Monday, August 27, 2012

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

Moltmann in Chicago 2009
One of the features of JΓΌrgen 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

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Be a Disciplined Disciple

Recently, I have been asking the question:  “Why is it that for those of us who come to faith in Jesus we still have significant areas of struggle, brokenness, or dysfunction?” 

Jesus said he came so that we can have “life to the full” (John 10) and that our “joy be complete” (John 15).  Yet, we still may not be living in a significant measure of that.  There is some sort of disconnect.

To help answer that big question, our community has searched through the scriptures and also had the help of some other resources.  The conclusion we came to was that even though Jesus had come into our life through faith, he was not yet the center of our life.  Our ‘self-life’, or the life of our ‘flesh’ as the NT calls it, still remains in the center, in the place of control.  Because our self-life remains in control, all of the corrupt fruit of the self-life is still manifest: our slavery to the flesh and physical desires, our personal and relational dysfunctions, our fears, insecurities, frustrations, anxieties, anger, etc – all these continue to operate and flourish under the control of self.  We often mistake the symptoms as our problem, but the real problem is our self-life (life of the flesh) and it’s control.

Our experience of freedom, healing, and wholeness – our experience of life to the full and joy made complete – it comes through a process of choosing to allow Jesus to become the center of our life, allowing Him to be in control.

Likely most of us know, through His Word, how God wants us to live, we know some things that God is calling us to, yet for some reason we have difficulty consistently doing it – or even starting.  What is that missing ingredient that keeps us from entering into and consistently experiencing the life God has prepared for us? In both looking at the scriptures and observing the life experience of myself and others, I believe that missing ingredient is self-discipline.  For the most part, we know what we need to do, but instead we choose resign ourselves to taking another path.

I believe that within each of us God has deposited some dreams.  These dreams are part of who He’s created us to be and part of the purpose He has for our lives. 

So, what are your dreams?

To grow a family and being a part of a loving community?  Good physical health and long life?  To produce art (music, dance, graphic art, physical art, etc) and reflect beauty to the world?  To create, invent, and build things to make life better, more beautiful?  To explore the world, engaging other cultures in an enriching exchange?
Leadership in your field?  To grow a business venture?  Seeing others come to life, healing, and mature into all they’ve been created to be?

Sometimes in our religious mindsets we forget that God is really involved in calling us forth and blessing us in these things!

So, what are your dreams?  (Think about them for a moment.) How close are you to achieving them?  How satisfied are you that you’re experiencing the life God has for you?  What’s really holding you back?  Do you ever feel guilty or angry for not succeeding or attaining your dreams?

Besides dreams, there are other actions necessary for a healthy life that God calls us toward - for example, being a good steward of our finances and resources, devoting our time to activities that are worthwhile, maintaining good health (physically, mentally, spiritually), spending time in His presence (in prayer, scripture, worship), nurturing relationships, serving other people.

Same questions.  How close are you to achieving those things?  How satisfied are you that you’re experiencing the life God has for you in those areas?  Do you ever feel guilty or angry for not succeeding or attaining those things?  When finances are a wreck?  When much needed time is wasted?  When health is poor?  When you’re distant from God?

Through my life I’ve had a number of dreams I’ve wanted to live out.  For example, since the time I was young I’ve had dreams of being a musician – playing music, writing music, producing and recording music.  With that dream I’ve seen some limited success.  I’ve had the privilege getting some really cool gigs.  I’ve even been able to earn my income from playing music, recording music, and doing audio technical work for many events.  Yet, I never reached my ‘potential.’  I knew that I was capable of far more, but for some reason I chose not to do it.  Rather, in the moment I exchanged the dream for something else temporary and of little or no value.  I have felt a sense of guilt, of failure, and anger as I can identify numerous choices that have stifled my dream and squandered my opportunities.

Also, for many years I had known that God was specifically telling me properly manage my health.  So, I had thought to myself, ‘yeah, I’ll be a little more careful and cut out some of the junk in my diet.’  It was a nice sentiment, but it saw little or no real action.  By the fall of 2010, I found myself struggling with major fatigue, I was noticeably overweight (about 30 or 40 lbs.), I occasionally had high blood pressure, and I had been suffering from some debilitating heart arrhythmias that would sometimes leave me bed-ridden or unsafe to operate a motor vehicle.  

It’s unfortunate that I chose to allow myself to get to the point of crisis before the gravity of my choices really seized my attention.  I had little choice but to recognize that I needed to not just think about it but follow through and transform my lifestyle to God’s plan for my health and well-being.

Following through takes self-discipline, of which in some areas I had little.  At the end of last year I finally made a serious commitment to be disciplined and follow through on God’s call to get my health in order.  Most notably, I made a substantial diet change and I increased my level of exercise.  With God being present in the process, I have followed through on my commitment (without cheating) and have been seeing good success.  I’ve dropped over 30 lbs., I have more energy, and most importantly the heart problems are no longer manifesting.  In this area of my life I am coming into a fuller experience of living in God’s way for my life and am experiencing the blessing of good health.

God has both gifted us and called us forward into a blessed and transformed life.  Taking hold and seizing the transformed life available in Jesus, realizing the dreams and callings God has gifted your life, living in a way that produces health and life rather than sickness and death - all this requires self-discipline to continually choose Jesus’ ways over every other option.

What often happens when faced with the choice of doing what is hard and necessary is that we chose to follow the easier path of least resistance.  Our flesh desires the quick and easy gratification.  It’s a lot easier to indulge in junk food than it is to prepare a healthy meal.  Instead of building a lifelong healthy / functional relationship, we’re quick to hop into bed for physical and emotional high.  It’s easy to whip out the credit card and get that thing we desire whereas it takes work to make a budget, track expenses, and balance the books.

Experts note, the primary reason for financial problems is the lack of self-discipline, that inability to delay short-term gratification.  It has never been more possible to achieve financial success / independence than it is today. The book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Tom Stanely and William Danko, shows how two families living on the same street, in the same size house, working at the same job can have completely different financial situations.  By age 50, one couple is financially independent while the other is deeply in debt having trouble making payments.  The reason is not the amount of money they earn.  (That was the same.)  It’s a lack of self-discipline and the inability to delay gratification.

The desires of our flesh draw us towards short term / instant gratification at the expense of sacrificing our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  We truly want the best for all areas of our life, but perplexingly we sabotage ourselves and choose things that ultimately work against us.

Our true goals that could provide long term joy are easily sidetracked by diversions that feed what is ultimately an idolatry of self – where we worship, we serve our selfish desires at any cost.  The real problem, as we see articulated in the NT, is that we remain followers of our flesh rather than followers of the Spirit.

According to Romans 8:7-8, those who operate in the flesh are incapable of pleasing God.  Galatians 5:17 tells us that the desires of the flesh are opposed to the desires of the Spirit.  As believers, without godly self-discipline our discipleship to Jesus is jeopardized.  Lacking godly self-discipline, at best our discipleship will be immature and lacking. As well, we can often find ourselves in a place of disobedience where we don’t fulfill our master’s call and we place ourselves in the service of a master other than Jesus.  This keeps us remaining in a place of brokenness, refusing the saving work Jesus offers.  As we continue to sow to the flesh we will reap the destructive harvest of the flesh.

When talking about self-discipline, it’s tempting to associate the subject with ‘a motivational speaker or a productivity and success book.’  And there’s good reason for that.  All researchers and experts in productivity and success realize that self-discipline is vital for one to be successful in achieving their dreams.  Author M.R. Kopmeyer having spent 50 years researching productivity and success says that - “There are 999 other success principles that I have found in my reading and experience, but without self discipline, none of them work.”  We can know 'all the right answers', but without self-discipline we won’t be able to consistently put them into action where they transform our lives.

Now the temptation here for us is for the self-life rise up in the power of the flesh and try to apply raw human determination to try and discipline ourselves to achieve our goals.  People do this all the time, and for some this produces results and achieves goals.  However, rising up and striving with the self-life ultimately produces the same corrupt results of the self-life that we discussed earlier.  In Romans 7:18 the apostle Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

If we try to fight the flesh with the flesh, we will ultimately fail.  The self-life, our flesh nature, can only ultimately produce one result.  The flesh is incapable of righteousness.  We may find ‘some’ discipline in one area, but the flesh will find another way to gratify itself.

In Romans 8:6-8, 13 Paul writes – “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  (ESV)

We will gain the ability to put to death the works of the flesh and find peace and life when we live by the Spirit.  It’s not something that we can do on our own by our own will or power.  It’s something that God empowers within us by His will and His power.  When we yield ourselves to the Spirit of Christ and allow Him to live in and through us it produces a harvest of righteousness.  Our union with Christ becomes both our direction and our strength to do what pleases God and what leads to life and peace.  We become more and more able to restrain the destructive impulses of the flesh.  It is our union with Christ that produces within us the self-discipline that we need to be faithful.

In Galatians 5:16-25 we read – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control..”  Notice that the fruit of the Spirit – in other words a byproduct of living by the Spirit – is self-control or self-discipline.  The discipline we need to follow through on our discipleship to Jesus, our dreams, goals, and needs for healthy, productive living is all found in Him.
We begin to lay hold of this work by abiding in Him.  Jesus says in John 15:4-5 – “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Abiding in him, we become more like him; his ways become our ways – including being disciplined to do the things that bring life.  The more we abide, the easier and more natural it becomes to continue to choose Jesus way.  We form new habit, a Jesus habit, replacing the old habits of the self-life.

The truth is, God is for us.  He is for our success.  He longs to see us blossom to the fullness of all that He has created us to be.  He delights in it.  It gives him pleasure.  I believe 2nd century church father Irenaeus had it right when he said – “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Gain His heart and his mind for you.  Share the delight in his plans for you. 

The good news is God has made you able. The Spirit of God that is in you is completely capable.  God has gifted us with the tools needed to follow Jesus and achieve all the dreams, goals, and plans that He has given us.  2 Timothy 1:7 – “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”

Even though we have everything we need in Jesus to be disciplined disciples, we still have to choose to engage Him in this.  We need to step past the hearing and the ‘knowing the answers’ and walk into the doing.  Jesus says - “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and [obey/do] it.” (Luke 11:28)  Without actually putting God’s word into action we’re just deceiving ourselves.  (James 1)

What is it that you have some clarity that God is calling you to do right now?  Taking good care of your health? Approach your relationships with more intentional actions / reactions of love and care?  To be wise and diligent with how you manage money?  To be prudent and conscientious with how you manage your time?  To spend more time in His presence, in scripture, in prayer, in worship, in community?  To reach out and to serve other people (church/community)?

My examples just reflect some popular needs.  The key is to get clarity about what direction you are being led to go.  Proverbs 29:18 – “Without a vision the people perish.”  If we’re going to grow and to move forward, it’s vitally important to be able to define what we’re called to.

Once we have a definable goal or vision, then we come to the place of choice.  This Irwin McManus quote has stuck in my mind for years – “The most spiritual activity we can do is choose.”  What are you going to do about that God given vision or goal?

To be clear – all this talk about “doing” is not about sliding back into some sort of self-powered legalism.  Rather we are taking steps to facilitate and making space for what God wants to do in our lives.  This all has a very practical side to it.  Sometimes we need to use some practical tools to help us form new healthy habits of self-discipline.

In Habakkuk 2:2 we read some ancient Biblical wisdom that we also happen to see in every modern-day book on productivity and success.  “Record the vision and write it down.”  Once you have a clear goal, write it down.  Researchers tell us that people who write down their goals are over 1000% more likely to actually do them. One valuable tool we learned is to make yourself accountable and tell several people your plan of action.

After you set a specific goal and write it down, set deadlines.  Organize and discipline your implementation.  Of course the most important part is to take action – today!  Start today!  Don’t delay.  Be mindful to take some sort of action (no matter how big or small) towards your goal every day.

As we consistently walk towards our God given vision we will see it produce results (even if slowly) and it will bring joy.  Imagine what that would look like if all of us were pursuing our God given goals and dreams and taking consistent significant steps towards them.  What kind of families would we have?  What kind of art would we produce?  What kind of inventions would we create?  What kind of businesses would we grow?  What kind of leaders would we be?  It excites me to think of the possibilities!

Monday, August 6, 2012

food and drink

I was preparing to lead our faith community in communion a few weeks ago.  Frankly, I find the memorial ritual of eating bread and wine challenging at times.  Rituals are generally difficult for me to sustain because the process of repetition tends to diminish the immediacy and vibrancy of an action.  What begins as something wondrous can over time become trite and commonplace because the familiarity renders me numb to its amazing implications.  This is one of the reasons that I read a variety of biblical translations.  I do not mean this as an excuse; I know that my restlessness and lack of attentiveness are weaknesses.  However, they also prod me to go back to the basics and find new ways to engage with important words and traditions, to find language and action that remind me why this practice is life to me today.

And in the process of my preparation a few weeks ago, I came across two articles which aided me in this process and once again quickened me to take the meal of remembrance with reverence and delight. 

The first was a short piece by Mary Fairchild on why we observe communion.  She lists 5 reasons:  1) because the Lord told us to, 2) we are remembering Christ and all that he has done for us, 3) we take time to examine ourselves, 4) we are proclaiming his death until he comes, and 5) we show our participation in the body of Christ. 

In talking to the people in our faith community, I realized that most people, when participating in communion, usually focus on whatever is the primary aspect for them.  So in order to give ourselves time to engage with each one of these elements, a few weeks ago we partook of bread and wine five times, each time reading, pondering, and discussing one of the above reasons before eating and drinking.  The prolonged nature of the ritual gave us the sensation of sitting around a table for a meal instead of hurriedly grabbing a snack.  As the time passed and the levels in the cups diminished, I could sense that the group was becoming more and more content to sit with Jesus and with each other.  Peace.

The second article was something I had written about a year and a half ago and totally forgotten about.  It also speaks to the relevance and immediacy (present here and now, directly accessible) of Jesus' body and blood.  I read it before we began our five-fold communion.

Every morsel of food I eat and every drink I take reminds me that I cannot sustain this life without constantly eating and sharing in the life of Jesus.  My spirit is hungry and thirsty and needs to sit at the feast of Jesus often:  sometimes just the two of us in an intimate and solemnly sweet rendez-vous and other times with a large and lusty group.  As often as we eat and drink, we can remember who our life comes from.

On the other hand, the familiar symbols seem to have become sanitised in some ways by being incorporated into a tidy church setting.  Everything is too clean and orderly.  Baptism these days carries very little of the awkward, cold, naked, shivering, out in public, vulnerable declaration of ,"Oh God I'm drowning in my sin and need your divine breath and spirit to make life where there is death." 

Eating the flesh and blood of Jesus is so much more than a tiny morsel of bread and a gulp of wine.  This union with Jesus plunges us into a world where we identify betrayal in and around us; we feel the agony in the sweat and blood and tears of surrender; we see the tearing of the flesh and witness the lifeblood pour out in a sticky, nauseating ooze; we smell death in the air and resist the urge to cover it up with expensive spices, choosing instead to wait for the divine seed to burst forth from the decaying wasteland and shock us all with its blinding love.

I think that these things are more holy and less distant than we know.

Matte from Montreal

You can check out Mary Fairchild's full article here.
the photo:  a shared supper this spring with some colleagues, one of whom has since passed away.