Skip to main content

out of the box

Last night we returned from a 4-day road trip to the East coast. We took in the annual gathering of Vineyard churches from the Atlantic region of Canada and managed to squeeze in a short stop at Bangor, Maine on the way there and a night overlooking the water in St. Andrews by the Sea on the way back. The break with Dean was a welcome one, though the conference was rather busy. Not only was I taking care of the registration for the event, I was also speaking at one of the sessions. It was no surprise that I fell asleep in the car on the way home as Dean drove through Maine.

The topic that I was asked to speak on was "Out of the Box," especially in relation to how we live life as followers of Jesus. It was such a privilege and treat to interact with a group of people who were up for exploring the risky venture that we know as transformation, and who were not afraid to engage in a slightly different format from what they were used to encountering in a church setting. It is amazing how creative and responsive people will be when you give them the space!

Here are some of the ideas we wrestled with together on the weekend:

1. Context: Recognizing our context is integral to being able to act and respond in honest and creative ways to those around us. And in order to see our context, we have to take a step back sometimes, get out of our box, so to speak. The letter "X" can indicate anything from a variable factor in an equation to an important mark on a treasure map to being part of the word, "exit." The explanation is all in the context, and our larger context is that there is nothing outside of God's purview; everything is penetrated by God. How we view history, the present, and the future cannot be outside of God’s operation and involvement. The small and the big and the in-between are all connected to him. He is involved in it all, creating a beautiful story with every intricate detail having its place and purpose. Church cannot be the paradigm. Spirituality is not the paradigm. Our life and our job are not the paradigm. God is the paradigm, and this must be basic to an understanding of our own context.

2. Risk something! Many things come in boxes: computers, Cheerios, Kleenex, even shaving oil! The product is useless unless one takes it out of the box and uses it for its intended purpose. Cheerios are not meant to be admired and discussed; they are meant to be enjoyed and eaten! One of the saddest facts is that church has become associated with middle-class comfort and safety instead of with risk. Following Jesus is always about risking something and carries a certain element of danger. Faith and surrender and love are very dangerous words to live out! Unfortunately, our society has ingrained in many of us the necessity of protecting ourselves at all costs, and this builds a culture based in fear. It is not only unhealthy, it will eventually kill everything we deem as important. A certain amount of danger is good for us. (I am quoting Alan Hirsch in this last sentence. Click here to see his 4 minute video on Communitas.)

3. Go big. When we consider living a big life or embarking on the adventure of faith, we need to look beyond our smallness, our weakness, our lack, and see the greatness of God. Otherwise, we will never have the courage to step outside of what we know. In Exodus 6-7, God asks Moses to take the lead in delivering a whole nation from slavery by going to speak to the Pharaoh. Moses responds, "Look at me. I stutter. Why would Pharaoh listen to me?" God adjusts Moses' perspective with these words: "Look at me." If we want to enlarge our life, we must change where we are looking. Instead of looking at our limitations, we must look at God and his greatness.

4. Go small. When talking about someone as immeasurable as God, we often tend to think that he likes to do things in a big, flashy way. We expect a grand exhibit of power or dynamic change to occur right before our eyes. While this is certainly a possibility, it is not the way in which we find God usually dealing with people. In Numbers 20, we see God instructing Moses to speak to a rock in order to provide water for thirsty people. Instead of speaking, Moses chooses to strike the rock in a grand and angry display, thinking this reflects God`s intention. A soft word was all that was required, no theatrics. In another time and place, when God shows himself to a depressed Elijah (see I Kings 19), this divine being is not to be found in the earthquake, the strong wind, or the raging fire. He comes in a whisper, a small voice. The small, humble ways are often more reflective of God`s interaction than the overwhelming sensory overload that we associate with greatness. Mother Teresa said: Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.

5. Go sideways. In an era when 'linear thinking' and '5-year plans' are everyday phrases, it is sometimes difficult for us to make space for the unlikely, the unexpected, and the strange. How often do we stop to notice and engage with something off the well-trodden, carefully-planned path? In Exodus 3 we read that while Moses is busy shepherding, he stops to look at a bush that burns but is not consumed. And because he takes the time to stop and look at this unusual phenomenon, he is presented with an opportunity to step into a role that will change his life and the course of a nation. It was not something he was looking for. It was not something he had conceived. It was much more uncomfortable, challenging, and strange than he could have imagined. And that's the point: we cannot imagine or plan what is in the heart of God. We have to be prepared to go sideways when something unusual presents itself.

Living a big life does not necessarily mean doing a big thing, but aligning ourselves with a God who is bigger and smaller than we could ever imagine or dream. And by the way, there is no box.

This is a picture of the deserted terasse of The Gables restaurant on a chilly, foggy night in the small town of St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick.


Brian said…
This was a great talk and hi point of the weekend for me and Donna. Thanks for what you said and HOW you said it!
Matte Downey said…
thanks, Brian! Great to see you and Donna!

Popular posts from this blog

what binds us together?

For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book by famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which chronicles his travels (together with his wife) through remote parts of the UK in search of prehistoric stones. The book is part travel journal, part spiritual musings, part psychology, and part personal anecdotes. A mixed bag, to be sure, and not always a winning combination. At one point, I considered putting the book aside, not finishing it, but then Peck started writing about community. He is no stranger to the concept. He has led hundreds of community-building workshops over the years, helped start a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering community, and written a compelling book about the topic, one which greatly impacted me when I read it oh so long ago.[1]

In preparation for a course I am teaching next year, I have been doing quite a bit of study on unity and community. Once you start thinking about it, you see and hear evidence of it everywhere. (See my blog on the impact of b…

job hunting

I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even…

lessons from a theological memoir and a television series about lawyers

It's a hot Wednesday afternoon, so let's talk about false binaries. Basically, a false binary or false dichotomy happens when a person's options are artificially limited to two choices, thereby excluding all other possibilities. Insisting on the limited choice of either A or B leaves no room for middle ground or another, more creative solution. In other words, a false binary assumes the rest of the alphabet (after A and B) does not exist.

Binary thinking is quite prevalent in our society. Either you are for me or against me. Either you are guilty or innocent. Either you are a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal. Either you are a Christian or a pagan. Either you are all in or all out. Admittedly, it is convenient to see things as either black or white, but we live in a multi-coloured world and not everything fits neatly into two categories. This is why insisting there are only two choices when, in fact, other options exist, is labeled as a fallacy in logic an…