period in the House of Commons. We’re all present for the same reason and purpose, but an outsider would surely begin to wonder what all the noise is about and how anything ever gets done.

Instead of the non-starter, “What can the church do better?” we need to begin with a truly kingdom of God shaped question: “What will bring glory to God?”

At least in my feeble mind, this question reshapes the discussion. It takes our eyes off ourselves and places it where it belongs: on our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The question is not, what can we do, but who is God? The question is not whether we can produce more people who think like us, but whether we produce people who look increasingly like Jesus.

The question is not whether people think our church is cool, effective, tolerant or relevant, but whether or not we bring God glory. What will make God great among us and through us? That is the question. Period. That is the question out of which re-imagination begins, biblical thirst re-emerges and new creations are made.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Pastoring the flock in Boondock Nation

Why Canada needs rural leaders

There I was, the country-bumpkin pastor amidst all the really important people at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa. Such an event is quite the shindig for someone from the sticks. Being asked where you're from and having to "get them there from here" is quite humorous. Most people gauge where you're from based on proximity to a major urban center. "Is that near Toronto?" "Oh, that's close to Edmonton!" You get the picture.

The picture is blurring for those of us serving and leading the body of Christ in the vast rural areas of our country. If you check a map you'll find Canada is overwhelmingly rural. Oh, I know most Canadians live in the big cities. I've been there and lived there, but in order to get anywhere in Canada (by "anywhere" we tend to mean a concrete jungle) you have to go by rural routes. Yet, despite the charm of country Canada (I'm suddenly humming Bruce Cockburn's "Going to the Country"), serving Jesus and His people "out here" is beset with new challenges.

Rural exodus
First, much of Canada's rural expanse is increasingly empty. Most rural places, including where I live, are in numerical decline. In most of Boondock Nation you'll find this trend.

Out here we live with the reality of the exodus of our future, the emigration of our youth to the big city. A pastor from Saskatchewan said, "We are situated in a community of about 150 people…most of the young people leave for the city when they graduate from Grade 12. Sometimes it is very frustrating and discouraging wondering what will happen to our church."

This emptying creates unhealthy congregational self-understanding that can be debilitating and hopeless. Add to this the discouragement that occurs when a rural congregation finally finds a good (read also "young") leader who is all-too-soon whisked off to the city to a bigger (read also "better") church.

Who will lead and love the flock in an increasingly empty nowhere?
Second, rural life is increasingly shaped by urban myths. Most villages that are growing are within a quick commute of cities. Such growth changes our towns forever. Some of our communities are now just bedrooms and fillings with sub-suburban-urbanites who can't understand why there's manure in the air. It's not that we're unwilling to change or unhappy you're here; we just wonder why "here" needs to become the city just because you arrived.

Swayed by the city
Furthermore, today's technologies mean our communities are no longer shaped by what happens in the town hall or local coffee shop, but by the same sound-bite politics, media, and corporate trends that define urbanity. Our banks move because someone in the city concludes we don't need one anymore.

Further, the urban myths of success and growth are powerful and creating unrealistic expectations for many rural church leaders whose people are smitten by that cool ministry they see every week on TV. The closest many of us can get to Hillsong or Willow Creek is standing on a hill by a creek whistling while our people drive into the city where "church" is done better. This is crippling to our communities, not to mention ecclesiologically bankrupt.

Further still, while much good ministry training is from and for the city, to many of us it is like teaching an engineer to construct skyscrapers, then sending him to Punkydoodle's Corners to build a driving shed. One is no better than the other, just different in design, use and expectation.

And when denominations expect the same preparation litmus tests for urban and rural settings, the issues are exacerbated. This not only creates financial expectations that struggling rural communities are increasingly unable to bear and pastors are unwilling to enter, but it begins to communicate that such churches are of a different (and second?) class.

Best of simple
Rural folk are not dumb, ignorant, or unaware; they are simple in the best sense of the word. They want good biblical teaching, preaching, care and leadership, but are less concerned with degrees than with seeing a life preached before them well. They are enormously generous and care less about what we've done in seminary or whether we've dissected a bishop or deconstructed modernity than about who we are and whether we really know Jesus and can help the next generation do the same. Do we have a simple faith well-founded? Do we know their grandkid's name? That's what they're looking for.

Rural places do tend to be more traditional; why is that so bad? Urban myths ask us to reject what our homesteaders knew to be true (ironically, the recent discovery of everything "green" is simply common sense out here, and the advertising of every new cookie-cutter subdivision as "Oakfield Village" makes us smirk).

Everything we watch and hear from Toronto, Vancouver and Hollywood sounds like it's coming from people who've taken the pickles we send from our fields and deposited them in the wrong end. Our self-understandings have become a smorgasbord of what we know from grandpa and what we're told we should really care about coming from Bay Street, Sussex Drive, McGill, the Lower East Side and CityTV.

We respect and pray with our city-mouse brothers and sisters, but we have lots of poverty and social issues to deal with too that never make the news or receive the funding profile cities demand.

Rural as a calling
Leading in this setting is unique and demands unique preparation and expectation. But a smattering of places do offer training, but most require travel to urban settings. It would be great for ongoing training to take place in rural settings where the apprenticing of church leaders takes place alongside the lives of those living the cultural, intellectual and systemic realities of rural folk. As Salvationist James Watson says, "if we do not pay attention to the need for resources for…leadership in rural areas, we may suddenly look at the country and wonder where the churches have gone."

Rural Canada is a vast mission field. We might assume the conservative leanings and quaint church buildings of hamlets mean a lively Christian witness. Uh, no. Churches are closing or consolidating faster than depopulation is happening. Whole villages are a few funerals away from no visible church presence.

At the same time, a Christendom memory lingers that says: since grandma goes to that church, since I went to Sunday school, got baptized and expect a "real" Christmas program at the local public school, then we and God must be cool. Try countering this heritage of naïve religiosity with the gospel, and the shine begins to come off that cornfield sunset.

Try countering what has been around forever and was started by great uncle Bart and you'll quickly discover country justice.

Reimagining the rural church
What is needed in rural Canada is not mere institutional caretakers, but mission-shaped leaders who will renew long-established churches and start many new on-mission-with-God gatherings of the saints that will initiate a new lifecycle of Christian witness and presence. This will require longevity and a new vision for the unique demographics and complexities of making disciples in rural Canada.
And, it will require that rural congregations re-imagine who they are and why they exist. They are not just there to keep uncle Bart's pet project alive or even that old building heated.

No, they exist because of the risen Lord and are called to keep the gospel fresh and alive in word and deed for the sake of those outside the Kingdom and just down Main Street and out on Orchard Line. That task must be accepted again with a freshness only the Holy Spirit can breathe and a stubborn resolve only the Boondocks can muster.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Playing Chicken with Evil

I remember the good old-fashioned butcher parties at my grandparent’s farm. Headless chickens flapped frightfully around the barnyard before dropping lifeless, surrendering to a roast pan future. Precious memories; how they linger. Such imagery drives some to tofu. Nothing against tofu, which has a place in the food chain right next to playdough, but we’ve lost sight of what this world is really like.

I once visited southern Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump (the name says it all) to learn of the amazing ways Aboriginals provided for themselves. A yearly ritual of driving bison off cliffs to their bloody end was needed in order for the community to survive year to year. Life teeters hazardously close to the brink and it’s not always grocery store appealing.

The stark reality of life on our planet has been airbrushed away. As true as this may be with food, it is even more real when it comes to evil. For all the horrors we’re exposed to via the media, the entertainment value of evil has never been higher. We know this is a problem, don’t we? Still, there is the paradoxical belief out there that somehow evil should never actually touch us. We’ve set up ways, means, and securities to make sure it doesn’t and seem honestly aghast when evil slips through our feeble Maginot lines. Now, without a doubt, we—and Christians specifically—should be working with all our might to counter evil in all its chameleonic forms. We know the Good and that in him there is no darkness. Still, I wonder if we haven’t begun, with our culture, to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.

Do we see things too rosy? Do we only see cordon bleu without the plucking mess? Have we swallowed an unbiblical notion of human nature that is highly optimistic, but light on sin and Satan? Have we forgotten that humanity consistently flirts with chaos?

Romano Guardini wrote, “All monsters of the wilderness, all horrors of darkness have reappeared. The human person again stands before the chaos; and all of this is so much more terrible, since the majority do not recognize it: after all, everywhere scientifically educated people are communicating with one another, machines are running smoothly, and bureaucracies are functioning well.” That was penned in 1950, within spitting distance of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It sounds like it could have been posted on Facebook last week.

We find ourselves in a blind culture. We must be a people of faith and hope striving against evil, but is that possible where we don’t recognize how dark and bloody evil really is?

Perhaps we need courage to name the evils in our communities and begin singing and praying seditiously, “Deliver us from evil.” We do a lot of trying to convince ourselves humanity will grow out of its rebellious stage if only they’d read or vote right. Let’s get over it. Life is messy. That nice lean chicken breast once lost its head and evil will not be overcome with wishful thinking or human philosophies and philanthropies alone. Let’s be honest, we are all—even pacifists—capable of the darkest of deeds, misdeeds, and undone deeds. The head of evil is only smashed-in by Good confronting evil head-on and conquering in love. Have we forgotten the victory of the cross? Have we forgotten what it took to rescue us? Have we stopped praying for deliverance?

So, enjoy your Buffalo wings, join the Lamb in his invasion of goodness, but for goodness’ sake, be awake to the evil that lurks and who the Deliverer truly is.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I'm confused

The movie Blood Diamond is a fascinating study in what makes men tick. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Zimbabwean diamond smuggler who through cinematic fate finds his life tied to a West African fisherman named Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou).

Archer lost his parents tragically as a child and now lives the lonely and dangerous life of a mercenary who makes cheap diamonds a girl’s best friend. He lives for the adrenaline of the chase – the chase for elusive jewels, for money, for women, from enemies, and ultimately, the chase for purpose in his wounded and empty life.

Vandy, conversely, has almost nothing except his family. He is a husband and father in a poor African nation. When his family is torn apart in the brutal Sierra Leone civil war and he is enslaved in the mines everything he does is aimed at reuniting his brood. They are his life. He is as driven as Archer, only his arrow is pointed in the opposite direction.

As Danny and Solomon embark on a final trek to find a valuable and hidden blood diamond it is for divergent reasons. Archer is looking to get rich to escape the life he knows. Solomon is looking to escape back to the life he knew. A telling conversation ensues in which Solomon asks Danny piercing questions of meaning and purpose. Does he have a wife? No. Does he have children? No.

Solomon literally stops in his tracks. It makes no sense to risk life and limb for no real purpose. Why this pointless extreme existence? “I’m confused,” he blurts.
“That makes two of us,” replies the despairing smuggler as he marches off in his perplexity to chase another shiny rock. His life is extreme in its blandness. The rush is a sedative. The karat glint distracts from a heart of stone, a vacuum of purpose, a life with adventure but no meaning.

What’s so extreme about living solely for self? What’s so wild and adventurous about that when we do it all the time? That’s just normal. The Danny Archers and couch potatoes of this world are simply polar opposites of the same reality. The only difference is one goes down in a blaze of glory while the other goes down in a haze of corn chips. Don’t we know if we’re really honest, that such extremes are not extreme at all? At the end of Blood Diamond we pity the tragic Archer whose aim was so late on target, while Solomon’s simple, purposeful, selfless life is always extremely attractive. Which man got it right? Are these the only choices?

Hear the words of Jesus Christ, the Lord of history, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Any extreme life we might imagine is Saturday morning cartoons compared to what is possible with God. Jesus is responding to his confused disciples about who is in the Kingdom of God. Jesus upends our normalcy, as extreme or honourable as it may be, and invites us into the potential of the Kingdom of God. You see, for Jesus there is a third way besides the way of Archer and even Vandy. Family is good, Solomon has purpose, but Jesus pushes to a new extreme vision for life: “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).

The extreme life is not focused on self, neither is it focused solely on those closest to us, it is life abandoned unto God. This is the third way, the super-natural life to which Jesus points. We are called to a grand yet single purpose, to leave the wilds, the banal and even the admirable for the impossible possibilities of life in the footsteps of Christ. This is the extreme life that confuses our natural tendencies, but it is what Jesus calls us to. Or, is he too extreme?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A cry in the night

Over a number of summer nights I was shook from my sweet slumber by the same couple walking beneath my open bedroom window conversing in loud and inebriated tones. Over the course of a week or so they were like clockwork—very loud clockwork—and the conversations were a cornucopia of slurred, liquored chatter that was a convoluted combination of cursing and startlingly deep and thought-provoking sermon material.

On the last night of these midnight visitations, the robust banter went all-out theological. God, Jack Daniels and John Labatt were stirred together in a curious mix, and the results whetted my appetite for more as they rounded the corner and drifted off into the darkness to disturb someone else.

The man was quoting Scripture, talking about life and the reality of God. The woman, consistently the more obnoxious of the two, was throwing a classic God-objection in his face. “I have prayed and tried to see him,” she said. “I have gone to church,” she claimed. She recounted some of the pain in her life, the disappointments and anxieties, and then repeatedly called out to the Holy One: “Where is he? Where the %#&* is he?”

How would you answer her cry in the night?

Elie Wiesel, in his famous little book, Night, tells of prisoners in Auschwitz asking the same troubling and very human question: Where is God? We must take this question seriously. We must be with those who ask it. We must admit that even we who believe ask it. Even the Scriptures wonder, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:2). We must have an answer for the seeming hiddenness of God or we’re no longer human, let alone honest.

If you’ve ever walked with the frustrated, you know there are no pat answers. The fact that many rely on pat answers, clichés or Oprahisms is perhaps proof we’ve been far too asleep and in need of a midnight walk. Still, we must be able to point those crying in the night to hope, to some reason to believe, and the hiddenness of God is actually one of the more beautiful aspects of the reality of a loving Redeemer.

In remaining hidden God acts in grace and holiness:

• First, he does not coerce us into belief. God respects our humanity in all its created beauty and sin-induced brokenness.

• Second, he heightens the joy of discovery. God both looks for us and waits to be found, so that our joy is complete, even in the midst of trial.

• Third, and uniquely Christian, God enters our suffering. God does not ignore us, but meets us in our pain, and we are awakened to a grace and love that would never have come into view otherwise.

God in Christ enters humanity’s anguish and answers our question of where he is with a cross that flips the question around: “Where is humanity? Is this what you people do with love and grace? Who do you think you are? Do you crucify the Good and then blame the Good for not stopping you?”

Now there’s a question or two that might keep us up at night.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Russian Roulette

Those Russians sure are courageous! Legend has it that 19th century Russian soldiers invented the dangerous life-gamble of Russian roulette – a “game” that could only have been concocted with the help of vodka. The “player” in Russian roulette has a 16.67% chance of cashing in all their chips – to lengthen the pathetic gambling metaphors.

What are the affects of gambling on a society? Government-run lotteries, casinos, and sports wagering sell themselves to the masses as the way to fulfill our dreams and good for the social construct (like a steroid-bloated rummage sale or penny auction). “Imagine the Freedom” touts a popular Canadian lottery and the ads encourage us to an ethic and “love of your neighbour” that is not-so-altruistic.

Even further, the popular social acceptance of gambling is witnessed in the growth of Poker as a television event of all things and the reality that most professional sports grow only to the extent that people bet on outcomes (even if that didn’t work so well for Pete Rose). On the other extreme of the gaming industry is the messiness of situations reflected in the lives of Michael Vick and the underground fight clubs that really do exist. Physical and financial risk seems to go hand in hand. Gambling is in many ways a form of financial pornography with many brands, brush-overs, and extremes to choose from and be sucked in by.

The statistics say that in the United States about 3 million people are gambling addicts and up to 150 million people are low-risk gamblers. In Canada where Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) are almost as common as donut shops and pitched as a close-to-home vacation the problems are equally disturbing. The statistics say that 25% of those using VLTs are at risk or already have gambling problems. One writer called
VLTs the “crack cocaine” of gambling.

Now comes word that Russia of all places has very courageously tackled the issue of gambling as a society by outlawing casinos to, quite literally, Siberia. On July 1 Russia put into affect a law that had been passed in 2006 that will cost up to 10,000 jobs in Moscow alone. The Russian Association for Gaming Business Development estimates the move will cost the state 2 billion dollars in tax revenue. Quite a gamble, isn’t it? Would other nations have such courage or would they risk shooting themselves in the foot?

The rationale for this radical Russian move was former President and current Prime Minister Putin’s contention that the social risks of gambling addiction were greater than that of alcohol. Now, either Putin’s on to something or he has a Potemkin full of Smirnoff stocks.

So, let me put my cards on the table: why have we in the West accepted gambling carte-blanche? Why are we as Christians so quiet on the subject these days? What are we afraid of? Our very public constructs and means of doing good are tied to that which ultimately destroys and yet we keep eerily silent as a troubling version of social Russian roulette spins on. The social risks are enormous for it really is an issue of the stewardship of lives, the exploitation of the poorest (those making less than $20,000 spend an average of 2.6% of income on gambling, while those making more than $80,000 average 0.6%), and a statement about that which matters most in society. Gambling’s growth and prevalence points to both the decadence and desperation of our culture. Where are the voices of those who speak of he who said, “Seek first (the Father’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you…” (Matthew 6:33)?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Safety and Security?

This spring our family had the opportunity to visit Lynn Canyon in British Columbia. It’s a fretful wonder. A swinging bridge hangs across the chasm providing a view that can turn your legs to Jell-o. Perhaps it’s only short blokes like me who feel jittery peering over the edge of such an abyss. We also had our four children along and, I tell you, to be vertically challenged and clamouring to keep a rambunctious five year old from plunging into a front page headline is heart pounding stuff. Safety and security are important at Lynn Canyon, but should it be an equally high value for the church?

Missiologist David Bosch says something unsettling: “for many centuries the church has suffered very little and has been led to believe that it is a success.” Is he right? Have we cherished, applauded, and even institutionalized our relative ease, peace, safety and security within the Canadian landscape at the expense of our true identity, our true purpose, and distinct witness? Have we surrendered our true citizenship? At times we do seem to be an eternally charged and destined people convinced that the ease and security of the present is what matters most. Along with our culture we’ve sanitized, tethered and helmeted ourselves at such a price that one begins to wonder if the real cost is our prophetic discipleship and the joy of obedient adventure. He who had no place to lay his head and said we’d be blessed to be despised for his name’s sake might be quite uncomfortable in our plush pews as we worship according to our preferences. Is the expression of the local church in Canada a window into heaven?

I think of this every week as I go about my peculiar religious vocation that can be so oft beset by the inertia of people pleasing. An unnerving question keeps pounding in the background of my day like that annoying drip from the faucet I should be fixing: is this what Jesus meant when he said he’d build a church that the gates of Hades could not overcome? Am I alone, or have we accepted and even blindly endorsed a Christian existence that essentially runs counter to our message and even our Lord’s person, example and teaching? Let’s face it, if we’d really live the Sermon on the Mount or cry and strive for justice and righteousness both within the church and culture as the Old Testament prophets we’d be marked men and women. On the other hand, we might leave a very different mark.

It’s not that we don’t like the beautiful wilds of following Jesus, we just like them manageable and safe – kind of like going to an Imax film where you can almost live the adventure with a box of popcorn without having to, well, live it. But the landscape is changing. Our safe and secure segregated spirituality is being tested. We are being asked which we cherish most: safety and security or the counter-cultural witness of a risen Lord, a resurrected life, an uncommon love, and a wild new Kingdom. Our understanding of success will need to be redefined and brought in line, Lord willing, with those historical moments when the church teetered on the brink, looked to be facing the impossible, discovered herself crossing a proverbial canyon, and found herself shining most brightly.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Know Thyself

I was a chubby kid. Oh, I could score a few goals in a hockey game, but I keenly remember the haunting taunts of “Philsbury Dough Boy.” There were days I would have loved to crush some of my tormentors beneath my fresh-baked buns—if only I could have caught up to them.

The impact of those pre-teen days of identity mutilation took years to overcome. It wasn’t until a crisis moment and spiritual awakening in my late teens that I wiggled free from those traps of mocking and scoffing. I came to know that what God thought of me, how he defined me, was what mattered most. I was to be labelled by grace and mercy. My Creator was no mean Jokester. In fact, he had a plan that required my redefinition, the knowing of myself not in the mirror, but in the redeemed reflection of my Saviour and Friend. We do as we believe we are.

Now turn the corner with me from the self to the community. Churches have self-identities too. Furthermore, these self-identities are crucial in their understanding of mission, purpose, and their relationship to their world.

I don’t have the definitive word on the myriad of self-identities churches live with, but I do note from my experience these broad categories:

Wounded churches: Beat up by cultural or social circumstances, internal strife, or relational issues gone bad, these churches are limping along, believing they have nothing to offer. They are introspective, cloistered, over-sensitive, and prone to knee-jerk reactions. They need to be loved, reminded of their true identity so their woundedness can be transformed into mission and ministry to a wounded world.

Stubborn churches: Shaped by a haughty spirit that is sure of its rightness, these churches lack a spirit of submission, teach-ability and surrender. They are prone to chew up leaders, those not like them, and are reticent to change. They are shaped by strong personalities, recurring power-plays, and a refusal to see where God is at work and to move in that direction. They need to be challenged, confronted, and called to repentance so their stubbornness can become a holy strength.

Wishy-washy churches: Shaped by the desire to please and be liked, these churches fall prey to the latest fads and philosophies. They are well-meaning and often very intelligent, but become anchorless, floundering ships on the tossing waves of cultural drift. They need to be grounded in truth and taught to contend for the faith. They must read their culture biblically instead of reading their Bibles culturally. They have great strength to offer but need to build on the sure foundation.

Blind churches: Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ rebuke, these churches adore righteousness in religious garb, but don’t see that they often contradict the message with their mediums. They live a culturalized Christianity that has long abandoned any transforming power. They cherish the packaging, but have forgotten the product. These churches need their religiosity refined by the fire and freedom of the Holy Spirit that enables them to see more clearly and trust more wildly.

What is the self-identity of your fellowship? You do have one and it’s shaping your mission, ministry, and purpose. What good, bad, and ugly has shaped it? Where do you, like a plump little boy, need the One who gives our true identity?

Friday, June 05, 2009

A time to blow your top

Capulin Volcano is, quite literally, a freak of nature. Its scrubby bump rises high and imposing above the treeless and sparsely populated grasslands that sprawl across the northeast corner of New Mexico.

The drive to the top of this U.S. national monument is hair-raising. The view is spectacular. You catch sight of Texas and the panhandle of Oklahoma to the east, the expanse of New Mexico to the south, the snow-capped Rockies to the west, and Colorado to the north.

My family hiked the path that circles the top of this lava mountain and my sons and I then descended into its centre. The ancient crater is littered with large boulders—petrified, silent witnesses of an epic cataclysm. The massive hole looks like a monstrous megaphone. In fact, from within the pit our voices, even at a whisper, were heard by the rest of the family far above at the volcano’s lip. And it struck me: the church is like Capulin Volcano.

I am convinced the world longs to hear what the church says, although the message we bear is often not welcome. Peace at all costs cannot be an option for a people who live a God-defined citizenship. If the church is to be volcanic and truly change the landscape, then what we have to say won’t always be appreciated.

South African missiologist David Bosch reminds us that “the church—if it is faithful to its being—will . . . always be controversial, a ‘sign that will be spoken against’ ” (Luke 2:34). The existence of a creator; the gospel call to repentance; the uniqueness of Jesus among all historical persons; the call to justice, righteousness and holiness; the call from idolatry and self; the call to live the new creation; and the reality of judgment on evil—these are what we have heard and must, as Jesus reminded his disciples, be ready to shout from the rooftops. The church is truly an odd bump from the world’s perspective and sometimes they want to hear what we say simply to mock us.

On the other hand, I believe that, given the chaos of the day, the world is straining to hear what Christians are saying about the times in which we live. People are searching for hope and stability in an age of upheaval. It is even assumed, sometimes more clearly by those who do not see themselves as followers of Jesus, that Christians will not simply speak what is popular or politically correct, but will contend and fight for a vision of the world diametrically opposed to that which we’re stuck with at the moment.

Have we muted ourselves? Have we forgotten that the church—the peculiar people defined by God’s word made flesh—is disturbingly volcanic? Have we forgotten that our presence, because of the Holy Spirit’s power at work in and through us, will alter the landscapes we touch?

For generations, Christians in the Mennonite tradition have been the “quiet in the land.” There is historical and some biblical warrant for such a strong, silent life, but this type of witness must be held in creative tension with the need to speak clearly of the hope we profess: to speak biblically, prophetically, counter-culturally, evangelistically and courageously, for there are many longing to hear what we’ve been whispering among ourselves.

Monday, May 25, 2009

No Holiday in Sri Lanka

Monday, May 18 was Victoria Day, a national holiday in Canada commemorating the British Queen who chose Ottawa as our capitol and was so influential she managed to have both a moral and architectural era named after her. But on this unofficial launch of summer the reality of the ongoing brokenness and complexity of the world hit disturbingly close to home.

Turns out Sri Lanka, once a British colony, chose Victoria Day to bring to a head its 26 year-old civil war and the ripples were felt by holiday drivers on one of Canada’s busiest roads, Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. The history of the political mess in Sri Lanka is too complicated for this column, but the lies and abuses heaped on one another by the minority Tamil-speaking peoples (who ruled the country when it was a British colony and known as Ceylon) and Sinhalese-speaking majority (who now control the government) have a rather eerie Rwanda-like feel about them (see for example: here and here).

On the weekend, which was far from a holiday for the large number of innocents suffering in northern Sri Lanka, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was apparently killed defending (or perhaps escaping) the last bit of Tamil controlled land.

The news was a terrible blow to Tamils around the world and led, in Toronto at least, to six hours of holiday disruption as Tamil protestors of all ages blocked traffic in an attempt to awaken the world to their plight.

There is much for discussion here: First, how should foreign governments respond to situations they are virtually incapable of changing quickly (and maybe waited too long to pay attention to)? Second, what is the proper political response to human suffering when those on the losing side (in this case the Tamil Tigers) are considered a terrorist organization themselves (they are credited with inventing suicide bombing)? Third, what is acceptable means of civil disobedience when it seems no one is listening or caring about your plight?

I don’t remotely claim to have even the preamble to the answers to these questions, but they need to be asked, and not just by politicians. In fact, the church would do well to enter the discussion. Hearing the rhetoric in Canada one becomes aware of a number of important elements Christians have to offer:

First, our humanitarianism (can we call it incarnational love?) need not depend on who is in political office or even on who is mostly right (though we will need to be wise as serpents). We are in the unique position to love all sides because we know that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Second, what if non-Sri Lankan Christians and Sri Lankan Christians (about 6% – including Tamils - are Christian) conversed and presented a united front that communicated repentance, solidarity in Christ, and action that was for people and not just for power? Would not such a move get us beyond civil disobedience that ultimately seems to create more enemies than friends?

Third, though many in North America know little about Sri Lanka (and even the current front page blotter will soon fade into distant memory), ought not our praying as Christians include situations like this? Moving our praying beyond the confines and conundrums of home to a global scale is no longer an option in a world where what happens in Colombo stops traffic in Toronto.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

With My Body I Thee Worship

“With my body I thee worship.” Once upon a time those words were uttered by grooms in marriage vows. To today’s postmodern ears they must sound like utter nonsense. They have a preposterous, even blasphemous ring about them.

Does it not seem like something coined by an amorously tearful bride at the climax of the worst chick-flick of all time? Wrong. It was framed in the seventeenth century by that great English Church Reformer Thomas Cranmer; hopeless orthodox romantic that he was.

I’m now half way through the second decade of married life and still learning to worship with my body. Life, let alone marriage, is quite the sexual journey for a man. Visions of fireworks are quickly doused by the sudden realization that we have much to learn and unlearn. The wise one implored the testosterone-driven male to rejoice in the wife of his youth (Proverbs 5:18). Song of Songs swoons that her smooth, succulent, adventurous beauty is worthy of great joy and, if biblical wisdom and Cranmer are right, adoration. The Word of God frees us to celebrate that season of life when the tree is green and the fire stoked and very nearly out of control.

The gift of youth is virility and fertility. It is a wonder any man survives to tell of a more settled, supposedly contented land beyond Hormonedom. Does it really exist? Can you get there from here? And, what of us who are single and no less endowed?

Each man must wrestle with the gift and problem of sexuality. A few among us actually don’t survive that wretchedly glorious springtime of life when this challenge assaults at our most vulnerable moment. Some men find themselves consumed by that blazing fire in the lower realms. Having not given their bodies to worship, to give what is due both God and woman in on-fire fidelity, they become pitiful slaves to desires that are never satisfied; to a thirst no woman, try as she may, will adequately be able to quench.

All men wander along a raging, potentially consuming libido current and are tempted to unreservedly dive into that river-of-no-return. I have yet to meet a man who is not somehow sexually broken. Admit it. Something has wrecked us. Some of us were never exposed rightly to this part of our identity; others were over-exposed. Some were abused; others abused. Some were baited by airbrush and caught by fishnet; others were hoodwinked by a doctrine of male superiority. We are broken and risk serving our sexuality rather than offering it.

Our bodily functions are not to be served slavishly, but offered in free worship. The fertility cults of the ancients and contemporary Hollywood are disastrously misguided and blinded in this regard when they glorify unbridled smorgasbords of pleasure. Our bodies and all their various hungers and desires were not intended to be fed endlessly like some buffoon at a buffet but, as the Apostle Paul said, to be offered as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). It is our reluctance to offer such worship that keeps us bound in deceptive slavery to that which was to be given, not horded.

We may argue that any joy in sex is equally fitting, like when as a teen I argued I was celebrating creation by watching Revenge of the Nerds. Stupid me, I wasn’t even celebrating good film-making. Such rationale is of course pathetically faulty, for it argues from and for self-worship. If with my body I worship – give to another what they are worthy of – then I must willingly set aside the self; I must die to me. I give what God, my Creator and Redeemer, and woman, my compliment in the image of God, is worthy of. God deserves my obedience; woman my fidelity and gentle awe. I horde no more. I take up my cross and follow Jesus. I surrender to the self-controlling Spirit of God. My manhood becomes beautifully corralled by the divine, not the diva. And then I am free to give woman what she is worthy of: honour, faithfulness, single-mindedness, and my strength. I am free to rejoice, to wait, to give, to offer, to vow, to serve, and to love. It is true: with my body I do worship.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

What’s right for me?

Recently, the world was introduced to a woman so smitten by the Eiffel Tower that she changed her last name to Eiffel. This is not her first fling of monumental proportions either, nor is she alone. A new sexual orientation is now being studied called “objectum sexuality.” Its website claims, “We love objects . . . in an intimate way and this feeling is innate.” The rightness of this architectural affection is justified upon the authority of one’s own experience. If you feel it, it can’t be wrong, so long as you’re not hurting any, uh, building. What a perfect project for postmodern media and psychiatry to drool over.

I have decided that relativism is wrong! I hope you notice the irony in that statement. The chief belief of our postmodern age is that truth and morality are decided at least by personal preference and at most by popular opinion. Yet the populace is not truly free, but is bound to cheer and legitimize what any individual finds fulfilling—no matter how absurd after the absolute voices of science and celebrity reach their definitive decisions.

Can we reason together? If morality and truth are determined by personal preference, why can’t I decide that it’s wrong? Oh, argues the moral relativist, such mean-spiritedness flies in the face of relativism’s cheery companion: tolerance. There are, however, two problems with tolerance when it is based on relativism.

First, and most shockingly, tolerance actually requires absolutes to exist. As Francis Beckwith points out, “I can only be tolerant of that which I believe is wrong or mistaken.” If I claim to value tolerance, but hold that morality is relative, then I am not really tolerant; I’m either in agreement with the moral choice in question (at which point I have ceased tolerating and begun approving), or I’m indifferent about the moral choice (which is not a truly moral position at all).

This leads to the second problem with relativistic tolerance: it is indifferent. It doesn’t care. It can’t care. It turns away. It leaves us too alone, determined to hear only people who affirm us, and perhaps only with inanimate buildings to cling to. A society built on this foundation may well become the most intolerant and disastrously indifferent of all.

So how do those who believe God has spoken absolutely respond? Well, we must abandon the foolish idea that relative truth and morality make sense and can be merged with the gospel. Relativism may produce “warm fuzzies” and cool movie endings, but it is not logical or practical. To say truth is relative, is an absolute statement imposed on others. To say morality is relative, defies how we know how to function. (Try telling a jilted woman that her husband’s adultery was “right” for him.)

Biblically, relativism is nothing new; it is the default of sinners seeking to justify life without God. We’ve all tried it. But there is a firm foundation offered to a confused and increasingly selfishly indifferent culture: Jesus—the way, the truth and the life. God the Son is the fulfillment of the law none of us can keep and gives us power to break free of random natural forces. And there is the far-from-perfect church that is not free to be indifferent, but is given an even higher call than tolerance: to love as God loves so absolutely (including Mrs. Eiffel), and love what he has spoken just as absolutely. That, after all, is something he has decided.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Disturbing Rest

I’m on sabbatical. For the first time in fifteen years of ministry I am purposefully resting. It’s hard work.

I don’t think I’ve experienced insanity before, but that must have been what temporarily occurred when we decided to drive the family across North America to retreat on the Pacific coast. We’ve visited fourteen States and two Provinces thus far. We’ve stuck it out and survived, mostly. We’ve learned plenty and realized again that creation is wild, people are diverse, and God is holy and wild himself.

We’re finally at our destination. I write this looking out at high tide. Snow capped mountains rise majestically in the distance. Ferries keep their time like a pendulum before me. My children are doing schoolwork in the background. I am in a place of rest. I am in a place of disturbance.

For what it’s worth allow me to share a few reflections from this disturbingly restful season I’m experiencing.

First, when we’re forced into that country that prefers to be left undisturbed, the uncharted lands of the interior, it is grace. Shed the familiar and routine and you find your self embarrassingly exposed and examined. It’s always safer hiding behind busyness. Extended time with those you love can be joyful strain. The heart comes into focus; and it’s not necessarily pretty. Love is hard work and I’m not always loveable. What wonder that God loves even me! God knows us yet still loves us. To be known by the holy is an awesome and awful proposition that is far too often trivialized. To know God is to come to know your self, and the self is not always a willing or worthy partner in this dance. The self loves to hide; our Redeemer’s love calls us out and tames our wilds. The silence, the rest, the steady ticking of time gracefully disturbs.

Second, there are people everywhere! This may seem obvious, but people are living, working, playing, and hurting the world over. Our vision can become narrow and bordered. Even in this age of a shrinking globe we can only live in one place at a time. Truth is, if we don’t inhabit that space with family, friends, and even antagonists and strangers well we really have little to offer elsewhere. Being on the move has opened our eyes to the drifts of people and especially those who move through no choice of their own. People are constantly shuffling about; it’s as if we know we’re only passing through. I am disturbed by the vastness of people and our hesitancy to embrace the neighbour, the stranger and increasingly restful within the narrow confines I have been given responsibility for. How do I engage this paradox?

Third, the church has work to do. We’ve rubbed shoulders with business people and educators in Oklahoma, motocross racers in Arkansas, cowboys in Colorado, aboriginals in Arizona, gamblers in Nevada, professionals in California, seniors in Oregon, pastors in Washington, skiers and young adults in British Columbia. Good people, the church has work to do! The church must, MUST, get out of her ghetto and engage the myriad of shifting peoples around us. One size fits all, just doesn’t fit! We need a wilder imagination and a more bold conviction of the truth of the Gospel that disturbs and is the only interior rest for people on the move.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Holy-day boldly

Our national statutory holidays are pathetically outdated. Consider this quick survey of our glorious days off:

• New Year’s Day: marking the launch of another year of our Lord (Anno Domini).

• Good Friday and Easter Monday: Jesus died so we could get the day off? (Many people believe this Friday is good simply because it is a holiday). Children and a few others get Easter Monday off to recover from chocolate hangovers. (Easter Monday is actually a remnant of Roman Catholic influence on Canadian culture).

• Victoria Day: our Victorian (a word now defined as “prudish, moralistic and religiously oppressive”) past is ritualized with trips to garden centres and fireworks.

• Canada Day: people above the 49th parallel remember they are not American.

• Labour Day: the recognition of labour by not labouring.

• Thanksgiving: the name says it all, but many are not sure why or to whom.

• Remembrance Day: a too-short silence to think long enough about what we lost and how we got there. Vicars and reverends still get seats of honour on this day.

• Christmas Day: the birthday of the guy killed on Good Friday. Also known as the day before the world junior hockey championships or the day of rest before Boxing Day shopping.

• Boxing Day: marking with glee that stores are open again. (Yet the root of this holiday is the giving of goodwill “boxes” to the less fortunate. It was set aside for giving, not consuming. Novel idea.)

This brief survey of holidays reveals how terribly behind these post-Christian times we are. After all, the majority are founded on the Christian religion. Why all these Christian holidays remain—if only in name—is intriguing. And the fact that we are now at least acknowledging special days of other religions, including Ramadan and Kwanza, increases the peculiarity of the paradox. If religion is so private and passé, why the increased publicity?

Why all these Christian holidays remain—if only in name—is intriguing.

Don’t you see? Canadian culture, increasingly shaped by gods of self and mammon and the religion of secularism, is undergoing a subtle transformation. Our holidays tell the tale. In fact, they tell new tales—Earth Day, for example. What and how we celebrate ultimately shapes us.

In the early centuries A.D., Roman festivals like Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”) was redefined by Christians. They used the existing culture to tell the story of the Saviour and, by golly, it worked famously.

The same shift Christianity once visited upon the Roman Empire is happening again, only in reverse.

This is no argument for state-sanctioned Christian observance. Rather, it is a wake-up call from our holiday slumber as we celebrate a very Good Friday and history-shattering Easter. Of all holidays, these are the most brash, for they invite public scrutiny of the very basis for Christian hope: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17).

Everything hinges on Good Friday and Easter. The days defy reason and human religious indifference, but then again God has always done that. So, for the sake of our culture losing its memory and bowing before gods that are not God, Christians must holiday boldly and declare unashamedly that the Lord is risen indeed. Alone among the tombs and burial mounds of this world, his has been abandoned and left behind. We who holy-day—not holiday—are keepers of this old, old story that is new again.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Evangelistic Atheism on the Move

The Atheist Bus Campaign (Alternate U.K version here ) is now an officially sanctioned humanist atheist response to advertising in the name of God. Vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins are gleefully heaving their intellectual weight behind this grassroots, priesthood of all non-believers movement plastered on buses in several large cities. A rather ironic religious zeal is unashamedly central to this new (renewed?) popular atheism. In fact, you can not only give a tithe and offering, but buy t-shirts proclaiming your faithlessness, find social gatherings, and celebrate Darwin’s birthday (I don’t think they call it Darwinmas quite yet).

The controversial bus ads come with the somewhat hesitant slogan, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This ad campaign has found its way into prominent public, and often humorously hyperbolic, discourse. There seems to be great fear by both pro and anti-God parties that the future of western civilization hinges on awakening the slumbering masses with pithy slogans and cool eye-catching graphics. It makes you wonder if the Great Advertiser isn’t really the god of the age! Interestingly, the ancient Christian apologist Athenagoras pointed out to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius that the poets and advertisers of his day were pumping out words to sway the masses toward the idolatries of Greece and Rome. There’s nothing new under the beating sun.

Should Christians of this day care?

On one hand we should laugh. The slogan itself is rather unconvincing and reminds me of an accusation my son has made that as parents we “almost always sometimes” are too strict. The ads may prove to be counter-productive. If there is “probably” no God then there just might be. Furthermore, the fact that many humanists these days are complaining that religious organizations are granted charitable tax status while donations to the bus ads are eligible for tax-receipts is comically hypocritical.

In addition, the slogan makes personal happiness and selfishness the goal of godlessness – go figure! The fool who says in their heart (or on the bus) there is no God is ultimately interested in self over all and everyone else. Perhaps we’re not laughing anymore, but moving toward sorrow.

On the other hand we should be thankful. Yes, thankful. The underlying stated purpose of the ad campaign is to bring atheism into the maintstream through dialogue. With Christian thought primarily sidelined and scorned in contemporary culture isn’t it wonderful that atheists are now preparing the way for the Lord! Of course, this means that those who know Jesus must be ready, like Athenagoras, to engage the conversation, stop over-reacting and embarrassing themselves, and be reminded that since ours is a secular society we need to be ready to speak, live, and defend the Gospel even at great risk. We will need the life of the church to be the banner of God’s love and truth to a world on the move.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Not so elementary, my dear Jesus

A study conducted in Britain in 2008 produced shocking results. Turns out Her Majesty’s mostly loyal subjects are struggling to differentiate fact from fiction.

The survey found that 47 percent of 3,000 people believed King Richard the Lionheart was a myth. We could attribute that result to the expanse of time separating the Royal Ricky from a contemporary English world he might equally have imagined as fantasy. However, the survey also found 23 percent believed Winston Churchill, the country’s famous World War II prime minister, was made up too—and he only died in 1965 and you can Google the proof of his existence!

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, was in fact a real person! Evidently, my dear Watson, there is something elementary amiss.

One wonders how Jesus would rate these days in the land of Cranmer, Wesley and Wilberforce? And how would Jesus poll in your neighbourhood?

Let us consider a crucial question for mission that too many churches have failed to take seriously in a land where we once sang “God Save the Queen”: How do we communicate the fact of Jesus to the world as we now know it?

This is very much the question missionaries must always ask.

Once upon a time we could assume our culture accepted that the man of Galilee did inhabit the planet, even if given no allegiance as the Son of God. Jesus and King Richard were both real, it went mostly without saying. These days, the odds are stacked against that conclusion.

There are even vocal pockets within the Christian religion itself lining up against a real Jesus. Quests for the historical Jesus—often aimed at exposing a “Jesus myth”—produce endless books, receive plenty of airtime (which we’ll probably see again as Easter nears), and neutralize faith. While the roots of this debate go back two centuries, it has only recently become the primary (dare I say only?) expression of the Christ preached by the popular media. The church seems bent on decapitating herself yet again. How can we communicate Jesus to our befuddled world when Christians themselves seem muddled?

The tables have turned on fact and fiction. The past is play dough in postmodern hands and we’re mixing the colours like proverbial toddlers until nothing vibrant remains. When most people get their history from Hollywood, and welcome it as manipulated, romanticized entertainment, doesn’t that produce a culture where fact is viewed only real once it titillates and sells? Doesn’t such history produce a memory for fiction and amnesia of the facts? And doesn’t it just produce indifference, intellectual laziness and shrug-ability once the credits roll?

Let’s be honest, it is a radical move to base your living in the present and eternity upon he who was sent by love 2,000 years ago. What evidence that awakens faith is there that he really lived, died and, even more astounding, rose from the dead? And how do we communicate his reality to our age? The answer to those crucial questions must once again enliven the minds and hearts of believers, so we can give an answer for the hope the living Jesus has unquestionably planted within us, no matter what the surveys say.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Secular Journalism's Call
(to Christian Mission)

At the 160th convocation of Knox College at the University of Toronto in 2004 Brian Stewart, journalist and news anchor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, made a shocking admission. Despite these days of viral anti-Christian rhetoric in the popular spheres he declared, “there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers … when mobilized for a common good.” Stewart also reflected on a recurring happenstance throughout his career when going to “break a story” only to find Christians already at work before the “news” got out. He said, “I have never been able to reach these Front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care, and being a faithful witness to truth, the primary light in the darkness and so often, the only light” (read Stewart’s speech here).

Maybe Stewart’s comments are just isolated journalistic ear candy. Perhaps he’s just being nice and giving a tolerant nod and wink to his hearers at a church college needing to be affirmed and back-scratched. Then again…

My mind was brought back to Stewart’s words when forwarded a recent article found in one of Britain’s news engines, “The Times.” The piece was by Matthew Parrish and bore this eye-catching title, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”. Parrish makes some shocking confessions of rejecting any notion of God but, having lived with and watching the life of Christian missionaries and churches in Africa he is a believer in, at the very least, God’s people. He writes, “Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do.

Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Some in the postmodern North American church (i.e. predominately white middle class late Boomer and Gen Xers – I see a resemblance of this in my mirror) have gotten into the nasty habit of self-mutilation. The voices booming from this occasionally self-absorbed organ of the body of Christ are often heard slamming the church as a failure. These in-house critiques mirror the oft secular or atheistic condemnations that have been prevalent for some time. They can even be heard apologizing for being Christian, blushing with embarrassment at the Gospel, the deity of Christ, and the truth of Scripture that tells of sinners, saints, salvation, and a different world.

I am beginning to wonder if this is not shaped more than we’d like to admit by our desire to be liked by the very culture we claim to have let down.

This is not to say that a good number of the critiques have not been warranted and necessary – the prophet is always a gift to the church for her maturity – but I wonder if, in our careless (almost gleeful?) disemboweling of Jesus’ body, we haven’t actually despised and judged previous generations who were seeking to be faithful Christian witnesses too. Have we missed the holy and uncommon quality that is the Church through the ages? Are we giving too much volume to the wrong voices? To hear Stewart and Parrish one could conclude we may just have our antennas tuned badly. Perhaps these journalists are seeing something we’re not?

May I propose a few responses to this journalistic call to embrace our mission as the followers of Jesus Christ?
• First, an unashamed culture of calling out young women and men to lay down their lives as servants of Christ and the world. Do Christian parents still pray that their sons or daughters might give themselves to full-time Christian vocation or are we most excited about them landing a “real job?” Do we pastors beckon the young to respond to the needs of this world for Jesus’ sake and not simply their own? The church has always plowed forward because of young souls radically caught up by Jesus’ vision for their community and the far off corners of the world. Where are they now? Are they just backpacking through Europe, working at ski resorts, and preparing to be consumed by the rat race? Who will pray and call them out into the adventure of abundant life?
• Second, an unashamed culture of making the most money possible using the gifts God gives us in order to send more and more people and do more and more good. Does this contradict my first point? I think not. The whole people of God are part of the great task of making disciples and leading the advance of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. That means the Christian lawyer, Christian business person, Christian doctor, Christian auto worker, Christian teacher, Christian janitor, or Christian farmer are partners with their Christian brother or sister who is applying their trade, gift, or skill in a way that pays little, demands much investment, and may even appear to bring little recognizable return. Doing bad costs money and I’m convinced doing good requires even more. The North American church has an unparalleled opportunity to share wealth, send people, train leaders, and meet human need in all its forms but what seems missing is a culture that shrewdly, wisely, and generously uses money for good. Can this change?
• Third, an unashamed culture of celebrating the difference Jesus makes. This begins with our own stories of transformation, but includes the radical wholeness Jesus brings to lives and communities where, as the atheist Parrish noted, “the rebirth is real.” When organizations like Mennonite Central Committee do things “in Jesus’ name” it is not a pithy marketing slogan, but a declaration of unique difference and witness. Jesus does change things! He radically alters reality for those who believe. We believe he is Lord of all, Lord of history, he does make this world better and we’ll never apologize for it. So, Church of the Living Lord, stop the self-absorbed navel-gazing and get on with living up to the high standards secular journalism has come to expect.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The church at risk

My boys and I enjoy trying to conquer the world. There are few moments quite so peace-filled at our house as a cold winter’s day gathered around a game of Risk.

It’s interesting watching the cognitive tendencies and development of my boys as they learn the strategy of world domination one role of the dice at a time. Along the way we discuss this flat world we are vicariously crisscrossing. They learn geography, and about different peoples and their sordid and sad histories. They talk about the type of ruler they would be—always a stark reminder that boy dictators should be on very short leashes! They learn how to make peace when confronted with a sibling who is also a rival. And they learn that unless they have an eye for protection they will very quickly possess only the eyes of a spectator.

Some churches are masters at protection. My eldest son’s approach to Risk fits this category. He collects pieces and keeps collecting. Only very conservatively and cautiously does he look toward advancing. Similarly, a protective church works diligently to keep everyone feeling safe and secure. They know each other well, occasionally too well and in too closed a circle. Their programs tend toward in-house events for the already-at-home.

There can be great strength in this, just as there can be in my son’s approach to Risk. However, he never wins. While he usually outlasts his brother, eventually his unwillingness to take chances results in the steady dwindling of his resources. Soon it’s just a frustrating matter of time.

Likewise, many protective churches are now finding out that the jig is up. Others will only realize this in the next decade. This type of church needs to hear the words of Wilbert Shenk, “[T]he church is most at risk when it has been present in a culture for a long period so that it no longer conceives of its relation to culture in terms of missionary encounter.” Is this the risk your church is taking?

Some other churches are masters of advance. My youngest son’s approach to Risk fits this category. The game begins and he bolts forward in all-out attack. Try as I may, there is no convincing him that a little consolidation and patience would be wise.

He is usually the first to be swept off the board, his empire banished to the annals of board game history. After first of all making great gains—but without getting grounded or leaving himself with little to protect—he may as well have not even started.

Churches that only think about advance have an incredible way of connecting the gospel to their world. They advance with ease, but quickly discover that their inability to protect well has created a disastrous vulnerability—shallow disciples who are more culturally, rather than biblically, shaped. This type of church needs to hear the words of Leslie Newbigin: “A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Saviour but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls public life today, must be condemned as false.” Is this the risk your church is taking?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Our family had moved to a new community and I had a new job with less pay. We had downsized of our own free will because of what we believed to be the will of our Heavenly Father.

To top it all off we were a single income family with one child and another on the way. But, not just any lovechild freely conceived in a fit of logic-suspending passion. Oh no, the critter on the way was being adopted internationally. This was family addition that had turned into calculus. Not only had we chosen to adopt because of another of God’s clearly cloudy calls, and to pay handsomely for it, but we had just accepted that his will meant having less money to do it all with. Who had spiked the tap water?

And so it was I came to that dark day sitting in my new office all too keenly aware of our lack. Fees were due to bureaucracies without sympathy and lawyers with more than enough. The cash simply was not there. To be honest I was a mess as I stared out the window unable to focus on the day’s tasks. My wife and I had been praying, scrimping, scrooge-ing. Neither God nor we seemed to have a solution. The lottery seemed temptingly to have better odds.

My glazed gaze was interrupted by a knock on the door. I opened it to the welcome sight of a friend and mentor from our previous community. He was passing through and thought he’d stop by. Long time no see. A sight for sore eyes. I wanted to spill all my angst, anxiety, and anger. Which, of course I didn’t. I was too manly for that; too blessedly proud and pompous.

Instead, we talked over a whole host of things. The job. The weather. Politics. Church. Faith. Family. Sports. We ran the gamut, but never got to the core of my pain and anguish. Eventually he rose to leave. As he approached the door, however, he stopped. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he reminded himself and reached into his jacket explaining that he and his wife had been praying for us. Then, rather unceremoniously, he placed a wad of rolled up bills in my hand. Five hundred dollars. Enough to cover this round of dues and fees. Enough to keep moving forward in faith. Silence. Gratitude. Tears. Enough.

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So quotes the New Testament writer of Hebrews (13:5). We tend to apply these words to only the lonely. We elicit them to comfort the afflicted and discouraged. This is all well and good and wonderfully Hallmarkish. But. But, the context of these words is startling given these days of economic upheaval and the rash worship of accumulation in our culture. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you….” God’s promise to be present is a knock-on-the-door reminder to flee our fretting over and infatuation with money. Money comes and goes; God does not.

Pushed further we discover that this quote is pulled from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. There, Moses is passing his leadership mantle to Joshua. The wizened saint encourages his people and protégé, because they were as nervous as we can be in seasons of transition and tumult, “…he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt.31:6.8). The Israelites were about to enter a new land, with new uncertainties and potential risks and loses. What should have been the glorious fulfillment of God’s promise and leading presence was turning into a fret-fest. How would they ever survive? The wilderness can be hard to live in, but it can be equally hard to leave.

He will never leave. We are not forsaken. He is present. Be content. Love the Lord alone. Be free. God knows. He is not flummoxed by what is seemingly spinning out of control. He knows what we need, and when. He keeps his promises. Our quandaries are no surprise to him. All may appear empty, but he will be Enough.

I remember that day like it was yesterday and it frees me. He is Enough. And his enough beckons me to greater contentment, adoration, and risky faith because he has promised....

Monday, January 26, 2009


I would like to personally thank Barack Obama for bringing back to the forefront of public life the fine art of oratory. Not that the new President of the free world will ever read these words, but I believe it must be noted that Barack Obama has, at least for a new generation, awakened a love for the speech on a grand level.

Regardless of where we might fall on his politics, there is no denying that the guy can bring it when addressing a crowd and the crowds love it.

Recently a few of my colleagues had a vibrant discussion on the place of the preaching and oratory proclamation in the life of the Church. Is it really necessary? What form should it take? I have been wondering if a new generation, so saturated and bemused by image, was beyond the discipline of listening. Had my cohort and younger colleagues become immune to the power of oratory? This question has profound implications for what it means to be the followers of Jesus Christ.

After all, the Scriptures, though written, are primarily the result of oratory. In the Bible we hear the speech of God, even as it is read. Further, what the people of God bring to the world is a proclamation; we bring the oratory of Good News, even as it is brought to life in our active love and service. If in this age we no longer hear or want to hear the peculiar gift of oratory then is not God somehow, mysteriously, muted?

Among Christians there has been a renewed infatuation with the truthful words of St. Francis Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” Our love for this word is bound up in the repulsion some have had to speech that was not evidently lived. None of us are keen on speech that is merely idea, theory or a dogma. This repulsion to banal speech is understandable, even laudable, but even Francis’ call to preach with our lives was spoken! Good St. Francis did not send it telepathically. His words had bite because they were true, because they were heard and because he lived what he spoke.

What our deadened souls await is to be stirred, inspired, and set on fire. Maybe that is why Obama stirs so many, for he awakens them with his oratory and not simply his policies (probably very few who voted for or against him would be able to articulate his policies at all, but they know “Yes we can”). Of course, speech without meat is no better than meat without speech, but a generation starved for fine oratory is willing to take the risk on that which awakens the depths (Look here for a powerful sign of appreciation for Obamatory).

So, perhaps it’s not so much that we are now immune to the speech. Obama’s oratory has proven to me, at least, that even a younger generation has ears itching to hear. Perhaps, like others before us, we are simply immune to bad speech? Perhaps it’s that we are immune to the speech without follow through? Perhaps we want to hear speeches that stir us, move us, and are lived before us. Thus far, that’s what so many hear of Obama and his oratory. Of course, like others before him, he will be judged and polled on his follow through; on his ability to put flesh on his word.

And, ultimately, this is what God alone has done with his speech in Jesus Christ for the sake of you, me, and Mr. President and his fine Obamatory (John 1:1-14).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lead with your tongue

Each of us is possessed with great influence and a great influencer—our tongues. The words we say matter very much. Even further, identifying those who should have influence over us is founded on whether their words are truly from heaven. Are they truly wise? How do we know? We know because those who have golden tongues are those whose speaking matches God’s speech and whose speaking matches their God-shaped living.

The bishop of Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in the early days of official Christendom was John Chrysostom. In the late 300s A.D., Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. With this rise to prominence, the church went from being a dynamic, organic movement to a religious institution, and power and money began to erode the truth of the gospel.

Constantinople—named after Emperor Constantine, who legalized the Christian faith—became one of the main centres of Christianity, and John was the preacher of this important city. Because of his masterful way with words, he became known as “Chrysostom” (the golden mouthed). But John did not play the part that the powerful wanted him to. Instead of patting the back and tickling the ears of the comfortably religious, he called for truth, justice and Christ-like living.

In one inspired moment he waxed eloquently, “Do you pay such honour to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?” When a church culture pays more attention to poop than people, you know something smells. John’s tongue was a sword of truth.

Needless to say, his golden mouth got him into trouble and eventual exile to the hinterlands of the Caucasus. If you teach what is right, be prepared! Golden tongues often get not-so-golden handshakes.

The true teacher knows truth is not negotiable. The true teacher knows whom he or she answers to. The true teacher is captured by the Teacher, lives the faith and yearns for faith to be lived. Words matter. We lead with our tongues.

This is why false teaching is a predominant concern in Scripture. A small bit can control a horse, a small rudder can steer a ship, and a tiny spark can destroy a whole forest. Our tongues—connected to what lives in our hearts and minds—can turn the course of lives and communities for good or ill (James 3:3-6).

What we teach and speak, has influence. Remember Eden: What led us under the bondage of sin? It was not the fruit, but the forked-tongue of the serpent: “Did God really say . . . ?” (Genesis.3:1). Since then, our tongues lead towards hell. Destruction rather than redemption can be our witty aim. We use words to tear down and gossip.

Without shame, we’ll even use our sophisticated and learned tongues to twist the speech of God.

Does your tongue guide those you influence into the truth of God? Do your words harness kingdom beauty and strength? Whose teaching is given influence over our communities? Where is the tongue leading these days?