Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I was recently in a conversation where the word missional was being thrown around. At least three different church leaders used this term in describing their own church, and all of them meant something different by it. A couple years back a number of my emerging church friends ditched emerging/emergent for this term. While emerging/emergent can mean everything you like or dislike about modern Christianity - missional has a root that is harder to deny. For many of us in the evangelical world, missional sounds like it should be a definitive word for what we are doing - after all isn't our role to treat the world like a mission field? I'll let you mull that over.

The idea of missional needs some qualifiers though. Do you mean missional in terms of a general disposition of your congregation to support traditional missions abroad and maybe even at home? That is one way I hear it being used. Or do you mean missional in terms of an orientation of your congregation towards bringing people into your church - by whatever means you feel God has led you to employ of course? I hear that a lot too - it is basically using missional to describe what others have named attractional. Or do you mean missional as a means of saying that your congregation is embedded in the cultures they are trying to reach - implicated in their very lives? This is where some would get antsy - but this is another way this term is being used.

One of the problems is that these terms represent ecclesiologies that are often contrasted against each other, somehow captured up in one little word. I have two problems with this. First evangelicals have a weakness for words, we love to use them but we are less enamoured with precisely defining them. This is actually a liberal impulse that is meant to preserve religious diversity, but it leads rather to a relativistic use of words and impoverishes the majority of evangelical writing. (I know that is a judgment, one shared by others frustrated with the lack of precision and unpacking of assumptions in evangelical literature.) The second problem is that this word is skirting a battle that needs to be had. This one might surprise you.

Watching folks throw the word missional around uncarefully leads to some interesting situations. I can see how the other views of missional are looking for ways to express their paradigm but with a sense that their knees have been knocked out. The attractional-incarnational battle is still there beneath the surface. This actually creates a distrust that festers beneath the surface and prevents folks from connecting and understanding where the other is coming from. I think those things need to battle it out - and with the traditionalists thrown in the mix. And not because I think one is better than the other - I don't. I think they are simply different. And the only way to hold difference in tension and unity is to acknowledge it and commit to mutual understanding. One question I never hear is why does that person/group gravitate to that paradigm? I think about that in these conversations - and it amazes me how little we actually know ourselves let alone each other. This reality compounds the problem. The less we know why something appeals to us, the more afraid we will be of losing it.

In the end I'm wondering if we haven't just wrecked yet another word. Missional? What is missional?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Busy Week

Monday I drove to Bancroft to hang out with leaders from the various Vineyards in Ontario. I always appreciate those gatherings. Larry Levy (Halifax Metro Vineyard) came up from the Atlantic region to bless us. Larry is an amazing guy and we love visiting his church when we are down East visiting my family. I really felt affirmed amongst my peers, I have taken over as the regional representative for Thoughtworks. Thoughtworks is the theological development group for the Vineyard in Canada and I am hoping to find some ways to do theological mentoring of our Ontario pastors and leaders in a way that will work for folks already very busy. Ontario is a funny place that way. The reality is that there is a lot of work that could/should be done but most pastors are so busy that their own personal development is low on the priority chart. I think most of us know the value of continuing to grow, but it is easier said than done. The other focus I'm going to bring is trying to connect and encourage our Vineyard folks in formal theological education. I have seen many students trashed by their local churches (not in the Vineyard so far, but I bet they have been) because they started to push questions that make many evangelicals uncomfortable.

I'm back from the conference and scrambling for CanGames this weekend. This year I'm running just one game! Tomorrow morning I have a custom scenario for Injurious Games called Gatecrasher! Basically it is capture the flag, but with rocket launchers! I have the glue setting on my last piece - a robot with a heavy laser and a huge fist (the technical name is the Nut Crusher). That guy speeds after the flag and pummels anyone who dares capture it. It is going to be a lot of fun. I'll spend the whole day at the con tomorrow and at least the morning session on Sunday. Monday, I'm going to Star Trek. So much to do.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Yoga as a Spiritual Practice

One of the things that detractors of yoga get right is that it isn't just an exercise programme. Yoga is a spiritual, even a devotional, practice. Many Christians who want some of the benefits of yoga will go to great lengths to isolate the yoga from its true nature. The fear is, as we discussed in the last post, syncretism. The error is that spiritual practices are conflated with religious contexts. It comes from a very surface analysis of religious groupings - where we identify various groups on the basis of their devotional/spiritual practices rather than the content of their religion (such as truth claims). In our worst efforts we conflate truth claims with the practices. Hence, Yoga becomes yoked to Hinduism.

Indeed we owe Hinduism a debt for the development of yoga. Just as we owe any religion for the practices that it introduces into the world that make the world a better place. Practices such as Christian peacekeeping or even creation care, Buddhist and Hindu non-violence, Charity, Love, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, and the list goes on. When we start to look at individual religions, including Christianity, we find the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Unfortunately when it is something that develops in a religion that is not our own chosen religion, then we tend to lump it all in with the ugly. Christians are so good at this they can even do it from denomination to denomination.

So lets start with the assumption that yoga is also part of this good, bad and ugly mix. I think that is a fair assessment. Knowing people involved in the TM movement there are aspects that many Christians would/should be extremely uncomfortable with and there is a naivety in some of the assumptions about personal peace and world peace that would give many Christian incipient theologies a run for their monies. Starting with this assumption lets draw a clear line between devotional practices and the object of devotion.

This assumption is at the heart of the PraiseMoves effort. Let's leave aside how arrogant and offensive I think this proposal (PraiseMoves) really is. Willis is speaking out of her inability to separate the devotional practice with the practice of yoga. But she also outlines her considerable baggage in this enterprise - classic Starbuck twice-born thinking. She also can't deny the benefits of yoga especially as a spiritual practice. Christians, BTW, are good at spiritual practices - rosaries, fasts, retreats, pilgrimages, initiation rites, etc. So Willis has two core ideas in conflict - so she basically steals yoga and re-appropriates it into a context that she is more comfortable. Although renaming classic yoga poses probably is still a tough sell for her market demographic. (BTW the part I find offensive is the dishonesty in all of this, on one hand she trashes another religion and then unashamedly rips them off.)

A big problem here is that now we have yet another subculture that has severed its ties to reality. It loses its redemptive potential as well as its voice in the practice of yoga. It is also counter-intuitive for Christians who are the great adaptors - Eucharist being the primary example. Cut off from the world out of which yoga comes we are unable to assess properly the purpose and learn the techniques which make yoga so great. Just read Willis' exposition on the namaste (prayer) pose - complete with scriptural proof-texting. Actually namaste has a lot of similarities to shalom, although it has a different purpose. She is right that it implies an honouring of the light we see in another. But as Christians we believe the true light of the world is Jesus and we honour Jesus in others knowing that it is the work of Jesus in the other that draws her or him to the Father. In fact we look for that light to help us show them more of God. Yet, if we become convinced that light can only mean something other than the obvious - we cannot appropriate its meaning. (And we should probably drop a lot of other borrowed practices too!)

So, to sum it up, I want to understand what is going on for the Hindu practitioner of yoga. I want it to be a spiritual practice. It is of more value if it is integrated into my whole devotional life. When there is, in yoga, an opening to the divine - why would I fear that? In fact I say come Holy Spirit. God is not afraid of yoga, in fact I know for certain that God longs for us to be truly open and receptive. Our Western minds love to separate the spiritual from the secular, we love to compartmentalize God out of the picture. But yoga is about integration, yoking oneself to the divine. Didn't Jesus talk about yoking somewhere.

I think a quick caution is needed here. Certainly there are those who will find this hard to get their heads around. If that is you, bless you, you might want to avoid yoga. What I'm calling for requires more than just participation in yoga as an exercise. It means navigating, often with great difficulty, the integration of a new spiritual practice into your devotional life. That should always be done with care and great thought. Look for the fruit. Yoga is embedded in a whole worldview and way of life, that needs to be unpacked and valued if it is to be truly helpful in developing a Christian devotional practice. You are bound to make mistakes so look for the fruit, especially the fruit of God's presence.


[note this has been edited, thanks Marnie]

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Syncretism and the Combative Gospel

Paul Knitter defines syncretism as a distilling of "all historical differences between religions in order to institutionalize their common core." (No Other Name? p.9) I start with Knitter because I think if anyone flirts too much with syncretism it is he. Be that as it may, I think he understands the feared subject quite well. (I much prefer McDermott's approach.) I will start with an assumption that syncretism is not a desired response to religious pluralism. If you have religious commitments then why should/would anyone expect you to lay down your distinctives? To stand on religious ground is to claim that there is something distinct (even good) about your religion. Syncretism really cuts to the heart of that and leaves us only with a relativism. To take such a position really counters the claims of Christ and thousands of years of Christianity.

However, much of the distrust of pluralism (the reality we live in) has fostered a fear of syncretism in the contemporary North American evangelical church. Some blame Barth, but I think really this is a cultural phenomenon. I am more convinced that it is an evolution of any religion that adopts a combative stance towards culture. And some of that combative stance is the honest product of dealing with the tension of plurality. But I'll leave that to Charles Taylor - I want to zone in on how we have structured the gospel as warfare in a way that is guaranteed to never win.

We Blew Up the Bridges!

We love to use the bridge illustration, but we are convinced that the gospel is really only an escape route. This is only really good news for those who buy the bill of goods. In fact it really isn't that good of news for those folks either, because they have to tough it out in the "battle zone" until the final extraction. Moltmann points out that this sort of religion is unable to present any hope to the world (which is ironic because it is billed as hope).

This is the form of Christianity that I first encountered. It is the same form that had me burn my Peter Gabriel albums even though Peter is largely responsible for my turn to Christ. It says that there is nothing good in this world, especially in your life before you said that magic prayer. It tells you to isolate and settle into the cult of mediocrity (a play on Schaeffer), biding your time until the real show comes. It misses completely the whole point of the resurrection - that God is doing a new thing in God's object of love - the world.

So where are the Christians who bought into this gospel of battle? Outside not looking in. Actually they are looking up and desperate for anything that will dispel the hell they know the world is becoming - why? because they have turned their backs on the core call of the gospel - to be in this world (not of it) as agents of Christ, looking for what God is doing and partnering up with it in every way they can. That is not syncretism - that is bringing the full force of your Christian identity to the world that so desperately needs it.

We Dehumanized the So-Called Enemies

In order to get people to kill other people, we must first dehumanize the others we wish to eliminate. It is one of the saddest things about military structures. It might be necessary for the military to do its job - but I often wonder if we really need a military in the first place. But I am certain we do not need warfare mentality in the Church - at least not towards other people. Yet, over and over, I encounter a sense of willingness to trash the beliefs of others for the sake of the "gospel". Think about the absurdity of that. If you don't believe me go watch Ray Comfort's street preaching videos.

The fear of syncretism has become the fear of infection. If we listen to the other then we might catch what they have. There are two problems with that. First, if you are afraid of losing what you have got then maybe you haven't got what you think you have in the first place. If your faith is never challenged, then it isn't faith it is a desperate clinging to an ideology that makes you feel good and might not necessarily be true. The problem is we are addicted to surity in the West and not enamoured with God.

Second, what makes you think that you have the market on the truth? There is a real arrogance to any religion that writes off the spiritual journeys of others. Any God who is able to speak through an ass (I mean the animals, but this also applies to the Ray Comforts of the world) can also speak to and through any person regardless of his or her religion. Actually read the bible and note how often God works through the gentiles. Yet, the arrogance of modern evangelicalism is such that we would have nothing to do with these voices of God. We miss the strands of eternity that God has patiently woven in the lives of every man, woman and child. We devalue our brothers and sisters - so it should not surprise us that we easily kill them off (their voices anyway).

I think there is a caution to be made about sycretism. Relativism is not a helpful response to pluralism. In fact it is not even a necessary response. What I hope is becoming clear is that there is another way. We can value the journeys of everyone. We can realize that we are in this world together. We can look for common strategies. We can encourage the strands of God's grace when we see them, and in so doing even reveal to people the way to Christ. But we need to see that the cross is not an exit, but an entrance into our world. It is the event that changes everything. It is an event that is planted deep into the world and through resurrection hope brings transformation to everything. We aren't called to wait - we are called to love, that is give of ourselves until we bleed and share in the power and joy of that resurrected life both here and now. Something to think about.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Yoga and Christianity

I am in the midst of a really interesting conversation about yoga and syncretism. I have been exploring yoga as a way of strengthening my neck and back, as well as introducing some physical exercise into my bookish existence. Tomorrow it will be three weeks of about an hour a day. I'm really impressed, right from the start I could feel the difference. My body felt great, I've had constant body pain for years now, and my mind felt clearer. The first few days I was simply doing yoga for dummies, which is North American mass market yoga. Sure, it has a component of slowing down and becoming more attentive to the self. But really it is devoid of the spiritual references that some expect from yoga. I moved from there to some more mass market yoga routines, finding a nice 1 hour session called I Love My Yoga. Still no spiritual references but I'm already seeing possibilities - and so my searching on the internet turns up some interesting stuff. But just like Christians who have their own takes on everything, so do the yogis have their own takes on yoga. Some tie it in quite strongly to their Hindu meditation. Others capitalize on questionable assumptions about the spirit. But most seem to shy away from the extremes. So just as I shy away from the Christian extremes I think it is safe to stick with the main and plain for our analysis.

About finding potential, well it really came in the closing meditation. This is called Shavasana and consists of laying in the corpse pose and reflecting on the good your session has done to your body and mind. It is about bringing your presence/attention to what is happening in your own body. Something Westerners are not that good at. During Shavasana there is a moment where the instructor on I Love My Yoge encourages you to thank yourself for spending this time on yourself. Well, as soon as I started to think about thankfulness my mind turned to all that God has done and a prayer of thanksgiving was instantly filling my mind. That moment has become a time of grounding prayer for my day. It is when my attention is turned to the Spirit whose temple I have just been preparing, a time when I can say come. It is interesting that after this we return to a seated prayer position and pronounce peace on all around us - namaste (a word that means greeting of peace and a recognition of the light - I see Jesus all over that!) So I'm capturing some of the spirituality of yoga, but appropriating it into a Christian spiritual foundation. The question is: is this legitimate?

I have some thoughts, love to hear yours.

Rik Leaf - Tribe of One - Buy This Album!

Rik Leaf sent me his latest album and it is really good. I have been hesitant to bring it in from the car to do a review, simply because I am enjoying listening to it. This album seems more straight forward lyrically than his last album, but at the same time he is venturing out into new styles. I love Je Me Souviens, and yup this album has some french content including the wicked french verse of this song. The sense of multiculturalism is foreshadowed by track 1: The Maple Leaf. Seriously how could a truly Canadian album ever not be an eclectic mix of languages and styles? Above all my favourite track is Lonely. If I'm in the car for a short drive that is the track I turn to. It reminds me of Leaving on a Jet Plane, but in a haunting way. Rik, I just have to say thanks. Not just for the CD, but for the music. I look forward to hearing some of this stuff live, until then I'm keeping it in my car. You, well, I recommend you buy your own copy.