Thursday, July 28, 2011

let me point you elsewhere

This week, I was privileged to contribute to a blog dedicated to expressions of church in an urban setting. You can read my entry here and check out some other cool writings, videos, and presentations by accessing the general website here. Thanks to Steve Hamilton for making the connection possible.

This is a photo from a fall fair in Ontario last year.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

the good, the bad, and famous

While in Key West, we visited the house of famous author, Ernest Hemingway. By today's standards, it is a roomy but modest home. The tour guide told us many amusing and interesting stories that gave us a glimpse of the adventurous, larger-than-life Hemingway. He was wounded in the first world war, travelled extensively, lived in France, Cuba, and various parts of the USA, and was married 4 times. Adventure or perhaps mis-adventure seemed to follow him. He survived several plane crashes, numerous other physical ailments and traumas, and years of heavy drinking. However, the depression that hounded him for many years eventually caused him to end him own life at age 62. He left behind a collection of novels and articles, the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, and three children. And a mixed legacy of good work and bad choices.

Hemingway's story is a tragic one. Like so many artists, the beginning is promising, the middle is troubled (often accompanied by destructive behaviour and addiction), and the end is premature and senseless. The visit to Hemingway's house troubled me. To some extent, I agreed with the tour guide - that we want to remember the author for his great work and not focus too much on his messy family life nor his excessive drinking. But is that fair? Honest? Or even wise?

News of the death of singer Amy Winehouse this weekend saddened many (and unfortunately, in some ways overshadowed a great tragedy in Norway where nearly a hundred people lost their lives). Why is it that some of our greatest creative minds and voices seem to be so troubled and make choices that jeopardise not only their careers but too often end their lives? I have heard it argued (and to some extent agree with the sentiment) that their tortured lives often provide fuel for their creative expressions. Van Gogh is another example that comes to mind. In some way, suffering and pain do seem to infuse depth into their works. It makes the artist dig deeper, past the uneasy surface we so often live life on, and get at a certain rawness that we all recognise and identify with. It helps them paint with bolder colours and sing stronger, more haunting melodies. But aside from that (and the obvious monetary rewards), it does not seem to profit them much. And to me, this is the really sad part: that suffering would become fuel for an artist's work and stop short of becoming cathartic or catalytic in their own maturity or healing.

We all have good and bad parts of our lives. In this way, we are no different from the famous, the creative geniuses, the rich and influential figures of our time. But it bothers me that as a culture we hold up these tragic figures as creative heroes in some way, expecting little of them in the arena of maturity. If you want to be my hero, someone I look up to, you have to do more that write some clever words, sing some beautiful notes, or look good on camera. You have to have some hard-won qualities in your life like faithfulness, patience, grace under pressure, generosity, self-sacrifice, humility, and self-control. Yes, I am saddened by the deaths of creative minds such as Hemingway and van Gogh, and in some ways a preventable death is even more tragic than an unpreventable one. But tragedy does not make a hero. Courage does.

Someone like Mother Teresa comes to mind, who chose to spend her days in the presence of the dying and neglected poor, offering them dignity and love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whose biography I just finished) is another example of courage: he chose not to leave Germany in order to ensure his own safety during Hitler's rule, but did what he could to stand in the way of evil as it threatened his homeland. In the end, he died for that choice.

Courage is also very present in my own world: in the people of an intentional community that I interviewed last week who have committed themselves to the poor in their city and to building healthy relationships, no matter how difficult that is at times; in Dean who faces pressures and challenges with good humour and grace every day at work; in my sister and brother-in-law who serve the people of Afghanistan despite high personal risk; in the mothers and fathers who spend their lives investing in their children instead of pursuing lucrative careers. These are not the famous people, the high-profile people, the rich and influential of our society. But they are my heroes - living simple, courageous, and humble lives.

This is a photo of Hemingway's writing studio in Key West.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

because...

We just returned from 5 days in Florida. It was a welcome and much-needed break from the pretty hectic year we have had. It is amazing how being in a different location (and without internet for the first 2 days) allows the mind to put aside most of the stresses of current and impending projects and slow down to embrace the beautiful present moment. I try not to have specific expectations about how things will turn out (mostly a waste of time and an exercise in disappointment, I have found), but everything about this trip seemed to be more than we could have asked for. From the moment we stepped into our first hotel room in Miami and saw the view of the harbour through the floor to ceiling windows, I felt like I had won a prize on a game show.

For the most part, we travel very simply and economically, and this time was really no exception. I shopped around for hotel deals, Dean used points to get a free night, and someone generously gave us the plane tickets. The one splurge we did decide on was to rent a convertible for the time we were there. It was a treat for Dean and much cheaper than buying one! The drive along the Florida keys was beautiful and when we crossed the 7-mile bridge with the ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, all I could do was stare and say "Look at that!" over and over.

We spent 2 days in Miami, frolicking in the ocean off Miami Beach one afternoon (it was as warm as bath water; you could walk out for a long time and the water would only be up to your waist!), riding the free air-conditioned sky transportation around town, wandering around the marketplace by the port, and eating a lot of really tasty Mexican food. Then we drove to Key West, marveling at the unique beauty of each island along the way. By the time we arrived at our hotel a block from the ocean late Saturday afternoon, we were pretty hot and tired. Dean wanted to catch a meeting at the local Vineyard church that night and while I agreed in principle, I sighed as I thought about getting back in the car, driving 45 minutes back the way we came, and postponing dinner and seeing the sights of Key West. We were on vacation. Couldn't we skip a church meeting just this once? Of course I never voiced this reluctance, but the thoughts were there as I unpacked a few things in our hotel room overlooking the pool and munched on the warm chocolate chip cookies they gave us when we checked in.

And then from somewhere in my mind or heart or spirit of wherever the truth springs from at times like this when we need to hear it, I was reminded of something: I was here, on this vacation, enjoying these beautiful surroundings because of the blessing and generosity of God in my life. How could I think it was a chore to take a few hours out of my playtime to worship and give thanks to Him? At that point I recognised the ingratitude and selfishness in my heart. It was not that going to a building or meeting was particularly important that night, though neglecting an intentional, regular and communal gathering of Church for whatever reason can be a symptom of an individualistic, self-guided faith (which is a whole other issue that I won't address here). No, the important thing that night was that I saw my attitude for what it was: ingratitude that threatened to turn a gift into self-indulgence. "Because" was the word that caught my attention. I was here because God was good, and I did not want to forget that primary cause.

It was with joy that I went with Dean to the Saturday night gathering at Keys Community Church. They were just finishing serving dinner when we got there and we had a quick bite to eat before the music began. We chatted with the pastor afterwards and were much encouraged by how consistently and generously they serve their community in creative ways. On the drive back to our hotel, we witnessed the most beautiful sunset playing out before us. I was again rendered mostly speechless by the beauty of it and snapped pictures in a vain attempt to capture the stunning mixture of moving colours and textures.
We had a great time wandering around Key West over the next 2 days, taking in all the sights, touring Hemingway's house (perhaps I will write about that experience at a later date), watching another sunset from the boardwalk, and eating seafood (that would be mostly Dean, though I did sample a conch fritter) and Key Lime pie. On the drive back to Miami on Monday afternoon with the top down, watching the clouds and blue water play off each other, I was overwhelmed with a sense of fullness. My life just felt so rich at that moment! And it wasn't really in response to a great vacation - no, it was a sense of gratitude that I was riding in a car with a man who loved me and was one of the most stable, faithful people I knew. It was an awareness that I was blessed to have eyes to take in the magnificent sights of sea and sky. It was a feeling of freedom from petty worries and complaints that sometimes clutter my mind. It was my heart trying to emulate the grandness of the vista before me.I believe that part of the reason I love the ocean so much is because it stretches my heart and mind and spirit and soul. It forces me to look beyond what I normally see, and think beyond the concerns of my small life. It reminds me that I am a speck in this universe, and that perspective is humbling and gratifying at the same time. I love being part of something bigger than myself.

When we arrived at our hotel that night, we opened the door to our room to find that we had been upgraded to a 2-bedroom suite with 3 tvs and 2 bathrooms. What? The place was almost as big as our condo! I ran from room to room, unsure what to do with all that space. Part of me wanted to call someone, anyone, and tell them to jump on a plane and join us! Part of me thought it was wasteful to give us this huge suite when all we really needed was one bed. Finally, I just accepted it and stopped trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with it.

I know that when I talk or write of things like this, it makes certain people feel a sense of lack. When we went to Hawaii last year, several people jokingly said that they hated me. I understand that, I do. I have also been in that place of feeling like I am missing out. But I also know that how I respond to having much and having little says a lot about the largeness of my heart as well as the humility and generosity of my spirit. In some ways, it is easier to be scraping by than to have blessings heaped on you. When gifts come our way, it is easy to think that we deserve them, and it is but a short step from thinking we deserve them to demanding them. It is hard to have much and to remain humble and content.

I am back at home now, doing a lot of laundry today, catching up on writing, and preparing for meetings and talks I have to give. I still feel that sense of richness, even though there is a lot of cleaning and ironing to do and our bank account looks pretty sad. I believe that is part of what vacations and sabbath times are for: to regain our sense of richness. Richness is not in the tasks I do or don't do nor in numbers that come up when I look at my bank account. It is also not in my circumstances. I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the plane ride home yesterday and it was amazing how much richness and depth oozed out of his letters from prison.

I belong to God and that makes my life rich. Always. Because he is with me, whether I am on a fabulous vacation or thrown in prison. Because he is always good. Because he loved me first. Because he will never leave me. Because he is present in my life everyday, no matter what that day looks like. May I never forget where my richness comes from.

First photo: view from our hotel room in Miami.
Second photo: part of the sky driving back to Key West after the church meeting
Third photo: one of the Key Lime Pie places in Key West

Monday, July 11, 2011

extravaganza

A few of the interactions I have had in the past week have all carried some element of a way of being and doing that I love encountering, and that I am hopefully learning to cultivate more in my life. It is that very attractive thing called generosity. Far more than simply giving a few dollars to the beggar on the street or offering to share my lottery winnings, it is an attitude that reflects vulnerability and openness. It tells people how much I want them in my life.

We attended a U2 concert on Saturday night. If I were to point to any one thing that stood out, it would not be the impressive stage nor the huge "fan jam" tent village erected for people to enjoy during the day nor the incredible number of humans gathered (80,000) in that one space, though all of that was remarkable. The sense that I got from the whole experience was extravagant generosity. I know we all paid good money to be there, and many also shelled out cash for t-shirts and over-priced refreshments, but I am not talking about what someone does for a living nor what their net profit is. I am talking about how they interact with others.

The design of the stage for this 360 tour was one that sought to include everyone on all sides. Though it was arguably the largest stage I have ever seen, it felt paradoxically intimate. Bono, predictably, pulled out a few individuals from the audience (one was a man with a turban and the other was a small boy) who sang along into his microphone when he offered it. It was a simple gesture, but this, along with the circular track around the stage which gave the band members the freedom to roam around and play to every side, and the two sections of the stage which allowed people to stand inside the performing area, said a lot about how much they wanted to connect with their audience. They were not trying to keep their distance or simply play to us. One got the sense that we were all having this experience together. The gigantic screen hovering above the band (and lowered at different points) gave a clear view of them from all angles. The sound (some of the most amazing, clear sound I have ever heard) was also designed to project to all sides and provide optimum clarity for everyone, no matter where they were sitting or standing. The whole venue was designed to offer the audience the best, most intimate, and unique experience that money could buy. And U2 did not skimp on anything. Extravagant, indeed! And if you have ever been the recipient of extravagance, then you know what generosity looks like.
This past week as part of a research project I am working on, I have been in contact with a few authors, researchers, and leaders in the new monastic, intentional community, and emerging church movements. I was humbled by their quick replies, their willingness to converse with a total stranger, and their readiness to give me their personal coordinates, arrange visits, set up a video call, friend me on facebook, and answer my questions. Their generosity meant that they did not keep their distance from me. They are freely sharing what they have and who they are, and I appreciate these busy (and sometimes high-profile) writers, leaders, and practitioners letting me into their worlds for a few minutes. To me, this says a lot about their desire to be people who exemplify what they are learning and in addition, placing strong value on sharing their learning journey.

Part of the challenge of being a teacher, a public figure, or even an introvert is that sometimes giving ourselves to others can feel pretty costly. I use the word, "feel," because I believe that even though generosity does and must carry a certain factor of depletion, it is much less costly and stressful than protectively clutching at our precious bits of information or hiding parts of ourselves away from others. Really, how much energy does it take to be myself? Not much. The energy and resources (at least for me) come in trying to be my most loving self. Yes, being honest, real, patient, vulnerable, gracious, and loving is a challenge. Like surrender, it is the easiest and hardest thing at the same time. It is a lesson in being extravagant. In offering what I have freely, and that includes myself as well as my resources.

In light of the extravagance of the Creator so evident in this universe and the love that my parents, family, and friends, and even total strangers have shown me, let me delight in being generous with all that I am and all that I have.

These are two photos from the U2 concert: the first is the ginormous 360 stage. The second is of The Edge as he played to our part of the crowd.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

book review: On the Verge

I was recently introduced to (and intrigued by) Alan Hirsch through a video in which he talks about how risk-averse we have become as church. A culture of comfort and security have replaced the pervading atmosphere of adventure found in the life of Jesus and his followers. These thoughts resonated deeply with me. Therefore, when I saw a new book of his come available for review, I jumped at the chance! Here, then, are my thoughts on the book: On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

A few things struck me when I first started reading. There is a recurring theme of hope, especially for the future of the church, in the comments from the pastors and authors who lend their recommendation to the book (see the first 3 pages). This probably reveals as much about the state of the minds and hearts of many North American pastors as it does about the content of the book. Interest, excitement, commitment, and growth are declining in the Western church as we know it and we are not sure why. My second observation is that Hirsch and Ferguson have done their homework. Hirsch has spent a good deal of time developing and researching the theoretical content and Ferguson is an experienced practitioner. Their voices together lend authority and integrity to what they have to say.

Hirsch and Ferguson are clear in identifying their audience (the Western church) and stating their purpose: recovering the ancient, powerful, and beautiful apostolic movement. They propose that this can be done through four basic steps: 1. engaging missional imagination, 2. making a shift in our paradigms of church, 3. innovating and incorporating change, and 4. becoming a movement that actually moves. In general, they are not skimpy with their development. Hirsch draws on a number of noted experts from business as well as practical theology to inform his contribution in the first two sections. Likewise, Ferguson (church planter turned megachurch pastor) has examples from his own experience as well as stories from other growing missional churches to illustrate and support his more practical chapters on innovation and movement.

For the most part, they succeed at reintroducing the reader to some very tricky and oft misused words such as apostle, movement, missional, church, and discipleship by carefully defining them and spending a lot of time reinforcing what they mean by these terms. As well, Hirsch introduces several new phrases to encapsulate some of his more basic concepts. These include Apostolic Genius (every follower of Jesus carries the church's potential for world transformation), mDNA (missional impulse at the very core of what we do as church), and Verge churches (faith communities on the tipping point of becoming missional movements).

There are also plenty of charts and nifty diagrams included for those who grasp things better visually as well as a survey available online to take a snapshot of how your church fits into all of this. Though using a book to communicate the principle that discipleship must happen life-on-life and not simply through intellectual study might give one a certain sense of incongruity, the authors include enough stories, examples, and discussion sections to overcome a good deal of this limitation.

Let me offer a few quotes to give a sense of what you will find in this book:

The answer for the church lies in the deepest framework of our ecclesiology as Jesus designed it. We are not simply saying this as a little peppy inspiration thing; we are stating a deep truth that will help us avoid importing false and misleading ideas and methodologies into the church in order to motivate it. This is not magic but simply recognizes that God has invested his people with real potentials, due largely to the ever-present kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, the transforming power of the gospel, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among the people of God. We ARE the church of Jesus. (p. 44)

...don't plant churches; plant the gospel, and the church will grow out of it. (p. 73)

Missional God leads to missional church. Incarnational God leads to incarnational church. (p. 133)

Ephesians 4:11-6 unambiguously declares that we can't mature without [apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers]. ... How did we ever think we could possibly mature with just the anemic twofold form of shepherd/pastor and teacher? (p. 135)

It was this life-on-life phenomenon that facilitated the transfer of information and ideas into concrete situations. This is the way Jesus formed his apprentices, and we shouldn't think we can generate authentic Jesus followers in any other way. (p. 176)

... we certainly do need serious intellectual engagement with the key ideas of our time. What is concerning, however is that such engagement largely takes place in the disengaged and passive environment of the classroom. This is simply NOT the way Jesus taught us to develop disciples. (p. 177)

We ALL need to be reJesused. All the time. (p. 275)

On the whole, I believe that Hirsch and Ferguson have done a really good job at providing not only reasoning for but also practical suggestions on how to reorient current ecclesiological thinking and practice to better reflect the dynamic nature of the kingdom of God - a place of continuous movement toward people and places that need grace.

Let me point out a few minor issues I had with the book. In a few places, unfortunate language creeps in which smacks of subtle leadership elitism ("...we need them to get it in their head and heart" p. 264), carries a hint of objectification of people ("...God has a great idea about how to use everyone!" p. 235), and reminds one of somewhat questionable marketing ploys ("sell the problem before you sell the solution" p. 91). There is also a noticeable lack of depth in the quick summary of church history (basically it boils down to blame everything on Constantine) as well as a certain anti-tradition bias that comes through (p. 36-37). At times, their two voices also use contradictory language which could be confusing, but this is minimal.

Both Hirsch and Ferguson admit to speaking from primarily a megachurch context, and at times this flavours how they contextualize their ideas. However, they are by no means unaware of the power of the small, as is obvious from this refreshing quote they incorporate from Neil Cole:
Why is small so big? Small does not cost a lot. Small is easy to reproduce. Small is more easily changed and exchanged. Small is mobile. Small is harder to stop. Small is intimate. Small is simple. Small infiltrates easier. Small is something people think they can do. Big doesn't do any of these thing. We can change the world more quickly by becoming much smaller. (p. 287)

In general, the authors have placed the emphasis back on Jesus deciding what church is, does, and looks like, and I really like that. I will be incorporating some of their ideas into my church context.

This is a photo of the book on the verge of tumbling over the edge.