In Search of Civility: A Time for Tricksters?

Rabbi David Ellis of Halifax alerted me to a fine recent article by Martin Marty, the great historian of Christianity (a.k.a the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School).

Reflecting on the political and social upheavals underway in the modern West, Marty suggests that “revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite” (as Max Scheler [1874-1928] phrased it) are thriving in our contemporary societies.

“So much,” writes Marty, “for tolerance, civility, empathy, mutuality, and dialogue!”

reynard-the-fox

Marty points to the phenomenon of resentment (again drawing from Scheler) as a way to account for these troubles. Populism, elitism, scapegoating, and other social forces arise, he argues, from the sense that one is not getting what one deserves or needs.

I would add to Marty’s analysis the way in which capitalism has exacerbated the sense of entitlement among so many of us … and once one feels deprived of these material goods in any way, one starts looking for evildoers (scapegoats?) who are the cause of one’s deprivation. Mass media only gives a megaphone to consumerist messaging.

So there is the problem. Most or many of us will recognize it.

I have been aware of a sense of gloom and foreboding among those I know best in recent weeks. We fear the worst.

Perhaps—as persons of faith—we ought also to hope for the best. Indeed, we ought to seek and work toward the best.

As a Christian, I am a person of hope, though my hope continues to be lodged not in the human capacity for self-rescue but in the transformative power of Jesus Christ, who through the Holy Spirit can and will bring about repentance, transformation, and renewal.

But there may be hard roads ahead. And the way in which the triune God will judge injustice may yet leave us squirming. Core to my convictions is the belief that God does not wink at injustice and inequity, but actively seeks to overcome it.

Martin Marty describes as “ever more urgent the work of civil volunteers, humanitarians, religious providers of opportunity, humane activists … [and those who] manifest what one scripture calls ‘the more excellent way’ of love.” Such persons are dearly needed in our time. To Marty’s list I would add artists, musicians, clowns, jesters, and tricksters

Are you one of these people?

I wonder if you may have been born for a time such as this.

You can find Martin Marty’s full article here
Image: Reynard the Fox from Wikimedia.org 

Rob Fennell is Acting Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Salt n’ Light

If you’ve every spent a winter in Vancouver you’ll know that there is very little salt or light.  Growing up in Winnipeg I know that most Canadians experience a great dose of both salt and light.  Salt, liberally spread on the icy roads in the winter to keep driving and walking safe.  Light, on the other hand, in the brilliant reflection of the winter sun on snow covered fields and roofs that lift people’s spirits and have them say things like, “Well, it’s a dry cold.”

Most winters in Vancouver have neither salt nor light.  There is no need for salt on the roads where it only dips below freezing every few years.  There is no light in the winter as dark and stormy rain clouds hover over the Pacific Northwest from Portland to Port Moody, mid-autumn to early spring.  And then, there is this year.

I remember flying out of Vancouver in December 2008 just before the last big snowstorm shut down the city.  Sure, we’ve had a bit of snow since then over the years.  It comes for a day or two and then melts.  Frosty the Snowman has a short shelf life here on the west coast.  This year, however, is different.

Snow started falling (and staying on the ground!) on December 5th.  Over a month later as I write this blog, there are beautiful large, white snowflakes dancing down from the sky outside my window.  The snow is bright and beautiful in this city covering golf courses, palm trees and distant mountain peaks.  Yes, there is light in Vancouver this winter.  But it appears, there is not as much salt as some people think they need.

The region is running low on salt and residents are gripping that back streets have not been plowed or properly cleared making alleyways and sidewalks a skating rink.  The City of Vancouver responded by offering free salt this past week available in large piles in front of local fire halls.  The result, humanity’s flaws on display for the whole nation to see.

While hearing Vancouverites complaints about icy streets and -1 degree Celsius weather is embarrassing to me and hilarious to the rest of the country, sights and sounds from local media outlets watching people fighting over limited free salt has not been as entertaining.  For some, it seems inconceivable that in polite, refined urban Canada today citizens could be shoving and yelling at others, jumping queues or letting their tempers flair to the point where police have to intervene.  And yet, as a Reformed Christian, one of my favourite doctrines has long been Total Human Depravity.  Yup, when I came to Christ as a teenager, part of it was taking stock of the world’s claims that “deep down we’re good people and can solve our own problems” verses the gospel’s claims that “deep down we’re messed up and selfish, sinful and broken, and need a Saviour to rescue us.”  Um, it was pretty clear around me and inside me that the latter statement was true.  Total Human Depravity.  And there it was, on full display this week, as neighbour fought neighbour for free salt in the streets.  I don’t think I was the only one who wondered what will happen when the big earthquake eventually strikes this region.  If we can’t even share salt with our neighbour what will happen when buildings collapse, bridges fail and our food and water supplies run low.  Lord, have mercy.

Sharing salt and light with our neighbours.  Hmm, I’ve heard that somewhere before:

 

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its saltiness be restored?

It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5: 14 & 14)

 

Now might be a good time for followers of Jesus in this city to ask themselves how their devotion to Christ might translate into something visible – salt and light for those around them.  Today is a great day to speak and act as one living with full awareness of the covenant of grace and abiding love in the one who is the Mediator of that same covenant.  Time to be seasoned by the Saviour and a bright light in this season of Epiphany!

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, UBC and teaches at The Vancouver School of Theology and Regent College.

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Resolutions

Goodbye 2016…hello, 2017!  It’s New Year’s once again.  It was quiet at my local North Vancouver gym this morning.  I was thinking on the treadmill, however, that in a few days my gym on Lonsdale Avenue will be overrun by locals desperately trying to keep their New Year’s resolutions.  Everything should be back to normal in two weeks.

How about you?  Have you made a New Year’s resolution?

Jonathan Edwards, one of my favorite Puritan New England theologians, made resolutions to try and keep himself in a committed relationship with our Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In fact, he made over 70 of them ranging from a dedicated prayer life to how to be healthy and active in community.  It’s a little unclear whether two of his resolutions were actually made by Edwards or perhaps they live more in Protestant hagiography rather than history.  Whether true or not, I like them.  It is attributed to Edwards that he said:

Resolution One: I will live for God.

Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.

I like that.  How about you?  What might your Christian New Year’s resolution look like?  Forget about going to gym or going easy at the buffet for a moment, what resolution might help you participate in the life of the Triune God?  What might help you on a daily basis in 2017 participate through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father?

A pretty good starting place is with another one of my favorite Christians now in the Communion of Saints – John Wesley. Sure, his theology was more Arminian than Calvinist but he was a great evangelical and revivalist and for that I love him. Besides, without John’s brother Charles and his 6,000 hymns we would have treasures like Hark the Herald Sings at Christmas!

John was a preachers’ kid who followed in the family business being ordained an Anglican Priest in 1728. He was more of a cultural Christian in some ways, struggling with what he actually believed. A failed missionary stint in the future state of Georgia in America had him back in London and at his lowest point in 1738. That’s when a friend invited him to a prayer meeting in a neighbourhood called Aldersgate on May 24. It was there, as someone read Martin Luther’s preface to the Romans that he felt his heart strangely warmed and he trusted in Jesus Christ as his Saviour. He wrote:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley understood that what Jesus accomplished on the cross was the promised offered to Abraham in the covenant of old. God is true to his Word. But as Scottish Presbyterian theologian James B. Torrance says so beautifully,

More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience.

I think Wesley would agree. For as important as the heart strangely warmed was to him, he realized who Jesus Christ was for the whole world. The revival that he participated in helped bring about evangelical witness on a global scale. As a way to keep those involved in the evangelical revival faithful to the Triune God, Wesley wrote a beautiful covenant prayer. As the revival spread over the decades and centuries many would say this prayer at the start of a new year. For me, it is the best Christian New Year’s resolution I’ve experienced in my walk of faith with Jesus …and I like to invite you to with me in praying it whether this day finds you:

I am no longer my own but yours.

Your will, not  mine, be done in all things,

wherever you may place me,

in all that I do

and in all that I may endure;

when there is work for me

and when there is none;

when I am troubled

and when I am at peace.

Your will be done

when I am valued

and when I am disregarded;

when I find fulfillment

and when it is lacking;

when I have all things,

and when I have nothing.

I willingly offer

all that I have and am

to serve you,

as and where you choose.

 

Glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit

you are mine and I am yours.

May it be so for ever.

Let this covenant now made on earth

be fulfilled in heaven.  Amen.

 

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, UBC and teaches at The Vancouver School of Theology and Regent College.

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Almost There

Advent and Christmas in North America offer us more opportunities than we want to be BUSY. The great cultural obsession with busy-ness as a “virtue” finds its zenith in this season: shopping, buying, decorating, cleaning, shoveling, driving, visiting, letter writing, wrapping, giving, getting, cooking, partying, eating, drinking, cleaning up, putting away…

… oh, yes, and maybe a few stolen moments for praying, singing, worshipping.

Sometimes Christmas feels like one giant “TO DO” list. No wonder people get grouchy and grinchy, and more seriously, quite troubled. On top of all these obligations is the weight of expectations and hopes and memories – some happy, some sad.

Whew.

If you are still with me, I’m not going to keep you long.

In this world of many worries, I invite you to take a moment now (and I know you have million things to do), and stretch some muscles—fingers, arms, neck, or back, anything.

Stretch and breathe, just for one quiet moment.

Taking this quiet second, as you read and stretch and breathe, is all you need to do to prepare to receive the peace of God.

advent-wreath-first-candle-advent-sunday

When Christmas comes, and whenever you can prayerfully celebrate it, try that little stretch again. Take the deep breaths. When Christmas comes, the gift of the Christ child, God-with-us-among-us-Emmanuel, is the gift of peace.

 We’re almost there. Keep breathing.

 Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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A Reformed Remembrance

Ross Lockhart writes, “A friend of mine from church, an Elder on our Session and daughter of missionaries, commented recently on a Facebook thread debating whether Christians should include acts of ‘Remembrance’ in their Sunday service around November 11th.  Specifically, the question of whether a wreath should be placed on the Communion Table or not was raised.  This prompted my friend Nicola, a medical doctor in Vancouver and former officer in Her Majesty’s British Army, to write this thoughtful and theological response:”

I place a wreath on the communion table, not to usurp the Savior to whom the table reflects, but because the table is one of remembrance and we remember.

I place a wreath because soldiers do not choose to give up their lives, they choose, for a variety of reasons to give up some of society’s freedoms to join an organization that teaches them obedience, team work, discipline, considering others more then themselves, working together and seeing the efforts of the whole. In that moment of war, when every cell in the body shouts, get down and save yourself, time and again, soldiers do the opposite. Not because they are Christian and believe that they are going to be honored, they don’t have time to have any great theological or philosophical thought, they do it because their gut response to horror and death is to reach our and connect with their brother lying next to them. In their sacrifice, I see so much of Christ’s sacrificial love for me. The wreath does not try to diminish Christ, it shows that in our human, injured and fallen world we can get a glimpse of self sacrifice that most of us in our comfy peaceful and democratic worlds will never fully know.

I sing the national anthem, not because I see any political agenda needs to be glorified, in fact the serving soldier has no political voice. He cannot complain when he is sent to war and argue if it is just. He goes, because he has signed up to do so. And he sings the national anthem to remind himself that he is blessed to live in a country that has democracy and has some ‘just government’ in whatever we can hope for when we are all sinners in need of grace. And he sings it to remind himself that the government is placed their by God and he must respect the government of the day as God has ordained him to, and that God is in control of government and that government will one day be called on to answer to God for the actions that they have taken- that has affected his life and the lives of countless others.

I place a wreath and I sing an anthem, to acknowledge that I live as a soldier under Christ and that I have had the privilege of serving in painful and trying circumstances that cause me to remember the depths to which Christ went to redeem his world, and can I follow his example in uniform or out of it?

Don’t belittle the wreath or the anthem as political statements, they are not, they go so much deeper, and we do well to remember once a year.

Major (Retired) Dr. N. Walton-Knight RAMC

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Pejorative Preaching?

“It’s a good thing.”  Martha Stewart is famous for this phrase, but apparently it doesn’t apply to preaching.  At least according to a curious interview in today’s Globe and Mail where, reflecting on her brand’s global impact, she stated:

I was raised by two schoolteachers so we were always being taught. We were taught to respect education and our teachers. And I loved my teachers. I remember all their names and used to have them over for lunch at my house. Teaching is very important. But I’m not a preacher. I want to make that very clear: We don’t preach. We teach.

As a preacher, I always find it interesting how quickly people associate preaching with a pejorative meaning.  I also find it curious how people assume that teaching and preaching are set in opposition to one another.  Curious, since in the Reformed tradition we call our Ordained Ministers “Teaching Elders.”  As a Teaching Elder in The Presbyterian Church in Canada, for example, I understand my role as a preacher in terms of Ephesians 4: 12, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  This equipping is teaching, it is training God’s people to be witnesses to the resurrection in the world.  Preaching the Word of God declares that sinful, broken human beings are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ for a purpose – we are saved to serve.  As a Professor, a Pastor and a Preacher, I take seriously the role given to me as a “Teaching Elder.”

I have a hunch that the pejorative association with the word “preaching” has to do with stereotypes of wild eyed preachers in cheap suits hurling “hellfire and brimstone” from the pulpit.  I get it.  And yet, there is always a cutting edge to the Word of God preached, a reality of spiritual warfare and the need for a prophetic voice.  As John Calvin once said in his commentaries:

“The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep, and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both, for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable, and to refute the enemies of the truth.”

In a post Christendom North America preaching may no longer have the privileged place it once held in broader society.  In our evangelical, Reformed witness, we continue to preach and teach the Word of God while participating in the redeeming and reconciling ministry of Christ in this world.  So yes, “It’s a good thing.”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.  He teaches at Regent College and The Vancouver School of Theology. 

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God’s Shirt

Hi folks,

Just wanted to share a link with you: it’s for a devotional piece I wrote for the Upper Room quite some time ago. It was just published this week! Find it here.

The follow up piece is here.

Blessings,
Rob Fennell

Rob Fennell teaches theology and church history at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS.

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