Kingdom Discernment and Art

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.

  1. 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)?
  2. 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')?
  3. 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…..

A Christmas Message

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

A collection of reflections about the Newtown tragedy….

Since the news of the Newtown tragedy flooded the airwaves, I've been very moved by the loss of young life and feel deeply for all victims and their families. I wrote this post on Friday to express how I felt about it. It was for me part of the grieving process. Tears were pouring on Friday.

I've read some thoughtful reflections by greater minds than me in the last few days and decided to provide you with links and short overviews of the articles that, in so many ways, provide a good and necessary perspective on the issues. I consider these “serious discourse” on the matter that grapple with the core issues in helpful ways.

First, a friend, Santosh over at Dreams Unlocked wrote a piece called: Christmas Mourning in Connecticut. With a father's heart he contrasts the tragedy on Friday against the context of when Jesus was born. It is helpful because he points to the hope found in the God of suffering that knew it so well himself. Comforting words.

David Fitch, a writer and avid blogger points to a couple of helpful articles. One brings a helpful perspective on America's fascination with guns and the other pulls Dostoyevsky's Brothers Kharmazov into the conversation as it relates to wrestling with God amidst the tragedy. A helpful exploration.

David also had some thoughts of his own that he reported about the real dilemma of Nhilism in the midst of consumer capitalist societies. These thoughts originated after the resent mall shooting in Oregon. Some food for thought.

One of my favourite people, Brant Hansen has written two pieces that tackle two very sacred cows within Christian culture in the US. As you may know there has been a picture reposted obsessively with sentiment about God not being allowed in schools. The photo tries to anchor the political conversation about prayer in schools with the Newtown tragedy. Brant punches this one in the nose and sets the record straight about God and his presence in the midst of this tragedy.

The second post by Brant is going to get him in trouble with many, but he doesn't care. The truth is more important as it relates to the idolotrous worship of family and the question of whether God will protect our kids.

Finally, this article is a pure gem. Shared by Ben Meyers at Faith and Theology over twitter, Our Moloch is an exploration by Gary Wills about the worship of guns and the ancient practice of sacrificing children to the god Moloch. There are times when someone transcends cultural veneer to expose idolatry. This is one of those times. Please read it.

If you have any other helpful articles, drop a link in the comments and let me know. Happy reading and I hope thoughtful dialogue prevails as the US confronts the societal pillars that give birth to such grim chapters in their story.

 

Tears are pouring out….

As a father of four kids all within or close to the ages of the kids whose lives were taken today, I grieve and mourn for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The senseless violence that seemingly goes unchecked in our society continues to erode the fabric of what it means to be human. We demand justice. Feelings of anger and rage are brewing in a cauldron of increasing tears as hearts are torn wide open. Can you feel their loss? If you are human, this will tear something away from you too.

A self inflicted gunshot wound seems to be the standard escape from any accountability for such heinous acts. We see this more and more. Selfishly, shooters bow out with a personal bullet. I hope the parents and victims of this crime would cling to the hope that escaping in this way just ushers in God's judgement sooner. In one hand God holds and consoles the broken hearted, and in the other judges evil justly.

I imagine many presents for these taken children were already wrapped. In my mind I see stockings hung with their names on them. I sense the hope of all that Christmas brings filling their little lives with joy. There most certainly were letters to Santa already written and parts well rehearsed for the Christmas play. These children were looking forward to seeing grandma and grandpa. They were at the height of hope and innocence in their short lives. Now they are gone.

If there was ever a time when we could turn back time, that time is now.

I leave you with this. Many children were lost today and we cannot change that. We must mourn with the victims…embrace their loss like it's our very own. It is good to lament. Perhaps what makes this so difficult is that soon we turn our eyes to celebrate a child coming; the Christ child…the one whom was foretold would save us from our sins with a new type of kingdom; a kingdom where peace prevails and people are restored and healed on earth as it is in heaven. This may seem a distant vision from the vortex of the current pain, but this Kingdom is on its way, already breaking in. Take comfort in knowing that the Christ child knew suffering, for He was broken and taken also.

 

Two Christmas Tides

 

It's the second week of advent and Christmas is approaching. This is good. For the light of the world…. the gift that transcends all material gifts… the one that does not decay, but gives and sustains life, is coming. This is good news. For all people.

Two tides meet in the vortex of our lives this time of year. The worldly tide of “the season”, sees Christmas as an opportunity for profit and accumulation of worldly possessions. It advances on the shorelines of our lives with a force that leaves us washed out and less than we were before. It's a destructive tide with a wave-upon-wave assault that takes no prisoners and feeds us a dream that does not last or exist in any real sense. This worldly tide is marked by decay and it forces upon us all sorts of wants and “alleged” needs that promise fulfillment but deliver emptiness of soul. This tide suggests that we can fill the God shaped longing within us with material things. The great tragedy for humans is that we cannot see the emptiness of this tide. But there is hope in the other tide.

The other tide is one not of this world….literally.

The other tide, like light, exposes the tide of “the season” for what it is: empty and hollow. This other tide washes us clean from the allure of the empty tide and gives us a new hope. This tide has the power to turn us toward a dream of real fulfillment. This tide brings the gift of God himself along with the full force of his love. It offers to envelop us into a new adventure and it will make you tremble in fear until you realize the transformative goodness the current brings. This tide promises to reorient your shoreline in the best possible way with its sheer power. It is so powerful that it comes wrapped in the frailty of human skin, as a baby, vulnerable and needy and above all, ultimately subversive.

If you've ever been on a boat that has a keel deep in the water, you will know the danger of riding on the ridge of two powerful tides. The currents collide and cause whirlpools and uncontrollable situations for the ship. It can bring you down.

Maybe there is a lesson here for us as we find ourselves met by two tides this Christmas? Perhaps it's best that we stick to the one that offers us more than the hollow consumerism that leaves us empty.

 

Christmas tree farm….

 

We spent the afternoon going to the tree farm. It's a tradition our family has had since before our children were born. For us, this day and the first Sunday of Advent officially ushers in the Christmas season for us.

The kids had a blast romping through the rows of trees as their aunt chased them laughing to no end. The kids get a kick out of her because the majority of the time includes hearty belly laughs and a silliness that I think most long for but are too self conscious to embrace. Signs of the kingdom, perhaps?

 

It's days like these that I often think about the story of Christmas. I look for opportunities to talk with my kids about it and the significance of God coming to us cloaked in our skin. I asked my eldest daughter what her greatest hope was as a result of Christmas. She said “no more war”. I like that. She then told me how God would take weapons and make instruments out of them. It's a gift having a daughter like her. I feel blessed beyond comprehension.

We put the lights up on the tree and are looking forward to finishing our Christmas decorations tomorrow.

May God draw your hearts near to him this Christmas.

 

My favourite coffee…

JJ Bean Coffee House
My Americano

I stopped into JJ Bean for a coffee and breakfast wrap this morning. Something about the texture of the place makes the experience of their coffee so good. As I waited I saw “commercial drivers” sipping their espressos while doing crafts and reading. There were two blue collar types having coffee too. Leathery faces and paint filled clothes and they fit right in at this eclectic place. A breeding ground for hipsters, it is. I like this place not only for their coffee, but for the down to earth-ness evident in their ethos. My drink is the Americano.

 

Out of the Cold

Christmas is the time of year that can make people do strange things. Millions living in the affluent West go into unmanageable debt, acquire material things they do not need, and practice a form of gluttony that would give great Kings of Old indigestion. Sadly, all of this strangely happens in front of the majority of human beings in the world which live below the poverty line. They must stand in utter bewilderment at the excess living demonstrated before their difficult circumstances of unmet living expenses, malnourishment, and strife.

…Christmas can and should be a time that is different, If any remnant of the original story of Christmas remains. I declare it does.

This Friday, our church community is conspiring to make a difference in our neighbourhoods by hosting a dessert evening and silent auction called Out of the Cold. All proceeds go directly to the charities listed. This is a fantastic way to be part of a great subversion in our culture that was instigated at the first Christmas when the world met its saviour. I encourage you to come and be part of a story that can change the world and you along with it.

I have personally donated a 400$ family photography session to the cause.

Here is the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Out-of-the-Cold/551114624903074

 

Letters to my children – Be Creative!

be creative.jpg

There is a lesson that I have learned that I would like to impart to you. It is actually something you already do very well….being creative. So I hope this will be a reminder to stay young and never let the creative spark fade. At your age, you are in the cradle of life in it’s most special time, for the world hasn’t silenced the child in you and conformed you to the limitations of being an adult. Being creative is a way to swim against the tide of life and preserve your youth. So, guard the way you currently look at the world, for it is a gift that will benefit you if you hold onto it.

My advice: be creative! Don’t ever stop. Let curiosity and the delight of being a child guide your every impulse and endeavour…for if you do, I guarantee that you will experience the joy of living a full and pleasant life.

For me, my youth was filled with creativity. But as I grew older, I somehow separated the act of being an artist with the other things I did. It was as if the artist only came out when I was drawing and, over time, the child’s wonder and the creativity within became suppressed. My light faded and my mind forgot the way of the artist. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered again the joy of being an artist in everything I do. When we play the artist, we are naturally creative and our inner child emerges ready to explore in wonder the new possibilities of seeing something familiar as if for the first time. It’s being an artist in all that I do that has helped me unleash the creative potential to do things well…with passion and a voice! For the creative one is always asking and exploring new ways of seeing and being at work, at play, in school, in relationships, while cooking, in worship or whatever else you may do. The uncreative one becomes a lifeless cog in the wheel of life, turning meaninglessly in unfulfilment.

My children, the world has a way of driving you into being something less than human. Creativity has a way of inspiring you to be fully human as you imitate in your creativity the very God that made you with a child’s wonder.

So be creative in all you do. You are each gifted artists with a meaningful voice that the world needs to hear.

Being with the Dying…Remembering Susan

DSC_0800.jpgThere are few moments in a persons life that can be more transformative than being with the dying. Typically, those that are ready to die and have prepared their hearts, can speak with such clarity and reason to the things that really matter. They can expose the trivial pursuits of life to make room for things that really matter; Moments in time that are filled with love.

I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at Susan Caravan’s funeral. Susan was somewhat of an aunt to me. She was my mother’s best friend and we spent lots of time with their family growing up. I have vivid memories of visiting their family. It was both a blessing and a curse for me. As I was prone to evoke the ire of my mother, when visiting with Auntie Susan it was as if my mother had just multiplied. One could call this multi-directional discipline :)

I was fortunate to spend some time with her in the hospice, reconnecting and hearing her voice again. The conversation was profound. Susan was in a place where she was ready to die, and as a result was able to show great courage for the journey before her. Wondering if she would be able to walk in heaven, I reminded her that dancing would be the norm. She quite liked the gesture. We talked about family, told stories and were mutually blessed. I came away from the encounter changed and encouraged. Changed because she, perhaps unknowingly, reoriented me around my mortality and what really matters… encouraged because we all will eventually face the same journey. We can take comfort from those who model the courage we all need when our time is near.

Susan was a great woman, strong and determined to raise five children, mostly on her own. Not without struggle, Susan worked tirelessly to be there for her entire family that included five children, twelve grand children, and two great grand children. She modelled the persistence that eventually emerged in her children to navigate through life and become good people. She will be missed greatly and remembered well.

A letter to my children….don’t stare at the ads!

There are many things I want to teach you about life. Although I am hardly the expert, some understanding has grabbed me through my experiences that I long to impart to you for your benefit. Today you are still young, but tomorrow, I hope you will see things with clarity and a keen mind nurtured from a trust in God and a desire to understand the truth beneath the surface of things.

Don’t stare at the ads! That’s right, I said don’t stare at the ads. I am talking about the advertisements that constantly bombard you with their visual arrows through television commercials, public billboards, the radio, internet, and junk mail. They are harmful. They seem harmless, but in reality, millions of dollars are spent on constructing them in a way that will tap into your deepest desires in order to shape them. They are designed to make you feel incomplete without the product that they are trying to sell. They will offer you the world if you pledge allegiance to their brands. Popularity, beauty, power, wisdom, satisfaction…I tell you, it’s all rubbish!

When you peel back the surface, you will see that corporations are trying to create a religious experience in you to make you their disciple. They want you to believe that you were made to buy their products. In other words, they want your self-identity to be deeply rooted in consumption, and as long as it is, you will always be longing for more and more without being truly satisfied. This is not who you are.

The constant struggle for us in this life is to remain true to who we are. You know where you come from. We’ve told you the stories about the God who created you in dignity, love, and respect. You know how God rescues you and offers you a fulfilling life as a contributing artist in his restoration masterpiece. Each of you are gifted to be blessings in God’s project to heal this world with a love that puts an end to manipulation and violence. Sharing in the life and love of God….this is where real purpose and fulfillment come from. Not from the consumption of products that leave your souls thirsty and anxious in the end.

If you stare at the ads and let them invade your imagination, they will shape who you are. And let me tell you, if the heart of your identity is found in being a consumer, you will always be in a place of unfulfilled longing. Don’t be a slave to filling an empty void with “things” that can only be filled by God.

Liberty & Covetousness…

51UQgsywFkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg“In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In the beginning and end the Decalogue deals with the liberty of man. The first word – I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage – reminds him that his outer liberty was given to him by God, and the tenth Word – Thou shalt not covet! – reminds him that he himself must achieve his inner liberty.”

and further along….

“We know that passion cannot be vanquished by decree. The tenth injunction would, therefore, be practically futile, were it not for the ‘commandment’ regarding the Sabbath day to which about a third of the Decalogue is devoted, and which is an epitome of all other commandments. We must seek to find a relation between the two ‘commandments’ Do not covet anything that belonging to thy neighbour; I have given thee something that belongs to Me. What is that something? A day.”

~ Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – The Sabbath

What winter means to me….

The Winter has a way of bringing us to a place of deep reflection. Curious inquisitiveness and a longing for home; the home our hearts desire past our mortal years. That’s what Winter does to me. It is my favorite time of year in all it’s coldness and warm celebrations of incarnation. Winter has a way of stripping the veneer that builds up like brooding thicket around our hearts. Winter is desperate and violent in it’s chill. A time of death for creation and a time of reckoning for the soul. Winter a tool used to lovingly whittle us to utter dependence on the one who holds us up. In Winter, death is as near as the hope of Spring.