Monday, 31 December 2012

New Day's Resolution

Well here we are once again on the eve of yet another New Year. What will 2013 bring? If one ponders that question too much, the whole New Year takes on somewhat of a mysterious (and maybe scary) nature. Will it be a year filled with happiness or sadness? Will this be the year that I get that big promotion and raise that I’ve been yearning for, or the year I join the ranks of the unemployed? Will this be the year that we move from being renters to homeowners, or the year that the bank adds our home to their collection of already foreclosed homes, and thus forcing us to become renters once again? Will this be the year we celebrate the birth of a new family member, or mourn the death of yet another one?

There is so much uncertainty to a New Year. In some ways it’s not unlike the flip of a coin or the drawing of straws; someone always ends up on the short end of the stick. We all hope for the best, and most of us resolve to do our best, but you just never know how it will all turn out. Maybe there really is something to that old adage, “One day at a time.”

Then there is this little thing called a “New Year’s Resolution.” Essentially it speaks to our desires to make a fresh start of something, just as a New Year is also a fresh start of the calendar. While some of us go about planning our New Year’s resolutions, others of us joke about it, much like the person who said, “My New Year’s resolution is to make no New Year’s resolutions.”

Personally I typically do not make New Year’s resolutions either, but if I did they might include a resolve to further reduce my waist size and poundage that goes with it. Perhaps another resolve would be to be a little more careful with what kind of online discussions (arguments) I allow myself to venture into. After all, is there really anything to be gained by me also weighing into such current political hot-potato discussions as gun control or gay marriage? Though sometimes I’m tempted, it’s probably best that I not do so.

Maybe I might even make a resolution to spend more time on some of the spiritual disciplines, as in Richard Foster’s excellent book, Celebration of Discipline. Now there’s a worthwhile resolution, at least in my opinion it is. Having said that, I think I will resolve to at least re-read that book again sometime soon. Certainly there is no end to resolution possibilities that we could make if we were so inclined to. But then, as with Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and other special days, I’ve also long since wrestled with thoughts such as this:
“One man considers one day more special than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
For many years now, I have not really been one who has much to do with any special days. While some people focus on celebrating many of the big days on our calendar (and that’s OK; to each their own), I have long since viewed one day pretty much the same as the next. If I celebrate a day, I only really do so because it is important to another loved one. If it were only up to me, I don’t think I would acknowledge special days at all. In my way of thinking, each and every day are days that the Lord hath made, and I will strive to rejoice and be glad in them all equally.
So where do we go from here?
I prefer to go to a “New Day’s Resolution.” I prefer to, regardless what day of the year it is, resolve to start my day with this prayer on my lips: “Lord, make me a blessing to someone today.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Right since the dawn of time, humanity has played with Cain’s question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). From that point on the Bible has painted a picture of the brotherhood of mankind. Yes, historically we have all sinned and fallen horribly short of God’s ideal (Romans 3:23), but there yet remains hope. Thankfully too, in Christ Jesus we are already made clean and acceptable, but I think it is also possible to take God’s grace for granted and become spiritually lethargic, as evidenced by many of our interactions with one another.

My “New Day’s Resolution” is that I do not want to simply argue and debate theological doctrines and concepts all the time; I want to focus more on blessing someone else, regardless if we agree doctrinally or not. It’s easy to be opinionated and grace-less as we adamantly put forth our theological views (I know, I’ve done it), but less easy to be our brother’s keeper and full of grace.
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way … Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification … So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (Romans 14: 13,19,22; NIV).
Just as “God is love” (1 John 4:16), so too I am convinced that theology is important ONLY in as much as it is based on love and relationships. As someone once said, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Are we our brother’s keeper? Absolutely. That is far too important to focus on only once per year, as part of some sort of special day on the calendar, rather it ought to be a daily resolution. My daily prayer, “Lord, make me a blessing to someone today,” speaks to the importance of being our brother’s keeper. It really is a spiritual discipline, for it does not come naturally for any of us and it is easy to fall away from in an unguarded moment.

My “New Day’s Resolution” for every day is based on those verses from Romans 14. No, I don’t live it perfectly, not by a long shot. Some days it seems like for every one step forward, I take three steps backwards. Some days I feel like I’m only 2% successful, but I press on anyways (Philippians 3: 12-14).

A new year is an exciting thing, full of promise and hope. A new day can be just as exciting. Happy New Day. What are you going to do with it? Squander it in some sort of self-seeking activity, or use it to bless someone else? Think about this: You might just be God’s answer to someone else’s prayer today. Peace.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Birdcage

“It is a known fact that birds confined in cages have a hard time reproducing.”

Brother Yun (The Heavenly Man) said that in response to the new state-sanctioned “Three-Self Church” structure of China in the early 1980’s.

The Three-Self church was the ultra-liberal creation of the Chinese government, which they brought about in response to the growing underground church, and was their way of attempting to control Christians and promoting their own political agenda within the churches.

The “caged birds” image resonated with me as I thought about our western institutional church. Certainly they’re not like the Three-Self institutional churches of China, though there are some similarities (such as seeking control and power through man-made agendas). Having said that, there are obviously many true Christians within the institutional birdcages, who love the Lord dearly and who genuinely are seeking to follow Him. I do not doubt that for a second. Even in China Brother Yun recognized the same thing when he said,
“We know there are many true followers of Jesus attending the government-sanctioned church in China today. I personally know many of them and have grown to appreciate them. It’s not with the caged birds in the Three-Self churches that we have a problem, but with the corrupt leadership and the political power used to control people.”
But that’s not what I want to meditate on. What I’m thinking about is the “reproducing” part. If “birds confined in cages have a hard time reproducing,” could the same thing be said about Christians confined to institutional birdcages? I wonder.

Though I am uncomfortable with the term, consider what has often been called “church growth.” How do most institutional churches reproduce and grow? It seems to me that “church growth” in these settings is primarily by way of “sheep shuffling,” and as such, isn’t really reproducing new Christians at all. Of course, there is some conversion within the birdcage, but I would guess it is relatively minor in comparison to the reproducing of the free birds outside of the birdcage.

When I think long and hard of all the new converts to Christianity that I have ever met, and when I think of all the testimonies that I have ever heard, it seems that most met the Lord while in the presence of free birds as opposed to caged birds.

People generally do not go to the institutional birdcage for the purpose of “getting saved,” as the christianese term often calls it. Most converts are hatched when life is shared with free birds out in the real world. It’s only after the new hatchlings to the faith come forth that religion, ironically, seems bent on caging them up with the rest of the caged birds, and essentially, clipping their wings.

To borrow an image from my duck hunting days of yesteryear, though life began as free birds, the birdcall in the hunters blind of the birdcage has entrapped and seduced many to the point that Jesus’ Great Commission of “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) has been reinterpreted into “come and be discipled.” While a few do venture outside to stretch their wings in the fresh air as free birds, many seem content to remain forever perched upon the artificially air-conditioned pew of the birdcage.

That’s the way I see it anyway. It would be interesting to see if there was some sort of scientific study to bear this out.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Enemy Within

"... and gave us the ministry
of reconciliation ..."
2 Corinthians 5:18

I’ve been thinking about “enemies” and how the New Testament seems to use the word in comparison to how we seem to often understand it in our society today. I am starting to think that maybe we’re still missing something; maybe we haven't got it all quite right yet.

Before we get into that, though, let’s first do a little Greek 101. The Greek word for “enemy” is the word “echthros.” The word “echthra” is usually translated as “hostility” and “hatred” and is the opposite of “love” and “friendship.”

Paul speaks of “while we were enemies” (Romans 5:10). While “we” were enemies, what? While we were enemies, God loved us enough to send His Son. While we seemed to know not how to love and relate to others and to our Creator, God sent His only begotten Son. While we were still antagonistic toward Him, Jesus died for us. God wasn’t the enemy; we were.

If you and I call ourselves “children of God,” it would be logical to assume that we bear some sort of resemblance to our Father God. It would be logical to assume that we would model our interpersonal relationships, at least somewhat, on the example that He gave us. It would be logical to assume that we would “turn the other cheek” a little more than we do. It would be logical to assume that we would not respond to the hostility with more hostility, but rather respond in love, just as God responded to our hostility toward Him with love.

This would be logical to assume. Unfortunately, as that quaint old saying asks, “You know what ‘assume’ means?” It makes an “ass” of “u” and “me.” Unfortunately, things aren’t always logical in our world. Unfortunately, things aren’t always as we assume that they are or should be.

In our world, it seems to me that we still have this “enemy” thing figured out all backwards. We still think of enemies as being out there somewhere. One nation goes to war against another nation, and we call them (the other guys) our enemies. One person feels oppressed by another, and we call the other our enemy. But I am starting to think that our view on this may be opposite to God’s view on it.

It seems to me that God’s view is that the real enemy is always first within. The real enemy is not the other guy; the real enemy is within me. Ouch. If I have problems with that other guy, the problem is first of all mine, and not his. Could it be that the real enemy is actually within me, and not in him as I have previously thought?

The real enemy, the “echthros,” is my failure to act in love and relationship toward that other person. The enemy is not that other person; the real enemy is me not responding to that other person as God responded to us, while we too were sinners, while we too were enemies.

So when Jesus said, “love your enemies,” He made it first about us, and not them. He made it about our response, and not their offence, or what we perceive as their offence. Who is the enemy? Maybe the enemy is actually none other than me. Maybe the enemy is my attitude towards others for whom, I might add, Christ also died.

Could it be that, to love your enemy, first means to love yourself? Could it be that, if there is no love in you and for you, you will never be able to respond to others the way God would have you to respond? Why? Could it be because the real enemy, the enemy within us, is still alive and well? Maybe the reason why all our peace talks and all our treaties historically haven't always worked out so well is because we too often have focussed our efforts and energies on the wrong enemy. Perhaps we should have started with the enemy within.

What is God’s solution to “echthros,” to hostility and hatred? Love. If only we could learn to respond with love instead of hostility and hatred, then we might discover that we’ve begun to respond to others with the mind of Christ. And if that happens, then I suspect that we will also have begun to join Him in becoming agents of reconciliation, introducing our “enemies,” our very internal selves, to the transforming power of God. Maybe that's what the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18) is ultimately all about.

If we ever get to that point, and at the risk of over simplifying things too much, perhaps we may even begin to see that there never really was another enemy after all.

Just a thought. Peace.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photographer Comment: "Yellow flowers are a symbol of peace, something we need with ourselves before anyone else."

Sunday, 9 December 2012

"What Christmas Means to Me," by C.S. Lewis

Last year I took a little flack for what some thought was a "Hate On" that I had for Christmas. Blog posts such as So this is Christmas and a few other Facebook and Twitter posts left some feeling that I was attacking them and that I was ultimately nothing more than a scrooge.

So this year, in an effort to keep the peace and so as not to offend and ruffle too many feathers, I am not planning to share much on the subject, other than this one post.

A while ago I came across a book by C.S. Lewis called, "God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics." In one of those essays, Lewis shares his views on Christmas.

I was somewhat surprised to read that he actually condemned the whole event. Why? Not because of the religious festival that it has become for some, nor because of the historical connections to Bethlehem, or even because of the "merry-making and hospitality," as he calls it. Then why does he condemn it? Let me share a portion of his essay that he calls, "What Christmas Means to Me." He writes,
1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to 'keep' it (in its third, or commercial aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out - physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house. 
2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go? 
3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself - gaudy and useless gadgets, 'novelties' because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish? 
4. The nusance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it. 
We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter  just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.
Well, there you have it; C.S. Lewis' take on Christmas. I wonder how many of us, if we were really honest with ourselves, wouldn't agree with him on at least a couple of those points. But then again, in the interest of political correctness, maybe we just continue internalizing our thoughts on this conspiracy of the greeting card companies and "novelty" manufacturers. (Yes, I am being facetious).

Don't get me wrong. Contrary to the views of some, I am not really a scrooge. While it is true that I hate the commercialization of it, I love Christmas time as we celebrate it as a family. What does Christmas mean to me? For one thing, the decorations in our home are simple and few, and conspicuous by the absence of the traditional decorated Christmas trees, lights and gaudy lawn ornaments. The focus in our home is family time. My wife and I love having our kids together for a few days. We love the iTunes randomly playing in the background as we laugh and hoot 'n holler playing table games and shooting a few rounds of pool. We love the family gathered for meals together and the excessive munchies, that we all seriously over indulge in. For a few days, the outside world is all but silenced as we connect and regroup as a family unit.

But to each their own. I guess that's what it all comes down to. As the Apostle Paul said,
"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). 
However you choose to celebrate, or if you choose to celebrate, may it be a time of blessing and may you find peace in it. From our home to yours, MERRY CHRISTMAS.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Fundamorphosis: A Book Review

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Recently I was asked by Robb Ryerse if I would consider doing a review of his new book, Fundamorphosis. I am glad that I agreed to do this, for I found it a most enjoyable read.

Fundamorphosis is the story of the author’s journey from a fundamentalist upbringing, through its Bible schools, and on into its pulpits. It is the story of his questions and experiences that ultimately led to his resignation, not just from the fundamentalist church he was leading as pastor, but also his resignation from its denomination. It is his story with the emergent church and, as he calls it, “the church I always dreamed of.”

I wasn’t far into the book when I asked myself, “Is this man writing my story or his?” The questions he asks and the doctrines he wrestled with were mine too. Furthermore, if they were also mine, then I wondered, to how many others did (or do) they also belong to? Maybe it follows, then, that Fundamorphosis is, in part, the story of all of us who have ever wrestled with fundamentalism.

Fundamorphosis is divided into three sections.

In the first section Ryerse deals with why he felt he had to leave fundamentalism. He shares of how he began to doubt a lot of the pat theological answers that he received (and gave) and of how he felt bound by tradition. He shares his personal testimony of some of the fears he experienced as he began to push the boundaries by asking those hard questions that nobody wanted asked.

One such example was his wrestling with fundamentalism’s view of how right orthodoxy trumps all, versus the good of orthopraxy that he was starting to embrace. He concludes that, while right theology (orthodoxy) is important, it cannot be more important than right behavior (orthopraxy). As he does throughout the book, Ryerse shares personal life stories to illustrate his various points. Ultimately the turning point for him was feeling that he was wasting the best years of his life in a system that he found himself more and more at odds with.

In part two of Fundamorphosis the author describes the process he took through this difficult time. Having now decided to leave fundamentalism, the questions that now plagued him had to do primarily with what to keep from fundamentalism and what to throw away. Here too I found myself relating to the struggle, for in many ways I have also gone through the same painful process myself. I suspect that is true for many of us. Ryerse says, “without careful reflection, our beliefs can arise purely out of tradition and superstition.”

In what he refers to as “Theology as Exploration,” Ryerse pushes the envelope even further by suggesting that maybe we are all theologians in the sense that we have all thought about the existence and reality of God. Since we have all done this, and since we have all wondered at one time or another about the meaning of life, his premise is that then we are all theologians. He says, “Faith doesn’t arrive to us tied up with a pretty bow. It arrives as ‘some assembly required.’”

In this section Ryerse discusses his new definition of theology as, “the life-changing reflection and articulation of who God is and how God works in my life and in the world.” Through yet further awesome real-life stories and examples, we are led to see that theology is, life changing, it is reflection, it is articulation, and it is about God. In short, as the author says, “It is not just what we believe that is important, it is also important how we believe.”

In the third and final section of Fundamorphosis we see how the author’s Christian faith has been reconstructed into what it is today. It is about community, it is about story, it is about transformation, and it is about hope.

Unlike the fundamentalism that he left, we are introduced to the notion that community can, and must, happen in such a way that we do not force uniformity. Ryerse says, “When we try to force uniformity, we end up driving people away from each other. Uniformity destroys the very community that is the basis for life.”

We are introduced to the idea of a more narrative and less systematic form of theology.  Instead of the often dry and boringness of systematic theology, we see that “theology is best done through stories,” through your story and through mine. This makes sense when we see this through his previous idea that ultimately we are all theologians.

Theology is about articulation in that ultimately it ought to bring about change in the lives of people. Ryerse shows us that theology is so much more than just something to be pulled off a bookshelf now and then; it is to be transformative, and an instrument of change.

And finally, theology is about hope. It is about eschatology (the end times) and the realization that God is still very much in control and has a plan through which He will bring all things to completion. It’s about the often-joked “Pan-Millennialism,” which says that all end times stuff will “pan out” just as God has ordained.

In reading Fundamorphosis I was left with the reminder that things do change, and that’s OK. I was left thinking that maybe what it means to be alive in Christ is that we are always undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts ourselves. Maybe we really are the “emergent” church; maybe, like the butterfly in the book, we really are starting to come into view as something beautiful. Maybe God really is more interested in our orthopraxy than in our orthodoxy. Maybe everything will “pan out” after all. Maybe, if you’ve ever wrestled with fundamentalism, you also need to read this book. Maybe …

“No fundamorphosis is ever really complete.
I am emergent and always emerging.”