Competition and the Kingdom of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 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?

Art as a gift

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

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

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

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

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

Just some thoughts about art on a Saturday night.

 

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.

 

Rome Day 2 – The Vatican

On our second day in Rome we visited the Vatican. The ornate texture of the place is grand in it’s vastness and caused sensory overload. The art work contained therein can vault one back in time to feel like a part of the history that produced it. As I said yesterday, pictures hardly do this place justice. As I stood beneath the glorious canvass of the Sistine Chapel, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. It was later in St Peter’s Basilica that Michelangelo’s Pieta caused me to pause and consider the cost of discipleship.

We had a guide named Ann from Through Eternity Tours that did a fabulous job giving insight into the history of all we saw. Her commentary kept all interested and I would definitely recommend her services to anyone making the trek to the Vatican. After the Vatican, we stopped by the gelato place outside the walls that Ann recommended and four 5 euros Christiene and I indulged in the best and biggest gelato cone we’d ever had. It’s worth the 30 minute trek back for more.

Here are the pictures we took yesterday. I created a new “Rome Collection” on Flickr.

If you are ever at the Vatican, walk the Copola!

Day One in Rome

Here we are! Freshly jet-lagged as a result 15 hours of flying, we managed to meander into the city for some pizza at the oldest pizzaria in Rome. After dinner we wandered through the Quirinal area that is host to the magnificent Trevi Fountain. I can’t begin to tell you how surreal the intersection of history and modern culture is in this beautiful city. Ancient wonders are scattered throughout rome and jump out at you as you pop around corners. Pictures hardly do the city justice. There is a deeper layer of interaction as one stands before the artifacts in this city with all senses in play.
Here is a collection of pictures from our first day. I’ve uploaded them to my Flickr account. Enjoy!

Lamenting Death in the OT

Our church is making its way through a long series on the story of scripture. We are after the meta-narrative and desire to see people embedded into the scriptures in a way that will drastically form identity and purpose. It is a good journey.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been in the book of Judges. Today we looked at the story of Samson. As is typical of such a passage, the sovereignty of God theme was broached in regard to how God manages to fulfill his will, even in the least optimal set of circumstances; like Samson’s disobedience. Also a focus was the fact that, during this time, Israel made no attempt to repent for her wickedness while under the thumb of the Philistines. She was somewhat comfortable, satiated, and made due under the Philistine rule. Perhaps a sign of how forgetful they were of God’s plans and desires for them as a people.

While listening to the sermon, I could not help but think about the incredible loss of life recorded. What about the one thousand men Samson struck down with a donkey’s jawbone? They were surely fathers, brothers, and sons whose lives were deeply mourned. I got to thinking if it was really God’s will to see all these people die. As you know, there are many other references to wartime death in the Old Testament that are problematic, to say the least. My fear is that often these passages can be read in a triumphalist way with little regard for how God feels about the casualties caused by the circumstances of the fall lived out. We tend to write “them” of as pagan (or secular) and minimize life as we do so. But how does God feel?

Perhaps these scriptures can serve as an invitation for us to allow God to implant his heart into ours. What if we looked at these scriptures from the perspective of the father? What if we felt these scriptures with the father’s heart? Might we see a God who even agonizes over the death of the Pagan priest as His true love painfully allows the circumstances of his sin-bound creation to unfold? It is hard to make sense of it, but my gut is telling me that we would be served well to consider this from His perspective. It might just ease the conflict of such passages and do away with much of the sacred and secular dichotomy that pits us against modern day enemies (read culture) that are evil and need to be defeated.