Wednesday, December 23, 2015

You can't get there from here

In the story of Jesus’ birth, I wonder if the Magi ever stopped to ask directions. Although the biblical record says they were guided by a star, the journey was a long one, and stars are not visible during the day.

I don't like to stop and ask for directions. I usually think I can figure it out myself. I am hesitant to take the time to ask for directions because the stop will make me late.

I remember one time I stopped for directions and was told; "well you can't get there from here". The comment was an acknowledgement that I needed to get on the right road before I could get to the desired destination.

I have often reflected on that comment. I wonder if God might say the same to the church.

I remember as a child hearing remarkable stories of faith - where people placed themselves into a place of great risk, and then finding a miraculous encounter with God's grace. I longed to experience similar stories but recognized that I was not willing to embrace the risk necessary for such a story. I wanted the relief of a miraculous intervention without embracing the risky platform of faith. I think God would say to me "you can't get there from here."

I remember as a teen listening to a missionary tell the story of their spouse who was murdered in the service of the church. The remarkable grace displayed by the missionary in retelling the story was striking. The experience opened up many speaking engagements to share the story.

After the message a number of youth wanted to  have follow up conversations. One individual expressed a desire to have a similar ministry. The missionary paused and asked; "do you want to experience the pain that developed made the story?"

I recognized myself in that encounter. I too wanted an exciting testimony to share, but I didn't want to experience the sorrow that created such an understanding of God's grace. I think God would say to me: "You can't get there from here."

Now, many life experiences later, I have bruises, scars and memories. They remind me of God's faithfulness. Every time I run my fingers along a bumpy scar on my back I am reminded of God's intervention of grace.

I have come to learn that life doesn't consult you before introducing pain, sorrow or disappointment. Yet it is in these events where the richness of God's presence is experienced.

Wondering what a New Year will bring can be intimidating if we dwell on it for too long. Times of uncertainty and confusion can be fearful. It can make the church question the presence of God. Yet experience tells us, that if our intention is to be where God wants us to be, then no matter how daunting and fearful the journey - we will be able to get there from here. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is God abandoning the church?

I have been having some disturbing thoughts lately: thoughts that have made me feel uncomfortable. I have been struggling with the notion that maybe God has abandoned the church. Let me explain.

During the Christendom era the church saw itself as invincible. Entire families attended weekly service together. Our congregations thrived. Our institutions grew. Our influence was obvious. We even had the luxury of competing against ourselves. When seen as the place of moral authority within society, the church began to consider its activity as the sum of God's activity.

But success has its price. Influence deadens the hearing so that the still quiet voices are no longer distinguishable. Power decreases sensitivity so that the frail and disadvantaged are unintentionally overlooked. When that happens, the church subtly looses the character of God.

The current thinking of the church represents a posture of unnecessary fear.  In our effort to understand and engage the post-Christendom context, we still consider the activity of the church as the primary activity of God. When society rejects the influence of the church our faith is shaken; we may we feel that God is vulnerable and fragile. We feel plagued with guilt for letting God down. Have we have inappropriately taken the role of God? Do we have self imposed expectations that perhaps never ordained by God?

To be sure, God longs to bring people into the community of the church. However to limit our understanding of God to the context of the church is to constrain God to human thought and ability. It might just be that God is needing to shed the constraints of the church in order to more fully be expressed. This would be disconcerting for the church but it need not paralyze it with fear. In fact when we acknowledge that God's activity is beyond us, beyond our ability to fully understand, our concept of God is enlarged and our faith becomes enriched. If we need to be able to understand what God is doing then it limits God to what we are able to understand, comprehend, and accept.

It is not easy to admit that we don't have the answer. It is not easy to acknowledge that we do not understand what God is up to. But maybe if we let go of our demand to understand all the complexities of God’s ways we might begin to see the overwhelming evidence of God at work.

If that is so, then God has not abandoned the church to reject it.  God has abandoned the constraints of the church so that we can find God all over again.

My, what a merciful God we serve!!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Defining the other: Reflecting on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Early in the Syrian refugee crisis, I was asked by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) to be part of a delegation meeting with Chris Alexander, Minister of Immigration. We indicated that the church was ready to do what it could to respond to the crisis. It was a natural impulse of the church.

But as the crisis continued to unfold and governments struggle to know what to do, I have found myself pondering further.

Defining the "other" is a common way to strengthen group identity. By articulating those who do not belong, you also identify the traits and characteristics of those who do belong. It often begins with general attitudes found in statements like; "They are not like us", or "They are not our kind of people." Left unattended and unchallenged these general attitudes can grow into specific expressions of racism and bigotry - expressions inconsistent with Christian values.

Jesus challenged the common definitions of the "other" by regularly welcoming Samaritans. He purposefully elevated the status of women and children. He refused the rejection of lepers. This is the example we ascribe to as followers of Jesus.

To follow the example of Jesus is to radically erase the definition of the "other." Cultures are recognized as different expressions of the human experience. Borders are recognized as merely geographic identifiers. We are a diverse expression of people under the grace and love of a common Creator. In this we are a global family.

So a global refugee crisis, like that facing us now, is an opportunity for all humanity to reflect on our capacity to welcome one another. How well do we accept difference? Are we willing to acknowledge various understandings and experiences?

To only open our borders to people who seem most like us is to deny our commonality. We are all created in the image of God. We are all filled with the capacity to love. We all long for safety and well being for ourselves and our families.

The Christian Church is seeking to reflect the attitude of Jesus. In our Mennonite Church Canada family of congregations, this is expressed by our ecumenical memberships in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). In both these relationships we commend Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as our response platform in helping our congregations become places of welcome for Syrian refugees.

But let us not leave responses only to church organizations. This crisis is also an opportunity for each of us to help erase the definition of the "other." Some simple suggestions include:

  • Inviting someone new to share a meal. 
  • Trying a different ethnic meal
  • Watching a movie with subtitles
  • Listening to non-English music
  • Reading books from non-Western authors
  • Access study material from CommonWord
  • Invite a Mennonite Church Canada Witness Worker/Staff to share understandings and insights from their experiences. 

While these steps may appear simplistic, they will help strengthen the capacity to appreciate differences. This in turn will help broaden an understanding of God. Then as a part of our human family requires a safe haven, our doors will naturally swing open in welcome and embrace.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Worth the Energy

It takes a lot of energy to tend to our large church family.

Mennonite World Conference (MWC) met in Harrisburg, PA this summer. That global gathering followed closely behind the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City, MO. The work of the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process and the Future Directions Task Force (FDTF) have continued through the summer as well. The conversations have been rich, the dialogue engaging. But it has taken a lot of energy.

It has been tempting to focus the summer entirely on myself. The heat waves beckoned me to the beach. Gentle breezes begged me to fish along rivers and lakes. Growing gardens and lawns welcomed my tending. Of course I was able to participate in all these activities. A summer fully consumed by pleasure may increase my sense of relaxation, but it can also leave me feeling empty and alone.

I could have focused the summer entirely on my family and close friends. Relationships closest to you need attention and are often overlooked. Sunsets offered front row seats on the back deck. Quiet afternoons offered relaxed conversation along shady forest trails. Balmy temperatures provided concentrated times of vacation. Of course I also participated in these events as well. A full summer restricted to those closest to you may greatly enhance these relationships, but it can also insulate them from other important influences. Even good friendships and families can become self serving.

Our culture seems drawn away from larger associations. Attention to the individual is priority. But individual fulfilment requires community. Healthy relationships with friends and family also seek ways to benefit others together.

Our families of faith are facing the pressures of the focus on individuals. But our church families have much to offer. When gathering with people from across Canada or around the world, you are reminded that you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Hearing how God is at work
across the country and the world strengthens your faith. It reinforces the sense that God is at work.

Hearing matters of faith processed from within a different context enriches your own understandings of faith and theology. Different contexts provide new illustrations that can frame the familiar with fresh perspectives.

Staying contained within your own experience and relationships can create limited insight. A broader family of faith can see into your context and see things that you may have become blinded to. A broader family of faith can ask the simple and innocent questions that generate profound reconsideration and review.

There are many benefits to investing energy in the broader family of faith. To remain healthy individuals need to care for themselves, their families, friends and broader relationships. For congregations to remain healthy they too need to pay attention to themselves and to the broader family of faith.

All of these relationships are worth the energy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Fight of Truth

When truth is being spoken it is hard to only hear what you want to hear. Truth has a way of speaking directly to the soul even when the mind has tried to dull the hearing.

There are many conversations seeking a hearing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been giving voice to residential school survivors.  The community of LGBTQ, their family and friends have been asking for the church to listen in our national church’s Being a Faithful Church process. People concerned for the health of the earth and its environment are seeking a serious consideration from the church. These emotional conversations sink into the heart where voices cannot be easily muffled. It seems simpler to shut out what is being said. It is often the preferred option.

Not many delight in confrontations. Not many welcome being challenged. It feels easier to avoid tough conversations. It feels easier to ignore the dialogue.

But avoidance takes as much energy as engagement. Denial takes as much energy as acknowledgement. Resistance is as difficult as acceptance.

When truth is being revealed it takes work to remain uninformed. When facts become evident it takes work to maintain disbelief. It is not easy to pretend ignorance.

I have listened to hearts express pain so raw that my mind begs to stop listening. My emotions beg for distance. It takes energy to remain open and vulnerable so that what is being spoken can penetrate me deeply. But it takes just as much energy to deny a fair hearing to what is being said.

When the deep conversations of the heart emerge, a fight ensues. In fact, it would appear fighting is not optional: either we fight to remain uninformed, or we fight in support of the new information. .

I have come to realize that difficult truths are a friend of God. Revelation is a result of the Spirit’s work. I'd rather fight apathy than struggle against the Spirit of God. Confronting the truth is not easy, but it has the potential of setting you free.

This is a fight even a pacifist should not avoid.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Uncomfortable Conversations

I do not go looking for challenging conversations. But I don't run from them when they find me. I have come to realize that discomfort is an indispensable element of growth. We generally realize that being stretched is a good thing, even though few revel in the stretching.

I have been reminded of this during the Church Leaders Justice Tour this spring. Together with Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, and Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of Canadian Council of Churches, when the tour is done we will have been to ten events in five cities listening to citizen concerns and aspirations regarding poverty and climate justice.  The conversations have been reinvigorating and challenging.

I have been encouraged by the gentle but bold aspirations expressed for the church. We have been reminded that the church should be the voice in the desert. The church should not be constrained by lack of popular support. The church needs to be prophetic and should not be dissuaded by initial resistance. It is reinvigorating to hear people articulate a clear role for the church. It is challenging to hear people articulate a clear expectation for the church.

In Saskatoon we were reminded that our congregations contain those opposed to the fossil fuel industry and those dependent on the fossil fuel industry. "It becomes very uncomfortable to have any conversations," stated one participant. In Edmonton we heard a pastor push back at claims that the oil industry is globally impacting climate, stating emphatically "My people working in the tar sands do not want to kill children in Africa!”  And in the heart of mixed agriculture in Kitchener we heard a passionate call to abandon meat and dairy products to become vegan.

These are not comfortable conversations.

But the church needs to be a place where uncomfortable conversations can occur. The church is a community of people committed to one another; a commitment that does not require agreement. The church is a community expressing love to one another; a love that does not require assent.

Perhaps this is our best witness in a secular society becoming more volatile in disagreements. Showing that disagreement does not negate our love for one another may be the strongest Christian witness the church has today.

As communities of faith we must resist the temptation to shut down uncomfortable conversations. As communities of faith we must resist the impulse to avoid difficult conversations. These conversations are the context for growth. These conversations are the context for a compelling display of the love of Christ at work.

The  Justice Tour arrives in Montreal on May 12, and makes its final stop in Ottawa on May 13. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where Are You church?

With our increasingly secular Canadian society I have always been thinking that people have disregarded the church. However this assumption has been challenged for me.

This spring I have been asked to participate in a Justice Tour developed by Citizens For Public Justice and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). Together with Susan Johnson,  National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the CCC, I have been listening to community leaders across Western Canada express their hopes and frustrations in regards to Canada's engagement with poverty and climate justice. It has been a moving experience. Whenever people share the concerns of their hearts, it is impacting. 

This is where my assumption of secularization has been challenged. I was not surprised to see young adults engaged in the conversation. I was not surprised to hear their passion about issues of poverty and climate justice. I was not surprised to receive their criticism of church leadership. However, I was not prepared to experience the tone of their message for us as church leaders. 

From Vancouver, Edmonton, and Saskatoon across six forums, I heard accounts of community action. I heard of new collaborations. And I heard a growing lament. I heard young adults lament the lack of church presence in their struggles of addressing issues of poverty and climate justice. Many of them acknowledged that it was because of the church that they were currently engaged in these activities. The church taught them that God cares about the poor. The church taught them to love their neighbours as themselves. The church taught them that part of worship is caring for neighbour and the earth that we all share. That is why they were so disappointed to experience the church's absence in the concrete struggles of advocacy and actions seeking social change. 

I heard our young adults express a deep lament. They want their church with them. They want to be part of a faith expression that lives out the values they have been taught by their faith. But while they struggle for social change they look behind them and watch the church in a comfortable embrace of a society that benefits the advantaged. While they stand in solidarity with indigenous communities they witness the church avoiding indigenous peoples. While they stand in solidarity with the poor they witness the church maintaining distance through impersonal charity. 

Our young adults are not very interested in maintaining the current form of church. In that, they are aligned with secular society; it isn’t interested in carrying on the current form of church either. Our young adults are compelled to be engaged with care for the poor and the earth. In that, they engaged with the Spirit of God. 

Our young adults have not disregarded the church. Our young adults are missing the church. Many of our young adults are ready to take serious the expectations that God has for the People of God. And they long to be accompanied by the church in their efforts. 

I was prepared to hear people say; "we really don't care about the church." Instead I heard a resounding question of deep lament: "church, where are you?"

Perhaps that is the question that has resulted in a growing secular society. When the church truly remains aligned to the activity of God's Spirit it will never become irrelevant. 

In May, the Justice Tours will continue in Kitchener, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Another possibility

I like to pause and imagine myself in the Gospel stories. When I do, the familiar passages often burst with new meaning.

I have been drawn to reconsider the story of Jesus encountering the crowd who brought the woman caught in adultery for judgement (John 8:1-11). The central feature of the story is when Jesus stooped to write something in the sand. Scripture does not tell us what Jesus wrote. I have always assumed that shame had a pivotal role in this story, because whatever Jesus wrote caused the accusers to leave one by one.

But recently I have been drawn to consider another possibility to the story. As I imagined myself in the crowd, I envisioned how I could have felt as I watched the finger of Jesus scribe the words in the dirt:

The gentleness with which his finger traced the words in the sand; it felt like he was tracing the words across my tear streaked face. I was out done. He never looked up; not wanting to expose anyone. But the honesty of the choice words made me feel like he was staring directly into my heart. More than that; shining a light into the space of my heart I barely am able to recognize. 

It took everything in me not to gasp out my astonishment. But that would identify me; associate me with the words unfolding in front of everyone. 

I didn't feel shame. I wanted to. But the tenderness with which his finger touched the earth wouldn't allow shame. 

It wasn't a stern Jesus. This was not an act of protective defiance; as though he was saying; "Go ahead throw the first stone, I dare you!" 

No, he was granting us the freeing gift of truth. He was letting us know that in his sight, our sin was as public as the woman's. He wasn't accusing us. He was acknowledging us. He was revealing to us that we were known; known and loved. 

It wasn't guilt that made us pull away. It was grace. It was a profoundly numbing grace. 

I walked away. But I have never seen myself the same again. I was truly known. Because of that I now knew I was truly loved. 

The miracle that day was not that I didn't throw a stone on the woman. The miracle that day was that I finally stopped throwing stones at myself. 

It was as though I was invited to allow the tenderness of God's love to gently trace the words that will expose me across my cheek. Then in that space of that vulnerable truth I could hear the voice of my Saviour - and finally - be set free. 

It is a sad faith that tries to hide what is already known. It is a suppressed faith that permits guilt from acknowledging the sin that God has already forgiven.

Not until we recognize that we are truly known do we realize that we are truly loved.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Proud of My Church

I was a young pastor ready to embark on one of the most dangerous tasks: helping to lead a congregation through a building process. Building projects are notorious for doing in pastors. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a preference. Everyone is an owner. It is a context readymade for conflict.

With underdeveloped wisdom – not yet  baptized with the wounds of heated congregational meetings, I leapt into the context. And what a context: two congregations sold their separate buildings, amalgamated and decided to build a new building together.

I stood behind the wooden pulpit, looked across the congregation and dared to throw out the challenge.

“Building projects are known for producing congregational fighting” I said. “But we will have the opportunity to show the community something different.”

“The building committee will bring us decisions that will need to be made; colour of paint, carpet etc. But this is not about our individual preferences. Some have said that the church is primarily for those who do not belong to it. If so, then perhaps we should be asking our neighbours their preference for colours and textures. How would they like this church to look?”

The congregation rose to the occasion. They toiled together. They displayed the qualities of a community working together for the glory of God.

I was proud of the new building. I was proud of the process. I was proud to be their pastor.

I find myself in a similar situation now. The stakes are higher. Now I look across hundreds of congregations. Each unique and dissimilar and yet every one with a common yearning to display the wondrous love of our holy and passionate God.

This time it is not the construction of a new church building. It is a discernment process of a deeply personal and emotional matter: how to respond to persons attracted to the same sex. For many the stakes seem very high.

This too is a topic notorious for conflict.

But generally speaking, I have seen the Spirit of God at work in our community of faith. I have seen passion expressed: evidence of our love for God and the church. I have seen bold expressions of solidarity: evidence of our love for God and others.

I have seen a people listen to each other’s stories and passions because we know that that listening to one another positions us best to hear the voice of God.

I have seen a people who know that understanding someone is not the same as agreeing with someone, but seeking to understand is the same as seeking to maintain our unity in Christ.

The world is watching the church. It always has. I want the world to see a church that is unashamed to be in disagreement as they discern – because they are confident of God’s righteous grace and holy mercy. A church that knows how to lovingly disagree is a church that is ready to navigate the future.

We are Mennonite Church Canada; congregations representing a wealth of experience, passion and commitment. I am called upon to represent this body of believers. I am called upon to explain this body of believers. I do this with joy. I do this with confidence. I do this with gratitude – for in the midst of emotional disagreement – I see a people committed to extending the reconciling love of Christ.

I am not traumatized by these fearful times. I am grateful for a People of God ready to be church in fearful times. This is my church, and I am proud of my church. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Taking Notice in 2015

We have begun a New Year and as expected, we've seen the usual barrage of media attention to New Year’s resolutions. People have shared their hopes for personal improvements. Many will strive to make positive changes in their behaviours throughout 2015. Some will recommit themselves to learning and understanding more about God.

My friend helps me to better understand God. As is often the case, it is not by anything that is said. Instead it is a behaviour that seems to exude a God quality. I marvel at the quality. I pray that I might exhibit the same attribute.

Whenever we are with a group of people, my friend notices things unnoticed by others. As conversation develops my friend detects those who are not speaking and things that are unspoken.  As shared laughter bounces off the walls, my friend observes the places of silence. I admire this, and note it.

As people mix and engage one another, I watch my friend gravitate to those not in the conversations; to those on the sidelines. Soon small talk evolves into smiles and the quiet are drawn into the circle. It is a beautiful thing to watch. It is watching God at work through my friend.

I think this is a quality that needs to be exhibited by the People of God. It reflects the character and activity of God. While society spots the obvious, the People of God recognize the undetected. Empowered by the Spirit of God, subtle changes are detected: the groaning of creation, the yearning for acceptance, the readiness for restoration. Such expressions are never ignored by God and should not be discounted by the People of God.

The Spirit of God also draws attention to that which is overlooked by society; sometimes by neglect, sometimes by a discriminating absence of concern. But the Spirit of God does not cooperate with such disregard. For the People of God attuned to the heart of the Creator, the over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada must be noticed. God hears every cry; the missing and murdered Indigenous women’s voices may be silent but cannot be ignored by God`s People.

When a group this large has no voice, the silence becomes a deafening chorus. The church cannot hear everything that is detected by God. Perhaps God is using the family and friends of the missing women to amplify the silence so that the church can hear this throng of indigenous female voices. It would be easier to stay within the confines of society`s selective hearing, but for the People of God such luxury is unacceptable. We are compelled by the acute hearing of God; the One who detects every sparrow falling to the ground.

I am proud of a church that offers a voice into the obvious, but also draws attention to that which is overlooked.

I watch my friend push aside a desire to be in the centre of the conversational energy and instead be directed by the Spirit of God and draw in those on the periphery. I smile with gratitude.

I am glad that I am part of a church that seeks to pay close attention to the yearning of God`s heart. May we always take notice of that which attracts the attention of God and seek to position ourselves in such a way that the Spirit of God may flow through us to the world.

This is my prayer for this New Year.