Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making the Obvious Connections

It is no wonder that denominational leaders write books – the wealth of wisdom gleaned from conversation with people across Canada provides a treasure of insight. There are two distinct conversations that have come together in my mind and generated some new thinking for me.

The first was a conversation with a small group of young adults in Alberta. After affirming their presence in the church, we started discussing what it would take to get their peers interested in church.

After some thoughtful consideration, one of the group members described a recent Peace March developed by a local Mennonite congregation. The march was considered a local Mennonite witness to the community.

While not disagreeing with the importance of the witness, it made it difficult for the young adult to invite peers to participate in the March. The intent of making a congregational statement was not conducive to involving individuals who were not part of the congregation.

The young adult concluded with the comment: “It’s too bad, because I really think my friends would have liked being part of the event.” This reflective comment clung to me.

The second conversation was an email dialogue with a Mennonite pastor in Saskatchewan. The pastor reminded me of the aging demographic of the Canadian church population and the urgent issue of the future of the church in a post-Christendom world. Maintaining the current status of church vitality has been largely assumed, causing the pastor to suggest a renewed focus on developing our skills of making new disciples.

The pastor offered some great insight by writing: “We are sometimes most vulnerable at our strong point. When something can be seen as a peace and justice issue or put into that frame, we rush to it. It's where we feel at home. We need to affirm that and keep our commitment but we need now to move in a new direction at the forefront. I don't think we know how because we've softened evangelism and outreach and even push it away.”

The clinging comment from the young adult made itself known again and these two conversations started to converge for me. Perhaps sharing faith in a post Christendom context can best be done from within the environment of shared values. Issues of social justice become a natural atmosphere where people of faith can engage with broader society. In fact, I think the Christian Church must be engaged in these common causes to be taken seriously by broader society.

But this also becomes an environment for natural conversations of faith. In missional terms, it becomes the platform to be aligned with what God is already doing. The yearning to express love and solidarity for those in need is an impulse of God’s Spirit. It is the product of the image of God within everyone. When this connection is made, it can lead to additional recognition of the yearning of God’s image, such as the yearning to be in relationship with our Creator. Questions such as “What is the concern that brings you here?” followed by the question of “Where do you think this concern comes from?” becomes the beginning of a natural introduction to matters of faith.

An issue of social justice is not contrary to the call to share faith. It is the new context of shared values from where the sharing of faith most naturally can take place.

If the church can connect with concerns that God is awakening within the hearts of broader society already, then a new platform of connectivity emerges.

I would love to hear responses to some of my most recent thinking on this. Feel free to add your comments.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An Anxious God?

I was traveling with a pastor and preparing to board a Saturday afternoon flight. Due to unexpected weather, the flight was delayed considerably putting into jeopardy a connecting flight later in the evening. In negotiating potential alternate routes, the pastor became increasingly agitated, finally blurting out; “I am the pastor. I have to be back to preach on Sunday morning!”

I remember thinking at the time how exaggerated the statement felt. I chuckled to myself thinking, “Surely the congregation will not disintegrate if you fail to make it back in time for the sermon.” But it was an uncomfortable humour. I could well imagine myself in this frantic activity feeling equally indispensable for some planned engagement.

There are a lot of things that can create anxiety. As I dialogue with people across Canada, I become aware of many events/concerns/frustrations that make people nervous. Anxiety is a common experience. Life rarely unfolds as anticipated and often is experienced as unimagined.

For many people such uncertainty can be unnerving and unsettling. People of faith, however, have a different approach to anxiety.

To be sure, Jesus assured his followers that there would be many things that could produce anxiety for all who follow him (Matt. 10). The Apostle Paul produced a list of anxiety producing experiences, everything from shipwreck to spiritual concern for the church (2 Cor. 11:23-29). Yet both Jesus and Paul point to the character of God in dis-empowering anxiety (Matt. 6:25-34; 2 Cor. 1:8-11).

The church will often be in an environment of anxiety. But being in the context of anxiety does not necessitate being controlled by anxiety. The character of God creates the possibility for the People of God to maintain a posture of confidence while remaining in the context of uncertainty. As People of faith we have confidence in God’s wisdom and strength not ours.

Whenever I am tempted towards anxiety I try and imagine God’s response to the situation. Because I find it difficult to imagine God in a frantic and nervous rush of panic, I feel it inappropriate to accept such a posture for myself as well.

In the midst of turmoil and tension, there is nothing better than to be reminded that if we do not serve an anxious God, we should not portray an anxious God.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Leadership Trembles

My hands quivered. My heart raced. My legs felt wobbly. The sound of mourning and panic billowed through the dust filled air. I made my way through the rubble and began looking for those I was responsible for.

This was Port-au-Prince, Haiti during the earthquake in January 2010. I was there with a small church team from New Brunswick. Thankfully the entire team was safe despite being surrounded by rubble and debris. The endless night that followed of treating crowds of injured people left me trembling – and feeling useless and helpless.

The experience has left a lasting impression on me and has utterly shaken my approach to leadership. I shudder when I think of what may have been. Thankfully my leadership task involved evacuating a team that was shaken - but alive.

I am still sorting through the various emotions and perspectives that have been dislodged by the earthquake. I know that the experience has changed me, but I am not fully sure how.

Experiencing utter uselessness in the face of disaster is humbling. Realizing, that in a torrent of desperate need your best effort is pointless is demoralizing. No feelings of heroism. No evidences of positive impact. The dead wrapped in bed sheets mocked any feelings of effectiveness.

I carry Haiti with me in my new role. The injured and dying keep things in perspective. I often wonder; does the approach to leadership change if you are not trying to avoid being hurt or determining to avoid failure?

Maybe it is only when leadership trembles – that it is no longer afraid.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Who is the real General Secretary?

On a recent flight to Ottawa, I noticed Michaelle Jean, former Governor General of Canada boarding the plane. I had always admired her work. So, after pulling together every last shred of confidence I could find in me, I made my way to her seat mid flight.

After seeking permission from her Aide to speak with her I said; “Madame, I wanted to thank-you for your services as Governor General.” Then quickly handing the two my business card before I get escorted away I continued; “Your tenderness and sensitivity made us proud as Canadians.”

Ms. Jean looked at my card and began thanking me for the good work the Mennonites are doing in Haiti. “Some of your people have even learned how to speak Creole,” she said with deep appreciation. She extended her hand and I respectfully bowed my head in acknowledgement of her comments.

I returned to my seat and realized that this positive encounter was probably a product of the good work done by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Haiti. I was the recipient of their good testimony.

It also made me realize how inseparable we are as an Anabaptist community. Mennonite Church Canada is viewed positively because of the work of MCC. And MCC is dependent on the work of Mennonite Church Canada, our Area Churches and congregations. MCC depends on us to continue to develop disciples of faith who are compelled to live out their witness in such dedicated service to the disadvantaged.

As General Secretary I am fully aware of the corporate identity associated with my role. The General Secretary represents the collective community of Mennonite Church Canada. Because of this, I often receive affirmation that rightly belongs to the collective community. The affirmation is not a result of anything I have done, but is result of a positive experience produced by others.

Each one of us shares in this dynamic. In the communities in which we live each person represents the collective community. Every one of us represents what it means to be a Mennonite Christian. Every interaction reinforces or detracts from a positive impression of Mennonites and broader Christianity. Individual behaviour is almost always associated with the collective community. People experience Mennonites one interaction at a time.

The General Secretary is tasked to represent the collective community at national levels, but in a very practical sense, every individual in Mennonite Church Canada is the General Secretary for their community.

May all of our activity and witness, result in people extending a hand of deep gratitude and bring glory to God.