I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You…

We were made to worship…

I don’t know if you’re a Bob Dylan fan. But I am. He has a knack for rousing the human heart with his lyrics. Some suggest he is a prophet and with this, I agree. He has spoken of the things that matter in ways that led to cultural revolutions and that have produced a devoted following. The name of this blog is the same as a song on his latest masterpiece album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. “I made up my mind to give myself to you” is a great song and I encourage you to have a listen.

Why am I pointing you to this song? Because this is a deep and profound song about worship and on Sunday I’ll be speaking to you about idolatry, which is all about worship. It’s a topic that has been on my mind for some time and I’m eager to share with you the things I’ve been learning about it through the Gideon story.

So, what do I want you to know before Sunday?

The first thing I want you to know is that we were made to worship. That means that we are always in the process of giving ourselves to someone or something. In the scriptures and in our faith, we encounter the God that made us and instructs us to give ourselves over only to Him. Why should we? Because this is the proper orientation of the human being; to be directed in a way that our lives are found in God. You’ll recognize this in the very first commandment; You shall have no other gods but me.

We are always roaming to tap some eternal itch embedded in our hearts and we do this by giving ourselves over to things. This is an act of worship. The giving of ourselves. The genesis of this impulse is found, in Genesis, funny enough. It began in the garden, if you recall when we reached for the forbidden fruit. In one way, it wasn’t just Eve and Adam that ate. It was you and me, we all reached, took and ate. And thus, we became idolaters for we wanted to be like God. As a result, we became restless wanderers.

The second thing I want you to know that idolatry is subtle and happens when we aren’t even aware of it. Being a good citizen can be idolatrous. So can taking extra special care of yourself and being patriotic for your country. You see we have our tidy religion in our free country and we, for the most part, have our ducks in a row. We have comfort and certainty, and security. And this is pleasing, like the fruit in the garden, but is it faithful? We tend to wander without looking and we can wander into the arms of waiting idols if we are not careful.

In the scriptures, we meet a very loving but dangerous God that woos us into wholehearted trust and fidelity. “He not safe, but He is good”, as was said about Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia. We spend most of our lives trying to remove anxiety, but I’m convinced that there is holy anxiety that leads to peace that we may need to find by letting go of some things. But fear not…. Because…

The last thing I want you to know is that there is hope! The topic of idolatry can be a heavy one, so I’d like for you to come with hope in your heart and on your mind. In fact, put it on your lips too, why not! For there is reason to rejoice, because God constantly interrupts our idolatry. His covenant with us is everlasting, even though our hearts are prone to wander. So be hopeful as we worship on Sunday. Perhaps I can encourage you with these lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song:

Well, my heart’s like a river, a river that sings

Just takes me a while to realize things

I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn

I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone

I’ve traveled from the mountains to the sea

I hope that the gods go easy with me

I knew you’d say yes, I’m saying it too

I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you

So, come join us, this Sunday and I promise it’ll be interesting with a little poetry, a parable, and some exposition of the bible and current culture as we explore the topic of idolatry.

Be blessed,

John

Signals and the Kingdom of God knocking

Signals are important! They save lives and they indicate new life. In a hospital, signals engage healthcare workers to respond to emergencies. In child birth, signals, like water breaking and contractions, indicate new life about to be born. On the road driving, they indicate a turn, or change of course. Signals need visual alerts and sounds of articulation to fall on eyes and ears in order to work. Whether beeps, or blog posts, signals need a voice…. And ears to hear and eyes to see.

There is something happing at City Center Church. I’ve been convinced of this since our arrival last fall. This little church in the most rugged of Surrey neighbourhoods is a most unlikely agent of transformation. This community is in need of care. One would think that a full on crew, resourced to the hilt with cash and expertise, peppered with important people and skills, would be a more likely force for change….

But there are signals and they are telling us something else…

You see, I bear witness to signals…. Another way to say this is that I tell stories about how God is reconciling the world to himself… putting to rights all that went wrong with the fall and transforming community structures so that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s about that great Patmos picture in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth. The beautiful part about this is that God invites his Church through signals from the Spirit to participate:

18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

(2 Corinthians 18-20)

And trust me, there are signals that this is happening…

What are the signals? Let me share some with you…

Signal #1 – A breath of fresh pastoral air

I believe there is a fresh perspective for community transformation from our new pastor. You know, in the bible, it talks about welcoming angels at your door… I’ve come to know Gabriel (interesting name, huh?) quite well since he knocked on our door as our new pastor. The Holy Spirit has breathed new adventure through him into our hearts… his openness to change and following Jesus into the Kingdom is encouraging. The church prayed for someone in a pastor that could support the doing of a new work among us. Perhaps the best signal in this is that it’s not about a pastor doing the work. It’s about cultivating an environment where the community of saints can realize their own ordination by baptizm into ministry via participation in the Kingdom… we are one body with many parts and the head is Jesus. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14) This is crystal clear in his approach and the Spirit has inspired us through him. 

Signal #2 – A supply chain under our noses

There are people dreaming about moving from charity to community. But there is a crisis exasperated by Covid-19 that needs a charitable response each day. People are hungry and homeless and on the brink of utter desolation. The church must help. Since Covid, we’ve partnered with donors and shelters to distribute 10,000 plus bagged lunches. This is an effort that this needs to continue and a signal that God is doing something new. The food keeps coming and the need is still there and the need is being met. We didn’t start this fire of relief for the pain in our community, God did. The irony is that it took the church to close its doors for this to happen. Interesting! This dovetails into dreams that the other signals are alerting us to…

Signal #3 – The gift of a garden

People have been talking. Neighbours have shared rumours of glory and the desire for community among the people… this is beyond charity and I’m convinced if we can figure out how to create a sense of belonging with our community, we can take a big stick and jam it in the spokes of the wheel of oppression in our neighbourhood. Things like food inequality, homelessness, poverty, etc. These things can be addressed and something as simple as a Garden can help. We’ve received an approval for a community garden from the City without formally asking. We’ve received grant information and donation offers for all the supplies. We’ve received offers of help from the community to be a part of this. My friends, you can’t make this stuff up. It has wheels that we can’t physically see moving this along. 

Signal #4- God fearing gentiles among us. 

There are people, like my friend Shirwan from Iraq who can’t put an English sentence together, but desires to be part of whatever we do, especially if it’s outside in the streets. I’ve seen this man hand out hotdogs to our friends who live in the street like he’s serving a king! He is a cook. He wants to help. And the Spirit makes possible our connection. Last Sunday I organized a tail gate BBQ after our gathering. It was risky due to Covid-19, but our church family was gracious enough to support it. God bless them! On the Thursday before Sunday, Shirwan sent me a random message. I haven’t heard from him for a while. Out of the blue. I invited him. He came. He connected. He had dinner with congregants – one who could speak Arabic – he was enveloped into our community. This is one story. There are many others who are not part of us, but are connected to a work of God’s Spirit in our neighbourhood. And the Spirit of God is signalling to us through God-fearing Gentiles to come deeper into our neighbourhood.

All these signals – and trust me there are many more – have a common thread woven between them. The Holy Spirit. These things are all being orchestrated by God and serve as an invitation into something new outside of our church walls and in our community. So, here is the kicker…there’s a call to action….yup! This blog has a call to action. 

You are here for a reason. You’ve been chosen by God as a minister of reconciliation in our community. God is moving people into the ground, to till the earth, to get dirty with the work of LOVE in tangible and incarnational ways. It all starts with a question. Ask yourself this. “Am I being called into this neighbourhood?” Chances are, if you are part of our church, you are here for this reason. So go ahead and do the following as a little call to action:

1. Grab your ear lobes and rub them warm.. say the following prayer “Lord Jesus send the signals of your good work in the City Center neighbourhood  to my ears and tell us what we must do.” 

2. Rub your eyes and say the following: “Holy Spirit Give me eyes to see your work in our community.”

3. Hold your heart and say “Father, change my heart so that I can feel how you feel about our neighbourhood.”

There, that was simple, wasn’t it? Or… was it possibly the most dangerous thing you’ve done?

Be blessed,

Your brother, John 

Caution when re entering your pew…

Caution… for your safety!

As lockdowns wind down and our city slowly reopens, there is a hustle to get back to normal. We miss the ways of interacting we once knew! We miss our friends, our communities, and importantly, our worship. Its a good thing that our community leaders are taking precautions to ensure we do so safely.

The other day I was at our church and noticed the caution tape on the pews. It was not the first time I noticed them, but this time I noticed them anew. The tape is there to help us social distance and its for our safety. We can gather in a group of up to 40 (interesting number!), but we cant sing (the risk of projectiles) and we are recommended to wear masks… and sanitize our hands… and not touch our faces… or touch others… or have fellowship after… or have more than one person in the washroom at one time… the list goes on. It’s an important list meant to keep us safe. We poured much energy and effort to do what we need to as the church gathering is important.

This time, inadvertently, it dawned on me that the caution tape may be more than a symbol of our physical safety to gather again. We usually sit in the same pews, expect the same outcomes, and predict the same conversations each week. But, is the wild and adventurous Kingdom of God about this? I wondered if the tape may be warning to us from God about what it means to be the church. What if this tape is cautioning us about complacency and familiarity? What if God is saying “slow-down before you reenter here. Think twice before you embrace your old ways, and open your eyes to what I am doing outside the safety of your pew.” This is what I want to explore.

You see, the closure of our church during Covid-19 forcefully challenged us to reconsider how to be the church. It was quite disorienting as no one has been through this before and stabilizing the congregation pastorally was a priority. How would we meet? How would we check in on the vulnerable? What about our ministries where people depend on us? All of this was of great concern. This was a crisis! How could a virus take away my experience of God! And we felt the initial shock. But alas, God in his ever-faithful ways tends to show up in spades when we are in turmoil.

In our community, there are multiple stories of how God started showing up outside of our building. Its as if he was telling us that sacred spaces are in other places. Not long after the lockdown, an expansive food operation formed in our church basement to support breakfast and lunches for two local shelters. You can read about it here. We met new neighbours who became co-conspirators with us in serving the poor in crisis. We met one neighbour that shared a dream about what the community could look like if we could teach kids to learn to live with less. In my house, our family has met each night for a prayer liturgy and scripture reading… and trust me, God has shown up! Others among us started dreaming and having visions in the pattern of Joel 2:28. We began exploring community partnerships and a community garden for our neighbours in the spirit of the common good. The lockdown made very clear the issues of food scarcity, poverty, homelessness, and isolation like never before. It’s not easy to overlook these days. None of this would have happened if our church was open.

I have been wondering if now might be the time that God is inviting us to take it even further. Maybe its time to move from honourable charity to transformational community “with” our neighbours, rather than doing things “for” our neighbours. After all, although Jesus did things “for” people, we cannot understand those things outside of his primary vocation of being “with” humanity. This is the relentless pursuit of God with us! God is signalling to us from the margins of our community in many ways and may even be inviting us into a new way of being the church!

What makes me think this? Recently, I have been nudged into reading about the systemic issues of our community. I’ve learned how in many ways we as churches put an onus on charity to win people to Jesus, but rely on governments or politics to enact systemic change. I’ve come to learn that this is a false reliance. The government’s purpose is not the common good, but the good of a few. This is clear in the the erosion of support systems for families, income inequality, and the emphasis on economic gain (stock market) as the primary indicator of societal health. Within this system, churches have operated in the private sphere of values and personal salvation. Important this is, but, it has made it extremely difficult for the church to create an environment of human flourishing in a way that can transform the public, or secular world. These thoughts are still forming in me, but have made me wonder if God is luring us out of our familiar places and into our communities in a new way.

The idea of a weekly community meal (when safe to do so) has sat with me lately. I’m drawn to it. Jesus practiced radical table fellowship in unclean spaces with unclean people. Jesus made the table a sacred space. He didn’t just hand out food. And I don’t just want to give someone food, I want to eat with them too. I want to be “with” them and learn from them. I want to meet Christ in my neighbours as I know he is already out there before me. I also know Christ is still working to change me and I’m convinced that God will do so as much or more through the stranger, as through a sermon. The table… a way of being the church. This has a nice ring to it and is a space where transformation can happen.

Back to the caution tape. It’s important… it will keep us safe as we re enter our pews. But I want you to think about this. What if the pew didn’t define our experience of God as much as a shared table with strangers did? What if a shared table is holy ground that will take us beyond charity and into deeper community? This reminds me of what renowned theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about the responsibility of the church:

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Maybe the future of the church can be imagined through the table in a way that could transform the systemic issues that perpetuate suffering in our community. Just maybe.

Lent – Salvation from the Dust

As we begin the season of lent, let’s carry close to the front of our vision our need for redemption. In a world that thrives on living as if we’ll never die, Lent is our companion for safe passage past our illusions and into the arms of a loving God; a God who was broken so that all things may be made new and spared from dust.

Dust is an interesting thing. It’s the end point of all temporal and material things. Death is the doorway and death’s living room is lifeless dust, however absurd that sounds. Therefore we avoid death’s doorway at all costs and the way we cope is to keep it from the front of our minds.

This Jesus person did an extraordinary job of calling us past the illusions of life as we know it. He forces us to the dance floor to tango with death. He urges us to not be afraid, even though our natural instinct is to deny or flee our eventual dance partner. In fact, he promises us that in dancing with death, we find our life. He proves this to us by leading the way past the dust. Therefore, the faithful, in preparation for the event that is Easter, enter lent with dust on our foreheads to remind us of this part of our human experience. We are dust.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus

“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” the Apostle Paul

Let’s make our way in humility to the dance floor in full recognition that we need saving and consider the dust against the backdrop of the eventual healing of all things. These are two facets to God’s plan for the restoration of all things.

This song helps us consider Dust.

http://music.hopeandsocial.com/track/dust-3 

 

 

The UNkingdom of God : Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance – Book Review

What really makes a book a good book? For me, like a work of art, a good book is precisely “good” because of its ability to facilitate an encounter with truth and beauty. A good work of art invites us to experience something greater than our current orientation to the world and transforms us on the other end of the encounter. This is kind of how I feel about Mark Van Steenwyk's latest book, The Un-Kingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. Like a work of art, this book is an invitation to explore the other end of an encounter with Mark's imagination and experience about who God is and what it means to follow in the ways of Jesus.

Mark writes from a refreshing posture of vulnerability regarding his own 'scripting' in the Christian faith. It's refreshing because his posture is not a possessive one, in that he claims no special knowledge or to have all the answers to the problems; but one that is aware of his own captivity to the Empire that God longs to liberate people from. He carries us through the chapters in humility with a desire to constantly discern the direction the Holy Spirit reveals to his community.

His premise in the book is that much of Western Christianity is married to the imperial trappings of Empire and that ongoing repentance – and relinquishment of said imperialism – should be the paradigm through which the church can experience the Kingdom. What are these Empirical trappings? The trappings of empire are difficult to see and when Mark poetically pulls the sheets back on us we are left exposed and clearly complicit in the colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and economic power systems that define privilege within the empire; a privelage the church has comfortably enjoyed for milenia. Mark helps us see in this regard that every one of us partakes in systems of injustice even as we partake in the bread and cup at Jesus' table.

Mark helps us see our shortcomings and opportunities in several important ways. Three stand out to me:

Repentance over Privilage: In the west we somehow feel we have the template on what it means to be Christians, as if the goal is to turn disciples into well behaved middle class Americans. Our Privilage has caused us to tell national myths that are quite oppressive to the indiginous people whose land we inhabit, as if our enlightened standard is the goal. He says:

The engine of Western imperialism is the quasi-Christian set of national myths that shape us into the sort of people who believe that we, uniquely, embody the good life and should spread that life to the rest of the world. The American dream is our gospel.”

Our Christian memory is tied to the empire and this empire partook and partakes in injustice to offer us the freedoms we feel make us exceptional today. In a prophetic way, Mark suggests that we shed such privilage and repent of our work in sustaining these myths and the ongoing injustices they enable. In this sense there is no genuine Christian witness or restorative justice outside of repentance, just ongoing oppression.

Compassion over charity: So we are exceptional at justice because we give a lot of money as westerners to good causes? Before reading this book I had no idea how charitable generosity can actually perpetuate injustice, even with sincere intentions. Mark deconstructs charity and offers fair criticism because rarely does charity redefine the social fabric of our societies justly – the business Jesus was about. In fact charity often maintains the divisions between rich, poor, black, white, etc… And gives us a safe place from privilege to give with little real cost. The gospels are riddled with exchanges where Jesus was critical of the status quo for excluding others. Compassion on the other hand requires a relationship of empathy on even ground. It is a radical identification with the other, a suffering with, that is mediated via a posture of repentance and rooted in hospitality. Hospitality is the primary vehicle for compassion and it is evident in the many stories Mark tells. His authority in my mind stems from the extent to which his community has oriented their lives around these principals.

Anarchy over Oppression: Mark is an Christian Anarchist and that should not scare you, although it will scare many who have a shallow understanding of it. Anarchism is simply the desire to participate in voluntary, non-coercive, combinations (or relationships) in society. It is the idea that a group of people can autonomously organize according to the community's best interest. As a Christian, Mark sees Jesus as the organizing centre of life together. The community gathers and decides via concensus what it is that the Spirit of Jesus is revealing. The Spirit also helps the community name oppression as Jesus did in his time. To Mark:

“Good anarchists are namers of all forms of oppression, seeking to understand the way oppressions reinforce each other in enslaving creation and seeing, in contrast, a way of liberation and life for all of creation.”

This is an interesting posture against the oppressiveness of our society as it places no one person or position over any other. In addition, Christian Anarchism names oppression and our complicity in it, while creating an environment where equality and mutual love can occur. This idea resonates more with how Jesus and the early church organized before the eventual marriage of church to the Roman Empire. Sadly, many ecclesial structures today reflect moreso the pattern of empire than the anarchistic organizing principle evident in the gospels.

To conclude, Mark is a tremendous cultural exegete that strives for “eyes to see” and is relentless in discovering ways to embody what the Spirit reveals. Reading this book is uncomfortable and inviting at the same time, like a good work of art. This book has challenged my own assumptions and understanding and begun to help me shake free from the lull the empire has on me at times. I'm encouraged and challenged. To many who are marginalized and have felt the boot of empire on their chest, this book is very hopeful. To the powers (including ecclesial ones) that are modelled in the way of empire and privilege this book will be hard to endure.

Competition and the Kingdom of God

I'm beginning to think that there is little room for competition in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom is a realm of non violence where all people can flourish, then it should be free from competition. For in competition there is a winner and a loser. There is exertion over the other and this is a type of violence that diminishes rather than builds up. Competition and Kingdom do not agree.

I listened to an interview with Jean Vanier this morning on Krista Tippet's “On Being” Podcast. In his vision for L'Arche he sees community that is free from competition and filled with welcoming and tenderness and touch that is neither sexualitied or aggressive. Many consider him a living saint as his work in the world has broken down barriers between society and the severely disabled and opened a new (old?) vision for humanity.

Competition is humanity's way to grab hold of the life that we are terrified of losing. We fear ultimate death and therefore need to exercise some power, often competitive in nature, that helps us seize that which we never quite control. We are born frail and fight in competition for a life of control.

What is liberating about hearing Vanier – and I couldn't help desire to be like him as I listened – is how he embraces such a non possessive posture toward everything. Even with the model for his community, he has had people seek the template to replicate L'Arche across the world, and this too he resists. Although there are many L'Arche communities across the world, he insists in their smallness and that they are not the solution, but a sign to a world embroiled in competition and fear of an alternative vision for the human experience. This I can resonate with.

What would the Christian walk look like if it was free from all competition for a while? Would we relinquish even the need to live the extraordinary Cristian life, even with the best intentions? Perhaps Richard Rhor's questions for daily self examination can help us along the way?

  • How much did I compare myself to others today?
  • How much did I try to compete with others today?
  • How much did I try to control others today?

 

The Prophet

Easter is the high season of sorts for Christians. It is the hope of a new future marked by healing and flourishing for all people. It’s a time of sacrifice and an offering of new life to those who believe. It comes after the lowest and darkest day for Christians. Good Friday is upon us this week and as a tradition Christians enter the passion week of Jesus’ suffering to catch a small glimpse of the sorrow, pain, and despair Jesus felt in following through with his ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the world.

I’ve had this crazy idea to write music recently. I am not entirely sure why, but I just write and try to arrange and express what is trying to get out if me. It is as if something from outside of me is making sense of that which is stirring in me and teasing it out of me in the form of song. The followings a song about Jesus, a prophet, but at the same time so much more.

Have a listen….

 

The Kingdom and Interruption

I think it's fair to say that in our culture of hurry, technology, and multi-sensory stimulation on a constant basis, we glide through life locked in our own world of concern and agenda. We wear our headphones, while texting on our cell phones. We spend copious amounts of time tending to our carefully crafted identities on social sites. We rush to make our multitude of commitments that are only possible as a result of our mobility. We are hemmed into our agendas with few margins for spontaneity or a shift in plans. As a result we have been carefully and well trained to ignore anything outside of the scope of our own agendas. We miss the broken ones hungry on the street because we're too busy. We fail to see injustice unfold before us in subtle ways. We are uncomfortable when someone doesn't respond with “I'm fine.” to our “How are you?” We are self centred.

In many ways, we followers of Jesus have managed to structure our faith into the pattern above. We've attempted to follow a very radical, spontaneous and responsive-to-the-Spirit Jesus in a way that is clean, neat and free of surprises. Outside of the occasional “internal” insight about self betterment or “feelings” of warmth about our idea of security in the world to come, we are largely neutered in our ability to follow Jesus appropriately. This frustrates me because it makes no sense considering we follow a God that is free and uncontrollable. The pattern of control in which we fashion our faith does not mesh with the pattern of God.

A very unique aspect about Jesus' ministry is his willingness to be interrupted by the Holy Spirit. There are constant examples of encounters that were spontaneous and interruptive to his Journey. The gospel of Mark is riddled with interruptive-type ministry beginning in the first chapter. Jesus had an eye on how the hearts of those around him were being stirred in curiosity or need. He responded in distinct action that blended into his agenda of demonstrating who God is and what God was doing on the road to his ultimate example on the cross. This is largely because Jesus' entire purpose and being is summed up in participating in the mission of God to reconcile the world. I'm suggesting that our crafted and controlled life above lies in stark contradiction to the pattern of Jesus' life, yet we try to make it work… uninterrupted by anything new or surprising from God. In a unique way, the interruptions are the ministry, yet we go out of our way to avoid them.

At the centre of this issue lies two problems. The first is an issue of purpose and obedience (or discipleship). The second is an issue of vision as it relates to our inability to see and understand how we are being pulled into ways of disengagement with God's Kingdom action. We are scripted into ways of self-centredness and self-focus and this leads to the development of both issues above. Our discipleship is private and tends to focus on the self, while our blindness to how we are scripted leads to our miasma. It is a catch twenty-two and part of the solution is a radical shake up of how fragile our self constructed world really is. We need to be jolted out of the pathology of private faith and startled away from the script of our empire that lulls us into our own uninterruptible worlds.

In times long ago, it was God that acted decisively to jolt and startle his people by allowing their enemies to carry them off into Babylonian exile. This made them reorient their lives around God and come to terms with their need for Him. Hopefully we can wake ourselves up on our own rather than suffer the alternative of being led into a new type of Babylon as slaves. Or maybe we're already there?

Sketches from tomorrow….

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea.

I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband.

I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”

The finale of the entire biblical story, poetically summed up in Revelation 21, is the vision and destiny of all creation. This great “Patmos dream” of the Apostle John is a haunting picture. When people are caught by the scent of a new heaven and earth and fix the pieces of that colourful destiny around the central figure of Jesus, lives are changed. This is nothing less than haunting, for the possibility alone of an un corrupt existence in eternity is beyond the scope of our own efforts. It is God's effort and our imaginations, rooted in Him, help us see to it. Our hearts salivate for this future because it represents the fulfillment of every human desire… if we are honest. The only way it can be described is through sketches inspired from tomorrow about how today may be transformed. Like the author, John, we need poetry for this as we proclaim it.

I often wonder what the world to come will be like and my mind wanders to a different land altogether as if my context doesn't exist there. I think this is an error. I find it more beautiful and helpful to envision the incorruptible tomorrow though the lens of the street I live on today. Properly, the tomorrow we long for does not break in to today unless the economy of tomorrow's constitution is demonstrated in the here and now. Tomorrow's economy is love and its constitution is true justice…with the loving God present in tangible terms. Even though there will be a final, miraculous, event that completely ushers in the future at Jesus' return, the ones haunted by this future – the ones that have thrown their lot in with the Jesus way – are compelled to act as if its happening now. And it is. On your street and mine. God has already begun saving it. We need to see it; we need to sketch it out.

We see only a glimmer, or a sketch of the final destination, but these sketches that we have been given the gift of dreaming will lead us home. In the mean time we should enact tomorrow's economy of love and constitution of justice as we look and listen for how our street will reflect the Patmos dream of a world put right.

 

Art as a gift

This is a ramble about art. Art is a gift, an offering made by the artist into a great expanse of experience and encounter. Art creates culture and perpetuates beauty. Art changes minds and can change hearts by offering a point of view. Art can provoke and disturb the status quo. But, how is art born? Steve Frost gives us beautiful language describing the gift of art and its birth in the artist by saying:

“Like plants in a city, the artist’s gift is processing the CO2 of unfiltered human experience and offering back the oxygen of context and meaning.”

Like plants in a city.I love that image for the artist. We artists listen, take in and absorb this experience of humanity. This is a transformative venture because the artist is always changed as a result of creating art. This is good because it means we are growing and learning as artists. This is also good because it is subversive in an empire of un-learning. Sure, we have more information than ever before being transferred from one mind to the next, but information is not learning. Like the Irish poet William Yeats once said; “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” In this sense, artists are pyromaniacs that have the potential to light the world on fire with their work. This means art is on the crest of culture-creating, often leading the dialogue into new territory for ideology, value, and meaning.

Offering back the oxygen of context and meaning… Art is an offering, an expensive and valuable offering of generosity to the world. We artists suffer through our work being led my the muse into saying things. Often artists are not entirely sure of where a project is going or what it will look like. Artists are haunted by an idea stemming from the quesion of “What If…?” The artist is open and led into disorientation in order to be reborn through the process of offering back context and meaning. If you ask any artist, they will tell you that this creative process is what it means to be alive. Many artists can't help but do what makes them feel alive, regardless of pay check or praise.

One more thing about art… When the artist creates, she never really knows the imapct of the gift once its offered to the world. Giving of art to the world is an incredible act of relinquishment on behalf of the artist. This alone, regardless of the art, is a subversive act, for it demonstrates surrender of control in a world grasping for it. The artist lives in a state of unknowing during the creative journey and the giving of art to the world. The artist needs to be content living in this tension. For art to be art, it must make its own way into ears, eyes, hearts, and minds. The artist cannot control this experiential encounter between the art and the beholder, for this would be propaganda. Whether it is one person or one billion that view, buy, or talk about any art they experience, every piece offered to the world is valuable for the reasons expressed above.

Just some thoughts about art on a Saturday night.

 

Dust and Dreams


“You could not perceive,
how to be
Just rest in this and I will
give you eyes to see
In dust is hope,
just so you know
And I will pull you through
if you let go…
Dust and dreams….”

 

 

There is a frail and fine line that separates our dreams from dust. Although we would like to think they are worlds apart, in reality it is quite the opposite. In fact, we tend to believe things are just fine and we fight to hold on to our dreams, even when our realities are crumbling. Coming to terms with the reality of dust is too overwhelming for us, so we create illusions and get in bed with denial to maintain our dreams.

What is dust? Is it shattered dreams, a failing marriage? Death? I think it's all of those and ultimately we spend our lives building castles in the sand that we think will stand the test of time free from dust, but they don't. Although we long to live forever, our lives, it seems, are fashioned toward eventual dust. Many realize a foretaste of dust in the shattering of dreams along the way. Suffering, in this sense, is part of the human experience. Lament and loss are realities that we need to learn to live with. This is hard to bear and in the thick of it, dust is a substance that wont let us see past it. Dust is disorienting.

In a cloud of dust, if you try and clear it by flailing, you will fail and go mad. With every attempt to escape dust, we stir up more and cause increased suffering for ourselves. Our impulse is to fight it, to plan an escape, to find an answer for why we are in it, or how we will get out. It's futile. The dust has a way of razing our wills along with our lives. Dust demands we wait… until it settles, until the smoke clears, until we are transformed by it. Waiting in the dust gives hope a chance to work its way in.

Most people fear the dust because it represents the greatest loss of the hope we had. Dust is death. Fortunately there is a rumour circulating out there about a God that conquered dust and death. Rumour has it that the way out is through waiting in the dust and calling on the one that saves – calling in agony and despair – for this lament is honest and real. In the right time, new hope enters our dust in the form of a loving God to reveal new possibilities. Whether its the dust of broken dreams or death itself, God is the one who takes the dust and fashions new hope that leads to joy and a restored future. This is the power of the resurrection of Jesus. Be hopeful, even if its dusty where you are.

Have a listen to a song called “Dust” by Hope and Social that has gripped me this last week. http://music.hopeandsocial.com/track/dust-3

 

Kingdom Discernment, Discipleship, & Art – Part 2

Brokenness

The photo above is my attempt at expressing how I’ve seen God at work this past week. I think many people feel like they are a crooked broken line in a world of straight lines. While the world shuns brokenness and praises put-togetherness, God is found in the cracks and frailty where we would least expect him to be. This has been the theme for me is last week based on my experiences.

Picking up from part one of this adventure, last night we continued on our journey of creativity as a mission group. This week’s exercise was about answering the question of “Where have you seen God at work this week?” In my opinion, I have seen people (myself included) struggle to easily answer this question. It can cause anxiety and often makes us painfully aware of our inability to pay attention to the divine in the daily. We try hard to align our beliefs and actions with a theology that God is always present, but somehow the out working of this is more complex to realize than we would like. The point of growing as artists in the kingdom is to ultimately be able to express our journeys in provocative and inspiring ways.

Rather than just trying to answer this question, the creative exercise was to answer it with a photograph (the photo above is my attempt). We were prepared with some instructions in advance to guide the process. I also recognized that photography might be intimidating for some so I broadened the scope to include two other options related to the poetry exercise we did last week, or a “show and tell” about some sort of art or craft made in the past. Here is the exercise and instructions.

Rule #1: This should be fun and relaxed without pressure of any kind. This is not a photo critique.

  • Have your camera or cell phone nearby
  • Be in a time of prayer and recognize God’s presence in you and in the moment
  • Realize that it is a sacred moment that you are experiencing
  • Consider your feelings, where you are, colours, textures, shapes, and what God might be saying to you. Consider what’s unfolding around you (people, things, events, etc…).
  • Your photo can be an expression of God’s beauty or something that makes him sad. Identify with the feelings of God’s heart. Does your heart rejoice or break with His?
  • Make your photo from a place of response to God’s love for you and His love for the world. important: does it connect with what we have journeyed through as a church this week? (identity, seeing with new glasses, etc…)

Option 2:

  1. Revisit your four line poem from last week and share with us the experience of reflecting on your life without God and the contrast to the scripture we read (Isaiah 65:17-25) here is the link to the verses. What is happening in you through this?
  2. Bring something to the group that you created yourself (a craft, knitting, painting, etc…) and share what it means to you and what it was like making it.

As everyone shared about their various experiences, it was interesting to see how vividly God spoke to them through this. We also agreed as a group that having an artistic impulse connected to the discovery of God in our lives made it easier to answer the question of where we see him at work. There was less anxiety and more meaningful engagement because of the artistic element. It’s becomming clear that there is great value to expanding our experience of God from just the cerebral to include the artistic.

Part of our night together also included discussing ways we could discover and participate in Kingdom life in our neighbourhood. Fundamentally, I believe answering this question comes from a process of listening to who God is and Where he is working in our community, while strongly resisting the urge to speak of how up front. Because of our existing friendships and involvement with the local school, themes of what matters to God were already self evident. We identified with a sense of disconnectedness that already exists, the epidemic of Latchkey children in our city, and poverty. This is already clear to most of us. But we want to learn more about the people, ourselves as part of this greater broken community, growing friendships, and most importantly discover the constant newness of the Kingdom in our midst. We want to move toward the hope and future of God in our community.

We decided as a group that we would like to facilitate an environment where we could connect with the community and enter an active discernment process to discover God further. We are planning to use a large back room in our building to host a games night with a number of the kids from the local school and their parents. The idea is to create connection while we actively look for God to reveal his kingdom among us. As God reveals himself through this, we would love the opportunity to include the community in the journey of instigating the great prayer of “…on earth as it is in heaven.”

I was pleased that our desire to be more artistic and creative contributed (and will continue to contribute) to our processing of God among us and our sending by him.

 

Letters to My Children – this is my prayer for you

 

Children, I want you to know that there has been a prayer for you running deep within my heart for the longest time. Since you were born I've been fixed on praying three simple things for your lives. Although there is much to intercede on your behalf, these three prayers will serve as a cover to protect and guide you in all things. So, as you read these prayers, my hope is that you will remember the times I prayed them for you and that they will become a deep mantra within your hearts that guide you toward the life you desire to live in the service of God. Nothing would make my heart jump higher than to know this has become reality for you.

“I pray that you would see this world with the eyes of Jesus…”

In this world you will have trouble. Most of it will stem from the conflict in your own hearts about who and whose you are. I want this to be clear; who you are is a result of how you see the world. As you grow up to live as citizens of this world it becomes increasingly important to remember that you are citizens of heaven also. If you choose to see this world with the eyes of Jesus, this distinction will become vivid and clear and help you greatly in your journey toward God. You will have perspective from heaven and be able to discern what is best not only for yourselves, but for the Kingdom of God and how it is breaking in around you. Seeing with Jesus's eyes will help you to value what God values and be willing participants in his work. This is critical for living a valuable and meaningful life.

“I pray that you would feel in this world with the heart of Jesus…”

The God who makes your heart beat longs to have it beat in rhythm with His. When your heart is in tune with God, you not only see what God sees, but feel what he feels as well. You will share with God a deep love for all creation; the world we live in and all the people in it no matter where they are from or how hard they are to love. Your heart will beat with compassion and that compassion as it moves you to act will serve as a challenge to a world that would rather cast out the unloved. Know that when you do this with your life you are singing the same song that God is singing about healing the world. You will find great joy and meaning in your life's calling if you long to feel with the heart of God. I warn you, though, that with joy there is also suffering… but take heart, for God has overcome the world.

“I pray that you would serve with the hands of Jesus…”

Our hands do many things. As you will learn as you grow, they can often be used for ill purposes. Many will use their hands for war and violence, or for hoarding things. They will use their hands to protect themselves and to tie heavy burdens upon others for their own profit. But you… I beg you to use your hands in the service of God. I want you to to claw your way to the front line of suffering and use your hands to feed the hungry, give to the poor, clothe the cold, hug the lonely, and heal the sick. Your hands are precious instruments, for they will be the tangible way for you to respond to seeing this world with Jesus's eyes and feeling with his heart. People will come to know the power of God through the way your hands serve them. Your life will be a blessing to those around you and God will be praised as a result. Use them as an instrument of God's peace that runs through your heart.

 

God’s Mission: Who, Where, How?

If missional church is all about relying on God's agency to lead the church in discovery of Who he is and Where he is working, then what about the How? Well it turns out that putting the How before the Who and Where when it comes to mission is placing the cart before the horse. As I've learned, emphasis on How is reflective of an imagination held captive by market economic language based on strategy, control, and predictability. Emphasis on the Who of mission and the Where demands a different posture; a listening posture open to the leading by, what Walter Brueggemann describes as the God that is:

“…irascible in freedom and pathos-filled in sovereignty, one who traffics in hiddenness and violence. This God does not fit much of our theological preference and certainly does not conform to any of our bourgeois reductionism. This God is the one who keeps life ragged and open, who refuses domestication but who will not let our lives be domesticated either.

In my last few posts on this topic, I've been led by a trusted friend to see my own captivity to notions of How in mission. The reality is that we are so intrenched in this economic market script that we are often unaware of how deep our allegiances lie. Much work needs to be done to understand our own reductions about God and how they hinder our ability to follow this irascible and free God out of the comfort of our private salvations…a place where Christianity has been safely sequestered and domesticated for far too long. If all I'm doing is reaching out to people in order to get them to believe in a private, cerebral, God without subverting and impacting the very public empire of domination and its systems of injustice, I really accomplish nothing.

But I don't want to crucify the question of How; doing so would be too harsh a reaction. I just want to eradicate it from the front of my mind when I think about mission and following this God, who is apparently bigger than my own imagination can bear. The How can only emerge when a genuine encounter with the Who and Where happen. How can be a beautiful thing if it emerges from the transformation of encountering God locally in a profound way. The community of listeners that experience this encounter become artisans of the way as it is revealed for them through the encounter.

How is a beautiful thing in its rightful place…

Kingdom Discernment, Discipleship and Art – Part 1

I have no idea how many parts this series of posts will eventually include. This is the beginning of a journey that has started here, here, and here. The first link got me thinking about discipleship as conspiracy. The second is my attempt to elaborate on the subject against the notion of empire, and the third link was my proposal that every follower of Jesus is a conspiring artist and that art is a way for the church to express who God is and where he is at work in our neighbourhoods.

Today is the summary of the first experience of moving toward liberating the artist in the course of discipleship for the purpose of kingdom discernment and mission.

But I need to clarify my motivation here a bit more before I dive in….

A fundamental part of my proposal is the recognition that the artistic is not taken seriously in missiological discourse in the church because of its open ended nature. Much of the ecclesial imagination in the West is held captive by the empire's language of market capitalization (read strategy) and as a result becomes anxious about the mystery of art. Whereas market language deals with notions of “how”, the artistic can express notions of “who” and “where” in mission. The artist can evoke an alternative vision expressing who God is and where he is located, while at the same time forming criticism of injustice embedded within the status quo. Where there is predictability and strategy there is no room for art. In this equation dominated by “how”, art is airy-fairy and at a loss to contribute toward God's Kingdom advancing. These questions of “how” grip the imaginations of God's people toward utilitarian ends in a negative way.

But I don't need to hash that out further at this point. I want to share an experiment with art that our mission group engaged yesterday.

I was asked to lead our worship time last night. Although I love playing the guitar, last night I wanted to draw the artist out of people. We did that by building up toward an exercise of each of us writing a four line poem.

I started by asking for a show of hands for the following questions.

    • How many of you feel you are creative?
    • How many of you consider yourselves an artist?
    • How many of you consider yourselves a leader?

About half saw themselves as having some creative impulse, less than a quarter as artistic and about the same as a leader. Then I asked the following questions.

 

    • How many of you think God is creative?
    • How many of you believe God is an artist?
    • How many of you believe you were made in God's image?
Everyone put their hand up for each of these questions… not surprising. The point of this exercise was to draw a parallel between God and his imaged creation sharing the same potential for creativity and the artistic. Art is ultimatley the ability to say something in a creative way through a transformative experience that leads to expression though whatever medium. I want everyone to consider themselves uniquely artists that can first listen, then discern and interpret their experiences of God and life in a creative fashion. Creativity is even simply conjuring up the words of this transformative process in a way that is evocative and beautiful.

We then entered a time of prayer and listened to a Steve Bell song. I thought it important to give the group something to anchor this experience in. So, I guided the group to consider their life without God while we reflected in the song. I wanted people to consider the emotions, color, and details of this. Then we transitioned to reading Isaiah 65:17-25 as a way to encounter poetry that summarizes the nature of the hope we have in Christ in vivid ways. This served to contrast the experience. Again, I asked that people consider the emotions, color and details of this.

We then began our process of writing a four line poem. There was no pressure to share it with anyone else. This would hijack the experience by introducing anxiety about what others think. I challenged people to work through the feeling of difficulty by going over their words and making it as good as they possibly could. I offered for people to share only if they wanted to. One person did share and the words were beautiful…encouraging. The rest were encouraged to keep their poems in their hearts as an expression of prayer in the spirit of the psalmist.

The night was a good opportunity to grow as artists in the Kingdom. More to come as the journey continues.