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.

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?

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.

 

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.

What is Discipleship?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

 

Life giving conversations….

The last week has offered me the opportunity to have some very life giving conversations with special people. Each one has been a learning experience and a discovery of what God is doing in me lately. I contrast these conversations against the feeling of this image that I made last weekend while on a photo shoot. As this image speaks to the coldness and isolation of winter, the conversations I’ve had have nudged me toward the warm hope of spring and renewal in my life….and I think that’s a good thing.

Conversation #1:

A good friend met me for lunch and within three sentences we dove into a candid discussion about theology and integrating faith with life. I’ve looked forward to chatting with my PHD friend for some time as I respect his wisdom and knowledge. I threw out a theological statement I’ve been chewing on for a while:

“To claim the salvific benefits of the gospel without living into the social and political implications of God becoming King in Jesus is to, in fact, never have known him.” 

This launched us into a dialogue about left and right agendas and the shortfalls with each of them as that is how such a statement tends to polarize the discussion. Does it have to be a social gospel, or conservative one largely uninvolved in the social ills of our day outside the political efforts of legislation? This encouraged us to consider appropriate demonstration of the Kingdom consistent with the story of God in history and not just political engagement bound by a certain process or context stripped of the story of Israel.

My angst in all of this comes from the incessantly private nature of Christian faith and the incredible silence on social issues of systemic injustice. This came to a head for me recently in light of the silence and lack of engagement by much of the church with the Occupy Wall Street movement. I wasn’t sold on any notion of complete agreement with the OWS movement, but at least some commentary and consideration about the validity of the movement’s general protest against the disproportion of wealth and oligarchy that runs the West. My friend (Scott is his name) had some wise encouragement about a missional/incarnational posture that would in once sense protect from the polarizing liberal/conservative lines and offer a third way to live into the gospel that opens the door to transformation from within the believing community as well as without. What is it? It’s quite simple. Solidarity in the margins that goes beyond telling good news and embraces kingdom enactment and prophetic critique as a mode of being in the civil sphere. A posture of receptivity to the Spirit and a relinquishment of control seem like the appropriate prerequisite here within the context of discipleship.

This post is getting too long….conversation #2 will be another entry.

Hope & Despair: theology with kids…

As a parent, I’m am always looking to simplify the theology us adults tend to complicate to satisfy our addiction to knowledge. It’s a good practice and not as easy as it sounds. Albert Einsten once said that “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The challenge in doing this with the gospel is not reducing it to something it is not. I sure hope I’m not :-)

My 5 yr old son is a firecracker of a kid with an endless supply of energy that I long to possess. He is also very smart and asks questions that make me carefully think before I open my mouth to answer. One way I have worked with him to understand the saving work of Jesus is through the categories of hope and despair. The equation works like this:

Despair is the result of our human condition…we have an urge to be selfish and do harm at times. “This doesn’t mean we are bad” I tell him, “we are part of God’s good creation and he loves us very much. We just hurt people sometimes by putting ourselves first and as a result, we cause despair.” This he understands….that he has the potential, like we all do, to cause despair. “When people have despair”, I tell him, “they have no hope.”

Hope is what God gives us. “Jesus came to give us hope and tell us that God is king and by His love, he has destroyed despair. God is healing everyone and gives us His hope by living in us. Because God lives in us, we can destroy despair when we love people. We work together with God to bring hope”

These categories are helpful and offer our family the opportunity to ask questions of how we have destroyed despair and brought hope in our day. it makes for some interesting conversations….

Standing in the middle of God’s Kingdom coming

Last Friday I had the joy of being with my wife at our church’s annual Christmas production. This was not your typical Christmas production of years past. There was no play…no manger…no shepherds. Instead, it was through songs, readings, and stories that we were able to come in contact with how God was working in our midst. Representatives from various organizations in the lower mainland and abroad were present to talk about  their specific work with the poor, homeless, and refugees. There was a silent auction and through my photography business, I donated a couple of family portrait sessions as a way to throw my hat in the ring for a good cause. The event raised about 10,000$ for the sponsored organizations through ticket sales and the auction.

In many ways it takes time, to slow down, to listen, and and absorb the harsh reality of people around us to really find out where God is at work. Unfortunately for many, we tend to think God’s hand is in the best deal we get on something at the store, or in the comfort of our personal realities…you know, in the things we perceive as blessings. Rarely do we consider that God’s real and significant work is among the poor.

For me… on this evening I was standing in the middle of God’s Kingdom coming. It was also the same day that I finished reading NT Wright’s book, Simply Jesus and the weight of engaging with the concept Wright proposes – of Jesus announcing that God is becoming King – was heavy upon me. People think Jesus means many things, but an examination as thorough as Wright’s leaves little room to think that Jesus was anything but announcing that God is becoming King in himself. What struck me are the implications this has on not only our personal lives, but in our public lives as well.

Some of these implications manifested themselves nicely and prophetically in the production. In God’s economy there is a spirit of generosity and love that is completed in the action of Jesus and that power now imbues it’s people to follow suit. That same power of God’s presence gives courage to stand up to the injustice of how our society marginalizes people and exploits them. It gives courage to do the things Jesus did….to not only care for the vulnerable among us, but to call into account the powers that corrupt. I am now eager to see this evolve into more systemic engagement that goes beyond charity to challenging the status quo.

Relating to God…

God on Flickr - Photo Sharing!.jpg The other day we had a discussion in our mission group about Exodus 33. If you recall, this is “post-golden-calf” idolatry and God wants to send Moses and the Israelites into the promised land without His presence (v 1-3) for fear he might kill them. What we see is that the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites is seriously strained and the affects are visible in both God’s disappointment and anger, and Israel’s distress at the fear of losing His provision. Moses has none of it and what ensues in the dialogue between them is nothing short of a passionate, very personal exchange. This passage illuminates the very personhood of God and is rife with emotion. What is more, we see in God an initiative to love, and in Israel and opportunity to reciprocate with faithfulness. Verse 11 mentions that “the Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speak with his friend.”

That the very personal nature of God would stick out in this tumultuous passage is rather curious. Even in God’s anger he still offers an angel to go with Israel to the promised land, but not His presence. Surely they deserved less than that! Moses pleads with God (v12-13) by reminding Him of His covenant and faithfulness and it is God’s mercy, because of his fondness of Moses, that prevails and changes His mind. Rather than extracting justice and (by His right) revoking the covenant, His unconditional love is extended. The magnitude of this mercy I think escapes us in the familiarity of the passage. Consider a man who loves a woman and continues to protect her and provide for her. Consider his infatuation with her beauty and the words of commitment she utters to him. Consider this emotion and then imagine walking in on her with another man…ad she does this often. Such is idolatry and such is a vague glimpse of the situation that illuminates the magnitude of the mercy extended.

The way God and Moses interact also reveals a problem with many of us Christians these days. As we are wrapped tight in the blanket of consumerist culture, it is sadly to be expected that much of our experience of God would follow in similar fashion. How Many times am I guilty of a wandering heart, not considering the hurt and disappointment I cause God. Worse yet, how many times do I/we flippantly come to God as our need arises and fail to relate to him in a manner that doesn’t resemble a vending machine? We (in evangelical circles) shy away from rituals that make vivid the seriousness of relating to the living God and therefore our relationship with God suffers from a casual attitude and antinomian like behaviour. Not all, but many. What if we had symbols and deeper rituals that remind us that our whole beings belong to God? What if our life together made room for God to reveal His emotion, personhood, and humanness in a way that makes us consider our actions before we wander away into idolatrous pursuits? Perhaps our spirituality would resemble more the Moses/God pattern; a pattern that would allow God to be His free self.
image credit

Slowing down for Christmas

It has been a busy season and I will be intentionally slowing down the blogging to reflect and consider the moments of Christmas. I have already started slowing down the posting, but that is more due to the busyness and lack of time to blog. It is time to enter some silence and wait for the Lord.

I want to consider the incarnation in a new way this year. What does it mean for us to bear within us the God who has come to save the world? To this I want to give much thought as often the theme of God with us is more head knowledge than a reality expressed in the intimacy of each moment. I am uncomfortable with just knowing and not living what I know. There is a part of me that longs to live with the awareness of God always, but it seems the temporality of my nature keeps me longing for that which may be realized but is often not. So, I will rest and try to focus on the presence of God and his love for us during these Christmas moments and pray for closer union with God. I hope to share some of my reflections out of silence.

Other than a Christmas Wish on the 25th, there will be no other posts until the new year. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ this Christmas.

Thoughts about conversion…

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversion lately. In fact, the topic has some what consumed me since October 28th, 1998, to be exact. That was when I began this journey of following Jesus and that date is what I have (for the longest time) considered to be my conversion date. That was a big day, filled with fear, change, healing, peace, and surrender. For those who don’t know me, the circumstances surrounding that day were quite something, but that story is best left for a another time. Today, I want to share how my thoughts of conversion have changed over time.

Most would agree that conversion to Jesus is related to a point in time; an event that radically or gradually changes the course of a life. That is not untrue. Conversion is such that it mingles with the texture and circumstance of each life in a profound way that makes a certain event or time stand out more than others. This is the case for me. However, in evangelicalism, this is commonly the cause of a mentality that believes the “eternity” work is already done (at conversion point) and discipleship worked out in God’s family is periphery to the Christian life. I am not sure this is the case. What if conversion is something more? What if it is an ongoing process?

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of study and great mentorship. I have interacted with big questions about the gospel and culture and questioned many of the assumptions I have come to believe about my faith. Conversion is one area to which I have given some thought. It was Guder’s work, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, that initially opened my eyes to the reality that conversion is an ongoing process, in fact, a daily one. Some might become uncomfortable with this idea, in that, it may blur the lines between conversion and salvation and somehow cast doubt upon the assurance we have in God’s gift of grace. But here is the paradox I believe we need to live in: that conversion and salvation are a simultaneous process that are experienced and worked through continuously, without negating the biblical reference to the gift of grace, or the consequence of a faith taken lightly. It is after all fidelity that scripture concerns itself with, rather than certainties.

This type of perspective on conversion as continuous brings us into important conversation about the current commitments we accept as normal. It helps us ask questions about our traditions and behaviours in our culture (and importantly our faith assumptions) in order to work through them. If we do not engage in this dialogue, those values and commitments we hold (or that hold us) are never brought into light under the lordship of Christ. Such neglect has led to the proliferation of biblically justified slavery until recent history, and somehow the glaring message of liberation, not only in Jesus, but throughout scripture, was overlooked. Perhaps if conversion were understood as a continuous process, rather than an instance in time, such atrocities may have been avoided. Therefore, conversion as a constant I suggest is a more faithful perspective that requires us to live in some dynamic tension between the assurance we have of faith in Christ, with the commitment to work that faith through the texture of life in discipleship. This will rub against the grain of the rationalism that in many ways claims ultimate authority in much contemporary Christianity, but so be it.

Conversion is nothing short of dying daily to self and a constant process of examining oneself and community against the backdrop of culture. For in doing so, we begin to see things in a new light. We see that what appears normal, is in fact not and often conflicts with the rule of the Kingdom. Discipleship requires of us to be always open, willing, and in need of further conversion. For me, this means understanding that the gifts I give to loved ones this Christmas in the name of the Christ who liberates slaves, should not in turn be made by modern day slaves. So this means I will not buy into the economic mantra of “lower prices” at the expense of children and women working in inhumane conditions. What does continuous conversion mean for you?

My attempts at socially responsible gift giving…(Part 2)

This is getting fun for me. I again ventured out at lunch hour to shop for some socially responsible gifts. You can read the introduction here, and part one is here. But, before I go and tell you about today’s adventure, let me define some parameters as this endeavor continues to shape itself into a more formal exercise for me. Here are my guiding rules.

To buy gifts that are local and ecologically friendly (optimal scenario)
To buy non local but fairly traded merchandise

That’s about it. Those are my rules and if merchandise cannot meet these criteria, they will not make it as gifts from me.

I have been asking for ideas from readers about ways to give responsibly this Christmas. Carlos, a commenter on Toward Hope, offers a link to Living Gifts.org, a subsidiary of the Tear Fund in the UK. This site offers people the opportunity to give vouchers toward a selection of “aid gifts” that will benefit people in the third world, with the goal of ending world poverty. They are “Christians passionate about the local church bringing justice and transforming lives.” Go have a look see at the different areas you can contribute to and perhaps a loved one of yours will have the joy of helping to change lives.

On to my adventure today…

As I drove into work today, over lunch, I managed to head to Commercial Dive in Vancouver’s East Side to visit Ten Thousand Villages, a not-for-profit fair trade organization. Their policies are to deal directly with artisans around the world for product to resell. Each artisan is paid a fair living wage and the oft treacherous middle organizations, that often employ inhumane manufacturing processes, are removed from the equation. With over 160 retail stores in North America, there is sure to be one close to you. I decided to make the rounds there for some gifts.

The lady who greeted me was quite friendly and eager to explain the ins and outs of fair trade to me. There was a huge selection of merchandise and I settled on some fair trade chocolate, a wooden turtle puzzle for my son, and a little nativity set (we needed a new one) that our kids could safely play with. I think i will go back before my gift buying is over.

Right next door was a boutique children’s store that I wandered through. I was still looking for a toy for my daughter and decided on a German made, non toxic wooden memory game for her.

All in all it was a successful outing and I feel good about the nature of these gifts. Stay tuned for additional posts that will (I hope) inspire others toward creative gift buying.

Related: Here is an article about aid gift giving that might be a helpful read.

My attempt as socially conscious gift giving…(Part 1)

A few days back I posted about the question of injustice in the way we celebrate Christmas. Today I began Christmas shopping and since my kids are too young to read this blog, I thought I’d chronicle my attempts at socially conscious gift giving this year. My goal for socially conscious gift giving is to buy local and ecologically friendly gifts. Therefore, I will post sporadically through the remainder of this month as I find time to collect gifts for those on my list.

I am taking a risk coming out blogging this as I am unsure if it will be totally possible. I venture forward only with the encouragement from a recent book I’ve read, Colossians Remixed, that suggests the language of impossibility (lack of alternative vision for reality) is a sign of a captive imagination to the empire. Who says we can’t buy gifts that are local, or refuse to use wrapping paper? Who says that we have no choice but to support the sub human conditions of factories where people slave (that’s right, slave) to make the products under our tree and in our stockings? Lately I have become aware of my own captivity that supports injustice in its various forms and how my imagination has been held captive. The odd thing I am realizing is that much behaviour that is considered normal is actually unjust, we just don’t see how. This chronicle is an attempt to break free from the status quo captivity that really isn’t OK in light of the gospel and what it means for us and the world. So brace yourself and join me on this journey of sporadic posts that I hope will, in some small way, be a subversion of the Market Capital Consumer Empire that foists itself upon us. Perhaps even a new vision for how to celebrate Christmas will emerge?

So, I mentioned I began shopping today. I was anxious as I ventured out of our office building at lunch hour, not really knowing where I was going, except that it wouldn’t be the mall. Downtown Vancouver is a big brand beehive of activity and I feared my choices would be slim to none. Thoughts of captivity were discouraging me. I began with my wife and kids in mind. It took me some time to walk the streets in search of a shop committed to local products. I knew that the miracle mix of local products plus low price would be impossible to find (there’s that captivity thinking again), but I have committed myself to valuing the locality of merchandise over the bottom line.

I walked down Robson Street and a small clothing store caught my eye with their display. Clothes for kids were neatly laid out in the window and I thought this might be a good place to browse. I was intrigued by the baby one-zees and little shirts; perfect for my 1 and 3 year olds. The shirts were of various color and had interesting slogans on them. One was the AC/DC band logo, except it read: AB/CD. I thought that was cool, but who would remember that band of 70’s & 80’s lore? I asked where the shirts were made and the lady said in Canada. That sounded good and would ultimately explain the 22$ price tag on them…ouch! I settled on a shirt for my boy and one for my girl. Both were camouflage (one pink and one green) and had the inscription, “You Can’t See Me” on them. After some bartering, I decided on them instead of the more risky “ All my mom wanted was a back rub” shirt.

I am still on the hunt for creative ideas. Leave a comment if you have one in mind.

Is Our Celebration of Christmas Shrouded With Injustice?

Is our celebration of Christmas shrouded with injustice? This a question I am being led to explore. Over the last year, the Lord has been speaking to me about bigger issues of injustice and oppression, and aside from the obvious manifestations of these (usually not close to home), I have been prompted to wonder how much of our day to day lives, in the affluent West, support injustice. What better time for evaluation than with the practice of our Christmas celebration?

The other day we were waiting for our table at Boston Pizza and while waiting we wandered through the adjacent mall. We found ourselves perusing the aisles of the local Winners store and I couldn’t help but feel strange. The people scrambling for items of perceived value were literally buying everything they were being sold; the message and the overseas designer goods with name brand flair. People were buying stuff because they felt they had to and to not “buy something” for loved ones would surely be awkward; even more awkward than living with the post Christmas debt most will incur this year. I felt out of place and for once I was set on not buying anything.

We all feel the pressure to buy stuff. Wrapping paper, socks, shaving kits, slippers, gloves, underwear, and sweaters for those who we don’t know how to buy for. These typical items usually get us by. But where do these appeasement gifts come from? Overseas…China, Cambodia, Malaysia, India. For the most part, these items are made in sub standard factories by underpaid workers. Moreover, they travel thousands of miles just to end up under our tree and in our stockings. Is this injustice? Is it not unjust for us to contribute to the mistreatment of workers and the environmental pillage incurred? Do our compulsions for gift giving for the sake of giving because it is Christmas play into this greater economic injustice that is perceived as normal to our culture? Surely there must be a better way to express the love of Christ?

As a result, I am asking questions about giving this Christmas. I want to give, perhaps more that I ever have. But I want to give in a way that can subvert the empire’s status quo. The way things are are not good enough for me anymore. I believe that as Christians we ought to align ourselves against the empire in a loving and prophetic way. We ought to stop participating and supporting the injustice that lies beneath the surface of what we think us normal. Just because capitalist exploitation is not illegal, that doesn’t mean it is just.

I am going to have a paperless Christmas. No wrapping paper. We have a ton of gift bags left over from our wedding, birthdays and showers I we will use to exchange the gifts I give tis year. Another thing I would like to explore is what “just” gifts look like. Someone mentioned to me that giving donations in the receivers name is an alternative. I’ll explore this. And I would like to explore what giving local gifts might look like. In addition, I will let the meaning of Advent occupy my mind and intentionally dim the noise of consumer clatter.

In the end, I am just not comfortable anymore. There is an unsettling feeling within me that is tired of being part of the problem and if we want to seek local transformation, then it should start with the way we live as models to this world we long to see redeemed.

What ideas do you have for celebrating a just Christmas?

Remain in Me and I will Remain in You…

The scripture of John 15:4 can teach us much about pastoral ministry. What does it mean to remain in Jesus? Elsewhere (1 John 4:8), John says that God is love that love is the defining characteristic of what it means to know God. For pastoral ministry, (all ministry for that matter) the beautiful simplicity of the gospel is that it’s about love; God’s great, unmerited love for us. This love from God to us is the de-facto starting point of all ministry, and I would go further to say that every unavoidable love response from us is ministry. For it is the outworking of Christ’s Spirit in us that is released into the world as healing ministry. Love is the thread that seems to hold this receptive/responsive rhythm together.

Why is it so hard at times to live in the simplicity of this reality? In other words, why is it so hard to remain in Jesus? Because we do not love. We perhaps at times (from a pastoral perspective) love the ideal more than the God image bearers we share life with. I see how this can happen, as often times frustration and disappointment seem to overwhelm the pastoral emotional trajectory. But we we’re warned of the cost of discipleship…so no excuses. What is hard to catch is this: the loss of perspective happens subtly as our hearts slowly become hard from the trials of ministry. Perhaps this is why Jesus emphasized the importance of remaining in Him. If we remind ourselves regularly to remain in Him, through sacrament and the practice of thankfulness, we will perhaps remember that we are dearly loved and that love is the primary goal of our lives and ministry. If we remain in Jesus, He promises to remain in us, and the Christ love will permeate out from us as we see Christ in those we minister to. In Christ, we cannot love the dream more than the people.

Bill Kinnon linked up a great Merton quote on legalism (via Ron Cole) that captures well the essence of what I am trying to say above:



“Legalism in practice makes law and discipline more important than love itself. For the legalist, law is more worthy of love than the persons for whose benefit the law was instituted. Discipline is more important than the good of souls to whom discipline is given, not as an end in itself but as a means to their growth in Christ.

The authoritarian Christian does not love his brother so much as he loves the cause or the policy which he wants his brother to follow. For him, love of the brother consists, not in helping his brother to grow and mature in love as an individual person loved by Christ, but in making him “toe the line” and fulfill exterior obligations, without any regard for the interior need of his soul for love, understanding and communion. All too often, for the legalist, love of his brother means punishing his brother, in order to force him to become “what he ought to be.” Then, when this is achieved, perhaps the brother can be loved. But until then he is not really “worthy of love.”

This is in reality a fatal perversion of the Christian spirit. Such “love” is the enemy of the Cross if Christ because it flatly contradicts the teaching and the mercy of Christ. It treats man as if he were made for the sabbath. It loves concepts and despises persons. It is the kind of love that says corban (see Mark 7:9-13) and makes void the commandment of God “in order to keep the traditions of men”. ( Thomas Merton; Disputed Questions )”

I think it was Bonhoeffer that also said that those who love the ideal of community more than the community itself are in danger of destroying it.

The above quotes are wisdom for us today in our increasingly progress-compulsive world. It is too easy to love the goals more than the ones placed in our care. Brothers and Sisters, let’s love one another deeply from the heart, for it is the will of Christ who remains in us to work through us as we are bound to Him in love.

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