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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When a Church becomes a Museum

When a Church becomes a Museum

Chora Church, Istanbul

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Seven Key Functions of the Church

Attached is a handout I prepared to accompany a talk I did in Toronto last month. The first six functions are well-attested in the historic Christian tradition; the seventh is an addition that I propose as something to which we give new attention in our time.

These seven functions may help to remind us of our real purposes as Christian communities, and help us to avoid investing time, money, and energy in the non-essentials.

I’d love to hear your responses. And you get a gold star if you pick up on the Moloch reference.

Seven Key Functions chart

Rob Fennell teaches at Atlantic School of Theology.

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Easter Triduum 2014

My friend Pam McCarroll recently wrote a book entitled Waiting at the Foot of the Cross: Toward a Theology of Hope of Today (Pickwick, 2014). I recommend it heartily. This weekend, I am very taken with the title.

To wait at the foot of the cross is a stance of vulnerability. It is to renounce our false claims to power and to renounce the false powers of the world. The foot of the cross is a place of deep grief, loss, and mourning. We behold the body of Jesus: broken, forsaken, rejected. We see him lowered in disgrace. His empty cross now casts a shadow over our certainties and securities. This is truly a vulnerable place.

Three days from now, we will turn our faces again toward the sun as Easter morning dawns. We will shout Alleluia! He is risen! And so we should.

For Christ’s resurrection in the flesh is a judgement over the world’s rejection of God’s love. It is God’s cosmic unwillingness to allow death to be more powerful than love. And it is a disruption of all we have known. Our pat answers and projections of a predictable world are thrown into disarray. To know, to trust, to wonder at this good news – He is risen! – throws us back into good and blessed dependence on the One who has made all things with love and is drawing us into a new reality.

Paul prays for us, that God “may grant you strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being, that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love. With deep roots and firm foundations, may you be strong to grasp, with all God’s people, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge.” (Eph. 2:16-19).

Amen to that.

Rob Fennell teaches at Atlantic School of Theology.

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