Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Unintended Message of Worry

Every term of leadership contains challenges. The church is always in a period of discernment - as it should be. Context is always changing. New questions of discernment constantly emerge.

This is why I think one of the greatest gifts a leader can provide is a display of non-anxious presence. A non-anxious presence is rooted in confidence that God will provide what the church needs to faithfully discern and make the necessary changes.

I was reminded of this at a workshop hosted by Emerging Voices Initiative (EVI). This young adult initiative began in November 2015, when Mennonite Church Canada faced a substantial donation revenue shortfall and was forced to reduce staff and program. Their concern for the church resulted in considerable conversation and a commitment to engage in the work of the Future Directions Task Force. Their enthusiastic participation in the issues facing the church is heartening for me as it is for many people.

One of the questions the EVI leaders are asking workshop attendees is: "What do you want to say to the leaders of Mennonite Church Canada?"

This is the gift being offered. For leaders interested in the thoughts of others it is a precious gift whenever people express themselves.

One of the first responses to this question has reinforced my determination to resist fear and panic in these changing times. The young adult voice walked up to the microphone and after glancing in my direction said, "the church will be okay.”

Indeed! What a message for leadership to hear: The church will be okay. It is both a message of hope and chastisement.

What message do we communicate to our youth and young adults when we express panic and fear about the state of the church? The underlying statement of fear and panic is that we do not trust our youth and young adults to carry on the faith.

Confidence in our youth and young adults would echo the statement offered at the EVI workshop. The church will be okay, because God is at work in our youth. The church will be okay because our youth and young adults are dreaming dreams and seeing visions. God is at work, even if as leaders, we don't always perceive it.

A confidence in God expects the Spirit of God to be at work beyond our comprehension. A confidence in God anticipates that our youth and young adults will see things we do not see.

The church of the future is the church informed by the past but embracing the developing expression of the leaders forming in our midst.

I am confident that our faith is finding new expression.

Open yourself up to possibilities not seen before: possibilities articulated and envisioned by our youth and young adults.

Upcoming EVI Workshops and locations in Nov./Dec.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Covenant of Disagreement

In the past, the Church could hardly imagine placing 'covenant' and 'disagreement' into a shared concept. Disagreement represented the opposite of covenant. Covenant necessitated agreement.

But no longer. It is now possible to discuss covenant in the context of disagreement.

Followers of Jesus Christ are beginning to realize that covenant speaks more to relationship than it does to theological agreement. Jesus made it clear that covenant people commit to "turning the other cheek" and "praying for" those considered enemies.

This is no easy task! Indeed an endeavour quite impossible if not empowered by the spirit of Jesus Christ.

It is only reasonable then for followers of Jesus Christ to extend that same grace to fellow members of the body of Christ. If covenant people are instructed to love their enemies, how much more their brothers and sisters with whom they disagree?

In a recent trip to Israel/Palestine an ecumenical organization challenged a group of denominational leaders that unless we are able to speak as a unified voice of diversity, we have no platform to offer anything to the situation in the Middle East. I agree.

A reshaped understanding of covenant is an important challenge to a world becoming increasingly fragmented by ideological, theological, and ethnic conflict. Followers of Jesus Christ must stand ready to embrace disagreement within the covenant of loving your neighbour as yourself. This is not a poetic ideal. It is a covenant responsibility.

The global community has considered it important to remember the devastation of war. Divided church bodies realize destructive outcomes of internal conflict. Loss of life, destruction of families, relationships broken by harsh words are the lamented impacts results of armed violent conflict. Such lament should be expressed. But so should a commitment to peace that displays a new comfort with disagreement. Disagreement is an opportunity for conversation, not a reason for conflict. The Christian faith must learn to embrace disagreement if it hopes to be relevant in a diverse world.

I think God has provided an opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to shine. This is a chance to display a renewed commitment of love and respect for all people of diverse understandings. It is an opportunity to boldly model how to remain in disagreement without resorting to hateful and hurtful rhetoric. It is an opportunity to portray the compelling love of Jesus Christ.

I pray that we will rise up to this opportunity. I pray that followers of Jesus Christ everywhere will commit themselves to represent the covenant of disagreement.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Retaining the Ability to Break

Our vision of leadership seems most informed by the common urge to win. A good leader is defined as someone who leads to victory and growth. However to limit ourselves to this as the only description of good leadership might be to misunderstand our very character as followers of Jesus Christ. 

The church is God's representation of the sacrificial love displayed in Christ. It is correct to declare the redemptive power of Jesus. Lives can be transformed. But could it be that the transforming power of Jesus is best revealed from a place of brokenness? 

The biblical account of God’s redemptive strategy seems to suggest this. The incarnation initiated the redemptive strategy from a place of vulnerability rather than strength: an infant. The pronouncement is to the politically weak rather to those of influence: shepherds. The birth is in a stable rather than a palace. 

Jesus is raised in Nazareth rather than Jerusalem. His following is secured with common folk fisherman rather than the religious establishment. The triumphant entry is on the back of a common donkey. And as we know the defining moment of secured victory is the cross: death and suffering. 

There is a lesson here in leadership that we must not ignore. For Jesus, death is the new beginning; failure is the victory. 

Yet as followers of Jesus Christ we resist weakness. We despise failure. 

Even in our history the church is strongest when it is weak. The church seems to grow strongest when driven into hiding by persecution. This has been evidenced in many examples: China, Ethiopia, to name just two. 

I don't think that God rejects strength. But I do think the most effective way to relate to a broken world is from a place of brokenness. It is where we most clearly display the passionate and radical love of God. 

Maybe the church is strongest when it is weak because that is when it is easiest for us to break and take on the brokenness of our Saviour. As Mennonite Anabaptists we recognize that the church is the broken body of Christ for the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, we can be comfortable with embracing vulnerability and brokenness. We are most effective when we feel the weakest. 

May we never lose the ability to break so that we never fail to portray the transforming love of our Sacrificial Lord.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Confession...

I have a confession to make.

I have been raised in a faith community that emphasizes expressions of compassion. I am proud of this heritage. I have been formed by an understanding of Christian discipleship that prioritizes striving for peace and justice. I am deeply thankful for this modelling.

So when I learned of the horrendous massacre of gay patrons at an Orlando night club, I did what I thought was only natural. I expressed mourning. I named the pain I felt for the family and friends of victims thrust into brutal grieving
I thought such discriminatory violence must be mourned. I thought that lament must be confessed. I expected many others to be quick with expressions of solidarity.

But I found an uneasiness growing within me. I felt an urge to calculate my expressions of sorrow. As though expressing support for the suffering LGBTQ community might be suspect. To feel pain for those in sorrow should be an expected reaction - especially for the People of God. But I felt it necessary to waver. I found unholy questions invade my mind: How might this be misunderstood?
I do not want the debate of morality to stifle responses of compassion. I do not want ongoing theological discernment to create a fear in expressing sorrow. 

It is natural to weep with those who weep. It is normal to mourn with those who mourn. It should be a basic human tendency to moan and wail against injustice - especially for the People of God.

When faced with deep, intense sorrow for fellow humans there is no place for fear of being politically incorrect. It is not God who asks us to waver or reconsider.

I am shamed by my own misunderstanding of righteousness. I am humbled by my misdirected yearning "to keep the peace." I confess the desire to temper responses of compassion in favour of my desire to keep the peace. It is a sad commentary on ungodly influences on our expression of faith.

Compassion is a basic human response to suffering. To ask people to deny this basic impulse of humanity because of a need to be politically neutral is to ask people to deny the very image of God.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Massacre in Orlando

I am deeply distressed about the massacre of fellow humans in Orlando, Florida on June 12. The fact that the lives of innocent people were gunned down simply for being gay is horrifying.

I find myself in deep mourning.

I mourn the loss of life. I mourn the bitter grieving that families and friends have been thrust into.

I mourn that hatred could so control an individual.

I mourn a society that can foster such discrimination.

All of Canadian society should be weeping.  It is a sad event for the human family. 

But I also find myself weeping for my own people in particular - my family of faith.

I mourn the hateful discrimination of the LGBTQ community in our own families’ experience – and how this massacre reminds them of this.

I mourn the increased terror some of our youth will experience – already too terrified to acknowledge their sexual orientation. 

I mourn the way God will be misrepresented. No one should feel placed outside of God’s mercy and passionate love.

I don't want fear and misunderstanding to begin with feelings of hostility. God is not honoured in violence. Righteousness is not portrayed through violence.

I pray for something different. I pray that my family of faith will be something different. This is my hope.

But today I am in mourning.

There is reason to weep whenever hatred is given expression.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Not a Fragile Faith

In a recent bible study we were looking at John 20 where Jesus appeared to the disciples. Gathered behind locked doors Jesus appeared in the midst of them and said "Peace be with you". Then he did an amazing thing. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

This is a significant development. It was a graduation. They would now carry on the faith - not by receiving more teaching by Jesus but by listening to the Holy Spirit. It was an empowering. It was an unleashing of the law written in their hearts.

It would be easier if Jesus had stayed around. But now, in the safety of community, followers of Jesus listen for the Holy Spirit to draw out the law written on their hearts. Faith was not left fragile. Rather it was entrusted to the power of the Holy Spirit.

This biblical account has made me wonder about the character of our faith.

A fragile faith must be defended. It must be protected. But a confident faith is free to face uncertainty. It is able to navigate through complexity.

A vulnerable faith must be propped up by constructs that refute uncertainty. But then it is a faith imprisoned by unquestioning conviction.

But faith unquestioned is a flimsy faith. It is a faith ready to be shaken by the first real disappointment of life. It is a faith that avoids death rather than a faith that embraces the promise of resurrection.

A faith fearful of death remains locked in a present that was constructed by the past. An uncertain faith produces confidence by entrenching itself in what is known; or in what is thought to be known.

Our faith is not a fragile faith. Born in persecution, it rooted itself in the confidence of resurrection. It was a faith that in death sang harmonies with the unseen future.

Our faith is not bound by past constructs. While aligned to the timeless truths revealed by Jesus, it is freed by the Holy Spirit to emerge in new and constant relevancy.

A robust faith does not need to know the future, only that the God we worship holds the future. An unshakable faith is reconciled to uncertainty, knowing that the only definite is the grace of God's transforming and redeeming power.

This is the faith we hold. This is the faith we profess: an assurance in the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us in faithfulness and confidence. Now is the time to let our faith shine.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Responding to terror: Belgium, Ankara, Nigeria...

This March alone, there have been attacks in eight countries. Brussels is the one currently getting major media attention.

I don't like hatred. It erodes my sense of well being. It robs me of joy. It ridicules peace.

If left unattended, hatred develops enemies. It intentionally misinforms until fellow humans are mutated into monsters. It stigmatizes others and portrays stereotypes as truth.

A community governed by hatred will be a place where no one feels safe. It will be a place where laughter is silenced. I don't want to live in such a place. Yet such places are silently being developed.

Subtle reactions to events like the bombings in Brussels build and accumulate. Safety feels threatened and hatred begins to nest. Anger and revenge is directed at strangers. Soon fear is used as political platforms; hatred is nurtured. Discrimination is justified as protection; hatred is given flight.

I yearn for a world where one's own life and the lives of others are treasured. I long for communities governed by love and empathy, where safety is maintained by a commitment of well being for all.

To ensure such communities, each person must work to cut off that which gives birth to hatred. Violence of any sort must be discouraged, whether that is in schoolyard play or sports arena competition. Stereotypes must be questioned by truth. Friendships must be developed with strangers. And respect for one another must accompany disagreement.

Such communities are possible. Such communities are needed in a world giving into the forces of hate.

May we all determine to feed tolerance and understanding. May we be committed to developing new friendships and destroying old feuds and misunderstandings.

This is the place we all want to live. This is the place we should all strive to create.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

New Leadership

Whenever a young person initiates conversation I take note.

It is noteworthy for two reasons. First, connecting with young adults interested in church is not all that common. Second, finding young adults not intimated by position or status is significant.

In these situations, I always feel I am in conversation with either an existing leader or a potential leader. I want to understand as best as I can what is being articulated, how it is being articulated, and what it tells me about how young leaders think.

One of those experiences happened recently. As I left an event looking at the impact of human activity on our environment, a young voice behind me asked, "Were you at Mennonite World Conference this summer?" I swung around and faced a smiling young adult. "Yes," I said. "You must've been there too."

We chatted about the experience. We shared stories. We agreed the thrill of meeting Mennonite/Anabaptists from around the globe was inspiring. "I was baptized earlier in the spring, so thought I should go to World Conference," explained the young adult.

It was an interesting alignment – one I would not have immediately expected. For this young leader, baptism was clearly a family event; it was a public entry into the family of faith. And to learn the extent of this new family was truly inspiring.

Meeting new leaders always reminds me that the Spirit of God is very active. The tendency can be to look for those who are like what you see in the mirror. But that would be a pretty limiting expectation of God. Perhaps the better place to locate new leadership is to look at the places that appear the least like present leadership.

I am confident that the church is in good hands, even if those hands do not yet recognize that they are holding it. God's Spirit is at work. Hearts are being stirred. Imaginations are unfolding. Yearnings are being strengthened.

I pray that new leaders will be met with all that is needed to give their dreams and visions wings.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Periods of Dramatic Change

Change is always occurring. But when that change appears more dramatic than usual, it can feel frightening.  I wish there was an emoticon for anxiety to accompany my thoughts on change.

I think that the Christian Church across Canada is experiencing such a time of dramatic change. Although the Mennonite Church Canada family has been navigating this period of change through the work of the Future Directions Task Force, the need for modification is not unique to us. The Canadian context is significantly different than when our current church structures and programs were developed.

In a recent conversation of a small group Bible study I am engaged in, we reflected on the work of the church. For many, it has often felt like spending energy keeping things alive, just for the sake of keeping things alive. This has become a tough sell for many people.

I must admit, I have often felt uncomfortable with the enterprise of Christianity.  Worship has become a retail commodity. Representing God has become an occupational career. When individual achievement becomes ingrained in this spiritual movement, is it any wonder that much of Christianity has become addicted to growth and success? 

Do not misunderstand me. I think God is very active redeeming the world. But has sharing the Good News of Jesus become a means to assure the ministry and financial sustainability of an institutional church? That would seem misguided to me. 

I see a different future: a future where people are invited to discover their own vision through Christ rather than keep the dream of the church alive. I am not advocating for rampant individualism. But individuals must be able to see themselves as integral to a communal expression.

I have seen the importance placed on debates that many people consider irrelevant. I have heard a panic expressed that has made the concerns of the church feel self-focused. 

I see a different future: a future where the transforming wonder of God's grace is experienced by those who have historically been rejected. In a growing secular society, people are aching for spiritual meaning and connection. Our debates should not be dictated by secular society. But our debates should be relevant to the spiritual aching of society.

I don't think we have gotten it all wrong. But much of our wisdom is bound by culture and context. Wisdom is constrained by what we know. The Spirit of God is active in the realm of what we do not know.

In this season of dramatic change it is important for the church to display an unshakable confidence in the God who knows what we do not know. Only then can we push away the fear and despair that always accompanies times of dramatic change.