Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What are we teaching our children?

Staying is easier than going. When it comes to following Jesus, we are faced with one essential problem, the common human desire for the status quo, difference of any kind is looked at with suspicion and fear.  Staying where we are is easier than going out into the world. As someone with little Christian background except that I was born in Germany and as someone who came to know Christ later in life, I perhaps have a different perspective on many ''traditional'' thinking of people who have attended church most of their lives.  For me, church provided a counter-narrative to what I witnessed, experienced and essentially participated in. Church helped me to go to a different vantage point and to look at the world from a different perspective.  But like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the congregations I encountered over the years tend to become more a symptom of the culture than an antidote to it, they are not living a different story. And by doing that we are giving the people of the world one less place to turn for a sober alternative to the story of basic human goodness and moral progress that is propagated everywhere.

What are we teaching our children? 

God is love; and as evident on the cross it is self-sacrifice rather than self-preservation. Love, as the Bible defines it, is sacrificial. This, however, threatens our tendency to protect ourselves. We are afraid to give because we are afraid of being taken. Through our experiences we have come to expect that love is first something we get from others in return for something before it is something we give others for nothing. Love has become even within the church conditional and is no longer sacrificial.

Worldliness is seductive, it is a sleepiness of our thinking in which the statues, pleasures, comforts and cares of this world appear solid, stunning, and purpose giving while the truth of God's word abstractions, unable to grip us emotionally nor intellectually or guide our everyday activities. The greatest challenge for a Christian is therefore not persecution but seduction. 
I used to be a missionary in the late 90th in Sierra Leone, a small country with much riches. When I returned home I experienced what is called a culture shock. It is caused when one set of cultural assumptions clashes with another, when what seams normal to people in one cultural setting seems uncomfortably strange, even questionable in another. After a while, however, the shock went away. Over time I gradually and unnoticeable to myself I settled into the old assumptions and mannerism of the culture around me, the shock gave way to submission. When the world's thinking, feeling and living seem normal and God's ways seems strange, we need to hear that we have been seduced because we are blind to that fact. In this sense, disciples of Christ are in a permanent state of shock in relation to the acceptable ways of the world; "tension with the world must never give way to comfort in the world."

What are we teaching our children? 

We need to remember that while Jesus never went after the crowed, never sought fame but he was seeking for disciples. And to get the disciples he wanted, he explained to the crowed of followers that anyone who wanted to truly follow him would need to count the cost, and the crowed thinned out. Daily Christian living, according to Jesus, means daily Christian dying -- dying to our goals, dreams, hopes unless they are not of this world. We need to die to our fascination to fit in and instead becoming "fools for Christ," living with an hopeful attitude.

Hope is a continual looking forward to the eternal world and is neither a form of escapism or pessimism.  Hope is not wishful thinking either, but one of those things that are second nature to a Christian.  A Christian cannot but hope.  It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is, rather the very opposite is true.  Hope affirms and proclaims that however beautiful a sunset might be some more beautiful sunset is still to come but not in this life. In this sense hope is a godly discontent about the present, it is affirming that the glass is half full and more is still to come. As many before me I too refer to C.S. Lewis thoughts on this matter;

"The Christian Way.-The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’"

How are we doing with that? Since Scripture affirms that this particular hope is somewhat outside of reach here and now many people have turned to achievable things and by that to earthly things. We only need to look at obituaries over the centuries . . . how we describe the life and identity of a loved one. In the past, God, seeking God and the life through the church were the focus of identity, it than changed to work and became more individualistic focused, and now we read much much more about entertainment and travel and enjoying life. God is hardly mentioned.

What are we teaching our children?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Witness to God's truth, grace and generosity

We are a community founded on truth and formed by truth and sustained by truth. For that reason our Yes need to be a Yes and our No need to be our No. But at the same time creation itself is founded, formed, and sustained by God's generosity and grace. If we began living more truthfully, gracefully, and generously , investing all we are and have in order to make this place a better place to live in for everyone, think about the witness this would be to our neighbours. Every neigbour around us should be able to say about us; ''I might not believe what they believe, but this place would be a much less livable community without them here, because of the way these people invest their time, talents and money to serve us.''  Imagine the impression the Church and Christians alike would give to people if we embodied God-centred truth and generosity in this way. Instead of weary, passive accommodation and acceptance of our shortcomings, there would be an active engagement with the power and the love of Christ to discover and apply the healing correction of truth across the spectrum of our lives, including grace and generosity. 
I think  it is one thing to have a rational understanding of God's truth, grace, and generosity but quite another to have a sense of God all around. How does my neighbour genuinely encounter this sense of God's truth, grace, and generosity all around but through us the church, God's people. We are the presents of truth, grace, and generosity, the instruments God has equipped and blessed for that purpose.  

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Church must own their choice and so must we

Jesus calls each one he meets into a personal, intimate relationship with him and with those who are with him. He is also telling them to count the cost, to make a choice. If we choose one thing, it means refusing the other. If we choose to follow Jesus, we experience the gift of  love and communion, but at the same time we must say "no" to the ways of the world and accept loss which will imply grieving and pain; we must own our choice and have counted the cost.

More and more the people of God become aware that God is not just a creator of everything that is made, a powerful Lord who is telling us to obey or to be punished but rather a community that invites us to experience them. Being Church means being called into community with God and with others who are called and walking the same path. And there we encounter new challenges; we encounter disciples who quarrel among themselves, wondering who is the greatest among them. Community is a wonderful experience, a wonderful place where we experience new life. But it is also an experience with pain because it is there that we encounter truth and experience growth -- it is among us that our pride, fear and our brokenness is revealed. Community is not an abstract idea, an ideal; it is us. Only in community we are able to love people just as we are with our wounds, fears, and our need for space and growth. Community involves giving each other a safe space where we can grow together. It is giving each other trust, encouraging one another while challenging each other. We give value and dignity to one another by the way of dying to oneself  so that the other may live, and grow.

There is a myth about community just as there is a myth about marriage, telling us; "they lived happy ever after." The reality of marriage is that both, the man and the woman are called to sacrifice their egoes as well as their individualistic dreams by the commitment to be one body. Community also means death to ones ego. It is accepting the cost of dying to "me first" and competions in order to discover a new form of values and a new freedom. But that also means that community, just like marriage, is a place of pain because it is a place of loss, a place of conflict, and a place of death to self, just as it is a place of new life. True community is the one place where all the darkness, anger, fear, jealousie and competition is exposed and reconciled. 

But community is also a place of conflict for another reason. In community we experience the conflict between competing values, between togetherness and individualism, between interdependence and independence. It is painful to lose one's independence and to come into togetherness and not just proximity. We have proximity with the world,, and we need to, but we have togetherness with one another. Loss of perceived freedom is painful particulalry in a world where independence is held up as something to die for, which cultivates the feeling "I don't need anyone else" as ultimate freedom. 
Sapna Chand is the sole owner and copyright holder of this image
I have had the occasion to visit quite a number of senior homes in Canada. It can be very painful to go into certain care facilities, to see men and women crying out for love, roaming around with nothing to do, shaking their heads, talking to themselves, living in a world of dreams and of psychosis. Some places smell of urine others of disinfectant.  If you had the privilege of getting a glimpse into some of these places, a glimpse into the lives of those who live there, you will have seen unbearable pain. It is difficult to be present there for long and yet there is where I found Christ sitting beside one of the least of my brothers and sisters.

Many people in our modern society are living in unbearable situation, with unbearable pain. I don't know how many homeless people live in Winnipeg, but there are many hundreds if not thousands. Every night during the winter months they line up in order to be admitted for the night at one of the shelters. The next morning, after a cup of coffee, they are back onto the street. Then they roam all day with nothing to do until the evening. The reasons for their situation is as complex as humanity itself, but there is much anger, depression and intense pain inside many. When the pain becomes too much, then people tend to slip away into a world of dreams. Reality is just too painful, without hope. 

Our church communities are also places of pain because they are formed with people who have been through a great deal of pain themselves. They had experienced the deep fear that nobody can really love them, that nobody really wants them, because they were "dirty,"  "evil." "not good enough." Church means family, accepting people just where they are in their journey. We may not necessary like some of their choices, or personality traits, but we love them nonetheless with all their limits and pain, but also with the capacity to see God's image inside of all that pain just as we love ourselves. 

But this communion of unity is not uniformity or fusion. Both lead to confusion. In a relationship you are you and I am I; I have my identity and you have yours. I must be myself and you must be yourself while we are called to grow together into the likeness of Christ more and more. But this is not possessiveness but belonging. A belonging where we listen to one another and helping each other to become more. And it is only in our togetherness that we make sense, but this does not come easy to us. 

When I was in the German army, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me. Since childhood I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek recognition and therefore promotions, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. This is what society is teaching us. When you have been taught from early age to compete, to be first and then suddenly you hear Jesus calling you down the success ladder and to share your life with those who are last, who are poor and marginalized, our real struggle breaks out within us while we are counting the cost.  It is a conflict of allowing others space to grow rather than lording over them, here we stand back in order to help them to excersice their gifts. It is a conflict of caring only for oneself and caring for people.

Over the years I have experienced both forces within me, one pulling me to go up the ladder and then the voice of Christ teaching and healing me. He taught me that behind the need to win, to be recognized there are my own fears and anguish. The fear of being devalued and pushed aside, the fear of being vulnerable or opening up my heart to love; their is the pain, betrayal, and brokenness of my own past. And in this voice I discovered who I really had become and to realize that I may not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then the same as today I have to decide whether I just continue to pretend to be ok and through myself into hyperactivities, involving myself into a myriad of programs and projects where I simply can cover up all the garbage. Proving to the world and others just how good I was. 

Just as God is in communion within himself and is inviting us through the death of Jesus to join into the eternal dance of love we too have to die to the powers of egoism and self-will in ourselves in order to join into that dance of deeper unity.