This imagery fits my picture of the role of Christian community in the midst of our post-Christendom, secular age. I've thought about this theme a lot more than my sparse words here.
This imagery fits my picture of the role of Christian community in the midst of our post-Christendom, secular age. I've thought about this theme a lot more than my sparse words here.
In 2017-2018 I found myself available to consider new ministry opportunities, and so when "a friend of a friend" invited me into a project in Kitchener, I joined in. St. Paul's Lutheran Church/Bridgeport was looking at alternatives to closing their doors. Together with the minister (at the time) and the church council we began imagining "outside the box" possibilities. The church wanted to find a way to maintain their almost 150 year presence in this community along the Grand River. Out of their core values of faith, service and fellowship we identified what that might look like in the present moment. Through some "dream sessions" and a call for partners, a partnership emerged with MennoHomes and Parents for Community Living.
St Paul's Lutheran/Bridgeport has merged their 2.5 acres of high-value/high visibility property into the project, with MennoHomes now taking the lead in developing the building and property. As you can imagine a partnership like this takes a substantial commitment of time, trust, relationship building, and mind-boggling budgeting exercises. The St Paul's congregation just recently moved out of their building which will be demolished in March as construction gets underway. A recent article in The Record (K/W paper) tells some of the story.
The link here takes you to MennoHomes site with some background on the need for affordable housing in the region and more info about the financial model required to bring it to pass, including substantial grant funding (millions $) from levels of government.
Last fall I read a book referred to me by my friend Evan Garst. Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise by Richard Beck. I read a lot of books related to Christian theology and the practice of ministry. This one will stick with me for a while. One of the lines from the book:
Being like Jesus is a million boring little things -- things like waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, being patient with your kids, listening to your spouse, being a dependable friend.
The premise of the book is rooted in Matthew 25 where the disciples are told they are actually meeting Jesus in the beggar looking for a cup of cold water. God is the Stranger; we meet him when we welcome, extend hospitality to, those who are outside our natural circles of relationship.
Beck addresses the first thing that comes to many of our minds -- "I don't have time for more people." He says "People are exhausted. Our schedules are totally maxed out. We have no margin. So where are we going to find the time and energy for all this hospitality... our lives are dominated by those feelings of scarcity." Beck is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University; he says, "I think our busyness and our exhaustion are rooted in a spiritual sickness that runs throughout our society." But he quickly says that addressing that issue isn't the purpose of this book! He suggests that while we figure out how to address that bigger issue, we just work at our practice of hospitality.
Hospitality is welcoming and being with the people already in our lives: the people we live with, the people we work with, the people in our neighbourhood.
If we don't have time to be present and welcoming with the people already in our busy lives, we will never be able to greet the strangers around us. [His premise, though, is that when we learn to practice being welcoming and present with the people already in our lives we start to have margin for strangers.]
That's the first half of the book. Good stuff. Then Beck introduces us to Therese of Lisieux and her, "Little Way" and things get really interesting. I won't say much more about Therese (read the book). But Beck wants us to know that Therese's Little Way could be revolutionary (his says atomic) to our practice of the Christian faith.
Noticing/Seeing Others - nothing can be accomplished by way of welcoming until we notice others. Paying attention, seeing others, is the practice of kindness.
Slow down, stop, practice being interrupted. When Blind Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, Mark 10 says, "Jesus stopped." If you follow Jesus, he will make you late.
Approach, seek out, offer a smile, a kind word to someone who isn't being noticed, who you might tend to make a detour around.
That's it?! Yes.
We will "widen the circle of our affections" (hospitality) by the intentional and disciplined practice of seeing, stopping for, and approaching people whom we otherwise would avoid or ignore.
... a million boring little things.
The Tyndale Intercultural Ministries Centre (TIM Centre) in Toronto (connected with Tyndale Seminary) has just released a book to which I contributed a chapter. I have been involved with this learning community for almost 15 years. The collection of authors have contributed greatly to my understanding and practice over these years.
From the Amazon blurb:
This book is a collection of essays written to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre (1998-2018). Each chapter is written by a reflective practitioner engaged in ministry to, through and beyond the diaspora. They write, not as leaders who have all the answers, but as servants of God who are “building the bridge as they walk on it.” The TIM Centre is one of the key pieces of Tyndale’s Open Learning Centre, a strategic part of the ministry of Tyndale Seminary, located in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Believing that mission is not one-directional, “the West to the rest,” TIM Centre sees mission as from everywhere to everywhere, beginning on our doorstep and going to the ends of the earth. As you read this book one theme is constant throughout: We are living in a changing cultural context where the proven solutions of the past no longer relate to the questions being raised in the present. This book challenges us to be aware of the assumptions we bring to our ministry context and to be willing to evaluate them as we engage the global community that now resides in our neighbourhoods. This will require a spirit of humility to listen and learn from people of different cultures that God has brought to our doorstep.
Interesting reflections on the social and cultural milieu that we find ourselves in -- in this book review/essay by Brad East, Holy Ambivalence, in Los Angeles Review of Books. And what it means to be the people of God in the midst of these times. His question, What to do about Liberalism?
There are four basic approaches. First, retrenchment: liberalism has problems like anything else, but it’s nothing a little more liberalism can’t fix. Second, ambivalence: liberalism has endemic, insoluble problems, but it’s what we’ve got, and the status quo, however bad, is better than any known alternative and thus worth ameliorating in whatever small ways we can. Third, rejection: liberalism is an abject failure, unworthy of being propped up any longer, though admittedly there is no ready-made substitute for it. Fourth, replacement: liberalism has reached its end, and there are far more just political forms available if only we would have the courage to open ourselves to radical change
In short: “Liberalism has failed.” But “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” Indeed, “the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.”
Apart from its effects, what is most insidious about liberalism is the way it hides itself as an ideology. It is so deeply interwoven with our life and thought that it has become the air we breathe, the water we swim in, the operating system we take for granted — until the whole system crashes. We are, Deneen argues, in a version of Plato’s cave, so mesmerized by the movie-set backdrops on the walls that we don’t realize they are two-dimensional projections. We need to get out, to seek the light. We need to expose our condition for what it is.
Liberalism was sold as a rescue from the state of nature, in which isolated individuals languished at war with others to secure their interests. But no such state ever existed, nor its lonely human protagonist — until liberalism’s triumph, that is. The liberal state created the subject it purported to save.
East then examines James K A Smith's recent, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, where ensues a discussion about how Christians should conduct themselves in our interactions with the public space.
We are first of all, not thinking or believing creatures, but desiring animals. And what we love above all we worship. Such worship is neither individualistic nor disembodied but enacted in corporate rituals of ultimate concern. These practices habituate us, forming and redirecting our loves to objects that constitute visions of the good, of what it means to flourish as human beings. Such routines of the body do most of their work at an unconscious level; the mind follows the heart, and the heart directs the body, which reciprocates in kind.
Smith's classic illustration of this (from earlier works) is the shopping mall; our weekly trips habituate us to consumption; and the vicarious habits of screen-viewing (whether FB, gaming, TV or Netflix)...
Smith’s answer is threefold. First, the church is called and sent by God into the world to love its neighbors, serve the common good, and bear witness to the way of Jesus. So there is no avoiding the encounter, because it is divinely mandated. Second, the church’s own liturgical practices are the heart of its life for a reason: centered on the worship of God, who alone is worthy of it, they have the power, through God’s own action, to form, equip, and commission believers for faithful life and witness in society. Their loves properly ordered, Christians are empowered by the sacramental practices of the local worshiping community to resist the liturgical capture of the state — though this contest of loves ought to be made explicit, the better to know where the danger lies.
That's what I have appreciated about Smith's suggestions over the years -- the church needs to proactively provide an alternative formation to what we are already formed by -- the social and cultural milieu in which we swim/navigate each day.
In sum: Worship as “the civics of the city of God”; mission as the motivating force for participating in the earthly city; holy ambivalence as the character of such participation; hope in the heavenly city as the tether suspending its citizens here below, as they await the return of the King.
That's the phrase that caught my attention -- holy ambivalence. I've voted on the left side of the political spectrum all my adult life, and will probably continue so. There is just as much "disconnect" from a Christian worldview in conservative politics as there is in liberal politics, so I choose the vision that "up-front" says we should care for the vulnerable among us. But my personal stance is one of ambivalence -- there is no perfect political system conjured by human beings. In the end it is how we conduct our personal lives and the community of people we do that with, that makes any real differences.
I have found the understanding of human psychology and sociology (the human condition) that Christian Scriptures describe to be very accurate in my own experience. I find the loving, sacrificial, others-orientation of the Jesus story, as a response to the human condition, to be both challenging and transformative. And "in the meantime" (as we await the better world we all desire), we are called, as the church, to provide an alternative formation -- habits and practices consistent with the notion that God, who is Other, needs to hold our attention and shape our attitudes and behaviours better than we have been managing.
East concludes his review and reflections with:
But whatever strategies we devise, whoever comes our way, the waiting will continue. Smith, with Augustine, is therefore right to hallow patience as the church’s central political virtue; right to remember that Christian hope has no earthly term. There is no living beyond one’s time: perseverance does not mean impatience. Even liberalism can be endured.
For years, while my children were growing up, I had a tradition of sitting down, sometime over Christmas, and reading to them from William Kurelek’s, A Northern Nativity: Christmas Dreams of a Prairie Boy. I didn’t grow up on the prairies but have lived there and hitch-hiked across Western Canada – when that sort of thing wasn’t frowned upon. So I can imagine myself in his settings, which also include other distinctive Canadian locales.
The book is a collection of Kurelek paintings with accompanying script versions of his dreams, around the theme of the Nativity of Jesus. The colour paintings reproduced in the book are typical of Kurelek’s mature style and are visually attractive, even to kids. The accompanying dream scripts may have meant more to me than my kids, but I read them anyway, often stopping to choke back tears as I read.
William Kurelek (1927-1977) was a Canadian artist, writer and a devout Christian. Of Ukrainian background, from Alberta, Kurelek graduated from the U of Manitoba with a degree in art and did studies at the Ontario College of Art, with further work in Mexico and Europe. Although baptized and raised Ukrainian Orthodox, he became an atheist in young adulthood, before converting to Roman Catholicism at 30. He remained a committed Catholic until his death by cancer at 50.
Kurelek based this book on his own childhood dreams coupled with his adult life experience -- on the theme of the Incarnation, that Christ came to all people, everywhere. What would happen if Joseph and Mary arrived at a prairie farm house? He imagines that the nativity takes place in northern snows. He dreams that the Christ child is born to Eskimos (sic), to Indians, to Blacks, that the Nativity takes place in a fisherman’s hut, a garage, a cowboy’s barn, that the holy family is given refuge in a city mission, a grain barn, and a country school.
Kurelek’s paintings and dream scripts are quintessentially Canadian. Published shortly before his death, Kurelek engages with the diverse cultures present in the Canadian landscape. This would have been a theme much on his mind as an adult living through the 1960s and early 70s in Canada. Of Ukrainian background, it was the question of what to do with the Eastern European immigrants who had flooded into a Western European Canada that helped spark the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-69) and the subsequent policies on multiculturalism that continue to inform our public space.
One very poignant image is of Mary and baby Jesus reaching out to a young man sleeping rough and cold under some trees on a riverbank – in the background we see a view of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa from the Quebec side of the river. Kurelek asks, what if the Child reached out to those deliberating on the Hill? Would he be received or rejected?
During the Advent season, we focus on the first coming of God Incarnate, Emmanuel, and reflect on the Second Coming with its promise of the restoration of all things as God intended. In this in-between time of waiting and expecting, we are reminded by David Fitch that God “requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see.”
Kurelek’s images in Northern Nativity give a glimpse into the places, and the people among whom that presence needs to be made visible.
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.
Whoops. No commentary needed. Read on...
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with demands, sets up his own laws and judges the brethren and God accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds people together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to pot. So he becomes first an accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into the common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is what has been given us not enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ?
Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together -- the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This discussion is very important for large organizations or communities of people, where cultural and social factors add complexity.
Short, clear article here, by Will Allen.
Research into complex systems demonstrates that they cannot be understood solely by simple or complicated approaches to evidence, policy, planning and management.
Complicated systems are all fully predictable. These systems are often engineered. We can understand these systems by taking them apart and analyzing the details. From a management point of view we can create these systems by first designing the parts, and then putting them together. However, we cannot build a complex adaptive system (CAS) from scratch and expect it to turn out exactly in the way that we intended. CAS are made up of multiple interconnected elements, and are adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience - their history is important.
Getting people to work collectively in a coordinated fashion in areas such as poverty alleviation or catchment management is therefore better seen by agencies as a complex, rather than a complicated problem – a fact many managers are happy to acknowledge .... but somehow this acknowledgement often does not translate into different management and leadership practice.
These approaches to influencing complex systems require changing our thinking and our practices. The challenge is that by the time we learn this, our ways of thinking and practising are largely entrenched and very difficult to adjust.
In January 1998 I spent a week in Manila, The Philippines. This was in the midst of the time that Kathy and I were living in South Africa planting a church and developing community-based missional responses. For us that included developing an affordable housing company (managing 50 units) and an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims. The visit to Manila was to participate in a round table learning encounter with other urban ministry practitioners from around the world (Africa, Asia, Caribbean, England, USA) sponsored by Food for the Hungry, World Vision and the Fieldstead Institute. One of the products of that work was a book published by MARC, entitled Serving with the Urban Poor, edited by Ted Yamamori, Bryant Myers and Ken Luscombe. Kathy and I contributed a chapter on the work we were connected with in South Africa.
Among the many other learnings from that rich time was the opportunity to learn from Fr Ben Beltran, a Divine Word missionary working at Smokey Mountain, at the time the largest garbage dump in The Philippines. In the sessions, Father Ben shared his own experience of living and ministering on/in Smokey Mountain as an incarnational activity. He described the life of the church community (in a building built from scavenged garbage) as grace-radiating substance. That is, a faith community celebrating the Eucharist and reading & applying Scripture, in that setting, was both a physical and spiritual manifestation of the presence of God. That was a new thought for me at the time. That just to live, minister and "be" the presence of Christ in that space was witness. That God would give the resources to live that kind of life was, in fact, "good news." Interestingly, Ben also helped us reflect on a theology of holistic ministry by employing a motif from Philipino worldview -- the notion of human being as defined by relationship to others; "to be" is "to be in relation." Rejecting a dualistic western understanding of sacred and profane. Relationship with God, with others and the created earth is, "of a kind," not separate things.
[recent writings on the idea of "place" in Christian ministry: Where Mortals Dwell, No Home Like Place, The Space Between, The New Parish. Good thoughts here from the late Richard Twiss, on an indigenous theology of place.]
As I returned to our ministry in South Africa, this led me to work toward deepening our practice regarding our location as a city centre, multicultural faith community that was expressing itself in the provision of affordable safe housing and care for those impacted by domestic oppression and violence. Those were issues "of" our place. This amplified insights from my study with Alan Roxburgh a few years earlier, who asked us, "what are the themes that emerge from your social context? what does the gospel/good news look like in relation to those themes?"
In the midst of our affordable housing development we received a major grant from the South African government's Dept of Housing. We decided to have a "thanksgiving service" (a very African thing to do) right on the building site, on a major traffic route through the city. So amidst the building rubble of demolished older buildings with new sections going up, we had an open-air worship service with full band and sound system, we had some traditional dancing and choirs, obligatory speeches and we celebrated the Lord's Supper as servers tried not to stumble over bricks and puddles of water. Grace seemed very tangible that day.
Today, in Canada, I am convinced more than ever that issues of place and context need to impact our practice and our communication. The incarnation of Jesus (local communities of the Body of Christ) in place and time must reflect good news to those who see and hear us.