Tuesday, April 7, 2015

is theology helpful?

Image from radiofreebabylon.com
The ever candid and refreshing Anne Lamott recently wrote: "Now, two Sundays ago, I had two boys out of three in my youth group that same age [17], who have had brain cancer. One still has it. The other is blind in one eye. At a church with 30 regular members. Right?
(The first thing I am going to ask God when we meet face to face is, "What on EARTH could you have been thinking?". And He or She will know exactly who I am talking about, the many way-too-young who have died or had serious pain so far, in my 60 years here. Who have been raised by closet psychotics. "What was THAT all about?" God will say what God said to Job--"I'm God, and I don't have to explain. Plus, there is a zero chance you would understand. No offense. Rock on.”)
I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God's got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seem; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives. I hugged them goodbye. I said, "Go get em."" [1]
In thinking about the nature of evil and all things horrible, we can soon find ourselves asking, "How in the world did it get this way when God started it off with goodness oozing out of every molecule?" It is a question that is not likely to be answered to our satisfaction, as Anne suggests. This makes me think that it might not be the best question for us to ask. Jon Stovell (Vineyard Canada theology guy) suggests that we might do better to ask a different question. Instead of "Why would a loving and omnipotent God allow evil in his creation?" he suggests that we ask, "Why did he put us into this world before he was done perfecting it?"Jon bases his question on the idea that while God gave creation a really good start in Genesis, it is not yet completed. We see the final fulfillment, the end of the story, the new creation is all its splendour, evident in the final chapters of Revelation. And the answer to this better question, Jon suggests, is this: "To help."[2] In Lamott's words:"All we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives."
The recurring themes in the Bible do not revolve around how to make sense of life, nor around providing rational answers to philosophical questions, not even around understanding what God is doing (though we as theologians keep looking for that). The recurring themes have to do with chaos being reordered into goodness and beauty, suffering being infused with meaning and mercy, and death being transformed into new life. I don't understand it, but I can participate in it. And that is the point Anne and Jon are both making. We are here to help the helpless, speak words of comfort to the disconsolate, hug the unloved, and bring beauty and kindness wherever it is lacking in this world. Because that is what God does for us. And to me, that is the task of theology.
"Only a few can be learned, but all can be Christian, all can be devout, and - I shall boldly add - all can be theologians." - Desiderius Erasmus

Matte in Montreal

[1] Anne Lamott's Facebook page, March 23, 2015.
[2] Jon Stovell's Notebook: http://jon.stovell.info/notebook/on-human-suffering-and-the-problem-of-evil/, February 2, 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where's Jesus?

You've seen those children's books in which the challenge is to find the small, distinctive figure of Waldo in a highly-detailed, colourful illustration filled with dozens and dozens of people doing various activities. It's not as easy as it seems.  Following Jesus can be a bit like this sometimes, in my opinion. Jesus can be difficult to recognize in challenging, complex life situations that buzz with activity.

Image result for chichen itza
Image from travel.nationalgeographic.com
On a recent vacation to Mexico, Dean and I visited Chichen Itza, the most famous of the ancient Mayan ruins sites. Our tour guides informed us that the first century Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of multiple nature gods (snake, jaguar, sun, rain, corn, etc.). This highly sophisticated civilization established one of the first written languages, developed complex mathematics (including the concept of zero), engaged in elaborate astrological calculations pinpointing the equinoxes and planetary orbits, and built some of the most elaborate temples and structures all without metal tools of any sort. One of the most disturbing features of the Mayan religion was the incorporation of human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods and ensuring good crops. The clever incorporation of numerology, symbolism, and religious ritual in all their structures reveals an incredibly intricate system which fused astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, politics, sociology, and superstition in an effort to bring harmony between deities and humans and guarantee prosperity and longevity.

The crumbling buildings testify to the futility of it all. I found Chichen Itza to be a bit of a dark place, a sad place, a hopeless place. A place where it was hard to see Jesus. One of the most complex, sophisticated religious systems in human history could not save itself or its people. No amount of blood-letting, sacrifice, religious ritual, or human ingenuity could bring about the desired peace and prosperity.

The day after we returned from Mexico, I heard someone quoting from a book by Jack Klumpenhower entitled Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. It brought my experience at Chichen Itza into perspective by showing me my own depraved tendency (as a teacher and budding theologian) to construct a moral system for others to follow instead of simply inviting them to an encounter with Jesus. I have not yet read the book myself, so let me offer a quote from the book cited in a review.

Typical religion is about doing what your god or gods require; it's following your beliefs and methods to achieve some goal or approval ... Let's  face it: Christianity is often packaged this way. Live a good life and things will go well for you. Find the right spiritual resources and you'll be blessed. Ask Jesus into your heart and you'll be saved. This is why many people say all religions are the same. In some sense, they're right. But Jesus didn't bring typical religion. He brought good news... The principle [of news] is, "Here's what happened, and it will change your life." News is not what you do, it's what someone else has done that affects you. The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you've done to prove yourself worthy. If you are a believer, the good news says that God already accepts you fully - he's adopted you as his child - because you're joined to Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Yes, believing this means a changed life. Flat out. You'll have a hungry, iron grip on Jesus. You'll run after him forcefully. But you'll do it because you rest in him. All your effort to obey will be a response to what he's already done, never a performance to win his favor. There's no need for such scheming. No pressure. No false fronts.

The typical lesson for kids isn't like this. Instead, it tends to be what mine were for years - little more than a lecture about some way you ought to live for God. Such lessons create pressure and invite pretending. We've been dispensing good advice instead of good news. Eventually, kids will tire of our advice, no matter how good it might be. We'll wonder why they've rejected the good news, because we assumed they were well grounded in it. In fact, they never were. Although we told stories of Jesus and his free grace, we watered it down with self-effort - and that's what they heard.

The reviewer goes on to say that outward obedience without heart change is dangerous. Ouch! This is pretty much the same thing Jesus is saying in Luke 11 when he rebukes the religious leaders because of their fastidious attention to rituals and laws and their neglect to the things that really matter: justice and the love of God.

I believe one of the reasons why it was hard for me to see Jesus at Chichen Itza and why it is challenging to recognize Jesus in different situations in my life is because I am too preoccupied with other sights and sounds. My vision can be overwhelmed by darkness or confusion. My sight can be obscured by the values of this present culture. My mind can be distracted by the tasks that are always demanding my attention. My view can be distorted by mixed motives in my own heart and in the hearts of those around me, especially those whom I respect. And I can be blind because Jesus is often disguised in humble form, many times in my very own brokenness.

Like the blind man in Mark 8, I need Jesus to touch my eyes so that I can see him. I need a community of friends who will point me in Jesus' direction and who will approach Jesus on my behalf (intercede for me). I need to let Jesus take me away from the crowd. I want to let Jesus touch me in whatever way he chooses (even spit in my eyes). I want to let Jesus control the process of healing, learning, and transformation and not become demanding or impatient. I want to learn to stay with Jesus and let him touch me again and again and again until I can see him clearly.

Where's Jesus? Let me quote part of the prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me

This is my prayer today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pray and Break Bread

I came across an article a few weeks ago which described one of the pedagogical tools used by City Seminary of New York. City Seminary's focus is purposefully narrow: to provide "leadership development for urban ministry in New York, primarily in the city's ethnic and immigrant communities where Christianity is thriving." And one of the ways in which they engage their students with urban ministry is by making the city their classroom; in fact, Professor Emmanuel Katongole, a theologian originally from Uganda, says that, "The city is the seminary." The school's primary focus is "ground up" (valuing experience) instead of "top down" (students sitting in a class and taking notes from a learned scholar). The seminary emphasizes participation and communal settings within an academic setting. The students not only study theology, but learn about New York and its history, and spend time looking at global Christianity.

Green Spot Restaurant in Montreal
Image from mapoutine.ca
One of City Seminary's initiatives is called "Pray and Break Bread," a series of pilgrimages in which students travel to each borough in New York and spend a few hours there. They learn about the history, demographics, resources, and challenges of the area, they spend some time meditating on scriptures, then they break into small groups and wander around, praying as they go. They finish the time with a meal together at a local restaurant, offering reflections on their time walking the city. Rev. Mark Gornik, the pastor and scholar who launched City Seminary in 2003, remarks: "We're on the streets, learning from one another, having a great time together and sharing food. That is the seminary in a nutshell."

We at Vineyard Montreal pray for our city every week as we gather on Sunday mornings in a local downtown library. We have, on occasion, done prayer walks in our neighbourhood, but are always looking for fresh ways to engage more meaningfully with our city. The model of "Pray and Break Bread" gives us a framework to get on the ground in our city in a number of ways. When I mentioned the possibility of trying a "Pray and Break Bread" event, people in our faith community were enthusiastic about it. So enthusiastic that I immediately had two volunteers who said they would be willing to lead one. They will do some research on a particular neighbourhood in Montreal and present us with their findings, acting as tour guide as we walk around, praying for God's blessing and healing in general and for any people we encounter along the way. And they will select a local eatery where we can share food, support a local business, exchange reflections on our mini-pilgrimage, and experience being part of the neighbourhood for a few hours.

To me, this sounds a lot like the work of Jesus: walking with people, praying for people, eating with people, listening to people, talking to people, visiting people, bringing hope, healing, friendship, and good news wherever we go. Let us be good news for our city as we pray and break bread, whether informally in our day to day lives or in more intentional ways as demonstrated by City Seminary.

All quotations taken from the article by Bob Wells, "The Wonder of It All," in Faith and Leadership, December, 2009. You can read it here.


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.

blessings,
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,