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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
“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
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…)
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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…
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.
I think there is much that needs to be explored about the place of art in kingdom discernment and mission. If we maintain the theological conviction that the church exists for the world, then it makes sense that the church is led by the Spirit into Civic discourse as partners on the journey. This is the realm where I believe the artist can contribute meaningfully. I'm in discovery mode with these ideas and have rested initially on the following questions to guide me further.
- Can artists in the church participate in civic conversations in a way that identifies the work of God (the who) in a specific locality (the where)?
- Is there potential for the theologically formed creative artist to move us away from an agenda of church growth and strategy as is too often is the case with the church on mission (getting away from 'how')?
- Is theologically inspired art a way to dialogue and partner with communities to realize new civic possibilities and transformation (…on earth as it is in heaven)?
My questions clearly revolve around the nature of the civic partnership and conversation. Is it always an academic conversation? Is it a practical needs-oriented conversation? Is it a challenge in the spirit of the prophetic? I think it can be all of the above and I think art is a valid medium for dialogue.
If we think about art for a moment, it can generally be defined as the ability to say something creatively. Creative expression is important within culture because art, at is core, evokes reaction and proposes a vision for something. Art is emotional and subversive through its display. Art serves to build culture, nurture vision, and transform perspective.
The artist is important in this equation because the artist is first a listener and then an interpreter. When the task of listening is complete, the interpretation of the experience begins for the artist. Then the artist can express their voice through artistic means. The result can lead to the advance of culture, a challenge to the status quo, an alternative vision for society, and many more possibilities. After all, isn't listening the enabler/first step of discernment? And isn't discernment the prerequisite to discovering the work of God in our neighbourhoods, both where He is already working and where the church can partner? I think so, and as such, artists deserve a bigger voice at the table. I would argue that artists are discerners and
can should lead this civic conversation at times.
The place of Art in the church has not been neglected per se throughout her history, but in evangelicalism, I think it is not underscored in a way that it should be. Often the impulse toward the practical and instrumental tends to squeeze the mystery of the artistic to the margins of the church's life together. In other words, it's not taken as seriously as it should be because the artistic process is too open ended and unpredictable, making the traditional approach of strategy evangelism (that is based on certainties) anxious.
Another note to mention on the topic is leadership. All artists are leaders in their own right. They lead because they say something unique as a result of a transformative process they undergo. Unfortunately not all people see themselves as artists, or at least creative. This is tragic because if all God's people understood themselves as artists, things could be different. What if every follower of Jesus felt like they had a voice inspired by God in them and actually spoke with that voice through image, song, paint, poem, story, creative conversation, etc? This would be a form of leadership through creative expression that could awaken many possibilities for Kingdom discernment and life.
Every person has the ability (via divine imaging by their creator) to express themselves artistically. They can say something with conviction as a result of being stirred by the Spirit of God. Unfortunately most rely on a consumeristic posture in their faith that surrenders their potential to ordained leaders as the inspired ones feeding consumers spiritual information. The consumer/believer in this situation is devoid of imagination, discernment, artistic impulse, and (I would say) life potential. In many ways we have reduced the experience of God to a cerebral process devoid of creative expression. This, I think, is tragic as it resists the theology of the Missio Dei; the church's identity as co-creators with God in his project for creation through the Spirit's sending. This understanding demands that – at least in a loose sense, but yet a very real sense – all followers are creative artists.
It's becoming clear to me that theological formation and discipleship should be less averse to embracing the creative potential of people; or, fostering the artist in every disciple. Even in the life of Jesus we see a vivid imagination in his stories about the Kingdom. In this way Jesus was an artist. We can also interpret the creative demonstration of his signs and miracles as artistic expression of God's rule. In vivid, subversive and powerful ways (all the things art can be), Jesus painted a reality picture for us that not only pointed to him as creator come in the flesh (the 'who'), but also to God's Kingdom arriving in power locally to make things new (the where). His promise that the church will be capable of even greater things (John 14:12) makes me wonder at the possibilities while at the same time challenging my faith.
Our church has mission groups that are intentional about doing the above. We are trying to discern a “mission focus” for our group. My imagination is running wild with the possibilities of engaging though art. I'd love to facilitate a conversation in our group that could help us say something together about God's kingdom showing up in our neighbourhood. Artistically.
More to come on the journey as it unfolds…..
This time of year means different things for many people. Rightly so, traditions and superstitions abound and have converged over the years to bring us a whirlwind of ideas about what Christmas is. People make it what they want it to be and that is their right. The traditions are vast and they vary carrying with them a rich mosaic of colour, music, food, story, and practices.
Christmas comes rushing for many and carries a heavy sense of dread. It can be a difficult time of expectations pushing up against economic limitations and guilt. For many, commercialism runs rough shod over the season and people are left with the feeling of being pawns in some corporate game whose goal is to create unfulfillable desire. It leaves many with an empty feeling and too much stuff.
Christmas is a painful time for far too many people. It opens wounds of loves lost, expectations unmet, and ushers in anxiety in ample measure. Family systems are broken and people are brought together by obligation in the full force of their dysfunction. Many a Christmas dinners become yelling matches and battlegrounds where words serve as bullets to rip open old wounds and create new ones. For those who suffer in this vein, waiting for it to pass is the hope that floats them.
… But Christmas is good news for all people. Why you might ask?
Christmas is about welcoming a baby into our broken world that became King. In the midst of everyone's calamity and the anxiety of ultimate death that befalls every human being, a baby was born to do special things. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
This is no myth. This is a physical and undeniable moment in space and time when something remarkable happened. In speaking of this baby as a rose, an old hymn tells it to us like this…
Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
From the story of the ancient people Israel, came the promise of God to come and deal with the brokenness that enshrouds the entire world. This brokenness is a result of humankind's rebellion toward God. God's way of dealing with the predicament was to send himself, in full vulnerability of a babe, to inaugurate God's kingdom and save the world from sin. He does this in love and not force or violence. For love is the hallmark of this King's kingdom.
The great news about Christmas is that the God who made us forgives us and loves us. God wants to restore and refurbish all things. He is making the whole earth new (including us) and invites us to follow him in that great task as co- creators and conspirators. God promises that anyone who partakes of this journey will never regret it but experience life to the full. That is not to say we will be free from suffering, but that the God who loves is familiar with suffering, having suffered himself, and is now present for us through it. God transforms even the greatest of tragedies into part of our ultimate healing. Take comfort in this.
So whichever story you find yourself in, whether it is marked by pain or a joyful time with family, my hope is at you will get a glimpse of the light that is shining in the darkness and come to understand how good the news of Jesus is.
From my family to yours….May you experience the fullest measure of God's love, joy, and peace this Christmas.
A friend and thoughtful blogger, Bill Kinnon, got my mind stirring yesterday with his latest: Discipleship is Conspiracy post. Bill suggests that that there is an intimacy lost in the conventional pedagogy of western discipleship. I agree. The classroom approach does not compare to the down-to-earth discipleship reflected in the gospels. To say discipleship is conspiracy suggests so much more than the transference of religious information.
Understanding discipleship against such strong language of conspiracy could be helped by introducing language of “empire”. Empire is ultimately the principalities and powers at work in the world to exert its will in the form of politics (Eph 6:12). The empire is in rebellion toward God because of sin. The empire exploits, comodifies, and dehumanizes people with its lust for power, domination, and control. The empire conspires to perpetuate its agenda by worshipping the false gods of money, redemptive violence and power.
Against the backdrop of empire, I really like the language of conspiracy that Bill introduces for a number of reasons.
- Discipleship is ultimately participation in God's project for creation. This project was inaugurated in Jesus and carried out in a subversive and transformative manner within the empire and for the sake of the world. Therefore, an undermining took place and we can say that God's undermining of the “powers that be” and defeat of evil constitutes a conspiracy.
- Bill traces the etymology of conspiracy to the act of breathing together. There is an intimate connectivity (a breathing together) that we witness in the life of Jesus with his disciples. There is a story playing out within the larger story of the empire to non violently resist the practice of domination and oppression that ultimately support the empire. Therefore; this type of breathing together constitutes a conspiracy to subvert the empire.
- Discipleship is conspiracy because of the invasiveness of the word into the world through the incarnation. In other words, God took the world by surprise. Only by this incarnate invasiveness can the breathing together with humanity occur. Disciples are co-conspirators with God. It is ultimately a demonstration, rather than religious education or ideology alone.
- Conspiracy has an element of surprise. As co-conspirators, disciples work their way through the empire as the Holy Spirit leads (Matt 13: 31-32). Discipleship is surprising because of its way of non-violent resistance. This type of resistance disarms exploitation by exposing sin and responding in love (Matt 5:41, Luke 6:29). It leaves the aggressor disarmed while demonstrating a new way of being in response to aggression.
I want to take discipleship further as well and suggest that it is also an act of civil disobedience. In Baptism, for example, the disciple declares a “YES” to the Kingdom and a resounding “No” to the will and values of the empire that are in opposition to God. Through baptism, we become dissobedient toward the empire for we declare a new order that is led by a new King as supreme. If the empire dehumanizes, the Kingdom through discipleship is about dignifying and making fully human those that are broken; restoring God's order of all things. This is a public act. Through baptism one renounces allegiance to the empire and is born into a new life of breathing together with God and his people for this purpose. Is is the ultimate conspiracy and is dangerous when taken seriously.
The challenge with Western discipleship (in addition to what Bill mentions) is a form of blindness to the conspiracy and how it ought to play out against the empire. To take it further, allegiances are mixed and following Jesus has been co opted into a form of private religion that is palpable by the empire. It poses no significant threat. The empire goes as far as bestowing benefits upon the disciples of this coopted religion. The church and the empire are breathing together in conspiracy.
As much as true discipleship is a conspiracy, there is a conspiracy that works in the opposite direction that has far too many adherents to pose any significant threat to the empire. Caesar loves this arrangement.