Feeling at Loose Ends

Maybe it’s the weather, rainy, cool, and gloomy. Maybe it’s because summer has come to an end, the days shorter, the promise of snow in our futures. Maybe it’s because, for the first time in five years, I’m not back in school. Whatever it is, its causing a feeling of melancholy.

It’s likely a combination of all of those things and more. I am really missing the first days of school though. The syllabuses to read, the anticipation of learning new things, the calendar to organize, the new books (oh, the new books!!!) to buy and peruse, all added a feeling of newness and excitement to life. The people, teachers and students alike opened windows to worlds I could only imagine in an atmosphere that somehow encouraged openness and sharing, the rapid building of friendships.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have exciting things going on in my life, things that would be quite impossible to maintain if school were part of life’s mix. There is travelling to do, especially since our Edmonton family moved to Ottawa. There is time to spend with those I love without the need to rush off to another class an hour and a half away. There are tandem bike rides through the countryside. There are lots of things to do here at home, things to build, to fix, to prepare for. There are books to read and conversations to have. There are sermons to write, a congregation to love, classes to teach, meeting to attend, the trouble of a burnt church to weave through. There are rations to run, farmers looking for advice, a training session to speak at.

I even went and joined a choir just so I could sing the Messiah this Christmas.

Life is full.

But still, with all the fullness, there is a little hole looking to be filled.

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So…There was a Fire in the Church

When the phone rings at 7:00 am it can never be good. Yesterday, it wasn’t.

We actually weren’t quick enough to catch the call, leaping from bed, running down the hall, only to find the phone too late, a missed call, but a familiar number; they wouldn’t normally call at this time of day. Then the other phone starts up. Same person. We get it this time.

“The church is on fire. You need to get there”, short and not so sweet.

Minutes later we are in the car, racing toward what could be a disaster, studying the horizon, looking for the plume of black smoke we imagine will be hanging over the village, 17 kilometers away. Wondering if our church home had been destroyed. Wondering if my still meager collection of books has been lost. Wondering how this event might change our lives.

Fire trucks but no smoke plume

Fire trucks but no smoke plume

We arrive to a parking lot filled with fire trucks, but no smoke plume, no dancing flames. There has been a fire, but it’s already out. It was not a false alarm. In fact, it was a very close call. An early rising neighbour, hearing the alarms going off across the street, called 911.  Firefighters got to the scene early enough to fight the fire from inside the building rather than the outside.

There was a sense of unbelief, some relief, and also a huge mess. A small area on the stage had burnt. Soot covered the entire sanctuary. Water was dripping into the kitchen and nursery.  Structurally there is no damage, but we feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task clean up will be.

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The insurance company is called. A restoration company comes along with the adjuster and, by early afternoon, a crew is working to deal with water, opening ventilation in downstairs ceilings and moving in huge fans and dehumidifiers. By day two more crews arrive, books and benches are removed for cleaning. Water damaged drywall and soot filled carpet start to fill a dump trailer parked out front. We feel like we have been invaded by worker ants and the future seems a little closer, a little clearer, a little less overwhelming.

Our service for this coming Sunday was already planned for a park as part of of our annual church camping. We won’t be in our own building for at least a couple of weeks after that, but like the woman who brought cookies and coffee for the fire fighters, our community is a generous one. Space has been offered in other churches until we can get cleaned up. Helping hands have been offered. Notes and calls of concern received.

I’ve been able to work in my office these past two days. The door was closed and it is far from enough the center of the blaze to be relatively unaffected. My books are safe. My schedule is out of whack  with people coming through, questions to answer, contingency plans to discuss. Sunday’s sermon is a little behind schedule, but it will come.

We’re grieving too. Our church home has been violated. Precious things are damaged and being handled by strangers. Some things can’t be made the same again and it seems, right now anyway, we can’t do anything but wander through, trying to absorb what has happened.

 

2012 Christmas Letter

DSCN2036It’s the evening of the 22nd of December, close enough to Christmas to write the 2nd annual reflection on the past year. I’m sitting in C’s living room in Brossard Quebec, the snow swirling around outside and temperatures preparing to fall to the -15 C range overnight. It’s a lot more like Christmas here, today, than the 2 C and rain we left behind yesterday.

Reviewing the blog posts of the past year, there seem to have been three major happenings which have filled our conversations: a bike trip, a wedding, and a birth.

In May we set out on a two-week adventure on a tandem bicycle in eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.DSCN2249 We traveled on rail trails, bike paths, roads, and Quebec bike routes, saw a lot of country, met lots of good folks, had a battle with a gang of raccoons, got a lot of good exercise and solidified our love of the tandem bicycle. Somehow, the closeness, the ability to communicate easily, the sense of teamwork has led us to make the tandem our first choice for long trips. We’ve ordered a brand new one for our adventures in 2013 which is arriving before the new year. Stay tuned for updates on our next adventure.

June 2012 was the most memorable month or our year. It was really busy; we flew to San Francisco to attend J and L’s wedding in a beautiful park surrounded by huge redwood trees,LJ_Wed_0724 and a week later, flew to Edmonton to meet our first grandchild. We have been blessed, even though it has been difficult to picture ourselves as grandparents. All of our children are married and on their way.

Little D is about the cutest kid (and I’m not at all biased)  entertaining us during our frequent Google talk visits and in videos recording his historic firsts. He has probably made us feel the physical distance that is between us and our kids most keenly. The video clips  and chats just don’t cut it when compared to actually snuggling the little fellow. 20120916_141934We were back in Edmonton for his baptism and his parents, R & J, brought him to Ontario to visit in October, so we haven’t been totally deprived.

We did have another addition to our family in 2012. J and M adopted Kingsley, a brother for Mocha and a nephew for Liia. we’re not sure about a second dog in a house in the 600 square foot range, but everyone seems to be getting along very well (and it’s not really our problem, is it?)

For J and I, this year has been one of continuing on. J has continued on in her job at the YMCA. She enjoys the work, especially helping the clients coming into the gym to meet their goals. Her work seems to be appreciated by both the users of the gym and her fellow staff members. I have continued on with my studies, coming within sight of the end of my MDiv program, as well as continuing to work with farmers and feed dealers through Threefold Consulting.ForkintheRoad Both of us know that at some point continuing is going to come to some sort of end as we figure out the next steps in the journey we are on. The MDiv will soon be done and decisions will need to be made about next steps.

And yet, even as we move toward an unknown, we recognize that we have been blessed again this year. Both of us are healthy and are able to take advantage of our flexible schedules to travel and to explore the world around us.

We wish you the blessing of the Christmas season. Peace on earth and good will toward all.

An Interaction with Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope

A week or so ago, driving to a dentist appointment in Goderich, I passed the Benmiller United Church. The sign board in front of the church announces the time of the services, 10:00 am, and the name of the person currently leading the congregation. In stark contrast to the business as usual of the sign, a bulldozer is working next to the church with an odd extension attached to the bucket, carefully stripping off the bricks for salvage. Another rural church is closed, the third in my area in the past year. I’m sure a small monument, not unlike a grave stone, will be planted on the lot, to commemorate the place which was once the social and spiritual center of this community.

  It seems the church, once a driving force in Canada, is being pushed, and shoved, by various forces into a corner of the social fabric which is almost redundant.  The pushing is not unlike that experienced by the Crow People as described in Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope. The movement from the feared, nomadic nation, roaming the American west, a nation that knew what it meant to be a Crow, to life on an ever shrinking reservation, where the old rules and the old measures of success no longer held true, could be used as a metaphor for the decline of the church in Canada. Just as the sphere of the Crow influence was eroded, from all of the land they walked on, to seventy million acres, and then to two million acres with parcels of being sold off every year further endangering their identity, the church in Canada has lost much of its place as well, being pushed from honour to obscurity, from power to poverty.

Plenty Coups, the chief of the Crow identifies the end of their existence, as it was traditionally known, with the disappearance of the buffalo. He identifies this as the point their paradigm for life shifted, where their sense of what was honourable and shameful was turned upside down. It was at this point, their social structure, their measure of courage, their entire sense of self identity changed. He does not identify the fact that being on the reservation, being prevented from making war, stealing horses, counting coup, as the turning points. These were certainly symptoms of the change, but he points the loss of the buffalo as the root, the defining moment, the point at which there was no opportunity to turn back.

I wonder, if the church in Canada could identify the particular thing which is the loss of buffalo for us, could we face the future and flourish, with the radical hope shown by Plenty Coups and the Crow people? Plenty Coups was able to articulate the cause of the end of the world as they knew it. The loss of the buffalo meant many other things were lost as well. Courage and cunning in the hunt would no longer be prized, honoured, traits. The nomadic existence, following the herds, would no longer sustain life. The protection of the tribe from other tribes, as they moved through their lands, would no longer be a necessary, or even valued skill. Bravery and courage took on new meaning and were no longer measured in the same ways. All of this change could be placed on the loss of the buffalo, and as much as one might hope to turn back time, to hold on to the old ways, the thing that made the old ways work, the buffalo, had disappeared and they were not coming back. With the buffalo gone, forward is the only direction available if the tribe is to survive.

Part of our issue, as we struggle to find our way in the church, is, we cannot identify our buffalo, and since we cannot identify the particular event, we somehow feel there may be a way back to where we were. For the Crow there was no choice, it was change or die, the buffalo were gone, end of story.  For the church it is much less clear. Is the issue the epidemic of consumerism sometimes called afluenza, which has replaced the God of the heavens with the god of stuff? Has positive thinking so invaded our psyche we no longer need to come together in churches for physical, moral and spiritual support and, if we did come together for those reasons, would it be a sign of failure? Has the media so permeated our lives that the truths of scripture have become mere whispers, and in fact, not even recognized as truth? Is it the shift that has taken place from tool using to technocracy to the technopoly which has overwhelmed the church and in some ways made it seem redundant? Or is it the effect of our culture’s move to postmodernity, with its distrust of the meta- narrative, and its refusal to accept that there might be some ultimate truth?

Whatever issue we might choose doesn’t really matter. Plenty Coups chose to identify the disappearance of the buffalo, he could have chosen to point at any number of other events, but he picked this one as the defining event, and recognized, neither he nor his people could reverse it. They could not bring the buffalo back. They had to change, adapt, by, as he puts it, becoming like the chickadee, watching, listening, learning.

As I watched the bulldozer peeling the bricks off of the church in Benmiller, joining the one in Nile, and Donnybrook, and St Helens, and Kingsbridge, and Lucknow, and Whitechurch, and St Augustine, I wonder if this is just part of the kind of death and destruction Plenty Coups and the Crow people experienced after the buffalo were gone. There must have been a real sense of hopelessness there, and yet, by recognizing there is no way to return to the past glory days, Plenty Coups is able to lead the remnant of his people forward toward a new hope and a new flourishing identity.

Our churches need to do the same if they are to flourish. Trying to identify the reason the old ways don’t work anymore, and doing battle with that reason, is likely not the answer. The force is just too large, too dominant, the change in our cultural landscape just too radical to overcome. We are called to be in the world but not of the world, but still to be salt and light. We need to learn again what makes a church a church, in this time, and in our culture. This would entail quiet listening and learning, a study of how this new reality in which we find ourselves functions and flourishes and then applying our learning to a new radical hope, and new way of flourishing as God’s people in this world.

Plenty Coups put faith in his dream, a dream that told him that a tree, the Crow tree, would be left standing after the storm which was coming. We can put our faith in a God who promises never to leave us or forsake us, who promises to be there whenever two or three are gathered together. In the same way as the Crow nation looks much different after the storm, but is flourishing, the church in Canada can flourish, in new ways we may not yet be able to imagine.

Interaction with Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated

     Just the other day, I was sitting, having a wide ranging discussion, with a number of people. It wasn’t a particularly theological discussion, until one of the participants took our visit in a whole new direction, by asserting that she had not understood the Trinity until she had read The Shack by William P. Young. What was particularly troubling was the fact that all of the others admitted they too had read one of the more than ten million copies of the book, and also had gained a much clearer understanding of Trinitarian theology. That deeper understanding, accepted as gospel, is being gleaned from a self published book written by a former office manager and hotel night clerk, whose goal was probably more about writing a good piece of fiction than a theologically instructive statement.

Young’s contribution to the theological wisdom of this era is not the first of its kind. The very popular Left Behind series by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B Jenkins has had a profound effect on the general understanding of, what is seen to be, the Christian eschatological viewpoint. The theology of the books has widely permeated our western psyche in both the Christian and non-Christian communities. Over 60 million copies have been sold and three Left Behind movies have been made. Inspired Media Entertainment released the PC video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces in 2006 and has followed up with two sequels to date.  The games, which are based on the same end times stance as the books, have been criticized for their violence and apparent bigotry but have added to the message of the books and the movies. While Lehaye is an ordained minister and served a church in California for twenty five years, his view of eschatology is not one that is held by most of the major North American denominations. Yet his books have found their way into Christian bookstores and church libraries across the continent where they sit not far from The Shack.

     Thomas de Zengotita, in his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes your world and the Way You Live in It, presents us with a wide ranging rapid fire exposition of the influence that the media places on our lives. While he does have something to say about the way that the Christian media works, describing its TV programming as being presented from sets that are “almost a parody of gracious living in a gated community” by people who are “addicted to a particular rhetorical gesture, the inevitable redemptive climax to their multifarious tales of woe” , and he does touch God as a back grounding item in his descriptions of the world, de Zengotita, spends very little time actually discussing the effect that “mediation” has had on the Christian church, and the life of faith. This may be because he holds to the premise that God is dead, that “God died slowly, unable to sustain Himself as the subject of a world that no longer displayed His designs” . He sees this as the reason that religion has retreated from the public to the private realm in our march toward modernity making the corporate entity, called the church, redundant. He makes a good point, but I wonder if some of media’s effect on the organized church, its weakening its place in society, has come through through the virtualization and commoditization of God.

The proliferation of media to the masses, through the availability of the printed word, after the invention of the movable type press, allowed for the initial breaking of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. New ideas could be spread more freely, discussed, and written about and distributed again. The church lost its monopoly on doctrine, its ability to control the story, its high standing as the primary source of truth.  From a time when a single entity was able to dictate truth to the masses, we have come to a place where the multiple truths held by the masses are all equally valid. We have been so indoctrinated by the media to consider all opinions, and hopefully, choose the one they are currently espousing, that we have forgotten, corporately as churches, how to hold firm to a single idea or principle. We have instead become groups of people who hold, individually, more or less the same ideas, and cannot, in many cases, articulate what the stand of the whole is on any number topics. While the stated doctrinal standards of many denominations, stored in dusty books, and in the heads of aging professors and pastors, may still clearly show distinct hermeneutical lines between denominations, the proliferation of media has irretrievably blurred the lines. In the blurring, the message, that is supposed to bring hope to a suffering world, is so distilled, diluted, and distilled yet again that many are not exactly sure what the message is, or if they would even recognize the messenger. Yet, the Christian media machine continues to churn out a river of material, exemplified in The Shack and the Left Behind series, that is more geared to a profitable bottom line for their media giant owners, than any inherent desire to illuminate the truth. It is also more likely to feed into the ego-centric themes of mediation, as described by De Zengotita, aiming to help the consumer create an image of themselves to reflect back onto themselves.

De Zengotita leaves us with a picture of doom, hopelessness. He prophesies terror on the way that will rock our insulated world as the suffering masses rise up. This terror will challenge the virtual reality in which he argues we live, it will break it, and then the mediation machine will form a new reality in which we, the survivors, can be cradled. It’s all so discouraging, so Matrix like, with forces beyond our control, beyond our sight, planning and directing the world in such a way that even the way we think and feel is influenced.

And yet, I just cannot accept that God is gone, that God is not in some way at work, that God has been, according to De Zengotita at least, killed by science and technology; by the media.  Certainly, the old Christian ways of being and the old Christian liturgies, practices and even beliefs may not be holding much sway in a mediated world that is screaming for our attention, wanting us to be sure to take our place at center stage. I’m also not willing to turn our reflections on God, and the interpretation of biblical truths, over to the characters in The Shack or to the latest Left Behind video game, but their popularity does leave me with some hope that there is a searching for deeper meaning inside our mediated society. Maybe it’s in the silences between the media bombardments that we’ll find God. He’s been found there before, providing an anchor, something that is real rather than a virtual construction or fictional representation purporting to be truth, so that we can find some hope, real hope for a real future. Maybe we just need to step outside the blob which media has created (an impossible task according to De Zengotita) and listen.

An Interaction with Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1993)

On Monday September 17th 2012 Apple announced that orders in the first twenty four hours, for its new iPhone 5, had reached over two million units. Most analysts had estimated that sales would be in the 1.5 million range. Apple will not be able to deliver against these orders on time because their production facilities just cannot keep up with demand. By Christmas of this year, sales are expected to exceed twelve million units. For Neil Postman, the author of Technopoly, this smart phone feeding frenzy is another indication that our Western, and particularly North American, culture has been surrendered to technology.  Postman’s writing comes from a perspective of loss. He does not see many benefits from this new regime and, in fact, enumerates many casualties along the way. One of the biggest losers in the age of Technopoly, according to the author, is organized religion, the church.

Postman describes a world in which the influence of the church has been, and continues, to decline. Pointing to the power that the church was able to wield during the tool using age, the beginning of its decline in the age of technocracy, particularly with the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg, he proposes a trajectory of redundancy as we continue into an age where information has become the god of the masses. Postman envisions a bleak future for religion in general and the Christian church in North America in particular. Most sociologists would agree with Postman’s analysis of the decline of both adherence and influence that is being experienced by the traditional mainline church. The question needs to be asked, however, is the church in its traditional form worth saving? Is the real issue that the church has failed in its mission to be relevant in the world, or is the current culture destroying the church?

In Acts 1:8, just before his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power through the Holy Spirit and that they would become his witnesses both in places that were familiar to them, Jerusalem and Judea, but also in unfamiliar and alien places, Samaria and the ends of the earth. He doesn’t tell them to bring their culture along with them; in fact the book of Acts relates a number of instances where debate over the need for maintaining Hebrew tradition, and law, led to the understanding that these were not essential parts of the message. The gospel message was to be made relevant to the culture in which it was delivered. Paul demonstrates this principle in Athens as he recognizes the deity worshipping culture which had set up an alter to an unknown god, just so that none are left out, and uses this as his springboard to share the gospel in this culture. While the New Testament does present us with a gospel that is redemptive in nature and does cause change in lives and societies, it does not provide a specific picture of what a proper Christian community or society should look like. It gives general illustrations of the loving (1 Corinthians 13), unified (Philippians 2), generous (2 Corinthians 9), nature of such communities and gives direction as to the attributes of its leaders (1 Timothy 3), families (Ephesians 5), and gatherings (1 Corinthians 14), but it leaves the culture to form the character of the institution.

Postman seems to be saying that the shift that has taken place from tool using to technocracy to the Technopoly now upon us, is too much for the Christian church to handle. The same could be said of the atrocities of the Roman Empire, the indiscretions of the medieval church, the attacks of the Enlightenment, the insidious spread of Marxism, and yet, the Church has survived with its message of hope and restoration. Survival has not always been pretty. It has been, and is being persecuted, maligned, and marginalized, but it has continued to live and be effective in the liminal space between the sacred and the profane. The societal changes, Postman describes as a result of the rise of Technopoly, are certainly real and must be recognized, but to try to hold the church outside of the flow is unrealistic. Christ sends us into the entire world, not just the parts that fit our way of thinking.

While the church is called to be culturally relevant it is also called to be counter cultural, to act prophetically in pointing out injustice in the world. Jesus certainly did this in his ministry and the description of the American Technopoly resistance fighter provided by Postman is likely a good place for many churches to begin. In this list he does not suggest that the resistance fighter, in this case the church, needs to turn its back on the advances of technocracy or Technopoly, but rather, we need to understand where our priorities lie. We cannot allow our craving for information, for the next poll, the next research breakthrough, to take the place of our love of God and our neighbor. We need to be able to hold on to the basis of our faith while making use of the tools of  Technopoly, and the cultural norms of this era, to share the message of hope that we carry. We need to act as resistance fighters inside the system, defending the weak and helpless who are being left behind, trampled upon. We need to learn new techniques and be willing to leave the old and redundant ones behind. Our institutions may need to change, our methods might need to be different, our way of being may become unrecognizable, but our mission and our master are still the same. We are still to be salt and light in the world.

Postman’s book presents a cynical view of the world and culture in which we live, a world where sales of the iPhone 5 makes headlines and the homeless and helpless do not. He looks back at simpler times with fondness, even yearning for a return to the tool using era of the middle ages. In the final paragraph of the book he recognizes that there is no turning back but holds out the hope that, by somehow distancing ourselves from the Technopoly in which we now live, we will be able to criticize and modify it. This is the role of the church as well; to be in the world; but not of it; to criticize the injustices of our day; to live in the culture in a way that models love for God and for others. Technopoly is here, God and His church can be a relevant part of it.

 

     

Spring

Spring has now been with us for well over a month. Temperatures have been warmer than normal and we seem to be missing a lot of rains. We did get a good soaker a couple of nights ago and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

We planted trees just the day before the rain came. Planting trees on our property has become a bit of an annual practice. The property right around our house is very hilly. Our lawn had some slopes that would stop our four wheel drive lawn mower and were maybe not the safest to cut. Over the past four years the steepest bits have been planted to a variety of evergreen trees (200 so far). We have also planted deciduous trees, maple, ash and soft maple around the perimeter of the lawn and now inside the perimeter as well. There are about 50 of those, some came from the bush on the property while others were purchased as seedlings. Recently, I’ve been transplanting volunteer maple and ash that have grown in the flower beds.

Getting deciduous trees to start has been a bit of a hassle. The first ones we planted came from the bush about six years ago. We dug them up carefully, used a post hole digger to make a good hole, and even used a bit of bone meal to provide nutrients. While some of these trees have taken off and are now over ten feet tall, others are smaller now than when we planted them, and still others have died and been replaced. Granted, the soil where these trees a planted is not the best with sand and gravel in some areas. Where the soil is good the trees have grown.

ImageWe have actually had the best luck with the deciduous trees that came from the nursery. I don’t think that it is because the stock is so much better, but rather, because we discovered Tubex tree tubes at the same time. Deciduous seedlings, in their natural environment, grow underneath the forest canopy. I’m taking them from there and asking them to grow in the open. The tree tube protects the small tree from the wind, creates a bit of a moist environment, and creates a greenhouse effect that gives the plant a little more heat. The results are amazing compared to trees without the tube. The trees reach out of the tube and will grow two to three feet in a year compared to the six inches that their non tubed brothers and sisters manage.

Last week, just before the rain, we put in a hundred more evergreens, balsam fir, white pine, red pine, and white spruce. I have less lawn to cut again and we will need to put up with a few years of ugly, waiting for the trees to have enough height to be seen above the grass. The wait will be worth it.

Of all the things I love most about spring, the best is wandering around looking at how all the things we have growing here change. I love to imagine the possibility of rows of trees towering over me. Spring is such an amazing time of growth and renewal.

God is at work in all of it.