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