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.

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.

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.

 

Len on Vanier on community…

When we left the traditional church setting in the fall of 2000, one of our complaints was that community only happened around task. In retrospect, it seems both true and natural. Community is a by product of something else, and when it is an end in itself it tends to implode. It becomes incestuous. Communities form naturally around shared purpose and shared task. The more clear and intentional the purpose, the stronger the community tends to be. The challenge, then, in forming communities is to help them to maintain an inward life even as they work at whatever purpose they are called toward, as they move to incarnate their purpose. Jean Vanier is right that,

“The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation. If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence and if we do not know how to take time from the presence of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered. It is only to the extent that we nurture our own hearts that we can keep interior freedom. People who are hyperactive, fleeing from their deep selves and their wound, become tyrannical and their exercise of responsibility only creates conflict.”
Community and Growth

I am experiencing the loss of strength of vision with age, and I visited the optometrist yesterday for an updated prescription. Common enough. But I was struck that as time passes and my physical vision grows weaker, my inner vision grows more clear. It becomes both easier and more natural to look “not at the things which are seen, but the things which are unseen.” At times it feels a little gnostic.. but then I recall that phrase from Paul, and I realize that what may sometimes appear dualistic is really the embodiment of a paradox.
HT Len

Returning to God’s Ever-Present Love

“We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior. God doesn’t approve of betrayal, violence, hatred, suspicion, and all other expressions of evil, because they all contradict the love God wants to instill in the human heart. Evil is the absence of God’s love. Evil does not belong to God.

God’s unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. God continues to wait for us as a loving parent waits for the return of a lost child. It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God’s ever-present love.”
~Henri Nouwen

Nouwen identifies what is perhaps the biggest point of confusion about God’s love; unconditional love and unconditional approval. Unconditional love is the hardest kind, because it begs us to offer a love that doesn’t always feel good. This love says hard things when they are called for. This love sees past relational comfort to the well being of the whole person. And what is more, this love demands the greatest measure of forgiveness between the beloved, because to go the distance with proper love is the most expensive option for all. But the rewards are great. From God’s perspective, we experience love to an unimaginable degree in the cross, and as Nouwen says above, this love will help us return to God. Form our perspective, when we follow God’s pattern, we extend this same love and participate in returning others to God. We can be sure that this is the economy of the new creation we hope in; an inheritance that won’t spoil or fade.