Archive for May, 2012

Friday photos

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” writes the Psalmist.  And this Toronto burger joint is helping me savour God’s goodness in so many ways.  

First off, finally I have a more than adequate replacement for my “In-N-out Burger” cravings … and The Burger’s Priest is better (I challenge all my Arizona and California friends to come up for a taste test).  Seriously, the deep-fried, cheese-stuffed portobello mushrooms (the option) on top of your burger is a little sampler of that heavenly feast.

Now not only should this be enough, but the goodness here has a deeper savour.  The people behind The Burger’s Priest are really after redemption, fulfilling the priesthood of believers in the field of burgers.  Grilling up quality food, this is Old Testament worship at its best.   And lovely to see how wide open they are about their gospel convictions – check out this link to their website.  What’s not to love?

As their website says, “it’s time for redemption … come feast with us.”  I think I will – soon again and often.

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On wallflowers and kite-flying

Today is the greatest wall flower Christian celebration of all time and yet one of the most powerfully hopeful days – Ascension Day (admit it, you missed it, didn’t you?).

I love this day for all sorts of reasons: it is the culmination of Christ’s ministry, it is the next stage of God’s mission, and it tells us one of the most life-changing truths of our faith, that there is now a human being residing within the Trinity.  Think of it – one of the members of the Trinity has opposable thumbs, DNA strands, blood and a nose.  And so, the ascension of Jesus – very human, very God – is our guarantee that one day we, too, will know and enjoy the beauty, grace and love that inhabits the Trinity.  It’s the life we were always meant for.

And one final reason to love Ascension Day?  It’s the one Christian holiday that has no parallel celebration, historically or culturally.  It flies completely under the radar of our culture, and therefore isn’t likely to be commercialized or commodified.  It might be the purest Christian holiday to celebrate.

Listen to N.T. Wright on this:

Jesus is Lord – This, of course, is the great truth that Christians celebrate in the Ascension. Jesus is exalted as the Lord of the cosmos, supreme over all the powers. It is perhaps significant that this is virtually the only Christian festival that has no pagan analogue, and which has not been taken over by the pagan materialistic forces that wreak havoc with Christmas and Easter. The shops do not fill up with Ascension presents, nor can you buy cards saying ‘”Happy Ascension to my Dear Granny.” Perhaps (although it would be risky) Christians should begin to celebrate the Ascension more explicitly. Presents or cards might be exchanged, but preferably homemade and symbolic ones, not ones that merely reinforced the prevailing materialism. There is room for new family festivals to be created around this season, parallel with Christmas or Easter celebrations but taking care, again, to avoid collapsing back into paganism. Here is scope for imagination and experiment. (N.T. Wright, Bringing the Church to the World)

So how to celebrate Ascension Day?  Well go find a worships service near you.  And if those are in short supply, try this great Ascension day practice – go fly a kite.  Gather up your kids, or your child-like spirit, and set a kite to flight.  Watch it flutter and unfurl in the wind, catch sail and soar in the sky.  Imagine what it must’ve been like for those disciples doing just what you’re doing, gawking up into the sky.

And then hear the question of the angel: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  It’s a “don’t just stand there” missional question because the ascension thrusts the church on its mission, announcing and inaugurating the reign of Jesus in the whole world.

So go fly a kite already.

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The new normal and Sabbath keeping: practicing 24/6

In the last post, I observed what I’m seeing as a changing worship pattern – twice a month as the new normal.  While these trends in worship patterns are interesting data to observe, the more important question is about how we practice Sabbath.

The changing worship patterns are, in some measure, a reaction to the more legalistic notions of Sabbath keeping. If I’m honest, I’ve gladly allowed other “freedoms” to creep into a day of sabbath.  But how much of the good practice of Sabbath-keeping have I laxly lost?  I can’t help but think Eric Liddell (cf. Chariots of Fire) had something on us today with our lovely Sunday ease.  I wonder if a healthy pendulum swing back towards an intentional reclamation of the practice of Sabbath-keeping might be so needed for many of us, starting with myself.

The worrying thing behind the changing worship trends is what it says about our understanding of Sabbath.  Do we know how to practice Sabbath?  Has our hyper-connected, 24/7 pace of life created an indifference to the importance of this practice, an inability to stop and rest?  Maybe we value the rest part of Sabbath – we’re all for a day off.  But have we missed the vital role of prayer and worship in this practice?

One of the fine writers on Sabbath is the Jewish scholar/rabbi Abraham Heschel.  What Heschel emphasizes is the importance Scripture gives to time even over place.  He writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept the premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.”

The illusion of our clocks and watches is to convince us that all time is equal, simply a measurement.  But there is a created rhythm we are very much a part of, we are creatures in time.  How we need to better understand time, understand the gracious nature of Sabbath.  I love the biblical cycle of time, including the grace-saturated rhythm of sabbath.  And I can learn something from my Jewish spiritual cousins, as they begin their Sabbath in the evening with a shared meal and a night’s sleep, waking to a day not of our making.  Think of Sabbath as the gift of sacred, rest-filled time, a “good-for-nothing” day to be frittered away with God, beautifully wasted in prayer and play (but never a time to be killed).

I was listening to Eugene Peterson talk about Sabbath who wisely noted the social nature of Sabbath-keeping. “I don’t think you can keep the Sabbath by yourselves … it’s a social thing.  It requires a lot of relationship, a lot of help … There’s just too much going to distract you.  The most important thing we did in keeping a Sabbath is getting help.”

I know I need that help.  The people I’ve begun to live and serve with here in Toronto – busy city dwellers constantly pressed for time – they need help of others to do this.  I talked with someone who regularly has to work on Sundays, wondering how they and others like them, might find encouragement to this vital practice.

I think, together, this is possible.  There’s a fabulous example of this in the theatre district of New York City where a Jewish theatre troupe called 24/6 was formed for Sabbath-observant Jews.  Members in 24/6 are not required to rehearse or perform on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, freed up to pursue their faith convictions and their vocations.

Are we serious enough about our Sabbath keeping to do something like that?  To surround those in our faith-community faced with tough challenges, providing creative solutions, even material support?  Does that seem too radical or has our work (or leisure) taken too high a priority?

How about we start simple – start encouraging one another to prepare for a Sabbath already on Saturday night.  Instead of a late night out, leaving us predisposed to take a rain check on corporate worship the next day, why not intentionally prepare to enter a sacred time of rest with a simple meal and a quiet evening?

Isn’t some of our changing worship patterns symptomatic of a diminished discipleship, a shallow Christian community, or a plain failure to practice grace, working it into the fabric of our week’s rhythm?

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Friday photos

This week I took the kids for a walk around the University of Toronto.  It’s a gorgeous campus nestled in the centre of the city, filled with great architecture, wide greens to play and lounge on a spring day, and endless hallways to get lost in (not to mention the hall in Hart House that looks like the hall in Hogwarts).

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Twice (a month) – the new normal?

In my tradition, twice was the norm.  Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, attending church twice every Sunday was a non-negotiable, a near creational given.  “Oncers” were deemed on a slippery slope to perdition, an accommodation to the ease of culture and all its entertainments (and how I desperately wanted to be a oncer to stay home and watch Disney as a kid).

Today, many churches no longer hold two distinct worship services each Sunday (some do offer a number of versions of the same service).  In fact, I’m beginning to notice a new trend in worship patterns – not twice a Sunday but twice a month seems to be the new normal.  

At the church I served in Calgary, we noticed some slippage in Sunday worship attendance.  Many took this to mean that people were leaving the church.  My hunch was elsewhere, that, in fact, we were increasing our ministry reach to a wider group of people.  However, the metric of Sunday worship attendance wasn’t a helpful measurement of our ministry influence.

To test my hunch, I conducted an informal survey at a meeting of about 40 of our core leaders (Elders, Deacons, ministry leaders).  I asked everyone there (remember, these were the core of our church, the highly committed) to review the past four weeks.  I asked, how many attended our church’s Sunday worship services for the past 4 weeks?  How many 3 weeks?  For 2 of 4, and how many just 1?  The results surprised everyone in the room.  Of these core leaders, the clear and dominant majority (over 60%) had attended our church’s worship services only two of the past four weeks.

We did a quick analysis of why – what kept them from worship on those Sunday’s they missed.  Most prevalent: traveling out of town, visiting friends, on a family trip into the mountains, or just needed a space to breath after a busy week.  No lurking dissatisfaction, no backsliding.  Just busy people in a highly mobile society with (probably overly) full lives.

I was reminded of this at a staff meeting this week (in a different church, a different part of the country, and a different denomination) when this same reality popped up again.  We were discussing our church’s communications and noted how our communication vehicles now carry the burden of keeping people connected over wider swaths of time.  Why?  Our anecdotal evidence showed people we knew exhibiting the new normal – twice a month.

This new reality (among fairly committed Christians; imagine what its like for others) begs all sorts of questions and invites necessary conversations.  For example, how do we understand time (is all time equal or are there special moments we need to set aside)?  How are we allowing the rush of our schedules to shape our lives?  What are the created rhythms of life that our culture ignores or avoids? Why is it so easy to let gathered, public worship get crowded out?  What is so important about gathering together with others for worship when I can download better sermons and finer music?  How might we renew our sabbath practice (without getting legalistic)?  Has the reality of our mobility and individuality (leading us to attend sanctuaries often distant from our homes and communities) negatively shaped our practice of worship?

And then there’s the whole role of habits and practices.  Martin Marty found the simplest of observations about declining worship attendance – it was a change in habits.  He writes, “Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters.”

I’m convinced we underestimate the importance of basic habits to shape our lives and form our hearts (read James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom for a good philosophical background on the practice-shaped nature of spiritual formation).  The old notion of a regula, a rule of life, looks like a saving grace for a church trying to find its way in a culture of distraction (on that note, do check out Arthur Boers Living into Focus too).

Over to you – do you see a similar trend unfolding in your life or church?  How do you feel about it?  Is it a good pattern?  Are you finding different rhythms for weekly worship?

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Friday photos

A few shots from around town – distillery district, the entrails of a poster pole, and the old & new of Toronto.

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