In Conversation with Steve Bell

Sometimes it pays to be bold with emails. I have long had a deep affinity for the music of Steve Bell. Not only is he a gifted musician and singer/songwriter, but he also conveys a deep thoughtfulness about the matters of faith. Steve loves the Church, and he loves Christians. He also loves the Psalms. This made him one of the first people I thought of when I desired to have these conversations.

Please enjoy the video below. Unfortunately, Steve’s audio is fairly quiet, so you will have to turn up your volume to hear him. Blessings!

When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

Psalm 73: A Song for the Faithfully Forlorn

We all get discouraged or frustrated in our faith. Our spiritual lives rarely occur exactly as we would imagine or hope. After all, we live in an imperfect world, and we bear those imperfections within ourselves. We all struggle. We all question. We all, at times, raise our voice to the heavens and scream “why?” These experiences are not a denial of our love for God. They do not indicate a loss of faith or a deconstruction of our spiritual life. They are a natural part of our relationship with the Lord. This is why the Book of Psalms are so important for us. The psalms show the normality of our questions and discouragements; they teach us how to voice our discomforts honestly and faithfully. Psalm 73 is a good example of this.

The psalm (attributed to Asaph) begins by heralding stalwart faith. Asaph speaks to God’s utmost goodness in providing for the righteous. He sings, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This affirmation almost rolls off the tongue. It reads like it may have been a spiritual slogan common to the day. Is this something Asaph had heard before? Was this the go-to response whenever someone voiced struggle or doubt; the ancient equivalent to a patronizing pat on the should and a softly spoken “there, there”?  Did someone turn to Asaph, immersed in a time of turmoil, and hurt, and offer the not-so helpful response of “There, there…Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” As if mouthed by one of Job’s friends, the subtle charge of such a statement implies that Asaph, mired in confusion and discouragement, is not pure in heart.

Have you ever had someone offer you such not-so-helpful spiritual soundbites?

Of course, Asaph believes this statement in principle. Yes, God is good.  Yes, God’s goodness is known to Israel. The problem is, in this moment, Asaph doesn’t experience this goodness. He is struggling. He is discouraged. His song describes how he has almost slipped and stumbled. The solid base of Asaph’s faithfulness appears shaken. The problem is not so much the imperfections of life, in and of themselves. What truly stings is how the arrogant and wicked appear to prosper. They seem blessed with unrestricted happiness.

Here is where the discouragement finds its roots. Do you see how verse 3 seems to contradict verse 1? Slogans of faith seem triumphant enough. They are catchy and repeatable. They stick in our minds. God is good…all the time…and all the time…God is good! Yet Asaph simply cannot deny that when looks at his own life, set against the lives of the arrogant and wicked, the goodness of God appears one sided. The wicked have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong. They live free from burdens. Despite scoffing at the Lord, they “lay claim to heaven” and enjoy the delightful possessions of the earth. Power, prestige, and privilege befall the wicked. Asaph, however, is left feeling divinely cast aside. For ten verses his complaints come gushing forth. Asaph holds nothing back.

Who hasn’t borne these questions today? How can we not? Mass media continually bombards us with new occurrences of prideful arrogance, violence, or oppression. We lift the rich and famous as the elite to emulate. Hollywood brags the good life, even though we are all aware of the deep narcissism, selfishness, and personal destruction that lurks behind the scenes. Despite continuous occurrences of personal, professional, and relational breakdown, the world tells us to look at them as if they are “always free of care as they go one amassing wealth.” Oh, if we could be like them, we think. Oh, if we made the money they did! Oh, if we had their house, their car, their glamour.

Asaph has these exact feelings. He is brutally honest, with himself, and with God. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”, he says. Can we be as honest enough to admit that, at times, we bear a similar envy?

What is the faithful response to such discouragement? How do we exude faithfulness when this sense of envy rises within us? Where do we go when we ask the haunting question “how come them and not me?” Asaph feels all this deeply. He feels that his faithful following of God’s ways has garnered him nothing but affliction and punishment. “In vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence”, he laments.

Feelings of deep spiritual discouragement are wrapped in dismay, hurt, and profound sadness. They are felt in that deep inner place where we are most uniquely ourselves. We should not, however, rush past our laments. We should not minimize these feelings or attempt to explain them away. Leaving our spiritual discouragement unexplored does us no spiritual good. To do so is to avoid meeting God in life’s unpleasantness. Too often our faith becomes abandoned as a result. The psalms diligently articulate feelings of discouragement to illustrate that they are a normal side of our spiritual lives. None of us are immune. Thus, instead of avoiding these feelings, or these questions, we should engage them. This is exactly what Asaph does in his song; Asaph enters his spiritual discouragement and begins to walk through it.

In his song, Asaph considers whether his faith is worth it, whether it really matters to believe in the Lord. Yet by sitting with these questions, Asaph concludes that the momentary delights of the world hold no weight against the eternal blessings of the Lord. He recognizes that wandering away from the Lord, in pursuit of vain pleasures, would be to abandon who was created to be. It would betray who he is at the core of his being.

Asaph comes to this realization in the sanctuary of God. In this sanctuary he is surrounded by people who struggle with the same struggles and ask the same questions. The sanctuary of God does not peddle easy answers. To be clear, Asaph does not return to the patronizing slogan of verse one. The sanctuary of God simply reminds him of the vision of God’s eternal glory and blessing. Surrounded by the worshiping (and lamenting) community, Asaph perceives the ultimate end of all who chase after momentary delights. When their spirits depart, they return to the ground, and all the baubles of the world come to naught. So instead of looking enviously upon the wicked, Asaph begins to set his gaze on the greatness of the Most High.

Of course, his newfound realization does not make his struggles vanish. Asaph does not escape his feeling of daily struggle or affliction. Tomorrow, the wicked will still flourish, and (most probably) Asaph will still feel discouraged. The difference is, despite the discouragement, despite the confusion, even despite the doubt, Asaph can say with confidence “I am always with you.” Spiritual discouragement, then, is an invitation to journey to a deeper place of faith. Relaying our honest struggles, as Psalm 73 illustrates, does not drive the Lord away. We lay hold of God more tightly when uncover our honest selves

The Lord is not offended by our questions. The Lord does not abandon us when we feel discouraged or dismayed. Our questions do not discredit our faith nor do our struggles indicate a deconstruction of our spirituality. They are but a deeper way we reach out to God for guidance, council, and support. It is because God is the one who journeys with us in the messiest of places that we can voice our laments. Even when our own hearts fail, God is the strength of our hearts, forever. God is faithful to us, even if we can’t see it.

We are all psalmists at heart. We sing out our joys and our dismays, our victories, and our struggles. We need not mask how we feel; the Lord knows it anyway. And as we sing, we are invited to experience the deep reality that, through it all, the Lord is our refuge, our guide, our strength, and our delight. We don’t have to figure things out. We don’t have to arrive at some “solution” to our plight. The spiritual life is not a Disney movie; things don’t always get wrapped up neatly at the end. That’s ok.

Despite his struggles and doubts, Asaph ends his song on an important note. “It is good for me to be near God”, he cries. In the end, that’s enough. This is where we, as psalmists, rest our faith. We rest not in well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory spiritual slogans nor in polite pats on the shoulder. Our faith is built not by gritting our teeth and pretending that we do not hurt. Instead, sing. We join Asaph’s psalm with our own. And despite the ups and downs and twist-turns of life, we dare to believe that it is good for us to be with God.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Lessons in Prayer 1: A longing for communion

Prayer is communion with God. It is an enacted relationship, a reaching out to Jesus. “Prayer is the natural outgushing of a soul in communion with Jesus”, says Charles Spurgeon.[i] One cannot pray and remain cut off from the presence of God. The intimate presence of God, understood and experienced in our lives, is the very subject and the object of prayer.  Prayer is the “expression of a relation to God, a yearning for divine communion. It is the outward and upward flow of the inward life towards its original fountain.”[ii] It impossible to pray, to truly pray, without the expressed desire to connect with our Lord.  It was for this very reason the disciples originally asked the question “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11)

When we deny this communion, we treat prayer as nothing more than a divine loophole.  It becomes a dry and lifeless religious activity. “Prayers” rattle off our tongues devoid of any interest or engagement of heart. The prophets of old continually challenged the faithful for just this reason.  Isaiah, for example, confronts Israel’s own lack of faithful connection to God, despite maintaining the strict adherence to religious activity.  Through Isaiah, God cries out against such hypocrisy: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen;” (Isaiah 1:15). The sinfulness of the people had led to a complete dismissal of God’s presence in their midst. They had forsaken the Lord. From this rebellion came a complete abdication of Israel’s desire to be found in God’s presence.

Isaiah’s challenge is particularly relevant as Israel maintained the outward form of religious observance. Despite their inward rejection of God, they believed their adherence to “what” and the “when” of religious observance would win them divine benefit. They mistakenly believed that they were cultivating the spiritual life God desired for God’s people, even though they were, in fact, far from it. Their fervent prayer-activities lacked any sort of desire to connect with the living God.

The challenge for Israel then, and for us today, is to understand that the mere outward observance of prayer can never bring one into the full presence of the Lord. Dutifully going through the motions of religious activity lacks the necessary element that gives life to our prayers: desire. We must want to connect with God.  We must desire to be found in God’s presence, to be heard from the one on high.  We must willfully, and lovingly, open ourselves to the presence of our Redeemer.

The power and essence of our prayer lies not in the words that are used, or the specific liturgy performed. Prayer is rooted in the intimate connection of spirit to Spirit. In prayer we open ourselves to the presence of Jesus, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. In those times when words fail us, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with inward groanings, making it clear that the power of prayer is found in our spiritual connection with God, and not in the use of fancy phrases or religious terminology.

There are no magic words in prayer. Merely speaking religious jargon can never create authentic prayer. In fact, resting on such phrases – without the inward desire necessary for prayer – simply highlights the hollowness of our inward spirits. A profound example of this is seen in Israel’s debacle with the Golden calf.  What is particularly interesting in this account is how Israel usurps divine terminology. As the idol-calf emerges from the fire, Israel proclaims, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).  The central tenant of Israel’s understanding of the nature and identity of God has now been attributed to a mere idol. What is perhaps even worse is that it is not just the activity of God that gets usurped, but even God’s own name. Aaron instructs the people “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD” (vs. 5). Aaron uses the divine name, revealed to Moses, to describe a lifeless hunk of gold.

What we see in Exodus 32 is a people who use the correct terminology yet lack any connection with the Spirit of God. Prayer was but a self-focused appeal to special phrases, divine names, and spiritual slogans. As James Houston writes, “Unless prayer recognizes and celebrates Yahweh as King . . . then worship denigrates into idolatry.”[iii] An appeal to the correct usage of words and forms does not constitute right prayer.  It matters not the words we say, if our hearts are far from the living God.

God looks at the heart more than any exterior experience, utterance, or action. It is this acknowledgement, this communion, which is essential to the activity of prayer. Cultivating a life of prayer must begin here. We must inhabit a continuous and unrestrained reaching out, a furious longing to be overcome in God’s presence. This unrestrained longing is not a longing to possess or to wield, but a desire to be poured out, to offer the whole self.  We must long to be in the presence of the Lord, who both comforts us, and challenges us. This immersion in the presence of God, is the power and the essence of prayer.


[i] Spurgeon, Charles “The Secret of Power in Prayer, Part 1” in A 12 Month Guide to Better Prayer (Barbour Publishing, Ohio. 2009) Pg.27

[ii] Bounds, E.M “The Necessity of Prayer” in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer, (Baker Books 2013) [Adobe Digital Editions Version]. Retrieved from http://www.kobo.com

[iii] Houston, James. The Transforming Friendship (Regent College Publishing, Vancouver 2007) pg.87

A prophetic push: A review of Conrad Mbewe’s book “God’s design for the Church.”

When one loves to read, write, or ponder, the nature of the church, it can be tempting to remain rooted in one’s own cultural or denominational context.  This would be a mistake.  The church is not simply the church as it exists in Canada.  Thus, ever since I found my affinity ecclesiological works, I have attempted to hear voices form outside my own context. Conrad Mbewe’s God’s Design for the Church was the latest text I took up in this way.  I received a complimentary copy through Crossway’s blog review program, and it is as part of this program that I offer this review. 

The story behind Mbewe’s book is one of the things that first captivated me.  Mbewe is unashamedly writing about, and for, the African context.  He describes how the church in Africa has exploded exponentially, with new church congregations popping up on a weekly basis.  While not criticizing this, nor denying that the western church can learn a lot from the African context, Mbewe breaths a word of caution.  Such church pop-ups are not always rooted in biblical reality. Thus, Mbewe tackles various situations and ideas, that for a western Christian may appear nonsensical, even humorous at times, yet are real threats to the church in Africa.  As he writes “I recognize the need for the application of Christian truth to vices that are peculiarly African” (16).

What I valued most in this work is the anecdotes about the African church that flow throughout the work.  I found this valuable precisely because it pushed me beyond my own context.  For example, Mbewe speaks of the tendency to make the preacher of the Gospel simply another form of “witch doctor” or “tribal chief.”  The danger in this, as Mbewe explains, is that the congregation blindly bestows authority and power upon the church leader.  Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the new churches in Africa, Mbewe explains, have no biblical or theological training.  For example, Mbewe speaks of one church leader who told his congregation to eat grass to draw close to God (45). In telling such stories and anecdotes, Mbewe masterfully speaks to the pertinent theological or biblical point.  Thus, while learning about the uniqueness of the African church, Mbewe also provides a great education on the biblical and theological roots for any ecclesiology.  

In this way, I found that Mbewe’s book spoke prophetically to the western church.  Consider some of the issues common in the African context: “Church leaders sometimes want to use the power of their numbers to sway political elections” (43); Worship songs are “about some vague “blessing” that God bestows upon us.  What matters are the danceable tunes…They do not lead to true worship, only self-indulgence”(67); the need to “bring back servant leadership”(109).  In each of these descriptions, and many more like it, I found a correlation with that which plagues the Christian church in the western context. In reading about the Church in Africa, and about the issues and concerns there, I was more able to hear the challenges and concerns for the church in my own context.

God’s Design for the Church is a unique read.  It opened my eyes to a church culture beyond my own.  I did not agree with everything that Mbewe wrote about, either biblically, theologically, or denominationally.  That’s ok.  Ultimately, I finished my read feeling like I was better equipped to serve the church in my own context, by reading about the Church in the African context.  And for that I am grateful.

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

When Words Speak: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).

Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others.  For me, this proved to be a difficult task.  I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic.  But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation.  Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed?  I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.

Given all of this, I present to you my revised list.  Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ.  My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again.  They inform how I understand my life with Christ.  They encourage me.  They challenge me. They inspire me.  Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.

  1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf.  Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ.  It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
  2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition.  Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires.  I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.  Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
  3. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology.  Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for.  Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society.  These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
  4. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late.  Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often.  I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work.  I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time.  Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
  5. Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection.  I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law.  That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first.  Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted  to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith.  How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life?  Are they any truths that seem to transcend time.  deSales did not disappoint.  His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.

There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life.  I commend them to you.  If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

 

Bonhoeffer, Statistics, and the True Focus of the Church.

Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse?  I mean, sure he was invited.  We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine.  We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor.  However, is that where it ends?  Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?

This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal.  In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?”  The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada.  At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more.  Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom!  The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond.  Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.

This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past.  When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established.  One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!”  Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.

Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be.  To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future.  Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?

When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature.  Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community.  (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)

Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church.  For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige.  The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37).   We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community.  We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.”  In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure.  As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36).  Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37)  We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst.  Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community.  Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.  The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)

Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?

It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications.  We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day.  I believe such a response is misguided.  One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry.  Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige.  In fact, the exact opposite was the case.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda.  The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future.  Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught.  Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however.  The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.

Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality.  Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside.  The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust.  Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them.  Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent.  In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past.  Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.

This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years.  Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future.  There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!”  Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence.  This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations.  Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics.  Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts.  Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

 

*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).

An appeal for Church unity with reflections from the Parable of the Good Samaritan: My response to General Synod.

Last week was the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.  It is the church that I have belonged to since as long as I can remember.  It is the church that I was ordained in 16 years ago, and it is the church that I love.  For a good several months, however, I have watched comments fling about online, I have read blogs and articles, I have listened to people speak at each other rather than converse with each other.  The issue:  Changing our cannon on marriage.  Make no mistake, despite the election of our new primate, despite the good work done in supporting indigenous self-determination, this was the main issue at Synod.  This meant that when it hit the floor of Synod, speakers quickly piled up. Tensions were high, emotions were hot, veiled insults were flung, and in the end, a vote was cast.  Yet in this me vs you way of governance, this vote insured that there would be no winner for our church.  And, although a frequent theme of this year’s synod was UNITY, when the issue of the marriage canon came, it was clear that church unity was far from people’s minds.

At this point I should be clear that I was not actually at Synod.  While I watched the live feed as much as possible, I could only view what the camera showed me.  Still, over the past week I have thought a lot about church unity and about what  embracing  church unity might mean for the Anglican Church of Canada.  And so, it is on the matter of unity, with some references to General Synod, that I offer this blog.

An important understanding is that unity is not something that we necessarily bring about by being the same.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In fact, I would say that unity is not actually about us.  The more we focus on ourselves, and the more we try to force some unity by way of our own actions (or vote), the more we move away from the true unity of the church.  Why? Because we are not the creators of unity.  Jesus holds the unity of the church together. Thus the unity of the church is a gift to the church. That is, the church can only understand itself a united body as it focuses on the good news of Jesus, feeds on the body and blood of Jesus, and is empowered by the spirit of Jesus.  The unity of the church is a function and by product of the church’s identity in Christ Jesus.

Jesus unites us.  This probably sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest of things can be the most profound.  It is the presence of Christ the unites the body of Christ, this means that unity doesn’t dismiss our differences, or our brokenness.  In fact, within the unity of the church (held by Christ) I am free be completely different from you, as different as iPhone to Android, Stampeders to Roughriders, Yahoo to Yee-haw.  What is more, embracing a Christ-held unity can mean that I am allowed to think that you are wrong, or mistaken, and you can think I am wrong.  However, if Jesus is your Lord, and Jesus is my Lord, then together, Jesus is our Lord.  Unity exists with You and I, we and us, resting in the hand of Christ Jesus.

Our expression of unity is rooted in the primary call of our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”  We heard this passage last Sunday in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-32). Jesus commends the expert of the law who cites this as the “way to eternal life.”  “Do this and you will live” Jesus says.  As we who read religious blogs are probably aware, this appeal to loving the Lord, flowing into love of neighbour, isn’t just something that sounds nice doctrinally but doesn’t mean much practically.  That first phrase was part of Shema, a passage in Deuteronomy that the Jewish people, as a nation, were asked to recite daily.  The Shema spoke fundamentally about who Israel were as a people.  They were the Lord’s chosen.  They were people who lived their life with the presence of the Lord.  The Shema reminded them that the Lord defined what they were passionate about, defined how they thought about things, defined what they gave their energy to and what they avoided.  That same call is true for us.  Jesus commends it to us.  And so, if we are ever asked: “what is the church about?” or “what is that which unifies the church?” we should say that we love Jesus with all our passion and prayer and intelligence and muscle.  This is the foundation of everything we are to be as a church.

The sad reality of our history is that we often make the church about so many other things.  We have made the church about social justice, or about conservative morality, or it’s about progressiveness and liberation, or about the colour of carpets and the dangers of hymn-book revision.  Don’t get me wrong, some of those things may be well and good… they just do not create unity.  Again, the unity of the church is held by Jesus because Jesus alone is the unity of the church.

Now before we smile and say “absolutely” we need to recognize there are radical implications that flow from this.  The love of the Lord leads to love of neighbour.  Referring again to the parable, there was a long-standing rabbinic practice that linked the Shema and the command to love our neighbours.  That being said, there was a debate about who constituted one’s neighbour.  One interpretation saw the command in Leviticus 19 as a call to love only the Israelite neighbour.  Love your neighbour, as you love yourself… because they are essentially just like yourself.  This is why the expert asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?”

(As a side, can I just say, I love the humanity in this. We do this don’t we? We often attempt to justify what not to do, define to whom something does not apply.  Peter asks Jesus: “I only need to forgive 7 times right?”; The expert request: “tell me who I may legitimately not love.”)

To think this way is to think that the love that we have for God, and the unity that Jesus creates within the body of faith, is only to be expressed within certain circles or toward certain people.  It’s designed for people like me, who look like me, or think like me, or vote like me. In response to this flawed way of thinking about the other, Jesus gives the most extreme example of understanding another’s humanity.  In her commentary on the passage, Amy-Jill-Levin notes that in order to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan you need to ask yourself “is there anyone, from any group, whom we would rather die than acknowledge.’

Leading up to the General Synod, in blogs, articles, and comments, and then later during the Synod itself, I heard statements that I can only interpret as a refusal to acknowledge the other. I quote:

“Why do you have so much hate in your heart?”

“How can these people call themselves Christians and vote this way?

 “The Bishops clearly don’t love everyone.”

 “These people don’t read the bible rightly.”

“People who agree with the marriage change have a different understanding of Jesus.”

When we make such statements, I believe the heart of Jesus breaks and he weeps over his church. Such statements mean we think the unity of the church occurs when others agree with my side of the argument.  Love your neighbour only as they are like yourself. The danger in all the statements above is that it pushes us toward excommunication. After all, it’s not that much of a leap from saying “they have a different understanding of Jesus”, to saying “they don’t belong in my church.” If we so distance ourselves from the others, to deny any sort of unity in humanity, or faith, then we will never be the good Samaritan.  We will never embody the sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to.

What if the entire church is lying bloody on the road, feeling beaten up by controversy, and insults, and mudslinging.  What if all of us, regardless of what we think about a host of things, is hurting. What might it mean for us to love the church the way the Saviour loves the church? The love of the good Samaritan didn’t try to change the wounded man.  In fact, the Samaritan was willing to be inconvenienced in order to heal the wounded man. This is the radical, Christ-like, ‘I’m willing to bear the scars of the cross’ type of love that the unity of the church calls for. Can we embrace someone who voted differently than us?  Can we share communion together? Can we allow the Spirit of Jesus in us to see the Spirit of Jesus in them?  We have seen this radical unity in the history of the church and we need to see in now.

What we are called to, what we need to be refocused on, is not a unity centred on ecclesiastical polity, or watered-down theological politeness, or appeals to social agencies or structures, or some human call for us to think the same way.  We are called to a robust and radical understanding of unity that transcends all our human brokenness, pride, arrogance and waywardness. And let’s be honest, all of us are broken, prideful, arrogant, and wayward at times.   We are called to the unabashed witness to of the power of Christ to unite and heal.  We are asked to testify that unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy overcomes despair.

Love the lord your God with passion, prayer, intelligence and muscle, living that out to those who are fundamentally different than yourself.  This radical call is far weightier that just a religious soundbite. Jesus says to the expert in the law, he says to us, “Go and do likewise.”  And before we say ‘Yea but .. .’ Jesus stops his sentence right there.  Jesus doesn’t give any more clarification on the issue so neither should we.  We act this way, radically, boldly, faithfully, because we trust that the Spirit will inspire the community of faith to treat us in similar fashion.  This isn’t about one side giving, and the other side receiving.  It is about all us giving and receiving the Spirit of Jesus together. Because when it comes down to it, the unity of the church isn’t something that we try to bring about by our decision making; it is something we receive by Jesus alone, and it is a quality that ultimately Jesus alone will protect.

 

Individualism: The scourge of the Church.

We all know that the church today is getting smaller.  Denominations are dwindling; churches around the country are closing their doors; more and more people live without any discernible church connection.  Sure, there is a rise of spirituality, but that rarely translates into involvement in a faith community.  When someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ it usually means their spirituality does not involve anyone else (and rarely does it involve any spiritual practices).

There are many ideas about why this happening and how we are to address this decline.  Some say we should jettison the traditional church in favour for a new, contemporary, and relevant expression of faith.  Old practices and ancient rhythms simply do not speak to the more modern tempered.  Yet this does not actually solve the problem.  Opting for a more contemporary skin does not actually address what lies behind the decline in the church.  Underneath much of the experience of church decline today is the problem of individualism.

Case in point: For the past 10 years, my church has experienced decline.  Some of this is because of natural occurrences in the life of a community.  Parishioners have died, some of have moved away.  However, what is most intriguing is that, while the active congregation has declined over the past decade, the parish list has remained the same.  We haven’t actually lost members. So what is going on?  The reality that we face, and that I assume many of us face, is that people simply do not attend church as regularly as before.  Those who used to come three Sundays per month now come one, and those who attended only once per month now only show up every other month.  The lack of attendance by those who belong to the church, I think, is one of the key reasons for church decline.

Importantly, this lack of attendance by once-active parishioners is not based on the church style.  Rather, it illustrates a particular view of the church; namely, that church is a voluntary activity that one can choose to engage or disengage in at any time.  The rise of language speaking to the church needing to ‘feed me’ is symptomatic of this individualist lens through which we view the church.   When we view the church individualistically, we base our involvement with church on personal preferences.  Likes and dislikes become the basis for how we value participation in the community of faith.  Thus, when something better comes along, whether that be a sporting event or another community, one feels free to step away from the community of faith.  It is precisely because of this individualism that simply replacing the traditional expression of church with a more contemporary one will ultimately fail to effect widespread growth.  The different ‘flavours’ of church aside, we still live in a time when church is seen as a voluntary engagement.  What we need to do is begin addressing what we actually believe the church to be.

Writing in the 1930’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some challenging words to say about this.

“Only when an individualistic outlook began to transform this obvious necessity into a psychological one did it ask about the meaning of the assembly [of worship] in terms of its usefulness and necessity for the individual.  This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the church-community.  It is therefore also completely useless to attempt to respond to it by listing a whole host of internal or external advantages, or moral obligations, which might lead the individual into the church. . . Indeed, we submit that the very question is inappropriate to the subject matter. To justify this position we can only point to the concept of the church-community itself.   Thus, a justification for the purpose of the assembly is not lacking altogether; it is not simply an entrenched traditional habit, as one might assume.  However, the justification simply lies on a completely different plain . . . Since I belong to the church-community, I come to the assembly; this is the simple rationale of those who are assembled.  This act is not based on utilitarian considerations, or a sense of duty, but is ‘organic’ and obvious behaviour.

Bonhoeffer does well to get in pointing to the individualism that plagues the church today.  To argue why one is to go to church instead of another activity is to reinforce that the church exists to solely to meet the whims and likes of the individual.   This does nothing to address the problem of individualism, nor does it aid in informing the person about the true nature of the church.  Bonhoeffer is clear; one comes to church because one belongs to the church.  There is a plain and simple truth that we assert: one’s lives out his/her faith amid the community of believers.  Therefore, active, ongoing, and regular involvement in the worshipping community is simply a call we cannot ignore.  There is, in actuality, no way to get around this.

This post is the first in (probably) many wherein I will try to tease out what it means for us to move away from an individualistic understanding of the church-community.  However, for now, let me say this: I believe that we have to start combating the lie that says it is ok to miss church. I think we should start telling people that ‘liking’ the church is no basis for one’s involvement in church-community.  I think we need to start addressing the harm done to the church-community, and to people’s own spiritual livelihood, when other commitments regularly trump involvement in the community of faith.

These may be fighting words today, as they speak directly against the priority of the self in one’s faith-life.  Yet I believe this is necessary if we wish to go forward as the church which God ordains, equips, and empowers.

 

Bonhoeffer quote taken fromBonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Sanctum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church; from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1”; Minneapolis, First Fortress Press, 2009. Pg. 227.