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