Monday, December 5, 2016


Christmas is a time of year when we see traditions being enacted all around us. Traditions, at their best, tell a story. They are meant to be reminders of identity, history, and hard-won values. Unfortunately, traditions can easily become unmoored from their stories. When this happens, the tradition morphs into something else: it may become a hollow act practically devoid of meaning, or it may become associated with a different story, or the story may be revised to reflect a more convenient story. About a month ago, I heard aboriginal women telling the heart-wrenching story of the slaughter and conquest which accompanied the original celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. This inconvenient story has been removed from the tradition in favour of a more sentimental, Euro-centric tale. The tradition changes when the story changes, and we must resist whitewashing the stories associated with our traditions, for doing so causes us to lose our way.

Jesus encountered some very devout traditionalists in his time. The religious leaders dedicated to upholding the Jewish laws and traditions also turned out to be the most resistant to the good news Jesus embodied. For them, the traditions had become separated from the story of a merciful, redeeming, patient, generous God. Instead, the traditions became rigid rules and practices meant to protect and preserve Jewish identity and purity, and as a result, they were blinded to the story of God's loving compassion unfolding right before their eyes.

I did not grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions so I am discovering some of them for the first time, and the stories which they tell are rich and powerful. One example is the Advent wreath. It originated with the Lutherans sometime in the 16th century and was associated with fasting and mindfulness of the second coming of Christ. In the early 1900s it became associated with looking forward to the celebration of Christmas and, over time, symbols and meanings became attached to the tradition. The tradition varies somewhat in the church, but the Advent wreath tells a wonderful, accessible, memorable story of Jesus. Let me show you.

The wreath is a circle, reminding us that God's love has no beginning or end.
The use of evergreen branches is a sign of life in a lifeless winter, pointing to new life and hope of eternal life in Christ (hints of the original meaning behind the wreath).
The candles represent the light of God coming into the world through Jesus, his son. They contrast to the darkness in the world.
The red ribbon on the wreath represents Christ the Redeemer and the blood he shed for us on the cross.
The four candles (one lit each Sunday in Advent) represent a period of waiting. They symbolize four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi (Old Testament) and the birth of Christ (New Testament).
The colour of Advent in the liturgical church is purple, meaning that it is a time of waiting and preparation. The colour of Lent, a penitential season, is also purple, but Advent is considered a time of expectation, not repentance. Purple is also traditionally the colour of royalty, because the dye used to produce this colour was originally very rare and expensive and only the elite could afford to wear purple.

The First Candle is purple and is known as the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that God is faithful to keep his promises. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is HOPE. In Isaiah 9 we read: "A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; peace will last forever. He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong. He will always rule with honesty and justice. The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done” (Isaiah 9:6-7, Contemporary English Version). This was written roughly 800 years before Christ was born. The prophecy concerned Jerusalem and Judah who were suffering under an Assyrian attack at the time. This was a message of hope given to a nation who longed for peace and for a righteous ruler. Most likely the people at the time did not fully recognise the messianic overtones in Isaiah's words, but when the writer of Matthew applied it directly to Jesus some 800 years later, Isaiah's message of hope came to life in the person of Christ.

The Second Candle is also purple and is known as the Bethlehem Candle, again reminding us of God's faithfulness and inviting us to be prepared to welcome God into our midst. The theme of the Second Sunday is PEACE. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth... And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace…” (Micah 2:2-5, New Living Translation). Here we find a prophecy about a small, humble village being the birthplace of a world-renowned ruler who will bring peace. Again, the original hearers might not have understood the messianic implications, but when we read them today, in hindsight, the many references to the details in the amazing story of Jesus are quite obvious.

The Third Candle is pink and known as the Shepherd Candle. The theme of the third Sunday is JOY and it refers to the joyous good news the shepherds received from the angels. We find the story in Luke 2: "Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, 'Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors'" (Luke 2:8-14, Common English Bible). Though the Jews were looking for a messiah who would make things right for them, the story of Jesus is filled with indications that God's mercy and favour extended beyond the nation of Israel. In the angel message here we find mention of "all people" which seems distinctly inclusive to us now, but might not have been taken that way by the original hearers.

The Fourth Candle is purple and is known as the Angel Candle because the angels brought news that God's love had come to the world through the person of Jesus. The theme of the fourth week is LOVE. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16, Common English Bible). These are words spoken by Jesus himself and once again we see expansive words such as "world" and "everyone." This is the very nature of love: to grow, to expand, to overflow, uncontainable and unmeasurable. And this kind of expansive love which reaches even to the lowest of the low is what we see present over and over again in the story of Jesus.

The Centre Candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is usually lit on Christmas Eve to indicate that Christ has come, the time of waiting is over. The shift from expectation to excitement is evident in the story of Simeon found in Luke 2: “A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law [dedicate their first child to God]. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 'Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:25-32, Common English Bible). Simeon, led by the Spirit, recognised in Jesus the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love which Israel had been longing for. He also saw the expansiveness of God's love and compassion (a light for the Gentiles).

The story of Jesus teaches us that God's salvific work is so much more magnanimous than we had hoped and also so much more humbling than we had anticipated. And that is why it is important to keep telling the story of Jesus, not only in words, but in traditions. Traditions serve as reminders, metaphors, symbols, and spiritual practices which keep us connected to the story of God and reveal to us again and again the divine desire to live in communion with humanity. In telling and re-telling the story of Jesus, the story told in the Advent wreath, we remember that we, too, need a Saviour to restore us to God. We, too, long for someone to come and rescue us. We are reminded to prepare ourselves, because in order to welcome Christ into our lives (our families, our work, our play, our relationships) we need to make space and remove the clutter. This is the message which John the Baptist preached: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3). In Advent, we are reminded to minimize the distractions, avoid the detours, remove the obstacles, and make a clear path of welcome for God.

One of the ways we can do this is by making our everyday waiting (in lines, in traffic, in meetings, etc.) a spiritual discipline, an act of worship and devotion. Waiting can be an Advent practice which transforms our self-centred impatience into an act which reminds us of the hundreds of years that Israel waited for someone to come and restore them, to rescue them from their suffering and sin. Another way to practice Advent is to be attentive to stories of waiting and preparation which point us in the direction of hope, peace, joy, and love.[1] Whatever the tradition(s) you participate in this season, may you take the time to remember the story which is connected to the tradition, and find your place in a re-telling and re-living of it.


[1] One such story which has just been made into a movie (Lion) is that of Saloo Brierley. You can read an article of this amazing story of hope, remembering, and perseverance here.

Monday, November 7, 2016

wanted: patience

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Finish the following phrase: I need patience when....

Your answers might include things like parenting, standing in line, performing some detailed task, losing weight, or going through a hard time. Patience is the ability to wait, to continue doing something despite difficulties, to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed, to tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

To illustrate the concept of patience, let me tell you two stories. Here is the first, a mom's story:

"Getting ready and out the door is a chore, as any mom of littles will tell you. No matter how much extra time you allot yourself, it's never enough. It seems those last 10 minutes before leaving are pure and utter chaos. It never fails. Somebody poops right as I step out the door. ... Oops, I forgot to water the dog. It's enough to drive someone mad—at least if that someone is me.

"I like to think I am a good mother. But I know for a fact I have one motherly flaw that protrudes like a plank from my eye: I lack patience. At no time is this flaw more evident than when my girls and I are trying to get out the door to go somewhere. The problem is, I'm an 'arrive on time' kind of girl. Or at least I used to be. Now, with two kids, I rarely reach my destination on time. But the drive to do so still pushes me to run over any obstacles in my path. Even if those obstacles are often my children. Today my 4-year-old, finally strapped down behind her five-point-harness, crying in the back seat, asked me, 'Why are you being so mean to us?' I was buzzing down the road, my eye on the prize of my destination, but in that moment my heart stopped, and I knew I was in the wrong. ... I decided right then and there that enough was enough. I don't want my children to remember their mother always in a hurry or always about to burst from frustration. I want them to remember examples of patience and love." [1]

I must admit that I, too, like to be on time and stick to a schedule. I have been unkind and impatient in the interest of timeliness, and I confess that it is never a pleasant sight. Patience appears in short supply in our fast-paced lives. We are always looking for ways to manage our schedules better, to make things more efficient, to cram more tasks into our already full days. But I believe time management is an elusive and sadly inadequate goal to be pursuing, mostly because it is based on pressure we feel from the culture around us and not on a desire to emulate the character of God.

Let's look at another story, this time in Nehemiah 9. Here the priests are giving instructions to people who are in the process of rebuilding their lives and their city. They have faced a lot of opposition and hardship, and though they have managed to erect an exterior wall, they have a long way to go to complete the project. The leaders call the people together to worship God and confess their sins, and then they tell them a story to put things in perspective. It is the history of God and his people. 

The story begins with God making the earth and everything in it. God is not only the creator but the one who sustains all of creation. Things go a bit sideways when humanity decides to choose their own way instead of God's, but God responds with a way of salvation. God then makes a covenant with Abraham to make him a great nation through which all nations of the world will be blessed. The family of Abraham multiples over generations and rivalries and betrayal enter the story. The growing nation ends up in slavery in Egypt, but God sees their misery and rescues them. God leads the homeless nation through the wilderness, assuring them of his constant presence and care with a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and miraculous provision of food and water. And how do the people respond?

"But our ancestors resisted following You. They were arrogant. They were proud.
They refused to obey Your commands, plugging their ears. Knowing what You had done for them in the past, they willfully forgot it in the present. Stubborn. Rebellious.
Instead of following You, they appointed their own leader to take them back to the land of their oppression—to Egypt!
But You are not like us, God.
You are filled with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
You endure much with your anger [are slow to anger] and display Your loyal love;" (Nehemiah 9:16-18, The Voice)

To add insult to injury, the rescued nation attributes their miraculous escape from slavery to a golden calf instead of to God. And then they decide that freedom isn't all they had envisioned and they want to go back to their captors. The story goes on to mention the people's horrible atrocities, actions in stark contrast to God's incomprehensible compassion. Despite their terrible behavior, God never abandons them, he never removes the cloud or the pillar of fire, he never stops giving them food or water, and he makes sure their clothes and shoes do not wear out. After forty years, God leads the people into a new land, fertile and productive. And the people react like ungrateful children, refusing to listen, killing the messengers God sends to warn them. So God lets them experience the consequences of their actions and they encounter suffering. In their pain, they cry out to God for help. God listens, and God rescues them. Again.

"Somehow your mercy is inexhaustible...
Over and over and over You intervened and saved Your people...
Year after year, Your patience endured...
It was because of Your great mercy that they were not completely annihilated or forsaken.
You are a grace-filled and mercy-laden God;
Our True God - You who are great, majestic, and awesome, You who always keep your covenant of loyal love... (Nehemiah 9:28-32, The Voice)

The story that the priests tell the people rebuilding the city of Jerusalem highlights the patience and faithfulness of God. No matter how much trouble their ancestors caused, God never abandoned them. He demonstrated his patience and compassion over and over again. This story was meant to encourage the people in the long and difficult task of rebuilding their lives. God's patience was to become the backbone of their patience. 

Our modern world seems to value efficiency over patience and longsuffering, but efficiency is not a fruit of the spirit of God. If there is anything that the history of God and his people demonstrates, it is his indefatigable patience. Might I suggest that we are often impatient with others because we don't realize how patient God is with us. We can be so focused on the chaos in front of us that we don't realize that we are the chaos God has to deal with. And in our arrogance, we dare to accuse God of being slow, of not acting, of not caring, of not listening. God is not ignoring us, he is being patient, but this is a difficult concept for impatient people to grasp. We must resist projecting our experience onto God, and instead, allow God's spirit to inform and transform our experience. 

"Don’t imagine, dear friends, that God’s timetable is the same as ours; as the psalm says, for with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. Now the Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s." (2 Peter 3:8-9, The Voice)
"Do you take the kindness of God for granted? Do you see His patience and tolerance as signs that He is a pushover when it comes to sin? How could you not know that His kindness is guiding our hearts to turn away from distractions and habitual sin to walk a new path?" (Romans 2:4, The Voice)

Let's take a brief look at the words for patience in the scriptures. There is no one word in Hebrew to describe patience. Qavah means to wait, to expect, to bind together (hints of covenant). Khool means to hope for and comes from a root which means "to calve" (hints of the patience and suffering required in giving birth). Erekh ruach means long of spirit and is translated "patience" in the story of Job. In Greek, hupomeno means to remain, to abide, to persevere under misfortunes, to endure, to bear bravely, to hold fast to one's faith. Another Greek work, makrothymia, combines the word long with the word anger, and here we get the idea of being slow to anger, or longsuffering, having forbearance, steadfastness, and staying power.

The idea of "fullness of time"[2] can be explained by thinking about pregnancy (remember khool coming from the root "to calve"). One mother told me that her pregnancy seemed to last forever. But ask that same mother if she would have preferred delivering a premature baby and she would say absolutely not. We want a baby to be fully developed and strong before it enters a harsh world. And that means we don't rush things. We have patience, because a life is at stake.

Let me offer a few final thoughts on patience:
1. Patience is demonstrated to us by a loving, loyal, longsuffering God; we are the benefactors of God's patience every day. Let us never forget this when we are tempted to be impatient with others.
2. God's patient character is meant to be reflected in us, his children. 
3. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (it takes time to grow).
4. Patience is also something we practice. We have to nurture the seed that God has planted in us.
5. Patience places love and mercy front and centre, not efficiency, not performance, not perfection.
6. Patience is not the same as slowness; patience is discerning God's way and timing and working in sync with them.
7. Patience means embracing God's concept of fullness of time. This means we avoid doing things prematurely, we try not to put things together hastily, but give adequate time for the necessary growth, strengthening, stabilizing, and bonding (remember qavah and its hints of covenant). Fullness of time is the time it takes for fullness to develop. For you coffee drinkers, perhaps it helps to think of instant coffee versus freshly roasted coffee beans, ground and brewed as you wait. For those with a sweet tooth, compare eating a cake pulled out of the oven before it is quite done to waiting till it attains the perfect spongy lightness. 

Next time you find yourself being impatient, you might want to think about fine coffee and yummy cake. And the inexhaustible mercy and longsuffering of our loving God.  


[1] From a blog by Kelcie Huffstickler. You can read the whole story here.
[2] "With immense pleasure, He laid out His intentions through Jesus, a plan that will climax when the time is right (fullness of time) as He returns to create order and unity—both in heaven and on earth—when all things are brought together under the Anointed’s royal rule." (Ephesians 1:9-10, The Voice)

Monday, October 3, 2016

time for catechesis

Catechesis (noun): educating and instructing people in life as followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ. Stated another way, catechesis is spiritual formation, and it doesn't happen just once in a few classes which prepare us for baptism or official church membership. No, catechesis happens all the time. [1] We are being formed and shaped every day of our lives by the culture and society in which we are immersed, by our family and friends, by what we look at, listen to, read, pay attention to, participate in (say Yes to), and indirectly by what we ignore, refuse, unplug from, and say No to.

The question is not if we are involved in spiritual formation, but by what we are being formed and shaped. Leonardo Boff, a theologian from Brazil, observes that, "Each type of society tends to produce a religious representation suited to it. ... Thus, in a capitalist society - which is based on individual performance, private accumulation of goods, and the predominance of the individual over the social - the representation of God usually accentuates the fact that God is one alone, Lord of all, all-powerful, the source of all power." [2] As a result of our emphasis on the potential of the individual, our Western ideas of God are often reduced to a divine being who aids us in personal success and well-being.

Take a look at the Hebrew Bible. Much of it is set in a tribal context where factions are warring against each other; it is a world of "conquer or be conquered." It is no surprise, then, that Israel's stories are filled with imagery of a warring God, of a God who defeats all other gods, who is superior in battle, who crushes the enemy. However, adopting a view of God based in large part on our social context is problematic, because it makes culture our source of revelation and knowledge instead of God himself. In other words, we are shaping God according to our context instead of allowing God to shape or catechize us. This must change. The God who reveals himself as the trinitarian God should be catechizing our ideas of society, of church, of life as disciples of Jesus. Our ideas of community must come from a communal, unified God. Our ideas of leadership must come from a participatory, serving God. Our ideas about mission must come from an outward-facing, welcoming God.

In the Hebrew Bible, one of the names of God is Elohim. This is a plural noun which is, for the most part, used with a singular verb. Here we have a Person who is communal yet unified in purpose. And this should catechize us. Boff states: "If God means three divine Persons in eternal communion among themselves, then we must conclude that we also, sons and daughters are called to communion. We are image and likeness of the Trinity. Hence we are community beings." [3] There is a multiplicity inherent in the Godhead, but the three Persons are so comingled, so united in love, that they are a single God. Wherever you see the Father, you see the Son. Wherever you see the Son, you see the Creator. Wherever you see the Creator, you see the Spirit at work. The Greek word perichoresis is an attempt to explain the interaction between the Persons of the Godhead. In its simplest form, it means circle dance, a movement of persons where each one dwells in the other. It is a mystery of inclusion which "prevents us from understanding one Person without the others." [4]

The Trinity is often spoken about in terms of the Immanent Trinity (God related to Godself, the interior life of God) and the Economic Trinity (God related to creation, to the world). This is a way of distinguishing who God is from what God does, but in truth, the two are inseparable. Take a look at the picture of Scottish circle dancers below. Pick out one of the dancers and, in your imagination, erase everyone else from the picture. What that solitary dancer is doing makes no sense apart from all the others. They must be viewed as a whole.

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We cannot separate who God is from what God does. Neither can we separate the Creator or the Father from the other Persons in the circle dance. In the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-3, we find the Creator God, we find the Word of God, and we find the breath or spirit of God. One does not make sense without the others because they are in perfect unity. Likewise, the Creator does not make sense without creation (who God is and what God does are inseparable). In the account of Jesus's baptism, we find the Son submitting himself to a ritual of cleansing, the Father speaking words of love, and the Spirit alighting on the Son. The Father is not a Father without the Son, and the birth of Jesus in human form is made possible through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1). Where you see one, you see the others. Jesus said if you saw him, you saw the Father (John 14:9). The Spirit does not speak on his/her own initiative, but only what the Spirit hears from Jesus (John 16:13-14; 1 John 5:6).

Leonardo Boff explains the implications of a trinitarian God: "Believing in the Trinity means that at the root of everything that exists and subsists there is movement; there is an eternal process of life, of outward movement, of love. Believing in the Trinity means that truth is on the side of communion rather than exclusion; consensus translates truth better than imposition; the participation of many is better than the dictate of a single one. Believing in the Trinity means accepting that everything is related to everything and so makes up one great whole, and that unity comes from a thousand convergences rather than from one factor alone.” [6]

So what does this mean for us practically? I have a few suggestions.

1. Read the Bible with an eye for community and unity. Look for the Trinity to appear in the stories, in the poetry, in the prophecies, in the letters. It is amazing how you will see the Persons of the Godhead popping up everywhere in the scriptures once your focus is on communion instead of looking for personal blessings, or rules to follow, or reassurance that God is on your side.
2. Make an intentional effort to be formed by trinitarian thinking and acting. Observe how often your thoughts or actions veer toward separation instead of unity, to "us and them" instead of "we," to binary thinking instead of creative collaboration, to self-determination instead of "better together," to reinforcing isolation instead of fostering communion. Then pray and ask God to transform this fractured way of being.
3. Engage in something communal right now. Talk to someone. Say hi to a neighour. Pick up the phone and call a person who has been on your mind. Plan an outing together with friends or, better yet, those whom you don't usually hang out with. Get outside of your own head, your own agenda, your own ingrained, comfortable habits, and engage with the world. Not to critique (which is separation) but to foster community (unity). Get out there and give your best self to the world.“For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The results of mutual surrender and reciprocal communion is community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself.” [5]

Being shaped by the Trinity means that we allow the communal God to change our way of seeing the world, the church, and ourselves. It means that we become part of a movement toward unity instead of separation. It means that we surrender any ideas and ideals we have adopted from our society and culture and adopt the larger purposes of the trinitarian God. It means that we leave competition, domination, and self-realization behind in order to pursue communion and life together. "We come from the Trinity, from the heart of the Father, the intelligence of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit. We are journeying in pilgrimage toward the reign of the Trinity, which is total communion and eternal life.” [6]

Amen. May it be so.

[1] Robin Parry talks about this idea in a short, 2-1/2 minute video. You can watch it here.
[2] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), xi.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., 14.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Ibid., 7.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the great and radical co-mission of Jesus

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Mission. The word conjures up all types of images in my mind. I went to a Bible college which emphasized missions. We had missions prayer groups, missions conferences, ex-missionaries who taught us, and traveling missionaries who spoke in chapel. Many of my fellow classmates went on to what was called the mission field, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in another culture in a far away land.

The word mission is also used in the corporate world to refer to the overall purpose of a company. A well-written mission statement accurately reflects what the company spends its energies on. Can you guess whose mission statement this is? "To be the Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online." That's Amazon. How about this one? "To make the world more open and connected." Yes, that's Faceboook. One more: "Saving people money so they can live better." If you guessed Walmart, you got it right.

A mission is like an arrow. Because it has a specific focus, it points us in a certain direction and sets us on a certain trajectory. Its specificity makes it easier to make decisions as we go along (is this in line with our mission or not?) and helps us evaluate if we have gone off-track.

When Christians speak about mission, Matthew 28:18-20 is often cited. Here, the resurrected Jesus is talking to his disciples. "I am here speaking with all the authority of God, [who has commanded Me to give you this commission]: Go out and make disciples in all the nations. Ceremonially wash them through baptism in the name of the [triune] God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then disciple them. [Form them in the practices and postures that] I have taught you and show them how to follow the commands I have laid down for you. And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age." (The Voice, bracketed words added by translators).

There are two things I would like to mention concerning this passage. The first has to do with the radical, upside-down nature of Jesus's words, and to see this we have to look at the beginning of the book. The first chapter of Matthew contains the genealogy of Jesus, no surprise there. What is of particular interest is the mention of exile as an important marker: "So all generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..." (Matthew 1:17-18, NRSV). The writer is setting up a particular way of introducing Jesus, and it has to do with God's promise to Abraham (a chosen nation with their own land) and God's promise to David (the establishment of a kingdom and a godly king), and the end of living in exile. [1]

When Jesus comes on the scene, Israel is in a type of exile (under foreign rule), and they expect a Davidic messiah to correct the problem, to restore Israel by reclaiming their land and liberating them from their oppressors. Peter Enns notes: "Matthew's genealogy is creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel's long-awaited deliverer - descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham." [2] However, as the story unfolds, Jesus makes it clear that he is not here for a political revolution, not here to reclaim land and overthrow evil despots. This is jarring to Jewish ears. For generations the people of Israel have envisioned messiah as a political liberator. Surprisingly, the kingdom of which Jesus speaks is not the Davidic empire, but one where the poor, the meek, and the persecuted are star citizens.

The closest ones to Jesus, his disciples (who were supposed to be learning his ways), found this shift almost impossible to grasp. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells them he is going to die, and their response is to fight about who will sit next to him when he sets up his rule (or rather, to get their mother to broach the sensitive topic). Peter Enns observes that the disciples are not talking loftily about heaven here, but showing that they are still stuck on a political messiah, a here and now kingdom set up in Jerusalem. Jesus responds to the request by correcting the disciples' presuppositions, re-framing what it means to rule by stating that the messiah did not come to be served but to serve.

And then comes the book's surprise ending: instead of restoring Israel's land and kingdom, instead of ending the exile once and for all, Jesus turns exile into mission. "This is how Israel's exile comes to an end for Matthew - not by restoring Israel's kingdom as in the days of David. Rather, Jerusalem and the land of Israel are no longer God's focal point. The disciples are to leave their land and make disciples from all nations, teaching them to follow Jesus and what he ... commanded, spreading the word of a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of king." [3] This calls for a radical change of mindset. Instead of focusing on a cozy, comfortable, homogeneous nation state, Jesus tells his disciples to turn their focus outward, to the world beyond their own borders. Jesus redefines pretty much everything the Jews thought they knew about kingdom, messiah, salvation, and mission.

Second, I want to draw attention to the verbs in Matthew 28:18-20. Though many like to emphasize the word, "Go," in this passage, it is actually a participle (poreuthentes), and the main verb is "make disciples." In the New Testament, poreuthentes is often used together with other verbs: go and report, go and show, go and search, go and learn, go and do, go and buy. Go implies movement in order to accomplish a certain task. I like the phrase which the translators of The Voice have added in order to expound on the idea of making disciples: "Form them in the practices and postures that I have taught you." To pinpoint the practices that Jesus exemplified, I turn to another familiar passage. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:16-17, NRSV) Again, notice the verbs here. What does God do? He loves. He gives. He does not condemn but saves and helps. And these are the practices and postures we teach when we make disciples of Jesus: we love, we give, we do not condemn, but help.

In short, a mission can be thought of as the words which come after the phrase "so that..." In God's covenant with Abram, God promises to bless him and make him a great nation SO THAT all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12). In John 3, Jesus tell us that God loves and gives SO THAT everyone may be rescued and participate in the life of God. This is where the arrow of God's mission points: to the loving, generous redemption of the whole of creation.

May we set aside our self-centred presuppositions and expectations of what it means for God to bless us and save us, and let us be true disciples of Jesus by joining him in loving, giving, and helping the world instead of condemning it. That is our mission, should we choose to accept it.

[1] Credit to Peter Enns for this observation.
[2] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 208.
[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 209.

Monday, August 8, 2016

podcasts, pond water, and an orange cat (kingdom sightings)

Green leaf under microscope
Image from
The significance of the small things is a theme I keep bumping into these days. Here are a few vignettes from the past week.

Vignette one: I have started listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History in which he reinterprets something from the past, be it an event, a person, or an idea, something which he believes has been overlooked or misunderstood. This morning at the gym I listened to Gladwell's take on educational philanthropy. Referencing a book by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally called The Numbers Game, Gladwell differentiates between a mentality which focuses on cultivating superstars and a mentality which seeks to strengthen the weakest team members. Using the game of soccer as an example, Anderson and Sally show that a team which spends money on upgrading its weakest players will score a lot more goals than a team who acquires a star player.

In 1992, businessman Henry Rowan gave a record $100 million gift to Glassboro State College, a small, publicly funded institution in New Jersey which was almost broke. It was the first donation of its kind. It inspired other philanthropists to give large donations to institutions of higher learning, but there was one difference. Almost without fail, the large sums of money ($100 million or more) given after Rowan's landmark donation went to prestigious, well-endowed universities, institutions who had no shortage of cash or resources. Gladwell was particularly critical of Philip Knight's (co-founder of Nike) $400 million donation to Stanford in 2015, earmarked for a new program meant to recruit the best and brightest graduate students. Gladwell says, "I understand the people who give money to those who need money. The people who give money to those who already have all the money they need, I don't understand that. What are they thinking?" And yet, the president of Stanford would never consider turning away a donation in order to benefit another school who really needed the money.

Vignette two: For the past few weeks, I have been reading Annie Dillard's feast of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard spent a year observing and documenting life on a small parcel of land next to a creek. She watched birds fly, bugs crawl, frogs leap, and studied the small specks of life in pond water. She collected chrysalis and looked at leaves under microscopes. She noted the extravagance of minutiae present in nature: "The creator ... churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. That is the point." [1] Indeed. And it is a point we often miss in a culture of capitalism and consumerism. We tend to equate smallness with insignificance, but creation itself defies this simplistic reduction. Bigger is not better, not by a long shot.

Vignette three: Professor Jay McDaniel of Hendrix College in Arkansas tells the following story: "Two years ago I was looking out my window and saw the second coming of Christ. It only lasted fifteen seconds, but was impressive. It came in the form of an action undertaken by my next door neighbor, a fifteen year old teenager named Matthew. Matthew has no readily identifiable religious affiliation. He does not attend church, pray before meals, or read the Bible. If Matthew has a religion it is rock and roll. He once told me music is the closest thing he knows to God; I understood him perfectly. It is one of the closest things I know to God, too.

"Something I admire about Matthew is his belief in kindness. Looking outside I saw a very old orange cat crossing the street in front of Matthew's house. The cat was limping slowly as a car full of teenagers was coming very fast. They would have hit the cat if Matthew hadn't stepped in front of them, put out his hand signaling stop, and picked up the cat, taking her across the street petting her along the way. I know this cat very well because she belongs to my family. Matthew was my cat's savior. ... Matthew's act of kindness missed the evening news. The news that day concerned violent deaths in Pakistan. That night when I laid down I had two images in my imagination: one of blood and tears coming from the fact of a Pakistani woman and one of Matthew saving the cat." [3]

The question McDaniel asks is this: which of the two events he witnessed that day is more significant? The fact that he associates Matthew's small act of kindness with the second coming of Christ tells you which way he leans. In the small act of saving of an old orange cat, McDaniel saw the kingdom of God come to earth. Jesus often pointed out the small things to his disciples, urging them to take note of their significance in the kingdom: seeds, flowers, grass, little children, and sparrows. One day when Jesus was in the temple with his disciples, he observed the wealthy giving large sums of money and a poor widow giving two small coins. [4] He drew special attention to the widow because in her deed, he identified the kingdom of God. The disciples found it difficult to wrap their minds around the nature of the kingdom of God. We with our modern, progressive, "be all you can be" mindsets are no different. We are slow to detect the coming of Christ and his kingdom because we find it hard to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first.

If you look at the context of the widow's story, you see that Jesus is critiquing the religious leaders for increasing their own standing at the expense of the underprivileged, especially the widows. "Watch out for the scribes who act so religious—who like to be seen in pious clothes and to be spoken to respectfully in the marketplace, who take the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at every dinner, who spend widows’ inheritances and pray long prayers to impress others. These are the kind of people who will be condemned above all others." (Mark 12, 38-40, The Voice) This brings me back to Gladwell's critique of philanthropists who give to those who already have more than enough, an act which makes little sense when you think about it. So why do they do it? In large part because they want to be associated with the most prestigious universities, with the superstars, and not with the weak and needy.

I am challenged by this call to strengthen the weak, to glory in the small and seemingly insignificant, to resist the lure of being associated with the best and the brightest. Who wouldn't want a postdoctoral position at Princeton? Who wouldn't want a job at University of Notre Dame or Columbia? And yet, there are small colleges and universities that I have never heard of where I would undoubtedly make a bigger difference, because there I would have the opportunity to strengthen the weak (instead of hanging out with superstars).

Spirit of the Most High God, forgive me for my attachment to bigness, superstars, prestige, winning, and fame. Let me learn to see the kingdom of God in its hidden, mysterious, humble appearances. Let me delight in pond water more than in gold, and may a single green leaf captivate me more than fancy clothes and slick performances. Amen.


[1] Malcom Gladwell, "My Little Hundred Million," Revisionist History, episode 6. Podcast.
[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperPerennial, 1974), 128.
[4] I wrote more on the widow and her offering at my personal blog: The Sound of Two Small Coins

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

metaphors matter (and so do similes)

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Finish this sentence: Life is like...

If you have ever seen the movie Forrest Gump, you might have answered "a box of chocolates." Some people say that life is like a game of chance. Both of these similes infer that you never really know what you will get in life; there is no guarantee that things will go well. You take your chances and hope for the best. In essence, this outlook is a form of fatalism and it gives us little hope. Others say that life is like a battlefield and we have to fight to overcome obstacles and adversaries. This does seem true at times, but this simile lands us in an "us and them" mentality which pits us against circumstances, people, systems, and even ourselves. This mindset breeds competition instead of cooperation, and because we are always trying to come out on top, to be the winner, we will have little compassion for the underdog or the less fortunate.

Jesus used similes and metaphors a lot. In Matthew 13 we find him comparing the kingdom of heaven to many things: a sower scattering seeds, a farmer who plants good seed and weeds come up, a mustard seed which grows into a large plant, yeast in bread, a treasure hidden in a field, a merchant looking for a pearl, and a net thrown into the sea which gathers all kinds of fish. Though not all of Jesus' metaphors and similes were agricultural, a good proportion of them were. And I don't believe it was solely because that was the context of his day; his metaphors were drawn in large part from creation because he wanted to draw attention to how the Creator orders life.

I recently read Parker Palmer's excellent book on vocation called Listen to Your Life Speak. He observes that the master metaphor of our era is not from agriculture but from manufacturing. We do not speak of growing our lives, but about making them. We make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, and make love. It is interesting to note that a Chinese child will ask, "How does a baby grow?" while an American child will ask, "How do you make a baby?" Palmer concludes that "We absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere 'raw material' that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it." [1]

Metaphors matter because they form how we think. Agriculture and nature metaphors position us not as masters of our own destiny, but as participants in a larger community or ecosystem. They cast us as stewards, a mediating role which requires both following and leading. In agriculture, we are subject to the limitations of this earth, therefore we need to discern its seasons and times. The wise farmer or fisher seeks to cooperate with creation; he sees no need to break free of its boundaries and prove his superiority. Our society is not very good at working with nature. When the sun goes down, we don't take that as a sign to rest; no, we turn on the lights and get on with our work and play. Even more troubling is the way we exert our dominance over creation with practices such as genetically modifying our crops and harvesting fuel through fracking.

Jesus' agricultural metaphors steer clear of a superiority/conquering dynamic, even when they include some harsh realities. Instead, he inserts himself into the metaphor as part of nature. "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. ... In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me" (John 15:1-4, The Voice).

Palmer suggests that an appropriate metaphor for life is the cycle of seasons. We are perhaps more used to measuring our efforts by profit growth charts, always looking for a steady upward trend. However, when we look at the seasons, there is no line snaking toward higher and higher outcomes. Spring starts out muddy and wet. Plants which have decayed over the winter mix with the soil to create rich conditions for rebirth. Spring is a time for small beginnings and tentative growth, and it also carries a bit of unpredictability (will there be another frost?). Summer is the season of abundance when there is growth everywhere. Fruit ripens and near the end of the season, the crops are harvested. Autumn begins a period of decline and dying, but there is great beauty in this season. Glory and dying are closely associated in creation. As the plants fade away, they scatter their seeds for future growth. In winter, there is stillness, dormancy, and a deep rest. It is also a season of clarity because the plants are stripped to their branches, making views unobscured. In winter, nature goes underground. If you look closely, you can see several seasons in this messianic metaphor found in Isaiah: "A shoot (spring) shall come out from the stump (winter) of Jesse, and a branch shall grow (summer) out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1).

Because we have been so influenced by capitalism, many of us associate abundance with excess, private ownership, self-determination, and the notion of unlimited potential. We believe everyone can succeed if they just work hard, take advantage of every opportunity, and do their best. And by succeed we mean gain power and wealth. This is not how Jesus describes the kingdom of God and not the picture we see in creation. Elder Thaddeus, a monk from Vitovnica, observes: “Animals have the joy of living, but we have taken it away from them. They have joy, and we have so much besides joy, yet we are never satisfied. The animals never worry about the future, they do not stack food in granaries or barns, yet the Lord always feeds them. They nibble a twig here, peck at a seed there, they find protection in a hole or a burrow, and they are grateful to God. Not so us men. The birds are always singing praises to the Lord. They begin their song early, at three o'clock in the morning, and don't stop until nine. At nine they calm down a little bit - it's only then that they go looking for food to feed their young. Then they start singing again. Nobody tells them to sing - they just do. And what about us? We're always frowning, always pouting; we don't feel like singing or doing anything else. We should follow the example of the birds. They're always joyful whereas we're always bothered by something."

If we look to the metaphor of seasons, we recognise that abundance is but one of the stages of life; it is not continual nor is it something we control. We till the ground and plant seeds and trust that creation will do what it is meant to do: produce a harvest. But as much as we love abundance (and summer), we must also be willing to embrace the seasons of muddy, small beginnings, the times of dormancy and rest and going underground, and the bittersweet intertwining of decline and glory. Jesus said, "Anyone who serves Me must follow My path" (John 12:26) and the path of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, reveals every splendid season found in creation.

There is another way to think about abundance and that is as shared life. We find this aspect central to the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Parker Palmer explains: "In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them - and receive them from others when we are in need. .. Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance." [2]

I recently came across something which compared the kingdom of heaven to a corporation where Jesus is the CEO and we are his employees. That is a troublesome metaphor for many reasons, but I will name just a few. It sets up a hierarchy of power, it infers that profit is the ultimate goal, and it casts us as merit-based wage-earners. If you have read the gospels, you know that the kingdom of heaven is not like that. It is about sacrifice, about humble service, about embracing the outcast, about receiving the gift of God's mercy, and ultimately, about loving God and your neighbour. Metaphors matter. Over and over again, Jesus points us to creation, to birds and plants and animals, to shepherds and fishermen and farmers. Why? Because all creation speaks of the nature and glory of God. It is there for all to observe, if we have eyes to see.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 97.
[2] Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 108.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

a lesson from biceps and triceps

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I recently re-read the book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, written by surgeon Dr. Paul Brand in cooperation with Philip Yancey. In it, the authors explore the wonders of the body and look at the implications of the "body of Christ" metaphor. Dr. Brand writes about the importance of loyalty; if cells are not loyal to the well-being of the body as a whole, not willing to work together, not willing to sacrifice themselves when necessary, not dedicated to supplying blood or oxygen where most needed at the moment, then the body will suffer. Disloyalty is perhaps best exemplified by cancer cells which gorge themselves on available resources, refusing to practice restraint even though this puts the entire body in jeopardy. Without loyalty, the body cannot survive.

Dr. Brand tells the story of an engineer who came to him because of a spastic muscle in his neck; it twitched so violently that his chin smashed into his shoulder every few seconds. The condition, which was triggered by anxiety, brought the engineer to the brink of suicide, so Dr. Brand performed a very delicate surgery which severed the hairlike nerves that triggered the spastic muscle. "When people see someone with a spastic muscle, they often assume the muscle itself is malfunctioning. Actually, the muscle is perfectly healthy, not diseased. In fact, it is well-developed because of frequent use. The malfunction stems from the muscle's relationship to the rest of the body; it demonstrates its strength at the wrong times, when the body neither needs nor wants it to function. ... Quite simply, a spastic muscle disregards the needs of the rest of the body; its dysfunction is closer to rebellion than to disease."[1]

Muscles perform just one action: they contract. As a result of this singular focus, complex movements such as running, throwing a ball, or playing the guitar are the result of muscles working in groups, their excitation (when the muscle is contracted) and their inhibition (when the muscle is relaxed) carefully orchestrated by the brain to allow each muscle to move when needed. For instance, if you want to pick up an apple, you engage your biceps. However, this is only possible if the opposing muscle group, the triceps, relaxes and gives way to the action.

Dr. Brand writes: "A harmony of inhibitions synchronizes the whole body, coordinating heartbeats with breathing and breathing with swallowing, setting muscle tone, adjusting to all the changes in movement. In short, inhibition keeps one part of the machine out of the way of the other." [2] When the apostle Paul writes about the church, the language is similar. "But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it" (1 Corinthians 12:18, New Living Testament). "Christ, who is the head of his body, the church ... makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love." (Ephesians 4:15-16, New Living Testament).

The inhibition Dr. Brand writes about is comparable to the concept of submission we find in Paul's letters. In the New Testament, we find the Greek word hypotasso (usually translated as "submit") which was a Greek military term meaning "to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader." In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden."[3] We often think of submission as mostly a passive stance, but with its military imagery, hypotasso is far from passive. There is the necessity of putting aside one's own agenda in order to work together with others as one unit. There is also the importance of taking on one's unique responsibility within that unit in order to achieve a purpose larger than any individual goal. Another Greek word, ekdotos, translated "surrender," is also a military term meaning to lay down arms, to cease resistance, and to yield to another's control and authority.[4] It is used only once in the New Testament, and that is in Acts 2:23 when the writer speaks of Jesus' crucifixion and death as being part of God's plan and purpose for the salvation of the world. Here again, we note that surrender is not primarily passive, but the act of becoming part of a larger action or purpose.

We can observe the two dimensions of surrender (yielding and acting) in Jesus's calling of the disciples. When he issued the invitation, "Follow me," they responded by laying down their current occupations and locations and taking up the task of walking in the footsteps of their new master. In James 4, we again find this dual action: "Submit (hypotasso) yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." (James 4:7-8. NRSV) One of the themes in the book of James is the danger of double-mindedness, of trying to have two wills or desires or agendas operating at the same time. This results in a stalemate where nothing is accomplished (biceps and triceps again). According to James, there must be both a letting go and a taking up of a task. The order of the two is important; one must first yield in order to be able to perform the necessary action.

Alcoholics Anonymous has long recognised the power of surrender and its role in helping people move toward wholeness. An explanation of Step 1 includes these words: "Surrender is an act of saying "YES!" Prior to that you were saying "NO!" "No, I don't want to give up alcohol! No, it is not out of control! No, I don't need help, I will manage this myself! No, I am not an alcoholic!" Now you say, "Yes, I can see that it is out of control! Yes, I need help! Yes, I surrender! Yes, I am an alcoholic! There is power in saying Yes! Yes is positive, No is negative. When you say "Yes!" you are affirming something, you are letting something in. There is something inherently satisfying to the human organism in saying yes, rather than saying no. Try it just now... say NO! and see how you feel, then say YES! and see how you feel. There is a release of tension with yes. Surrender begins with a yes!" [5]

If we are ever to step fully into our purpose as the body of Christ, we must learn how to surrender. Like any muscle, surrender must be exercised. Like any discipline or skill, surrender must be practiced. We can begin with simple physical exercises like gripping tightly onto something and then letting go, tensing all our muscles and then relaxing them. We can practice with exercises of the will like giving away something precious to us or allowing someone else to choose where we go for lunch. We can practice with our words by learning to say Yes instead of No. We can also practice with our prayers. We can pray with Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done." We can also pray the Suscipe (Latin for "receive") with Ignatius of Loyola as a reminder that we are not our own, that we are part of something much bigger and more beautiful than ourselves, and that our words and actions need to reflect that reality.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
 my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.


[1] Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1980), 177.
[2] Brand and Yancey, 171.
[3] "hypotasso,"
[4] "ekdotos,"

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Love yourself

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I recently read Henri Nouwen's book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. In it, he talks about holistic spiritual formation in the form of three movements: in relating rightly to God, we move from illusion to prayer; in relating rightly to the other, we move from hostility to hospitality, and in relating rightly to ourselves, we move from loneliness to solitude. Though he writes about each relationship separately, Nouwen acknowledges that these three relationships cannot be neatly divided; how we relate in one area invariably affects the other two.

In our faith communities, we are frequently exhorted to love God and to love our neighbour (the other). But when is the last time someone, other than Justin Bieber, told us to love ourselves? It seems a bit difficult to talk about loving ourselves without crossing over into self-indulgence, but when Jesus condenses the teachings of the prophets into, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. ... and ... Love your neighbour as you love yourself," he is indicating that relating rightly to the self cannot be separated from the other two directives (Matthew 22:37-39, God's Word Translation). It is also apparent that self-love is as susceptible to being skewed and distorted as are the other two loves.

So how do we rightly relate to ourselves? Let me answer this question by posing a few others: When we speak to a beloved friend, what does it sound like? What kind of language do we use? What words do we say? What do we not say? I believe that one evidence of loving ourselves is that we think and speak of ourselves as a beloved friend, a precious gift to ourselves and to the world. The Psalmist says, "I will offer You [Lord] my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence; Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul" (Psalm 139:14, The Voice).

Let us put this together with the words of Paul to the Roman church: "I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too - the many - are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One. Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone" (Romans 12:3-5, The Voice). And later, he writes, "Do not slack in your faithfulness and hard work. Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord. ... Share what you have with the saints, so they lack nothing; take every opportunity to open your life and home to others" (Romans 12:11,13, The Voice).

In light of this, I will now offer a few thoughts on what it means to rightly relate to (love) ourselves.
1. It means seeing and treating ourselves the way God does.
2. It means being filled with wonder and awe at our uniqueness.
3. It means we are always learning, growing, and being transformed.
4. It means being a wholehearted person, not divided.
5. It means embracing our vocation, doing our best to say Yes to the unique call of God in our lives.
6. It means being humble (being honest with ourselves, not hiding from ourselves).
7. It means knowing that we are made up of many parts, having a wonderful, complex unity (the body is indeed a marvel, as are the mind and the soul!).
8. It means connecting with others and our world, generously sharing who we are.
9. It means being faithful to where God has placed us, embracing our culture and context.
10. It means seeing ourselves as a friend, as a beloved companion.
Community has an inner quality before it has an outer expression. When we have inner unity, have love and acceptance and humble awareness of ourselves, we can lovingly encounter others without unrealistic expectations.

Henri Nouwen uses the words, loneliness and solitude, to describe two opposite poles of the self-relationship spectrum. Loneliness is when we are not at peace, but always seeking to satisfy some inner craving. Solitude of heart is creating precious space where we can discover our vocation, be attentive to our questions, and acknowledge our uniqueness as created beings in the image of the Creator. Loneliness views the self as a desert. Solitude views it as a garden. Loneliness is restless while solitude is restful. Loneliness expresses itself through craving and clinging while solitude expresses itself in searching and playing. Loneliness is driven and wants immediate satisfaction; solitude is free, able to wait attentively. Loneliness makes us want to hide and avoid; solitude cultivates honesty and humility. Loneliness makes us defensive, but solitude of the heart acknowledges that we have nothing to lose and all to give. Loneliness craves intimacy but can never find it; solitude offers intimacy through patient acceptance and love.

I have already said that rightly relating to ourselves means that we speak to ourselves as we would a beloved friend. It means that we speak the truth to ourselves, agreeing with what God says about us. It also means that we know how to encourage ourselves, to speak life to our souls. We can say, along with the Psalmist, "O my soul, come, praise the Eternal with all that is in me - body, emotions, mind, and will - every part of who I am - praise His holy name" (Psalm 103:1, The Voice). We should also know how to discourage ourselves, to tell ourselves, as we would a friend, that a certain course of action is certain to end badly. "Do not start down the road of the wicked - the first step is easy, but it leads to heartache - do not go along the way of evildoers" (Proverbs 4:14, The Voice). When we rejoice in the gifts God has given to us, let us not forget to rejoice because each one of us is a unique creature, divinely created to show forth his glory like no other.

We are holy ground because we have Christ in us. Thomas Merton says it well: "It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race! … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate… And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”

Perhaps this truth cannot be explained, but it can be declared. We would do well to rehearse Merton's phrase: "Yes, I am walking around shining like the sun! This is the glory of God in me!" How can I not love that?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

inside a thesis defence

Last week, I passed the milestone of defending my doctoral dissertation (cheer), and since pretty much everyone on the planet was not present for that momentous event, I thought I would offer you a peek into what went on. This is a bit more on the technical side of things, but believe me, technique is important. Just ask a musician or artist or chef or athlete or craftsman or engineer or scientist or the barista who makes your caramel macchiato. Technique matters.

First, a bit of background: a doctoral dissertation (which is usually the length of a good fiction book but not as high on the page-turner scale) is meant to be an original contribution to the field of study, which in my case is theology. It must demonstrate the person's research abilities and their adeptness at engaging with and building on the work of others within their discipline. The oral exam relating to this dissertation (which is the culmination of the Doctor of Philosophy degree) requires that the student be able to defend their theories, choices, and conclusions to a panel of learned experts (usually 5 of them). In case it is not apparent, it's a pretty intense few hours for the doctoral candidate as question after question is thrown at them.

So what's the point of all this, you ask? It seems like a whole lot of effort and stress just for a piece of paper and a few letters after your name. But there is method to this madness, yes there is. The oral exam gives the student the opportunity to showcase the skills they have (hopefully) developed during the course of their studies, and I propose that these skills are valuable not only for academics or theologians, but for anyone engaged in discovery, discernment, or investigation of any sort. In other words, these are life skills we can all work on.

Below are the basic, general questions which the doctoral candidate must be able to answer in the oral exam and a brief explanation of the skill set each one involves.

1) What is your question or what problem are you trying to solve? 
Coming up with a precise question sounds easier than it is. Often our questions reveal that we have not really thought the matter through. This is evident when the question is vague or too general, when it is really a complaint or disagreement in disguise, when it expresses a desire for a quick fix instead of demonstrating willingness to do the hard work of discovery, and when it is too far removed from reality. In general, the simpler the question, the more likely one is to have a fruitful result. A straight-forward, clear, well-defined, honest question is a beautiful thing, because it immediately draws us into wondering about possibilities and makes us eager to begin exploring.

2) What was your method for answering the question?
How we approach something is important because our methodology will directly impact our results and determine where we end up. One of my professors explains it this way: method is like a recipe, you follow a set of justifiable steps to achieve a goal. If you are attempting to bake the first ever Dr. Pepper chocolate chip cookies, you would start with a reliable recipe and then, using your knowledge of chemistry, add new ingredients while adjusting for changes in texture and taste, and hope for a good outcome. You might need to try a few different combinations before arriving at a workable and edible result. A methodology is more than trying this and that, more than just starting and hoping that things will sort themselves out as you go. Methodology requires us to be knowledgeable about what has been done before, to be aware of what has worked in the past and what has not, and to develop a plan of action based on the wisdom available to us. Of course, we also need to be able to adapt it when new information comes our way.

3) What were your findings? What have you discovered?
Again, this seems simpler than it actually is, and that is because we are never just reporting findings, we are always interpreting them. This is especially true when dealing with people, history, texts, and somewhat abstract ideas, all of which theology does. For this reason, our findings should always be presented with humility, and we should always acknowledge that we see only part of the picture. We should also be acutely aware that we are part of a larger learning community; we are better together, learning from each other, than each trying to do our own thing or push our ideas onto others.

4) Why is this important? What are the implications and/or applications?
Though it seems obvious to us that what we are doing is important, mostly because we are so invested in our own ideas and work, this question requires careful attention. It requires us to have some knowledge of the work already being done in our field and some experience in practical application. In the area of theology, it is important to ask if what we are doing draws people closer to Jesus. Does it bring hope? Does it increase faith? Does it promote loving interaction? Does it treat others with honour? Does it bring clarity and diminish confusion? Does it reveal the glory of God?

5) What will you do next?
It is often not possible to answer this question with any certainty, but the examiners are looking for an indication that the student has given some thought to progressing in their journey of discovery by actively pursuing the options which seem most feasible. When a student answers this question well, it reflects that they are now a peer, taking responsibility for their own progress and ongoing enlightenment. In addition, a good answer from the student shows that they actively seek to contribute meaningfully to their community.

All of the above questions could be asked, with some modification, in any number of situations, but within the context of a spiritual quest to be more like Jesus, they might be summed up in these two queries: What is your deepest desire? What do you want to give to the world? It is worth spending some time prayerfully pursuing the answers to these questions, because they will determine where you go and what you do.

May we find the Creator at the centre of all our quests.
May we stay close to Jesus so that we always follow his lead.
May we lean into wind of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on our own understanding.

Matte from Montreal

Monday, March 7, 2016

The leaning Jesus

Image from
Let's start off with a little Greek lesson. The Greek word which we usually translate as grace is charis, which comes from chairo which means to rejoice or be glad. Charis means grace, a gift or blessing, a credit, a favour, that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, and loveliness. It also means leaning toward or extending yourself toward someone in order to be near them, to share a benefit with them. This last sense of the word, that of leaning toward someone, is especially interesting to me. Often we think of leaning as something we do for support, like leaning on a wall when we are off balance or leaning on a friend when we need help. But the type of leaning we see here is that of partiality, of favour. For instance, when given a choice between eating sushi or popcorn, I would definitely lean toward popcorn (sorry, sushi fans). I also lean toward being with Dean, reading good books, and sipping chai lattes.

In Luke, we find two stories, practically back to back, which are somewhat of a contrast in leaning toward. A rich official in Luke 18 comes to Jesus to ask him how to inherit eternal life. In the brief interaction between him and Jesus, we see the rich man leaning toward several things: eternal life, Jesus as God's messenger, and keeping the commands of God. This is all good stuff. Alas, he reveals that he is also partial to keeping his wealth, which means that when given the choice, he prefers the security of riches rather than giving everything up to follow Jesus.

Luke 19:1-10 tells us the story of another rich man, Zaccheus the tax collector. Though rich, he is not well-liked in the community due to his reputation for taking advantage of people in order to benefit the despised Roman empire as well as himself. He desperately wants to see Jesus whom he has heard so much about, but he is short and no one is inclined to make way for him, so he climbs a tree. Jesus sees him clinging to the tree and invites himself to Zaccheus' house, much to the dismay of the crowd. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, Zaccheus promises to give half of his wealth to the poor and repay those he has cheated four times what he took. In this story we notice that Zaccheus leans toward making money and using the system for his own profit. Not so good. However, he also has a strong desire and preference for seeing Jesus and is not afraid to make a spectacle out of himself to do so. He is eager to bring Jesus into his home and not concerned about his reputation. Finally, we see him lean toward making things right, changing his priorities in order to align himself with Jesus. In effect, he leans away from his wealth because he sees that it will keep him from leaning toward Jesus. Jesus comments on this by declaring. "Today, liberation has come to this house," and affirms Zaccheus as a descendant of Abraham, in effect cancelling his reputation as a traitor who works for the Romans.

However, the most important enactment of grace, of leaning toward, we can observe in these stories is not done by either the rich ruler or the rich tax collector, but by Jesus. We see Jesus leaning toward both these rich men in unique and individual ways. In the case of the rich ruler, Jesus leans toward him by offering instruction, by challenging him to go beyond what he knows and has experienced, and by pressing on a sensitive area. Jesus leans toward Zaccheus in a different way: by seeing him and expressing a desire to be seen with him. He also leans toward Zaccheus by inviting himself into Zaccheus' private domain. In both cases, Jesus leans toward the rich men by calling them to himself (to follow him) and thereby indicating his desire to be near them, his partiality toward them. In many ways, this act of grace reminds me of the words of Son of Man in Revelation 3:20: " Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."

We can experience the grace of God in our lives in different ways. Sometimes Jesus leans toward us and, like the rich ruler, we feel pressure. This pressure could be a challenge to our own personal comfort and status quo, an identification of some sensitive spot, or a gentle touch guiding us in a new direction. Sometimes grace looks like instruction, an opening of our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Like Zaccheus, we might experience grace as a calling, an invitation, and an affirmation of who we really are in the eyes of our Creator. When Jesus leans toward us, we often experience a knocking (repetitive words or experiences meant to get our attention) and begin to recognise the words of Jesus as personal and alive. The extension of God's grace toward us is always an invitation to let Jesus into our private domain, to invite him to dwell with us and eat with us, and to share all that we have and are with him so that our home and our life become extensions of his kingdom and his life.

Jesus is always leaning toward us, always extending grace to us. May we respond by leaning on him.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

making good small decisions

Suscipe Prayer of St. Ignatius. Image from

Decisions, decisions...we make many of them each day. We decide whether to wear the pink socks or the black socks and whether to have yogurt or cereal for breakfast (or both). We decide whether or not we will go to the gym today, whether we will speak kindly or impatiently to others, and whether we will eat that second piece of cake. Some decisions are more consequential than others. What socks I am wearing has less effect on my well-being than whether I go to the gym, and my choice of breakfast food will have less impact on others than the words I choose to speak to them. Since we are faced with a multitude of decisions every day, it seems prudent to develop some skills in making good choices, choices which bring life and goodness and beauty to our world instead of destruction, chaos, and enmity.

One of the most helpful (and simplest) tools of discernment for decision-making can be found in the Christian tradition of Ignatian Spirituality. It finds its origins in the life of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a young Spanish knight whose dreams of an illustrious career as a nobleman and military hero were cut short when he sustained a serious injury to his legs in the battle of Pamplona in 1521. During a long period of recovery which included several surgeries (before the invention of anesthetics), he read the only books available to him. Their topics were the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He also spent much time daydreaming about a life of chivalry and a certain lady he admired. He observed that each of these past-times brought different results. After contemplating the life of Christ and the saints, he felt a sense of consolation and was filled with increased love, faith, and hope. His daydreams concerning chivalry and pretty ladies, pleasant enough in the moment, soon left him with a sense of desolation, sadness, restlessness, and apathy.

Over time, Ignatius developed a set of spiritual exercises which later became a hallmark of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which he founded when he was in his forties. Ignatius proposed that one of the ways to observe the movements of the soul was to practice what he called the Examination of Conscience (Examen) every day. Basically, one looks back on the past 24 hours and observes where they felt close to God, in sync with God, grateful and full of life, and what moments one sensed that they were resisting God, when they felt far from God, when their soul was in turmoil and agitated. By being attentive to these moments each day, one could see where they were participating in the life of God and where they were straying from it. Over time, a person would become more attune to the presence and pull of God in their lives and learn to discern the implications of decisions before they were made.

In doing the Examen, a person is not just mulling over the day and evaluating it; the first important task in the exercise is to invite God to view the past 24 hours with us, to draw our attention to key points in the day. It is a bit like looking at something with a wise friend who points out things which we overlooked.

There are many variations of the Examen and some find it helpful to do it together as a family or with close friends, but a simple version which takes as little as 10 minutes looks like this.
1. Invite the presence of God.
2. Remember the day and answer these questions: For what am I most grateful? What moment filled me with joy and contentment? What moment did I feel alive and close to God? Thank God for this moment.
3. Look at the day again and ask yourself: For what am I least grateful? When did I feel disappointed or uncomfortable? What moment did I feel far from God? Bring the moment to God, repent if necessary, and note what brought you to that place.
4. Look forward to the next day and being able to experience God's grace in it.

Some find it helpful to write down their observations. Over time, this exercise can assist you in noticing which practices and attitudes make you feel out of sync with God and which make you feel alive and close to God. Ideally, you will find yourself avoiding the activities which lead you to desolation and focusing more on those where you find consolation. By being attentive to our emotions and responses, we can discover what desires and purposes God has placed in our lives and where we might be working at cross-purposes to them. As we seek to make each small step (each decision in each day) line up with Jesus, we will find ourselves crafting a life-long journey which is characterised by flourishing.

I have begun to see a spiritual director in order to discern the next steps in my life, especially as I finish my PhD and consider job opportunities, and one of her suggestions was to practice the daily Examen. It has been just over a week and the difference is noticeable. I have a remarkable increase in clarity of purpose and a new quickness in avoiding troublesome actions and reactions.

I am asking our faith community to consider practicing the Examen during Lent this year, either alone, as a family, or with a close friend. I believe that mindful attention to the Spirit of God in the midst of the mundane tasks of each day can open us up to radical transformation and revelation, one small decision at a time.

Here is a short video (6 minutes) on the Examen which offers some further insight. The Examen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The new normal

Sheep path. Image from
My feline companion of over 17 years passed away last month and I am adjusting to a new normal, one where there is no cat living in our house (you can read my blog about Jazz here). It will take some getting used to, but I know I will adapt because we are wired to do just that. Paul Ricoeur talks about two sides of the self: idem, the self which remains the same and provides continuity, and ipse, the self which is always developing, always in process. Idem is that part of us which never changes, which makes us recognizable no matter how we age or are altered. Ipse is that part of us which allows us to learn, grow, and experience transformation. If the self were all idem, we would stagnate and become atrophied. If the self were all ipse, we would have no stability. We are uniquely, unalterably ourselves, yet we are built for change. Every time we breathe in and out, every time a cut heals, every time we learn something new, we are being changed.

I recently read the story of Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda. You can find it in John 5:2-9. Here was a man who had been lying on a mat for 38 years, surrounded by other invalids, all waiting for the stirring of the waters at the pool. Legend had it that the first into the pool when the stirring happened would be healed. Jesus saw the man and asked: "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool so someone else always got there before he did. Then Jesus said to the man, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And the man did so.

Two points stick out to me in this story. The first is the idea of being paralysed in some way. Here was a man who was stuck; things never seemed to change for him. He was surrounded by others who were also struggling with paralysis, of being unable to move on with their lives. Part of being paralysed (whether physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, or relationally) is that we see others moving forward, getting ahead, getting on with life, and we are left behind. We see others being transformed and we can't seem to get to that place. It is frustrating and discouraging to be unable to move forward. The second idea is that of being alone. The sick man said, "I have no one." When we are alone, we feel like an outsider, we feel there is no one to help us when we need it, we feel forgotten, cast aside, and of little value. I don't know about you, but I can identify with this man's paralysis (being stuck) and his sense of alone-ness. Good thing the story doesn't end there.

Here comes Jesus. Jesus sees the man. Jesus comes to the man. Jesus knows what the man has been through. Jesus knows the man's current state. And Jesus has a question for him which is really two questions: "Do you want things to change? Do you want to change?" In other words, do you want life as you know it to change? Are you willing to leave the place where you are now? Are you willing to change how you act, think, and relate to others (after 38 years)? Are you willing to get off your mat, your small place of comfort? Are you willing to trust someone, to give up your independence and alone-ness? Are you willing to start the long journey of learning new ways as you embrace Jesus's new normal?

These are important questions for us. Sure, we pray for healing. Sure, we pray for circumstances to be changed. But are we prepared for the hard work of embracing a new normal? Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Say you are a long-term smoker and after years and years of inhaling toxins into your lungs, those organs are pretty much useless. You go see a doctor and he gives you the good news that you are eligible for a lung transplant. Wonderful! Within a few months, you get the call that some unfortunate, healthy soul has died in a tragic car accident and their perfectly pink lungs are now yours. You race to the hospital and undergo a successful procedure which removes your diseased lungs and replaces them with healthy lungs. It's a miracle! You arrive home from the hospital, thrilled with your new lease on life, and reach for the familiar pack of cigarettes and light one up. What's wrong with this picture? The surgeon has done everything he can, but unless you change the way you think and act, you will end up in the same unhealthy situation you were in before.

Let's admit it, we can be a bit impatient and even passive when it comes to change; we expect God to do all the heavy lifting and fixing, not realising that in order for us to survive and flourish in God's new normal, we need to make some drastic changes. In short, we need to forge new ways of being, some new pathways on which to walk. The picture at the top is that of a sheep path which zigzags across a field in a totally inefficient pattern. The sheep keep walking this same, crooked path because they have always walked this path and forging a new pathway would require a lot of effort. They keep taking the path of least resistance. Our brain's neural pathways work the same way. It is said that it takes three weeks to form a new habit, to develop a neural pathway that makes a thought or an action natural instead of hard work. In other words, change is about developing new habits, and that requires some diligence and constancy on our part.

God gives us a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, a new freedom. How do we flourish in God's new normal instead of reverting back to our old, crooked ways? Spiritual disciplines like prayer, gathering regularly in a community to worship, theological study, and fasting help to reinforce the work that God is doing in our lives. Transformation happens when we cooperate with God. God does what we cannot do. He gives us a lung/heart/mind transplant. He heals our paralysis. But then he invites us to get up off our mat and walk, to undertake a new normal which reflects God's gifts of freedom and healing. In all likelihood, the man in John 5 did not go back to the pool the next day and lay on his mat. After 38 years, he had to discover a new way of being and thinking, learn new actions, and explore a new way of relating to people. No doubt it was a challenge; forging new pathways is never easy.

A few months ago I was in Vancouver for a set of lectures on faith and science. During a cab ride, the biologist asked the theologian, "How do you know when you are wrong?" The theologian answered, "It has to be cohesive to be true, make sense in all areas of life. We are always learning. We believe things to be true based on our knowledge at the time. When something better is revealed, we change what we believe. Just like science." I love this. First, because it was a privilege to be in the company of learned colleagues who exemplify humility, respect, and a desire to learn from each other. Second, because it reflects both idem and ipse, both constancy and change. We strive to be faithful followers of Jesus AND we are always adjusting our perspective to align more closely with God's new normal, a normal which sets aside our self-interest and embraces God's interests. We can recognise God's pathways because God reveals himself through history and tradition, through Jesus, through the witness of the scriptures, and through our own experience and reason.

As we begin to walk into a new year, may we know that our areas of paralysis and alone-ness are not permanent. May we know that Jesus sees us and knows us and is aware of our situation. May we be brave enough to respond when Jesus asks us to get up and walk, and may we continue to forge new pathways which reflect and reinforce the newness of life which God so graciously offers us. Here's to the new normal, God's normal (clink of glasses).