Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I've recently had a couple of conversations regarding health care in the US and particularly as it pertains to President Obama's plans for reform and the potential of ending up "like Canada." First, it's important to remember that I AM CANADIAN, and I have 20+ years of experiencing the "socialized medicine" that exists there. I also have 10+ years of experiencing the US side of medical health, so I'd like to think I have a perspective that most talking heads, pundits and members of the general public DO NOT have.

One particular thing that I HATE hearing is all of the generic comments about people waiting so long that they die because they cannot get treatment for cancer or a transplant, etc. My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago. He got aggressive treatment with very little wait, at a great cancer treatment facility in Hamilton. Unlike in the US, he didn't have to go into debt to receive treatment.

The Miami Herald actually published an article recently that referenced a study conducted of 1000 Americans & 1000 Canadians, asking them different questions about their health care. While the wait times were recognized to be higher in the Canadian system, what is most shocking is the gap in those who thought they could AFFORD care.

This gets right down to my personal pet peeve in the whole discussion. If you HAVE care, you complain about the wait times. If you have NO CARE you'd take that over a wait time ANY DAY of the week! And right now, those with care are the reasons why so many are going without. Because, it doesn't matter if you can walk into an ER, your doctor or a specialist and get seen right away - if you can't afford the treatment they prescribe - or can't even afford to sit down and meet with them because you can't afford the insurance premiums.

I have to say, growing up in Canada, I took it for granted that I could go to the DR and not have to pay a dime. I didn't need to choose between $20 in my tank or a $20 co-pay, but in the US, some people do. It frustrates me when people of power like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY, start using personal stories as propaganda for political gain. There's a great piece here about CNN's coverage and the unreported components of the "we're going to have universal healthcare and everyone will die because we're like Canada" crap being spouted by some.

When you get right down to it - every day, care is denied by insurance companies for various reasons. You have to wait everywhere for EVERYTHING, some places longer than others. But if it's not even an option, than it's a moot argument. As a Christian, I can't understand how we shouldn't be in favour of providing healthcare for everyone - whether we pay for it for them or not...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where's the Wheat?

Here's part of the sermon I preached today, all about God's Kingdom, which doesn't come about with Power & Purity, at least not the way we might thing.

Digging in the Dirt

So, as part of Jesus’ mission on earth, he’s proclaiming the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven – and one of the ways he does this is to share stories, to tell parables of what the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven is like. Now it’s important to note that the concept of Kingdom is something very important to the Jewish people. The establishment of a Kingdom and the blessing of a king goes back to David – God promised that if he remained faithful, God would remain faithful and a member of his family would rule forever. This is where the promise of God’s chosen comes from, the promised Messiah, who will return the people to God, who will reunite the divided fragments of the kingdom of Israel and once again rule a free people, who worship God in Jerusalem.

At Jesus’ time, there are several different ideas of how this Kingdom would come about, and most of them focus on two things – Purity and Power. Some believed that God would simply bless those who were willing to rise up and violently overthrow the Roman oppressors. All they needed to do was seize power by force and God would bless them and the Kingdom would come. The Zealots, akin to present-day terrorists, were the people who exemplified this belief. Others believed that it was impossible to force God’s kingdom into existence by power, and instead believed that God’s kingdom would only be real when it was completely pure – and so they removed themselves from the world and formed small, tight knit communities who would observe the law without influence from their sinful surroundings. These Essene communities pocketed the dessert landscape at that time. And some others believed that if they could just remove enough of the sin, if they could remove enough of the sinful people, if they could just get everyone to keep Moses’ commandments and the laws, by force or by shame – then God would finally redeem Israel, send the Messiah, and remove the oppressive Roman rulers from their promised land. The Pharisees represented this strand of thought.

It is in the face of these and other concepts of the Kingdom of God and how it would come about, that Jesus shares this story, amid others. It doesn’t capture everything about the Kingdom – but it does deal very specifically with two things: Purity and Power.

The story begins with the man planting good seed – which Jesus, a few verses later, explains is the Son of Man, sowing good seeds in the world, who are literally, “sons of the kingdom.” But then his enemy, while everyone is sleeping, plants weeds. No one sees them, no one understands where they came from or how they ended up in the middle of the good seeds, but they’re there, mixed in.

Jesus continues the story with the servants or slaves of the man, as the wheat begins to grow and so too the weeds, recognize that there are weeds among the good seed. They recognize that the planned field of wheat, is not pure, it’s not perfectly good. And they raise the alarm, they tell the farmer, and they ask if he wants them to weed the garden. But, the farmer knows about the weeds. He knows that they’re there, he knows how they got there, and he is unconcerned. He’s not distraught, he knows that the field is not perfectly pure, and his instructions to his servants are wise beyond belief – “while you’re picking the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them – leave them… let them grow, don’t worry. I’ve got it taken care of.” What’s more, “it’s not your job”

Interestingly enough, the plan for the wheat and the weeds has nothing to do with the servants who recognize the problem. In Jesus’ description and decoding in verses 36-44, Jesus has no role for the servants. It is the harvesters, the angels he says, that will harvest the wheat and the weeds. It’s not the servants. Implicitly understood is this: the job of the servant is to help everything grow – because it’s possible that the servants cannot distinguish between the weeds and the wheat. Maybe, what looks like a weed is actually an immature seed of wheat? It’s not the job of the servant to determine the work of the harvester. It is simply not their job to judge. And that’s what Purity and Power are all about isn’t it? Judging?

And judging comes so easy to us, doesn’t it? It’s so easy for me to judge a poor driver (there are tons of them around). It’s easy for us to judge a poorly cooked steak. It’s also easy for us to judge each other. Oh he’s a jerk, she’s a snob. Oh yeah and that person, they’re just plain evil! I don’t want to have anything to do with them. But maybe the next time we’re judging, we can ask ourselves this question – is it possible, they’re not as bad as I think – maybe they’re just not fully matured. Maybe it would be better if I didn’t dig in their dirt.

In this parable about God’s Kingdom, Jesus makes it very clear – Purity and Power are not the concerns of the servants, they’re not our concerns at all. The world will not become God’s Kingdom by the force of our hands – forcefully weeding out the impure from the pure. Our community, the local church, will not become the Kingdom of God by our powerful exertion, by our judging and removing those that are not pure enough from our midst. What is more, we cannot even make the Kingdom come in our own lives by forcibly creating a pure life of our own. The weeds remain, amidst the wheat, the good remains amidst the bad. There’s simply no use digging in the dirt – no use digging in the dirt in the world, no use digging in the dirt of our community, no use digging in the dirt of our own lives. That’s not our job.

This parable doesn’t end in the dirt, doesn’t end with the work of the servants or even with the angels themselves who will complete that final harvest. It ends with the good news of the gathering of all that is good into the barn. It ends with the good work of God coming to completion, the reminder that God is unwilling to let evil win, unwilling to let the bad remain, God is unwilling to allow anything but the good to live on in constant communion with him. Thomas Long, in his Biblical commentary on the book of Matthew, regarding this passage, puts it this way:

“the promise of this parable is that God will finally not tolerate anything that deadens humanity or corrupts God’s world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God’s everlasting love.”(Thomas Long)

Despite the fact that we’re good at it, despite the fact that we’ve got a long history of being excellent judges of others and ourselves. It’s time we reconceived what God’s kingdom looks like. It’s high time to get out of the power and purity game, stop digging in the dirt, and start reveling in the goodness of God’s grace – until he welcomes us into his great Barn!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change of Plans

A week ago today, I was supposed to be returning from Honduras. I was looking forward to some amazing worship experiences and the fellowship we had with our Honduran brothers and sisters, and how great it was to see friends that I’d made from previous trips. But the situation in Honduras – where political problems gave rise to enough instability and demonstrations that we were forced to postpone our team, kept our team from going.

But what not going to Honduras allowed me to do, was to connect with some people here, some people I probably would have missed had I been in Honduras. And it got me to think – how often do we miss things that are right in front of us, as we live our lives for something way out there? Don’t get me wrong, we need to plan. We also need to experience the world outside ourselves, other cultures, other perspectives and be willing to step outside our comfort zones to participate in God’s work. But isn’t it true, that sometimes as we plan, sometimes as we go we miss out on the present moment, we miss out on our present location, and those that are right around the corner?

Summer is a time where we are supposed to rest more, relax more and enjoy more. But all too often, at least in my life, it seems to only mimic the other 9 months out of the year – it’s lived way too full of plans for the future which don’t allow me to experience what God has for me here and now. Summer is supposed to be that time where we finally stop and smell the roses, we take vacations, which often require more planning and preparation to pull off than living our normal lives. I was recently told by a friend that his way to stay sane was to take a month of vacation in the summer. Maybe, like another good friend of mine said recently, we instead need to live lives at a pace which do not require us to run away from them in order to rest.

I share this at a very interesting moment - I'm about to officiate a wedding, I'm preaching tomorrow and after that we've got 3 events for the rest of the afternoon Sunday. But I'm working toward finding that rest in the midst of what I'm doing, here and now...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Shack - a "Review"

About 2 months ago I finally finished William P. Young's The Shack. The first thing I want to acknowledge is the simple fact that this book has sold millions of copies, and has many, MANY people talking & sharing & reviewing and that this is merely a drop in the bucket. With that said, I also want to acknowledge that this book has a back story, a context that is important to know, especially if you want to slam it. And Chad Estes on his Captain's blog, does a great two-parter on it here: here (part 1) and here (part 2).

With that out of the way, the main thing I want to say is how glad I am that people are connecting with God through this book. That's awesome. To know the backstory, how it was self-published & written only for Young's kids, and yet it's been ready by over 7 million people. You can't make that up. That's definitely God. So it's hard to complain when you see that happening.

One thing I love is that the Shack takes head-on a very serious issue - evil in the world. It's an issue you can't really come up with an answer for. It's there, it sucks, it's absolutely painful. Young doesn't dodge that. But he also doesn't try the pat answers. He wrestles with it. He digs into it. He experiences (the main character, the supporting characters, and by extension the readers) the pain. There's a great line towards the end by God the Father - "just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors."(p. 185)

A second thing to commend is the dealing with the trinity. Certainly, it's not a systematic theological treatise. But honestly, it took hundreds of years for faithful Christians, dialoguing together, to come up with the concept of the Trinity in the first place. And still not everyone was happy. So the presentation of the Trinity in the Shack isn't going to be perfect, but it's a lot better than most come up with. What you've got to remember when reading it is that it's a parable. It sheds light on the Trinity. You can't critique it for what it's not.

So, with those positives, I want to throw out one point that I disagree with. It's minor, but in a way it's significant. In the middle of the book, God is talking with Mack, the main character, about Jesus on the cross, and he says "Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him." Now, it totally serves the purposes of the book. I can't complain about that. But personally, I've hung my hat on something that I still believe pretty strongly in. It's an ontological issue, which is probably way beyond the scope of a novel like this, but I think it's pretty powerful and accessible nonetheless. I actually do think that God the Father was separated, ontologically from God the Son (Jesus), at the moment of his death. Sin did that to God.

I know there are many who would disagree, but briefly, here's why I think it's actually MORE powerful, to understand the atonement like this: God's internal separation allowed God to experience the separation that we feel from God. God, in Jesus, not only felt physical pain, emotional pain and all of the other experiences and emotions that make up the human condition, Jesus even actually felt estrangement, separation from God. That's the most important difference between God in the trinity and humanity - that connection that was lost after the Fall. But in the death of Jesus, God experienced internally the estrangement that humanity felt and has felt, and what is more, God did something about it in re-connecting internally, in re-making the Trinity in the resurrection and therefore re-making humanity. God, as the parable of the prodical son so aptly describes, was not willing to allow the internal relationship among the Trinity, nor the external relationship with humanity to remain estranged. God, rolled up His robes and did something about it - in the parable, running to the son - reaching out before the son had completed his return journey, and not even allowing him to complete his repentance.

If anything, the Shack actually epitomizes this view of God & humanity's relationship in the opening chapter, as Mack receives the note from "Papa" - God wasn't willing to have Mack's relationship severed. God reached out. But God did so because God has felt that separation, experienced that internal estrangement, which makes God's empathy that much greater.

Overall, I thought the book was good. There's spots of hoky-ness, but can you ever get away with that? Life is hoky sometimes. If I was rating it on some kind of scale, which I haven't done before, I'd probably give it 4.5 "shacks" out of 5.

One final comment - to any detractors that complain about God the Father as an Black woman called "Papa" or God the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman called "Sarayu" - seriously?! Read the bible. Wisdom is personified as a woman throughout. Song of Songs is all about sex. Jesus' parables are some of the most risque stories about God, and that's one of the reasons he was dubbed as a heretic by the religious authorities of his day. Seriously?! Don't we have better things to do as Christians than to throw stones? Happy reading...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Missional - Part V: The Inner Life

It's been way too long that I've spent on this. Since it's more for me than anything else, and I've nearly stopped up the rest of my blogging for this, I'm moving forward here & now.

What I've shared before centered around what the Missional church is not & that it's directly focused on the world outside the walls of the church building. (See below for the 4 previous posts in this series). But there's a tension that's undeniable that must be dealt with, both on a practical level and on a theological level. Practically, you can't be an organization if you don't have structure, if you don't have any internal apparatus that keeps you together. Without that inner life, you die on the vine, serving others. Absolutely true. The scary thing of course is that the theological response to that is simply to look at Jesus - who lived his live fully & completely for others, in accordance with God's will & ended up on a Roman cross, bruised & beaten - dead without a spouse or children at the young age of 33 (or so). So MAYBE that internal life of the church isn't quite as important as some of us might think.

That said, the theological component I want to engage in this stems from Barth & Newbigin who use a couple of different concepts to say roughly the same thing. In Barth's Dogmatics IV.3.2 section "The Community for the World" Barth describes the Christian community as a "likeness of the prophecy of Christ...[which] points beyond itself to what he intends to indicate and represent using it." This can, and should (thanks Darrell Guder) be re-translated as "parable" - that the Christian community acts as a parable of the Kingdom of God - particularly in how it lives that inner life. How it forgives, and experiences joy and serves each other - in these ways it exists as a community (the inner life), a parable of the KoG, for the world.

In Lesslie Newbigin's Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he says nearly the same thing in his final chapter titled The Congregation as a Hermeneutic of the Gospel. Here is an extended quotation:

I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation...the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it... Jesus, as I said earlier, did not write a book but formed a community... If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our will only be by movements that be in with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced..." (231-232)

What both Barth & Newbigin are saying is this: to be a Missional congregation, or to actually be the Christian community in any context, is to have and live as a community, experiencing the grace of God and extending it to others as part of an inner life of the community, so that the outward movement of that community, the living for the world, might indeed be authentic and sustained.

This has been cathartic to write this mini-series but it's also been a strain to put down, accurately and succinctly, what I both believe and feel on this topic. And it's taken so long to finish. The previous posts are linked below.

Missional - Part I: The New Christian Buzzword
Missional - Part II: The very Nature of the Church
Missional - Part III: Living For the World
Missional - Part IV: Not Just Missions