Lukewarm is a laundry setting, not a vocation

I’ve come to the conclusion that the lukewarm days of the church are over. I’m not the first; I just have, perhaps, been in some denial about it.

The de-churchifying of North Atlantic countries, set in contrast to the rapid expansion of the Christian movement in the global south, puts things in stark relief. Unless we are convinced that the gospel has more than some vague, general merit to it (like probiotic yogurt or whole grain bread) and is actually going to be transformative for human lives and the lives of the rest of those with whom we share this planet, not to mention the oceans and the forests, I think we might be better off just packing it in.

I mean, what good is a church whose highest good is being “friendly” – ? Are we serious? I like friendly people, and I try to be friendly, but surely there is more to the Christian way than this.

If, on the other hand, we can deepen our conviction that God has a vision for redemption and ACTUAL reconciliation, and that God is asking us to be part of making that vision a reality, then the gospel is an incredibly live hot coal we’ve got on our hands.

I have come to love the wildness of the gospel, its odd and outrageous way of opening the floodgates of the Holy Spirit into our lives. Start paddling, friends.

May God make us
restless for grace,
hungry for hope,
passionate about serving God by serving others,
and mighty in love.

Rob Fennell teaches at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS.

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“B” Special

It’s orientation week here at St. Andrew’s Hall & The Vancouver School of Theology. While all around us UBC’s slogan is “A Place of Mind,” our delightful Principal Richard Topping has encouraged us to consider theological education as “A Place of Imagination.”

I’ve been reflecting a bit on my role here at the college and the ways in which I hope to prayerfully engage my students. Here are a few “b” things I’m hoping to pass along this year to those who might lead congregations in the future:

1) Behold – Surely, a deep and necessary part of Christian leadership is knowing both who and whose we are. Living and leading as a Christian requires an attentiveness to our own discipleship. In light of God’s on going revelation to us through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, how might we discern and delight in what God is doing all around us in worship, work and wonder.

2) Belong – as a Pastor you always hear people tell you, “I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.” And while, “going to church” doesn’t make one a Christian, it is pretty hard to conceive of a vibrant, sin-checked, Christ-centred faith that is not rooted and accountable in some sort of covenanted community. We all need to belong to some sort of Christian community, whether it is a Cathedral or a house church.

3) Believe – in my teaching of the Creeds and Confessions of the Reformed tradition this autumn, I am particularly aware of particularity. In other words, our “beliefs” are not just our own private confessions of faith, but rather we belong to a larger tradition and confess our faith publicly alongside those who may be very different from ourselves in certain ways but are united in our baptism and devotion to the risen Christ.

4) Behave – so this one sounds a little negative. As a father of three young (high energy) children – I often think of “behaving” as following a set pattern of rules. And yet, any community we “belong” to has a set of rules. One of the first things I received this spring when we moved into our new Townhouse in North Vancouver was the bylaws of the Strata council. In other words, to live here – these are the rules we agree to. As Reformed Christians we understand that under the authority of Scripture, we continue to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in an ongoing reformation of our life and practice as Christians. Therefore, the rules are not “set in stone.” But, whether one is Episcopalian minded and following Canon Law, United Church and living by “The Manual” or Presbyterian and following “The Book of Forms” we are all living by a set of rules.

Behold. Belong. Believe. Behave.

As children of God, living by the grace of Christ, may the Holy Spirit awaken us daily to what it means to “b” special.

Ross Lockhart teaches at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

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Under Construction…

You could not imagine a more beautiful day here in British Columbia. It’s so beautiful, in fact, we’ve decided to make it a holiday and give it the rather unimaginative name of “BC Day.” The sun is out in full force (a rare thing) and the temperature is soaring to nearly +30oC. I was up early for my jog and decided to go over the Cleveland Dam and into the woods with the many trails twisting and turning around the Capilano river. Oddly, for the first time the heavy metal door was open halfway across the dam with cold metal stairs descending into the darkness of the dam below. I had to take a look. I gazed down into the bowels of the massive dam and in the distance the clear sound of heavy machinery was clunking away. Right in front of me was a sign posted saying, “Construction zone ahead – work in progress.” Hmm, I thought about that as I jogged away and into the beauty of the Pacific Northwest rainforest on the other side of the Dam.

In a sense, all of us are like that massive dam with complicated working parts and more than enough darkness to shroud our best intentions in mystery. Surely each and everyone of us who claim to be following Jesus (or at least trying most days) could be summed up as a work in progress. The church has long had a fancier word to describe it – sanctification. I think back over the years with my love for evangelism and the amazing way that I have witnessed God at work in people’s lives. One of the things I worry is that I did not always make clear enough to new Christians that once the excitement of being saved wanes, it can be easy to feel discouraged at how we slip back into our old lives. The Apostle Paul has been most helpful to me in this…like when he writes in Romans 7: 15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” This tug of war between our will and God’s will after our “Yes” to God’s gracious invitation to relationship in Jesus Christ is our sanctification. Our growing in grace. I don’t know about you but my experience of obedience to Christ and his gospel has certainly been a tug of war over the years…two steps forward, one step back.

Yes, we are all under construction…we are all a work in progress…but thank God that is the work of God in us and not our own ability or cleverness that wins the day. As I continued jogging this morning through the beauty of God’s creation, I was mindful of the many ways in which God is “at work” in my life…I’m glad to be a work in progress…Great is God’s faithfulness…each and everyday. May you too rejoice this day for what God in Christ is doing in your life through the mystery and majesty of the Holy Spirit….

Ross Lockhart teaches at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

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Exodus or Exile?

We’ve been on the move a lot this summer. My wife and I ended our pastoral relationship with a congregation on the North Shore of Vancouver and both began new callings. I’ve moved “across the water” to UBC during working hours to take up a new faculty position at St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian College in partnership with the Vancouver School of Theology. Laura has transitioned into full time parent and Commanding Officer of the domestic front for our three active children.

We’ve also moved house on the North Shore (twice) going from our old home to a rental and now to our new home in North Vancouver. We’ve been on the go guest preaching in the lower mainland, Penticton in the Interior of BC and Parksville on Vancouver Island.

Perhaps with all this movement I’ve been drawn towards stories from the Book of Exodus where Moses, Aaron and Miriam move with the people of Israel on an adventure into an unknown land promised by the Almighty. As I’ve been nibbling at different parts of the text including the famous “Manna from Heaven” text in Exodus 16, I’ve been reflecting a lot in prayer on the future movement of the church in North America. Since the 1990s I’ve been reading books and hearing lectures on the declining church (we all know, of course, that statistically the mainline denominations have been in decline in Canada since the mid 1960s) and watching people react in a variety of ways. Some are in denial, picking one off examples of growth to hold out hope. Others have surrendered and moved past lament to despair, offering non-biblical examples of our situation like the Titanic sinking into the sea. Many respected scholars like Walter Brueggemann have offered us solid biblical examples of our condition drawing on the crisis of the Exile, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. In fact, when I think back to con ed conferences over the years Exile has been held up as a dominant lens through which to interpret the shifting position of the Christian church in North America in everything from Church/State relations to Sunday attendance to social justice work on a national scale.

I wonder, though, when I reflect on this acceptance of our “Exile” reality and worry that it has in some way stunted our evangelical and entrepreneurial approach to sharing the gospel. Are we patiently waiting for the Babylonian empire to crumble so that we can “return home?” And where is home? I worry that for many of the last generation raised to go to church who sit in our pews… home is the 1950s church. But surely a return to the 1950s church is both unreasonable and undesirable.

No, as I’ve preached through Exodus this summer I’ve been struck by how necessary the people’s reliance on the sovereignty of God is in these stories.

They are hungry.
They are thirsty.
They are lost.
They are discouraged.

Only God can provide what they need.

In some ways, Exodus marks the difference between belief and trust. A recent United Church Observer poll suggested that 2/3’s of Canadians still “Believe” in God. That’s great, but I care less about that kind of stat than I did a few years ago. I actually care less and less if people tell me they “believe in God.” After all, even the devil believes in God. I care more about whether they TRUST in God. Is the kind of belief offered simply an intellectual acknowledgment that some sort of God exists. Fine. But that can easily lead to functional atheism…believing in God without having that affect the way we live and move and have our being in this world.

No, the Exodus story is a story of people who have used up their last best trick…they’ve gone to their last best church growth conference…they’ve read their last best 10 ways to revive your church…and instead they come humble, hungry, and eager for the God of Moses, Aaron and Miriam to fill them.

This is an exciting time to be in the Church, and in the Reformed tradition in particular. Maybe it’s time to worry less about exile and trust more in the exodus that invites us to join God in the neighbourhood and lean on the grace of the Holy One revealed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about you but I for one am ready for the Bread of Heaven…and there are almost days where I swear I can catch a faint scent of God’s future rising…causing me to sing

…feed us till we want no more, feed us till we want no more….

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor and Director of Ministry Leadership and Education at St. Andrew’s Hall at UBC.

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Dylan, Change, Fear, and Trust

Many of us in the US and Canada grew up with the words of Bob Dylan’s anthem The Times They Are A-Changin’ freshly inspiring us. Although the world did not develop in quite the way Dylan hoped, the sentiment that we were in the vanguard of exciting, new, changing times remained. 

And, of course, we were; we still are; we probably always have been. Heraclitus around 500 BC said, “there is nothing permanent except change” and, more poetically, “you cannot step into the same river twice.”

There is nothing sacred in change itself. Change might mean that apartheid has ended; or the Berlin Wall has come down; or it might mean that the world’s temperatures are increasing and life as we know it is threatened. Change might mean waking up to celebrate a year addiction-free, or it might mean leaving the doctor’s office with a cancer diagnosis.  Change itself isn’t good or bad.

I confess there are some changes I am impatient to have happen and others that I resent and grieve. In the changing church there is much I welcome and do my best to hurry along, even while I also feel caught in tides not of my choosing or liking.

I wonder if Psalm 46 might be a faithful guide in times of change. The Psalmist knows change:  the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter, the mountains shake, the waters roar, the mountains tremble, the earth melts, but “though the earth should change we will not fear, for God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” 

When faced by earth-melting change, the people look to God and find the One who does not eliminate the change but grounds it, centres it, orients it, judges it, embraces or fights it, the One-with-us no matter what else changes.

Living a life of change is simply a given. It comes with being born. The gift before us is living without fear embraced by the God of Jacob and Rachel, who has been faithful and trustworthy through long generations and who promises to be so to the end of time.

Doug Goodwin is Executive Secretary of British Columbia Conference (United Church of Canada).

 

 

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What is a church?

The United Church of Canada is wrestling once again with how to sustain itself institutionally, but the basic question “What is a church?” is seldom asked; or if it is, it is seldom grounded in Scripture.

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) has a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of the church. He notes, for example, that while there were many good Greek words in the first century to describe religious communities, the early church chose a completely secular word – ekklesia – as its main descriptor. An ekklesia was “the assembly of all the citizens to which every citizen was summoned and expected to attend.” [“On Being the Church for the World” in Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian: A Reader, Paul Weston, ed., Eerdmans, 2006]

The church is the ekklesia tou theou, the “assembly of God,” the gathering of God’s people in a particular place. In time, the reality of the church was inseparable from the place in which that church gathered. Local congregations were not branch plants of a larger organization, but the fullness of the church of Christ, assembled in that place. We might say that, as with real estate, so with the church : it’s all about location, location, location.

The implication of the church as ekklesia, according to Newbigin, is that “the structural forms of the church are determined by the secular reality, and not by the internal needs of the church.” The church is not defined by the needs, wants and tastes of the members, but by the particularities of the place in which the church is gathered.

Churches in a consumer culture, like ours, tend to be associational. People choose to associate with the church that “meets their needs.”

But a biblically-based ecclesiology, according to Newbigin, starts with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the call of the faithful to be witnesses to that truth, and then with what is required of Jesus’ followers in the place where God has set them.

Amidst the ruins of Christendom, when inherited ecclesiastical structures are crumbling, we need to return to biblical models of the church. Reflecting deeply on the meaning of the church as ekklesia would be a good place to start.

 Paul Miller is a United Church of Canada minister from St. Catharines, ON, and Presbytery Support Minister for Waterloo Presbytery.

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Where have all the Christians Gone?

Whenever I am back on my family farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland I take a little walk down a back lane through our lush, green fields dotted with sheep, and make pilgrimage to a broken down farmhouse named Lurgaboy.  My Grandfather was born in that farmhouse.  It’s part of my roots.  Today it is abandoned with only the grazing cows wandering in and out from time to time.  A stone from the fireplace at Lurgaboy sits on my desk back home in Canada – a visible reminder of my roots in Northern Ireland.  It’s not a painful reminder but a happy one.  I do not have to ask “Where have all the Lockhart’s gone?” as ten minutes down the road is not one but three new farmhouse buildings that my family built in the years following, with all the updated amenities that we have come to expect like flushing toilets and modern kitchens.  The Lockhart story continues in that place, changed, evolved yet strong.

I was thinking of the old farmhouse last week when I led a pilgrimage tour from Vancouver to Turkey and Greece for the purpose of walking in the footsteps of St. Paul.  It was my second time in Turkey and I must say how much I love the country and the people.  And yet, it is a humbling feeling visiting the great sites of eastern Christendom like Hagia Sophia Church or Chora Church in Istanbul or amazing cave churches in Cappadocia where the early Church Fathers like Basil the Great ministered only to discover them empty of Christians and the no so subtle language of “museum” plastered over “church.”  Where have all the Christians gone?  What are we to say when Churches become Museums?  Are we in equal danger of watching our places of worship and witness and service in Canada become Museums rather than communities of Christ’s grace in service of the gospel for the sake of the world?  It’s like the old story of the American tourists visiting Westminster Abby and the guide is going on and on about this famous Christian buried here and that famous politician or soldier buried there until finally the tourist interrupts and says, “Excuse me Sir, but can you tell me the last time someone was saved in this church?”  

The Holy Spirit is on the move and we cannot hold on to things just the way they are – we know that.  We will have our own “museums” our own “Lurgaboy’s” to visit in the future – but pray God – we also can take comfort that just a few minutes down the road is a new expression of our common identity – the next generations new construction of what it means to be a follower of the risen Christ in this beautiful, yet broken world He died to save.

Ross Lockhart is the Director of Ministry Leadership & Education at St. Andrew’s Hall, UBC.

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