Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Communicating Understandably

Since the moment Jesus spoke the words of commission to his followers, believers have wrested with a huge question:  How do we connect with those around us and effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus?  At my church, we are asking this question as we answer God’s call to increased engagement with the community around us.

While I realize that we are communicating the person of Jesus to others, we are also communicating a number of theological ideas.  (I’d define theology here as “Thoughts about God.”)  These theological ideas give the gospel and Jesus (who is the center of gospel) context for a clearer understanding to undergird faith and relationship.

The sensitive and observant among us will readily recognize the significant gap between what is familiar to us believers and what is familiar to the world around us.

We believe Jesus is the one through whom we are actually able to know God.  We believe in Jesus as the incarnate Word, having ministered among us, suffered and died, buried, eternally resurrected, and coming again.  We acknowledge the Bible as the primary source of our revelation about Jesus.  We acknowledge a long history as his church; rich with revelation, reflection, and tradition.  We know this stuff.  We are immersed in these contexts that give our present thoughts and experience meaning.  We care about this stuff.

Some people, however, don’t know this stuff.  They don’t share our contexts.  They generally don’t think about this stuff.  Most often, they don’t really care about this stuff– or at least try not to.  Their cares and concerns are devoted to a numerous variety of other things.  They may be familiar with the name of Jesus, but it doesn’t often go too much further than that.  Most often they’re not very familiar with many stories about him, the things he said and did, and what he was really about.  They’re even less familiar with the full set of Biblical stories and Biblical ideas that give us so much context for our thinking.

There is this seeming chasm between the knowledge and experience of Jesus we have and others don’t.  There can also be this chasm between how believers and non-believers view foundational things like the nature of our world and our place and purpose in it.  The Biblical worldview and our cultural worldviews are quite remarkably different.  

Given these and other foundational differences, we can see with some clarity the incredible challenge we face to communicate Jesus across this gap in a way that will be understood and possibly even received.  If we’re not mindful of the issues within communicating across these gaps, we can inadvertently communicate in such a way that we are misunderstood at best and at worst - we totally freak people out and alienate ourselves.

One of my favorite stories told by John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, relates to this issue.  John was a successful musician working with the band “The Righteous Brothers”.  After coming to the Lord – knowing pretty much nothing about Jesus or the Bible – John recognizes he needs to go to church.  When he gets to this church, John is greeted by a man who exuberantly asks him, “Hey brother, have you been washed in the Blood?”  (My paraphrased recollection of his response) “Umm, what?  What’s this all about??  Is this some sort of strange ritual that I’ve got to do to be able to come in??  I don’t think I want to take a bath in blood so I can come to church!  I can’t believe I gave up drugs for this…”  And really – what was a guy from his context supposed to think upon hearing that?  If it weren’t for God’s grace working in John, we believers could have scared him away for good.

For those of us who know what it means and understand string of Biblical references and ideas – is being washed in the Blood a good thing?  Absolutely.  To someone knows nothing of the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, the covenants, blood atonement, and all our Christian contexts – it just sounds freakishly weird.  It’s not a good greeting to a stranger.  It’s a conversation starter – but maybe not the kind of conversation you’re hoping for.

Even in the most innocent of circumstances, misunderstanding and alienation can happen quickly.  When people have little or even zero grid for what we’re talking about it’s necessary to pay attention both to what we are saying and to how they are responding. If we’re sensitive enough to notice a reaction that says they’re not getting it, that’s a clear signal that we need to communicate better.  This is one area where the church in general hasn’t always done well when trying to communicate with the world.  We will enthusiastically go on about things that people don’t yet care about, that they have no connection to or reason believe, and we’ll communicate in a way where there’s no context to understand.  “Have you been washed in the Blood?” (Washing in blood?!?!)  “You need to be redeemed, justified, sanctified to be righteous and walking in holiness, etc, etc...”  (Uhh…Can I get my dictionary?)  “The Bible says…!"  (Why should I believe in the authority of that book?)  And in the worst cases, if people seem not to care, instead of being more thoughtful we can sometimes become more forceful in our communication.  Well, who loves talking to a forceful communicator with an apparent agenda?  It can feel assaulting or even violating.  That’s not the way of the gospel, so certainly not a good means to communicate it.

Looking at Acts 17, we find wisdom in how the first believers handled this challenge of communicating Jesus.

While in Thessalonica, Paul’s proclamation of Jesus was wrapped up – not in something his Jewish hearers weren’t thinking about – but in a relevant question they were wrestling with in regards to their expected Messiah.  By working with them through the questions they were actually asking, he found common ground to communicate Jesus. And some came to believe in Jesus.

When Paul arrives at Athens, the scene gets a whole lot more complicated and interesting.  As usual, he first went to the synagogue.  But Paul also went out into the market place where he meets some Greeks who were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – people who were very different in thought, word, and deed, not only from Paul but even from each other.

So - how does a Jewish Christian like Paul relate to these pagan Greek philosophers who have radically different thoughts, histories, and beliefs?  In a sense it would be easier to speak with Jews, because as a Jew himself he was on more familiar ground.  And of course Jesus was the Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophetic hope.  Jesus was the answer to a Jewish question.  But now the playing field is completely different.  Different worldviews.  Different hopes.  Different questions.

What we see happen is what Paul himself articulates in 1 Corinthians 9:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”  (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

To these pagan Greek philosophers, Paul becomes as a Greek.  In doing so, he never compromises his faith or integrity.  Rather he is modeling that instead of expecting other people to enter our headspace, we need to enter theirs so that we can communicate.  What is their view of “god”, of the world, of humanity?  What is their religion, politic, driving social value(s)?  What are their hopes, dreams, and values that drive them?  What are their questions, struggles, and future vision?

Paul doesn’t go off on a Hebrew discourse expounding a bunch of Hebrew Scriptures (that would have been quite unknown at the Greek Areopagus).  Rather, he delivers a Hellenistic (Greek) speech, quoting familiar Greek poets.  His speech is full of allusions to the Epicurean and Stoic beliefs as points of contact addressing their worldview and concerns in familiar terms.  Yet at the same time he never concedes or surrenders to their beliefs.  While never quoting scripture, he maintains to keep his whole argument firmly based on Biblical revelation.  On every common contact point of belief and concern with the Greeks, Paul turns the everything right-side-up with the truth of the Gospel.

We as believers and theologians (God-thinkers) of all kinds - we all have the incredible opportunity to communicate the best message ever told about the most amazing person alive - Jesus.  May we have the wisdom and sensitivity to communicate Jesus in a way that connects and is understood.

Monday, September 16, 2013

getting into politics

Image from customflagart.com
I live in Quebec. In the past week, our provincial government has proposed that we adopt what they call the Quebec Charter of Values which, in part, restricts public employees from wearing prominent religious symbols such as crosses, hijabs, veils, turbans, or yarmulkes. This effort to render our public space more secular, free of religious influence, has caused quite a stir. Most people I know are disappointed, outraged, or embarrassed by this proposal. The Charter of Values seems to say the exact opposite of everything I as a citizen of Quebec want to communicate: that we are a province that seeks to be inclusive, invitational, and respectful of people's differences. So what do we do about this proposed charter? I have colleagues in the university who are now wearing their religious gear more proudly and more openly than ever before. Others are writing to their members of parliament. Thousands of people walked through the streets of Montreal on Saturday in protest of the proposed charter. Of course, there are also those who agree with its restrictions and see it as a step towards uniformity and peaceful existence.

A question that arises in situations like this is "How involved should we, as Christians, be in the political arena?" I am fairly apolitical, meaning I don't align myself with any particular party or position. In addition, I have to confess that I have little faith in any political system to bring about true, positive change in our world. Any positive change I have ever been witness to has not been accomplished through enforced legislation, but through people creatively acting out of love, kindness, and wisdom. However, this past week my position on politics changed somewhat. I have been reading the thoughts of 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt. She was a German Jew born in 1906 who lived through World War II, barely escaping her country before "all hell broke loose." Her definition of politics is refreshing; for Arendt, politics is simply human beings acting in the public realm, working together, sharing a love of the world. Arendt sees action as risk, courage, rising to the occasion, and this action includes discourse and dialogue between people; action is based in community.

The two actions which Arendt sees as being exemplary in the public realm, in life together, are forgiveness and promise. Yes, this is what a Jewish, non-religious, female political theorist who lived through World War II believes are the most powerful actions we can bring to the public forum. Inspired by the words of Jesus, Arendt holds that forgiveness is a type of relationship which reflects our plurality, our commitment to one another and to our world. To clarify, she says that one does not forgive an act, but a person. And by forgiving a person, a community is able to move forward, to have a new beginning instead of being stuck in its history. Though she never lived to see it implemented, this principle was instrumental in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  This commission provided South Africa with a peaceful way forward after apartheid. Since then, the TRC model has been used in over 25 countries to deal with wrongs committed by governments or prominent people.

While forgiveness is meant to bring release and facilitate transformation, the second action Arendt names, promise, is meant to provide respite, what she calls "islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty." Promise is about having faith in others and hoping for positive outcomes. It means that telling the truth becomes highly valued and how we treat others becomes primary. As a result, maintaining a certain image (that we are the most powerful nation in the world or have a distinct identity) becomes irrelevant; we begin to value honesty and faithfulness more than a position of power. There is no place for political spin (deception) in the realm of promise because truth and trustworthiness are held in highest regard. Thoughtful, collective discernment (which includes seeing the world from another's perspective) replaces cold calculation in decision-making. What is at stake is relationship, not reputation or GNP.

Arendt gives me hope for political process because even in one of the darkest times in recent history, she was able to see how public life, living together, could be done well. While a reporter for the trial of Adolf Eichmann (one of the organizers of the Holocaust), she came to the realization that these horrible crimes had not been committed by people who were evil down to the core. Sitting at the front of the courtroom was a man who was quite ordinary, who was good at following orders, who worked hard, and thought he was a good citizen. What he did not do was stop and think, stop and exercise judgment, stop and see things from another perspective, stop and question what was happening around him.  He took no risk, exhibited no courage, and did not act out of love for the world.  He was more committed to an image, an ideal, to personal and political power than to the people of the world.

So what does this mean for those of us in tricky political situations here and now? How do we as Christians and leaders engage in the public realm?  I believe Arendt provides us with three principles to guide our way:

1. Act.  While prayerfulness, thoughtfulness, contemplation, reading, research, discussion (sermons), and debate all have their place, they are no substitute for courageous action. In fact, all these things are best seen as preliminaries used to discern proper and wise courses of action. Action implies that we engage with people, put ourselves out there, and become a visible part of the community. Action does not equate with confrontation, forcefulness, condemnation, or violence. Action simply means that we are not silent, passive, or hidden. We actively show our love for our world.

2. Get face to face. There is a tendency for us to be passive-aggressive when it comes to public figures and politicians (or even anyone we disagree with) regarding issues. We judge them, criticize them in a manner that gives no chance for response, and show our hostility indirectly. One of the main strengths of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model is that it puts people face to face; it gives them a chance to listen, to have a dialogue, to be changed by the other. There is no substitute for direct contact with others, whether in our community or with our leaders. Dean has started something called "Dinners with Dean." Every other week he invites a few people over so that we can talk face to face and get to know each other. This is not just hanging out with friends, but with people that we don't know very well. Wouldn't it be great if we could all invite our public officials over for dinner and show them some hospitality? While that may not be feasible, we can get face to face with our neighbours, our colleagues, and those we often isolate and judge. We can change the dynamic.

3. Cultivate faith and hope. This is not easy in the realm of politics, but it is not impossible. We can do our part to change things by exemplifying all those qualities we want to see in our leaders and in all aspects of the government. The next time you are on the phone with a government employee or standing in line for a service, embody patience, kindness, self-control, mercy, and faithfulness. Listen more than you speak, ask instead of demand, be observant and respectful to the person you are dealing with. This takes courage, but it is a way of inserting promises where they have been broken, a way of showing thoughtfulness and consistency where these have been neglected.  It is a way of bringing faith, hope, and love for our world back into public places.

While I wholeheartedly support the right to wear crosses and crucifixes in public, perhaps putting on the character of Jesus is a more effective way to bear witness to our faith. And no one can take that away from us.

Matte from Montreal

References: Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl, The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt.

Monday, September 9, 2013

little children

Parents and wee goslings in Stratford, ON
Let me start by confessing that I do not always love people very well, so in my continuing journey to learn how to be a better lover, I invited our faith community to study 1 John together with me. Who better to learn from than the disciple of love, the writer who penned "God is love?" I thought taking a close look at 1 John would be a great way to immerse myself and our faith community in the aspects of love. Well, in the first two chapters of 1 John there has been little said about love. Like I mentioned in a post I recently wrote about the frequent impropriety of our questions (a funeral and a wedding), I find that often I come to a subject (like suffering or love) with quite a closed mind.  I have already decided what things I would like to learn, what questions are important, roughly what the answers should look like, and am already looking forward to how much better equipped this will make me when discussing the topic. That's a pretty limited approach, I know.

One of the reasons I love reading the Bible and studying theology is because I always encounter a lot of surprises. Here is what struck me most about the second chapter of 1 John: his modes of address. He uses little children five times.  He also calls the recipients of his letter parents (fathers) two times and young people (young men) twice. It seems fairly obvious that he is not addressing different age groups, but reminding his dear friends about different aspects of their relationship to God, the eternal one. Here is what I believe these terms of endearment are saying.

1. "Little ones" speaks about belonging: Children belong in a family simply by being born, and this is the same for our status with God.  Forgiveness through Christ Jesus means that we belong.  As little children we know our heavenly Father, not because we have studied long and hard or have a lifetime of experience to reference, but because we are his children. We recognize him because he is our Father.

2. "Parents" refers to responsibility:  John's comment to parents is the exact same both times: "You have known the one who existed from the beginning."  I see two main aspects that John is calling people to: to remember what they have learned from seeing, touching, hearing, and experiencing Jesus and to pass on these stories to the younger ones.

3. "Young people" speaks of action: The writer speaks here with reference to their strength, their ability to overcome evil, and their commitment to carry the word of God within them. The focus here is on action, on transforming their environment because they have been transformed themselves.

My incredibly clever husband observed that this pattern is remarkably similar to the Vineyard values of belong-believe-behave where we as faith communities first create an atmosphere where people belong, then out of this place of safety people begin to embrace the values of Jesus, and finally, their actions start to reflect a transformation.  Good point, Dean!

What is the important point for me here (reflected by the author's 5-time repetition) is that we never lose our identity as little children.  We must never forget that we belong. All knowledge of God, all righteousness, all wisdom, all truth, all overcoming of evil, and all confidence stem from this belonging. We are little children. This is not a term hinting at immaturity; it is one of the most meaningful and precious things a Father can say to his beloved.

Matte, the little child, from Montreal