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
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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Revelation as Foundation of Faith

Last week was reading week for my students. It was also my chance to do some preparation for upcoming courses. Today I met with one of my former theology professors to chat about a course on Revelation and Faith I'm delivering in the Winter semester. I must confess that I've wanted his job for years now. He is responsible for introducing me to the work of Jurgen Moltmann as well as helping me understand that it is the questions we ask that matter. As I'm beginning to lay out the course I wanted to benefit from his many years of experience teaching the course (he is retiring). This course has been a bit of an obsession the last week and I need to put it aside while I get back to weekly lesson prep. Hence my post is late.

But before I put it aside, I wanted to share some of what I've been reflecting on.

Finding faith in the Pentecostal church revelation was a tricky subject. Much of what we related to as being God's revelation was taken as an all or nothing proposition. This was very clear in the way we looked at receiving personal prophecies. We mostly believed that it was either completely on (usually the way we initially received it) or it was off the mark. So if someone gave me a word then it was mediated (interpreted) in the moment, often by them but sometimes by myself as well, and it was taken as gospel truth. That is until it was brought into question then usually the whole word was thrown out as being of the flesh, pizza, or sometimes even of the devil (thankfully not often). The problem with this schema is that it misses the role that we play in how revelation actually works.

I remember distinctly pacing in the school's atrium and thinking about how we play a role in mediating revelation. Meaning not so much that we can get it wrong (although we sometimes do) but that we limit the meaning because we are human and God is not. Theologians put it this way, every revealing of God is also a concealing, we always know in part this side of the veil. So we shouldn't expect to not have had a role in the interpretation (meaning making) that went on in our experience. This does not mean it wasn't God. And even better, it means that God is not done with the revelation given in that moment.

I remember pacing in that atrium thinking about the words that had been spoken over my life. Words that came up over and over again. And what started to happen was that the meaning of those words began to increase. They became even more meaningful. They also began to wrap around the journey that I'd been on and give me a glimpse of what God had been doing all along. It is not lost on me that several years later, in that same auditorium, I had an elder of a church meeting in my school prophecy many of the same words over me yet again - cool story, I'll share it some time.

So I want to encourage you. Revelation is God's self-communication to us. We should expect that it will keep speaking and not limit the meaning to the interpretations of the moment. We should also expect that as we mature our understandings of God's revelation will mature. That we can expect the prophetic word of God to become more sure.

Remember the words God has spoken over you. Ask the Spirit to continue to reveal more of Jesus through those words. Be encouraged - God always has more in store for us.

Frank Emanuel - Freedom Vineyard

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thankful for Friends

Happy Thanksgiving! 

We had the opportunity this week to share a couple meals with good friends. Some Vineyard folks passing through Ottawa stopped by and Sunday night we shared turkey with the couple that were leaders in our own congregation. When we moved last year one of the things we were looking forward to most was having better space for entertaining the people we love. So after dinner as we all sat around in our living room, when my oldest pulled her chair around to make a circle, it was like a dream come true.

Friends are a real source of life for us. This is especially necessary when going through the intensity of pastoring. Jon, who came up with his family earlier in the week, has been but a skype call away whenever I've needed him. Having people that we can talk to when trying to sort through things, make hard decisions, or even just recover from being treated poorly - all the sorts of things that can happen when we risk ourselves in ministry - is so important. Having them close is even better.

Also it is through the way we interact with our friends that our kids see our faith in action. Our kids are at the age where they are exploring things on their own, trying to figure out the important questions. This is when they are less open to imitating our faith, but at the same time super observant as to what our faith actually does in our lives. I am conscious that I don't want my kids to be sold a false image of faith, while at the same time seeing how important our faith is to us. We demonstrate it in what we value in those relationships - giving, encouraging, praying, etc. And it even works out in how we interact with our friends who don't share our faith - how do we respect and value those friendships as well.

So this thanksgiving I am truly grateful for my friends.

What are you thankful for?

Frank Emanuel - Ottawa, ON

Monday, October 6, 2014

theology: doing it wrong

Frederick Buechner writes that, "...all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can the rough-and-tumble of his own experience with all its ups and downs, its mysteries and loose ends, and expressing in logical, abstract terms the truths about human life and about God that he believes he has found implicit there." [1]

I have found this to be true in my own life. I find the nature of God carved throughout my life experiences, sometimes in fine, deep grooves with exquisite detail, sometimes in barely noticeable scratches. I see the glimpses of the Inexhaustible One in every step of my lifelong learning journey. I see the Loving One beaming through my relationships. I see the Creator dancing in the wind as it swirls around the leafy trees outside my window. But perhaps harder to accept (and yet easier to feel) are the marks that come through failure and disappointment: painful slashes, sharp chops, and disfiguring dents that leave me changed forever, wondering if I am still whole or capable or good or even beautiful.

Getting things wrong is fine and dandy in a classroom, in a practice session, when learning to ride a bike or make sushi, but in theology...well, we are perhaps not so gracious with ourselves and with each other. However, truth be told, much of my knowledge of God comes from reading about the experiences of people like Abram and Sarai, David, Elisha, Hosea, Ruth, Peter, Martha, and Mary. They made plenty of wrong assumptions about God, about Jesus, and about the nature of their relationship to the Divine. The stories surrounding their failures contain some of the most lucid and transformative revelations about God that we find in the Bible.

Personally, my theology is always being rewritten, and I believe that's a very good thing. A changing theology does not reflect an elusive and unstable God or a God in process or a God of my own making. No, it says that God is God and I am not. I get things wrong, I misinterpret things, I jump to conclusions. We all do, but the beauty of theology is that it moves us forward in our ability to describe a relationship with the Eternal One, the Good Father, the Righteous Judge, the Lover of Our Souls. We catch increasing glimpses of glory, goodness, and mystery, and we continue to search for truth. And getting closer to the truth probably means trying a few things that won't work.  The tricky part is in recognizing when we are off-track and when things don't line up.

The four sources for theology are commonly held to be the scriptures, reason, tradition, and experience. When these four come together in harmony, theology sings with clarity and strength, vibrant with the voice of the Holy Spirit. If one of these four elements becomes a shrill voice, out of tune and disagreeable, or perhaps goes totally silent, we have to ask ourselves, "Where did we go off key?" Theology is meant to be done in community. I need others to point out my blind spots, to ask questions that I would never think of, to strengthen me where I am weak, and to surround me with their unique but harmonious voices. I have to be willing to be wrong, to make adjustments, to have my vision of God enlarged and corrected.

Sometimes adjusting our theology and our ideas about God can feel like we are being disloyal to the church, like we are betraying the Bible, like we are being asked to be unreasonable, or like our faith is on shaky ground. And yet, it is the way that revelation works: when we are confronted with an aspect of God that we had not previously considered or experienced, we must be willing to put aside our current viewpoints and embrace what the Holy Spirit reveals to us. Read the story of how Peter had his mind changed about God's view of non-Jews in Acts 10. It rocked his world!

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb and holder of over a thousand patents, famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If a theologian uttered those same words, we might think him a pretty sad example of a theologian, but I think one of the primary characteristics of one who studies God should be a deep humility. Our subject matter is the mysterious Inexhaustible One, after all!

Now I am in no way condoning throwing out the creeds or basic doctrinal tenets found in the scriptures and starting from scratch. No, no, no! We stand on the shoulders of great fathers and mothers in the faith and we must not take lightly what we read in the scriptures; tradition and the Bible are sources of theology, remember? I am simply acknowledging the fact that as we continue to seek God, we may from time to time be surprised and maybe even shocked by God's extreme generosity, by God's radical justice, and by God's power of redemption. I suspect that it will continue to be so for all eternity. But I might be wrong.

"Without faith no one can please God because the one coming to God must believe that God exists, and he rewards those who come seeking." Hebrews 11:6, The Voice

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (Harper & Row, 1982), 1.

Monday, September 15, 2014

ThoughtWorks Library Project

One of the dreams I've had for ThoughtWorks is a resource library. This afternoon I spent some time with my old pastor Jim Rennicks going through his library. He's clearing the clutter and he happened to have tonnes of tape sets from back in the early days. Listening to his stories from the early days was a much needed refresher. But I also came away with tape sets, workbooks, and a good assortment of books with Vineyard connections. Over the next while I'll set up a LibraryThing account for the ThoughtWorks and I'll make these available for whoever needs them. In fact I think some of this stuff is quite rare now so if anyone in our network has the means to digitize tapes that might be quite helpful. (NOTE: I have now entered the books in our thoughtworks account. I'd like to add a copy of each of the books used in our ThoughtWorks curriculum, so I'd appreciate any donations you might want to make.)

Once I have the resources databased, my idea for a lending library is that we'd get the resource to you provided you agree to get it to the next destination. We'd keep track of who has what, connect a request via email and spread the wealth. For example, let's say Jon wants to read the first edition copy of Breakthrough I scored. I'd send it to him (probably via mail) and he'd understand that when someone else requests it he will be responsible to get it to them. We could also take donations of books for the library, simply adding them and noting who they can be requested from.

Frank Emanuel - Ottawa