Friday, November 8, 2013

A conflicting time of year

November is a conflicted time of year for me. And November 11 – Remembrance Day – sits right there near the middle of the month. It cries out for a response.

Do I wear a red poppy? Or should I wear a white poppy in support of the No More War movement born in the 1920s? Or perhaps I should wear MCC’s “To remember is to work for peace” button.

Should I attend veterans’ memorial services? Or should I participate in a counter-cultural peace expression as some Christians do? I don’t want to dishonour the veterans who say “Lest we forget” and “Never again.” Nor do I, as a Christian believer in non-violent peace building, want to honour war.

The tradition of Remembrance Day has evolved to mean many different things to many different people. That complicates matters. I’m not certain that any symbol I wear can adequately reconcile my conflicted feelings about Nov. 11.

What does seem right to me is to respond to Remembrance Day graciously and without confrontation.

I am reminded of Palmer Becker’s three main points in his booklet What is an Anabaptist Christian:  “Jesus is the centre of our faith. Community is the centre of our lives. Reconciliation is the centre of our work.”

Palmer’s third point is particularly relevant to me. I want my response to say that reconciliation is the centre of my work. But I’m not sure that a symbol – any symbol – can adequately convey that message.

But I can imagine what that message might look like. Not just on Remembrance Day, but throughout the whole year.

It should look like respecting and befriending those who chose to sacrifice their lives in war, even though I may disagree with their choice. It should mean supporting veterans in their efforts to seek healing when they return home – even if I disagree with the reasons for their injuries. It should mean we graciously welcome back to our Mennonite faith communities those of our own who have chosen military service – even though we may not believe that military intervention is a faithful solution. These are all responses offered in the spirit of reconciliation.

Discerning how to respond to Remembrance Day is not an easy task. But neither should it be. To question the reason for which good people have sacrificed their health and lives should never be an easy exercise. Only with humility and respect can helpful dialogue occur.

How will you respond to Remembrance Day?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Church: Finding a Way to make it Work.

It is quite exciting to see what God is doing. I see the Spirit of God disturbing comfortable assumptions, and stirring fresh passions. It is a beautiful thing to witness. When the soul is confronted with a bold truth, an overpowering love, or a gentle disarming revelation – hearts melt and a new understanding of God unfolds. It is a beautiful thing to watch.

I have also been thrilled to see God bring fresh and new ideas to our leaders. With our increasingly secular society challenging us to think in new ways, hearing of creative approaches is encouraging. But it can also be disconcerting.

Church programs are no longer the centre of shared activity. In fact religious services seem to conflict with other values enshrined by secularity. Family life – although remarkably busy - is given a high value in secular society. It is expected that parents display this value by transporting their children across cities, neighbourhoods, and even regions. From sporting events to extracurricular clubs and interests, family schedules are full and uncompromising.

This has posed a challenge to traditional church programming. Attendance is irregular. Participation is optional. Impact is inconsistent. “When there is a tournament during the weekend, half of my congregation is at the hockey rink on Sunday morning,” lamented a pastor at one of our Area Church Assemblies. What is a church leader to do?

This frantic activity creates a theological discomfort. What can be used to measure commitment when regular attendance is no longer applicable? Accommodating stressed schedules can seem like compromise. Is it possible for the church to encourage a counter cultural approach without appearing to disregard the value of family?

With these thoughts rolling about in my mind, I recently had a surprise lunch with some Mennonite Church Canada pastors. We were describing the changes in culture and the impact this has on ministry. The common experience of scheduling difficulties surfaced.

“All the churches used to share a common midweek evening set aside for church activities. Hockey practices and games always respected this evening. But no longer,” explained the youth pastor, “now every night is busy.”

A fresh approach was needed. Realizing most of the junior youth played on the same team, a new idea emerged. The pastor was having difficulty scheduling a parents meeting to describe upcoming events and initiatives.

“So we all went to the arena to watch the game,” explained the pastor. “During the first intermission when the youth were in the dressing room, I called the parents together in the stands and explained the upcoming events and initiatives.” Then with a smile continued; “When the second period started we cheered the team together.” I started to smile as well. “At the second intermission I stood back up and asked if there were any questions,” the story concluded.

I was intrigued by this unique approach. “What was the reaction of the parents,” I asked?

“They were thrilled that the church was willing to come meet them where they were at,” explained the pastor.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Beer and Hymns

     This summer I had the opportunity to be part of a learning tour to the United Kingdom. Our interest was to see how Anabaptism was engaging the Post-Christendom context of Britain. We were not disappointed. Although a very small presence, Anabaptism has been a key influence in re-engaging a generation of people who have rejected the church.
     Part of our tour included attending the Greenbelt Festival, an annual gathering celebrating spirituality, social justice, arts, and music. According to John Bell, from the Iona Community, this was a gathering of people who were here to “give God one last chance.” Quite a sobering thought. I expected to experience an anti-God sentiment; a gathering of hardened skeptics. However, what I experienced was quite different.
     The 18,000 people who gathered were clearly not a typical church crowd. It was a place where questioning was welcomed, and doubt was honoured. There was no interest in obtaining easy answers or finding consensus. Disagreement was embraced as healthy dialogue and challenging conviction was applauded as serious engagement. I didn’t see people opposing God. I saw people resisting a simplistic interpretation of God.
     This became evident to me at the annual “Beer and Hymns” session on the final day of the festival. Intrigued by the title, I found myself cramming into a huge big top circus tent. Many young adults, some with small children in tow, crowded into the tent with me until we were standing shoulder to shoulder. With sweat beading on our foreheads the piano started and the most rousing hymn sing I have ever encountered erupted. Men and women sang with gusto. And whenever the hymn spoke of the redeeming love of Christ, the crowd lifted their glasses in a worshipful toast to God’s mercy.    
     Unexpectedly I found myself drawn into an emotional worship experience. I saw a young man close his eyes and lift both hands in an expression of deep appreciation. I watched a young woman lift her glass as high as possible; her desire to honour God propelling her up onto the tips of her toes. I found myself scanning the room and remembering so many young adults from my past; those who couldn’t feel embraced in our congregation because of their tough exterior. And I wished that there had been a place for them where faith and transparency could come together. Before I realized it my eyes were filled with tears and my heart bursting with adoration for a God who refuses to cooperate with stereotypes or stay confined within the box of acceptable church worship.
     Our Redeeming God was honoured that afternoon. These were people for whom life did not fit into neat theologies. Easy answers mocked their complex lives. But they were not blaming God. They were worshipping God, beer and all. These were not a people giving God a last chance. These were people who were giving the notion of ‘church’ one last chance. They have not abandoned God. They had abandoned the church.
     This unusual hymn sing has given me a much richer appreciation of God’s Spirit. I am filled with a new hope. We serve a God who is not easily annoyed. An honest search will always find open arms. Who wouldn’t raise a glass to such a passionate God?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Big and little sisters

It was my privilege to attend and address Mennonite Church USA at its convention in Phoenix (July 1 -6). Although the temperatures soared to the mid-40s Celsius, the weather could still not compete with the warm embrace I received from our kind sisters and brothers south of the human-made Canada-US border. Below is my message, on behalf of you, to them. I urge you to invite your friends and family in the USA to attend Mennonite Church Canada’s 2014 Assembly (July 3-6) in Winnipeg. If you prefer, you can watch a more extemporaneous videorecording of this address at the time markers 2:37 – 2:46 


It has been an absolute delight to be with you this week. I have felt welcomed and warmly embraced. (Boy has this been a warm embrace.) We have moved to biennial gatherings so this is the first year that we do not have an Assembly in Canada. We purposefully staggered our Assemblies with you so that we could worship with each other again. Next year we’ll be gathering in Winnipeg July 3-6, 2014 and I eagerly extend you a special welcome. I feel fairly certain I can guarantee that it will not be as warm.

Conventions and Assemblies are important events. When the People of God gather, the earth itself takes notice. Indeed, according to Romans the earth groans in yearning anticipation of the freedom the Church of Jesus Christ represents. Your worship has been heard and felt.

Mennonite Church Canada is your little sister. Not your younger sister because we are the same age as you. We were given birth the same time you were born. But we are your little sister – tens of thousands strong, hundreds of congregations, and worshipping in 17 different languages – but your little sister.

We have never stopped thinking of you or claiming you as our sister. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, siblings in the family of faith. We will respect human borders but we will not be bound by them.

This is an interesting time to be church in North America. Our Post Christendom context has had a great impact on the church. In Christendom, society gave the church a place of respect, influence and authority. But in the increasingly secular Post Christendom context society has relegated the church to a place of disrespect, disregard, and discount. We have lost our position of power.

But this is not all bad. Post Christendom helps disengage us, and disentangle us from the political systems of this earth. Not to oppose them but so that we can better portray kingdom of God values. Values of radical embrace and love, where the stranger is welcomed, the persecuted are given refuge, the powerless are given voice, and the forgotten are intentionally remembered. When we no longer are trying to defend what we have we are able to re-embrace what we have given up, let go, and forgotten.

Places and positions of power can distort. It can cause us to lose sight of who we are, who we represent, who we worship. Sometimes I wonder if in our places of respect and influence, we have said things that God has not wanted us to say. Sometimes I wonder if we have bound things on earth that God did not want us to bind.

It is an interesting time to be the church in a time of shrinking economies, declining church participation, and the waning influence of our faith. But the Church of Jesus Christ will not die. It does need the position of power. It may look as though it withers. It may appear faltering. It may feel at risk.

But this is the kingdom of God. This is the church of Jesus Christ – where even death is simply the context for resurrection.

Our purpose is not yet completed. There are things I think God still wants us to say. And maybe once we have lost enough power and influence we will be bold enough to say it. Once we have nothing to lose then God has everything to gain. Once we stop defending and protecting God from the impure, God’s redemptive and restoring passion can be released through us.

Sometimes, as your little sister in Canada, we worry about the things we read and hear about south of the border. But then we remember that our big sister is there, and that she is a strong sister – spread across the land in communities throughout the US.

We may not be able to be that prophetic voice to the political system here, but our big sister can. We may not be able to reach out and provide the healing ministry of touch to those treated as lepers, but our big sister can.

Oh yes, our chests swell. Smiles spread across our faces, because we know our big sister is actively bearing witness to the radically redemptive and transforming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s our big sister! You go Girl!

We still have lots of work to do. We may not possess the same position of power but God’s work of redemption and restoration is not yet completed. As long as God remains active we will remain active. This is our calling. This is our honour. This is our fulfillment.

Together with you, across North America we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ. We will function by the power of the Holy Spirit, and by the grace of God we will grow as communities of grace, joy and peace. And I tell you, my sister, God’s healing and hope will flow through us to the world.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Challenged by the Court

The May 28, 2013 issue of the National Post carried an intriguing article concerning the Mayor of Saguenay, Quebec. The Mayor has been ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Commission to stop reciting a prayer before council meetings and to remove the crucifix hanging in the council chambers. The complainant argued that the religious practices and symbols infringed on his rights as a non-believer.
This article appeared the same day I was in Montreal attending a discussion forum entitled; Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse. Participants from Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) joined members from the Muslim, Bahia, Jewish, Sikh and Atheist communities to discuss the role of religion in Canada’s increasingly secular society; a society becoming intellectually intolerant of religious influence, as witnessed in the Saguenay context. The conversations were robust and frank but respectful.
But after mourning the loss of respect for religion, reflection must turn to understanding the cause of this loss. It would be easy to attribute it to the devil, or to a world opposed to God. But to limit the cause to this seems incomplete. A more disturbing undercurrent must be noted.
Religion has been experienced as intolerant, forcefully imposing values on others. Religious individuals have been experienced as self-engaged, placing high value on achieving personal blessing. Religious communities have been seen enjoying the benefits of affluent lifestyles. For those seeking models in respecting diversity, and embracing lifestyles reflecting commitment to the global community, religion has not appeared helpful. I mourn that society has not been more adequately impacted by the generosity of faith communities. I lament that society has not better understood the passionate grace of God.
Influence will increase as religion focuses as much on the welfare of others as it does on the welfare of its adherents.  Respect will grow as religion models joyful embrace of sacrifice.  Embrace will be evidenced as religion also supports values outside its belief system. If religion is to return to a place of favour perhaps some serious recalibrating will be necessary.
The article in the National Post actually had a challenging ending. The Mayor took the Human Rights Commission ruling to the Quebec Court of Appeal. The Human Rights tribunal concluded that “since there were still vestiges of Catholicism in the prayer and religious symbols the city was favouring one religion over others.” The Court of Appeal disagreed stating that “examples of Christian symbolism abound without any evidence that they compromise the government’s neutrality”.
In the end the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling of the Human Rights Commission. Religion had won the right to remain visible. But the task of reclaiming the place of serious consideration remains before us. Far be it that our lifestyles or conduct prevent people from serious consideration of the Gospel message of peace, joy, hope and grace.
The Court of Appeal gave faith another chance of being seen. But the argument used to arrive at this decision is concerning. Justice Guy Gagnon concluded that for the large part of the population the crucifix and other symbols “have been stripped of their religious significance and are seen as historical artifacts.” Therein lies our challenge.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Locating the Church

 Where is the best place to look for the church in a Post Christendom context?

In the context of persecution, to find the church you must look in the concealed and secret places. Indeed the survival of the church relies on being unseen and hidden. Not that the church is inactive, but rather the location of gathering is undisclosed.

In the context of Christendom, the church is much easier to find. When it is an institution of respect and favour, the church is located in obvious places. It meets in the open and makes its presence known. It looks for the best exposure so that location is easy to determine.

Mennonite Church Canada and its Area Churches have begun to explore what it means to be a family of faith across the country in a Post Christendom context. From its congregations to its Area Churches and National Church, our Canadian context has necessitated that your family of faith discover a new way of expressing itself. A newly formed Future Directions Task Force is seeking to better understand and respond to this significantly changed context.

The first teleconference of the Future Directions Task Force was planned for a mid-week afternoon.  This created a conflict for me. I had promised transportation for my family during that same afternoon. We determined to leave a little early and that I would connect for the teleconference from my vehicle.

That afternoon I transported my family to the event and parked myself at the edge of a nearby parking lot. As I discussed the need to discover how to be a national family of faith in our changing Canadian context I watched the world of commerce stream by. I watched school children walk by. I watched people return from work. Ordinary life bustled in front of me.

In the context of persecution the church is removed from view. In the context of Christendom, the church seeks key locations of exposure. But where is the church to be found in a Post Christendom context? In such a context the church is not persecuted, but neither does it enjoy the place of honour and respect. It can remain in obvious places of exposure, but it is disregarded. It can advertise its location but the welcome is ignored.

As I reflected later on that teleconference experience, I couldn’t help but smile at the irony of it. Family schedules needed to be accommodated. And the work of the church was taking place in the parking lot of ordinary bustle of life. Maybe there is a message in that experience. Perhaps this is best place to find the church in a Post Christendom context.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Understanding Grace

When I was a pastor I often felt as though I had been invited into sacred space. Space so intimate that I felt guilty by my presence. My breath alone felt an intrusion. The intimacy undressed my defensive robe of resolve and left my emotions vulnerable. Paralyzed by the gripping scene, all I could do was watch and marvel. I consider these experiences precious gifts because they have plunged me into a deeper understanding of grace.
Sometimes it is only when you are plunged into a space that undoes you that the clearest demonstration of grace emerges. Often the most vibrant display of grace is seen in the shadows where the brilliant light of goodwill does not eclipse it. When grace presents itself in the shadows, in the sidelines, it is unmistakable.
One of my most potent glimpses of grace came at a funeral. Grace is a common guest at funerals. Perhaps it is attracted to the deep sorrow of human suffering. It knows it is needed and so does not hesitate to be present.
As the pastor at a funeral, it is important to step alongside your own emotions. Not that you deny your emotions. But you determine their expression. Mourning can seep through words without being flooded by tears.
                The congregation was waiting in the sanctuary as the family expressed their final goodbyes. I stood in the shadows and watched them file past the body of a loved husband, father and grandfather. I had witnessed this many times. There is something about witnessing the deep sorrow of others that is difficult to bear. My heart becomes heavy as well.
                Two brothers approached their father. An intense history accompanied them. Both were rugged, strong men. But through an occupational accident one had been confined to a wheelchair, unable to communicate or feed himself. His aged parents returned to their role as caregiver. Although now an adult, the man in the wheelchair was their son and received the same nurture required as a child.
                I watched in silence as the two sons came to say goodbye to dad. One brother looked down in sadness. The other looked up in grief.
                Some say that rugged men do not display tenderness. But some tenderness can only be displayed by rugged men.
                My breathing came slowly and deeply as I watched. I saw the son lean over and whisper into his brother’s ear. Then strong arms coiled around a frail body and the muscular brother held up the weakened son. Together they stood. Together they mourned the loss of their father. Together they embraced the new reality. Together they gazed upon their father one last time.
                That image has been frozen in my mind. I cannot shake it free and neither do I want to. I cherish it. The tenderness crumbled me. The gentleness weakened me. The image rushed upon me and quickly paralyzed my defences. I was reduced from the pastoral leader and elevated to a common mourner. When grace reveals itself, everything else is humbled.
                I witnessed another side of grace, a nuance I had not yet understood. Grace is not limited to the context of happy endings or celebrated resolutions. Sometimes grace is the gift of seeing what we know we must see, even though dreaded. To be lifted up to see that, which we must reconcile, is a gift of grace.
                This is the grace exercised by God. When allowed by our surrender, God will lift us up to see that which must be mourned; that which must be reconciled. Only then can we allow ourselves to be led into the new reality offered by the God who is eager to redeem, restore and reconcile.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Be Reconciled to God

  (excerpts from a sermon preached March 10, 2013 at First United Mennonite Church in Vancouver, BC- based on 2 Cor. 5:16-21)

What would make it necessary for the church to be reconciled to God?

We are experiencing an interesting time in history: a time of global ferment and reorientation. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy and Idle No More Movements and student protest in Quebec, we are witnessing a new generation of global citizens demanding more equitable systems. They are questioning the need for an economic growth dependent on insatiable consumption. A more global sensitive and savvy population is beginning to question their appetites and asking economic systems, corporations and governments to do the same.

In this global reassessment people are also noting consumption patterns and values displayed by faith communities. They expect the church to be a contrast to unbridled appetite. They expect the church to exhibit values of global justice and communal welfare. Perhaps this is the call to be reconciled to God’s purposes for the church.

Sometimes success can blind the church to God’s passion. Sometimes achievement can numb spiritual sensitivities. Comfort and security can cause the church to forget the primary purpose of our identity as the People of God. God’s passion for reconciliation should seep through every pour of God’s People. It is our distinguishing characteristic. It is what sets us apart.

As the world marches to the economic tune of selfish consumption, God’s People dance to the songs of sacrifice. As greed hums its lullaby, God’s People rock to songs of constraint and generosity.

The ministry of reconciliation to God and others is our primary purpose as the People of God. Sometimes I wonder if the prosperity of past Christendom has misplaced our calling as God’s People – lost it in the closets of our own economic success. We are no longer poor immigrants or persecuted refugees. We thank God for that, as we should. But sometimes, without realizing it, and never intending it, prosperity replaces passion and comfort replaces compassion. Sometimes, it is necessary for God’s People to be reconciled to God so that they can once again become passionate ambassadors for the glorious surrender to God’s love.

The call of the apostle is as relevant to us today as it was to the church in Corinth. Can we step out of the confines of comfort? Can we break away from the shelter of prosperity and dance in the sweet surrender to God’s compassion and grace? If so, we will recover again our roles as ambassadors of Christ – and God will make His appeal of passion and grace through us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not Easy but Simple

 The more I know the more I realize how much I do not know. The more I experience the more inexperienced I feel.  Being a disciple of Jesus is a bit like that. You begin the journey towards faithfulness feeling you know what you are getting into, but then the demands of discipleship sharpen as it digs into life.

Following Jesus will most certainly invite you to become disencumbered: to become free from hardship and unnecessary attachments. What at first is an invitation to greater freedom, the realization of attachment becomes evident. Fear of being without can quickly turn into a fear of letting go. The invitation to let go is simple. The response is not so easy.

Following Jesus will most likely introduce you to people you never expected to meet. What is at first an invitation to broader fellowship can turn into discomfort. Uncertainty pokes away at friendliness. The stranger disappears. Outsiders become new friends to embrace. The invitation is simple – open your heart to God’s love. The follow through however, is not so easy.

Following Jesus will in all probability include a journey into the unknown. What at first feels adventuresome can become disconcerting as you are continually called to embrace the unfamiliar. Mystery becomes an unwelcome companion. Craving for the familiar deepens. But the faith you yearn comes alive in the context of the unknown. This is where trust is developed. The invitation is simple – follow me, but the step of obedience is not easy.

Following Jesus is simple, but not always easy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What We Already Know

The beginning of a new year is a natural time for people to reflect about the future. That reflection often includes searching for a sense of direction from God. As individuals and congregations we search to understand how and where God wants to lead us through the coming year.

While such an exercise is a very worthwhile endeavour I have found that it can also cause us to avoid the obvious. When in the atmosphere of grand discernment, searching for direction of what we do not know, it is easy to overlook and act on that we do know. Future options can seem more exciting than current reality.

When I set aside time to seek God’s direction for the future, I have come to realize that I often already know the answer before I begin the time of prayerful search. Sometimes it is an answer that I am avoiding. Then my time of prayerful discernment is merely a stalling tactic. Sometimes it is an answer I am rejecting. Then my time of prayerful discernment is actually an exercise of disobedience. During such times God has felt silent and distant, turning my time of contemplative prayer into annoyed frustration. But God would not cooperate with my stalling or disobedience. Asking God for direction may well result in becoming aware of what we already know.

A good way to begin a new year might be to take stock of the directives God has already placed in our hearts. In fact our straining economic context and post Christendom societal environment may allow the latent directives of God to become more obvious. Two directives in particular seem obvious to me.

The first is to grow in restraint. This is a particular directive that has remained suppressed by the church in North America for some time. Whether it has been clouded over by the values of materialism or buried under a mountain of misinterpreted blessings, or rising consumer debt and the quickening illness of the earth, God’s call for restraint is becoming more obvious. North American lifestyles of overconsumption should not be justified or encouraged. God calls us to freedom from unbridled appetites. The joy of restraint awaits us.

The second is to grow in compassion. When faith in God is routine in society, the church can afford to dictate boundaries. But when faith in God is sidelined by secular values, the church does not have the luxury to be selective. Survival of faith communities will depend on embracing all who God will call. And when we open ourselves up to this missional reality, we may discover that God never did abide by our boundaries.

As the People of God let us respond to what we already know and determine to grow in restraint and compassion.