About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Saying "Yes"

This reflection was part of a liturgical service at Morweena EMC, November 2007

What does it mean to say yes? We know what it means to say yes, but what does it really mean to say yes? To what, or to Whom do we say yes when we say yes to God? How do we say yes to God, when we are not sure what that yes means? Can we really say yes if we are not clear on what that yes means?
Samuel said Yes to God, but he first disturbed Eli several times saying yes to Eli, before he realized that the call he heard was the call of God. And then, when he said yes to God and heard what God had to say, I suspect he was not entirely sure he had done the right thing, because the news for his mentor, Eli, was all bad.
Noah said yes to God, and spent the next 120 years saying a lunatic’s yes to God, building the modern day equivalent of a space ship in his backyard, becoming the laughingstock of neighbors, family, and friends. Then, having never experienced a storm of any kind before, he spent an entire year cooped up in the ark while the his world was inundated by a storm the likes of which would not be repeated in 10,000 years, never mind our little storms of the century.
Moses said yes to God, albeit reluctantly, and spent his twilight years on a journey which few people in the vigor of youth would attempt today, leading to freedom a people whose most common complaint was a whining desire to return to slavery in Egypt, because there at least they were fed. Throughout this journey the Israelites were commonly on the verge of mutiny and Moses in danger of losing his life. In the end he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, because of an overzealous moment of weakness in a life of saying yes.
Would any of these men have said yes to God had they known in advance what that yes would require of them? Can they really have said yes if they did not know where that yes would take them? Maybe these were just poor souls who said yes and found themselves in a mess they could not have imagined previously; found themselves swept away in a current that was larger than they were.
That actually sounds a lot like our own experience of life, does it not? Sometimes we too find ourselves caught up in a swell that threatens to overwhelm us. Sometimes we walk in verdant, sunny plains and wonder how life could be so good. How often do we consider God? How often do we hear God’s call on our life in the mundane moments of a humdrum life? How often do we consider how our apparently inconsequential decisions are in fact a yes or a no to God?
But how can we say yes to a God who constantly eludes our confident grasp? How can we say yes to a God whose ways are too lofty for us to understand? Why would we say yes to God when it seems God has left the building? Why would we say yes to God when we have but the vaguest notion of what we are saying yes to? That would seem imprudent. We need to have a contract with an iron-clad escape clause that covers any eventualities, should we realize we have been duped, and what seemed to be the call of God turns out to be a fantasy or a nightmare. That would be the wise course, right?
Wrong. Why? Because saying yes to God is not saying yes to an idea, or a plan, or a religion, or a creed. Saying yes to God cannot be a saying yes to any cozy or even lofty expectations of what that yes will mean. If we know what we are saying yes to, we are not saying yes to God. If we know what we are saying yes to we may be saying yes to a fantasy, or a profound idea, or an eminent religion, all of which easily morph into an idol, but none of which are God.
Saying yes to God is saying yes to the unknown and the unknowable. Saying yes to God is saying yes to what will forever elude our comprehension. Saying yes to God is saying yes to a mystery. Saying yes to God is sort of like . . . Getting married. Saying yes to a lifetime commitment to your best friend is not saying yes to a house, though the yes may be consummated in a lifetime of commitment that is worked out in a house. Saying yes to a spouse is not saying yes to fantasies of vacations together in the sun, though the yes may be enhanced by such fringe benefits. Saying yes to a spouse is not saying yes to dreams of career and family, though these may immeasurably enrich the yes in years to come.
Saying yes, to a spouse, or to God, is saying yes to Someone. It is saying yes to an adventure which cannot be known in advance, and it cannot be exhaustively planned in advance. In marriage to a spouse, and in life with God, there will be unanticipated events and experiences, from new understandings that force dramatic, complex, and sometimes even traumatic re-orientations of what one has always known to be true, to absolutely unforeseen crises that stretch our yes to the limits, even past our limits.
These are the moments when we must choose - a yes to ourselves or a yes to God. A yes to the familiar and the well-known, or a yes to something that exceeds our vision, a yes to One who is not limited by our vision. We have no guarantees when we say yes that we know how things will be, or that our lives will be as we think they ought to be, but if we say yes to God we know, because of Calvary, that we say yes to ultimate Love, and because of the Resurrection, we know that we say yes to One who is larger than life, to the One who is Life. Saying yes to God does not place God within our confident grasp, it places us within His confident grasp.
And so this challenge to say yes to God. In the midst of paradox and uncertainty say yes to Love and Life. Let us turn from the original temptation to be gods unto ourselves, and say yes to the only true God. Just say “Yes”!

We will now move into a time of silent reflection, a time for you to reflect on the prayers that have been said, the scriptures that have been read, the hymns that have been sung, but most of all, a time to reflect on the God who calls you, and to formulate your response to that call. We invite you to say yes now, and to live that yes in a “conscious and rededicated relationship to God” in the days to come. We have a mic available at the front, and if there are some who want to share their yes with the congregation we invite you to make your way to the front pew during this time of reflection, and after a period of silent reflection Matthew will cue your opportunity to share.
May God bless your yes.

Monday, 18 October 2010

God's Covenants

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the Christian story of reality. And after God had created, the production of each day was pronounced “good.” God liked what God had made. Scripture employs no rapturous superlative descriptors for what God created on the first five days. It is not described as awesome or spectacular or stupendously magnificent, just good. Except for the humans. They were declared “very good.” From the very beginning humans have had a special place in the heart of God. Not too surprising, really, considering that God made them (male and female) in God’s own image. Now humans, as the apple of God’s eye, were immediately given a position of responsibility in the care of all that God had made. They were told to nurture and enjoy creation. And all was well in all God’s green earth.

Or was it? Somehow humanity was distracted from discharging their prescribed duties in the prescribed way. They had an idea which seemed to promise to improve their lot, but that idea proved to be their downfall. Instead of having a better idea, their attempts to improve on God’s ideas caused the frustration of their efforts. First they were removed from their idyllic home in the Garden of Eden so that they could not make their already difficult situation worse with more mistakes, but eventually things got so bad that the whole world had to be washed and sanitized, and then the human project was restarted.

God’s interest remained the welfare of all that God had made, and the new instructions reflected that. God promised, God bound Godself never to allow the destruction of the whole world again. It did not matter how wicked the people became God would never again allow creation to be so utterly ravished. Hence, after this catastrophe there came another opportunity for humans to nurture and enjoy what God had made.

But again those humans thought they could do better than merely serving as God’s peons (which is not an accurate description of what they were, but in their vanity they thought that their potential was not being properly appreciated). They would assert themselves, they would show that they were at the top of the food chain. But then, why stop there? They would build a city, a huge hulking skyscraper of a city, one that reached right up to where the gods lived. They would become like the gods themselves. Why not?

So once again, God had to intervene, before humans dealt themselves the same fate that met the last creature with aspirations of deity (Lucifer, the erstwhile Morning Star). In grace the peoples of the earth were scattered by the confusion of their languages, and their dreams of becoming divine were stymied. God was still intent on blessing what God had created, but that blessing would not come in the form of a condescending wink at their delusional self-aggrandisement. God’s intent was to bless Creation with a blessing that recognized it as Creature, as what it truly was, but that blessing would bid the Creature to grow, fulfilling their pregnant promise as those who bear the image of the Creator.

So God chose, once again, to bless what God had made. God chose Abram, called him Abraham, and told him that the plan was to bless the whole world through him, through the son which he and Sara would have. Now Sara kept getting older, which was a good thing, but there was still no heir, which was a bad thing. Never mind, in those days there was a well-known solution for such a dilemma: Let Abraham father an heir with Sara’s servant girl. In fact, four of the twelve tribes of Jacob come into being in precisely this way. That must have been what God meant. (Sound familiar?)

Except that was not what God meant, and the aftershocks of Abraham’s misunderstanding continue to rock the world. But God was determined to bless what God had made so another covenant was fashioned, this one also a decidedly unilateral commitment. When God and Abraham ratify this new covenant, they each have their recognized roles to play, but when it comes to the really important part where they are to walk together to finalize their individual commitment to this covenant, Abraham falls asleep and God is left to ratify this covenant all alone. God’s commitment was to bless what God had made and that commitment would not be easily thwarted, not even by the Creature’s pugnacity. Sort of like salvation by grace, prior to any faith. Abraham and Sara would have a son and through that son Abraham’s family would grow to become innumerable, and those descendants would inherit the land which God promised to give to Abraham.

Which brings us to the story of God’s request for the sacrifice of Isaac. Why would God make such a request? Abraham’s whole life, it seemed, had been spent trusting God to do what God promised to do, even though a lesser man would have given up hope a long time ago. Now Abraham finally had the first part of the promise before his eyes, the long awaited son, the idea which had struck his 99-year-old wife as an outrageous joke a scant year before that son was born, and now God wanted this son sacrificed? Child sacrifice was a common demand of all the other gods but never had Abraham’s God suggested, let alone demanded, anything like this. Without this son there was no hope of ever possessing the land God had promised. Then again, with no son to inherit the land what good was the land? Isaac was Abraham’s hope for a future. Never mind, he and Sara had been as good as dead before Isaac came along, and if God could raise life from death, if God wanted to push the envelope a little further, who was Abraham to argue? What God wants, God gets, and Abraham might as well go along with the charade sooner rather than later.

So Abraham set out toward the mountain of sacrifice and when his son, whom Abraham was on a course to slaughter as a sacrifice to God, asked where the sacrifice offering was, Abraham’s response was “God will provide.” What was Abraham thinking? Did he think all along that God had a last moment reprieve in mind, in which case Abraham was not showing faith at all but merely calling God’s bluff? Was he giving voice to a confidence he did not really have, just putting on a brave face? Did he simply mean that God will provide whatever God will provide, thinking that God had already provided the sacrifice, Isaac, and what God had in mind now God only knew? Who knows?

Clearly, aside from the most pessimistic and cynical readings of this story, what Abraham was doing was giving up everything he had held dear for all his life in an attempt to be faithful to his God. Whether this was done as the last desperate, and perhaps exasperated, act of a man who saw the last hopes of his life rapidly fading into the dark shades of permanent night, or whether it was a remarkable act of faith by a man who was so confident in God’s intervention that he remained relatively untroubled by what he was about to do (which I seriously doubt), this is certainly one of the most problematic stories in the Bible. So what can we learn from it?

Let me explain why I started this meditation with a review of the covenants God made with God’s Creation, beginning with the people, but always including the whole of Creation. The theme that strikes me in every renewal of God’s covenant is God’s desire to bless Creation, to see Creation prosper, to see the Creature who had been created in God’s own image enjoy what God had made. It seems as though God’s joy was indissolubly linked with the joy of God’s Creation. And when that Creation fell, God came looking for them, calling them, picked them up, and sent them out to try again; and when the Creature messed up again, God cleaned them up again, and instructed them again on how to enjoy what God had made for their enjoyment, then told them again to go and prosper; and when those creatures were still defiant, God frustrated the ways which those creatures set for themselves, ways which could only lead to their own destruction, all because God was determined to bless what God had made. We followed this trail of covenant renewal and blessing to Abraham, but it continues in the same vein throughout Israel’s history, through the prophets, reaching a pinnacle in the historical story of Jesus the Christ, and it is repeated through modern history, and continues to be experienced in each of our lives whether we recognize it or not.

Abraham’s story is a concrete example of God’s desire and intention to bless. God’s intention was always to bless Creation, all peoples, and God’s covenant with Abraham was the way in which God intended to do so. Unfortunately, people keep misunderstanding, or worse, deliberately subverting, God’s plan. God told Abraham to go to the land God wanted to give him, and Abraham went to the land, but it was unfruitful, so Abraham kept going till he got to Egypt. There Abraham chose to lie about his relationship with his wife and let her be taken into Pharaoh’s bed because he feared for his life. He tried to “help” God with the promised son. And when God was making a big ceremony out of the new covenant, Abraham fell asleep when he was supposed to be keeping scavengers from the sacrificial offerings.

Abraham had no idea how grand were God’s plans for his children. Abraham had no idea that God intended to be born to one of his own descendants. He had no idea that two thousand years later, God’s own Son, the One born of Abraham’s descendants, would be hanging on a cross on the same hill where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. Only this time God would not intervene to stop the sacrifice, because when God’s Creation messes up, when there is a terrible price to pay, God would rather pay the price Godself, than to exact that price from the Creature God wishes to bless. Abraham had no idea that God was not only giving him family and land, but in all of this God was inviting him home, calling Abraham to live with Godself.

Abraham was willing to throw it all away for God, if only because without God’s help he was as good as dead anyway. But Abraham had no idea of the enormity of what he was about to throw away. Even less did Abraham have any idea how God wanted to bless him, and to bless all people through him. In what must have been one of the darkest days of his life, he found himself trudging up Mount Moriah, to give back to God what he had waited all his life to get from God; to give back to God what God had promised would be his future. Because Abraham understood that if you trust God only because you think God has your best interests at heart, only because you think it will go better for you if you trust God, then you are still serving yourself, and you are only using God as an instrument for your own benefit. So Abraham went up the mountain, and there, inspite of Abraham’s self, God met him, and there God blessed him with such a powerful blessing that Abraham came away from this encounter and never fully understood how rich a blessing had been lavished upon him. A blessing of love and goodwill that refuses to be extinguished no matter how selfish, disobedient, and un-cooperative Abraham became. A blessing of relationship and partnership that was not - it could never be - Abraham’s own doing, because it was a vision far too grand for Abraham to imagine or understand, much less devise and work out on his own.

God’s best blessings come on God’s own terms. They have to be God’s terms because our terms are too easy, too short-sighted, too anaemic. God’s desire to bless us far exceeds what we in our wildest dreams could ever imagine, which is why we can never anticipate them. We want a home and a land that we must ultimately leave, God wants us to learn to know Godself, to experience an eternal life that wraps each finite moment with a depth that cannot be adequately captured outside the infinity of an eternity. God wants to call us home forever, and all of this happens in the mundane moments of life, such that the most mundane moments are the most momentous moments because of their nexus with eternity. It is in the valleys that God walks with us though we know it not, and too often it is on the mountains tops that we forget our need of God because we think we have everything we need, though we have but the faintest understanding of what it is that we need most. But God knows, and that is why the best blessings come on God’s own terms, and are often accompanied by feelings of having been abandoned by God. That, too, is something that the Incarnate God understands. In this world things are often cruelly taken from us and we should not be too hasty in saying that God took it away. These disappointments -tragedies even- may simply be the way of this fallen world, but God is not powerless to bring blessing out of sin-cursed soil. In fact, that is God’s specialty. The fact that God brings blessings out of curses should never be understood to mean that God needs the sinfulness of this world in order to advance God’s plans. Bad things never happen because they fit into God’s plan. God’s penchant for raising blessing from sin cursed soil only indicates that even as vulgar a monstrosity as sinfulness will not easily be allowed to thwart God’s plans for blessing what God has made.

So when you find yourself in the blackest night of your life, turn your eyes to the east, because that is where the sun rises. Wait for God’s visit because for those whose hope is in God alone morning follows night with more certainty than night follows day. And if you wait in faith, God will meet you, ready to shake your world with blessings that will blow your mind. You may wait a day, or a month, or years, but never an eternity. And when you meet God you will know you are home. Sometimes going home calls for patient endurance and vigilant watchfulness, but never forget while you are going and waiting that God wants you to enjoy the journey, and that God walks with you, so listen for the sound of God’s voice, and watch for the guidance of God’s footprints. But while anywhere with Jesus is home, don’t forget that every journey has a destination. You, like Abraham, are going home, so listen for the Father’s call. Learn to distinguish the Father’s voice from all the siren calls of destruction. Learn the importance of obedience and faithfulness in working out your own salvation, but never forget that your salvation rests first with God, who desires your salvation and blessing more than you do, more than you know, more than you could ever imagine, and then follow the Father’s trail of blessing all the way home.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Boundaried Communities

(Note: This is the text of a meditation delivered in the early days of the ConneXion community.)

We gather here this morning as a community, as a community observing communion. What does it mean to be a community? What does it mean to build a community? What is the significance of a community observing communion together? We – meaning this group, we who have chosen to identify ourselves as the yada yada supper club – have always stressed the communal nature of our activities, both in what we do and in what we intend to do. We have become an identifiable community known as the yada yada people, though the name is often invoked with perplexed expressions. I think all of us have come to appreciate this community as a unique opportunity to indulge, both gastronomically and socially. We derive significant benefit from this group, but we also have realized significant responsibilities. We don’t just get together to eat, but in getting together to eat, we also get together to feed each other. This is the strength of community. Suppers are enhanced because, while all of us expect wholesome, nutritious, and delicious sustenance at home, we do not anticipate the same variety that we enjoy when we get together and pool the fruits of our labors. Diversity enhances our community.

Herein, however, lies part of our challenge. Diversity enhances our community, but yesterday’s diversity is today’s normal, and it is tomorrow’s threat of death by suffocation of tedium. Hence it is imperative that our community, which today thrives on diversity, continues to reach out to expand the boundaries so that our community and our diversity can grow and remain a vigorous experience of life. But herein also lies an ominous threat, because if our community changes it ceases to be the community we know; if our community changes, it dies, in a sense. The reality, however, is that if our community does not change it dies in every sense. Brennan Manning reminds us that to live without risk is to risk not living. So how do we build community? How do we ensure that the passing of today’s community becomes the seed germ for tomorrow’s healthy and vibrant community? Can we build community without risk?

We have often made the point that we intend to touch our community for God. This does not translate into the notion that we have failed if we do not convert our friends to Christianity. We will be successful if we build relationships and realize opportunities to share the lives of our friends and neighbors. We will have been successful if we learn to see our God in a new light through these contacts. We will have been successful if we learn to live with greater integrity than we did before, because integrity is a core doctrine of the theology which begins with “The LORD, The LORD our God is One.” Hence, it may well be that our reaching out will be most successful if our new friends (and all of us here are new friends by virtue of the dynamics of our interaction in yada yada) convert us away from our obsession with religion to a new authenticity of godliness.

Today we got together for brunch, and we thought it prudent to partake in an observation we call communion. Why? How is communion related to our community? I am sure there are many avenues that could be explored, but I am struck by a phrase in Paul’s introduction of the topic in 1 Corinthians 11:

23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Why is it significant to Paul to note that the institution of the Lord’s Supper took place “on the night he was betrayed”? How clearly did Jesus foresee his betrayal? Why, if he knew he was about to be betrayed, and he seems to have had a strong sense even of who would do the betraying, did he not only stay, but even continue to feed those who would viciously feed on him, given the chance? Without wishing to undermine the rich theology that has been developed around this event, allow me to suggest that he did it because community was worth it. Paul’s reading of the crucifixion repeatedly emphasizes the unifying aspect of Christ’s death. National, social, cultural, religious, and gender distinctions, among others, all are swept away in the flood of Christ’s blood on Calvary.

Far more important, however, is the gulf between humanity and Deity that was bridged by the selfless giving of God’s self. In a large measure, it is this estrangement from God that drives us to barricading ourselves from others. The profound psychic uncertainty that comes from this estrangement allows us no security in unredeemed relationships because we recognize that the same insatiable desire for satisfaction that plagues us also drives others to seek solace where ever it can be found, and the prime targets to fill the void created by our distance from our Maker are those who bear the Maker’s image. We feel our need for relationship keenly, though we pretend otherwise, but we betray our deep seated need in our inability to give unless we receive. This concern to preserve limited resources for those who will cooperate in mutual trading causes us to establish boundaries and erect barriers designed to protect ourselves against unsanctioned demands of others who have not first agreed to give as good as they get. However, all the boundaries which we employ to secure ourselves against intrusion turn out to be fatal to ourselves because, in the words of John Donne “No man is an island”, and the more we insulate ourselves against community, the less we live.

Jesus does otherwise. He does not force himself into relationships in which he is not welcomed, but he establishes his boundaries as boundaries of invitation. What are boundaries of invitation? We normally use boundaries as boundaries of exclusion or, at a minimum, as a means to control access. What does it mean to say that Jesus established his boundaries as boundaries of invitation? When we define ourselves as a community we define ourselves as something that is at least somewhat exclusionary, but a negative definition is not a good definition; defining a thing by what it is not is not a satisfactory definition. A good definition tells you what a thing is, not only what it is not. However, saying what a thing is can be far more exclusionary than saying what a thing is not, if the thing is to be known as only what is positively included in the definition.

We define ourselves as a community, which immediately sets us apart, as something which the rest of the universe is not. We define ourselves as a community because we wish to promote certain values. However, we do not wish to define ourselves by excluding, but by including. We define ourselves as a community of God’s children, who are known by God, and wish to know ourselves and others in the light of God’s love. As such, we do not exclude people, but we do exclude that which runs counter to the love of God. However, to the extent that we see God’s love as an invitation extended to all, we establish our boundaries as boundaries of invitation. We do not include everything, but we include everyone who is willing to explore what it means to live as a community of God’s love.

Jesus establishes his boundaries as boundaries of invitation. When those whom he has chosen turn against him he allows them that latitude, but he does not rescind his invitation. He gives himself, not as a trade off for community, but as an invitation to community. The invitation can be refused, and Jesus can lose his life for nothing, but his motivation for giving is not mercenary. He does not give simply for what he can get, though he most certainly hopes to get. Jesus gives when return is uncertain because the hope – just the hope – of community is worth it. Jesus gives because he is a giving God. Because he is God he can give without return. He can invite without the assurance of an accepting response.

Herein, I think, lies the secret for our community, and the reason we share the Lord’s Supper. Paul quotes Christ’s invitation to do this in remembrance. We will not plumb the depths of what was done for us at Calvary, but we are invited to observe and to remember, but not only to remember. For it is in observing and remembering that we declare. We remind ourselves and the world of the God Who gave against all odds, and in a small but not insignificant way we participate in this giving, first as recipients, but than as sharers, not only with each other, but as an invitational community.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Big Tent Christianity

This post is part of a synchro blog event sponsored by Big Tent Christianity Please check out lots of additional posts on their website, and consider attending the Big Tent Christianity conference in Raleigh, NC September 8-9. Go to the website for all the information and conversation.

Big Tent Christianity?? What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is that? For many the very notion of Big Tent Christianity sounds like a shortcut to hell, under the pretense of being on the high road to heaven. For others anything less than Big Tent Christianity smacks of a parochial religiosity that emphasizes very limited human formulations of God and salvation at the expense of a recognition that salvation is God's work, never our own doing, even though Paul tells us to "work out our own salvation", and he tells us to do it "with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
How do we make real progress towards Big Tent Christianity without sacrificing the very diversity that makes this world a rich place? Is Big Tent Christianity even a worthy goal or is it a distraction best ignored? The last thing I am interested in Big Tent Christianity that turns a vibrant mosaic of Christian expression into an amorphous mass of like-minded believers who can never have a meaningful and challenging discussion about theology because we are all in such sublime agreement. That is not unity, but uniformity. Judging from the diversity that is displayed in God's handiwork of creation such uniformity would be decidedly ungodly, and likewise unchristian. It is our diversity that makes us strong, and without diversity our facility for modeling the imago dei is fatally compromised.
I believe passionately that the only way to broaden our vision is to narrow our focus. The more detail we wish to include in our definition of Big Tent Christianity, the more we will require our fellow believers to surrender if they wish to be part of this "larger" Christianity. Our only hope for a Big Tent Christianity is to get back to the original formulation of Christianity, the formulation that predates Christianity itself.
How radical are we willing to be? Are we willing to get so radical that we lose our Christian identity in Christ? Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). If it is really all about Jesus Christ, and if Jesus is The Way, then Christianity is not The Way. If we define Christianity by salvation in Jesus Christ, then Christianity loses its status as a favored religion because salvation is in Jesus Christ, not in any religion. That no religion saves is an old saw that Christians are only too happy to enunciate, if ultimately reticent to follow to its logical conclusion. However, that most narrow definition of Christianity is in fact the most comprehensive definition.
It is this most narrowly focused, yet comprehensive definition of Christianity that lays a solid foundation for a Big Tent Christianity, a Big Tent Christianity that is big enough to include even those who subscribe to an other religion, because if religion cannot save, neither can it single-handedly preclude salvation. Jesus told enough stories about people who espoused a particular truth, but lived another truth, to make it clear that what we say with our words can neither save us nor condemn us, without regard to what our lives say. It is not those who say "Lord, Lord", but those who do his will who enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21ff; 25:31ff).
Hence, the notion of a Big Tent Christianity carries within itself the seeds of it own demise as a unique way to God, because the Tent must become large enough to problematize the nomenclature of Christianity as a term that is sufficient to encapsulate God's salvific work. But that, too, is a biblical notion. Jesus said "unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:24) That was said of individual believers, but if the metaphor works for wheat and humans, it likely has legitimate application for broader body politics as well.
I dream of Big Tent Christianity that is large enough to realize that we can never take God’s Word to where it has not yet been, because God’s Word is already everywhere (Psalm 19). I dream of a Big Tent Christianity that is small enough to recognize that a cup of cold water is God’s work. I dream of a Big Tent Christianity that learns to notice what God is already doing in the world, and delights in participating with God in loving an awesome Creation. I dream of a Big Tent Christianity that is satisfied with God’s kingdom advancing, rather than advancing a particular version of Christianity/Christendom.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Book review:War Peace and Social Conscience

Schlabach, Theron F., War Peace and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics Herald Press, 2009

War Peace and Social Conscience is a tribute to Hershberger, a leading thinker and writer in the Mennonite Community Church through much of the 20th century. Schlabach begins with a brief biography and does well to situate Hershberger’s thought in the context of his life. Schlabach poses probing questions about the impact of Hershberger’s experiences on his thought, does not shy away from pointing out perceived gaps and inconsistencies in his stated positions. While the biographical considerations are an excellent consideration, throughout the rest of the book one encounters confusing time shifts as the author follows the train of Hershberger’s thought at the expense of a consistent chronology. The effect is unavoidable but draws attention to the challenge involved in writing a theological autobiography.
Hershberger has clearly been a seminal thinker in the Mennonite Community and a radical pacifist who was very concerned to ground that pacifism in scripture rather than any particular cultural or ideological sensitivities. That he is quite radical in his pacifism is reflected in his suspicion regarding Ghandi’s commitment to non-violent resistance. For the young Hershberger any form of coercion was a form of violence, and that rendered any action in favor of justice all but impotent. Hershberger deserves full credit for integrity as he does modify some of his positions in the course of his life as experiences and intellectual interactions drew attention to areas that required development.
Our own conference and Dr Archie Penner are mentioned in a brief account of Hershberger’s work with our churches regarding an appropriate response to labor unions (231ff).
Hershberger’s thought and life is driven by his community values, and in the spirit of this interest in community he was a key figure in several experiments in community living in both urban and rural settings. He was also a supporter of the MMA as an attempt to band together as community for mutual aid in preference to institutionalized commercial insurance.
War Peace and Social Conscience is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in peace theology and one man’s project to bring this theology to bear on all of life, encompassing personal, social, and industrial, as well as national/international concerns.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Falling for a Shadow

John Mason Brown was a drama critic and speaker well known for his witty and informative lectures on theatrical topics. One of his first important appearances as a lecturer was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brown was pleased, but also rather nervous, and his nerves were not helped when he noticed by the light of the slide projector that someone was copying his every gesture. After a time he broke off his lecture and announced with great dignity that if anyone was not enjoying the talk, he was free to leave. Nobody did, and the mimicking continued. It was another 10 minutes before Brown realized that the mimic was his own shadow!

Most of us have been victims of frightening monsters which turned out to be nothing but innocuous shadows. Many of us have worked hard at achieving goals only to realize that the promise we sought was but an insubstantial shadow. In Philippians 3 Paul warns us against falling for a shadow - the shadow of a religion that promises more than it can deliver, the shadow of a religion that pretends to show us Christ, but which is in fact a chimera that blocks our view of Christ and ultimately distracts us, with its siren call, to our own demise.

Paul writes this letter from prison, likely in Rome. He begins with robust statements of thanksgiving for the Philippians and their “partnership in the gospel” (1:5). The letter exudes appreciation for their spirit, and exhortation to emulate the humility of Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider it necessary to grasp at all the trappings and accoutrements of divinity to which He had indisputable claim (2:6). Paul’s concern for the welfare of the Philippians is palpable and his burning desire is for their continued growth to maturity. He has invested himself into this church and he is eager to see that investment return dividends, not for himself, but for the Philippian believers.
In chapter 3 we are given a profound insight into the nature of this development which Paul longs for them to experience. “Finally”, he says “rejoice in the Lord.” This is evidently a recurring theme with Paul, because he freely allows that he is repeating himself, but he expresses his hope that this redundancy will prove beneficial to his listeners.
So he wants his Philippi an believers to rejoice in the Lord, but his elaboration as to how this should occur takes a surprising turn. Immediately on the heels of this injunction to “rejoice in the Lord” Paul issues a warning: “Watch out for the dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” Evidently one of Paul’s primary concerns regarding the Philippians joy is the threat posed by certain “men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh”. The concern clearly runs very deep with Paul, yet calling these people dogs seems strong language. What is it that has Paul so incensed? On the face of it this seems to be an issue regarding circumcision, but Paul himself has been all over the place on this circumcision thing. In his earlier days he would have been mortified had he not been circumcised, so how is it that he now considers proponents of circumcision to be dogs? What’s more, the very next line has Paul making the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision.” Paul seems to be saying there is a real circumcision, but what these people are chasing is only a shadow.
Circumcision, you will recall, had been a distinguishing mark for as long as the Israelites had been a people. If you are circumcised you’re in, if you’re not you’re out. It was how the chosen people had marked their uniqueness as the people of God. It was a reminder, a very physical and indelible permanent reminder to them that they were chosen, called out to be a special people for God. They were in, everybody else was out.
But circumcision was more than an arbitrary mark to set themselves apart. It was done in explicit obedience to the God who had called them out in the first place. Circumcision was the sign given to them by Yahweh himself, and Yahweh instructed them to be careful to observe this practice as an everlasting covenant.
Genesis 17:9-14
9 Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
So there you have it. God himself told them to do this, so why is Paul getting all bent out of shape over what is clearly a simple matter of obedience? How can Paul call people dogs for doing what God had instructed them to do? Is it really possible that the very people who are most devout in their insistence on obedience are in fact chasing shadows?
Philippians 3:4b-6
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Nobody, but nobody, would out-circumcise Paul. If there were markers to distinguish true believers, Paul had them all. He was a Believer among believers.
But if this is about markers, how do we translate this into our own time? By what marks do we know which side we are on? How do we separate the sheep from the goats? There could be many interpretations, but how’s this: Baptized at 14, an adherent of the Christian religion, a Protestant, an evangelical, denominationally affiliated as a Mennonite (or insert your favorite non/denomination), saved by faith not by works, a holy passion to know God, I faithfully memorize scripture and pray before all meals.
But Paul goes on:
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” What? All this good stuff is loss?? What’s with you today Paul? First you derisively call those who obey God “dogs”, now everything we have been taught to value and cherish in our heritage is to be considered loss? What is going on?
Keep in mind that Paul is not simply saying that all these things are bad. Read Romans for a glimpse of how Paul feels about his heritage, about circumcision, and about the law. In Romans 2 Paul talks about the Jews and the law and he says “Circumcision has value if you observe the law.” Clearly circumcision is not a bad thing in Paul’s view. When Paul talks about the futility of seeking righteousness by keeping the law, he says (7:12) “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good”. These words are not to be taken lightly. Paul has an astonishningly high view of the law and places great value in keeping the law. In chapter 9 Paul expresses the great sorrow and unceasing anguish of his heart for his people and their heedless squandering of the incredible blessings that are theirs as God’s chosen people. In fact, he could wish himself accursed for the sake of his people. Not for moment can we allow ourselves to think that Paul has anything but the utmost respect and enduring appreciation for these things which he now counts as loss for the sake of Christ. Paul enjoins obedience to God and to scripture frequently, and many of these things which he now considers loss, circumcision is one example, are done in obedience to divine instructions. So how does obedience become an occasion of loss?
If all these things are good things, why does Paul consider them loss for the sake of Christ? It would be relatively unproblematic if he called them useless or neutral, but he does not. Paul calls them negative baggage, they are a loss, they put him at a disadvantage when he wants to know Christ. These things get in the way. But how do good things get in the way of what is best in our lives? How do these good things, these things that are intended to help us toward God, in fact become obstacles between us and God? More to the point, is this a problem unique to Paul and the Jewish people or could we suffer the same problem? Could it be that the better our religion works for us, the greater the danger that it will in fact become an obstacle between us and the God we claim to serve?
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
What did Jesus say in John 14:6? “I AM the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But if Jesus is the only way to God, then our religion is not the way. If Jesus is the only way to the Father then my beliefs and my confessions are not the way. If Jesus is the only way to God then there is no other way and any other way which is purported to be a way can only be a distraction from the one true way. That is why all these good things, which are intended to help us find God, so easily get in the way of our finding Jesus as the only way. That is why all these good things, all these markers by which we distinguish who’s in from who’s out, are a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, our only way.
Are these things bad because they distract us from Jesus? No, because they are given to us a tools, as guidelines to help us find God. In Galatians Paul calls the law a tutor who was given to lead us to Christ. The law is a good thing, and our religious heritage is a good thing, but the more we revere the law, and the more confidence we place in our religious/cultural/social heritage, the greater the danger that we will become satisfied with the tutor and abandon our quest for the God who is always here, always with us, always within us, but also always beyond our confident grasp, because God owns us, we can never own God.
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
No amount of law-keeping, no amount of right living, not even any right believing will be for us the righteousness that God gives. The righteousness of God comes only from God as a gift, and we appropriate it by faith, but it is not given only if we have the right kind of faith or the right kind of belief. Indubitably we experience it in proportion to our faith and our obedience, but our experience never accurately reflects what we have been given. Now we can only see through a glass darkly, then we will know fully as we are fully known by God even now. Paul seems to emphasize the radical gifted nature of this righteousness when he restates his original statement “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” and he repeats it as “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Faith is subsequent to the gift of righteousness which is bestowed as a free gift, but living faith is how we experience God’s gift of salvation and it creates space for salvation to take root in our lives and grow to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Just a little earlier Paul told the Philippians (2:12-13)
12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
We have a role to play in the growth of salvation in our lives, but it is never an original role; it never starts with us. Our role can only ever be a parasitic response to the original grace of God in our lives “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” That is why Paul is eager to consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, for whose sake he has lost all things, because his freedom, his righteousness, his salvation is found in Christ Jesus, not in his religious heritage, not in his obedience, and not in his orthodox beliefs. (We could go into some detail here about how some of what passes for evangelical orthodoxy owes more to Greek philosophy and it’s development into the Cartesian rationalism of the “cogito, ergo sum” than it does to a robust Judeo-Christian understanding of Scripture, but the restless shifting and the glazed eyes tell me this is not the time or the place.)
Paul’s driving desire is to know Christ because it is knowing Christ that imbues his life with a character of integrity that a religious expression can only imitate weakly, and usually attempts to circumscribe. Religious expressions are often implicated in twisted attempts to make life look better than it really is. Paul wants to know Christ without regard for where it takes him, and this is a powerful indicator of how knowing Christ eclipses everything else in his life. Paul says
“10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul begins with sentiments that we can all echo whole heartedly. We all want to know Christ, we all want to know the power of his resurrection. Of course, that’s a no-brainer. But Paul knows that resurrection presupposes death. There can be no resurrection without a prior death. If we want to know the power of his resurrection, we will have to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. Precisely what that means Paul seems not to be entirely certain saying “and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” We could talk about that for a while, but ultimately I believe this is something which we work out in life as we follow Christ’s example day by day. To know Christ is, ultimately, to live the life of Christ in our own time. We cannot understand the meaning of sharing in his death or resurrection unless we live that meaning. It is in some sense as we die to ourselves and all the markers of our religious expressions, and it is as we learn what it means to live to God alone, which can never be done as something distinguished from our mundane life, that we find ourselves truly alive for the first time. That in itself becomes a kind of resurrection.
And so our choice is clear, but that does not make the choice easy. We can choose life, the life we have come to appreciate, the life in which we are comfortable and satisfied, a religion that works for us, or we can choose resurrection life, which will inevitably mean death. This is why it is so important for Paul to know Christ. As long as you choose the life you know, death will hold a terror for you because you cannot escape the knowledge that at some point your choice for life will be rendered moot. Only when you choose Christ over life can death’s terror be mitigated, because only Christ is larger than life and death. Hence the passion to know Christ beyond any religious understanding and commitment and excessively simplistic obedience becomes the only real choice for life, for life lived in the ordinary, employing and appreciating all that is good in life, including one’s heritage, one’s religion, and one’s theology, but always remembering that these good things are stepping stones only as long as they remain utterly dispensable in the overarching quest to know Christ.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Disappointment with the Kingdom

How do we respond when our dreams for God’s kingdom don’t work out? What does the kingdom look like? What does kingdom building look like? Should we be concerned with building the kingdom or should we concentrate on keeping ourselves out of the way so God can build his kingdom? “Participate in what God is already doing” What should we think when our plans and efforts towards kingdom building fall apart, when our dreams for God’s kingdom are dashed? What do you do when Canada has 2 of 5 skaters in the gold medal race and they take 4th and 5th? Mt 11 deals with precisely the sort of questions that arise when one is disappointed with the kingdom of God.
In this text the kingdom builder himself says “blessed is he who does not fall away on account of me.” Don’t let disappointment with the kingdom turn you off of the kingdom. Your disappointment is almost certainly rooted in a misunderstanding of what the kingdom is about, rather than any deficiency with the kingdom itself. Let your disappointment be a beacon that alerts you to a new vision for the kingdom, a vision for the kingdom God is already building, rather than the kingdom you think should be built.
The kingdom of heaven is not primarily about the right theology or religion, the right evangelistic tool or the correct biblical structure for church governance. The kingdom of heaven is healing for the sick, sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, and life for the dead. It is good news preached to the poor. The kingdom is not only about making our world a better place, though it should seem a better place with all of the foregoing. Primarily the kingdom of God is about recognizing and proclaiming and endorsing God’s saving, healing, life-giving activity that is already at work in our world, because without that work our world could not be. The kingdom of heaven is God’s kingdom, and it is God’s work, a work in which we are privileged to participate, but it is never ours to circumscribe. In fact, it may well be that disappointment with the kingdom is far less injurious to our experience of the kingdom than is a facile satisfaction that has us fooled into thinking that the kingdoms we build are adequate representations of the kingdom of heaven. Let’s celebrate God’s kingdom. Let us not be weary by reason of our disappointments with the kingdom, and by all means, let’s continue to be surprised by unexpected encounters with the kingdom of heaven that is so near.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Book review: Engaging Anabaptism

Engaging Anabaptism John D. Roth, editor Scottdale, PA/Waterloo, ON: 2001
Engaging Anabaptism provides a perspective on Anabaptist theology in the words of thinkers from a variety of traditions. Almost universally the conversation with the Anabaptist tradition was couched in terms of interaction with John Howard Yoder, who is credited with re-introducing the Anabaptist voice to the current theological conversation. McClendon describes his experience of reading Yoder’s Politics of Jesus as a second conversion (21). Variations on this sentiment was echoed by other conversation partners. While the emphasis on Yoder’s work is understandable, it does mitigate the value of this book as a conversation with this radical tradition. Whatever one’s evaluation of Yoder’s representation of Anabaptist values, this radical tradition consists of more voices than only Yoder.
The well known emphasis on community and an integrated care for the poor and powerless are prominent themes. The peace stance linked to a concern for justice was a frequent point of entry into Anabaptist thought for the contributors (76f). Most noteworthy, however, is the recognition that ultimately Anabaptist thought is persuasive not primarily of the basis of convincing argumentation, but on the strength of a deep resonance with the biblical text (33, 77).
What I take to be the most decisive factor in Anabaptist thought, the hermeneutic which takes the life and teachings of Jesus to be the primary lens for understanding all of scripture, is contrasted with the comparatively weak centrality of Christ operative in much of Christian theology. Marshall notes that “all Christian traditions are Christocentric, which is what makes them Christian in the first place,” but “it is Anabaptism’s central commitment to the paradigmatic significance of Jesus’ life and teachings that offers the soundest basis for genuine integration to occur” (46f). Murray cites the difference in the hermeneutic as Christocentric rather than Christological (98). Whereas Christological methods interpret scripture with references to doctrines about Jesus, the Christocentric approach recognizes Jesus as God Incarnate, and reads all of scripture in consideration of the life and teachings of the God we see in Jesus.
This book is a worthwhile read for those who are interested in how theologians from other streams view the Anabaptist tradition. The caliber of contributions in this volume range from fairly short testimonials to more extended interactions and critiques. They also range from fuzzy feel good affirmations to strong endorsements to maintain our eminently biblical commitments because we supply a voice that the broader Christian community needs to hear.