Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mark Your Calendars!

So we are on the schedule for enLive. I don't have a location yet, but Tuesday at 2PM there will be a coffee meetup sponsored by the Society of Vineyard Scholars. Come hang out with SVS, Thoughtworks, and Vineyard Institutes folk. Find out what going on. Find out how our programmes and services can work for you.

Can't wait to see you all there!

Frank Emanuel - Pastor Freedom Vineyard

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

We are Going to Enlive!

I'll have a post up soon, just working out the details on a coffee meetup at enLive. This meetup will be jointly sponsored by the Society of Vineyard Scholars and ThoughtWorks. We'll also have an information table set up throughout the conference. Details coming soon.

Frank - ThoughtWorks

Monday, July 7, 2014

what was the question?

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Recently I was talking to someone about the difference between pursuing answers and developing good questions. As descendants of the Age of Enlightenment when reason and the scientific method were posited as optimum paths to truth and reality, many of us tend to be drawn to certainty, to cut and dried answers, to equations that are easy to understand and implement. Just google "Five Easy Steps" and see the number of articles out there offering advice on everything from creating a marketing plan to switching banks to achieving happiness. Unfortunately, life is not a tidy equation, at least not in my experience. Neither are interpersonal relationships, community life, or biblical interpretation. In my learning journey, I have found it more helpful to look for the underlying question than to search out simple answers for specific situations. For example, the question, "How do I get to Montreal?" offers much more room for adventure and creative navigation than asking the question, "Do I turn left or right here?"

One of the annoying habits professors (and good teachers like Jesus) have is to answer questions with more questions, inviting the student to discover something larger than their original query and inevitably, to learn more about themselves in the process. One professor I had always provoked us with her query: "What is your question?" This was difficult for me to answer because I seemed to have so many and they pointed in many different directions. She made a simple but profound observation that I always seemed to be searching for an encounter. Light bulbs went off in my head when she said that! Yes, I was (and still am) always looking to make a connection with someone, to meet the real person, or to get at the heart of a text, to discover what the writer was getting at. In fact, the main question that drove my master's thesis was this: "I should really be liking this writer but I can't seem to connect. What am I missing? What don't I get about her?" My professor's observation continues to guide my doctoral research and has also helped me in how I teach, pastor, lead, read, study, and interact with others. It is my quest. It reflects my deepest values. It is the direction my life points.

A friend of mine told me that her ongoing question is this: "How do I love like Jesus loved?" What a beautiful and challenging journey this question has set her on. When I look at some people, I think their question might not go deeper than "How do I make more money?" Or "How do I get famous?" Or "How do I get people to like me?" That's a bit sad. And even sadder is the fact that the questions we ask as Christians are sometimes not that much better: "How do I get more people to come to church?" or "How can I increase the giving at my church?" Are these really our underlying questions, the ones that guide the direction of our lives and on which we focus our energies? I hope not. I hope that we have much more beautiful questions than that.

For further thought, check out 100 Questions Jesus Asked put together by the Archdiocese of Washington.  Very interesting. I especially like 6, 21, 26, 54, 68, 74, and 98.

What is your question?

Monday, June 23, 2014

How Does God Speak?

I'm reading a book by Tri Robinson right now, and I'm loving all the stories of how God has spoken to him over the years. This is something I've loved about our Vineyard family, that we are quite open to seeing God speaking to us through the situations of life. In the book he was relaying the story of how he came to Jesus, having seen this slide and song presentation about Psalm 42 and then heading into the desert to a significant spiritual place for him. There, crying out for God to reveal if Jesus is really God's Son, a deer walked right up and started at him just like in a recurring slide from the presentation.*

In one of the courses I teach I deal with how we interpret such experiences. It is a bit technical, meant to get at how we can resist the urge to narrow the meaning we derive from such experiences. I love how such experiences can be opened up to grow with us and to help us to grow with them. God's voice is often the voice that has the most potential to challenge and grow us. The reason I think it is important to spend time looking at such experiences academically is because they are such a huge part of my own formation. I look for God in the experiences of life, and more often than not I see and hear God this way.

We run a prophetic workshop through our church, both in our own groups and at other churches that have invited us to come share. The basic premise is that God is speaking to us all, in ways we are uniquely attuned to hear. The problem is that we are not encouraged to recognize or go looking for (listening for) the voice of God. But scripture is full of stories of people who hear and respond to God's voice - a voice that is expressed in a diversity of ways and always full of rich meaning. So in our course we get people to share some of the ways they've heard God speak and how it has shaped their lives. Those are always profound moments.

For myself I've been hearing God speak, in various ways, since before I even came to Christ. In fact it was the voice of God that saved my teenage life, one I had been bound and determined to waste away on drugs. As a teen I was out using some pretty nasty chemicals when I heard a voice tell me to go home. I said no to the voice, blacked out and awoke to discover I was halfway home with the drugs in my hands. God said, "go home and live or go back and die." It was very clear, but it needed to be. After a bit of hesitation I threw the drugs away and went home to have another God story begin - perhaps another post. That experience, which happened about two years before I came back to Christ, convinced me that God did speak if we could learn to listen. I think of my whole Christian life as one of learning to listen.

There have been lots of other ways that God has spoken to  me over the years. Found imagery, such as when I was raising the chalice and bread in a wedding I was performing - and just then a fish jumped (it was outdoors by a lake) superimposed from one element to the other and all I could think was, "this is God's provision for this couple." To scriptures leaping off the page to encourage me at times when I needed it most. For example, once when I was a young Pentecostal preacher an older man challenged me because I had no education. It shook me, but I felt led to read 1 Timothy 4 when I went to prayer that evening, and again God spoke to me encouraging me to be faithful with the gifts I had and trust that God would open the doors for the training and education I needed when the time was right.

I don't know about you, but I love these stories. I love that they happened to me. But I love hearing what and how they happened for others. We are blessed with being part of a movement that values hearing God's voice today. So in the spirit of that, what are your stories of God's speaking to you? How have you heard God and how has God's voice transformed you, encouraged you at the right moment, or even challenged the way you believed? Sharing these stories is important for us as a Vineyard. It keeps that expectation and tradition alive. It reminds us that we are a movement that values the voice of the Holy Spirit. I'd love to hear some of your stories.

Frank Emanuel - one of Freedom!

* You can read about it in Tri's excellent book Saving God's Green Earth (2006, Ampelon: pages 40-41).

Monday, June 2, 2014

I want to be [like] a Navy SEAL

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I read an article this week which was based on the commencement speech given by Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Ops Command, at the University of Texas at Austin. It had a lot of good advice in it and I realized that many of his points were very applicable to those of us who have a long-term commitment to encourage people towards transformation as beloved children of God. Before you read my thoughts, you might want to take a look at the original here.

I won't repeat the whole speech nor itemize all of his points, but I will pick out 5 principles which really resonated with me in my role as a teacher and spiritual leader. With apologies to Admiral McRaven for borrowing heavily and adapting slightly that which he had to learn by hard and long experience, here are some things we as spiritual leaders can learn from the Navy SEALs.

1. Do little things well. McRaven talks about how in SEAL training they had to make their beds every morning to very exacting standards. The beds were then inspected by their instructors to ensure that they had done the job correctly. It might have seemed like a silly task that was a waste of time and energy when the trainees already had very full days, but it reinforced the principle that the small things count. In the work of pastoring or teaching or discipling, I can find it discouraging to look at the big picture because so often there is little progress to note. However, if I look at the small things, at faithful practices done daily or weekly with consistency, at relationships that have withstood the test of time and trial, I am reassured. If you have ever entered into a building where prayers have been uttered for hundred of years (like Iona Abbey), you notice that the very place seems transformed, distinctly different from other places, holy and set apart and heavy with the presence of God. This is what small things, over time, can produce. A kind word given, a floor swept of crumbs, a pat on the back, a cup of cold water offered. Learn to do the small things well, because as Admiral McRaven says: "If you can't do the small things right, you will never do the big things right."

2. Do life with someone. The Admiral uses the example of a SEAL team paddling a boat where everyone has to pull in unison. This is true of any faith community. We are so much more together than we are separately. We need each other, not only to pull together and get where we are going, but to be agents in each other's transformation. Discipleship happens when we do life with others. Jesus showed us that.

3. You won't always get it right. Move on. Inevitably, every SEAL trainee found themselves having to endure some humiliating and physically demanding consequence as a result of their performance not measuring up. In fact, the instructors made sure to find things wrong even when all seemed perfect because it was important for the trainees to learn to keep moving no matter what. This is a tough lesson for someone with perfectionist tendencies like me. We can't always go back to fix our mistakes or make things right. We must learn to accept what has happened and move on. I am not talking about giving up on people or making restitution or restoring broken relationships wherever possible. I am talking about trying to get everything perfect. It's impossible. A wise person knows when to acknowledge that the talk they just gave wasn't their best, that they said something inappropriate, that they forgot an important task, that they stepped over the line of good taste, that they disagreed with someone just a little too vehemently, etc. It's bound to happen. No matter how hard we try, some people will be offended, some friends walk out of our lives, some opportunities will be lost, and we will be disappointed with ourselves. Despite our best efforts, it will not be good enough to keep everyone happy or make things work out exactly as planned. This is where we must learn to live in mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and keep moving.

4. Failing can make you stronger. The Admiral tells about the rigorous physical tests the SEAL trainees had to do. These tests all had standards and if a person did not meet these standards, they were invited to what is called the "circus," extra hours of grueling physical workouts. Though some people ended up in the dreaded "circus" time and again, the result was that they eventually grew stronger and stronger. All that extra work paid off! We all hate this lesson, but it's true. Those who have to struggle, to do extra work to catch up with others, to suffer through disastrous consequences and find a way to work through them, to patiently start from the beginning again and again, to keep going when everyone else has finished- if they do not give up, these people become some of the most resilient people you will ever meet, exhibiting an inner strength that comes only from struggles like these. Thomas Edison, the American inventor,admitted that many of his ideas did not work. He said: "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Those who fail and keep going inevitably gain strength and skill in the process.

5. Be your best at the worst of times. The example Admiral McRaven gives is the SEAL training exercise where they swim underwater for 2 miles and then have to find the keel underneath a large ship. When one gets under the ship, you cannot see your hand in front of your face, that's how dark it is, and the noise from the ship's engine is disorienting. At this darkest moment, the Navy SEAL must be at their most calm and composed, able to call upon all their skills and do what they were sent there to do. The ability to be at your best in the darkest times is really tough, but it is something I am intentionally trying to cultivate in my life. When I am tired, sick, overworked, unprepared, in a high pressure situation, or just in a dark time in my life, that's when I want to be living in the most peace, exhibiting the most grace and patience, living fully aware of the nearness of God, loving and kind to those around me, and able to draw on the wisdom and discernment of the Holy Spirit. This doesn't happen by accident; it takes some practice, so I should not be surprised if I get a few "dark times" coming my way. May I see the potential they hold for training.

Doing theology can often seem theoretical, philosophical, and detached from everyday life, but it should not be. It should be a gateway into spiritual exercises which not only test our ideas and beliefs but increase our stamina and strength in the qualities of love, mercy, grace, justice, and hope. And it is this combination of theology and spirituality which makes us fit for great service in the kingdom of God.  


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Critiquing the Past

I'm teaching Intro to Theology again at the university and this time I have online students. So we are doing a private blog experiment. I post a blog with questions after a couple of the lectures and the students interact with it as part of their assignment marks. It's working great so far.

Our last class we finished up a brief overview of the history of Christian theology and after I met up with an old friend. So when this old friend began criticizing Calvinism I decided to weigh in with some of the stuff I was teaching about the history of the Reformation. The conversation started to go sideways so I did the only sane thing - invited him to pray with me. We prayed, God came, we had a more normal conversation.

So I came home to write my first blog challenge with the class and this conversation on my mind. My blog was about the ways we critically engage with theologies of the past. The conversation was quite insightful - I always seem to have such great students! The students didn't seem to get that part of my line of questions was me processing the encounter with my old friend. And through the conversation there emerged a sense of responsiblity in critically engaging the past.

One insight was that there is often something that unsettles us about the way theology is framed in the past. That this can be a good thing in that it can lead us to wrestle through to what is essential and what needs to come forward in our culture. Evangelicals are innovative, if we are anything. We tend to do this part intuitively - reframing conversations and styles to faithfully present the gospel in every context we have seen. Because this emerges form discomfort, the tendency is to be highly critical of the past theologies. To even blame them for holding us back. But the reality is that they did the same thing we are doing - which is how they ended up with the framing and form the did. So that led to the second important insight: retrieval.

When we've found new ways forward the responsible thing to do is then to go back and retrieve what is good - even if that is a good reputation. I am not a Calvinist, but I did find myself defending Calvin and his theological offspring. This is because when I look at the conditions in which Calvin worked, the challenges he faced mediating between Luther and Zwingli, I am impressed to say the least.

The responsible thing is to honour the past, thank the past for pushing us into the future while also being faithful to the message it had received.

In a time when all denominations and movements seem to be shaking up things. It is a good reminder that we owe a debt to the past and while it does push us into the future, it also knew that same pushing from its history.

So how do you honour traditions and theologies that you no longer find helpful?

Frank Emanuel - Pastor Freedom Vineyard

Monday, May 5, 2014

the problem with ultimatums

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We have a thing for ultimatums. We use them in our everyday lives: "Clean up your room or no dessert!" We are subject to them in our workplace: "Do this personal favour for your boss or your job is in jeopardy!" We love to watch movies and television shows based on them: "Give me 1 million dollars or someone you love gets hurt" (hostage drama) or "Pay me 10 million dollars or I tell your dirty little secret" (blackmail). They fascinate us because not only can we identify with the feeling of powerlessness, but we love to see someone find their way around the restrictions of an ultimatum and defeat the person trying to assert power over them.

Yesterday in our Sunday gathering I told the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and their encounter with the fiery furnace (you can read the whole story in Daniel 3). It is a story based on an ultimatum. Nebuchadnezzar, that tyrant of a king, decided it would be a great idea to have a 90-foot statue built. The reasons behind this gigantic effort could have been any or all of the following: to assert his power, to intimidate his subjects, to quash disloyalty and thereby, to better unify his kingdom. But I suspect that at the core of it all was the embarrassing fact that he felt somewhat powerless and insecure. Whatever the case, he issued an ultimatum: when the music played everyone was to bow down and worship the statue or they would be tossed into a fiery furnace to suffer a horrible death.

Well, wouldn't you know it, there were three Hebrew expatriates, in leadership positions nonetheless, who did not comply. Even though the king gave them another chance to prove their loyalty to him, they refused. Politely but firmly. These three didn't react like most characters do in those movies which depict people in desperate, ultimatum situations. They didn't panic, they didn't meet to discuss possible options and devise a clever plan of action, they didn't try to defend themselves or talk their way out of it. They just respectfully declined to participate in the ultimatum. They said their God could deliver them from that fiery furnace, and if he didn't, well, he was still a trustworthy God. They did not even try to coerce God into saving them (no fervent prayers like "You've got to save us, God, or you will look bad!"). Strange.

Well, the king lost his cool and flew into a rage (sure looks like there was some insecurity there). He had the fire stoked even hotter and demanded that the three men be tied up and tossed into that blaze in a hurry. He didn't even give his guards time to put on any protective gear so they were unfortunately killed in the process of feeding Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to the flames. What the king saw next totally shocked him. There were 4 men walking around in the fire, unbound, and the fourth guy had the look of a divine being. Whoa! Even stranger, the 4 men didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave the fire, so Nebuchadnezzar had to call them to come out! The 3 Hebrews exited the fire, no smell of smoke on them, their clothing not even singed, and everyone was astounded.

The king quickly aligned himself with the source of this power and issued another ultimatum: no one was to speak against this god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego or they would be torn limb from limb and their houses destroyed. Sigh. Old Neb just didn't get it.

The problem with ultimatums is that they can never occupy the same ground as trust or friendship. If you need something from a friend, you just ask, you do not threaten them or intimidate them. Ultimatums are not based in mutual trust, in fact they try to eliminate personal risk by placing all the risk on the other person and seek to obliterate the other's free choice while maintaining the illusion of choice. An ultimatum is using leverage or a threat to influence another's behaviour to benefit ourselves. It reveals that we, in fact, feel powerless and friendless.

Nebuchadnezzar operated from a conquering mentality (you are either with me or you are someone I need to subjugate or kill). And he hadn't really changed his ideology by the end of the story: he was still employing the same tactics (issuing ultimatums) after he saw the power of Jehovah, but he was aligning himself with what he wisely perceived to be a greater power. It was all about being on the side of power, not about entering into a relationship based on trust.

On the other hand, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego lived in the paradigm of friendship and trust. They did not serve a God who issued ultimatums but who promised to be with them, no matter what happened. They didn't try to coerce God into rescuing them from the threat of death because that was not the nature of their relationship; they didn't serve a coercing God. The trust went both ways, as it does in a friendship. In the story, we never get the sense that the 3 men felt threatened at all. They trusted that God would be with them, not that he would arrange a certain outcome.

Too often, I believe we operate in the paradigm of ultimatum instead of friendship. We have all heard preachers issue the ultimatum: "Repent and believe in Jesus Christ or go to hell!" Is that really how Jesus talked? Jesus said, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17). That's hardly an ultimatum, that's an invitation to see that God is right here with us, near to us, and to respond!

It is interesting to note that the word "come" occurs 2078 times in the Bible and the word "repent" only appears 44 times. Mind you, not all these words are used as imperatives nor refer directly to the relationship between God and humanity, but I think the proportion is somewhat telling. God is not a God of ultimatums, threats, or intimidation, as if he needs to assert his authority. God is a God who offers relationship, who calls us to friendship, who invites us to trust him, love him, hope in him, and be with him. God is a God who walks with us, even in the fire. Now that's a true friend.

Let us lay down our ultimatums; they only reveal our insecurities and testify to our powerlessness. Instead, let us offer friendship at our workplace, through our leadership, in our families, and in our day to day living. This is what Jesus did.