Monday, December 20, 2010

Three Wise Men

The most unsettling participants in the “Christmas story” are the most biblically literate. Asked by magi where the king of the Jews was to be born, King Herod turns to expert priests and scribes for help. Confidently the clerics reference the answer in the scroll of the prophet Micah: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet. . .” (Luke 2:5).

King Herod the Horrible devises a sinister plan. If the Word is true and the time is ripe, then his hold on power is tenuous. He will act, because of Scripture, and Bethlehem will mourn like never before.

After providing their scriptural answer, the priests and scribes recede to the silent margins, pulling them out some 30 years later to justify killing the child of promise, just like Herod.

The gentile magi of the east act because of Scripture and venture in faith towards Jewish Bethlehem convinced stars and Scripture have aligned undeniably. Often missed in our re-telling of the Christmas story is that these foreign astronomers alone responded rightly to the prophetic promise of Scripture. This is deeply troubling and laced with hope.

It is troubling for me because, as a pastor, I am supposedly a biblical “expert.” I would have been among those asked to find the answer. There is plenty of justifiable angst about the pathetic level of biblical illiteracy these days. At the same time, we must be careful. Biblical literacy does not automatically produce biblical living or even mean the acceptance of biblical authority.

Knowing chapter and verse can merely produce religious obesity, where we recline on our spiritual couches, instead of putting feet to the promise. In Luke’s account of the epiphany visitation, the most biblical are the most irrelevant and, ultimately, irreverent. The magi—and even Herod—respond as if Scripture might actually be living and active, whereas the students of Scripture miss the plot while knowing it best.

Some Christians—and even some Christian scholars—treat the Word as if it were intended for our pompous and expert deconstruction and revision, rather than a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. This should disturb us and drive us not from careful study, but to the practical hermeneutics of wise men and women who blend the signs of the times, the truth of revelation, and a readiness to obey the authority of what God has breathed into a mosaic of living and active faith.

Despite all this, there is hope. Given the post-Christian culture we live in, the Scripture speaks with fresh power and profundity to those on a search. Those who grew up with the biblical story can forget how incredible its revelation is. People adrift in a decadent, rootless age are often primed and eager to hear from Scripture, and even receive it as living and active hope. To them it is like fresh bread in a world of day-olds. They are the new magi. Have the story-keepers become the complacent experts?

So let us search the Scripture diligently, but let us not stop there. Let us proclaim its truth relevantly and unashamedly, but let us not stop there. Let us receive what it declares and go all the way to “Bethlehem” and then return home a different way—because the Word has been made flesh, and this world and all its kingdoms will never be the same.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Life Within & Without

I am thirty-eight years old and keenly aware that my body is not twenty-eight or eighteen anymore. I am beginning to understand what “old” people like me were talking about when I was ten or twenty years younger. To maintain a healthy body moving forward I need to take good care of the life within and the life without. In other words, I need to eat right, exercise, and take care of the inner workings of this wonder of life, while at the same time maintain healthy relationships and participation in the world around me that I enter each day.
The church is no different. We are, as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, a body. As such we have many different parts and those parts have different functions. In order for the church, the body of Christ, to remain healthy, we must maintain a healthy tension between the life within and the life without.
I have often found that two primary camps emerge within a church family. The first is of those who are determined that we should primarily be concerned about the life within. We should make sure we are knowing each other, discipling each other, walking with each other, and caring well for one another. Who can argue with how important that is? No one, of course. Jesus did say it was by our love for one another that people would know we are his disciples (John 13:35). The second camp is of those who are determined that we should primarily be concerned about the life without. We should make sure we are serving the poor, doing acts of justice in society, planting churches, and sharing the Good News far and wide. Who can argue with how important that is? No one, of course. Jesus did say we are to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
But a funny thing can happen if we’re not careful. These two camps can come to believe that theirs is more important than the other. They can even come to suspect that the other is wrong and misguided. Whoa! Hold the phone. God has wired his church so that these two realities, the life within and the life without, are held in perfect tension. Rather than judge the other we ought to celebrate our need for one another. We ought to rejoice in the wideness of God, the opportunity we have to lean on each other’s strengths, and never make light of what it takes to be healthy as a body.
After all, my thirty-eight year old body is going to need that same within and without balance if I am to see forty-eight and beyond.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Which Hill To Die On?

I’ve entered that stage in life where something called a “teenager” meanders and groans its pimpled way through our home. It’s interesting to watch and talk to. In this new challenge – which I’m loving by the way – I’m learning the art of compromise.
It’s impossible to live in relationship and not compromise. None of us always get our way and those of us who think we should are really miserable to live or very lonely. You can’t not compromise. We build Maginot Lines to our own detriment, so let us learn to unearth our hardened embankments.
The local church, a goulash of saints with a cornucopia of opinions, oddities, tastes, and redemption histories, is the perfect place to practice compromise. Unfortunately, this is not always done well.
We can twist the priesthood of all believers into a license for everyone to get their way on the one extreme or majority rule democracy more intent on popular opinion than radical corporate unity and obedience on the other. This distorted and culturally-shaped understanding of the priesthood of all becomes a twisted version of “my rights” culture hiding behind biblical language. Still, feverishly convinced we’re practicing the Reformation ideal of de-clericalizing the priesthood, churches argue and divorce over things we should compromise on and risk ignoring things we should never surrender. Trust me; if you rage uncompromising battle royals over trivial matters as a body you will most likely abandon the more weighty matters of justice, mission, truth, and active love – and will have abandoned the priesthood of all believers in the process.
If I do that with my teenager it’s a recipe for disaster. There are hills to die on but they are few and far between.
So, what should we be willing to compromise?
At an elementary level, anything that fits the category of taste. If it’s merely a matter of likes and dislikes then we should be ready to not only compromise, but even be ready to completely surrender our way if a more effective mission strategy that is biblically faithful, Kingdom-advancing, and Jesus-glorifying is put forward. Ultimately, this will mean not just living on the shoulders of past compromises, but actually continuing to learn the art as a people.
So, does it really matter what hairstyle a teen wants to self-torture with? They’ll have to moan over the pictures in twenty years and it’s really a matter of taste-testing self-identity. This is not a hill I will die on. Besides, I like his shaggy hair and whatever’s living in it, but maybe I’m just conciliatory out of envy over my own failing crop.
We must learn as churches to compromise and surrender our way forward. We were once a people ready to die for the sake of Jesus, now we seem to only save such uncompromising zeal for music, buildings, politics, and budget lines. We seem to have constipated our compromising. This is a bloody shame, because usually when we’re busy digging trenches over things we should meet in no-man’s land over, we unwittingly compromise what should never be abandoned.
Eugene Smith writes about the four major compromises of Christian mission over the centuries: with the state (which Anabaptists have led the way in rejecting marvelously), with the culture (which Anabaptists have been rather clumsy with), with disunity in the church (yeah, we’ve gorged ourselves like teen boys at a buffet on this one), and with money (which we can guard more religiously than the gospel itself). I would argue that every local church leans toward compromise in one of these areas. Which area of compromise is your fellowship most likely to succumb to? And, conversely, where are you learning the art of healthy compromise in new ways? Which hill are you willing to die on?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Surprised By Laughter

Life is serious business. There are bills to pay. There are people to please and those we’d rather not please. There are children to discipline and marriages to work on. There are strained relationships. There are “honey-do” lists to be done today and “what-I-want-to-do” lists that get set aside for tomorrow, again. There are disappointments and challenges. There are wars and rumours of wars. Life can be seriously sufferable; how is one to cope?

Abraham Lincoln faced much as Civil War President before a bullet took him down at Ford’s Theatre. In light of the sobering leadership challenges he faced, Lincoln said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” Ironically, the most revered of Presidents was assassinated during the funniest line of the play “Our American Cousin.” John Wilkes Booth intentionally waited for the burst of laughter to muffle his shot that changed history. Suffering and laughter are strange and oxymoronic bedfellows.

We all know this is true. As Saturday Night Live’s Jack Handy once said, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” Great comedians can take the serious stuff of life, even the politically incorrect, and surprise us with an angle of thought, a twist of the tongue, an irreverent notion, that tickles the funny bone. In that strange moment something wonderful happens: we laugh. You can try to suppress it, but you have to be seriously stubborn – and perhaps comatose – to contain a good chuckle. A laugh is a beautifully surprising thing and it’s upon that part of our nature that comedians prey.

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs,” wrote the crusty German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” While Nietzsche, whose ideas on the death of God and the meaninglessness of life still shape our culture, might not exactly be considered a reliable source of snigger therapy – except for perhaps his wild 19th century mustache – he might be on to something. Human beings uniquely, among all God’s creatures, laugh. Even Hyenas are only “laughing” because we think they do. Given the other possibilities for coping with the sobering realities we face, laughter may very well not only be the best option, but a divine gift. It may, in fact, be part of the image of God in us.

God gave Abram a promise that through him all nations on earth would be blessed. Quite an unlikely promise given that Abram and Sarai were childless and beyond even Viagara-aid. The idea of those two procreating is kind of like going down the fearful path of thinking about your grandparents “doing it.” Yeah, enough said. Nevertheless, God keeps his word. The impossible becomes reality and the suffering couple’s hopeless, faith-filled journey into retirement is upended by the arrival of a bouncing baby boy when Abraham is one hundred. They boy is named Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” Sarah rejoices, “God has made laughter for me…” (Genesis 21:6). God makes laughter – what a marvelous thought.

Have you ever thought that God loves to make us laugh? Where is God making laughter for you?

The laughter of God’s making that refreshes and washes the soul is most often surprising. Sarah had attempted to create hilarity by giving Abraham her maidservant and Abe, the drooling old fart, went along with it. That didn’t go so well and created bitterness, competition, and a lot of difficult conversations around the nomadic campfire. Conversely, the laughter of God’s creation surprisingly interrupts our reality with his faithfulness, often in spite of our sad attempts at humouring ourselves. God’s laughter-making is hinted at in the art of the comedic, but is only truly experienced in the discipline of being open to surprise. And, the discipline of surprise is a position of faith that is sure God alone can invade the mundane and even the painful with the surprise of a smile, a giggle, and eventually a hearty belly laugh that can revolutionize the world as we know it. And, in that light, laughter may very well be a gateway to worship – the suffering human beings wonder and surrender to the God who will one day wipe away every tear and fill our mouths with shouts of joy.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Wrong Question

The silly season will soon arrive when you will hear, “What do you want for Christmas?” Endlessly creative lists of desires will follow. Others will go all high-horse and not ask for anything, while silently hoping you can read minds. Still others will completely miss the point and wish a bride for Prince William or a Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs—only one of which seems remotely possible.

But given that Christmas is rooted in the Great Gift-Giver, should we not be asking, “What will you give for Christmas?” This would be, despite all the trappings and absurdities that have become part of the sugar overdose of Yuletide, at least one small step in the right direction.

Many approach the wonder of the church in the same way we have been conditioned to view Christmas. We bring sloppy church-thought to the fore when we say something like, “I want a church that will meet my needs!” We almost stomp our feet when we say this, and there is much worth puking over in this type of toddler-tantrum.

The local church is no drive-thru. A church is the neighbourhood expression of the people of God, saved by a cross of grace, resurrected from the dominion of self, and called out of the world only to be sent back to it as one body. The church is gathered by the Father to live like Jesus in the world in the power of the Spirit, not some abstract entity for Christian cherry-picking. When we treat the church like consumers, we are participating in heresy.

The abundance of churches in most communities means some Christians, bulging at the seams from being force-fed the lie that they are the centre of the universe and having never wrestled biblically with the nature of the church, look at church buildings in much the same way they view strip malls: “I wonder if that church will make me happier,” or, “I’m sure this one will give me what I want, and probably for a better deal.” The variety of the body of Christ is thus reduced to the equivalent of competing catalogues and sales events.

A more biblical, and perhaps even history-altering, approach would be akin to that other Christmas question. Instead of selfishly hoping for a church that will meet my wants and needs, what might change if we would say, “I want to join God in meeting the world’s needs! I have graciously received. What can I now give and who will I do it with?”

* First, it might actually begin correcting our sloppy church-thought and recover a biblical ecclesiology that sees the church as God’s idea to change the world (Ephesians 3:10) and not his department store for spiritual shopaholics.
* Second, it might give us a greater appreciation for those who serve and lead the church. Rather than see our leaders as holy service providers who need to put out or move on, we might become an army of kingdom agents asking, “How might I serve?” instead of, “What have you done for me lately?” It might also be just what our leaders need to be freed from the tyranny of performance that keeps many shackled and fearful.
* Third, it might actually make us happier. We may discover that joining God’s mission to meet the world’s deepest needs is exceedingly more exhilarating, and unifying, than having another itch scratched. We may, in fact, discover the joy of the Great Giver himself.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Elders Trump Pastors

Pastor or elder? Which is more important to the long-term health of a local church?

Scads of cash is invested every year developing current and future pastors. This is important in so far as it shapes leaders and not managers, prophets and not puppets. Well-formed Kingdom servants rooted in an evangelical faith that cannot lie sleeping and smitten by the person of Jesus, his church, and the power of his resurrection are needed.

However, money for degree-centered pastoral formation is increasingly sparse and the model itself is undergoing seismic-shifts in a post-Christian cultural climate. Many pastors now come to church ministry second career—which is wonderful—but this presents new challenges in regards to family and finances. And, it also begs a question: if so many pastors are coming to vocational ministry later in life, why can’t the local church see its eldership as the workshop of pastoral apprenticeship? Why do we assume the distant ivory tower rather than the local coffee shop is the most realistic locale for developing leaders for Jesus’ church? What if every local church saw it as a divine responsibility to develop leading elders with Christ-like character, theological depth, and vocational ministry capability? And, perhaps even more outrageous, what if training institutions saw it as their unique call to partner with local churches and their elders and not just be that far-off place a few struggle to get to?

So, again, which is most important: pastor or elder?

Many say the pastor of course! Pastors come with resumes chocked full of reasons why they are the greatest thing since Simons, Spurgeon, or sliced bread. Three cheers for the certificates on my wall!

But. Yes, we must face this big “but.” In the life of the vast majority of congregations it is elders who outlive pastors. If a congregation finds itself in a pickle, a deadlock, or facing new realities, who is most likely to leave or be asked to leave? Very, very seldom will it be an elder. Elders trump pastors. Read ‘em and weep.

Fully understood, pastors are first elders in character and only secondly those called to live out a particular gift-mix in a unique way. A “pastor” is essentially an elder with benefits in that they are those of elder quality called and freed to focus their time on the health of the local body.

Paul did not instruct Titus to appoint pastors on Crete, but elders (Titus 1:5). He says, in essence, that the whole Jesus movement depends on these people. I concur. Any church I have been part of is as healthy as her elders. In fact, good elders can save a church from a bad pastor, but a good pastor can rarely save a church from the debilitating affects of bad eldership. The future of the church is helped, but does not hinge upon what is produced in colleges and seminaries

What trumps all is the elders we disciple in our churches—of whom only a small minority will ever end up with a nicely matted piece of paper to hang in their office.

So, what might happen if pastors—those with elder quality well equipped through the strengths training institutions have to offer—would spend more of their time making disciples of elder quality instead of running themselves ragged doing tasks that look good on a year-end report?

My hunch is we’d have oodles of elders capable of enormously solid spiritual oversight and so many pastors we’d need to start more churches to give them all something to do. Now, there’s a crazy thought!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

From ‘Imagine’ to ‘Material Girl’

As a fledgling whipper-snapper the great inherent threat to my young soul was said to be the subliminal messages being “backmasked” into music that would hoodwink me into becoming morally reprobate, or, worse, a Montreal Canadiens fan. Determined, and thoroughly misguided, religious groups fought to have backmasking on vinyl records banned forever.

Why, pray tell, do we hop happily down such rabbit trails to nowhere? Feverishly focused on what wasn’t there, we missed what actually was. Each generation’s anthems reveal a lot about its soul and map cavernous cultural expanses that are far from subliminal.

Let’s begin with John Lennon. The ex-Beatle released “Imagine” in 1971. I wasn’t born yet, but even I can discern the clear message of this boomer hymn: “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”

Imagine a world where the eternal and anything worth dying for is rejected, where today alone matters. Lennon was nobly challenging the imperialism and pie-in-the-sweet-by-and-by faith he believed led to wars and rumours of wars.

His mantra sounds eerily similar to the utopian dreams of some Christians who believe peace is the Babel-construct of our imagination, rather than the overcoming victory of the Prince of Peace. It’s a moving secular ballad that produced exactly what it imagined: a generation casting aside the eternal and any grand purpose for the self-imprisonment of the here and now.

Fast forward 15 years and a new singer found her voice. Following Lennon’s logic—though likely not to his liking—an upstart named Madonna declared: “You know that we are living in a material world / And I am a material girl.”

A world without the eternal suddenly fills with narrow materialists setting their sights not on Lennon’s utopia, but on the paradise of the mall. Milk this world for all its worth, and thanks be to John, who justified our imagination!

A not-so-subliminal cultural rhythm was being danced to, yet it was at this very point many Christians were scurrying about flummoxed over backmasking! Instead of engaging the empty doctrines of the day with the present and future hope of the gospel, they plugged their ears and missed the Acts 17 moment to answer the poets of the day with the prose of God’s story.

We went silent—or judgmental—and now wonder why boomers can’t imagine a church that doesn’t bend over backwards to satisfy their imaginations and why twenty- and thirty-somethings are being choked out by the concerns of a purely material world!

Now emerges a new cohort of poets. One of today’s top bands, Hedley, has uncovered its own generation’s shame. They scream: “All the sole survivors / Still stranded on the island / Lying through their teeth for money / So everybody dance, everybody sing! / If you wanna go far, if you wanna be a star / Yeah we can swing it, Cha-ching.”

Daily splashed before us on TV or YouTube is a generation ready to not only imagine, but literally do anything for, mere minutes of fame and any prize a material world has to offer. Cha-ching!

Hedley is sarcastically prophetic. They call out the hopelessness and shallowness they see among their own, but offer no solution. How will those who know the hope of the Eternal One do more than merely imagine a response?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No more cheap church

Nearly four score years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Every Christian should read it because the German martyr was on to something: He exposed the scourge of cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.”

He saw the church peddling grace as an idea about God, not proclaiming Jesus Christ, whose lavish sacrifice and invitation to follow demands unconditional surrender. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer continued, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” The drift of religious Christianity is towards this bargain-store spirituality; we like God and his benefits on the cheap and with as little personal cost as necessary.

The contagion of cheap grace is cheap church. If we expect God and his goods on our terms, with our desires untouched, we will want church just as conveniently.

Dare we admit that many adhere to the doctrine of cheap church and fervently believe it to be true. We want church that costs nothing beyond our cash, interests and occasional attendance. We want church that will not require the gruelling tasks of loving, forgiving and offering grace to those we’re sure shouldn’t get it. We want to consume our bargain-store spirituality and happily shop with others who think the same. We want a church of the holy potluck, the holy project, the holy huddle, but we’re not so keen on a church of the Holy Spirit.

I mean, really, have you read what the Holy Spirit did to the church in Acts? Who wants that mess and cost anymore? Now that we’ve got everything pasteurized and organized, we can get on with church on the cheap and defend it almost like we mean it and mean it as if we like it!

We seem to expect church to be unrealistically perfect for our sakes. We want our church to have the spit and polish that convinces us we’re really something. We’ll give to that—particularly if there’s a tax break to be had! We’ll raise our communion shot glasses to that!

The church is foremost and always God’s cherished possession. Church is not something to horde, but give away! We give away Christ and with him always a costly piece of ourselves. God in Christ spared no expense and yet many who have been absorbed into the body of Christ by grace long for church on the cheap.

The church does not exist to prop up our wants. Rather, it requires us to collapse in the costly joy of dying to self and living alongside others who are not always easy to love, because Christ died for us—and them—and is risen from the dead! The church is to be a window into what can be when people spend themselves in forgiveness, reconciliation and mission together precisely because the grace they received was lavishly expensive.

Jesus still wears scars. How can we who are now his earthly body expect to wear anything less? The church extracts a cost many may have never fully embraced: It will cost us our rights, preferences and comfort.

The church is not easy! Get over it! It is a costly adventure in being a resurrected Holy-Spirit-endowed people, and the cheap church many practise is as much a swindle as cheap grace ever was.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Tech of the Amish

I grew up in technological no-man’s land. My childhood was shaped by the plain-living non-conformity of Amish and Mennonite bloodlines and locale.

There was no television in my home until I was nearing my teens. I remember the absolute magnetism TV held for me initially. I watched everything I was allowed. Weren’t the Smurfs amazing!? La, la, la-la, la, la…precious memories…I digress.

My parents agonized over that purchase. They had grown up in a religious tradition that banned such worldly things. Mom and Dad had left such legalistic religiosity for a new world before I was born and that new world inevitably meant the blessing and curse of doing technological ethics alone.

In their old community technological rights and wrongs were decisions made by church leaders for the sake of the community. Certain things were permitted (like cars – but they had to be black and radio-less – and tractors – which strangely could remain whatever shade they came in). Other things were forbidden (like televisions and instruments in church buildings). These decisions were not made willy-nilly nor in fear, but designed to balance the need to provide and do good while curbing the corrupting affects of “the world” on the souls of the righteous. The motives were pure, the aim admirable, and the fruit at times beautiful (see the incredible servant nature of these communities, their mutual support of one another, and commitment to live the God-ward life simply and lightly). However, avoiding certain technologies could not undo one sticky reality: it is not technology that corrupts the human heart, it is the human heart that corrupts technology. And so it was that my first exposure to the technological wonder of the glossy porn magazine came via some who were not allowed to have a TV or listen to rock and roll. How’s that for irony?

I’m now a parent. Today VCRs collect dust next to 8 Track Players and Atari consoles and I’m raising my kids in an iPhone and Wii world. What’s a man to do? Now it’s my parents who have cable TV while our kids endure bunny ears (which at least made the Vancouver Olympics look snowy). We have a cell phone, but not one as savvy as those of my relatives who don’t have radios in their cars. I’m typing this on a laptop, while some of the Old Order Mennonite boys I went to grade school with drive horse and buggies and operate businesses out of their sheds that require the internet. So, who has the best handle on this tech stuff after all? Are we all just a bunch of hypocrites? Or, could it be that we’re all just negotiating that treacherous tightrope between technology and theology?

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).

Technology is. Technology is ethically neutral in that it has no power for good or ill on its own, but it is not spiritually neutral because we who create technologies are natural born worshippers. While humanity is gifted to create technologies that advance and amuse, the disturbing pattern is how enamored we become with what our hands create. We are smitten idolaters and idol-makers.

Want proof? Ever tried avoiding email on your day off? Ever watched two people sitting at a table texting all the while avoiding eye contact and conversation with each other? Ever threatened to take a video game away from your teenager? Ever tried to work up the courage to get rid of cable? Ever talked yourself into a toy you didn’t need, just because you thought is was cool?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying technology, the reality is many of us could afford a sober spiritual evaluation of our love affair with technology. Some communal Amish-testing couldn’t hurt toward that end: Is use of this going to deaden our souls and close our eyes to one another? Will it weaken our ability to live as a community and be a unique witness to our world? Will it unnecessarily tie up our money in ways that will hinder our ability to be generous? Will this technology become our god and master? Will its use enable us to do more good and bring God more glory? Should we take some time before jumping on a new tech bandwagon (whether gas, solar or equine powered) until we can think, talk, and pray through the long-term implications on our following of Jesus, our ability to be human, and on creation?

Those are sobering questions. They are questions we must be willing to ask and keep asking in a world where horses and chariots of a more docile kind can become the tech-idols we never advance beyond.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Dangerous Question

When I popped the engagement question I was pretty sure what the answer would be. I was 100 percent sure she was the one for me and 99 percent sure she felt the same.

As the moment to propose approached, though, I began to understand that the answer was about to change everything. The question was a launch pad into another world, into another form of existence, into a life that would fundamentally transform me. Rejection would be devastating, but a yes would be, too! Any hope of the world revolving around me would be obliterated if she agreed to make me her husband. The dangerous question would inevitably reinvent and reorient who I was and what I would do.

There is a dangerous spiritual question that we need to ask: Who is God? And after answering that, we need to answer a corollary question: What does that mean for who we are and what we do?

If God is truly God—if he is more than the figment of an overactive human imagination and is holy, just, compassionate and the Lord of all—then that pretty much changes everything. If God has ultimately revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and resurrects and animates our deadness by the Holy Spirit, then that really matters. If God has acted in history and uncovered his ways and what he loves and what he hates, then that’s worth paying attention to. If God is determined to redeem sinners, judge evil and do justice, transform lives and places, and usher in a never-ending kingdom, then that should shape everything about those who know him and gather in his name.

A “yes” to God cannot leave us the same. Yet many who have apparently married themselves to the Holy One live as if the question were a mere formality. We plan our ways forward—or dig in our heels—based on who we want to be, not who God is. This is a fundamentally flawed and godless starting point.

We want this safe starting point for our religiosity and “churchianity,” but God will have nothing to do with it. What we want to do and who we want to be, or remain, inevitably results in our reducing God to an idol. Such a managed, tamed, cultured, plastic, in-our-back-pocket god formed from such questions is not God at all.

It’s as if we believe God revolves around us! And, horror of horrors, it turns our churches into selfish, visionless, joyless factions where joining God in his mission is reduced to maintaining our traditions and thinking almost entirely about our comforts and preferences. This cannot be. If who we are and what we do is not fundamentally rooted in who God is, then we should stop doing it now!

Who is God? And what does the answer to that mean for who we are and what we do? This is the only starting point for a holy and sent people. It should leave us unable to remain unchanged. It should leave us distraught at the tepid and manicured religion many of us are living and asking our churches to maintain on our behalf. If God is God, and he is who he is and has done what he’s done, then we must be fundamentally and dangerously changed. Our answers should free us to revision, reawaken and renew. It is as much the launch pad into another world as the big question a young man asks a young woman.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The gospel in three parts . . . times three

Before reading any further, answer this question: What is the gospel?

You didn’t do it, did you? You just kept reading. Bad reader. Return to line one.


Many Christians go into blushed silence when asked to articulate the good news of God’s reign. However, if we are to be cracked pots spilling out this glorious message, the gospel must be understood and lived. To that end, let’s look at three unique, yet interrelated biblical images of the gospel.

• First, Paul describes the gospel as rooted in the historical event of the three-part passion of Jesus: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

To begin, the gospel is about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It is historically enacted and foretold. The gospel is deed and word. The good news is the culminating event of God’s declared commitment to transform the dust and grime of the world.

• Second, Paul describes three radical implications of this gospel event. He begins with our own resurrection: “[B]ecause of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

This results in our participation in God’s renovation of the world: “[W]e are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

And, further, the gospel event ushers in reconciliation: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jew and gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

The gospel event of Easter brings with it the implications of resurrection (new life for those dead in sin), renovation (our participation in God’s work in the world), and reconciliation (our becoming a new people defined not by our ethnicities or traditions, but by Jesus).

• Third, to the Corinthians seeking to understand how to function as a “good news people,” Paul erupts poetically in the “love chapter.” Sadly misused at most weddings, I Corinthians 13 is primarily about how the church lives out the good news. Paul declares: “[N]ow these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The gospel, founded on the historical Easter event and implying the transforming implications of resurrection, renovation and reconciliation, is now brought to its climax. How do we live this out? In three parts:

• First, by clinging in faith to what happened according to the Scriptures and sharing that with our world unashamedly.

• Second, by offering the hope of God’s good works to our world to initiate now what will one day be fulfilled.

• Third, and most gloriously, by expressing this the same way God expressed himself to us: through love.

So, what is the gospel? It is the historical event of Easter in three parts: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It is the radical implications that event entails in three parts: resurrection, renovation and reconciliation. And it is the way we live it out in three parts: faith and hope, all crowned, salted, expressed and sourced in love.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Convert ... or die

It’s quite unfashionable these days to think people should change their minds. This is a strange thought that, well, needs to change.

In some parts of the world—places some Canadians look at with disdain because of their backward “fundamentalism”—to change one’s mind is an act of high treason. Think of those strange bedfellows Iran and North Korea. One is a theistic state, the other atheistic, yet both systems are equally paranoid of people changing their minds.

What we Canadians are less aware of is that the secular-humanist mindset that dominates our culture is just as freaked out about the same possibility. It’s not that we prohibit individuals here from changing their minds about how they want to live; we tolerate pretty much every decision, even irrational ones.

No, what we seem to have lost our palate for is those who actively seek to change other people’s minds. Live like you want, change your mind as often as you change your underwear, but don’t try to convince anyone to convert to your private conviction: This is the tyrannical world of the self we have converted to.

Most of our leaders are now asked to simply manage life as we want it. So our leaders no longer paint vivid pictures of another world. They rarely challenge us to the conversion of our living or the renewal of our minds. Sadly enough, this cultural fundamentalism that denies change is epidemic among Christians and their local churches. This is tragic. Why? Because changing one’s mind is central to what we believe about being human.

It is ultimately what Adam and Eve did in the garden. It is what Saul did on the road to Damascus. There is always conversion going on around us and it is a peculiar thing that Christians have bought into the fundamentalist culture that says we should never ask another to do so. This has caused many congregations to sideline one of the central tenets of what the church has always been about—conversion.

In fact, many churches in the Great White North have almost completely ceased seeking to change other people’s minds. We have “pooh-poohed” evangelism. We are no longer about conversion, we are almost completely about retention. We do not go out to make disciples who will be challenged to change their minds because Christ has risen from the dead. Rather, we seek to maintain religious institutions that never change. Almost everything we do is geared for those who have forgotten they once needed to convert!

How is your church actively planning and praying for the conversion of your neighbourhood, town, sideroad or city? Does the thought scare you? Are you worried what people will think? Are you worried what it will cost? Have you forgotten that the gospel is good news? Are you worried about the comfort you might lose if the church as it should be is no longer the church as you want it? Are you afraid of having to change your mind?

We have abandoned a passion to see people choose the salvation of Jesus Christ into gatherings so “cultured” we have lost the plot. But the church only exists where people have changed their minds and converted, and have begun living out the reality of another kingdom. There really is no such thing as church retention; only conversion saves the church. And, even more sobering, churches that do not convert, die.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who is right?

Who is right?

Many battle royals have raged over that query. Such melees rarely settle anything, but they can reveal who is swiftest, strongest, and best shot. Truth is, so much of what happens in this world hinges on that question. From parliaments to courtrooms, from backyards to bedrooms, “Who is right?” is a truly human quandary with potentially beautiful or disastrous ramifications.

I love being right. Don’t you? There’s something supremely satisfying about coming out on top and being lauded as brilliant in our own minds and legends in our own times. And yet, being right is sometimes a matter of fortune rather than brilliance. We can be seen as more “right” by fluke of birth. Perhaps that’s why some are drawn to gambling – the chance of being right, even if by luck, is so appealing and addicting.

Still, being right is not necessarily all its cracked up to be. With rightness comes responsibility. So, who really wants to be right? Perhaps that’s why relativism is so seductive. If I’m right and you’re right and we’re all okay with no one being wrong then we can all happily dispatch of the heavy burden of truth.

And then there is this unsettling reality: those convinced of their rightness can be obnoxious and irritating. I’ve known such people and I don’t really like them or care one iota what they think. I’d like to say I’ve never been one of “those,” but that wouldn’t be, well, right. I know I’ve too often been a pompous donkey in a desperate attempt to prop up my particular view of things. We like being right, but we don’t really like those who think (or know) they are. Which is why the class clown is always a more privileged position than the straight-A nerd in grade school.

It would be one thing if our sense of rightness only manifested in grade six geometry. But, human beings present themselves as deadly accurate about mysterious matters as well. When rightness gets attached to worldview and religious conviction we become especially dangerous creatures. And this is because we are not honest about this: in the realm of worldview and religious truth we are out of our league. I can prove my rightness about sports stats with a little help from Google, and I can demonstrate my vocational or mathematical prowess through a little hard work and determination, but when it comes to issues of the soul, to questions of the heart, to the big mysterious questions of life, death, eternity, and ultimate meaning, I find myself looking through that glass they put in bathrooms to give light, but actually keep you from seeing.

So, who is right about matters of faith?

I grew up convinced the world as I knew it was right and couldn’t possible be wrong. I was right. Wasn’t I? I wanted to be right and I could muster all kinds of blustery and blistering arguments to prove my brilliance even if they were just parroted. Boy, was I wrong! And that was the breakthrough moment. My transformation into a humble confessor of truth came when I finally admitted I was out of order myself. G.K. Chesterton once responded to an editorial asking, “What is wrong with the world?” with the simple, yet piercingly accurate reply: “I am.”
Yes, I am wrong. In that admission I am now free to discover who is right; and it’s not me. In a world going stark-raving mad to prove who is right or that no one can be, my confession of wrongness produced the freedom of knowing I didn’t have to be. I only need to know the one who is right. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He claims to be right and if he’s right, then the rest of us – no matter where we came from or what sense of entitled rightness we carry – are wrong. If he is right, then the rest of us need no longer be shackled by the sinful insanity of having to prove we are and can finally know truth that sets free. And that surprising, humble freedom is an all right place to be.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Pastoring the flock out along the fenceline

Or what the urban church needs to know about its rural neighbours.
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 centre. “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.

First, much of Canada’s rural expanse is increasingly empty. Most rural places, including where I live in Zurich, Ont., are in numerical decline. In almost all 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 youths 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 an unhealthy congregational self-understanding that can be debilitating and hopeless. Add to this the discouragement that, when a rural congregation finally finds a good—read also “young”—leader, they are 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 out along the fenceline?

Shaped by urban myths

Second, rural life is increasingly shaped by urban myths. Villages that are growing are mostly within a quick commute to a city. This growth forever changes our towns. Some of our communities are now just a bedroom for 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.

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.

The urban myths of success and growth are powerful and create 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 commu-nities, 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 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.

Rural truths explained

Rural folks are not dumb, ignorant or unaware, but 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 well-founded faith? Do we know their grandkid’s name? That’s what they’re looking for.

Rural places do tend to be more traditional, but why is that so bad? Urban myths ask us to reject what our homesteaders knew to be true. We find it ironic that 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 by Bay Street, Sussex Drive, McGill, the Lower East Side and Citytv we should really care about. 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.

Pastoring the pastures

Leading in this setting is unique and demands unique preparation and expectation. There is a smattering of places where such training is being done and considered, most requiring 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 James Watson of the Salvation Army states, “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.”

Finally, 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 neighbourhood church presence. At the same time, a Christendom memory lingers that says: Since Grandma goes to that church, or I went to Sunday school and was baptized there, or we expect a “real” Christmas program at the local public school, then we and God must somehow be cool. But try countering this heritage of na├»ve religiosity with the gospel and the shine begins to come off that cornfield sunset.

It is my belief that what is needed in rural Canada is not mere institutional caretakers, but more mission-shaped leaders who will renew long-established churches and start many new “on-mission-with-God” gatherings of the saints in order to 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 memories of the past alive or the old church 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 who live just down Main Street or out on Orchard Line. That task must be accepted again with a freshness only the Holy Spirit can instill and a stubborn resolve only the Boondocks can muster.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In the blink of an eye

When that horrible earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12, I was busy. I had some writing to do, some people to meet with and a meeting to prepare for. Important stuff, you know. I was busy and, although I saw the headlines, I didn’t have time to read them. It would be another day before I really caught up. All this ambivalence despite our family having a heart-connection to Haiti through friends and my wife’s journey there that is the source of some beautiful paintings hanging in our home.

My first response to such tragedy is to want to ditch what I do for something that “really matters.” Maybe I should quit my job and do something that actually makes a difference. But the best we could do as a family in January was watch the images of pancaked homes, and share our money and our prayers.

I suddenly felt the tediousness and irrelevance of what I do. Does it really matter if our Sunday morning runs smoothly when children lay buried beneath the Port-au-Prince rubble? Will anybody besides my editor notice if I don’t meet my writing deadline? Does it matter that the Maple Leafs play hockey like my grandma when aftershocks continue to rumble? My life is starting to sound like a rerun of Ecclesiastes: maybe I should just eat, drink and be merry?

Perhaps I’m the only tortured soul who wrestles such demons. But when life for so many changes in the blink of an eye, what do I do with my blinking eyes? Where should they turn? Should they just stay closed? So much is suddenly made trite and so much is suddenly made clear when major catastrophes happen, even if a world away.

I’ve never experienced an earthquake. I’ve never seen existence so instanta-neously altered, but that doesn’t mean my eyes can’t see. If I pull myself away from the Internet long enough, I may begin to see the proverbial earthquakes people are living through around me. They may even be happening in my home. What do my blinking eyes see?

In his great novel, The Chosen, Chaim Potok tells the story of a boy named Reuben and his search for identity. Reuben’s father passes on a profound perspective: “I learned a long time ago, Reuben, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. [God] can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”

To be a people on a mission with the God who sees (Genesis 16:13) is to take this fatherly advice. There will always be things that change in the blink of an eye that we are mostly powerless to change. The real wonder is that my eye blinks. My eye is attached to me. It is, as Jesus said, “the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). What I am given to behold, in the particular locale where God has placed me, is what I am primarily called to add a “kingdom” quality to, despite what little difference it might seem to make. So, give to Haiti and beyond, but perhaps even more so, live and strive to see the kingdom come on the street corner, the neighbourhood and around the table where your eye does the blinking.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cars are for travel, not talking

Once upon a time we had a talking car. I hated that vehicle. I won’t give away the company—it’s in enough trouble already—but my hunch is the idea emerged when a few auto nerds had too much punch at a party. It’s one thing being trapped with a passenger who won’t hush up, but when it’s the automobile itself, that can drive you around the bend.

Come to think of it, the idea may have been a stroke of marketing genius. In the late ’80s, when music was all about the synthesizer, why not have cars that sounded the same? Perhaps this was simply cultural synthesis in its most logical form. In the age of the technological gimmick, that’s precisely what our family car was.

One of the neglected pieces of being the church in this post-Christian age is the way we design things. Over time, churches tend to add new layers and dimensions of structure that only end up frustrating, rather than liberating. In fact, some of our structures and levels of committee bureaucracies, although well intentioned, actually work to hinder being a mission-shaped people, rather than aiding it. Some believe the church should be structure-free, but I have yet to see a body that worked well without a skeleton.

That, however, is the least of most churches’ concerns. Many established congregations are over-endowed structurally. The majority of people-gifts and ministry time is expended in justifying and legitimizing how we “run” the church, as opposed to releasing people-gifts for Christ-centred ministry involvement with the whole of life. We spend a lot of time trying to get a car to talk and very little time just making it drive well.

When I finally had the chance—and money—to buy my own vehicle, I determined it would be as simple as possible. It would definitely not talk. A car is meant for transportation; I don’t need it to be my therapist.

Similarly, what might happen if we simplified our church structures with mobility and the forward movement of the kingdom of God as our prime values? Volunteers simply want their spiritual and natural gifts to be shared with purpose. To release our people, and thereby our churches, in this way, may I make some humble suggestions:
• First, ask committees to be leaders in mobilization of gifts and mission, rather than doers of deeds. Such teams should lead the church into effective ministry, not do ministry for the church.
• Second, simplify your bureaucracy as much as possible. Take a hard, honest evaluation of whether you are unnecessarily over-structured and then repent of it, simplify, and move on. Most structure that begins as a good idea is only “good” for so long and then needs to be rethought. That’s not bad, it’s called being awake to your context and the leading of the Spirit. Even Moses needed to be challenged on this when it came to leading well in a new day (Exodus 18).
• Third, design your structures with God’s glory and the good of people in mind. Over time, we can become slaves to our structures. We call that idolatry. We must design things with biblical wisdom in mind, recognizing that the “right” way to structure is not outlined in Scripture. If our structures do not empower God-glorifying service to people, then they’re probably about as helpful, not to mention as frustrating, as a talking car.