Monday, October 5, 2015

cookies and questions: report from the CETA conference


This past weekend I participated in the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association's fall conference at Tyndale University in Toronto. I had never been to this particular conference before so did not know quite what to expect. I am happy to report that there were white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and pink lemonade. Theologically speaking, there were some things which were not surprising, such as a high percentage of males versus females and some fairly conservative interpretations of the gospel. But there were many refreshing, spacious places of encounter as well. I heard nine presentations at the conference. I offer you highlights from two of them:

1. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Rachel Tulloch brought attention to the fact that perhaps Jesus is not merely telling his listeners that they must go out and do good works, be his hands and feet, so to speak, but letting his followers know that he is present in the poor and marginalized. Too often we dole out charity from a position of power and superiority, assuming that we are the ones with the truth and the resources, and the poor, needy, and unsaved are lucky we came along. In this story, Jesus identifies with the needy. He is not the one giving out charity but receiving it. Rachel encouraged us to "see Jesus" in the needy before we try to "be Jesus" to them.

2. Another talk which got me thinking was James Harrichand's presentation on recovering the language of lament. He noted that 40% of the Psalms are individual laments, and yet, much of the evangelical Western church adopts a type of triumphalism which leaves no room for such language, no space to sit in suffering and silence and complaint, calling on God to hear our cries. We tend to rush right to pithy, trite platitudes meant to dispel disease instead of giving suffering and grief proper expression. Prayers which mingle together lament and praise, trust and doubt, are prayers which God welcomes. They can help us to create a space where, as James says, "people in distress are encouraged to tell their stories and express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and secure environment." Lament is where we get real with God and with each other, and in the process, move closer to hope.

I gave a talk at the end of the day on theological hospitality. It was an invitation to become more aware that we have a hospitable God who embraces us while we are still enemies, strangers, and sinners. My conclusion was this: "Because we have been graciously, undeservedly received by Jesus, we must open ourselves to others whom Jesus is also inviting, especially those who look, speak, act, think, and believe differently than we do. If we are to practice theological hospitality, we must become better listeners. We must cultivate spiritual hunger and humility, and we must stop being easily threatened. We must look for occasions to celebrate what unites us with others instead of pointing out what divides, and above all, we must acknowledge that the theological table is ultimately God’s, not ours. We are merely guests."

There were some very thoughtful questions after my presentation. One person asked why we are so inhospitable in our theological contexts. In other words, how did we get this way?  My response was that our heritage as Protestants might have something to do with it; our theological particulars were born out of protest to certain problematic traditions and practices in the church. In some ways, we continue to carry that identity, seeking to protect ourselves from theological error and protesting anything which appears to be a dilution of the gospel. In general, it is a reactive posture, not a loving posture. I am sure there are many other good answers to that question, but that was the best I could do on the spot. 

Another question was this: what can we do to become more hospitable? My answer was no doubt a bit too simple, but I replied that we need to become better listeners. By that I meant that we don't always need to voice our opinion or add our insight or knowledge to a particular situation. Sometimes we just need to shut up and listen. Let us give people the dignity of actually hearing them instead of simply using them as a jumping off point to spout off our agenda. There are times when we are to speak and there are times when we should be silent. Wisdom discerns between the two. Being silent can be an act of faith, trusting that God is able to speak to people in any number of ways and not just through us. The Holy Spirit is infinitely creative in communicating truth and love to each one of us. Every one who dabbles in theology, myself included, needs to be reminded of that on a regular basis.

Come, Holy Spirit. Reveal Jesus. Reveal the Father. Reveal your truth and love.