Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sermon: Trinity C

I don't know why those in charge decided to designate one Sunday as "Trinity Sunday." Shouldn't every Sunday be "Trinity Sunday"? A celebration of the great mystery of the three-in-one, one-in-three God? As Christians we confess God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three-persons, co-equal, co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. It's basic to what we believe as Christians.

But do we really know what that means or know why that's important? To the outsider it might look like a lot mental gymnastics, become theological contortionists, in order to justify a contradiction. 1+1+1 does NOT equal One. Volumes of books have been written trying to sort out the math. How can God really be three distinct persons, yet one God? It simply doesn't add up.

Other than Christ the King Sunday, Trinity Sunday is the day when we feel most tempted to keep God at a philosophical distance. We muse about the mystery of the Trinity. We try to do make the math work. On no other Sunday do most preachers do a weaker job connecting God to peoples' lives.

I think that's because we don't...(whole thing here)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review: Take Your Best Shot

Why do we expect so little from our youth? As a pastor, I often struggle to find meaningful ways of engaging our young people, to keep them interested and active in church. So, the church tries to keep our kids entertained, an extension of what they get elsewhere. Music they can relate to, games, retreats - and the occasional bible study or service project thrown in to keep our programming churchy.

But Austin Gutwein has shown in his book Take Your Best Shot: Do Something Bigger Than Yourself that young people care about the world that God made and are eager to provide meaningful solutions to human suffering. Young people have both the compassion and the know-how to alleviate the agony of others.

Challenged by a World Vision video telling the story of an AIDS Orphan in Zambia named "Maggie" (He calls this his "Maggie Moment"), 9-year-old Austin Gutwein was moved to help her, and others like her. After sharing his concern with a World Vision staffer who told him to "...use basketball to change the world" Austin Gutwein decided to raise money by shooting free-throws. Since there were 2057 children orphaned by AIDS each day, he would shoot 2057 free throws, at a dollar per throw (but not basket).

Of course, he reached his goal. And later he decided to try it again, this time with 1000 people shooting free throws. And "Hoops of Hope" was born.

What I found unique about his story wasn't his success (which made for a good read) but his ability to reflect on what God was doing throw him. He was able to integrate biblical passages about the poor and suffering into his work with AIDS orphans in way that wasn't trite or condescending. Too often, these stories have a "isn't it so great that we wealthy North Americans can help these poor, underdeveloped Africans" feel to them. Not this book. For young Austin Gutwein, it's a story of one kid just trying to help other kids, because that's what Christians do.

But as a parent and a pastor, this book was a challenge to expect more from the young people under my care, to help them grow and push their limits. Youth do not need more entertainment, especially not from churches. Young people need to know that they have gifts and passions that can help change the lives of others. For me, Austin Gutwein's book was a helpful reminder that everyone plays an important leadership role in God's unfolding kingdom. This book would make an excellent gift for the young person in your life who is struggling to find his/her place in church and the world. It is a wonderful affirmation of the giftedness of all God's people.

(Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Book Review: Hungry For Life

Blundell's book is no mere theological treatise or a biblical meditation on social problems. Hungry For Life is a manifesto. A call to arms for affluent North American Christians to live more faithfully and generously; using our resources to confront the horrible poverty most of the world lives in.

Blundell begins by showing us the problem of poverty, and the devastating effects it has on people in the developing world. And, he, boldly maintains, that affluent North American Christians are spiritually impoverished by their (our) lack of response to the needless suffering of our sisters and brothers around the world. The mark of faithful living, he says, is not how we worship or pray, but how we care for the poor.

He then moves on to the biblical foundations of his argument, expertly outlining how the core message of the bible is care for the poor as a faithful response to what God has graciously given us - life and salvation. He takes us through the hard words of the prophets, Jesus' commands, the Letter of James, and other passages to show that his basis for the Christian mission to alleviate the needless suffering poor has a deep biblical foundation.

He doesn't mince words. He's angry at the North American church for its spiritual complacency and calls for its radical renovation. He calls the church to repentence and transformation, not mere "behaviour modification" as he puts it. Nothing short of wholesale change will lift us from our spiritual impoverishment and a slavery to the sin of idolatry - "worshiping the God of money" as he puts it. He calls Christians to greater generosity as a response to the North American affluence that is keeping us spiritually malnourished. He calls us to a simpler lifestyle to confront our consumerist culture and free up resources for international development. He calls us to a greater prayer life where we lift up to God the concerns of the poor, and so we can connect to the source of all life. Blundell's vision is holistic.

But unlike most prophetic voices, he has a plan. He has crunched the numbers. He has formed an organization. He models what he preaches. He provides a framework for moving churches to action.

His book is a challenge. But his intent is to inspire Christians to action rather than make them feel guilty. His organization, Hungry For Life, from which the book drew its title works to connect congregations with communities in developing countries so churches can help where they're needed most, and develop life-changing relationships along the way.

Each chapter has a series of questions that help the reader dig more deeply into the material, which I found quite useful. And the final chapter and Appendices provide the answer to the "Now What?" question that people often ask after reading these types of books.

What surprised me about this book was that Blundell comes from an evangelical background. He's an ordained Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor and got his MA in International Non-Profit Leadership at Trinity-Western University. His evangelical credentials are solid.

But he spends little or no time talking about sharing the gospel with the poor. Which I found refreshing. Too often we think that the sole job of Christians is to lead people to Christ. We say that we need to spend more time preparing people for eternity rather than responding to bodily needs.

Blundell doesn't cover this disconnect. And his biblical exegesis might tacitly say why: there are a lot more passages about caring for those in need than about saving people for heaven.

What I would have liked more of was a broader discussion about what people in developing countries can teach us affluent North American Christians. I worry about the insidious paternalism that marks many development efforts, where the "poor" become objects, recipients of our generosity, rather than partners in creating a more sustainable world for all people. While Blundell doesn't give off this vibe, I was looking for more stories and examples about how those in developing countries develop mutual relationships with the churches with whom they connect.

For Blundell, North American church transformation can only occur when, with God's help, we re-orient ourselves away from our materialist culture and learn to live generously and sacrificially, responding to the cries of the poor, and learning from them along the way. This book should be read by every thoughtful Christian who longs for a church that connects more deeply to God and the world.

(NB: Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)