Tag Archives: Community

Listening to Dietrich

In the opening days of the pandemic, when everything came to a grinding halt and people everywhere were looking for a way to fill the time, I decided to read through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. My rational was simple: Bonhoeffer’s experience of being away from his family and friends during the high celebrations of Good Friday or Easter, might prove helpful to me in my own sojourn away from the community of faith. Indeed, this proved to be true. Bonhoeffer’s words provided me both clarity and perspective. I found myself moved by his words. His reflection on the being able to hear the church bells from inside his prison cell, and how that lifted his reflection to the unceasing presence of the Church was particularly relevant for me at the time.

I have always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work Life Together has become the top book in my library (besides the Bible of course!). I used many of Bonhoeffer’s insights in my doctoral study on Christian community. In fact, I joked with many of my fellow students that my thesis really ought to be three words: “Read Life Together.” During my studies, I moved from Life Together, to Bonhoeffers own doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio.” A thicker read, a harder read, but worth it, nonetheless. The two sing texts together splendidly. In many respects Sanctorum Communio is the theological basis upon which Life Together is founded.

Thus, following my walk through his Letters and Papers, I decided to tackle some of Bonhoeffer’s other writings. I jumped to Discipleship, which I had read before yet forgotten just how profound this work is. What was particularly moving for me as I re-read this work was the decision remain cognizant of the Nazi regime continually playing in the background. After all, this was the very context in which Bonhoeffer was writing, and the very world he was addressing. Aided by the excellent editorial notes, Bonhoeffer’s profoundly prophetic teaching reverberated with new clarity. I began to see the depth of his faith, his passion, and his bravery.

Since then, I have continually had Bonhoeffer by my side. I re-read Life Together and then moved to Creation and Fall. I even began listening to a podcast through The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, hosted by Pastor Robert Schenck. Recently, my wife gave me the devotional “A Year with Bonhoeffer,” and I have just begun tackling Bonhoeffer’s Ethics – A series of writings he worked on between the years of 1940 and 1945. After all, as Schenck says frequently in the podcast, “if you want to understand Bonhoeffer, you have read Ethics.”

Throughout this time, Bonhoeffer’s voice has continually risen out of the pages of history. I find his words to possess an uncanny clarity and relevance for our lives today, particularly considering the many social, political, theological, and ethical questions we are facing. When I spend time with Dietrich, I often forget that I am reading a theologian of the past. His voice is pre-eminently current.

Case in point:  On the very day when supporters of President Trump, on his strong insistence, stormed the Capital Building in the United States, in direct defiance of law, order, and the democracy they hold to so dearly, I read these words from Bonhoeffers Ethics:

For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminals. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.

Beside these words I wrote “This is scary.” The obvious similarity between the despiser of humanity in Bonhoeffer’s day, and that which is occurring south of the border is frightening to say the least. I cannot read these words and not hear Bonhoeffer speak directly to our world, and our time.

It is not simply the similarity between the two individuals that is frightening. Underneath it all is the church’s continual vacillation to governmental power. Bonhoeffer constantly spoke against the state church of the day, and their complicity in the Nazi program. With full knowledge of the horrors of the holocaust the church bowed its head and abandoned its theological and moral principles. Sadly, in some cases, the church acted in full support. Well known, and well-regarded, theologian of the day, Paul Althous referred to Adolf Hitler as “a gift and miracle for God.” To be clear, this was not said by some unknown theologian on the fringes. At the time of this statement, Althous was a professor at the University of Erlangen and had long established himself as one among the most prominent of Lutheran theologians. Preeminent Bonhoeffer Scholar, Victoria Barnett, writes “[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches’] failure to respond to the horrid events…was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches’ lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.” (The Role of Churches in Nazi Germany | ADL)

This makes my heart hurt, but honestly, so does the capitulation of the Evangelical Church in the States to the modern day “despiser of humankind.” After all, it is probably not too much of a stretch to assume that many of the individuals marching on the Capital probably self-confess to be pious and devout Christians. But even if this is not been the case, the church today has been silent amid all the dehumanizing activity of the sitting president. While we may be uncomfortable drawing a direct comparison between Donald and Adolf, we should not ignore the fact that silence of the church in our day is eerily similar to the silence of the church in the 1930’s and 40s.

Given this, Bonhoeffer’s voice sounds louder and louder in my mind and heart. His witness is frighteningly prophetic. And yet, therein lies some hope. For if Bonhoeffer was a pastor who could fearlessly speak against the horrors of his day, then this opens the door for us all. We can speak out. The church can have a voice. What is more, in the witness of his words, and his martyrdom, the church does have a voice. So, let us rise and listen to Dietrich. Let us hear the faithful call to dismantle all the lies and falsehoods of today. More importantly, with Bonhoeffer’s insistence and example, let’s hear the call to be a better Church, and better Christians.

The day I fell out of love with contemporary praise music (again)

I remember distinctly the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship music.  It was during my first year of university.  While always a Christian, my faith grew in passion and energy through the Vineyard explosion of the 90’s. This deepening of my faith coupled with my learning to play the guitar.  Almost instantaneously I found myself playing in worship bands and youth retreats.  I eagerly sought the newest recordings from Vineyard and Hillsong; Brian Doerksen and Darlene Zschech were my companions in faith and worship. During this time, contemporary worship was very much the background music of my life.

Then it happened.  I had purchased the latest worship offering from Vineyard, Langley, titled “Winds of Worship Volume 8.” The album contained some worship songs I already knew and loved, songs like “Not Be Shaken” and “I Lift My Eyes Up (Psalm 121). Along with the album, I purchased the accompanying music book and was excited to learn the newest offerings in contemporary worship. Words can never really express how my heart sank as I listened to the first song on the album.  The song was called “Hop on the Bus”, and began like this:

Hop on the Bus
God’s on the move
There’s a seat for me
There’s a seat for you.


I have nothing against singer/songwriter Scott Underwood, but I had to question the theological depth of these lyrics.  I remember sitting in my room thinking “Is this what contemporary praise music has come to – a vain appeal to hype and emotionalism?” I classified the song as corny, not fun, and annoying, not memorable.  More importantly, however, I found that the song offered nothing in the way of an intelligent articulation of faith. I guess no one really cares about theological truth when you can get people to jump around during a worship set. That was the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship.

I had hoped that things had gotten better in the years between then and now.  Yet this same sense of spiritual heartbreak occurred just the other day as I drove my 14-year-old son to school.  My son exclusively listens to Toby Mac and loves to listen to Shine FM when in the car. While my worship-sensibilities rest more with hymnody and Taizé, I rejoice in my son’s enjoyment of worship music.  

As we drove, Chris Tomlin’s newest hit “God’s Great Dance Floor” came up in the rotation. My son listened as the song began, then looked at me quizzically.  “Where is God’s dance floor?” he asked.  As we listened to the song together, my son interjected with appropriate questions, questions pertaining to the song’s lack of theology.  “Is God’s great dance-floor earth, or heaven? If it is on earth, where is it?  If it is in heaven, is this song about death?”  Then there was the doozy of the question, the one that (I think) goes to the central problem with Tomlin’s hit “What if I don’t feel like dancing?” 

Rising within me were the same concern as those from the tail end of my Vineyard days.  Is this where contemporary worship has led us?  Ultimately, praise songs like “Hop on the Bus”, and “God’s Great Dance Floor” are not written to edify people or educate them in the faith.  They exist only to entertain.  What is sought is emotionalism and hype. Consider some of the lyrics of Tomlin’s song.

I’m coming back to the start
Where you found me
I’m coming back to your heart
Now I surrender
Take me
This is all I can bring

These lyrics sound nice, but ultimately have no meaning. What does it mean to “come back to the start” anyway?  The song itself never discloses this, and so the worshiper is left abandoned.  If we find the answer from the song itself, then “coming back to the heart of God” is seen only in the context of our surrender to upbeat music and call-and-response type lyrics.  Theologically, however, this makes absolutely no sense.  The place where God “found us” is in our own creation.  We are created in the image of God.  God is the first mover in this relationship of ours; we love because he first loved us. 

The miss-guided theological point of this song is clear: being in God’s heart will move us to dancing.  To come to God in faithful surrender is to be blessed forever by an upbeat and happy life.  Life with God is one big party.  As Tomlin proclaims (over and over and over) we feel alive, and come alive, on God’s dance floor.

All of this is a lie.  The song presents a false understanding of Christian faith.  While it may play well on the stage it is devastating to our Christian lives.  What happens when we find out that life is not a constant party?  What do we do when all the dancing stops and the upbeat tempo of life is met with tragedy, hardship, or struggle?  As to my son’s question, what happens when we do not feel like dancing, or cannot dance, because of the weight of all we carry?  Tomlin is not worried about this.

Back in the day, hymn writers sought to describe the finer points of theological truth with their hymns. Sure, the tunes may have been ripped from the contemporary music of the day, but the content of their lyrics were saturated with theology.  This is not to say that they always got it right.  Personally, speaking I cringe whenever we describe the newly born Christ-child through the phrase “no crying he makes.”  This makes no sense theologically and undercuts the very incarnation the hymn is trying to disclose.  But they hymn is trying to disclose a nuanced theology of the incarnation. Hymns of the past attempted to educate the church with the truth of the Gospel. They made people think and reflect on their faith. You may not like all the hymns the Wesley’s wrote, but you cannot deny the theological density infused in each one of them. 

This theological richness has meant that these hymns have borne the test of time, evidenced by the fact that Tomlin, and others, often repackage these hymns as praise songs.  The church today still sings out Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and How Great Thou Art.  Even the more pastoral or sentimental classics like “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” continue to find a place in many churches of varying denominations.

I doubt if anyone today is still singing Hop on the Bus.  And, for all its flash, I am willing to bet that next year no one will be signing about God’s great dance floor.  Tomlin’s hit will be replaced by what ever high-emotional, catchy tune is the “it song” for the moment.  Therein lies the inherent problem with so much of contemporary worship.  We have created a praise-culture that simply moves from emotionalism to emotionalism, from frenzied experience to frenzied experience.  For Tomlin, the dancefloor is the concert stage.  The point of the song is to have concert goers sing along to the chorus as they jump around in a state of frenzy. When that no longer occurs through these lyrics, they will be replaced by others.

This is not written to shame Tomlin.  I, actually, like a lot of the songs he pens. I think he is a good and faithful artist.  But I think, with this song, he succumbed to the temptation that plagues so many – the temptation to be liked.  I feel that with this song, he drifted away from the call of worship in favour of the desire to be marketable.   This is a temptation that we all feel at times, me include.

So, all of this is to say, to myself, but also to my fellow worship leaders, organ directors, pastors, and priests – let us do better.  Let us return to an understanding of worship as a point of education. Let us not treat our congregations as theological simpletons, feeding them with sound-bytes that offer little to no nourishment. Let us empower our congregation to grow spiritually and theologically.  Perhaps what the church needs today is less catchy tunes and more theological depth to what we sing.  So, whether we use organs or guitars, let us sing faithfully, passionately, and deeply.

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.

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Habits of Devotion

This article first appeared at Ministry Matters under the title “Habits of Devotion: Observing the season of Lent in a healthy, restorative, and biblical way.”  Published February 27, 2020. 

 

Are you bored of Lent? This probably seems like an odd question to ask, considering we have yet to enter into the liturgical season. The question is apt, I think. With only a few days left to go before our big plunge into the penitential season, most of us are probably trying to figure out what will define this year’s observance. If you are like me, you probably have already started to ask yourselves a series of complicated questions: “Do I give something up or take something on?”, “Do I repeat a past observance or think of something new?” , “Do I focus on my exterior life or my interior life?” These questions can be hard to answer. Furthermore, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to figure out what will make for a good Lenten experience. Have you ever felt so exhausted trying to figure out what your discipline will be, that by the time Lent arrives, your passion for the discipline is already disappeared? We may still do our Lenten obligations, with an appropriate mix of understated humility and begrudging liturgical compliance, but that’s all we do. We observe them, but we aren’t transformed by them.

How might we engage in the season of lent differently this year? What might it look like to engage in this season of spiritual discipline with the purpose of transforming our spiritual lives? Are there practices or disciplines that have been proven to do this? Luckily there are. The book of Acts contains a wonderful description of how the early church structured their Christian lives. Having accepted the good news of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, members of this new community lived in a particular way. They structured their spiritual lives around four simple habits. We read in chapter 2 that the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” These habits are not complicated by any means. In fact, they are rather quite simple. All it takes is a little dedication and a willingness to engage in these actions on a regular basis. For that early baptised community, devotion to these practices opened them to the continuous presence of the risen Lord.

What would it look like if Anglicans everywhere purposefully engaged in each of these disciplines on a weekly basis throughout the season of Lent? What if we structured our life around these exercises? Importantly, these four practices call us into a deeper engagement with the community of faith in a way that giving up my favourite snack does not. By adopting these practices, my Lenten observance is transformed into our Lenten observance. To follow along with the example set by the early Christians, we need to know a little more about each practice.

The Apostles’ Teaching: For the early Christian community, devotion to the apostles’ teaching meant learning about Jesus from those who had been with him. This wasn’t about private moments of silent reflection upon the scrolls. The early community discussed Jesus’ teachings with one another and explored implications for their own lives. The point was to be influenced by Christ’s teaching, example, and Spirit. How might you join others in learning more about Jesus? Can you form a small group and commit to reading a Gospel each week, or work through a 12-lesson Bible study booklet? What would it look like for you to takes notes during the Sunday sermon? Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching is about allowing the good news of Jesus to form (and transform) the community of faith.

Fellowship: Fellowship lies at the centre of the faith community because it forces us to recognise the call to a common spiritual life. Fellowship is not just about “hanging out” or “shooting the breeze.” Nor is fellowship just about having “Coffee time” with one another. Fellowship is about connecting with a fellow Christian for mutual, faith-based, encouragement. In fellowship, we share what is occurring in our spiritual lives. This means we need to cultivate a radical sense of both hospitality and vulnerability. Could you call the clergy of your parish and arrange an appointment to talk about where you are in your faith life? Could you ask a fellow parishioner how you could support them in their faith life? We live in a time of rampant individualism, and because of this, it is easy for us to believe that such conversations are both intrusive and unwelcome. Yet devotion to fellowship demands that we push past the safety net of small talk and willingly engage in deeper, soul-rich, conversation and sharing.

The Breaking of Bread: The New Testament describes several instances where Jesus blessed, broke, and gave bread to people. Each case was a moment where the Lordship of Jesus was revealed in a particular way (c.f. Luke 24:30–32). The greatest example of this is the Last Supper. For Anglicans, we see our participation in the eucharist as the chief act of worship. Yet the hyper-busyness of modern day often interrupts our celebration of the Eucharist. This is understandable, and maybe unavoidable. Still, as a Lenten observance, what would it look like for you to devote yourself to taking communion every week during the season of Lent? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be on Sunday morning. Many churches have several communion services per week. If you cannot make it to church on Sunday morning you may choose to attend the mid-week service. Or perhaps you could call the church to arrange for someone to bring you communion in your home. (FYI: you don’t have to be a shut in to request this!). Now, if you do not yet take communion, perhaps this is the opportunity for you to engage in discussions with your local clergy about the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

Prayer: The community’s devotion to prayer probably sounds the easiest. However, this is not just about having a personal prayer-life. Devotion to prayer for the early Christian community was about devotion to communal prayer. The community gathered together to pray for one another, and to pray with one another. Prayer was both personal and liturgical. This is completely contrary to the privatised and individualistic way that we sometimes view prayer today. There are many different ways that you could cultivate communal prayer during Lent. You could say the liturgy of Morning Prayer (or Evening Prayer) using the BAS or BCP rites; take your bulletin home and pray the collect before bed each evening; ask someone to join you in prayer — either in grace before a meal, or in saying The Lord’s Prayer; seek out a Christian you trust and look up to, and ask him or her to pray with you. Options are limitless and opportunities to join in prayer with others abound. All it takes is a little creativity and boldness.

None of these practices are overly complicated. Each are fairly strait forward. So simple are they, in fact, that we often overlook the transformative power of them. The fact is, each of these practices opens the door for us to creatively engage in our life with God in a unique way. So, if you want the season of Lent to be a time of spiritual renewal, this is perhaps one of the simplest (and most biblically based) ways to go about it. May we all have a blessed Lent.

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.