Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

My hope is that you are holding your loved ones close and spending time reflecting on the birth of our great Savior.

May this New Year bring ever deepening revelations of God's love for us and may God lead us to share this love with the lost and needy all around us.

Love and Blessings!

Frank Emanuel on behalf of the National ThoughtWorks Team.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Merry Christmas. Good Night. 2.


Hi friends,

I'd like to introduce a new music project that Adrian Wilson (from the Guelph Vineyard) and myself have contributed to.  It's called "Merry Christmas. Good Night. 2".  It's a follow up to an EP last year, and it's available for free from noisetrade here.

While it's clearly a Christmas record, it's far too easy to think of Christmas music and either listen to it to get in the "Christmas spirit", or disregard it if you've been Christmas-ed out.

This is different.  These are songs that celebrate the incarnation of God.  Each of the original tracks here spring from this theological mystery and explore the majesty and simplicity and implication and impossibility and certainty that God came to us, physically incarnated himself, and then lived among us in the person of Christ.

In the Church's emphasis on the cross, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, which is a good and right emphasis, I sometimes hear a kind of disregard for this crucial element of God's story.  It's as if the death of God trumps His birth as a necessary component of the Gospel.

That God physically incarnated to be among us, as one of us, is central to the Christian narrative.  That he did so the way he did says so much about the nature of his personality, and much about what our own lives should reflect.  The incarnation is precisely what makes the rest of the story make sense.  The resurrection of Christ only matters if he was indeed a human person, with all the frailty and inherent mortality that our bodies have.  Of course God could resurrect, that's hardly even newsworthy.  But that a man did, that He resurrected to an eternal state of physical embodiment... wow, now THAT means something.

This record seeks to put language to the incarnation.  The contributing artists, all very good friends and deep souls, struggle to capture the divinity and humanity that get knit together in Jesus.  May this offering enrich your celebration of Immanuel, God with us, this Christmas-tide.

Here are the lyrics to my song for this project, entitled "Joy Joy Joy"


You’ve made a home
Of a bag of bones
That we might touch and hold
And see and know

Your frail frame contains
All heaven’s dreams
And here lies God’s campaign
To heal the world 

And Joy Joy Joy
Joy Joy Joy
Joy Joy Joy to the world 

the Lord has come to us 
the Lord has come to us
the Lord has come to us
Like this

Not by might or glamour
Or clothed in Caesar’s armor
But with all heaven’s desire
In your soul

You came so humbly
Revealed through peasantry
Who proclaim faithfully
Their King has come



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Are You Reading?

I've been reading a great book on the history of the Contemporary Christian music movement. It is The Great Worship Awakening by Robb Redman. I will do a proper review when I am done. So far Redman demonstrates a real good understanding of the roots of contemporary music, especially the worship music industry. And the Vineyard figure large in his exploration, which is encouraging for me as it affirms that my own passion for developing theologically sound yet accessible worship is a value deeply ingrained in our movement.

For me reading a book is nothing new, in fact I've read a few books this month alone. Mostly in preparation for a course I was delivering, but I also read fiction at night. It is funny, I can read academic stuff all day until I have no more capacity to read and then for relaxation I will fire up my tablet and read a pulp fiction novel. 


Enough about my reading habits. I thought that this would be a great place to try to start a conversation. Why not tell us what book you are reading and how it is encouraging or challenging you. One of the things that is helpful with reading is working with the ideas you find. This is a safe place to do that. Books are incredible resources, but ideas require a working out process. We need to talk about them, explore their contours, and even trim off the fat. It is one thing to read a book, quite another to digest it.

So here is the proposal. Let us know what you are reading and what are your thoughts on it.

Hope to hear from you all soon.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Mystery of the Virgin Birth


As we enter the season of Advent, I’d like to begin our Advent reflection by first looking at one of the earliest orthodox affirmations of our faith - the Apostle’s Creed.

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,  
creator of heaven and earth. 
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, 
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, 
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; 
he descended to the dead.  
On the third day he rose again; 
he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, 
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
I believe in the Holy Spirit,  
the holy catholic church,  
the communion of saints,  
the forgiveness of sins,  
the resurrection of the body,  
and the life everlasting. AMEN.”

One of the earliest orthodox declarations of our faith contains the affirmation of an ‘Advent mystery.’  “I believe in Jesus Christ… conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” 

Many theologians have wrestled with the affirmation of this ancient mystery of the virgin birth of Jesus.  I do believe it is both good and healthy to ask questions about anything and everything that we believe, including our thoughts on subjects, which at times, are perceived as sacred and untouchable.  Where I believe we begin to threaten that health is in our insatiable demand for absolute, quantitative, definable, categorical, systematized answers.

For example, our worldview often demands a mechanized explanation of ‘the historical facts.’  One common objection to the virgin birth of Jesus is its conflict with the current understanding of science.  Science currently states that while the process of virgin birth is possible its occurrences are exceedingly rare and require a set of extraordinary medical conditions to coincide.  Genetically, science appears to state that a virgin birth could only produce a female child, not a male child.  Both science and medical experience state that the female child produced from a virgin birth would be in very poor health and not survive long.  (As the last sentence implies, there have been a few cases in modern times of suspected virgin births, including some genetic testing to attempt to verify.)  The end conclusion that many draw from this type of demanded rigid explanation is that because science doesn’t believe it’s possible Jesus was not born of a virgin.

Providing further objections is the thought that the story of the virgin birth is stolen from other religious narratives and later superimposed upon Jesus.  Elements of the Jesus narrative are thus syncretistic in an attempt to further legitimize claims of deity.

Because of the dominance of these and other thoughts, some theologians choose to demystify the virgin birth.  Explanations for what really happened are offered.  The demystified explanations in one way or another reject the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus being an actual historical fact.  ‘It couldn’t be this so it must be that.’  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all discounting the validity or usefulness of either scientific or various method criticisms.  They can be necessary and helpful tools.  What I am suggesting is that maybe there is a ‘third option’ beyond what our other tools can offer. 

Maybe the scope of ‘reality’ is beyond something that we can currently see or measure.  Maybe there is more at play than we have capacity to either perceive or understand.  I certainly get a similar impression about my sense of ‘reality’ when I study what Jesus and scripture has to say about the Kingdom and how different God’s reality is from my own.  The last are first?  Illogical!  Heaven joining earth?  Incomprehensible!  Resurrection and creation renewed?  Seemingly impossible!  Yet this is reality from God’s point of view.

I love the term ‘mystery of the virgin birth.’  Mystery provides us a framework for embracing the event that neither does the carnage of squeezing it into our limited boxes of understanding nor does it blindly accept something out of obedience to religion.

Christian theology is no stranger to mystery.  The Trinity.  The incarnation.  The two natures of Christ.  The church spent centuries of its early years wrestling over those mysteries (and not always in friendly ways).   While we develop some pictures for imagining these realities, at their core, these realities still remain a mystery.  There is something about these things that surpass our ability to fully know, to fully understand.

Good theology embraces mystery.  This idea has been a core value for the Eastern Orthodox Church and I believe it is something that we could all benefit by learning from them.  The embrace of mystery in our theology humbly acknowledges our God as being ‘bigger’ (in so many senses of the word) and “other than” ourselves.  It also rightly acknowledges humanity as the work of the hands of the Creator who transcends our abilities.  Mystery draws us into worship.  We don’t worship God just for what we do know about him; we worship Him for what we don’t know about Him.

Reflecting on the mystery of the virgin birth of Jesus leaves us with many questions.  (God bless those who seek to answer them.)  Yet, it also leaves us with the opportunity to embrace the idea that a mysterious and unimaginably capable God was intimately involved in the advent of His Son, Jesus for the sake of you and me that we may know the life He destined for us since the beginning. In Jesus we have a clear revelation of this mysterious God, of whom Jesus declares,  “with God, all things are possible.”  (Matt 19:26)

Monday, November 19, 2012

When Fundamentalists Talk Back

Pastor Luke Geraty
I was pleased to see that Tanya Luhrmann's book "When God Talks Back" finally arrived this past week (I pre-ordered the paperback.) I have been following quite a lot of the conversation that this book has been generating amongst Vineyard scholars and practitioners. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist who spent time in two Vineyard churches studying an evangelical faith that asserts we can and do have a relationship with a God who talks back to us. Not just in the big thundering voice of Zion way, but in the everyday lives of real people who love Jesus and seek to walk with Him daily. I can't wait to dig in for myself and I'll definitely post my observations here. But I wanted to point you to my friend Luke Geraty's response to a recent interview Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Albert Mohler conducted with Luhrmann about her book. (BTW Luke pastors Trinity Christian Fellowship (a Vineyard) and blogs regularly at Think Theology.) Mohler, it seems, has no love for the "hippie" Vineyard movement (not enough hell talk for his liking). This is surprising considering the Russell Moore also teaches there?

I commend this article for your edification.   

Monday, November 12, 2012

when discouragement pays a visit

A house on the Isle of Iona.
I wrote a blog this week on being visited by discouragement.  It resonated with quite a few people so I will revisit some of the ideas I presented there and add a few additional thoughts.

What is discouragement?  Rick Warren calls it a disease.  I'm not sure about that. The dictionary offers these options: the feeling of despair in the face of obstacles, the expression of opposition and disapproval, disheartenment, dissuasion.  In other words, discouragement tries to keep one from pursuing a particular course of action.  It can be used in a positive sense, such as when a parent  discourages a child from petting an angry cat or taking off their pants in public.  But many times a visit from discouragement causes us to doubt who we are and what we are doing. Discouragement comes to deprive us of courage, of passion, of hope, of faith.  However, sometimes it carries a hint of truth so we should not be too quick to dismiss it.  I believe a visit from discouragement calls for a careful response. 

Here is what happened to me this past week:

On Thursday afternoon I gave a presentation in a performance studies seminar. The readings in this seminar are outside of my usual genre and sometimes I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water, so I was hoping to do well. As I was showing a few architectural slides which I felt related to the topic, one person wondered why I was making these connections. Was my theme trauma?  I wanted to exclaim. "That's not it at all!'"  I was a bit thrown off by her question and tried to explain my thinking, but I wasn't sure I was making much sense.  Others in the group offered some additional observations and comments which seemed much more informed and nuanced than anything I had said. Oh well. On my way home from the class, I started to get really discouraged. Though everyone in the seminar had been friendly and gracious, I thought., "Perhaps I am doing really badly in this course and don't even know it." Yes, that seemed totally likely.  Here I was, a silly, uninformed theology student totally out of her league in a fine arts graduate seminar and everyone seemed to know it except me. A pit of uneasiness started to grow in my stomach. This was going to end badly, I knew it. And then I recognised that I was being visited by discouragement. What do you do when you are visited by discouragement? I decided that instead of letting myself be carried away by it, I would try to be honest, gracious, and responsible in how I responded. So here is what I did.

1. I acknowledged the discouragement. I didn't brush it aside as unfounded negative thoughts or try to overcome it through positive talk. I didn't want to avoid what was happening inside me. I tried to be truthful about how I felt and vocalised it, telling God what my thoughts were. I tried to let the emotion connected to the disappointment out in a safe way. Discouragement can be a bit like mourning because some aspect of hope has died, so I tried to face it with grace and courage and let it run its course.
2. After the emotion subsided a bit, I took a look at the situation. Was there a valid reason to be discouraged? I wasn't sure.  All I had was my gut feeling and my perceptions of how people had reacted. I decided that I had to find out more about the situation to see if there was reason for concern.
3. Though I was really tired and just wanted to stay at home, watch television, and eat chips, I got on the bus that evening and made the hour-long trip to a mid-week meeting with my faith community.  I engaged in meaningful conversation about a variety of topics, I laughed, I ate yummy snacks, and I asked a friend to pray with me. I gave the situation over to God. I gave the emotions over to God. I gave the past, the present, the in-between time, and the future over to God.
4. I ate a good meal. I went for a long walk. I read an inspiring book. I played with the cat. I breathed deeply and listened to some music. I let lots of life in. And then I got a good night's sleep.
5. The next day, after the fear and panic had pretty much subsided, I contacted my professor and expressed my concern about how I was doing in the course. He provided the clarification I needed and gave me some ideas for how to move forward. It wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined, but I had indeed picked up on something that needed to be addressed.

The visit by discouragement was relatively short and it left gently, easing off my soul bit by bit until I felt light and filled with hope again. There is still much work ahead of me in my course of study, but I no longer feel like I am floundering.  I am thankful that the visitor gave me the opportunity to take a good, honest look at my situation and get real about how things were going.  I am thankful that I fought the impulse to isolate myself and did not try to numb the discomfort through food and diversion. 

When I get swept away by discouragement, I can find myself off-course very quickly.  But if I take a moment to find whatever nugget of truth there might be in my discouraging thoughts and be attentive to it, I come out further ahead than I was before discouragement paid a visit. After this experience, I am not afraid of the next time that discouragement comes knocking. I know what to do.

Matte in Montreal


Monday, November 5, 2012

Challenge and Report

One of my hopes for a national blog is to generate conversation amongst our wider community. The challenge of Canada's huge geography for any denomination is how do we keep in touch with what God is doing all across the country. In fact the stories of the Kingdom, what God is doing, have been the lifeblood of our movement all along. We are not in this alone, so we cannot believe the lie that doing it on our own is sufficient. I know how easy it is to simply isolate, buckle down and do church. But it is not enough. So here is the challenge: What are your God stories? What is God doing now in your community? We need to hear the amazing, the good, the bad, and even the downright ugly stories. It is how we grow. It is how we remember we are part of something bigger, something worthwhile for all of us. So be challenged - share some stories in the comments or, if you like, send them to me and I'll post them up in a new series: Vineyard Stories. Help us to laugh, rejoice, wrestle and even cry with you as you pursue God's heart.

Also I have been greatly encouraged in our ThoughtWorks efforts. There is talk that a group of African pastors will be using the ThoughtWorks curriculum to train up leaders. This is exactly what we had hoped would happen when we developed a free, accessible resource to serve the Vineyard. If you haven't checked out the curriculum the head on over to the National ThoughtWorks Website and see if it can serve your community. It is simple, choose what will be helpful, contact your regional ThoughtWorks rep to arrange mentoring and have at it. For material you would like more indepth training each region has set aside budget to run ThoughtWorks seminars in local churches: that's right we will bring the training to you. We help you organize it too. We are here to serve the Vineyard in Canada. But, like with any kind of help, we cannot help you until you ask.

Hoping to hear from you all soon!

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region, National ThoughtWorks Chairperson

Monday, October 29, 2012

ways and means

Climing the stairs to the lookout at Mont-Royal with my faith community
The Jesus Way by Eugene H. Peterson. Wm. B Eerdmans, 2007. 289 pages.

I just finished reading Eugene Peterson's book, The Jesus Way.  It is one of those books that seems quite simple in its premise:  how is Jesus "the way"?  However, there is a lot of depth and a good amount of breadth in this book.  Peterson indicates that "way" refers to much more than Jesus being the definitive, unique pathway that allows us access to God.  In fact, the book is entirely concerned with ways and means, or "how" we follow God.  Peterson states: “My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name’” (1).   And here Peterson comes to the crux of the matter:  much of what we identify with Christianity incorporates utilitarian, impersonal, consumer-oriented, and efficient means in order to advance the kingdom of God.  And that is not the Jesus way.

Peterson identifies six biblical figures to demonstrate the ways and means that God chooses.  There is the example of Abraham and the way of faith, which Peterson explains as "trusting obediently in what we cannot control, living in obedient relationship to the One we cannot see, venturing obediently into a land that we know nothing about" (44).  Sacrifice and testing are at the heart of forging the way of faith; I readily admit that these means are not always something I want to be a part of.  The core question is this: are we using God for our own purposes or are we placing ourselves in a position of obedience to God's purposes?  A subtle but important difference.

Next is Moses who demonstrates the way of language.  Peterson writes about the power of story and metaphor and the holiness of words.  David shows the way of imperfection, and I found myself pierced through by this chapter which reveals perfectionism to be the ugly evidence of self-salvation.  Eugene calls it a seduction.  Yes, it is.  Elijah points to the way of marginality, a way that is counter to the cultural norms of the time.  This is a concept that we in the Western church are not that familiar with; we tend to incorporate the latest trends and methods in our attempts to advance kingdom purposes, in effect showing that we believe ways and means are neutral and the end goal is what really matters.  This is a totally ungodly and un-Jesus idea.

He goes on to talk about Isaiah demonstrating the way of The Holy and the way of beauty, but what I found most informative and interesting was the latter part of the book which deals with "other ways."  With loads of historical insight and biblical background, Peterson fleshes out familiar characters from the time of Jesus and unpacks their modi operandi.  The power-hungry ways of Herod, the perfectionist tendencies of the Pharisees (argh, not again!), the privileged path of Caiaphas (ministry should have its rewards, no?), the restrictive lifestyle of the Essenes (creating an alternative reality), the opportunist nature of Josephus (particularly poignant when seen in juxtaposition to the martyrs of the time), and the violent passion of the Zealots (justice at all costs!). 

Yes, I see some measure of myself in all of them, and yet I was strangely encouraged in reading this book.  I was once again reminded that being human and flawed is always part of the equation of salvation, and that nothing ever negates Jesus' call to "Come."  The question is never, "Are we good enough to be part of God's kingdom?" We're not, that much is obvious.  The question that Peterson asks in this book is this, "Are we trying to use God (like the pagans used their gods) to ensure a good life?"  We can find the answer by looking at our ways and means.  They will give us away, will expose what our real motives are in aligning ourselves with Jesus.  Is he our ticket to perfection?  To a better life?  To gaining the approval of people?  To power and influence?  To purity?  Into a tight-knit community?  To a just world? 

Jesus does not guarantee any of these so-called benefits.  No, Jesus is the one who unites us with our Father.  He calls us to serve, to obey, to worship, to trust, to sacrifice, to suffer, to be rejected, to love, to forgive, to come.  He invites us to be part of his world, his way, to receive something both "other and better than expected" (113).

Matte from Montreal


 

Monday, October 22, 2012

New Voices in Canadian Evangelical Theology

I just returned from the first in a new series of conferences sponsored by the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA). These conferences partner with universities and colleges in an effort to promote excellence in academic scholarship among evangelicals and those who study evangelicals. This first conference was in partnership with McMaster Divinity College. Attendance was excellent and those who came engaged in lively conversations around 18 different papers and a keynote address by Brian Walsh (Colossians Remixed). Anthony Pyles won the award for best paper for his work on Psalm 88, he has been invited to publish his paper in CETA's journal the Canadian Theological Review. I didn't attend the biblical tracks so I'm looking forward to reading his paper when it is published. There was a lot of variety in the papers - from systematics to scripture scholarship. I was particularly taken by Rachel Tulloch's paper where she was asking what it would be like for us to privilege the voices of the poor and marginalized over the voices of the academics. She drew from her congregational work with Sanctuary in Toronto and presented a compelling work of pastoral theology. My own paper seemed to be very well received. I presented on the foundational work of Carl Henry which my own theological project extends - specifically his challenge of eschatology found in The Uneasy Conscience in Modern Fundamentalism. Walsh presented on the topic of Romans and Homelessness. His talk was primarily a targum of the book of Romans which emphasized the theme of home. It was nice to hear something so artistic yet poignant.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Conferences? Events? Let Us Know...

One of the links here is to a page where we can highlight goings on around the Vineyard and beyond. If you know of a conference, event, speaker, etc. that would be helpful for equipping the saints then please let us know and we'll put it on the list.

ThoughtWorks Blog Team

Monday, October 15, 2012

Naturally Supernatural

“The miracles of healing Jesus performs, or which take place in his proximity, are not intended to present him as a divine exceptional human being; they are miracles of the kingdom and signs of the messianic future which, with Jesus, breaks into the present in its sickness. They are ‘miracles’ only in an unchanged world. If the kingdom of God becomes powerful in the present, healings and liberations are not ‘miracles’ at all; they are a matter of course.”
Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 54.
The understanding of God's Kingdom reign that we call naturally supernatural is a powerful theological innovation. It helps us to reconcile one of the great theological tensions: why does God heal some people but not everybody? Part of the problem it addresses is in understanding what exactly is a 'miracle'. Not the actual substance of the 'miracle' itself as a healing, deliverance, etc., but what does it mean when we call such a thing a 'miracle'.

One view of 'miracles' is that they are violations of the natural order, a special irruption of God into the world. The problem here is one that theologians call theodicy, a fancy word for asking why there is suffering and evil in the world if God can simply make it all go away. The other view of 'miracles' is that they are just parables, not really 'miracles' at all, but rather object lessons to teach us how God wants us to behave. But the naturally supernatural approach takes neither view, at least not entirely, rather it looks for the radical middle.

From the special irruption of God view naturally supernatural takes the firm belief that God can and does act in supernatural ways in this world. For many of us we believe this because we have seen and experienced it. But for those of us who have experienced 'miracles' we've also experienced the times when God does not heal or intervene. So, while we believe that God can, and even wants to, intervene there has to be a reason why God doesn't simply jump into the real horrors of life and make everything better. The answer that special irruption often offers is that the formula isn't right or that there isn't enough faith present. This answer violates the character of God. God isn't manipulated by our words, nor is God bound by formulas. Nor is God callous to the plights of humanity. So we reject this part of special irruption and look for another option.

From the object lesson side we do see that there is an imperative given to us by the example of Jesus. We see it in the early Church, in the faithful throughout history who have called out to God for help in times of need. God wants us to be doers of the Word, not just hearers. God wants us to pray for the sick, to show compassion to the outcast, to give sight to the blind, and to lift up the poor. The naturally supernatural way expects that God does more than we can ask or imagine in such circumstances, much more than we can do in our own human resources. So we reject the part of the object lesson approach that says there are no real 'miracles'.

In charting a middle road between the two views of 'miracles' the naturally supernatural way focuses on another way of understanding reality. I began this article with a quote from my favourite theologian - Jürgen Moltmann. He expresses this view very well in his theological project. His whole ethic is built on our experience of the promise of God in tension with our experience of the reality of life. It is when we see something that is not as we believe God would have it, such as a person bound by sickness, that we are compelled to act. Our actions are not what brings the Kingdom, but they are a participation with what we see the Father doing and wanting to do. So the 'miracles' are those moments when we recognize that the Kingdom, that we are called to pray will come, breaks into the present. More than that, if we are participating with God then these are not simply supernatural occurences, but the natural expression of God's supernatural future (which will not be supernatural in the future) experienced in the natural world of today. God's reality breaks into our reality with 'miraculous' consequences.

The actual thrust of the naturally supernatural message is outward. (This has always been part of the Vineyard ethos as a church planting movement.) We see what God wants to do and participate with what God is already doing. It isn't about having enough faith or the right formula. It is about simply believing that God wants something better for this world and being encouraged to go for it.

This week I want to encourage you to go for it. See how God wants to be naturally supernatural in your world. Then come back here and tell us about it so we can all be encouraged to pursue God in this way.

 Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Blocked Sinks and other Wonders

I forgot I signed up for the Thanksgiving message. Yesterday I took the day off. I checked my email once. It was glorious. As a result this is a bit late, but thankful none-the-less.

There are lots of things for me to be thankful for. I have a great family which includes a beautiful wife and two wonderfully creative and fun kids. I have amazing friends - both inside and outside of the church. This year we even had two turkey dinners (one we were invited to and another we invited people to share with us). Thanksgiving has been a good chance to remember all the blessings that have been poured onto my life. Even the kitchen sink that decided to stop draining properly.

Often when we have problems like the sink, problems that refuse to be resolved by my best efforts (draino - crystals and gel; I even tried to snake it out), I feel so frustrated that I'm unable to rest or work. I am aware of this so I was paying attention to my responses yesterday. I stayed up late the night before trying to unblock the sink (even the dishwasher is full of water because it will not drain) so the next day when Sharon woke up to water on the floor I had to go borrow my mother-in-laws snake before she drove to work. Once up, I was up for the day. However, I wasn't finding this situation frustrating, at least not in the way I know I can let frustration overwhelm me.

It is interesting to me that Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, here I have been offered a chance to reflect on my own character. I can get pretty down on myself, but that isn't healthy reflection. Reflection is an opportunity to elevate the good, the praiseworthy, even the excellent. As I reflected on my inadequate plumbing efforts I have been thankful that I was not letting it spoil my much needed day of rest. Broken sinks are opportunities - not to display your mad handyman skills (of which mine are suspect at times) - but to rest a little deeper into God, to trust that "this too shall pass", but more than just pass, that this is another opportunity to let the good work of Christ in you bear fruit: the fruit of patience, kindness, gentleness, even love. Blocked drains are opportunities to reflect on ourselves, to see what good works God is doing in us - and to be thankful.

I am thankful that a plumber will be here soon.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Monday, October 1, 2012

busy

Sheep at Fionnphort, Isle of Mull
This term is extraordinarily busy for us.  I am a full-time doctoral student taking classes in the Theatre Department (which is streeeeeeee-tching because I don't have a lot of background in this). In addition, I am a teaching assistant and an administrator, give regular talks at our faith community, and in the next few weeks have two major funding applications and a book review due (I still have to finish the book).  Dean is enrolled in a mini-MBA program this fall and that means he spends a lot of evening and a few weekends in class besides working his normal, demanding job.  Plus, he takes dance lessons one night a week, leads worship every Sunday in our church gatherings, and takes me out on a date night once a week (yes!).

Like the old adage states: when it rains, it pours.  So when I see the clouds of life being whipped into a frenzy on the horizon, I get dressed for wet and carry a big umbrella.  These days I freak out less when the stuff of life clumps together.  When the windfall of bills comes our way every fall, I take a deep breath and get out my cheque-book.  When we have a succession of house guests, I rearrange my schedule to get most of my work done ahead of time and move my office to the dining room.  A jam-packed term means I map out my calendar to make sure all my readings and assignments are on track.  Spare time is crammed full of extras like book reviews, writing applications, editing, preparing talks, making bread, watching the occasional movie, and sleeping.

And though all of these are helpful tools to manage a busy schedule and get through times of crazy, busy madness with my sanity mostly intact, it is not enough.  I still get overwhelmed, feel that old familiar knot in my back and stiffness in my neck, get paralyzed when faced with a writing assignment, suffer from indecisiveness, and get stuck.  But hey - there's an app for this!  It is called unstuck.  The home screen of unstuck asks you to identify how you are feeling in your "stuck" moment:  afraid, aimless, conflicted, hazy, hesitant, high and dry, indecisive, overwhelmed, lost, paralyzed, stumped, tired, undisciplined, uninformed, uninspired, unprepared, unmotivated, up in the air?  Yes, all of the above, I want to say.  Sadly, I don't have time to download and use the app because I have this blog to finish, laundry is waiting, I have an appointment in a few minutes, and I haven't even started on the three projects I have on my list today.

No doubt there are some good suggestions for working through stuck-ness in this app.  I do want to be unstuck. I do want to get through this whirlwind of the next few months. I do want to complete every task on time and with excellence. I do want to spend time loving and laughing with Dean in the midst of it. I do want to be able to give meaningful attention to those in my faith community. I want to sit in God's presence and not be thinking of everything else that needs my attention.  But I don't.  I fret too much, spin my wheels on occasion, complain more that I need to, and on really bad days, find myself wanting to give up.  At times like that, neither the unstuck app or my clever  scheduling skills can bring any lasting peace to my soul.  There is only one way to get that.

God, you are my guide, my protector, the one who leads me safely from place to place, making sure I have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep.  I will follow your lead.  I am satisfied, deep down inside.  You invite my mind to stop all its busy work and worrying and urge me to lie down on the grass and take a moment to look at the blue sky on a sunny day.  You let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.  Even when things are going terribly wrong, I don't have to worry about it or be afraid.  "Come sit with me," you say, "Come walk beside me and I will show you a way through it.  Ask me.  I can help."  I don't have to worry about any obstacles, human or otherwise, past, present, or future.  You never do.  There is a rich feast of goodness and mercy in every situation because you placed it there like a gift, and you wait for me to unwrap it.  Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.  I don't know why I run from them when I could just go home, to your house, God, and stay awhile in my favourite, secret, safe place.  - adapted from Psalm 23.  The sentences in italics are quotes from The Message.

Matte from Montreal

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Greatest Instinct


I think that we all (as inall of us, every single person) worship something.  We worship because we must.

We humans have been performing acts of worship since the very beginning.  We are more or less unified as a species in our glorification of “Something Other”.  In fact, it seems as though it is a law of our nature.  I have often considered that we seem to have very little in the way of natural instincts beyond eating, sex and being frightened by loud noises.  We don’t instinctually build dams, or navigate thousands of miles each season to mate at precisely the same local like some of our counterparts in the animal kingdom.  We don’t hibernate or build nests.  If we build a dam or hop on a plane to go to Honolulu, it is due to acquired knowledge or a result of planning.  We just don’t seem to have a lot of built-in instinct.  But we do seem to WORSHIP instinctually.  

Right now, outside my window, it is raining.  The rain falls down from the sky, and then pools in the lowest available spot on the ground because of gravity.  Gravity is a natural law which so far has proved to be pretty much universal.  Is it a natural law that humanity worship?  I believe yes.  

But what about current western society, where there is so much unbelief, so much G(g)odlessness?  Have we managed to kill the instinct here?  Have we domesticated belief to the degree that it’s truly irrelevant?


There is a solid argument to made that we’ve simply shifted our worshipful tendencies over to consumerism (we worship our what we buy, we buy what we worship).  I also think that perhaps nature again provides an excellent metaphor for our uphill battle in “THE WEST” to reclaim our proper role as worshippers.  

Rain falls down, right?  

The correct answer is, eventually.  However, I think that you will find that in a tornado, water goes every which way, but is generally headed up.  Storms can do a lot to temporarily counteract the force of gravity, but it’s widely known that gravity always wins eventually 

Perhaps the portion of humanity bound up in the west (and remember that this is VERY small percentage of the global population) is simply caught up in a bit of a spiritual tornado.  A temporary, yet devastating storm that will eventually fizzle, but not without effect.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Religion, Spirituality, and Worldviews

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a student yesterday. He had some health issues and we were finally completing his last assignment - and oral exam. Here in the midst of a crowded Bridgehead we talked about one of my favourite subjects - spirituality. Specifically the course (Religion, Culture, and Diversity) was designed to give students some functional understanding of how religion works and how we can take that into our interactions with each other in the diverse cultures we live in today. A big part of the course is riddling through what part is religion, what part is spirituality, and what part is worldview. These things are pretty hard to pull apart, meaning we all see different ways to divide them up. For example, some people vilify one over the other saying they are spiritual but not religious or pretending that spirituality has no influence on worldview.

I want to challenge us to think of these as essential parts of what it is to have a faith life. I think this is important as it will help us to value each part. Certainly, like it or not, we (speaking to the Vineyard folks here) belong to a great religion (Christianity) which is full of rich diversity. Religions, like most complex systems, have good and bad aspects to them - this is true regardless of how valid their theological claims may be. One of the challenges of looking at religion from a functional perspective is that you have to put aside the arguments for and against specific doctrines and talk about why doctrines matter within a religion. My experience is that when I know why doctrines matter and how they function then am better equipped to appreciate them and navigate them. I love what Walter Kasper once said on this subject: "The problem with the creeds is that they are true." Truth requires navigation, appropriation, exploration - all of which religion can give us a safe ground to do.

One of the interesting ideas we explored in that coffee shop was religion as the custodian of spiritualities. We were discussing the fact that spirituality is formed within religious contexts, influenced by the religion and ultimately influence the religion (lest we think that religions are static affairs). We were also discussing that spirituality is always embodied in a person, that person is shaped by their spirituality as much as they shape their spirituality - sometimes through experimentation, sometimes through God moments. Where religions can play a beneficial role is to provide a basic trusted foundation on which to explore spirituality as well as a community in which spirituality is able to be tested and even questioned. This is the hard stuff of walking out our faith - but oh so important. We need that community.

Then we moved onto worldviews. Worldviews function in a very similar way. In fact one way to understand them is as the secular counterpart to a robust spirituality. Take for example consumerism which functions like a religion, has a spirituality complete with practices, and produces a particular view of the world. There is an inter-relatedness between all of these aspects of consumerism (just as in Christianity), so much so that we think of it as all one thing. Spiritualities can be thought of as the way we navigate our faith within our religious commitments (how we love Jesus for instance) and worldviews how we understand the world informed by our faith. Much more can be said, but let's move to the practicalities before we get overly technical.

Why does this matter? 

Practically speaking we are called to be faithful to our beliefs (which is why we invite people to join our religion; specifically we invite them so they can meet the Jesus we have come to know as faithful and true just as our religion reveals to us), to express the implications of our beliefs in the world (our spirituality can be thought of as the lived out component, how we express that relationship we've come to have with Jesus), and to adjust our thinking along the way (Phil 4:8; living with Jesus always challenges the way we look at the world). Certainly we do not just call people to a religion, but to a religion that expresses itself in beautiful spiritualities that shape and mold our views towards the world that God so loves. These aspects of faith are all inter-related; getting the connections helps us know, pastorally and personally, what to encourage and what to question. But above all it helps us see that religion, spirituality, and worldviews are all essential parts of a healthy life of faith.

May your religion serve your faith, revealing Jesus and calling you to live out a life worthy of a follower of Jesus. And may God ever shape your view of the world so that you always see what God is doing and have a heart willing to do those things you see.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region.

Monday, September 3, 2012

writing a great story

Iona Abbey, August 2012
The fall school term begins tomorrow.  This semester I am in the theatre department and in preparation for a course in playwriting, I have been reading a few books on the craft.  Writing a play is telling a story by showing instead of telling.  In a well-written and well-performed play, the story will naturally be handed over to the audience at different times to interact with, respond to, and make decisions about.  If a play spells out exactly what it wants the audience to do and refuses to let people come to the discovery on their own, it is not a very good play; it becomes rhetoric or propaganda.

While I was reading The Elements of Playwriting by Louis E. Catron (Waveland Press, 1993), I could not help but draw some parallels between crafting a compelling story and crafting a unified, dynamic life.  Let me point out two principles that I believe are worthwhile exploring whether we are budding writers or budding disciples of Jesus.

1) Writing leads to writing.  The principle here is that good writing happens through bad writing, mediocre writing, uninspired writing, and even by writing about nothing.  Repetition and practice not only develop skill, but can help a writer process their underlying motivations and get past blocks.  On a trip to Scotland this summer we visited Iona Abbey which has been the site of a prayerful and worshipping community for over a millennium.  The land is soaked with the prayers (and blood) of those who devoted their lives to God and as a result, there is a tangible spiritual presence in that place that even unbelievers acknowledge.  Prayer, day after day, whether inspired or not, whether the monks were tired or energetic, filled with joy or quarrelling, has led to this presence.  There is something concrete about this principle of faithfulness, about doing something day after day after day without fail, no matter what the circumstances.  Athletes know its value, as do performers and mothers and students and anyone learning a new skill.  Pitiful prayers (over time) can lead to prayers of faith.  Someone may deliver a horrible first homily but over time become a clear communicator of God's love and truth.  A small act of obedience leads to more courageous obedience. I  think you get the point.

2) Don't write what you know, write what you believe.  This principle surprised me, but the author pointed out that what you believe will come through in your story anyway, so start by writing about those things you are passionate about, that you feel you must express.  Mr. Catron is onto something very important here:  that what we truly believe will come through in what we write, whether we set out to do so or not.  The traits we admire and traits we dislike will exhibit themselves in the stories we write and become clear to anyone watching.  If I may translate this principle into the realm of spiritual formation, we live out what we believe.  A teacher may insist that students complete certain readings before class, yet if she shows up in class obviously under-prepared and a bit late, the students are learning that preparation and consistency are really not that vital.  We may want to formally teach certain principles to others, but our actions and interactions are telling the true story of what is important to us. 

One of the challenges I face as an introvert is to strengthen my belief that people have a very high priority in my life.  Very often "people fatigue" causes me to want to withdraw from social situations and it sends an unspoken message to those around me that they are not valued.  I must be aware of this subtext and incorporate creative means to reinforce the value of relationships in my life, whether that is making time for meaningful (even if short) conversations, writing emails, sending cards, giving small gifts, praying for someone (this always increases my compassion for others), or inviting an acquaintance out for a drink.  In other words, I must become deliberate about what story I am telling with my life.  And then I must tell it every day.  Like a writer, I must trust that this daily exercise (telling my beliefs through action) is leading somewhere good, even if I do not see or feel it at the moment.  This is the not only the key to being a good playwright, but at the core of discipleship.

Let the Spirit guide our writing and our living....Matte from Montreal
  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Opening Up of History: What Would Moltmann Say to Us?

Moltmann in Chicago 2009
One of the features of Jürgen Moltmann's theology that really speaks to me is how we, as the people of God's promise, experience history. Through the cross and resurrection of Christ history is opened up to the new possibilities created by the promise of God. In Kingdom terms, we experience the inbreaking of Kingdom reality in the present (history) which opens up new possibilities for Christianity, humanity, and even beyond. There are two aspects of Moltmann's notion of the promise that opens up history that I want to present for our meditation: first, the promise is what the Father has done, is doing, and will bring to completion; and second, hope is hope for history.

Doing What the Father Is Doing

One of the things I love about the Vineyard is our passion to be doing what we see the Father doing. Moltmann insists that the Bible is the narrative recounting of God's promise. We see in it the record of God's faithfulness which orients us towards what God is continuing to do with hope to one day experience the fulness when 'God is all in all' (Motmann's favourite eschatological passage: 1 Cor 15:28). Sometimes we get hung up on what God has done already - when we live there it is like living on the mountain of transfiguration. We should not misread that account as a cop out - what happened on the mount of transfiguration was truly amazing. But it was meant to orient the disciples in their ministries at that moment in time - they needed to see Jesus alone. When we want to stay on the mount we are building a tabernacle to the past. We are not allowing the past to lead us to the present. But our experience of God's promise through the narrative history of the Bible does not just park us in the present either. God's promise orients us to see Jesus who actively does all that he sees the Father doing (not having done or hoping to do in the future). We need to see Jesus alone to be properly grounded in the present. This promise grounds us in the present in a particular way. It is not what theologians call an over-realized grounding (that is a fancy word for the Kingdom being all about the now and not the not-yet). It is not an unrealistic view of the present as if somehow we bypass or turn a blind eye to the effects of sin in our present reality. Jesus didn't bypass reality - he faced it head on with a willingness to do whatever it took to open history to God's promise. Not my will was his prayer in the garden. Moltmann tells us that the promise of God creates a conflict or contrast with our experience of the present. This conflict shows us where the Father is moving. Wherever we see this contrast Moltmann encourages us to be doing what the Father is doing.

Hope is a Hope for History

As the people of God's promise we are oriented towards hope. Moltmann tells us that anything less that a hope for the whole cosmos is not worthy of God. That's huge. We sometimes just want the future, the end of the promise and so we sit waiting on the sidelines for the end to come. But to do so is to abandon history to hopelessness. Moltmann tells us that this is the primary function of the millennium - it is that moment of consummation which is a transition from history redeemed to the end of history where God will be all in all. How can we who have a millennial hope believe God wants simply to abandon history to the destructiveness of sin and death? What Moltmann's millennialism avoids is a sort of triumphalism that sees all that has gone before (history past) being simply swept away in some sort of cosmic reboot. The history of God's promise is one of redemption. It is not a history of a far off clock-maker God who cares not how this world runs down. Our God is the one who sent Jesus into the world for the sake of all that is (cosmos is the term in John 3:16, any love less than this is frankly not worthy of God). It is the God who sent the Holy Spirit to be with us always. This is a God who redeems, draws near, revolutionizes and tranforms the world. Moltmann encourages us to have a hope that matches our God. To see, in God, the opening of history to the redemptive possibilities of God's promise. To be the people of God's promise.

So let's be about the Father's business and not sell God short as we passionately follow the Creator and Redeemer of all things. 

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Monday, August 20, 2012

Creative Liturgy and the Encounter of God

My buddy Cameron, pastor of EcclesiaX in Ottawa, organized a very creative liturgy this past Sunday. EcclesiaX is a great little art-focused church in the artsy Glebe area of Ottawa. I've had great relationships with both the planting pastor and Cameron who took over pastoring the church a few years back. Because I was hanging out with Cameron earlier in the week I knew what he was planning, so I was quite excited to be able to join them for this Sunday's service. The text for the service was from John 6 where Jesus tells his followers that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Cameron wanted to capture just how disturbing that word picture would have been for first century Jews. Above is a picture of what he came up with. We broke bread and shared a communion meal literally on top of an artistic representation of Jesus' body.

I'm no stranger to such creative liturgy. In fact every Good Friday my own church, Freedom Vineyard, puts on a sensory service. That is a service where the participants move around to various stations depicting aspects of our service's theme in a way that is designed to engage all of their senses. What I love about such creative liturgy is that it creates an open space for God to speak to us afresh.

Is that not the goal of worship? To create a space where we can encounter and be transformed by God? Knowing how much work goes into such liturgy I'm not convinced we can or should do something new every week - but I do think it is certainly worth occasionally adding creative aspects to the worship life of our communities. Even if doing so is just to keep us on our toes so that we do not fall into a rut which can limit our experience of God to our expectations.

In creative liturgy the elements are meant to throw us off. To break down the barriers of our expectations. This has the potential of letting us encounter God in fresh ways. I remember the response of a certain young man who had experienced this fresh encounter in our congregation; he was so excited that he began telling people that this was the only way we should be doing things. I think his reaction captures both how amazing creative liturgy can be and the fact that we tend to routinize our worship. While we long for those fresh encounters with God, at the same time, we like the safety of our expectations. This dynamic is always tough for our worship leaders to navigate.

In the service this Sunday I felt encouraged to share my self with those around the table. The image reminded me that Jesus held nothing back in sharing his own life for us. That was the insight I took away from my encounter with God this Sunday. I think it is a very worthwhile insight; it gives me much food for thought. I wonder what forms of creative liturgy have been impactful for you? For the worship leaders who read this, I would encourage you to introduce such elements into your own worship services. We should be careful to never become so comfortable in our worship that we miss the one we are there to encounter. I think throwing such creative elements into our worship can help keep us on our toes.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region