Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Defending my Thesis

Sorry for the radio silence. I expect that things will open up considerably next month. Tomorrow I will sit across from four examiners as I defend my doctoral thesis. My thesis is: A Theology of Social Engagement for Evangelicals: An Inaugurated-Enacted Eschatological Proposal. It is a Vineyard contribution to evangelical theology and a set of theological resources for developing better proposals for evangelical social engagement. I'll post some reflections on the whole process after. For now, I would love to feel the support of your prayers.

Frank Emanuel - Vineyard ThoughtWorks

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Slow theology

Image from wikipedia.org
I came across an interesting television show this past week. It was produced by the Norwegian public television network, NRK, and it documented a cruise ship's journey up the coast of Norway. In its original form, it was a live broadcast lasting over 134 hours. That's 5.5 days, in case you are wondering. This little network had previously produced a documentary chronicling a real-time 7-hour train ride across Norway. Due to its surprising popularity, the producers immediately began planning the next marathon television event, this time a 5-day cruise. Due to its live component and regular updates via social and other media, the broadcast ended up including thousands of spectators and fans waving along the route.

This trend has become known as Slow TV, a genre of television coverage which follows an ordinary event from beginning to end without a break in the timeline.[1] It is mesmerising and immersive. I can testify to that, even though I have only watched small sections of the 134 plus hours of the cruise broadcast. There were 11 cameras in play so the scenery does change, but not with the quickness we are accustomed to in a half-hour television show or in the movie theatre. The producers kept the camera trained on a cow walking along the coast for 10 minutes. Mesmerising, I tell you.

Anyway, this got me to thinking about other "slow" trends like slow food (in contrast to fast food). The slow food movement encourages people to know where their food comes from and to take a more active and appreciative approach to food production and by doing so, support local ecosystems and traditions. So you start with apples grown in my mom's backyard, slice them up and put them in a pastry crust made with love in my mom's farm kitchen, add a few spices, some sugar, pop it in the oven, then serve it warm on a faded piece of vintage china at my mom's antique wooden table with a cup of tea. That's slow food. Or you can just go to McDonald's and order their mass-produced apple pie to go. Which would you rather enjoy?

Slow and fast come with their own value systems. Fast values mobility, slow values stability. Fast values efficiency, slow values relationships. Fast focuses on activity, slow prefers sustainability. Fast relies on mass produced products, slow values hand-made items.

Things like love, friendship, faithfulness, or wisdom all take a long time to develop. And they are supposed to. A declaration of love after knowing a person for less than an hour carries little weight, but this same statement after 50 years of marriage is awe-inspiring. Things of lasting value can't be rushed.

About a year ago, a book came out called Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Authors John Pattison and C. Christopher Smith suggest that our faith communities should follow an incarnational instead of an attractional model. Instead of trying to get people to come to our church, we should be living as the church in our community. The focus is on the daily discipline of "deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies." And that's slow going, you know it is. In her review of Slow Church, Leslie Leyland Fields offers this summary of the central idea of the book: "Churches should cultivate long-suffering with one another because God himself cultivated his people patiently, over generations. Anxiety over scarcity pervades our culture, feeding competitiveness rather than cooperation. But the church's generosity and hospitality are fed by a God of abundance. The Sabbath allows us to enter God's own time and economy, to 'pause our striving and start abiding.'"

The whole idea of slowing things down instead of hurrying things along is not a new idea. "Don't imagine, dear friends, that God's timetable is the same as ours; as the psalm says, for with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. Now the Lord is not slow about enacting his promise - slow is how some people want to characterize it - no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God's. So, my friends, while we wait for the day of the Lord, work hard to live in peace, without flaw or blemish, and look at the patience of the Lord as your salvation." - 2 Peter 3:8-15. God's patience is our salvation. Hmmmmm.

Take a look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. "The Holy Spirit produces a different kind of fruit: unconditional love, joy, peace, patience, kindheartedness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You won't find any law opposed to fruit like this. Those of us who belong to the Anointed One have crucified our old lives and put to death the flesh and all the lusts and desires that plague us. Now since we have chosen to walk with the Spirit, let's keep each step in perfect sync with God's Spirit. This will happen when we set aside our self-interests and work together to create true community instead of a culture consumed by provocation, pride, and envy." Galatians 5:22-26. Working together to create community. That certainly doesn't happen overnight.

Slow Church is what we do in Montreal. There is nothing flashy about our little group meeting week after week after week for years and years and years in locations all over the city, doing the same thing over and over and over again. We worship God, we pray for each other, we learn together, we try to form a bunch of rag-tag people into a community where everyone can feel safe and at home. It takes a long time to transform self-centred, frightened, proud, wounded, success-driven individuals into a group of friends who will stand beside each other through thick and thin, good and bad. It takes time because we have to establish new habits and build new pathways into our lives, ones that will keep us in step with the Spirit of Jesus. But God is patient.

So let us be patient as well. Let us practice a theology of slowness. Instead of agitation, let us practice patience. Instead of anxiety, let us practice peace. Instead of being quick to judge, let us practice longsuffering. Instead of being easily discouraged, let practice faithfulness. Instead of relying on our own abilities, let us practice living in Sabbath rest. Let us practice abiding and being present with Jesus. No rush.

Matte from Montreal

All biblical quotes from The Voice translation.
[1] If you want more information on Slow TV, here is a Ted Talk by Norwegian producer Thomas Hellum. And if you have the time, here is the link to the entire 134 hour coastal cruise broadcast.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Most Overlooked Resource for Healthy Leadership

It was during the year of our 25th wedding anniversary. Seventeen years ago Sabrina and I planted a church.
We planted in a city 1 1/2 hours drive from where we were then living. We assumed our home would sell within a month or two so we could move to our new found community.
As it turned out, we commuted back and forth several times a week for eighteen months before our house eventually sold. In that first year we experienced two deaths in our immediate family. We had exhausted our retirement savings fund to stay afloat. (We were bi-vocational without a vocation). And, when our house didn’t sell as soon as expected, we had more than a few people question our decision to plant a church. When our house finally sold, there was still plenty of drama surrounding the event of finding a new place to live.
All to say, at the end of that first year my wife and I were drained on many levels….even though the new church seemed to be getting off to a good start.
Within two weeks of moving to our new home a friend called. “Wayne, my wife and I are taking you guys away for 5 days. Get someone else to preach next weekend and be at our place next Friday night with your sleeping bags and your pillows. We will look after the rest”. That was it.
We showed up at their home the following Friday night not knowing exactly what it was that we are saying yes to. Now that is trust. Both of their vehicles were in their driveway and a canoe was on top of each car. Early the next morning our friends loaded their cars with all the gear and food needed for an ‘off-the-grid canoe trip’. (They didn’t even want us to drive our own vehicle on the trip that followed). Five hours later we were canoeing into the remote lakes of Northern Ontario.
The next five days were the perfect counter point to the crazed life we had been living. Sabrina and I received a generous space from our friends to grieve the deaths of two special people in our lives. They encouraged us to recount all the wonderful things God was doing in our lives. And our friends reminded us of how valuable we were to God and to them. We returned home encouraged, refreshed, strengthened, and so thankful.

Healthy Leadership Has Generous Friendships

This is only one of many stores that we experienced with our friends. And there have been others in our life since then that have become life giving friends for me through the generosity of their love.
Here is what I have noticed in my life and in the lives of many of the leaders that I coach. The deepest friendships do not occur with the people we are in active ministry with. I think it is too difficult for people to allow you to be yourself when they primarily see you through the lens of what you do (or think you should do).
I assume you already know that to remain healthy in ministry you need a life giving relationship with Jesus. You also have heard that you need to keep your ministry responsibilities second in priority to your relationship with your spouse and family.
But I want to focus this article on friendships. The most overlooked resource for remaining healthy as a ministry leader is friendship.
The kind of friendship where the person generously provides space for you to live in God’s freedom and love. They provide the kind of space for you to honestly process your life. A place for you to be you. A place where you can share your moments of incredible joy along with your experiences of life draining losses. A friendship marked with laughter and tears. A friendship where you not only receive but you are welcomed to bless this person in return. The healing and transformation that occurs in such friendships is GOLD.
I speak from my experience as a Leadership Coach and as a Spiritual Director when I say. “Your health as a ministry leader will be short term without one or two friends. People, who generously provide space for you to experience God’s love and freedom”. Often times they are people who are outside of your ministry, and even your denomination or tribe.
I believe that generous friendships are born out of our attention to John 13:34. “Love one another as I have loved you”. To be a life giving friend you need to first receive the life giving friendship offered you by Jesus.
A couple of chapters later Jesus says this about friendship. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”. (John 15:13 E.S.V.)
This is exactly what it seemed like to Sabrina and I during those five days in Algonquin Park. Our friends set aside their own priorities and needs to pour themselves into our lives.
Perhaps you are reading this article and now realize that you don’t have this kind of friendship in your life.
You can change that, beginning today.

Here is God’s heart for you.

God desires you to remain a healthy leader. He will lead you into mutually self-giving relationships with a few others.
I find it helpful to remember that every friend you have begins in the same way. You and your friend were once strangers. Then a relationship began and it grew and took shape over time.
If you realize you have overlooked the resource of ‘friendship’, three thoughts come to mind.
1. Abide in Christ. He alone meets all our needs. Friends are like the hands and feet of Jesus. Realize that no matter how awesome your friends are, they can never supply what Christ supplies.
2. Just as Christ is generous to you, be generous in your kindness towards others, including strangers.
3. Expect God to be faithful to bring someone into your life who will bless you by exceeding your ability to bless them. It is just another display of God’s awesome Kingdom. You can’t outgive the giver (Christ Jesus).
God will give you all you need to remain healthy and finish well. This includes friendship.

Wayne MacQueen - London Vineyard
Wayne and Sabrina are amazing pastoral care givers to the pastors and leaders of the Ontario Vineyards. Wayne does leadership coaching and spiritual direction and can be reached through this website here. (FE)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Minority Christianity

Image from thewomensbook.com

Sometimes I hear followers of Jesus bemoan the fact that we don't have more influence in our culture. Society seems to be getting further and further away from our Christian values instead of adopting them, we lament. This is taken as a very bad sign and possibly an indication that we are nearing the end of the age. While Christians may find it troublesome to live in an increasingly secular society, it is nothing new. A hostile culture was the birthplace of the church and the seedbed in which the disciples of Jesus grew to become confident and vibrant evangelists spreading the good news everywhere they went. 

When we look at church history, we observe that there were times when Christians were in the minority and times when the church had great political power and influence. I once had a debate in a class I was teaching about which served the church better: being persecuted or being aligned with power. There were supporters on both sides, but a clear majority of students believed that political power should never be mixed with religion. Being a minority, it seems, can foster certain desirable characteristics which are usually absent in those who have society's favour on their side.

Living as a fringe group and being a minority with limited power and influence gives you several options. 1) You can accommodate yourself to the culture, trying to fit in and gain influence, 2) you can separate yourself from society and its values, retreating from the world to a large degree, 3) you can push back, being vocal and visible in drawing definitive lines between yourself and the culture, or 4) you can re-interpret everything in society through your own meta-narrative, making it fit into an ultimately victorious story where your values win out. As you can probably tell, I believe that none of these options are ideal, the major reason being that this is not how Jesus modeled life for his disciples.

Instead of overthrowing the dominance of the Romans (political change) or firing the religious leaders of the time (religious reformation), Jesus engaged with people wherever he found them. What Jesus taught was not so much an external re-ordering of priorities as the importance of internal transformation - a new birth. This meant that change had to work from the inside out instead of from the outside in. That's hard to accept (it doesn't look very impressive) and even more difficult to practice. Unless you are a minority. Then inside-out becomes much easier, because it is one of the few viable options on the table.

Being in a minority means that you have no way of enforcing the ten commandments, no way to make people listen to the gospel, and no way to insist on biblical values. And oddly enough, Jesus didn't seem to find this a big problem. Instead of waving a holy wand and changing the entire culture, he lived and worked in an environment which was unfriendly to his people group and doubtful about his message. What he did in this environment was rather astounding: he loved people one at a time, called people to follow him one by one or two by two, and healed people through personal encounter and intimate touch. So much slower than political decrees or in today's world, mass media, but gaining a voice of influence seemed to be the last thing on his mind, evidenced by the directive he gave to certain ones not to tell anyone about their healing.

Please understand that I am not endorsing imprisonment, slavery, torture, or any form of violent or repressive treatment of Christians. Those things aside, perhaps being in the minority as a follower of Jesus is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it is a good idea to let go of our sense of entitlement, especially in Western society, to a pervasive adoption of Christian values. Because what being a minority does is offer us the opportunity to trust God with the results. It offers us a chance to become better listeners instead of constantly spouting off our views. It provides us with occasions to embrace those who are different than we are, to see the good in unlikely places, and to focus on loving relationships instead of spending so much time trying to increase our circles of influence. If Jesus did it, perhaps we can too.

Some of these ideas are taken from Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Baker Publishing Group, 2012. Having lived in Croatia during repressive times, Volf has some wisdom and hard-won experience in this area,

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Story that Transforms Us

This weekend I was listening to an interview with Karen Armstrong and was struck by her description of contemporary religion - as a focus on believing. Meaning that religion devolves into simple beliefs rather than profound stories that transform us deeply. I see this in how we evangelicals tend to package up our gospel message as simply getting people to assent to a set of propositional beliefs instead of calling people to the difficult task of being Jesus' disciples. Armstrong really gets at this when she says that "people prefer to be right than to be compassionate." I can't help thinking of how Jesus himself preached the gospel to the rich young ruler: "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Luke 18:22b)

Armstrong's argument then leaps into the thrust of those stories that religion tells. Stories orient us, often in stark contrast to our socio-political context, to being those who live a deep and profound faith. While she anchors this argument in the common religious teachings about compassion, I see Christian discipleship as more than just finding a common core to religion. It is about living in and through the whole story of our religion. As Christians that means living primarily in and through the gospels and secondly living in and through the whole of the Bible through the lens of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. This entails much more than simply assenting to some faith declaration - such as declaring Jesus as Lord. Central as that may be to Christian faith - the declaration isn't just something we say we believe, it is something we show we believe through accepting Jesus' lordship over every area of our lives. Discipleship is a lived out paradigm.

Stories are what bring us to discipleship. In our desire to distill faith to a set of propositions we've missed the power and beauty of story. When we read the story of the gospels, we don't see just the propositions - but we see the living out of such beliefs in ways that transform the world. This is the incredible power of religion. We can tell a story that changes the world.

So how has God's story impacted your life? How do you live in and through that story?

Frank Emanuel

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Theology and Justice

What is the best of our faith? Is it its ability to make us feel at ease in the world or is it its ability to motivate us to act on behalf of the poor and unjustly treated? I'm convinced it is the latter. I grew up being taught that God helps those who help themselves. Of course reading the Bible dispels that little myth. It turns out that God helps those who cannot help themselves, and His preferred mode of doing that is through his body the Church. At its best, our faith orients us towards God's heart. As Danny Daniels sung, teaches us to love the things God loves. God's love for us is not only a catchy message, but it is the reality that reaches into our every situation and lifts us from the mud and mire. 

When I think about how this message reached me I'm always reminded of all the people that God made me aware of along that journey. From the Campus Crusade workers who visited my home to tell me God wanted to be central in my life to the evangelist who met me in a pizza parlor and was so burdened by God for my salvation he simply went back to his hotel and prayed me into the Kingdom. And it continues as God speaks through those people around me, drawing me deeper in love with Jesus and passionate about righting the things that break His heart.

I'm thinking about this a lot as I near the end of my course on Religion and Culture. We've spent the semester deconstructing religion and faith. This allows us to develop tools to get at what the best of religion and faith might be, and the political dimension is one of the main thrusts of these final lectures. But there is another aspect that I'm wrestling with. At this point all the deconstruction needs to lead to moments of reconstruction. Moments where we put our faith back into our bodies and see what has grown and what has fallen away. It is in this time that I hope my students are putting back in the best of their religion and faith. Putting it back in stronger as they recognize the voices along the way, as they recognize the profound ability of religion and faith to transform our world.

How has your faith grown? Has it made you uncomfortable enough to act? I want to encourage that.

Frank Emanuel

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why Method Matters

Red Vineyard at Arles (1988) by Vincent van Gogh
Image from www.commons.wikimedia.org
I spoke to a group of graduate students in a theological method class just over a week ago. Admittedly, methodology can be a very dry subject, but it is an important one, for the method one uses sets one on a certain trajectory, and I think the direction we are heading is pretty important, especially in theology.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a young man in a theological school classroom. He was finding the lesson dull and boring and he began to wonder why the writings of great theologians were being presented in such an uninteresting format. At times he actually stuffed paper in his ears to drown out the lecturer and instead, surreptitiously read theological writings of the early church fathers which he found much more exciting. His question was this: what has gone wrong with theology to make it so boring? Instead of letting this question turn him away from theology, he set out to discover the answer, and in the course of doing so, came up with some innovative approaches to the subject.

The young man was Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), and he found that his experience studying in the Neo-Scholastic tradition at a Jesuit school in France contradicted his belief that theology should be the study of fire and light that burn at the centre of the world. In his book, L'Action, French philosopher Maurice Blondel wrote: "As soon as we regard [God] from without as a mere object of knowledge, or a mere occasion for speculative study, without freshness of heart and the unrest of love, then all is over, and we have in our hands nothing but a phantom and an idol." Similarly, Balthasar believed that God cannot be reduced to an abstract concept or an idea to dissect. So what did Balthasar suggest instead? He wrote: "It is not a question of recasting theology into a new shape previously foreign to it. Theology itself must call for this shape; it must be something implicit within it, manifested explicitly, too, in many places."

Balthasar decided that the starting point of theology should be beauty. He said that doing theology is like a person gazing at a great work of art. In my talk last week I showed the students a reprint of Van Gogh's Red Vineyard at Arles (1988). I asked them to describe it to me in one word or with a short phrase. They used words such as "harvest," "sunset," "work," "countryside," and one student even remarked that the painting made him feel hopeful. I then asked them why no one described it as a piece of particle board, approximately 11 inches by 12 inches with 60% of the wood being covered in red and yellow tones and 40% being covered in blue and green tones. The answer was obvious to all: because that is not how one engages with a work of art. A good painting has heart, soul, and passion, and one must engage with it on those levels. The content and the presentation of a subject cannot be at odds with each other. Content and method should be in harmony, one reflecting the other.

If method naturally reflects the subject matter, then theological method should reflect the character of God. In other words, how we do theology should reflect the creative, communicative, generous, relational nature of God. In writing about method, Balthasar noted a distinct difference between the German words Historie and Geshichte. They can both be translated as history, but Geschichte also carries with it the sense of story: "Historie is the exact science of history, but its results are always hypothetical; Geschichte is the past as it continues to influence the present, experienced as a living reality." The two phrases which stand in contrast here are "exact science" and "living reality." For Balthasar, theology always fell squarely in the category of living reality and never that of exact science.

Theology, then, should reflect the vibrant, in-the-flesh, living reality which we find in Jesus Christ. Theology's driving force should be that God is Love, and its trajectory should reflect this love being continuously communicated throughout history and in our present time in ways which are culturally relevant and yet stand above culture. It is interesting to note that Balthasar's quest for a dynamic theological method came out of disappointment, and it is my experience that some of our greatest questions are birthed out of disappointment. Let this also be part of our theological method: that disappointment drives us to ask great questions which lead us to search for better, more creative ways.

Practically speaking, it means that theology becomes a community endeavour, an interpersonal dialogue, a place of generous exploration, a place to experience revelation, a place to encounter beauty. When studying theology, I usually feel a bit overwhelmed and undone. I never want to lose that sense, because it is a sign of wonder. And theology is all about wonder. Sometimes theology can leave us confused, conflicted, and disappointed, and sometimes it can make us joyously excited. Whatever the case, let it always invite us to draw closer to Jesus and learn from him.

It seems to me there's so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of. - Vincent van Gogh in "Vincent and the Doctor," Doctor Who, Series 5, Episode 10.

There is nothing more artistic than to love others. - Vincent van Gogh