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


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