Monday, December 22, 2008

A Response to Nathalie.

Nathalie asked if spirituality necessarily involved God. An excellent question.

We beat that question around quite a bit in seminary. We had one prof who discouraged us from defining spirituality in God-terms because it wasn't inclusive enough. Such a refined definition leaves out those who don't believe in God (or god, or goddess, or whom/whatever).

As a Christian, I have to say, Yes, spirituality needs to have God involved by virtue of the word itself. Spirituality, in a Christian sense, means connecting with the God who is spirit, the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of the Risen Jesus who is making all things new, the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy.

But, of course, this is a specifically Christian answer. Our Jewish friends (a shout out to the Jews celebrating Hannukah today. Have eight GREAT nights!) might answer the question differently, as would any atheist. Most religions (or folks who think about religion or faith) would have their own answer.

I guess it comes down to what the “spirit” is in “spirituality.” Is it God's spirit? The human spirit? The spirit of the age?

Once that is defined then we can figure out how/if God fits in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Birthday Ludwig

If it weren’t for Beethoven, I wouldn’t have survived my teenage years. His sturm und drung coupled with remarkable beauty echoed the spiritual and hormonal life of an angst ridden young man. He combined deep human reflection with complex formal structure, and profound spiritual sensitivity with rigorous musical insight.

Beethoven, while suffering from depression due to hearing loss, wrote some of most joyful and passionate music ever written.

So, today I’ll sip a strong German beer, in thankfulness to Beethoven.

Predictions for 2009... Tom Asacker. See if you agree (warning: pdf).


Monday, December 15, 2008

Simple Church or Simply Church - Part Two

NB: Part One Here

While I think that much of what Paul wrote about house churches was DEscriptive rather than PREscriptive (meaning that he was describing what was happening among believers rather than prescribing the way churches were to organize themselves), such organization got me thinking about the value and virtue of smaller expressions of Christianity.

I think our how we organize ourselves tells us and the world who we think God is, and what God values.

But if we say we follow the poor, wandering, preacher from the outback, than how would our churches reflect what we say we believe? Jesus’ preached the Kingdom of God (or in Matthew’s case, Kingdom of Heaven, not a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, but a living reality of God’s active presence in the world), and he always used small examples to describe it: mustard seed, treasure hidden in a field, yeast, a net.

Jesus never talked about the Kingdom of God in big, grand, terms. He always talked in small, personal, concrete yet crazy ways to describe what God was up to.

I think that’s because Jesus knew that God’s isn’t interested in grandiose, ostentatious, displays of power. If you want to see what God is doing don’t look at the grand gestures of history. Ignore what you see on the news. Stay away from Parliament. Drive past Bay Street.

But look for God’s power in weakness, lurking in the dark corners of our world, beneath the radar, away from TV lights. Look for God in the unwed, pregnant teenager, the nation in exile, the crucified saviour, and the small gathering. There you’ll see God doing something.

I think, as Christians, we often forget where God is. We like to build BIG because we confuse the western culture’s idea of success with God’s. We think our goal as a church is to get BIG, and the BIGGER we are the more successful, and faithful we believe we are.

But while numbers tell us some things, they don’t tell us everything. They aren’t necessarily a measure of faithfulness, of love for neighbour and enemy, of peacemaking, of care for the world.

I think smaller churches build stronger followers of Jesus. Research backs this up (when I find the stats I’ll post them). There’s less room to hide in smaller churches, deeper relationships are more easily formed, and accountability is more easily created.

Smaller churches are more effective in evangelism and mission, in terms of ratio of baptisms to membership. Smaller churches grow faster, percentage wise, then large churches.

Smaller churches – house churches in particular, have less overhead costs. No building to maintain, fewer, if any salaries to distribute, leaving more money available for mission.

Of course, this does NOT mean that having a small church is the goal. I strongly believe that churches need to grow and reproduce – make disciples of Jesus.

But I worry that when we try to become BIG rather than strong, we get sucked into the institutional vortex and creativity gets squashed in fear of upsetting too many people. And upset people don’t put as much in the offering plate.

Maybe my biggest fear is that money become the goal, money to maintain what we have, rather than serving the world in mission.

End of Part Two. Part Three Coming.

Christmas Greetings from Fred and Susan

A Christmas greeting from Canadian Anglican and Lutheran leaders from Anglican Church of Canada on Vimeo.

Is it just me or does Susan look and sound really tired in this?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Simple Church or Simply Church - Part One

NB: This is a series I'm working on, having to do with some thoughts/ideas I've been throwing around.

I’ve been reading a lot about house churches. Some of the heavy hitters in this field come from the conservative evangelical side of the spectrum, which offers a fascinating perspective. But they seem to have a shallow reading of scripture to back up their arguments.

They say that, “the early church didn’t have buildings, why do churches today have buildings? The first churches didn’t have pastors, why do our churches have pastors? The first Christians didn’t listen to sermons, why do we listen to sermons.”

While I’m sympathetic, if not almost completely sold on the idea of simplifying the way we do church, much of the critique offered by some writers borders on blasphemy.

One dust jacket blurb proclaims, “The 1700 year nightmare is over!” suggesting that the move from a simple, house church model to the Constantinian, institutional form was a “nightmare” (which, of course it was a complete betrayal of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God. No argument from me on this point).

However, to say that churches have been living a nightmare for the past 1700 years sounds like a charge against the Holy Spirit - who guides and directs our lives as Christians – saying that God had abandoned the Church for almost 2 millennia. I have trouble believing that God took a 1700 year vacation.

Also, they assume that there’s such a thing as a “pure” or “perfect” church, and the early church was it. And all we need do is follow the early Christians’ lead, and we’ll solve our church problems, and FINALLY be the church Jesus had intended.

I think churches DO need to simplify, but not because “the Bible said so,” but for a few other reasons.

End of Part One

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

235 Bosses?

It’s conventional wisdom among pastors that we don’t have one boss, or even a team of bosses, but a congregation of bosses. That each church member/friend/acquaintance/giving unit is our supervisor. And since our little congregation has roughly 235 members, I have 235 bosses.

I used to affirm this. But something inside me wouldn’t let me really believe it. And now I thoroughly reject it.

I reject it because this is a recipe for burnout. With all the competing expectations, varied understandings of what a pastor’s job entails, differing needs and wants, it would be impossible to be accountable to EVERYONE’S assumptions of what I’m supposed to be doing.

I also find that putting using the word “boss” misunderstands the pastor/parish relationship. Yes I get paid for what I do, but I also contribute financially. Yes, I have performance evaluations, but it’s a back and forth conversation. Yes, a congregation votes on whether or not they’re going to call me as their pastor, but I also have to listen to the Holy Spirit, asking God if such a call comes from God, or if I just had a really good interview.

I would say that I don’t have bosses. I have partners, fellow pilgrims, sisters and brothers with whom I walk and who walk with me. Together we try to listen and discern God’s future for us.

I’m writing this because, mainly, I’m getting tired of the “us vs them” attitudes I often hear from clergy, as if we pastors have a corner on how the church is to be run. We may have Divinity degrees and know a lot of theology, but the people with whom we serve have built the church through hard work and even harder prayers. And that needs to be honoured and respected. Clergy need to understand that we’re simply one voice among many.

Happy Festival of Thomas Merton!

I'm still lobbying for December 10th to be Merton's Feast Day. After all, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane December 10, 1941 and died in Bankok, December 10, 1968, the date bookending his monastic life.

But whether or not that happens, I'll celebrate in my own way. Tonight I'll read The Sign of Jonas, the first book I read by him, and which deeply affected me and my understanding of God.

In the meantime, here's a quote from a later work of his:

Am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it? Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from within, with him, with his grace, a meaning which reflects his truth and makes me his “word” spoken freely in my personal situation? My true identity lies hidden in God’s call to my freedom and my response to him. This means I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, but directing my love to the personal reality of my brother, and embracing God’s will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery. - From Seeds of Contemplation

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sermon: Advent 2: Year B

NB: From the archives, touched up a bit.

Mark begins his gospel in an artless, matter-of-fact sort of way. It’s as if he has something to get off his chest and doesn’t have time for pleasantries. No long-winded genealogies. No pregnant virgins. No babies born in barns. Nothing. Just “boom!” we’re in the middle of an on-going story.

Right out of the gate jumps John the Baptist. Part wild man, part TV preacher. Don’t get too close, he can smell your fear.

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he roars. His camel-hair shirt battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. He speaks with an authority that isn’t his own. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of God has come near!”

People had to travel pretty far to hear these words. They had to walk for days through the desert just to get to him. The Jordan River wasn’t exactly on a main street with good traffic flow. I guess John missed the...(whole thing here)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Love your enemies...?

...don't give me any of that hippie crap. Just ask Rick "Purpose Driven" Warren, who believes that governments have a divine call to "take out" other heads of state (and he didn't mean for Chinese food).

I used to like Rick Warren. His Purpose Driven Church was helpful in assisting me to think through congregational outreach.

But he's recently been a darling of the Religious Right, which I think has gone to his head.

You might point out that Bonhoeffer acted upon what Warren just muses about. But Bonhoeffer knew the cost and paid it. Whether you think Bonhoeffer was right or wrong he acted according to his conscience from behind enemy lines. He was deeply conflicted about his complicity in his assassination attempt against Hitler. He didn't pontificate from a comfortable studio half a world away. He was knee deep in political struggle. In fact, he resigned from a comfortable tenured position at a prestigious seminary to join the fight.

Where is Warren speaking from?

In case you were wondering...

I know many of you have been wracking your brains trying to figure out what to get me for Christmas. And while I am the kind of guy who has everything, and I usually encourage folks to give to those in need, not just at Christmas, but at all times of the year, some people simply can't resist giving gifts.

So, here's some help. I'll be checking my mailbox.

Thank you in advance.

Rick Mercer's Harpur Rant

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Haunting Tale - From Past to Present

My good friend loulou has put together an excellent blog. She has a wonderful way of looking at life. Check it out.

Craziness in Ottawa or "These Rogues are Pro"

Good Shepherd's resident political scientist Harold Jansen walks us through the federal goings-on on his very fine blog.

Monday, December 01, 2008

December Pastoral Letter

Have you started your Christmas preparations? What do they include? Fighting for parking spots at Park Place Mall? Finding deals at Wal-Mart? Trying to figure out what the kids will actually play with?

The Advent Conspiracy has a different take on Christmas preparation. These are Christians from all over the world committed to living out the Christmas story in ways that are faithful to what God intends.

Their website explains:
The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.
And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Welcome to Advent Conspiracy.

This Christmas they ask all Christians to

Worship Fully
Spend Less
Give More
Love All
For example, a small Christian community in Calgary called “Awaken” says “At Awaken, we are seeking ways to simply our lives and challenge the consumerism which is pervasive in Calgary. We are reducing or eliminating our spending at Christmas, and using the money we save to give to water projects in countries that need it.”

Christian communities from all over the world are challenging the consumerist takeover of Christmas and living more faithfully of Jesus’ followers, being light to the nations, and alternative way of being in the world.

This year I encourage you to think about how you can more faithfully celebrate the birth of poor child born in a manger, the child who asks us to share from our vast resources to those struggling merely to survive.

In Jesus’ Name,

Pastor Kevin