Thursday, March 31, 2011

Down to Business

I know I've been very slow at posting here lately. In addition to trying to stay on task with my thesis I also have been experiencing a fair number of crises lately. The one most pressing on our family is with my mother-in-law who broke her hip almost a month ago. Three surgeries later and she is doing much better, but it has been a long hard run. Lots of thinking, tears and anxiety have been met with prayers, perseverance and the comforting wishes of friends. But I have accomplished a few things in the meanwhile.

I posted about my struggles with adult ADHD recently and have since managed to see a psychiatrist who seems well versed on the matter. I'm very hopeful that this will work. He also was clear that diet and exercise are critical to dealing with ADHD. Stuff I knew but didn't want to have to deal with. Sugar is your enemy. I decided to leverage Lent and give up candy - which is sort of my thesis writing comfort food. I'm also trying to limit other sources of sugar, but it is not always easy. He wanted me to give up alcohol too, but considering I have maybe a beer a week and the odd glass of wine with a meal I decided to not do that one. But I have managed to get back to the yoga mat more consistently. It is important to take care of yourself when you are doing hard mental work.

So if you don't see me posting all the time you will know why. I hope to return to posting soon, especially as I begin prepping my summer course on Pentecostal/Charismatic movements in the 20th Century.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mourning the Loss of Another Friend

I've been really swamped with stuff in our community and just plain living of life. This week brought some more sad news as an old friend passed away. Brian and I shared a house when I first moved back to Ottawa. He was house sitting and I got to stay when I left Mississauga. Mississauga was a hard time for me and having a safe haven in Ottawa let me get back on my feet again. I loved that we prayed and worshipped together in that house. I know I was a frustrating roommate, pretty naive about a lot of things. Brian letting me stay with him was a real provision from God.

I lost touch with Brian over the years. I would get updates from our mutual friend Joyce. Joyce even arranged the one dinner where Brian met my wife Sharon and I got to meet his wife Cindy. I always felt like I would reconnect with him at some point, but that will not happen now. Brian is leaving behind a wife and three children (the youngest is 7) and there is a funeral tomorrow. If you are the praying type comfort is my heart for his family.

Monday, March 14, 2011

THO 2176: Thinking in Tongues

I now have copies of the Summer evening course schedule for Saint Paul. Despite having my last name misspelled, I am so excited. The course is primarily historical in content. It will begin with the classic Pentecostal movement, looking at its roots and manifestations. Then we will look at the Charismatic movements with a special focus on the Catholic Charismatic movement. Lastly we will look at the neo-pentecostal movements and what I would like to call Pentecostal futures. Pentecostalism is growing and pervasive, it really needs to be examined seriously. I'm excited to have an opportunity to do so with a class this summer. Students and auditors are welcome and you can beat the end of term rush by signing up now with the faculty of theology at Saint Paul University.

HT to James K. A. Smith for the course title - this is the title of his book which is part of the excellent Pentecostal Manifestos series put out by Eerdmans.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Still Foundational

I was asked to speak at Dominion-Chalmers United Church yesterday. They are doing a Thursday noon devotional series for Lent. The question they asked me to speak on was what difference does the call to be a disciple of Jesus make to my ministry/vocation. What a great question. It is very similar to my buddy Mike's recent question about why I felt I needed to be a pastor. Mike is quick to call me on magic words like feeling called, those words really don't get at the heart of what is really being asked. And really, vocational callings, if they are really callings and not simply aspiration, can bear the scrutiny that is required to fulfill them wisely. So I've been thinking of this quite a bit recently. What difference does it make? Why is Jesus so important? And what does it mean to be a disciple? It didn't surprise me that exploring this took me right back to the story of how I ended up on this Christian journey - what evangelicals like to call their testimony.

I don't like telling my testimony. My issue is that I'm a fairly dramatic crisis oriented person (a la William James) so many evangelicals think I have a great testimony. But I get concerned that we evangelicals can fall in love with the dramatic stories and miss that God meets us all uniquely. The worst case is when evangelicals feel compelled to embellish their stories - that makes me sad. Our culture can be quite elitist and does not value the experience of the prodigal's older brother who loved God from early on. I know some of those people and that they are often made to feel quite inadequate in evangelical conversations. So I just stopped. So it was with a bit of fear and trepidation that I shared some of those stories with the DC crowd yesterday. And thankfully it seemed to really hit a good chord with the folks who shared with me after the talk.

The thing that connects for me is that in my story I see a repeated motif. The motif is that I find myself confronted with a choice between a life that is meaningless, merely going through the motions, and a life that makes a difference in the world beyond my self. In one my response has always been to seek escape, but in the other I feel compelled to put my hands to the work that is before me and not look back. And always in my life, at the center of these moments of decision, is the person of Jesus Christ.

Some of that centering on Jesus has to be attributed to growing up in the United Church in Truro, going to Sunday school and, as I discovered later on in life, having people praying over me and my family throughout my whole life. So it shouldn't be surprising, in my case, that Jesus would figure large in the critical decisions of my life. But for me it is not only a sense of Jesus asking me to choose to be a disciple, it also means that in my effort to walk that out I have found it most meaningful when I turn to Jesus as the author and perfecter of my faith.

When I try to center my life around Jesus I find that there are things I naturally want to do. Two in particular form the basis of my vocational choice: community and encouragement.

In terms of community, I don't think I'm particularly good at building community, but I love it. And I love that Jesus continually welcome people to the table. I see in Jesus a passion for community, hanging out with people, engaging in the messiness that is relationship. And even though I'm really an introvert - I crave this enough that I go about creating it wherever I can. So if you ever wondered why I love this so much - blame Jesus. But seriously, this part is the challenge for me. And I still have tonnes to learn about community, but as a vocation it is something I'm ready to devote my life to.

The second is why I have spent so much time, energy and even money, becoming a theologian. I love to see people come alive in their lives. I love to see them connect how their lives can make a difference in this world. I love to encourage people. Now, I'm not a big yes man. I'm particularly hard on spiritualities that are so inward focuses they are merely masking an effort to escape meaninglessness. And part of encouragement is pushing people to be better. I take that seriously. If I were to say what I am called to it would be to help people engage in their spirituality better. And the reason for that is rooted in a lot of things - but probably most significantly in the fact that this is what people who loved me did for me.

When I put Jesus at the center of the second vocational choice I am constantly reminded of how uniquely he treated every situation/person that came across his path. Jesus had an amazing ability to draw people to think about things better. People made radical decisions when Jesus was around. They stepped out and did things that really bugged those who loved the status quo. I aspire to that. It gives me hope that this choice is a good way to imitate Jesus, after all at the core of being a disciple is being more like Jesus.

I'm glad the talk went well. Even traveling in there I thought it could go either way. I took a risk, and am glad it struck a chord. I hope that chord keeps resonating throughout this Lenten season.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Book of the People and People of the Book

As promised I wanted to blog a bit about the sessions I did for Knox Presbyterian here in Ottawa. First off I really enjoyed the engaged conversation we had the last night, what a great group of people. I hope that I was able to stir up a dynamic conversation around our relationship to and with the Bible. I think this is one of the more important areas for contemporary Christians to wrestle with.

My strategy was to spend the first night deconstructing how we understand our relationship with the Bible and then the second night reconstructing it, hopefully with a better understanding of what we desire Scripture to do in our faith and communities and with a better understanding of how we might have placed restraints on the text. Both are needed to make this work, so I was quite happy with the number of folk who took in both sessions.

In terms of deconstruction I went about turning the assumptions we often make about the Bible into the questions we should be asking. So when we assert that the Bible is authoritative we need to ask in what way is the Bible authoritative? These are not natural questions to ask of our primary, as Protestant Christians, symbol. In fact when we look at our feelings we can often find ourselves wanting to defend our claims rather than examine them. This actually shows us how foundational the Bible is to our spirituality and even identity. The fear is that if we begin to dig deeply into those foundations our whole sense of self might come tumbling down. I think in some ways that fear is true. But there is a risk in not doing it - the risk is that we will discover eventually that we might be building on those foundations in ways that actually are not faithful to our claims about the Bible being foundational to our lives and communities. It is not pretty when folks make this realization on their own.

At the end of the first night we left presented two questions to mull over until the second session. First, how does the Bible shape us? Which is the safe question in some ways - but I think it can help reveal the ways in which we resist having our lives shaped by the Bible. And second, how do we shape the Bible? I love the anecdote from Free for All (Conder and Rhodes) about the biblical scholar who is asked to tell a congregation what the Bible says about homosexuality. He sits the Bible on the pulpit and waits. When nothing happens he declares that the Bible doesn't say anything about homosexuality on its own - it needs to be read and reading is an act of interpretation. This is the piece the seems to bug us most - when we challenge the myth that the Bible somehow mediates itself. Which, if this were actually a quality of Scripture, would not result in the vast array of interpretations that Christians hold onto. The hard part about this is to know what we are bringing to the text when we read it. Sometimes we don't even know. Both of these questions are ones we can return to over and over again. But where deconstruction is helpful to reveal the true character of our existing relationship with/to the Bible - the reality is that a spirituality without the Bible really has a tenuous claim to being Christian.

When we are rebuilding our relationship - we need to pay attention to what we expect and desire from a relationship with Scripture. For many of us that encounter with Scripture was the place of encountering the Word behind the word. In fact the way it is described is transformative, and I think that aspect of the relationship is always worth preserving. The genius of the devotional reading of Scripture captures this aspect nicely. While it is not the same thing as Biblical Criticism (or even Bible study for that matter) it serves a valuable function because it insists that the text remain dangerous. By dangerous I am referring to capacity of this encounter with the content of the text as challenging to our own ideas and views. It is exactly the opposite of what is practiced so much in preaching - where the text is used to support our ideas. The devotional reading is meant to confront us, challenge us, and spur us on towards love an good works.

The other problem with devotional readings though is that it is an intuitive process. We often do not reflect on how much we bring to the spiritual practice of devotional reading, so like Augustine, we can find ourselves doing what we think is the right thing but in actuality is not right at all. Think about slavery for instance - both sides of the slavery debate rested on the foundation of the Bible. Today, I'm certain, most of us would hold slavery to be unconscionable. But this is a relatively new development. And what shaped the position for the stakeholders was their presuppositions about the humanity of the people who were being trafficked as slaves. While we cannot know what we don't know - in terms of all our assumptions - we can find help in a second way of relating to the Bible - Biblical study.

Bible study should not be conflated with devotional reading. If we can make this distinction then I think we can ease a lot of the fears about Biblical criticism. We can also insist that more critical Biblical study needs to be in conversation with the devotional reading that animates the community. In our example of slavery it wasn't Biblical study that changed hearts and minds - it was a shift in the assumptions that were being brought to Scripture. But Biblical study can then take up its task in light of both the contemporary situation and the historical witness of text and tradition. Often a process that strengthens our capacity to relate to the Bible in a healthy way.

In our talks we took this conversation one other place. The remaining problem is where this conversation is worked out. I proposed a reflection on the community as the place of interpretation. Certainly we are not all accomplished Biblical Scholars, but some in our communities do possess such skills. What we can do is wrestle together. We can draw on whatever depths there are in our communities - but also with the understandings of those who are interacting with the needs of the community and society. We can foster conversations that challenge us as the people of the Book to live out what we discover in the Book of the people.