Monday, April 30, 2012

theology outside the classroom

I have found that pretty much anything can offer me a learning opportunity, and surprisingly, a great deal of that "anything" often pertains to theology or spirituality in some way.  When it comes to learning in the area of theology, not all of it comes through formal teaching or reading books.  Below are four of my favourite theological resources.  You might be surprised to find that for the most part, books or well-known theologians are not even on the list.  I love books, yes I do, and I read my fair share of them, but there's a lot more to theology than books. 

1. Other spiritual traditions.  I have been fairly impacted by monasticism since I started looking into various forms of it a few years ago.  Reading the writings of Augustine and Richard Rolle as well as Benedict and Ignatius has been very refreshing and challenging to my view of spirituality.  It has also greatly enriched me, especially in the areas of prayer and hospitality.  One of my favourite contemporary resources on monasticism is a BBC documentary called The Monastery (2005) in which five regular people live in a monastery in the UK for 40 days.  It is interesting and moving to watch the journey all five men take over the course of time.  You can watch the first part here

2. Business.  Being married to a businessman has a lot of advantages.  One of the surprising side effects is that I am inadvertently exposed to some of the latest trends in business thought.  One of the best theological books I have read in the past few years is Good to Great by Jim Collins.  In the book, he sets about to discover why some companies make the leap from good to great and others don't.  Lots of great stories in there, too.  Some of the gems of wisdom I gleaned from Collins are: 1) trying to motivate people and keep them interested is a waste of time, and 2) humility will get you further than charisma. If you are interested in more, you can read two blogs I wrote on it here and here.  And you can access an article by Jim Collins with the main points of the book here.

3.  Reality television.  I admit it, I like to watch reality TV.  I remember tearing up over an episode of What Not To Wear years ago when I saw a woman first realise that she was beautiful.  This past weekend, I engaged in some light sniffling on the couch while watching a boss pay off an employee's student loans on Undercover Boss.  Though I know many of the situations portrayed are somewhat artificially induced, there are moments when these real people exhibit amazing honesty, generosity, grace, and humility.  Moments like these never fail to remind me of God's creative and generous nature, as well as his ability to transform each one of us. You can watch a sample of Undercover Boss here.  

4. Children.  I used to work as a Children's Ministry Coordinator.  While a lot of my time was spent organising events, scheduling volunteers, and making sure we had supplies, one of the highlights of that job was a particular drama class I got to teach at day camp.  There were 4 in the class: 2 rowdy boys, one shy boy, and one small, quiet girl.  We decided to act out the story of Jesus stilling the storm.  Knowing the boys would like making a lot of noise, I cast the two rowdies as the storm and put the other two kids in the boat, miming the events of the story.  It turned out to be so dynamic that I asked them perform it the next Sunday in front of the whole church. 

I can still picture it:  the two quiet children sat on the floor in front of the altar, one asleep on a pillow, one pretending to row.  The fury of the two other boys was then unleashed on them with roaring, stamping feet, waving arms, and much general mayhem.  The boy rowing in the boat shivered in mock fear, then shook the young girl awake and she rose to her feet.  The two noisy storm boys increased their efforts, looking and sounding like alien monsters as they towered over her.  The young girl calmly raised her hand in a stop gesture and looked straight ahead.  Both human storms immediately ceased all their noise and crumpled to the floor.  To this day, this is often the image I get in my mind when I think about God's authority. 

I hope you find some of these resource suggestions helpful, or at least amusing.  Feel free to add your own to the list by leaving a comment.

Matte from Montreal

the photo:  some of the theology books I am reading this year.  See, I do like books!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Theology and Worship

As promised we will continue to add reflections on worship and theology to our ongoing conversation at this blog. So I'm excited that we have added a new member to our blog writing team - Kris MacQueen. Kris is part of the national worship development team and we've already featured his Psalms project on this blog. I am pretty excited to see what Kris will bring to us. 

After I posted my last reflection on worship and theology, Steve Hamilton (Verve and Verse) offered to let us repost his excellent series on missional-orientation in worship. Even though I know Steve follows this blog, I wanted to direct you back to his original posts so that any responses can include the community that follow his blog already. However, I also wanted to riff off of one of his posts - Towards Integrity in Worship. I remember watching the videos on this post when Steve originally put it up. This post highlights the fact that theology is the underlying constant in all we do as Christians. Theology shapes our worship and theology shapes our actions in this world. This is one of the reasons that the theology in our worship music is so important to me (and why I am pretty picky with what songs I'll include in a worship set). In short - theology matters. 

The videos feature a conversation with David Ruis. David is the first song writer I think of for songs that convey our God's heart of justice. Many of David's songs simply ooze justice. But David's songs also root those themes of justice in our own longing for God; especially our longings for God to be made present through the inbreaking of the Kingdom. 

From a worship perspective, I am convinced that the primary role of our worship music (especially in the form that God has blessed the Vineyard) is about creating a space where we can encounter God. From a theological perspective this means that what we sing actually shapes the character of that potential encounter with God. For example, when we sing of God's holiness - we long for and often encounter the holiness of God. I think of the many holiness songs that were part of the Pentecostal churches where I came to Christ. The atmosphere those songs encouraged was often one where when God showed up it was in an awe inspiring sense. When God would show up often all I could do was crawl under your chair and worship. I remember those days fondly. When I first came to the Vineyard the songs that were popular were themed heavily on the Father's love. This idea of God's Fatherly love broke me; I was encouraged to encounter the God who is my Father and who is like no father I've ever known. It was through these worship times that I learned intimacy with God. 

So what about justice? Can we foster, in worship, the encounter of the God of justice? Can we sing of our desire to see God's righteous Kingdom come and then see that Kingdom come? This is exactly what I think David's songs can help us do. 

It is important that we do not use worship songs to treat justice apart from intimacy, holiness, or even relationship. Doing so does not make it clear what our task is - in fact the big problem with justice is when justice becomes all about something we build instead of something we see the Father doing and join in. That of course is a theological stance. But it is exactly that kind of theology that I think needs to be woven into our worship. If we can weave this theology into our songs, as David does so well, then I am convinced that we will foster the encounter of the God of justice. And hopefully we will encourage our worshiping community to join in all that we see God doing in our world. 

What have been your experiences and concerns about justice and worship? 

Frank Emanuel - Freedom Vineyard, Ontario.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Being Kingdom Minded

I've had an amazing opportunity fall into my lap recently. It started with an email from and American Anglican Bishop named Doc Loomis. Doc plants churches, and not just Anglican churches, he understands being Kingdom minded means serving the whole church, not just a bit of it. This is something that has been very much on my heart over the years. The reason Doc had called is because one of his church planters, here in Ottawa, is living the reality that church planting is often a lonely and misunderstood labour of love. I know this well.

Some people come who to your church plants mean well, but they do not understand that church planting that goes too quickly runs the risk of not growing deep roots. They do not understand why you don't start off with a one-stop-shop kinda church. Even if I personally had the kind of funding that would allow that mode of planting, I would not want to go that way. I've been part of a church that did not grow roots and it was painful. In addition, I am convinced that real church is not a service shop - rather, it is an expression of God's relationship with us and we fool ourselves to think that any relationship worth having isn't a lot of work.

There are also those who come to your plants who need a lot of personal care. While these are the backbone of any church, they are not always the ones ready to give the leadership needed to build a strong community of the Kingdom. Definitely, the church planter needs to nourish and treasure these relationship, but they also need to not allow these relationships to overtake the formation of a core community that will continue to mature, equip, and release the ones the church cares for. I've also been part of groups that turn inward to their own needs and lose their willingness to grow as a people and grow out into the world that God calls the whole Church to love. This is always a tricky balance and I don't pretend to have mastered it. But such is the challenge of church planting.

I wonder if established churches forget how hard church planting is? In my city there is little tangible support for many planters. Some of the more established denominations in our city might have it easy, but I seem to know quite a few planters who are lonely and misunderstood. I think part of the problem is that plants are seen as threats to established churches. Plants will steal our best people! Actually, I think established churches should give planters their best people, but that is not an easy sell. Don't hear me wrong, I've had lots of encouraging words and even had one amazing church offer us facilities to use for special services, but there is no continuing sense that churches around you are willing to invest the necessary resources of people, time, deliberate mentoring, and yes even money - to see church plants grow. It is an odd thing to me. Sort of the opposite of what Doc and I understand as being Kingdom minded. Most of the church planters I know are not interested in making a church out of transfers anyway, but are planting as a way of reaching those who have yet to find a place where they can begin their relationships with Jesus.

I often think about the story of Wimber when he was at the memorial service for a church in California (I am  not sure what book that was in). He describes being at this memorial where all the churches that this one church had planted came to celebrate the life-giving history of the church that was dying. I believe Wimber said it was like seeing an old bitch dog who had given birth one too many times. The sense was that this church had given so much of herself birthing churches that she had completely spent her life. Crude as that phrase is, I've always felt challenged to be like that mothering church, to indiscriminately (at least from an earthly perspective) spend myself for my King. Sure I make lots of mistakes and risk a lot - but isn't that what it is all about? Isn't it better to see our metaphoric kids grow up with a legacy of giving everything for the King, even if that means we completely give ourselves in the process?

I know this flies in the face of everything we think we know about church. For instance, today there is a strong sense of the need to fight for our relevance in society. Unless we build structures that are meant to last and keep the revenue streams flowing, then of what value are we? I'm convinced that the way to be relevant is not to play the game of establishing good corporations - but rather to be willing martyrs for the sake of the Kingdom, spending our very selves on spreading the good news of the Kingdom near and far. I often think that in playing the worlds kingdom building game we've made the situation worse for us because we are no just like every other organization competing for the public space. Church planting, messy as it is, is central to overturning this trend.

So what did I do? I actually put out the call to a few other planters that I know (and some awesome folk who will hopefully plant in the near future). I said, "we need to do this for each other. We, of all people, know how necessary it is to bleed for each other regardless of our denominations or affiliations." Last week I sat in my dining room with three other pastor/leaders and we talked about the challenges we face planting churches in our city. Then we did what Kingdom minded people always do - we invited the King to come and meet those needs and build in us a strong sense that we are doing this together.

I've set up a network and we are inviting others into it. My hope is that at the very least church planting in my city will no longer be a lonely prospect. I hope that this will encourage many more to join in the work - to give themselves for the Kingdom. What about the church plants in your city? Will you take up the challenge? Will you allow yourselves to be Kingdom minded? I hope you will.

Frank Emanuel - Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa

Monday, April 9, 2012

Long Live the King!

"He is not here.  He is risen!"

Sometimes Easter seems to me more like an Irish wake than the coronation of a King.  I like an Irish wake as much as the next man, unless the next man is the deceased who – frankly – isn’t having as much fun as the rest of us.  But Easter isn’t supposed to be a memorial but the recognition of the unending reign of an undying King.

Scot McKnight, in his book, The King Jesus Gospel, writes, “He raised Jesus back to life to end the dominion of death, to prove that the usurpers would not have the last word, and to show that the descendants could have a whole new (creation) lineage.  To make this altogether clear, Jesus appeared to hosts of the descendants and then he was taken up into the presence of God.”[1]

McKnight argues in his book that we’ve missed the plot.  That we’ve turned the good news about a King who reigns forever into a soteriological gospel where salvation is the “be all end all” of the good news.  The book started from a simple question, “Did Jesus preach the gospel?”  The answer came back many times, “No, until Jesus died there was no gospel.”  McKnight counters that Jesus is the gospel or more specifically, Jesus is the fulfilment of the story of Israel and the Kingdom of God established on earth.  The Resurrection rather than the Crucifixion is the denouement.  The original good news, McKnight says, is the King Jesus gospel.

The amazing part of the story is that Jesus did all of this – disarming, overcoming, establishing and being crowned King eternal, through non-violence.  He didn’t become King by beating them or by joining them.  Miroslav Volf writes, “His kingship does not rest on “fighting” and therefore does not issue in “handing over” people to other powers. The violence of eliminating other contenders for power or holding them in check by treating them as things is not a part of his rule. In a profound sense the kind of rule Jesus advocates cannot be fought for and taken hold of by violence. It is a rule that must be given, conferred…and that will continue as long as one does not try to seize it.”[2]  To win hearts in the Kingdom of God, one must not seize by force but create through self giving love.

There’s a story here that needs repeating.  Whenever we read about the gospel being preached the resurrection is a part of the story.  I agree with McKnight and with Volf, our communities of faith need us to tell a more robust gospel and create a gospel culture that lives with the implications of the resurrection in our now, not just on our Easters.  We need to emphasize that love really is stronger than death, that our citizenship doesn’t belong to any nation now but it belongs to our King, that we are continuing the story of Israel and we can get to the God’s ending because we know where it started, how it came to us and where it’s supposed to go.  The responsibility that falls on us is to tell the story of the Kingdom, the restoration of all things, the recovery of the Imago Dei that is revealed by our lives living out the story of the resurrected Jesus (not the resurrection of Jesus) every moment of our days.  Can we keep choosing love over hate, weakness over strength, the margins over the mainstream, rejection over acceptance, disenfranchisement over political clout, serving over being served, our rights over our opportunities?  The mystery of the Resurrected life is only discovered, like Jesus, in our willingness to lay down our own.

The King was dead.  Long live the King!

[1] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2011, p.151-152.
[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Page 267

Friday, April 6, 2012

Questions for the Disciples on Good Friday

1.     Mary, did you consider recanting the Magnificat?
2.     Did any of you throw up your last supper?
3.     Did any of you go out looking for Judas for a little Galilean justice?
4.     Did your hearts feel as empty on Friday as he carried the cross out of Jerusalem as they had felt full when the donkey carried Jesus into Jerusalem?
5.     Did you regret falling asleep while he prayed or were you sorry you ever woke up?
6.     How long until you could look each other in the eye?
7.     Who was the first to suggest a “plan B”?
8.     What were the last words you remembered him saying to you?  What was the last thing you remembered saying to him?
9.     Did you wet yourself every time someone knocked on the door of the place you were hiding?
10.  What made you stick around the city?  Fear, faith or shock?
11.  How hard was it to find someone to hide you?  Did people suddenly act like they didn’t know you?
12.  Who blamed whom first?
13.  Did you give Peter the silent treatment?  Did you mock him for his “great confession” at Caesarea Philippi?   Did he tell you all that night about his fireside denial?
14.  Who cried the most?
15.  Could any of you touch bread or wine that weekend?  Could you even look at them on the table without feeling sick or crying uncontrollably?
16.  Collectively, how many times did you ask, “Why?”
17.  How many of you considered doing what Judas did?
18.  Did Peter moan out loud every time a rooster crowed nearby?
19.  Did you men marvel at the capacity of the women to keep going in the midst of their mourning?
20.  Did any of you ask, “If a man dies, will he live again?”

Monday, April 2, 2012

learning to fail better...

We had an interesting home group meeting this past Wednesday.  On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 4.  Well, it probably started off as a 5, then dipped to a 3 or 2.5.  The previous week, we had finished studying a book which took us about a year and a half to get through, so we decided to have a celebratory meal together at a local restaurant.  The meal itself was okay, despite it being vegetarian and at least one of us being a die-hard carnivore, but the chipped tables and uncomfortable seating rendered the ambiance a bit underwhelming. There were 5 of us for dinner (interpretation = it was a low turnout): two couples and a relatively new guy.  Aside from a brilliant insight about surrender which Dean slipped in, the dinner was pretty uneventful and as the conversation dwindled, two of our party decided to leave. 

Dean and I had been invited to an evening of comedy happening upstairs at the restaurant (one of our friends was doing a short set), so we decided to take it in.  The new guy said he would join us, despite the fact that English is not his first language.  At this point, the mediocre evening began to veer toward the danger zone.  The comedy started and each performer seemed to be more off-colour than the last.  One guy joked about strippers, one went on and on about drugs, and by the end of the evening, the volume of swearwords was nearing critical mass.  I wanted to leave, but the room was small and due to a nosy MC, everyone knew who we were there to see.  Of course, our friend ended up being the last comic to take the stage.  His set was a bit rough (he seemed nervous) and even he threw in a questionable bit at the end.  By this point, I was not in a laughing mood (sorry, dude).  I was just thankful that the evening was over and that the new guy had decided to exit the show early while I was in the bathroom praying for God to please deliver us from this mess.  I also hoped that new guy's English hadn’t been good enough to comprehend the full, ugly brunt of what had passed for comedy that night.  Ugh.  I felt like a pretty horrible home group leader and wanted to fire myself.
In the midst of that train-wreck of a church outing, I was reminded about the unique place that failure has in the story of Jesus.  He had great days when everyone wanted to be his friend and do everything that he did; those were the days when the crowd of followers was thick and people cheered his success with high fives and tree branches and snappy slogans.  But he also failed as a leader, at least according to any executive evaluation chart.  There were deserters, there was anger, violence, ridicule, jealous infighting, a fair dose of inappropriate language, and a few betrayals in his inner circle.  He also had a bad habit of blurting out provocative challenges to the very people who could help him and hanging out in less than desirable settings (comedy shows?) with people of questionable character; this no doubt affected his ratings and caused a number of influential people to walk away. 
Failure is a lot like death.  In my case, failure means death to all those wonderful success scenarios that I hoped I would have as a spiritual leader.  Death to the idea that multitudes want to do this church thing with us.  Death to the notion of a gathering where we all show up on time and all sing in tune.  Death to finally finding a permanent location instead of moving all over the city.  Death to it all.  Death is the ultimate surrender, the surrender that whispers, "Not the way I want things done, no. God, you go ahead and do everything the way you want."  Paul said that he died every day (1 Cor 15).  I don’t have anyone threatening my life on a regular basis, so I really have nothing to complain about.  But I do still need to die everyday.  I must let failure and death do their work in my life and in our faith community.  This is the only way to redemption.  This is the only road to resurrection.
Matte from Montreal
the photo:  some failed grocery carts outside my local market