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We are N

That’s no happy face there – it’s the current yellow badge, or Judenstern, of Iraq.  The N’, or ن in Arabic, is the symbol used by the Islamic State (ISIS) to identify who is a Nazarene – a Christian. It has been drawn on doorways and painted on house-fronts in captured Iraqi cities, allowing ISIS militia to sort through identities and loyalties.Nun_arabic_Nazarene

A number of months ago I met and listened to the Bishop of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White.  He spoke compellingly of the persecution of the church he loved in Iraq.  Recently he wrote that the end may be near for Christians in Iraq.  Please pray for the persecuted Christians of Iraq.

This, or any, persecution is important for us in the West to pay close attention to, for a number of reasons.  First, the persecution of Christians across the world is probably one of the biggest human rights issues Screen_Shot_2014-07-29_at_7.34.17_PM_810_500_s_c1that largely happens without  protest.  A Nov. 27, 2013 National Post article outlined how there have been more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the 1,900 years that came before.  And in 2010, the Toronto Star called Christianity the most persecuted religion in the world.  On a large scale aimed at a specifically designated population, basic human rights are trampled but so little protest is raised.  My stubborn agnostic friend, Richard Handler, writes a chastening piece here for all Christians, wondering why aren’t we raising our voices in solidarity.

Secondly, for the most part, Western Christians aren’t persecuted, and in order to maintain our identity as people of the cross it is good for us to keep in touch with persecution.  Persecution sharpens your identity as a Christian.  That’s how Jesus shapes his beatitude on persecution – it’s about Jesus and our identification with him.  “Blessed are you when you are persecuted because of me.”  Persecution is all about how closely we identify with Jesus.

Both reasons send me to my knees – the first in solidarity with brothers and sisters who are suffering horribly for the sake of Jesus.  The second for myself, scared  I don’t have a faith that’s even worth persecuting.

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Saints? for sure (part 2)

A few weeks ago Pope Frances canonized two pontifical predecessors, Paul XXIII and John-Paul II.  In my last post on Saints, I looked at the fairly chronic aversion to saints and yet explored the warm biblical use of the term and concept of saints.  Ok, so what now?  How then might saints function in the Christian life?  How can we recover the promise of saints without abusing or discarding them?3eb15771c96932ab491a1f54acb16b9c

The most basic response is to recognize who we are.  Here’s the truth: you and I, we are saints – St. Jeremy and St. Jane, St. Theresa and St. Todd.  More often than not, that’s hard to believe about the cranky senior, the mother who makes her children the target of her temperamental anger, the middle-aged man who creates discomfort among young women with his breast-high gaze or the sullen teenager.  Yet by naming you and me as saints, the Bible provides a lens through which we can being to see one another more clearly.  Recovering the status of saints trains us to see in others more of God than of the sin that smudges our lives and trips us up.

But what about the larger company of saints: all those Christians who have gone before?  Is there a place and a role for them in the Christian life?  Indeed, saints can function in a way that is analogous to good theology.  We value and appreciate the health demonstrated in clear, sharp thinking about God, which, in turn, helps us to respond in love to God.  Sharp theological understanding is vital to the life of faith.

77-3-1Equally indispensable are the courageous examples of gospel lives that the saints provide.  As one character notes in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “What is Christ’s word without an example?”  North America has a cultural pantheon of celebrities and politicians who give polished performances in how to live badly (remember now, I live in the city of Toronto).  In this “bad as you want to be world” of Charlie Sheens and Rob Fords, we could use a few saints to show us how to be as holy, gracious, and human as Christ calls us to be.

Saints, then, are witnesses to the truth.  They call our attention to the gospel in the ordinary conditions of human living.  They are, as author Kathleen Norris notes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.” (The Cloister Walk).  They offer fresh demonstrations of the holiness and grace of God in the everyday moments of our lives.

Very often, however, the life of a saint is rather unsettling, which may explain some of our wariness about them.  Saints of the past have been misunderstood because, to be honest, they are a rather curious crowd (think, for example, of the pillar of peculiarity, Simeon of Stylites, who sat perched on a pole for 30-odd years).

Saints are very much like the characters in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, who suggested that for people to hear the truth, she had to create exaggerated characters.  Similarly, G.K. Chesterton once noted that “a Saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.”  Take Therese of Liseaux, for example.  In our success-oriented age of “bigger is better,” Therese’s obscure and apparently insignificant life teaches us of the beauty in simplicity and smallness.  Or what about Francis of Assisi, who demonstrates a life of abundance not in material wealth but in the sheer goodness and bounty of creation?  Saints from ages past provide a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace.  They offer a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of the gospel.

We need the saints.  They are gifts from God to the church, teaching us how a holy life works, showing us the exuberance of aSaint_Bridget gospel life.  The wonderful biblical truth is that God has placed us in a long and large historical community of believers, the “communion of the saints.”  It is a bloodline of sorts, a family tree filled with a fantastic collection of wild and wooly characters, all animated by grace.

So while the Roman Catholic Church officially declares of John and John Paul II to be what the gospel proclaimed they already were in this life – saints – why not locate a few saints whose lives freshly demonstrate the gospel in beautiful ways.  Take a moment to inventory some of those people whose lives are the gospel brought to life – who is on your list of saints?  Thank God for their lives and let them challenge you to more grace-filled living.

But better yet, go to your church, reminding yourself of what the gospel declares of these people and yourself, and enjoy the company of the saints right around you.

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On Folk Festivals

I love folk music; ergo I love folk music festivals.  Nothing sings summer like lounging on a lawn and taking in fabulous music.  For years, the Calgary Folk Music Festival was my late July summer staple.  It’s a unique musical event that wonderfully stretches the term “folk” (where do you get to hear Yiddish hip-hop, Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, Michael Franti, The Avett Brothers, Bruce Cockburn and the Decemberists together).  Four days and nights of great music, people watching, and just plain fun – which is why I’m going to miss it so much.

But here’s my great consolation – I’m part of a church that puts on a Folk Festival!  How fabulous is that?  As part of the Harbord Street Festival in Toronto, Knox Presbyterian hosts the Fast Folk Festival (fast, as in, brief, of short duration, or “wow, that went by way too fast”).  And I can’t wait to get my inner folkie on and hang out for the afternoon.

If you’re in Toronto, it’s happening next Saturday, July 21, starting at 4:00 p.m.  I caught an early preview of one of the bands headlining our Fast Folk Festival, The Most Loyals (check out their website and some photos).  Loved their music and so glad Sarah and Andrew are part of the Knox community.

And for everyone in Calgary, keep an eye out for The Most Loyals because you’ll be enjoying this group on stage at the Calgary Folk Festival one day real soon.

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The Perfect Space

Entering into a new place and finding my way into a new community is providing an instant refresher course on the in’s-and-out’s of forming and living in community.  You’d think I’d have learned this by now and so it feels a little like remedial breathing lessons.  Call it “Belonging 101.”  Probably better titled “How I can’t do it alone but why is it so hard to do it together.”

Although we are so deeply discipled in the way of individualism (the demon is in so deep we have no idea how misshapen we’ve become because of it), there’s still a longing for something more than “not doing things alone.”  We struggle to live it, sometimes don’t want it, chafe against what it demands of us, but mostly yearn to be part of a living, breathing, interdependent, covenant community that shares life together and is devoted to one another’s shalom.

As I try to find myself in that sort of community, here are a few things I’m being freshly reminded of lately:

While I wish I had a “belonging” button I could easily press, community doesn’t spontaneously happen.  It is desired, sought out, intentionally formed, vulnerably entered, and patiently worked out.

While I’d prefer friendships to be at no cost to me, in fact, the gift of community requires costly investments of myself, giving some of my most precious resources, like time.  You can’t microwave community; it’s a “slow-movement” type of thing where bonds of trust and companionship are formed through shared life over time.  Which means community and friendships make demands on my time and availability.  Am I willing to allow others to place such obligations on me?

One of the crazy ironies of a community that is “natural and safe” is that it requires risk and vulnerability. In the communities I’ve entered, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve invited people over, taking the risk of seeking relationship and not had it reciprocated.  It’s a hard, vulnerable thing, isn’t it, that unrequited desire for friendship.  But it will happen along the way; get used to it.

Which means that the gift of community and friendship will likely be extended by some wonderfully unpredicted people.  So get ready to be surprised who actually ends up being part of your long-term community – it probably won’t be the usual suspects.

But to be open to that, I need to let go of my idol of the perfect community.  Filed somewhere in the back of my heart is this notion of the ideal community – all the cool kids who hit the right cafes, are well connected, know how to pronounce Goethe, dress well, engage in meaningful conversations (but never press their opinions too hard), are relationally low maintenance and yet gladly put up with – even enjoy – my flaws, love me unconditionally but don’t expect too much from me, and practice good hygiene.  Isn’t that the temptation, to yearn for some ideal community that no reality will ever measure up to?

Which is why church can be so hard for many because we come expecting an experience of distilled divinity but instead find raw and uncooked humanity.  I get to hear a variety of people lament their disillusionment with church, talking about people who have hurt and disappointed them.  But what other sort of people are there?  Isn’t part of the difficult gift of community directly related to the challenge of differences?

Another one of the quirky paradoxes of community is that the very dynamics that provide a deep sense of belonging are the same that can exclude others.  The power of the inner circle almost seems to be equal and opposite to the energy to include; its like trying to simultaneously balance both centripetal and centrifugal forces.  So if you’re newly entering a community, be gentle with people there and realize that many are likely blind to the fact that they may be excluding you; and yet if you do enjoy a rich experience of community, understand that unless you intentionally take steps to decisively include others, know that you’ll be giving off an elitist, exclusionary vibe.

All this reminds me of the gorgeously beautiful song by the Avett brothers, The Perfect Space (you can listen to it below).  They sing my heart: “I want to have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was … I want to fit in to the perfect space, feel natural and safe in a volatile place.

We get tastes of that perfect space here and now but all the friendship and community we enjoy will always be a partial wholeness, a trailer for life in the new heavens and new earth.  But that hope of a perfect space gives me the grace to receive the lovely imperfect gifts of community today.

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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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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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