Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Church is Like Plastic Wrap

Ever been pulled like plastic wrap over a warm roast pan? I was cleaning up after a great meal prepared by my beautiful wife. The roast pan had some leftovers, well, left over, and so out came the plastic wrap. The warmth of the pan gathered the clear plastic to itself, enabling me to pull the wrap so tight I could see my reflection staring back at me. Scary sight to be sure. It reminded me I needed a haircut. And in this most common, everyday task, a metaphor for the journey I’ve been on emerged.

I’ve been stretched tight lately. This church stuff is wearing me thin. This life of being a servant of the King is a humble privilege and a royal pain in the nether regions. I’m not being trite or disrespectful. Truth is, being the church can be deeply painful. That pain can find places best left undisturbed. At least that’s the way we see it. Not surprisingly, this is not necessarily God’s perspective.

This is my recent experience. This is my church’s journey. We’re learning the challenge of being a fellowship, the earthquake of shattered assumptions, the threadbare-ness of the end of a rope.

But what if this is where I discover what it means to be shaped by grace? What if this is the only way we become people with anything remotely meaningful to offer our world? What if God is simply disinterested in making me happy? In this culture, where my happiness is apparently the purpose of virtually everything, what shall I do with such a thought?

I checked, and “Blessed are the smugly satisfied” has been unhelpfully edited out of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Perhaps a newer paraphrase will replace it. Barring that unforeseen extra-canonical rescue, what if the happiness God intends for me, for a church like mine and yours, is really the blessedness of the poor, the mourning, the meek, the merciful . . . and the peacemakers?

That will mean, will it not, that we have to be led—yes, led—into the admission that we simply can’t do it anymore. We must learn lament. We may need to discover that all we have to offer is mercy, because mercy is all we can hope for ourselves. We may have to be sent to the frontlines of conflict when it would be easier to just golf, grumble about what’s wrong with the world, and watch another movie that steals a couple of hours we can never get back.

Don’t mock me. If you haven’t felt this way at some point about the cost of discipleship, about the cost of becoming the community of the King, you’ve probably not yet considered the awesomeness of the call of Jesus to follow him. Seriously, have you tried dying to self? Yeah, we talk nobly about it, so long as it doesn’t involve the suicide of the selfishness of numero uno. However, the opportunities at the end of our rope, the blessedness of being possessed by the kingdom of heaven, will only be realized when we become pliable in the hands of someone doing clean-up in “aisle me.”

So I stand there looking at my reflection in plastic pulled taught over noodles. My life and the life of my church is like this wrap, I think to myself. Only when we’re stretched, only when the heat grabs hold, only then do we begin to reflect his glory, his beauty, his blessedness. Only then do we taste the joy of leftovers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rethinking Jerusalem

I recall watching footage of the 1994 Rwandan genocide from the comfort of my living room. Images of machete-wielding young people have staying power in the personal video recorder that is my brain. Almost one in seven people perished in just over three horrible months. Most troubling was the sad fact that the vast majority of Rwandans at the time of the genocide would have identified themselves as Christians. How could this be?

A few weeks ago, our church hosted three Rwandan guests. Their ministry to young people and women with HIV/AIDS is making a difference in the small African country. Facing daunting realities, these servants have acted with vision, rather than wallow or run for sanctuary elsewhere. They took their Jerusalem seriously.

One team member, Luke, had never visited a western nation before. He was like most of us who travel somewhere new, bringing as he did many stereotypes with him. Those assumptions of Canada were shattered as he roamed Vancouver’s Lower East Side, Canada’s “poorest postal code.” He was deeply disturbed. The shock of what he saw on our streets messed with him as much as the jetlag from which he was recovering.

When the group’s leader spoke to our church family on Sunday morning, he gave a powerful challenge. Coming to our Jerusalem from the ends of the earth, he spoke of how hope in Rwanda is replacing despair after almost 20 years of reconciliation and repair. He spoke of spiritual renewal and signs of life, and of the persistent need for transformation and healing. He invited our people, so ably fitting Luke’s stereotypes, to join in financially supporting their important work. But he also brought things back to our Jerusalem. “Don’t come and help us if you won’t look after your Jerusalem first,” he said with straightforward clarity. That arrow of truth sunk deep.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” said Jesus in Acts 1:8, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The world everywhere is a goulash of the beauty and the broken. There is no end of worthy projects to support; of places to send eager servants; and of people who need the wholeness of the gospel that saves sinners, restores dignity and rights wrongs.

All of our churches in some way participate in this immense task in creative and generous ways. Like Luke, some of us will go where our stereotypes will be evaporated and others of us will say our part is to help Luke get there. All this is important, but what are we doing with our Jerusalem? How is our witness of the wholeness of the gospel going there?

So easily do we live with the mess of our own backyard. We can be emotionally moved by stories from far, far away, while the brokenness we pass by in our own Jerusalem is ignored. The familiar is seen with a critical eye. The Sunday
morning prophet’s challenge sounds deep, like sonar for the soul: We must rethink Jerusalem or our witness to the ends of the earth will ring hollow.

Our Rwandan friends knew firsthand what can happen if the witness in Jerusalem is neglected. These brothers were not outside consultants, but spoke from the credibility gained by enduring the worst and working towards a different future in their Jerusalem. And that was precisely what gave heavenly weight to their message.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tell Somebody To Tell Somebody

Every once in a while, a conversation happens that reminds you what it’s all about.

That happened recently when a friend I grew to love and appreciate when I served as his pastor sat face-to-face with me for the first time in a long time. He was reminiscing on his growth as a follower of Jesus and particularly on his surprising call to serve as an elder of his fellowship.

His is a winding journey, filled with highs, lows, laughter, and disappointments. I recall seeing something in him that I believed needed to be cultivated, and we had spent a lot of time together. We had shared conversations about politics, church, theology, sexuality, and baseball. He challenged me. I challenged him. Life together was all brought together under the lordship of Jesus.

What was so enlivening and renewing for me in our reunion was the realization that the apostle Paul knew what he was talking about, and that I had been blessed by heeding his direction to Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1–2).

Three generations of disciples

I am increasingly convinced that the primary test of the fruitfulness of my pastoral ministry is not so much the size of my congregation, but how well the faithful I have been entrusted to lead can teach others to teach others the good news. Paul’s word to Timothy implies a disciple-making leavening that always has in view three generations of disciples beyond the mentor. The disciple-maker (in this case Paul), teaches Timothy, who entrusts to dependable persons, who can then teach others.

Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!

So, my serendipitous conversation with an old friend reminded me of this once more, but it also spurred me on in new ways. Because of what I and others had invested in his life, he was influencing people in a way I never could. The real test of my disciple-making, however, might very well be what is planted by those he is teaching.

This is telescopic discipleship. It’s the equivalent of measuring your parenting by what your grandchildren will teach to your great-grandchildren. This is Christ-centred mentorship that sees its fruit in what grows out of those with whom we probably have little or no first-hand influence. It is discipleship that essentially gets itself out of the way by getting people on the Way.

Ironically enough, at the same time as this meeting happened, I was reading through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In his memoirs, he reflects on the contingency plan he developed in the early 1950s to make it possible for the African National Congress to survive should it become an illegal entity under the tightening screws of apartheid.

The “Mandela Plan” was centred on small cells of about 10 households led by a cell steward. Mandela confesses that it was that cell steward, often far removed from the influence of ANC leadership, who was the “linchpin of the plan.” In essence, Mandela – who, perhaps not surprisingly, was baptized a Methodist – developed his scheme to ensure the survival of a group that would in time bring down one of the most heinous political systems of recent memory, using the logic of the apostle Paul. Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!

I’m afraid much of our disciple-making is too short-sighted and even self-centred. What might change in the health of our churches and in the telescopic influence of our fellowships if we took Paul’s words seriously? What if we looked for the long-term fruit of our ministries in what three generations of disciples hence are doing with the gospel we’ve nurtured them on?

To be sure, this requires a decentralizing of the way we think about church and even a reorganizing around what demands primary attention, but it may make for greater kingdom impact in our cities and side roads. It may inspire another Mandela. It may lead to another lazy afternoon conversation that warms the heart and inspires the soul.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What Are They Looking For?

If you could choose a church from scratch, what would it look like? Much of our angst about being the church seems rooted in our desire to look good. Are we a fellowship providing what people want? Do we roll out the programs and splashy events people will flock to? Are our buildings comfy, our coffee organic, our bulletin font trendy, and our preaching happily short to match our attention spans that can somehow stay dialed in to a two-hour movie, but can’t seem to endure a half-hour soak in the Word of God?

The fearful reality is that the only people who seem concerned about these questions are already church folk. Reginald Bibby, the noted Canadian sociologist who tracks religious and social trends, recently pointed out that, contrary to the very low percentage of the population that attends weekly worship, upwards of 50 percent of Canadians would be ready to engage in the life of a church if they found it worthwhile.

That sounds encouraging. But before we run off to repaint the lobby to look like Starbucks, Bibby points out, “People are not looking for churches. People are looking for ministry.” In short, people are not searching the Yellow Pages looking for something they can spiritually consume; they are yearning to be participants in something greater than themselves, something more grand than a mall shopping spree. Does the church of your liking engage in this?

It should send a tremor through our committee meetings if most of the things we bluster about are focused on answering questions no one is asking. Could it be that much of what we’re worried about is primarily geared at making ourselves happy? Could all our agonizing over what will make people want to join us only result in sheep shuffling from a passé-church to a popular-church?

Seriously, when was the last time your church grew through the conversion of those from the wider culture, rather than the transfer of sheep from another fold? Could it be that we’re gleefully engaging in unholy competition with our Christian brothers and sisters who meet down the road, rather than passionately initiating attractive transformational ministry of kingdom grandeur? Could it be that much of what we do as churches is unconsciously un-Christian, founded almost entirely in our view of the spiritual seeker as a dumb consumer, and not as a parched, searching soul who thirsts for meaning, significance and hope?

Why do we who grumble about the shopaholic reality of our culture still go and shape our churches as if that’s what people really want? What if people still haven’t found what they’re looking for because we’ve hidden the pearl of great price? Perhaps, to our great shame, we have misread the lingering image of God in our neighbours, whose hearts pound to join in the beat of eternity?

I have to confess that these thoughts disturb me. As a pastor, I continually find myself caught between people clamoring for the church life they’ve always wanted and these realities. If I read between the lines, however, I can’t help but think that most church people actually hunger for that same participation in meaningful ministry—in kingdom adventure. So why are we so reluctant to just say it? Why are we so hesitant to simply allow ourselves to go there? And what will it take for us to convert from church people to kingdom people?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't Fear The Fight

I once endured the excruciatingly dreary annual meeting of a non-profit organization. The endless evening reaffirmed my conviction that there is a hell.

When the floor opened for questions, the gentlemen next to me stood and raised the insignificant matter of the meeting’s location. “That’s the least of this meeting’s concerns,” I thought. This pressing issue off his chest, the man sat down satisfied, leaned over and whispered, “I don’t really care where they have the meeting, I just wanted to see if there was a pulse in the room.”

Conflict is not necessarily bad and it is unavoidable. In fact, it is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a family, organization or church. It strengthens resolve, rattles the rust, galvanizes conviction and clears the air.

But most churches are very uncomfortable with conflict. Our desire for peace—or maybe it’s really comfort—trumps all, including the waging of necessary battles. But when you’re not waging necessary battles, it probably means you’ve stopped doing anything of ultimate importance.

In Mennonite fellowships, this is perhaps the result of an unbiblical reading of what it means to reject the use of the sword. Has pacifism led to our pacification? Has it led to an inability to differentiate between the sinful, fleshly use of the sword that Jesus turns us from, and the proper place of healthy conflict for the sake of Christ-centred unity, faithfulness to God’s truth and commitment to God’s mission?

This reality leaps off the pages of the Book of Acts. The early church is in conflict with political and religious powers everywhere she is led by the Holy Spirit. This conflict is not against flesh and blood, and in this battle zone the church rightly practises Christ-centred non-resistance. Trusting God while living the resurrected life together, they endure suffering to proclaim God’s good news and obey God rather than human authority. If our churches are not feeling spiritual conflict, perhaps we’re missing the mark?

Conflict in Acts, however, is also an internal reality. Ananias and Sapphira were fearfully confronted, and the result was not an “aw shucks” shoulder shrug, but a situation that still strikes wonder all these centuries later. The integrity of the church and her practice could not be air-brushed.

In Acts 6, there is conflict over the care of the socially vulnerable. The result is clarified purpose, mission and the raising up of new Spirit-filled leadership.

Theological conflict needing head-on engagement emerges in Acts 15. The content of the gospel, and the nature of grace and salvation, were at stake. They navigated the cultural, scriptural and experiential maze to discern vital truth, knowing that drawing a line in the sand would mean future conflict.

Healthy conflict will result in right decisions not everyone likes. Good decisions made in the heat of conflict will not eliminate future variance, but simply open up a different front in the battle. The question is: Are we fighting the right battles?

And then there is that strange endnote to Acts 15, where Paul and Barnabas, seemingly joined at the hip, disagree and part ways. The issue is the inclusion of John Mark, who had failed miserably as a team member. The conflict leads not to disunity, but disagreement—there is a huge difference—and the mission of God benefits in the long run.

Even intending good produces conflict, which is often what happens in our churches. We would do well to not fear the fight. It’ll show we have a pulse that beats with heaven.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Eulogy For Dying Churches

In Katherine Paterson’s children’s novel, Bridge to Terabithia, a fascinating conversation takes place. Leslie, the new neighbourhood girl, is riding home after her first Sunday morning church experience with Jess Aarons and his peppy little sister May Belle.

Despite their ages, the Aarons children are church vets. They’ve been there, done that. The wonder of the gospel seems lost on them, but not Leslie. She says, “I’m really glad I came. That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?”

The other two children can hardly believe their ears. “It ain’t beautiful,” pipes up May Belle, “it’s scary. Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

“It’s because we’re all vile sinners God made Jesus die,” says Jess.

“Do you think that’s true?” queries Leslie.

“It’s in the Bible, Leslie,” states Jess, matter-of-factly.

Leslie silently ponders the juxtaposition between the message she heard, the songs she sung, and what she hears from her two new friends. Then she says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”

Jess and May Belle Aarons are a metaphor for the dying church in North America. The church, God’s missionary, is to carry and embody the hope of the world that every neighbourhood child should have access to. But, in Canada and the United States that possibility and probability is waning as fellowships disband and “die.”

Eulogy means “good words.” What good words can be spoken over the masses – yes, masses – of dying churches across North America?

The stats

In The American Church in Crisis, David T. Olson observes that between 2000–2005, an average of 3,707 churches closed each year in the United States. During that same time an average of 4,009 new churches launched; a net gain of 303. These statistics appear hopeful, except for one not-so-small detail: the actual gain needed to keep up with population growth is 3,205 new church starts per year.

In Canada, the numbers are even less encouraging. The United Church of Canada, at one time the largest Protestant denomination in the nation with almost 7,500 local churches in 1927, now has about 3,400 and is closing one church a week. Since 1965, active church participation in United churches nationwide has gone from just over a million, to slightly more than 500,000.

Anabaptist churches have not seen that type of decline, but we are now beginning to feel the effects of being awash in a post-Christian culture. North American culture will inevitably chip away at the religious social fabric, which has, up to this point, served as a guard against the overall drift away from local church participation.

I once served in a denomination where one of the mother churches celebrated its final service before closing for good. It was a church that had done so much good, produced scads of missionaries and pastors, was known for her faithfulness, and was now no more. A credible neighbourhood witness of God’s good news in Christ had passed away. Surely this would only hinder the advance of the kingdom. Or would it?

The cemetery of church history is full of grave markers. Looking through the New Testament, we find cities that were incubators of the early church – the seedbeds of Scripture – but now fill a long list of ecclesiological obituaries. Ephesus, Colossae, the churches of Galatia – all these may yet have a small remnant of Christian believers, but for the most part the influence of these key Christian centres has gone the way of the dodo and they are now part of secular and Islamic Turkey. Who would have thought that in AD 425?

Speaking of which, the primary theological voices of the church in the second through fifth centuries were found in North Africa. Augustine exercised his influence from Hippo – no, not on the back of a large mammal – but the African city. Athanasius, who almost single-handedly saved orthodox Christianity from the Jesus-deconstructing heresy of Arianism (i.e. similar to today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching) was also African. Today, of course, North Africa is the land of Islam, the locale of frontline and extremely patient and covert Christian life and mission.

Time to celebrate the past

So, what good words can be said about this? Plenty. Apart from the faithfulness of those churches in Galatia or North Africa – or other places that have fallen off the radar – you and I may never have had the opportunity to hear the good news. The Spirit used these churches for the glory of God and the charge against the gates of hell.

The shifting sands of time, political turmoil, and persecution can wreak havoc. A myriad of challenges can seemingly silence vibrant centres of Christian witness while becoming a source of gospel-pollination of more fertile territory through the wind of the Spirit – the story of Acts and the impact of the persecution of Anabaptists and Puritans standing as glorious examples.

So, we should accept that there is a time for everything under the sun and God is sovereign. Because the church is an organism, birth and death will be the norm.

Time to say goodbye

Having said that, here is another sober morsel to chew on. A 2010 London Free Press article quoted a church leader saying, “We do have too many churches for the number of customers, to put it in purely secular terms.” No good word can be said about this. This leader is responding to the reality that aging buildings and pastoral salaries can’t be carried by the dwindling faithful.

Many denominations and local churches are feeling this pain. To stem the tide, or delay the inevitable, many will pursue a path of revisioning, rehiring, or rehearsing what once worked.

This generally does not work, and it’s not because the faithful are unfaithful. No, the reality is that in some cases, as in all of life, it’s sometimes better to let something die, celebrate what was once vibrant and used for the glory of God, and stop artificially propping up what should be eulogized.

Often, the life support afforded dying churches shows a deficiency in our modes of discipleship, which are rooted in half-baked ecclesiology and missiology that place too-high value on bricks and mortar and window-dressing. We assume if we can’t afford a building we’re no longer a church.

Or, we assume that keeping people comfortable is a spiritual value.

This is simply not true. One blogger notes, “Most congregations, no matter how sincerely they may claim to want to move from maintenance to mission, simply don’t.” So, in the end, even recognizing the problem will not necessarily breathe life.

Time to repent

Which leads to one more troubling thought: could it be that a church is dying because of spiritual unfaithfulness? The risen Jesus speaks to seven churches in Revelation 2–3 and to five threatens judgment. He says he will snuff out their light, remove his blessing, even war against them. The risen Lord seems to have a chip on his shoulder! He’s vehemently opposed to his people losing the plot.

Slipping into spiritual indifference and immorality, seeking their own welfare, leaving heresy unchallenged, all this is more than regrettable or simply the result of the shifting sands of time: it is sin. It must be repented of. Jesus has no eulogy to offer these fellowships. They will close. They are already dying. And, there is only one path toward resurrection: repentance.

This is a hard word we dare not shrug off. As multi-dimensional as the issues are, perhaps there is a time when we may simply need to repent. Repent of wanting life and church on our terms. Repent of comfort trumping vibrant mission. Repent of our love of the world, the heresies that make us feel smart, and the immoralities we justify.

This is a hard word, not a good one, but perhaps a necessary one as we embrace another generation of Leslies who need to hear that Jesus truly is beautiful.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What the City Can Learn from the Country

About 80 percent of Canadians are city-dwellers. Despite the expanse of our nation, slightly more than a third of us dwell in only three metropolitan areas: Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. I live in one of them.

I grew up, however, in Hicksville. My backyard was an open field that provided the seasoned aroma of freshly spread manure. There was no cable TV, only bunny ears and Saturday night hockey games in a snowstorm. There was no Tim Horton’s or Starbucks within a 30-minute drive. Without such luxuries we just went to each other’s homes for Sunday dinner and coffee. Strange, I know.

Am I waxing nostalgic? Not really. Having lived and served in rural and urban Canada, I would propose that those who follow Jesus in cities could learn a few things from their rural cousins. Not only do much of the Scriptures require an agricultural lens to bring clarity, but there is an earthy wisdom found in the “sticks” that could teach us a lot about living the Word and being the church in this ever-changing world that sends ripples through all our ponds.

So, what could the city could learn from the country?

• First, seasons happen.

The push of urbanization is to never let anything rest. Produce, produce, produce is the anxiety-inducing drive of the city. I wonder how this has caused us to misread the rhythms of life in the church?

But the country teaches that there is no production without a time of fallowness. The pace of life changes with the seasons. There are full-on times to make hay when the sun shines and necessary down times to be embraced.

• Second, it takes fertilizer to grow things.

No “lilac spring” aroma therapy could adequately deal with the smell wafting from the field behind the home of my childhood. It was awful. Still, we never wrote a letter to the township asking for the establishment of a poop-patrol. Rurally, you accept that it takes fertilizer to grow things. Organic is as organic does.

Have we forgotten that the church is an organism and organisms actually require and produce fertilizer? The urban myth is that we should—without inconvenience or any bad smells—access what we need, even spiritually. When there is manure, the assumption is this church stinks and many run to the next place where the grass appears greener. I wonder how many Christians and churches have missed amazing growth opportunities through an inability to accept the gift of fertilizer?

• Third, the world is a collection of villages.

One rural area I served in had these towns near each other: Dublin, Zurich and Exeter. In this small area there is a collision of Irish, Swiss and English histories. Of course, time bleeds out some differences, but in a rural context these differences are not so quickly blended or forgotten. That can become nasty or, from a missiological perspective, be a great tutor.

If we are going to reach people for Jesus, then we have to realize the cultural DNA that shapes histories and locales. People really are not metropolitan at the end of the day. Our relational spheres and sense of place are more village-like than often assumed. Urban areas champion the “towns” within the city.

What might change if we’d see the opportunities of a little small-town thinking—rather than big-box marketing—in how we live out our mission with Jesus?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The End of Nice

I had a nice house: the wide front porch my wife always hoped for, a great backyard the kids could frolic in, a garden, a master suite with fireplace and claw-foot tub. It was all so, well, nice.
Then God called.

I wasn’t expecting to hear from him as clearly as I did. At least not in an Abrahamic “Go west, young man!” kind of way. But, with a myriad of subtleties, this is what the Lord did. He came with his still, too-quiet voice, and disturbed my nice.

Had I not known of Abraham and his strange propensity to heed the speaking silence, I may have concluded I had lost my marbles. Instead, there was an unquenchable rightness and drive to pack up and hit the trail. My wife and I both felt it. Our kids recognized something holy in the wind. We said, “Yes, Lord.”

Risky speech

“Yes, Lord” has always been risky speech. If you want safe and nice, avoid this “yes.” Of course, that will be like throwing wet sand on the campfire of your soul, but, let’s be honest: “Yes, Lord” changes everything.

“Yes, Lord” will disturb everything you hold as nice. It will be the most right and wrong thing you ever say. You will know you know you want to say it, and then – much to your chagrin – you discover the Lord is up to more than merely satisfying your itch for adventure and self-fulfillment.

I should have known something was up when our house wouldn’t sell. The weeks passed and not a hint of interest. We prayed, oh, we prayed. We spruced it up. Not a whiff. Days dropped off the calendar, a sinister countdown to a nomadic life with nowhere to lay our heads. This is not nice.

Then, an email. A generous family in our new city, 4,000 kilometres away, would open up their basement apartment for us. All seven of us. In a two-bedroom basement suite? “Yes, Lord.” We packed up to head in an occidental direction wondering if this was an accident waiting to happen.

I should have known something was up at the airport. Our earthly possessions boxed and shipped, we arrived as a clan to wing our way west. Our youngest, still bearing signs of the chicken pox, was spotted by an anal – I mean diligent – attendant. The threatening 10-month-old would not be permitted to fly. The plane was boarding as we stood rejected and dejected at security. Five of us would go ahead. My wife and red-spotted, blonde-topped son would stay behind. Nice. “Yes, Lord?”

Reunited in a land far, far away, we awaited the sale of our home so we could settle in the land of call. Nothing. Nada. Zip. As the months passed, it seemed we were destined to raise our kids in someone else’s basement while our perfectly nice house sat empty an inaccessible distance away. So many signs of the Spirit’s leading; so many logical arguments to run in the opposite direction. I wrestled with everything. I wrestled with God. Like Abraham’s grandson, I asked for blessing.

A perilous adventure

“Yes, Lord” is perilously adventurous. “Yes, Lord” gives verbal consent to holy refining. I should have known better. In this year at the end of nice, I have been thoroughly tested.

Am I God’s man or the man of my own making? Do I love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her or am I just a selfish bundle of all-too-adolescent testosterone? Will I live bound in a self-concocted and self-controlled world of nice or free as a bondservant of Christ? Is my parenting based upon what others perceive or on what God requires of me? Is my sense of worth built upon a comfortable, middle-class house of sticks? Am I fickle, shallow, and so self-absorbed that I have equated God’s call with God’s obligation to make me happy? Will I only love and serve God if he’s nice to me? Do I really believe mission, true Missio Dei, can come cheap?

These are the angels I wrestle with. They are not demons. These are divine messengers that confront my world of nice and help me accept the call with joy, trust the leading hand, and learn contentment. These angels are not nice. They rarely answer direct questions with direct answers. They beat around the bush. They beat upon my weary soul. They leave me with a limp. It is not nice.

But, “yes, Lord,” it is good, and I know by now that something is up.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Who is to Blame?

The Vancouver Canucks’ inability to score and some people’s penchant for blowing things up has caused me to agree with a zealous atheist. “Religion poisons everything,” contends Christopher Hitchens. He may be on to something—at least to the degree “Hockeyanity” has become Canada’s de facto religion.

In British Columbia we observed two months of Stanley Cup worship. Streets were empty like Christmas Eve on game night. People gathered together. Prayers were offered. One church sign declared the prophesied end of the world was postponed because of the playoffs. Candles were lit. Actually, those were police cars.

That was the moment a game ceased being fun and the spectacle became an orgy of human depravity, mob mentality and disappointment with a god of the age. How could fine Canadians from fine Canadian homes move from fans to fanaticism? At least riotous protests in other parts of the world are about a cause. What exactly was this craziness about?

The Canucks, whose marketing slogan is, “We are all Canucks,” suddenly claim the hooligans were not their fans. We must not stain the brand.

Others want to throw the book at anyone who joined in. Some businesses fired employees instantly if they were seen in photographs published like Old West “wanted” posters on the Internet. This strategy works marvelously if you enjoy the power of public shame.

Then there are the revelers themselves. Swept in the tidal wave, many claim it was just one big alcohol-infused, sore-loser-induced, anarchist-fueled brain cramp: “I went to a hockey game and suddenly I was posing in front of a burning car chugging an energy drink I pilfered through the shattered store window. It’s all a blur. Oh, and I had the wherewithal to gloriously boast online, before my ‘bff’ texted that I’m probably implicating myself.” Apart from the contrition of a few—and mostly because they were caught red-handed—we fervently excuse ourselves.

There are experts. One posited that the riot was a “holdover from the pathway of evolution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, hooligans are thus absolved by reason of the temporary suspension of evolutionary progress. Clearly it’s not a case of survival of the fittest. Other experts have slyly joined the anarchist cause, blaming city officials and the authorities for having the party in the first place. With some mental gymnastics we can blame it on nature or lay it at the feet of big brother.

But why are we determined to name a culprit? Because the relativistic ethos of the day has yet to erase a hunger pang for right and wrong. In contrast, though, we readily forgive if someone will just admit they were a dork. Isn’t that peculiar?

And, to the consternation of aggressive atheists, we are very, very religious. We’ll even make a sport our altar. Why is it that, having turned en masse from the fear of God, we can’t shake being religious?

Even at the end of days that point to these deep mysteries, it is striking how reluctant we are to confess that the problem is not genetics, evolution, policies, ideologies, authorities or alcohol. The real problem is, we have misplaced our worship and, to quote a guy who knew something about riots, are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). We are not all Canucks, but we are all to blame. Let us begin there and find the power of grace, re-creation, and love, which covers a multitude of sins . . . and stupidities.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A History of Birth

Ever looked at a crowd of people in their splendid diversity and wonder where they came from? A crowd is diverse, but each person entered human history the same way: through a birth canal. Yup, big or small, regardless of race or creed, everyone started life painfully. Birth has got to be the most wonderful and horrible thing on the planet. And, every birth changes history forever.

The parallel truth is that anything human beings then set their hands and hearts to must also be born. And any such new birth – whether a business, a settlement, or an organization – means something changes everything – again. Nothing is birthed without pain. But nothing good enters the the world apart from that same pain.

What follows is an all too brief survey of Holy Spirit-birthed multi-site movements that began small and painfully, but changed the world. Hopefully we’ll be thrilled to see that what the Holy Spirit is doing in many mission-focused communities these days is not inconsistent with his moves throughout the centuries that have been beautiful, fruitful, but nonetheless, like any birth, painful:

1. The Early Church. This may surprise us, but the first church birthed following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus was really small and experienced major labour pains. Only a small circle of 12 and a wider circle of 120, the first followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, became a multi-site church in various locations (note how Paul address his letter “To the churches of Galatia” [Gal.1:2] and how his letter to Christians in Rome name a diversity of people who met in multiple “churches” throughout the city [Rom.16:1-16]). They shared leadership, focused Gospel presence locally, and wrestled through the realities of God changing up the game plan. It seemed to work out quite well, don’t you think?

2. St. Patrick and the Irish. In the fifth century a young Brit was captured and taken to a small island as a slave. Though he escaped, he could not shake the call of God to serve his captors. So, he voluntarily returned as a missionary to the very people who enslaved him. This was Patrick. He threw himself into preaching the Good News, demonstrating the love of Christ among the wild Irish, but perhaps most importantly, he founded a flourishing multi-site community of Gospel outposts that, sharing his vision and Jesus-centered DNA, transformed Ireland and beyond. God birthed the multi-site mission outpost vision of Patrick and it played a major role in preserving the Christian gospel at a time when it appeared to be floundering and splintering. We can thank the Irish for a day to celebrate all that is green, but more than that, we should be thankful for the difficult birth that produced a great multi-site movement.

3. The Saving of Simons. In the early 1500s a new Holy Spirit movement took the reforms initiated by Martin Luther to its logical conclusion: that the church of Jesus should not be tied to a particular state you enter into simply by being born in a certain place. Instead, the church of Christ is entered into voluntarily – symbolized by baptism upon the confession of one’s own faith (that’s why they were called Anabaptists – literally “re-baptizers”) – and these believers become a radical people serving one another and their world, even to the point of suffering, because that’s what Jesus did. The birthing of this radical reformation was very painful. Many were martyred for their convictions. It even looked like the whole thing would fall apart due to persecution and the excesses of some nutcase extremists. Then along came a reluctant Catholic priest named Menno Simons. Convinced the Scriptures taught what the Anabaptists were living, he abandoned his privileged position and gave his life to settling and shepherding a new birthing of the Spirit. He and his family lived on the run, avoiding those who wanted his head, and guided a movement that, instead of dissipating into history, survived, thrived, and leavened the whole course of church history. These first “Mennonites” were really a multi-site church on mission saved from a premature death in infancy by a Dutch priest.

4. The Methodists. John Wesley was an Anglican minister who became convinced Jesus intended his followers to be united as a deeply committed, small-group, mission church. He reluctantly left the institutional church he loved to oversee a wild movement of the Holy Spirit that was instrumental in changing the 18th century English world. Wesley’s” Methodists” were a multi-site, cross-cultural church centered on personal commitment to Jesus, small groups, shared leadership, mission-verve, and enormous courage. It sounds all good and normal to us now, but in his day Wesley was considered a kook by those who forgot new birth was not only normal, but necessary, and a heck of an adventure!

5. The Denomination. Each of the above multi-site movements, and others, eventually became institutionalized as “denominations” (i.e. Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, etc.). In principle, a denomination is the organizing of a Holy Spirit-birthed multi-site church; not necessarily a bad thing. Over time, however, denominations – like every local church – risk losing their mojo and adventurous spirit in the name of comfort, predictability, and self-preservation. This is a killer and, it must be said, completely out of sync with the new life the Holy Spirit seeks to birth in every age and generation. Currently many denominations are struggling to find their way in a new cultural climate. Some are dying. Some are the walking dead. Others are seeing new life birthed and, very often, this new life is emerging as another maternity ward of multi-site churches, of whom Gracepoint should be humbled to be part of. This is never of human origin, but of the Holy Spirit’s doing and, while it can be very painful, it is as much a beautiful thing as the diversity of peoples we see on our streets every day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Different Sort of Challenge

A few months ago our four-year-old daughter was overheard singing a song with only one line, which she repeated irritatingly till my patient wife didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Our little fireball of estrogen was singing a song of her own creation ripe with ironic truth: “I’m a different sort of challenge.” Amen, little sister.

We are all different sorts of challenges. I am one, you are one, and if we open our eyes we see we are communities of Jesus-followers in the midst of a whole host of unique challenges. The urban is not the suburban is not the rural. In fact, even supposedly similar places end up being starkly unique. Montreal and Vancouver are both cities, but it would be foolish to say they are therefore the same. Rural Saskatchewan and rural Newfoundland are both in the “country,” but no one would be so dumb as to say they are parallel universes.

Even neighbouring communities can be completely unique. I once lived in Ayr, Ont., which, as a community that rolled out the haggis to celebrate its Scottish heritage, was just up the road from Paris. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to sniff that there are different histories, DNA and challenges at work there. Sure, the passage of time brings change, just like a four-year-old will not always bring four-year old challenges. But even new realities for a locale—like a sleepy village becoming a bedroom community—create challenges that cannot be ignored. This dynamic is easily forgotten by churches, and especially churches with a long history in a community that has developed an unhelpful immunity to change.

When the church sends missionaries from one locale to another, we assume they will learn to think like a landed immigrant in that culture. They will think like a missionary and learn the language, adapt, and build friendships and understandable and credible bridges across a river of different challenges. In fact, any missionaries who fail to do this will simply not make an impact. They will, in reality, not even be missionaries.

The same must be said about the church as it now finds itself in Canada. A recent National Post article states, “Evangelical Christian children of immigrants feel they cannot openly practise their religion, and worry that Christianity is no longer a guiding force in Canadian society, while Muslims say they are free to follow their faith in this country but face other forms of discrimination.” The study reveals a number of interesting trends in Canadian culture, but at the very least it should make us aware that, whether we’ve been in Canada for a short time or a long one, we are all living in the epicentre of a different sort of challenge.

This can—but must not—elicit fear. Fear, of course, will be sure-fire proof we have ceased living and thinking like missionaries. In fact, if this current challenge arouses fear it should make you very afraid that you have sacrificed the missionary call of Jesus and the church, which is sent as a beacon of hope into whatever challenging reality is set before it, for a closed, protectionist society of the religiously comatose.

Very clearly this historical moment presents a different sort of challenge. The times invite us to think and live like missionaries yet again, or perhaps for the first time.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Pastors: Champions of Adoption

The New Testament writer James had an adopted older brother. It took time, but he eventually came to see that this sibling was no rival; He was Christ the Lord.
Scripture is silent on most of the dynamics within the home of Mary and Joseph, but something in James’ life experience, combined with his love of the Hebrew Law, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and his awakening to the wonder of the incarnation that came so close to home, inspired James to write, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). What our Father in Heaven accepts as the faultless display of the believing life must include the care of the fatherless and motherless.
The Christian Church has been at the forefront of providing care for parentless children for centuries, with James’ words a key spur. These words must inspire us still and, in these days of so many broken homes and abandoned children, pastors must be at the forefront of calling the followers of Jesus to foster and adopt.
Why should pastors pay attention to this issue?
First, because it is rooted in the very nature of God Himself. The Scriptures reveal a God who makes spiritual orphans His children through adoption. The Apostle Paul writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:14-15).
God is the adoptive Father of many daughters and sons. Pastors must pay attention to the needs of the orphan because, if we don’t, we are not paying close attention to the heart of God. And if we’re not paying close attention to the heart of God, we will not be speaking and teaching rightly about who God is and we will be half-baking our theology.
Second, members of your church family are living the multi-faceted realities connected to adoption and fostering. On the one hand, you have couples struggling with infertility who are desperately seeking to enter parenthood, and you will inevitably also have some who have given up a child. On the other hand, you will be preaching every week to some who are fostering or adopting and several who are fostered or have been adopted. Take even a random survey of your people and you will discover just how living a reality this is among your flock.
Further, if your church is even remotely involved in the community, you will encounter those with apprehended children and find yourself staring social instability right in the face. If you do not pay attention to this issue, you are ignoring how the reality of a sinful world hits the first place of human development – the relationship between child and birth mother and father.
Third, the statistics are stunning. In Canada more than 80,000 children are in foster care – a number similar to the population of Nanaimo, British Columbia or Kanata, Ontario and larger than Fredericton, New Brunswick or Medicine Hat, Alberta. Of these 80,000 children in foster care, 30,000 are legally available for adoption. Worldwide, UNICEF reports the number of orphans is somewhere between 143 and 210 million – that’s about five times more than Canada’s entire population. Enough said.
Fourth, the opportunity is so great. If the Church takes seriously the call to live this pure religion, we could see some of the most hurting and wounded in our society brought into the healing embrace of Jesus and His Church. Foster and adoption is an opportunity to show and tell our faith in one of the most holistic ways possible.
Further, Christians are often sought out by family and child services because of the quality of care they provide. Thus Christian families are providing a powerful apologetic for Biblical faith in a post-Christian, secular society. In addition, it is a powerful declaration of our desire to reduce abortions.
Fifth, obedience matters. “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Thus commands the Lord from His divine council seat in Psalm 82:3-4.
Both Old and New Testaments emphasize the charge to embrace the orphan. Therefore, we who lead God’s people and shape a Biblical ecclesiology must be obedient in raising the profile of this tangible expression of the heart of God.
But how? How do we pastors influence this type of culture in our churches?
First, preach it. It’s in the Bible; don’t avoid it. The very human stories of barrenness and human frailty are replete in Scripture. The commands to care for the orphan are everywhere. And, don’t forget, adoption is clearly the Biblical image of how we all enter God’s family by faith alone, through grace alone.
Second, expose it. Find ways to have stories of adoption and fostering told from all sides, but do it with honesty and sensitivity, and lace it with the hope of the Gospel. Find space for agencies and organizations to be profiled among your people.
Third, learn about the unique challenges facing adopting and fostering families. Many adoptive and foster parents feel in over their heads because they are dealing with wounded children who aren’t always excited that someone “chose” them. Often these parents find it very difficult to participate in what everyone else is excited about and are sensitive – rightly or wrongly – to the judging eyes of others with “normal” kids.
Don’t jump to conclusions about adopted and fostered kids when they push every button a Sunday school teacher has (and some they never knew they had). Find a way to equip your children’s ministry volunteers to respond well to the uniqueness of these great kids.
Fourth, make the care of the orphan another one of the unquestioned ministries of your church. It could be argued that this has more Biblical precedence than Sunday school, youth ministry or many of the other things we can’t imagine not doing. Make adoption and fostering expected. It should be considered abnormal – and even heretical – for God’s people not to be about this element of faultless religion. It should simply be what Christians do.
Of course, not everyone can or even should foster or adopt, but a church family can make it easier for people with a call to open their homes to do so. Make financial assistance available to those adopting internationally or privately. Equip caregivers to provide respite for weary parents (because many adoptive and fostering parents just can’t hire any babysitter and even extended family members find it difficult).
Beware of making an idol of the nuclear family and instead teach what the Scriptures say about the family of God and how the local church is an expression of that family bound together, not by human blood, but by the blood of the Lamb. The truth is, for many people, the Church is the only “real” family they know in our fractured social fabric.
Fifth, consider modelling it. Don’t do it just to be a do-gooder or martyr for the cause – the needs of these kids are too precious and precarious for that – but do pray about how you as a leader might somehow lead the way. You might never be an adoptive or foster parent, but you could serve at an orphanage, learn about your local family and children’s services, or be a big brother or big sister. You are shaping the culture of your church; consider how you are shaping this aspect of it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Capitulate No More

Capitulation is tantalizing. Tucking our tails is tempting. This is why stories of the persevering human spirit are so inspirational. Those who overcome the black hole of capitulation surprise us by their tenacity. Mark Twain, with whimsical honesty, captures our capitulating nature: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” This “giving up” is so easy to do. Long-suffering is in short supply. Given the opportunity or faced with trial, we will retreat. The magnetic pull toward desertion is strong—even logical. Just ask Judas.

The church has always wrestled with what to do with those who give up. The third century Novatianist controversy raged over what to do with baptized believers who offered pagan sacrifices when faced with persecution. Anabaptists suffered because they were deemed traitors in the sixteenth century European milieu. These same Anabaptists then had to figure out what to do with their own who surrendered to capitulation. Desertion is such a kick in the gut that human beings always need to do something about it.

Apart from the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus said would empower disciples in the hour of testing—we will throw in the towel. The Spirit gives strength to stand when our knees knock. However, we can wrongly think we’re standing firm when relying solely on human wisdom and self-justifying religiosity. Capitulation is disastrous, but capitulation that speaks with a forked tongue is insidious.

Believers are called to long-suffering faithfulness rooted in this Good News: Jesus Christ came as God in human flesh. He suffered and died because sin demanded payment and he would not give up despite his very human desire to do so. He was buried, seemingly capitulating to those who would not give up their cultural and religious thrones, but he rose from the dead and lives today as Deliverer, Saviour and Lord of a new Kingdom that is on a mission of love and transformation in a treasonous world. Everything Christians are to be about is sourced in this just and loving act of God on our behalf. Jude urges us to contend for this faith, despite those who would appeal to our human tendency to give up (Jude 3-4).

The pressure on the church to capitulate comes in two forms: First, from cultural forces that see the cross as foolishness. Second, from religious forces that look at the cross as a stumbling block (I Corinthians 1:23). This second pressure is the most dangerous. External pressure tends to galvanize zeal. To build upon Twain’s metaphor, a diagnosis of cancer can often muster up the nerve to finally give up smoking. Conversely, the internal craving for a smoke can actually trump the confessed risks of inhaling poison. Likewise, the internal pressure to redefine or stumble over the uniqueness of Christ and his cross of judgment and grace is much more destructive because it normalizes and even rewards capitulation. Ever wondered why Scripture saves some of its harshest words, not for external persecutors, but the internal false teacher?

So, does the church take capitulation seriously? How do we—even against the clear teaching of The Book—minimize and even glamorize false teaching? It is easy to do. It sells and feels good. It keeps the peace. It is philosophically sexy. It avoids the risks of making the mistakes of the past, all the while making the greatest mistake of all. To deny the Gospel of a loving and just God made flesh, crucified because of sin, and risen from the dead as Victor and Lord of all is to capitulate either to cultural trending or religious self-justification. And, this giving up becomes another sad footnote in the annals of church history littered with tales of regrettable capitulation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reviving A Community Spirit

Reviving A Community Spirit

Are we no longer communities of the Spirit?

We believe in the Holy Spirit. Our confessions and creeds tell us so, though for the life of us many can hardly describe him/her/it. Ever have a family member with a job no one else in the clan can quite figure out? That’s kind of like the Spirit; he’s that person everyone appreciates, but shrugs with eyebrows raised when asked to explain. Still, we like the third person of the Godhead for his personalized benefits: personal awakening leading to salvation, personal holiness, and the blessing of personal gifts and experiences.

The theologies of the Spirit that dominate the Christian landscape – and peddled by some churches and religious broadcasting – make the Spirit’s work almost completely an individualistic matter. Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit is decidedly at work in the individual believer. However, it is half-baked to limit the Spirit’s work to the personal world of me, myself, and I. We can snobbishly treat the Spirit like a divine butler.

This Spirit-blindness is causing us to stumble in a variety of ways:
First, we love experiences of the Spirit, but go light on the fruit. We hunger and travel long distances for some tangible touch of the Spirit, but you don’t hear quite as much pining for more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). The Apostle Paul spoke of some incredible personal spiritual experiences – like being caught up to the third heaven – but he grounded those experiences in the practical living out of Spirit-fruit life as we rub shoulders with sinners and saints, not cherubim and seraphim (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). We are off base when we chase experiences of the Spirit for our personal religious tourism or satisfaction and minimize yearning for the fruit of the Spirit that is with struggle and delight harvested in relational community.

Second, we exercise the gifts of the Spirit to stroke egos or agendas rather than to edify the body and serve the Kingdom of God. I’m all for helping people discover their spiritual wiring. It can be freeing and a catalyst for the church on mission. Often, however, spiritual gifts probes end up being the equivalent of reading the Chinese zodiac calendar placemat description in between buffet table visits. In other words, it becomes only curious information and does not translate into action that benefits the community and the world. Paul’s corrective word to the Corinthians was to stop chasing gifts that could make you look spiritual and instead yearn for the gifts that help the local body actually be a transforming spiritual reality (1 Corinthians 14:12). It would seem we are still in Corinth.

Third, we are too often communities of despair rather than communities of hope. Many local churches and even whole denominations are confused by changing neighbourhood, demographic, and cultural realities. We are bewildered when what has always worked no longer seems to. So, we look for some magic pill, program, or paranormal pastor to lead us back to Egypt. Like the children of Israel we’ve given up hope of a Promised Land. We wander about building golden calves from the trinkets and souvenirs of a day that once was. We become communities of despair. This is, perhaps, the primary sign that we need to rediscover a community Spirit.

Stuck at a pivotal historical moment where we thankfully don’t know what to do, many churches have been brought to the brink of hope. Only the Father can rescue his children. Only the Lord Jesus can save his church. Only the Holy Spirit can revive dry bones. The abundant hand wringing about what must be done should be exhibit A that we have been brought to that glorious moment where only the Spirit’s power can transform the community of God’s people once more. The Spirit breathes conviction and comfort, but never despair. The Spirit resurrects. The Spirit gifts surprise and joy. Hope will rise; so let us pray, let us follow the pillar of fire, let us walk with a limp, let us be open to some divine Counseling; let us long to be a holy nation, empowered by a community Spirit, rather than an archipelago of individuals.

Monday, April 25, 2011


I was handed a paper that I shoved in my pocket unread. But, later, the title caught my attention as I was about to drop it in recycling: “Relax.” That word thrust me back to a “Teen-dom” ruled by mullets and neon, where “relax” was used to call people back from hysterics because of some youthful limit-pushing.

The article must have been written with that in mind. Here’s a snippet: “Everyone now take a step backwards and a quick, deep breath, and remember, before it begins, what this is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be about kids and too often we—the adults—lose perspective and get caught up in our own . . . ambitions.”

This caution was for parents in my son’s baseball league: A written notice for adults to cease the vein-popping, hernia-inducing stupidity that comes with believing your kid is the next Jose Bautista. It is plain talk: Relax and remember what it’s supposed to be about. Baseball is about enjoying leather and laughter, bat and ball, sunshine and sweat. Adults, not kids, turn it into ambition and agendas.

This relaxation primer should be given to some people in the church. When once we first believed—when the wonder of grace, the love and justice of God, the passion of the cross, the depth of our sin, the glory of resurrection, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus-centred community first startled us awake—did we not pour from our depths the words of that peculiar band of my youth, “Send me, take me, use me, spend me, I am not my own”? These are the self-abandoned sentiments of first love.

Then, slowly, stealthily, we succumb to agendas and discontent. Someone lets us down. A decision we don’t like is made. Something is called “foul” that we’re convinced is “fair” (or vice versa). Someone else is given a responsibility we covet. We suddenly forget what this is all about. We make the kingdom about me or about those who think like me. We lose perspective. We turn on each other. We get caught up by ambition or trapped by past pain. It’s as if we need a note that says, “Relax.”

This world is a broken place inhabited by broken people. Abortions of baby girls in India are staggeringly rampant. AIDS is producing a generation of fatherless and motherless kids. Folks in Japan and Haiti would simply be glad for a house. Your neighbours drown in a sea of debt as their marriage crumbles. That awkward kid on your child’s team is being abused. Loneliness is pandemic. Countless many are heading towards eternity bound by sin and blinded by idolatry.

And you! You have been made alive in Christ by faith. You have been set free by the gracious act of God. You are following a new master and are a citizen of a new land. You are part of an amazing community of saints in heaven and on earth who carry a treasure in jars of clay. Have you lost the plot? Have you placed your ambition ahead of your Lord’s?

Relax. Step back before you start another parking lot conversation, letter campaign or Facebook defriending. Take a breath before you make some political play rather than gospel move. Remember who this is for and what it’s all about before you ruin it for the kids, before tarnishing both your name and his.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Mapping The Interior

Maps intrigue me. It’s fascinating where people settled, why, and the names given to those crossroads and deltas. Sadly, with our growing dependence on GPSs to cheat, map reading may be a skill forced into extinction. This may have more dire consequences than we think. Maps record our histories, guide return visits, and point us to new frontiers. Dots, lines, and letters on a page reveal what has shaped us and the convoluted roads we and others have tread.
The Plains of Abraham. Queenston Heights. Dawson City. Vimy Ridge. Bay Street. Walkerton. Mayerthorpe. The names alone tell a story. Marks on a map invite us to take a journey into the soul of a people. Outdated maps uncover the ever changing ebb and flow of human geography. For instance, why did the Ontario city of Berlin, where sausage and sauerkraut are staples, change its name to Kitchener? Whatever became of Frobisher Bay? Look internationally and Leningrad is no more and the 2008 Summer Olympics weren’t in Peking; and yet they were. Curious, isn’t it?
Explorers like David Thompson are fascinating and most young males imagine mapping wild interiors like he did. Once upon a time some friends and I mapped a scavenger hunt that took participants around our township by car. All they had to do was follow our clues and directions. Many left. Few returned. Of those who managed to straggle across the finish line no one actually completed the hunt as charted. The reason: we had made a grave error in our mapmaking. At a crucial intersection we had sent people left when they needed to turn right. We were no David Thompsons.
Navigating the contours of our own interiors can be, similarly, full of good intentions yet marked by utter failure. There are diverse locales in a man’s heart that even he, homo-erectus-who-needs-no-mapus, is hesitant to explore let alone lay down a path for others to follow. Like a closed country, we do not easily open ourselves to the outside world. We can be our own North Korea.
Recently this became personal. A conflict awakened things in me I thought I had moved beyond. Apparently there are “further up and further in” lands in me I am unfamiliar with. I hardly knew what to do with this uncharted terrain. Where did these emotions come from? Why is this bothering me so much? Lord, cartographer of my heart, what is going on? I could hardly put it into words. Ever been there? Ever been too scared to travel down that dark lane?
This most recent mapping of my interior required some means of grace.
I required the grace of Scripture. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” croons Psalm 119:105. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” instructs Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16. The ancient Word has taken so many on surprising and transforming internal journeys and it happened to me again too.
I needed the grace of companionship. Every Lewis needs his Clark. Every Lewis and Clark needs their Sacagewea. We can’t map the interior alone. Many claim to have tried, but I’m convinced that’s just a line of Buffalo chips on a trail to nowhere. Saying you’re okay and you’ll go there alone is a big smokescreen to hide fear of back roads. I needed a mentor and friends. I needed my wife. Through their words, listening ears, wisdom, prayers, embrace, and rebukes, I found my way again.
I found rest in the grace of the incarnation and the resurrection. Everywhere you go, there you are. So goes the irritatingly pithy yet nonetheless true declaration that I can’t escape myself. Thankfully and gloriously, I can’t escape the risen Jesus either. Everywhere I go, he is. He knows all about mountains, valleys, and even agony in a garden. He was tempted in every way as I am. God himself knows what is true from false in me and still he calls me “Son” because I trust him. For those afraid of what lives in the back country this is enormously hopeful and frees the boyish explorer to venture into the interior that the fearful man risks cutting off from the outside world.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deliverance From Somewhere Else

The story of Esther is stunning in its providential beauty and hope. Despite God never being named, the book bearing a Jewish Persian Queen’s Gentile name—a wonderful twist of biblical irony—is received as Scripture, as God’s very speech. Esther is God doing sign language. God writes himself out of the story, but not out of history. The I AM receives no cameo. No token merci, gracias, danke or thanks is given the Almighty. God is silently active.

Uncle Mordecai’s poignant challenge (Esther 4:14b) to his queen-niece is oft recited: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” That’s a moving question. That dog will hunt. Them there words will move you to the core.

There is, however, a subtle danger in hinging the praiseworthy courage of Esther on these words. It can leave deliverance in human hands. Somehow we will do it. The story without God risks becoming a “Yes we can!” fairy tale. Were that the case, it would never have been received by Jewish or Christian tradition as Scripture. Hence, the story’s power, although revealing Esther’s courage, must find its source elsewhere.

Back up a few lines before Mordecai’s question and hear this: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14a).

We could say fear of impending doom was the key motivator in Esther’s risky breach of Persian protocol. But, again, that misses the point and makes the story a human yarn. Look more closely. Mordecai confidently articulates the sure hope of deliverance. Salvation will come for the Jews. It does not depend on Esther; she simply has the providential responsibility and privilege of right place and time. Deliverance depends on the unseen hand. Esther can either be swept along or be swept away. Rooted in her trust in the Lord as the “one who delivers,” who acts and is acting even when it seems he is conspicuously absent, Esther steps into the gap.

Many are bemoaning the demise of the church. We get all overcome with emotion over what we can do to deliver ourselves from extermination, sure that salvation rests in human ability rather than God’s action. We risk writing a story that is not worthy of being called tradition in the long run.

God is a deliverer. He is always acting and stirring. He is always providential even when his silence screams. He is acting now. He is presently transforming lives, neighbourhoods and congregations. He is birthing new movements of the Spirit. He is on the move. Jesus said the gates of hell will never prevail against his church.

The question is whether or not we, as one strain of the Christian tradition, will stand on this confidence and join God in another wave of his gracious acts, or will he need to use someone else who will join him even at the risk of perishing. Have we become so confident in our own ways, comforts, religious systems and supposed wisdom that we will simply drift into the archives rather than be present participants with the providential deliverer?

Will we, as church planter and pastor Ed Stetzer, author of the LifeWay Research Blog, asks, “be the groups that reach postmodern culture, or will God have to bypass us and use others?”

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Skate in Another's Sledge

Where were you on Feb. 28, 2010? For Canadians, that was the glorious day of the golden goal: St. Sidney’s slick shot that eluded American goaltender Ryan Miller. Not only did Canadian water consumption ebb and flow with the intermissions of that game as fans left Sidney, Roberto, et al to visit “John,” but the day showed again that Canadian culture is increasingly entwined with the new myth of hockey.

Eighty percent of Canadians watched some part of that gold medal game. We were dragged willingly into the meta-narrative of a new patriotism, as the vast majority of us wanted to be identified with this moment of national self-definition.

Where were you on March 19, 2010? Unless it’s your birthday, chances are you can’t remember. That was the day Canada’s sledge hockey team lost the bronze medal game to Norway at the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. It passed almost totally unnoticed and without the angst that would have filled the airwaves had Canada’s other Olympic men’s hockey team had to settle for silver. We are selective in our devotion and prejudiced in our “religious” affiliation.

Until a couple years ago I played hockey regularly and loved it. Then life with a quiver full of little people caught up to me, and mustering the time, energy and money to get out with the guys became a challenge. As it’s been over two years since I’ve laced them up, that makes me a Canadian backslider of post-biblical proportions.

But in this new year, my son and I decided to return to the ice. We wanted to do it together, but it’s difficult finding a place where a teenager and 38-year-old can play together—until we found sledge hockey. Once a week we strap on the pads and slide our heinies into a sledge and “skate” with people of various ages who see the world from a completely different angle. The vast majority of participants are disabled.

We have chosen to do this, but this is life as they know it. The experience has become a great teacher. Not only am I keenly aware of new parts of my behind that can go numb, I am also newly aware that life as I see it—even from a mere 172 centimetres (5’8”)—is not the be all and end all.

As I bomb around the ice knowing I can get up and walk away, I see able-bodied people watching me like I’m from another planet. I am an anomaly to them, an alien, a peculiarity. They gawk and leave, wondering at this strange sight. I overhear conversations between parents and their kids: “Just be glad you can walk!”

Then the missiologist in me kicks in and I realize many Christians look at their world this way. “Be glad you’re not like them,” we say, whoever “them” is. Or we just stare, bewildered by strangers and their strange ways.

I am learning once again the need to leave the world as I know and want it, to engage the world from an unfamiliar angle. Is this not the essence of the incarnation that has wrought my salvation? Have we forgotten that this way of life is not only a command—“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21)—but also what has made Christians of every age strange? Maybe that’s what Peter means when he reminds us we are a peculiar people (I Peter 2:9). Perhaps, saved by grace, we are to skate that grace in another’s sledge.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Welcome to Sociological Purgatory

I grew up in southwestern Ontario where – by my childish observations – most everyone was religious, or at least made excuses if they weren’t. The statistics verify my early mastery of sociology. A recent Globe and Mail article (“Canada Marching Away From Religion to Secularization,” December 11, 2010) notes, “Before 1971, less than 1 per cent of Canadians ticked the ‘no religion’ box on national surveys. Two generations later, nearly a quarter of the population, or 23 per cent, say they aren’t religious.”

I was born in 1972. Apparently, I ruined everything.

The Canadian religious landscape has transformed so dramatically that it’s almost as if we live in a completely different country from the one I entered the year Paul Henderson jumped for joy in Moscow. While 80 percent of Canadians still claim belief in God, only 27 percent attend a religious service at least monthly. Worship participation once a month is the new “regular,” which makes those of you who gather weekly – and even more often for a small group or service opportunity – rabid extremists. Canadians are, as another study defined us, a nation of believers, not belongers.

Even more revealing, among those Canadian-born and dipped in maple syrup like me, 28 percent state no religious affiliation whatsoever and another 24 percent claim affiliation without participation. Recent immigrants are more likely to prioritize faith (only 19 percent declare no religious affiliation) and, given where the majority of Canadian immigration currently originates, this means that by 2017, non-Christian religions will comprise 10 percent of the population.

Do the math. Canada is emerging as a conflicted place: with the majority of natural-born residents being thoroughly secularist, Christian immigrants will likely be the most passionate gospel witnesses and immigrants of other religions most passionately opposed, while we sing together, “God (or god or Allah or Sid the Kid) keep our land, glorious and free.”

But, wait, there’s more. Having just feasted our way through Christmas, it might surprise us how spiritually irrelevant the holiday is. The Globe and Mail study reveals that 51 percent of those over 60 believe Christmas is more of a religious than social holiday. That alone is startling given the illusion we’re under that “old” people are Christian simply by virtue of their hair colour, Buick-rides, and love of Smitty’s on Sunday afternoons. The numbers slip-slide away from there until we arrive at 18–29 year olds, only 26 percent of whom consider Christmas a religious holiday.

In a generation, the nativity story has virtually become a niche peculiarity. That means the majority in our culture look at what we just did at Christmas in the same way we look at Sikhs during Diwali and Muslims during Ramadan. The Globe and Mail concludes: “If you’re a young person, born in Canada, chances are you don’t know the true meaning of Christmas.” Welcome to sociological purgatory.

Unfortunately, too many Christians still waste time pining for 1971. Many expect the same old tricks to work and demand that from their leaders. Church leaders, meanwhile, are discovering the 1970s have indeed gone the way of the dodo. Other religious leaders are just blind guides. One religion sociologist notes that what attracts native-born Canadians to church these days is parking availability, great preaching, and kids programs.

That’s all we need: another expert declaring yet another stylistic, programmatic formula as our panacea. Pave the parking lot, channel great oratory, play cute cartoons for busy kids and our churches will be able to pay the bills. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy, Scripture, radical discipleship, and selfless mutuality – all these are secondary and even unnecessary, it seems. Do we actually believe this? In this age of religious secularization, isn’t something else required of us?

The early church faced insurmountable statistics in the days following Pentecost. The odds of the fledgling Way making any dent was as likely as the Leafs winning the Cup, and yet we know what happened.

But how? One prayer with two requests: “…enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand…” (Acts 4:29–30). A people in sociological purgatory knew only one way out – purified, bold confidence in the gospel and assurance that God’s hand can work wonders. What might happen if, regardless of the stats, we started there once more?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New World Metaphors

Human ingenuity cranks out things that are windows into the heart of the age. Our technological dreamworks become tools of convenience, toys of amusement, gadgets of annoyance, and objects of idolatry. Since Babel, every epoch has had its technological metaphor. The great tower of Genesis 11 betrayed humanity’s cultural self-understanding. We were kings and queens of the castle, then we got confused.

Dash forward and we can trace a fascinating series of tech symbols since the 15th century. Gutenberg’s printing press of 1450 was a technological wonder. His press made culture-quaking ideas capable of spreading like wild fire. It expedited literacy. It empowered the individual to rise from the dust of a feudal cultural grave.

Fast forward a couple of centuries to philosopher Blaise Pascal. This calculating “homme,” who defined the emerging individual rationalism of the Enlightenment with “I think, therefore I am,” was also apparently the first to wear a wristwatch. If individual reason had won the day, why not individual time, too? The clock became the technological metaphor for a new era, one in which time became money, and the dirty second hand, not the rhythms of creation, ruled the roost.

Things ticked along until the “thingamajig extraordinaire” was sprung upon us. The computer hotwired Gutenberg’s press and Pascal’s watch into a plastic tower making power personal and Pacman an icon. With the Internet the world, quite literally, came home. The computer now amuses, aids and controls. The web connects us to a wide world and disconnects us from our family and neighbours. It can save time and waste it. It can liberate and imprison. It can bring order and disseminate chaos. It is the technological metaphor for the world we all know.

But we haven’t stopped there. The technological metaphor of the dawning world is the smartphone, which puts a shrinking world in my pocket. It seems to have life and yet has none. It is the perfect metaphor for the entitled culture I find myself swimming in. So much of our lives is dominated by these technologies.

How does this apply to the life of the church? Well, for one thing, everyone in our churches is treading in these cultural waters. Even those determined to stay untainted by “the world,” ironically put the world in their pockets or depend on people who do. Pretending we can deconstruct what’s been constructed is irrational.

Furthermore, we are conditioned to think very mechanistically and therefore look at our churches in the same way. True to our technological metaphors, we believe we can and should be able to program the ideal church to put in our pockets. But the church does not exist to be the virtual spiritual equivalent of your favourite app; the church exists to give glory to God!

It’s not that we don’t love the church. We do, but perhaps wrongly. We love her so much we want to control her by making a technological widget out of her. However, we are not called to love the church; that’s what God does (Ephesians 5:25). We are called to love God and neighbour, make no graven image, and, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, be a resurrected people through whom God reveals his wisdom, not ours, to the powers that be. Without doubt, this requires the creative tools of our technologies, but, even more so, the surrender of our need for programmatic control to the wild, creative and unpredictable breath of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Boys Will Be Men

My sons and I once took on the challenge of fixing the front porch of our old home that required some significant TLC. I’m not much of a handyman, but I can wreck things with the best of men and so we set to work ripping out aluminum soffit in order to get at the beams that were failing after a hundred years of enduring the elements. To add to the fun we discovered a rather substantial accumulation of bat guano piled high on that old soffit as well. What great hilarity for a couple of boys and their dad! Trying to hit each other with bat poop-bombs really impressed the females in the Wagler tribe.
Seeking to reestablish myself as the mostly responsible father, I made it clear we were going to dispose of this crappy aluminum post-haste and so we threw it with an emphatic clatter into our old trailer. To my great dismay one of my sons became determined, despite my protests of what ills will befall him should he play with the guano-infested metal, to build an Ironman suit out of the junk – just like the one in the movies – that would fly and shoot down unsuspecting sea gulls at will. “Good God,” I prayed, “change my son’s mind, or at the very least, build a poop-protecting force field around him – oh – and I beseech Thee, keep his mother from seeing what’s going on.”
What is it with boys and their crazy ideas? What is it with fathers and their attempts to tame their sons? I fought every nerve to pull my son back to reality. This hair-brained scheme was pointless. Still, I let him go – even gave him some tools – and went to distract his mother from getting near the back yard where all this amateur NASA engineering was going on. The suit never got made. Turns out building a rocket propelled suit out of soffit is slightly more complicated than one might think. Still, it was a joy watching the attempt be made and it reminded me of the wonder of being a boy.
Allow me, for just one moment, to ask the men out there this: You were once a boy with crazy ideas, what type of man have you become? Tamed? Tepid? Tired? Ticked? Tactless? Telf-seeking (I really mean self-seeking, but needed a “T” to keep the prose going)?
The truth is that boys will be men. Every man was once a boy, but what kind of man is he becoming? What kind of man am I becoming? Am I more and more the man of God’s making, of Jesus’ rescuing, of the Spirit’s transforming, or just a boy trapped in a body that won’t stop motoring in the wrong direction?
Boys who are becoming sons of the Kingdom are men after God’s own heart. Men, the Kingdom of God is a great adventure! It is, believe it or not, even greater than building a guano-stained Ironman suit. Boys will be men; that you can count on. So, gents, what kind of man are you becoming? Whose man are you? And, how might you join the Kingdom adventure with other men who were once boys like you too?