Core Questions

These days, one of the things I keep returning to over and again is a series of questions to ground myself and remind me of what the core of faith has always been. It’s far too easy to get caught up in:

  • The latest fad or experience of God
  • Cultural disputes
  • Political arguments
  • Religious opinions
  • Gospels of Morality; lists of “dos and don’ts”
  • Defining boundaries (who is “in” and who is “out”)
  • Et cetera

While these things may or may not be important, they are not the core of my faith and desire to follow Jesus. And so, I must constantly ask myself some basic questions:

  1. Why does it matter? Why is following Jesus even important? What is it about this way of living that makes it “The Way” to live?
  2. What is this “Jesus” thing all about? Why did he come? What was his purpose?
  3. What is “the good news” Jesus proclaimed?
  4. What should it look like for me to live this ”Way” in my daily life? Is what I am doing today furthering my desire to be like Jesus or moving me away from that goal? What is my motive for doing X? Does it bring me closer to the way of Jesus or further away?

Of course these questions will have different answers for different people, but I find by focusing on Jesus and what he directly taught us and showed us by his actions/life to be the core of what being a Christian is all about.

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Nostalgia Vs. Hope

I still remember living in Lochaber like it was yesterday. It was by far the favourite place I ever lived. I remember how I would bike around the 5-mile long Lochaber Lake every day. We’d make rafts and jig eels off the bridge near our house. I remember swimming, playing hockey, playing base-runner, and almost getting injured time and time again as a young boy will frequently have happen.

I also remember with fondness the TV shows I used to watch (The Commish, Danger Bay) and the video games I thought were so amazing. I remember my favourite pizza place in Liverpool, Beach Meadows beach as the best beach in the world, and winning two provincial basketball championships with Bridgewater.

Those were the days …

Nostalgia is a universal experience. The problem is that it also isn’t an experience grounded in reality. It is an experience grounded in an idealized version of an imagined reality. The psychological definition for nostalgia is “a yearning to return home to the past — more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past — a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”*

And, if we are honest with ourselves, we all know this. We know the childhood we believe we remember didn’t exist the way we think it did. The TV show we once loved so much is never as good when you watch it again 20 years later. The beach you remember loving so much isn’t quite as impressive when you return years later with numerous new experiences to compare it with.

It turns out nostalgia can be a good thing for us – it appears to be especially beneficial in counteracting loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. Nostalgia is often triggered by negative emotions or bad days — it is a great cure to make us feel better in the presence of our chaotic and often mundane daily life. So, on a whole, nostalgia appears to be a very good thing.

When it comes to things like God and politics, however, nostalgia often shows up as the disorder it was originally diagnosed as (when the word was first defined, nostalgia was seen as a disorder — nostalgia coming from the greek ‘nostos’ – return home – and ‘algos’ – pain).

The reason for this is that we seem to forget we are “remembering” an idealized version of history rather than history itself. We seem to imagine that the ‘good old days’ we remember were entirely wonderful and forget the things that do not fit our nostalgic vision.

People will talk about cultural changes in the country by saying things like, “The real issue is the erosion over time of those biblical principles upon which our country was founded”, without stopping to ask themselves what “biblical principles” they actually believe those to be.

For example, would a First Nation’s christian truly believe Canada was founded on biblical principles when Europeans came and slaughtered them and stole their land? Would the Acadians who were deported to make way for English and German landowners who would be more faithful to the crown believe this was done in the spirit of the self-sacrificial love of Christ?

The very fact we can overlook such atrocities and instead see a paradise that we should return to reveals just how dangerous nostalgia can be when it is pursued as a goal rather than simply as a coping mechanism to assist in getting us through the problems of our day.

A prophetic vision is one that looks forward to what the world could (and will) be like. It is not something grounded in re-imagining a past as better than it actually was. God is never one to drag us back to an idealized eden. He was not even content to allow his followers to stay in Jerusalem and slowly restart their ministry after his death and resurrection. Instead he sent them out into the whole world.

God constantly pulls us into new places and into new ways of declaring the message that there is a better way to live and it is available now if we would just believe it could be true.

This is why hope trumps nostalgia every time.

Hope is based on an imagination of what could – and will – be. Nostalgia imagines something that never was actually true to begin with.

Hope looks for new ways to reach out and help more people — especially people who are demonized, oppressed, set to the side, and identified as scapegoats for what is wrong with “our” world. Nostalgia, instead, imagines a world without these “problems”.

Hope sees the best that could be. Nostalgia inaccurately remembers what never was.

Hope wins!


* http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7326
Other sites of interest:
– http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html
– https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/nostalgia.htm/printable
– https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/what-old-white-conservatives-miss-about-america/243911/

Exodus

By all ways we are able to measure, the facts remain the same — younger generations are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers.

I shared some of the latest statistics this week on Twitter (these are US statistics, but the story appears to be similar in Canada):

  • 33% of white evangelicals will leave their childhood faith
  • 40% of those who leave will leave religion entirely (that means 13% of evangelicals will leave religion behind entirely as they become adults)
  • 39% of young adults who were raised evangelical no longer identify themselves as “evangelicals”
  • Declines are not being offset by gains (in other words, people are leaving and new people are not joining at the same rate)
  • 62% of white evangelical protestants are over the age of 50 and the median age is now 55

But, not only are people leaving, but when they do they are far more likely to express negative views of religion. Of those unaffiliated with a religious community, 93% say they are not searching for a religion that would be right for them and 66% agree with the statement that religion causes more problems in society than it solves.

Despite these numbers, the majority of people still believe in God … they just don’t believe in the God they are being sold by the church. They do tend to express doubt in the existence of God in greater numbers than those who are affiliated with a religious organization, but they continue to believe “He” exists.


Anyone who knows me knows this is one of the things that I am most interested in learning how to change. I want to understand why people are leaving and what it would take to stop this exodus — and yet I feel like I partially understand from my own, personal experiences the reasons why people are leaving; I just simply don’t know how to motivate the church to see the need to change.

While various studies will show various motivations for leaving, the majority boil down to one simple fact — people leave because they do not believe what the church is telling them they need to believe.

And for me this is sad because it makes me feel like people are leaving without ever truly being introduced to Jesus. People are leaving without being shown the amazing, revolutionary, self-sacrificial way of living we are invited to participate in that leads to true happiness right here and now.

People are leaving thinking they know who God is and want nothing to do with him because what they are being told doesn’t line up with their lived-experience or the burning ache in their hearts. They are leaving a box that has been created that largely hides the revolutionary Good News Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate with his life.

Jesus came saying the last will be first, the poor are rich, the meek and nonviolent will inherit the earth instead of the powerful, the wise are actually foolish, and the way to succeed and be happy in life is to give yourself away in service to others.

Jesus came telling us to turn the other cheek when harmed, to never seek revenge, to welcome to widow and the foreigner and ensure they are fed, welcomed and cared for fully and without hesitation.

Jesus came showing us the way to gain life is to give yours away. He showed us that true humility is washing the feet of those who would do you harm or give you over to be killed. Jesus said not to resist someone who intends to do you harm and to put away any means of striking back at those who wish to hurt you.

Jesus came to the weak, the poor, the hurting, the sinners, the lost, the hungry, the prostitutes, the oppressing army of Rome, the people extorting their neighbours of what little they had.

This is the life Jesus calls us to and it has very little to do with what passes for evangelicalism in North America (and elsewhere?).  He came proclaiming the Kingdom of God is here NOW, not just coming at some future date. The way to ongoing life to its fullest is by following the path He himself walked and that this Kingdom life does not look successful to the world. But it will change you on the inside.

The Good News is that resurrection happens. That by dying to all the things that you think will make you happy and lead to earthly success, you open yourself up to a new life from above (call it New Creation or Eternal Life if you want), which allows you to be joyful in suffering and patient in faithful action.

This is the Good News nobody is hearing. Instead they are hearing moralism, a list of things you can and can’t do, protests against things rather than proclamations of what we are for.

They are seeing groups of politically-motivated people organizing against other people rather than sacrificial groups of people humbly giving themselves for the betterment of others.

People are leaving because they reject the same image of God I reject, but I want to introduce people to Jesus; the revolutionary, life-bringing person who can change lives and minds if we, the church, would only turn around (repent) from the ways we have improperly introduced someone we love.

I fully believe that only then will people stop leaving and instead aggressively want a piece of this action.

Unity & Protest

“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mohatma Gandhi

I have been struggling for some time with the fact that Christians all too often look nothing like the Christ they claim to be following. I say this as an “insider” — a person who wants to continue to be identified as a follower of Jesus.

I say this as a person who believes that differences are to be expected within the church body and should be embraced rather than shunned. I believe we are to be people who wrestle with God and what it means to be his body on earth. This is a serious task that requires serious struggling with questions like:

What does love look like in this specific situation?

What does justice look like here?

What does grace look like in this case?

These are hard questions which will have many varied answers — all of which can be said to be within the scope of what it looks like to follow Christ. We, after all, have not been given an instruction manual with answers to every possible situation we may encounter in our days on earth.

Rather we have been given a story. A story of a God revealing himself and people responding to this revelation. They all respond in broken, hesitant, ways just like we do today. We are given stories of people who have gone before us to give us the faith and trust that though the path seems hard to navigate, many have gone before us and planted signposts helping to show us we are at least heading in the right direction.

…. And yet ….

Where is the line that identifies the boundary between what is actual, honest struggling with an attempt to be a little-Christ in the world and a flag-waving, Jesus-naming “Christianity” that looks nothing like the servant of all? The “cultural Christianity” that either pretends to honour the name of Jesus or is self-delusional so that those who claim this title of “Christian” truly believe they are serving Christ even if Jesus would say “depart from me, I never knew you”.

While I don’t know exactly where the boundary is, perhaps an example will help make this more tangible than simply words on a screen.

—-

Let’s say three people claiming to follow Jesus are looking at the current refugee crisis worldwide and are discussing what Jesus would do. The first person suggests that as a well-to-do country, we have a responsibility to share what we have and welcome in as many refugees as we can. The second thinks we need to look at a more balanced approach where we help severe cases immediately by relocating them to our country, but focus most of the attention on how to improve the conditions in the country they are fleeing. They want to see international aid drastically increased and peacekeeping groups sent to help the country with a long-term goal of having the country healed from within. The third person claims they are opposed to allowing anyone in because there is a chance they could be dangerous and also does not think additional aid will do anything except increase the debt of our country, so why should we bother — it’s not our problem.

The first two ideas are both examples of what it looks like to struggle for answers for how to love others, seek justice for the oppressed, and see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. The third looks nothing like what Jesus would do or how his kingdom citizens should act on his behalf.

—-

My struggle for quite some time relates to this and has only grown more pronounced in recent years. I want to enter into conversations with people, self-identifying as Christians, who act out their faith in ways that are different than mine and have them encourage me to become more like the God I serve.

And I have found many people who do just that in my life.

Unfortunately, I have also found that many of the people who I truly believe sincerely want to follow Jesus instead do significant damage to the witness we are placed in the world to be.

When Christians are more likely to support military action than the average person in a country, something has gone wrong.

When Christ-followers are more likely to be persuaded by political platforms based on fear, exclusionary economic policies, and reduced social programs, the message of Christ has been lost somewhere in the cultural noise.

Where is the line between unity and protest?

When should we sit and talk with someone in the hopes of encouraging them in Christlikeness and when should we call out the actions and belief systems as being anti-Christ (as in being opposed to the message and actions of God in this world)?

How should someone interact with professing Christians who seem to discount the very heart of the Gospel? This is the news that Christ is King, Jesus is Lord and everything we do now needs to be centred on enacting the message that the Kingdom of God is here. Love, faithfulness, justice, patience, and more fruit of the Spirit are the way to live and act in the world now and anything else is not worth our energy.

There is a time for unifying language, but sometimes this need to be replaced with confrontational calls to repentance (by which I mean a complete rethinking of the way we live our lives and our actions in every aspect of life).

The goal in everything we do is repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, so how do we confront unChristlikeness amongst Christians in ways that will lead here? How and when do we let it be known that this is not what it looks like to be a Christian while still leaving a trail of crumbs that leads to redemption?

Concentric Circles Revisited

A metaphor I keep coming back to in my life is one I discovered a few years ago that helps me properly engage any conversation about what I believe — especially if it may be slightly different from others who are also followers of Christ.

This is the concentric circles metaphor.

ConcentricCircles

The way it basically works is as follows …

At the centre of our faith is Christ. The Gospel essentially proclaims that Jesus is Lord and that his Kingdom is here and is now available to anyone who wishes to follow Him and live according to this “New Creation”, “eternal life” way of living. While we may disagree at the levels to come, all followers of Christ (Christians) have this in common; Jesus is Lord!

With this always as the focus and centre of our faith, the next circle is what I have called “Core Beliefs”, but could be called “dogma” as well. These are the central teachings of the historical/traditional church and can be seen most clearly in the creeds (Nicene or Apostle’s creed). Some examples include the belief in the trinity, the belief that Jesus was fully God and fully human, or the belief that Jesus died, was resurrected, and will return again. The interesting thing about this circle is that while there are a few core assertions, the specifics of what this means, or how it all works, are largely left out. These core beliefs are the mysteries of our faith that give broad strokes of what we believe.

The third circle is what we can refer to as doctrines. These include many things that Christians have typically affirmed, but that there have been disagreements about. These are the things that different denominations may disagree about — they tend to boil down to what specifically church dogmas mean when worked out more specifically. So, for example, what does it mean that God is sovereign? Does he control everything that happens or does he simply rule over everything that does happen? Why did Jesus die? Et cetera.

The final circle is opinions. We can call the group of beliefs found here “opinions” because they are beliefs that may be widely affirmed by many denominations, but they have not been generally accepted as church doctrine throughout history. They also tend to be very “cultural” in nature — in other words, they frequently deal with the controversies of the current day and not things that would apply to the church throughout history. Some examples could include gay marriage or the creation/evolution debate. While some may feel the bible strongly supports one side or the other of these debates, in the larger scheme of things, these are current-day issues and controversies that are largely peripheral to the grand story of the Gospel.

I continually find this way of thinking about my beliefs to be extremely helpful as it helps remind me to focus on the centre of my faith rather the boundaries.

What is Truth?

In our weekly bible study, we were studying John 18 where it says;

Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked, “What is truth?”

We ended up asking the very same question Pilate does here; what is truth?

My brain doesn’t necessarily work quickly enough when put “on the spot” to be able to think of the best way to formulate a response, but I thought I would write down some simple thoughts about “truth” now that I can (hopefully) articulate at least one of them.

While there are a few words translated as “truth” in the bible, the most important one — and the one used in this scripture verse — is alētheia (ἀληθής), which literally means “unconcealed” or “not forgotten”. While it means something that is true, real, or genuine, the implication is that something hidden has been revealed.

For me this fits very nicely with what I consider to be at the core of what the gospel is — Jesus came to reveal God.

He came to reveal what God has always been like.

He came to take what had been hidden (since the foundation of the world) and “unconceal” it.

He came to show us that the way of the Kingdom of God is the real, genuine way the cosmos actually works.

He came to demonstrate that self-sacrificial love and that faithfulness to the way of living he shows us, which is found most beautifully described in the sermon on the mount, are the path to true success.

He came to invite us to rethink everything (repent) in light of the fact that the Kingdom of God has burst into the Kingdom of this world and turned everything upside down.


My one concern with any conversation about truth is that we often have a tendency to equate “knowing the truth” with “being right” and the two are miles from the same thing.

A person can be certain they are right and yet still act in a way that is anything but a reflection of what God’s Kingdom is truly like*. In fact, certainty that we know what’s right is one of the quickest ways to ensure we do not act faithfully according to the way of living that is grounded in the truth (as centuries of Church history shows us).

For a Christian, truth can only be found in one place — Jesus himself. He reveals what God is like and his life is an example of what living in the truth looks like. And he said he would send us the Spirit to lead us into that same truth.

In that way, it seems to me that “truth” has less to do with specific actions (although these are often important) and more to do with a way of living. It is a way of acting within the world that is consistent with the character and nature of God himself — however that may work itself out in our daily actions.


At the end of the discussion this week, we were asked if we “really believe that what you believe is really real?”

While I think that is a fair question, I think it needs a little pushback with a second question; are you really interested in being led into “all truth” if you are not willing to question that what you currently believe may not be true?

I would argue that it is essential to hold both belief and doubt at the same time in order to follow Jesus. We need to have the faith to believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the life and that he will lead us and show us how to be and act in the world because we believe he is God and that he is King. This is the heart of the gospel.

But, at the same time, we need to doubt what we believe about how the world works and how we have been told God wants us to act in the world. We may need to adjust these beliefs to better align ourselves with the ways of the Kingdom of God. We need to focus on truth rather than “being right” and we need to question the systems of the world which cause us to act in ways that are not loving and just.

This is how we will know the truth and it will set us free.

###

*  If I could speak with the tongues of men and angels and don’t have love …

 

The Story of Us

If you watch the news at all these days – which I do not recommend except in brief, quick bursts – you probably can’t avoid hearing about the state of America these days.

It’s not pretty.

If you are not American (like me), it can also be very easy to think things like; “Wow, I can’t believe they can be so stupid”, or “Man am I glad our country isn’t like that”, or even “Man, we (I) are (am) so much better than them”.

But these thoughts actually go the very heart of the issue. The story playing out in the US these days is the story of us. It is the story of the human heart. It is the story of tribal thinking. It is history repeating itself over and again.

I’ve had a small group of people give me a hard time for “going on about Trump” especially since I live in Canada and it really has very little direct impact on me personally.

This is true, except for two things:

  1. As horrible a man as I feel he is, I care less about Trump than I do about the fact that so many “good” people support him. More about this later …
  2. Seeing the evil in the heart’s of others will hopefully lead us to see the evil in our own hearts. This, I would hope, will lead to repentance and a change in direction for my own life.

So, let’s start with racism.

It can be very easy to believe that I am not racist. Except, the truth is that I am. All of us are. We all live in environments that condition us to prefer people that are just like us. The question is not whether or not we have these preferences for “sameness”, the question is whether or not we are working through this in an attempt to change.

I did not choose to be born white, but I do benefit from being white; am I content to simply reap the benefits selfishly for myself, or do I recognize the injustice that simply being born this way offers me advantages others do not enjoy and work to reduce these inequalities in whatever small ways I can?

Do I value things and systems that even inadvertently create barriers to certain “tribes” of people? Things like the justice system, voting systems, the economy, etc …

These things seem huge and ugly and beyond one person’s ability to change – and they may just be too big for me – but that doesn’t mean I should silently accept my privilege and ignore the impacts they have on others.

As a Christian, I feel it is our duty to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, and I don’t believe the Kingdom of God in heaven shows preference to someone simply because they were born with a lighter skin tone than someone else …

… or were born male rather than female …

… or was born in Canada rather than Palestine …

… or …

And this is why seeing “good”, “christian” people support policies that further create inequalities by preferring someone of this race, sex, country, etc … over another makes me so irate.

It is one thing for “your average Joe” to get sucked into the rhetoric of the world. The persuasive arguments that say:

  • “you need to look out for number one”
  • “it’s just business – it’s dog-eat-dog out there and you need to do whatever it takes to win”
  • “people get what they earn”
  • “success looks like this (money, fame, power)”
  • “if we could just ____, then everything would be perfect”
  • <insert your own>

But for a self-confessed “christian” to believe these statements is Biblical Illiteracy 101. Jesus came for the “least of these”. He says he did not come for the healthy and well-off, but for the sick and those who need help (which, if we are honest, is all of us). He is constantly on the side of the oppressed and those in need — and not once aligns himself with any form of worldly power or the rich.

The only conclusion I can come to when I see “christians” falling for these statements, policies, and beliefs is that they do not truly understand what being a Christian means, which is to follow in the footsteps of Christ and self-sacrificially give of ourselves for the sake of others.

Not for the sake of people who are just like us and can repay us, but for those “in need”.

For others we might consider enemies.

For people who cannot return benefit to us in any way but do not have access to the same things we do.

This is the what the Kingdom of God looks like when it comes on earth as in heaven. And that’s the only thing we “little Christs” are told to pursue.

Everything else will take care of itself if this is our focus we are told.

And we can trust that God will take care of us because He is Lord! He is the one who reigns over eternity and we can rest knowing his ways and his self-sacrificial focus is the true path to eternal “success”.

This Good News is so fundamental to christianity and yet seems lost to much of what calls itself christianity these days … and that is what I “go on about”.

Lord, help your church to begin to rise up and see it’s true calling as citizens of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Help us to see the evil in our own hearts as reflected to us in our brothers, our leaders, and our enemies. Help us to repent of the ways we contribute to and condone ways that treat others as less important than ourself.

Amen!