Ugly and Beautiful

Where do we see the holy?
Where do we catch glimpses of grace?
Where is God most present in our world? 

Maybe we think of grand cathedrals, where centuries-old art and architecture reflects the beauty and glory of God. Or perhaps an experience of nature, say a glimmering ocean sunset where the light dances to a tune of divine artistry. Possibly we consider our most precious relationships, the loving look of a spouse or the comforting embrace of a friend that speaks to embodied love and acceptance. God, grace, and holiness are all around us if we just take the time to look.

But rarely will we think of a dirty homeless person rambling in the street. Neither did actor Ins Choi, who wrote and performs the provocative and moving one-person show called Subway Stations of the Cross, inspired by his own encounter over a decade ago with a homeless rambler. I had the pleasure of seeing Choi’s performance this recently at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver.

While lacking a narrative structure - the play is described as an “unpredictable, mashed up meditation on the sacred and the everyday” - the show wasn’t lacking in powerful moments of cultural insight and experience. The play is a series of ramblings as Choi embodies a nameless homeless man stationed on a cardboard mat, with only a ukulele and a microphone/speaker. Barefoot, and carrying a box that turns out to contain bread and wine, the man takes his stage and calls the audience to attention with a raw voice and words that  were probably my highlight of the show: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord/Declare ye the way of the Lord/Chocolate éclair ye the way of the Lord.”


The man proceeds to sing and talk about life and meaning and society in an abrupt, gruff, eccentric and highly creative way. Themes of socio-economic disparity, social stigma, and religious symbols are prominent but also not over simplified. “What can I do for you to love me?” is a question that resounds beyond the character’s actual asking of it as everything from the sparse stage, somewhat random order of themes, and abrupt end speak to our unease in giving value to someone such as this. In our discomfort - this is not an easy or even enjoyable play - we were left to experience the separation - and gift - of worthiness first hand. 

Initially, I was disappointed as the show ended. It was shorter than I’d hoped and didn’t seem to address enough of the actual experience of homelessness - I could have used a bit of biographical narrative from the character. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I appreciate the end. The final scene (spoiler alert) offered an audible and visual display of the messiness of incarnation - the embodiment God in flesh (bread) and blood (wine) hanging from a subway station mic-stand mixed together in a bag. Silence at first. And then the refrain “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” There was dissonance. Audibly it was moving, but visually it was just plain ugly. Maybe even insulting to some. Bread and wine - holy elements! - flung into a mere bag to hang unadorned and plain amidst the mess of a city. Yet from my understanding of what incarnation truly means, visually, it was beautiful at the same time as it was ugly.

Through rambling song and insight, unpredictable and messy though it was, I got a glimpse of ugly and beautiful together.

Ugly and beautiful...incarnation. God with us.

A Poppy and Great Great Uncle Frank

On a recent foray in the community my son asked for a poppy at one of the stores. Around Remembrance Day it’s common for local business to place a donation box and poppy pins for people to donate to the local Legion and commemorate our fallen soldiers. He's been learning a lot about Remembrance Day in grade 1, so he's been noticing various ways remembering Canadian wars takes place, a poppy being one of them. I didn't think much of it.

But as we left the store, the questions began...along with my attempt to provide some clarity to his inquisitive mind:

L: “Why the poppy dad?”

Me: “To remember those who have died in war”

L: Why should we remember?

Me: (trying to keep it simple) “Because they died and gave up a lot. It's sad that they’re gone.”

L: Why is it sad?

Me: (deep breath) “Lots of people die in wars, missing out on a lot in life. And we miss them.”

L: Why is that sad?

Me: (with this question I consider changing the subject - e.g. “Want some candy?” Instead, I dare a response) “Think of the great day we just had as a family? War takes that away for many people."

L: So the bad guys win sometimes?

Me: (Candy anyone!?!) “Well, it’s not that simple. All countries have bad guys and good guys. People die on all sides and it's sad either way...God never wanted us to fight to begin with, but we can't to get along. The poppy helps us remember this and the people in our country who have died because of it."

At this point I think he brought up candy, which I was more than happy to oblige as a new topic of conversation.

I’m not sure if I satisfied his questioning or if I was satisfied with my answering. Our dialogue highlights how difficult it is to make sense of death and war, but not just for a 6-year-old - for all of us.

Great Great Uncle Frank Bergen - RCAF WWII
When war involves our relatives, remembering takes on a whole new tone. I’ve seen many friends online post pictures and stories of family members who served Canada in the military, some dying in the field. For these folks, Remembrance Day is deeply personal. Which brings me to another conversation with my son. The day after he got his poppy he asked me a question after school:

L: “Do we know anyone who went to war a long time ago?”

Me: “I don't think so. Most of our family in the olden days didn't fight in wars. They didn't think it was right, so they did others things (like work in hospitals or forests). Oh wait, I think one of your Grandma’s uncles was in WWII, your great great uncle Frank.

L: “Uncle Frank?”

Me: “Yup.”

L: “Can I talk to him to say thank you for fighting?”

Me: “He actually died earlier this year.”

L: (As only a literalist 6-year-old would respond) “They killed him!?!"

Me: “No, after the war he came back and was a farmer, had a family, and had grown old. He was over 90 when he died."

L: “I wish I could thank him. I'm gonna tell God to say thank you for me” (he proceeds to look up and tell God to pass along the message).

I'm not too sure how to process this interaction with my son. As one who is firmly committed to active nonviolent peacemaking, I always feel a tension around Remembrance Day. But I also realize that my great uncle Frank's decision to go to war left him ostracized by many in his family and community. Mennonites weren't supposed to fight. Social violence was his reward - this was how he was remembered. I don't want that to be how my son remembers. Which is why I didn't discourage my son's engagement with Remembrance Day and wanting to thank his great great uncle Frank. It takes great courage to stand up and fight. And yes, it also takes great courage to stand up and not fight. We need to remember both. War is never as simple as fighting or not fighting, or as simple as good vs. evil. War is complicated. War is painful. And as we reflect on the legacy of veterans and our loved ones, it’s personal.

I wish I could have brought my son to see his great great uncle Frank to say thank you in person. Hopefully God passed along the message...

From Consumption to Engagement

At the recent Christ & Cascadia Conference a few weeks back, I had the chance to present a paper on my working view of discipleship and young adults. Here's the abstract from the paper:

“From Consumption to Engagement: Discipleship and Millennials in Cascadia”

Much has been written and researched outlining the hasty exit of millennials from the church in recent years.  Cascadia is no exception. Within the cultural pluralism of Cascadia, religious commitment is but one choice among many, and one that is decreasing in popularity. Cascadia churches that are intentional about engaging millennials do so in a variety of different ways. From a surging New Calvinism, to thriving experientially-based worship events, to a growing emphasis on gap-year discipleship education, to cultural adaptations for belief and practice, many sectors of the Cascadian church are attempting to alter the trends of millennials leaving the church. But is it working?

The focus of this paper is twofold: 1) I will briefly outline several approaches to discipleship with millennials in Cascadia, suggesting a propensity to adopt consumeristic tendencies;  2) I will provide an alternative approach to discipleship with millennials drawing on James Davison Hunter’s model for “faithful presence” as a way to avoid the common consumeristic tendencies (in To Change the World).  I will suggest that faithful presence requires churches to emphasize local relationships rooted in a theology of covenant and participatory leadership with a view of culture that explores faith in Christ in the midst of the tension between challenge and collaboration. In a culture as diverse as Cascadia and to a demographic as religiously complex as millennials, I will argue that discipleship centered on “faithful presence” can provide a sustaining faith and set millennials on a trajectory for a lifetime of authentic discipleship.

U2 and Serious Ridiculousness

I strongly believe that ideas are best understood when enacted in our lives. We need to avoid two extremes: irrelevant abstractions and thoughtless behaviors. By themselves, both display an ignorance to our interconnectedness as humans - the reality that we are both human beings and human doings.

Such self awareness may be naively optimistic in a culture that demands both instant knowledge and immediate gratification. We don't have time for self awareness. Perhaps this is why Ann Powers, in her recent article on U2, draws on Dostoevsky's concept of "serious ridiculousness" to describe U2's way of being in the world that demands the practice of belief. As a band, U2 invites participation from the audience - "...what people love and hate about U2 is the band's insistence that listeners not just watch or listen, but enter into an experience with them."

I'd describe myself as a casual U2 fan. I know the main songs, own a few albums, but am far from being a die hard fan. I'm inspired, however, by their example of engaging life through their music with a raw honesty towards life and meaning. They disavow both naïve hope and apathetic hopelessness. And whether you like the music or not, U2 presents an engagement with our world and the human experience - "belief as practice" - that we could all use a little bit more of:

Ordinary ridiculousness comes from not being aware — from either simply not thinking about bad or excessive choices, or from embracing blind faith in the self, a God or a system. A seriously ridiculous person is clear-eyed. She knows that idealism is a fool's game to begin with, and that every conviction carries the risk of closed-mindedness. But she takes on belief as a practice, a way of being around others that seeks common ground. The ridiculous man or woman has found a way to connect things within life's inevitably broken landscape. It's an act of reaching out that can never be fully fulfilled, but which changes things in the moment, which is all we really have.

You can read the rest here.

Christ & Cascadia - Scarcity or Abundance?

Cascadia: “Cascadia” is something called a “bioregion” which includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and pieces of Alaska, California, Idaho, and Montana. Its boundaries are not political—they are natural. By definition, bioregions like Cascadia share a common set of natural characteristics (animals, plant life, soil, watersheds, climate, and geology). That said, many observers have begun to argue that Cascadia shares a lot more in common than mountains, salmon, and rain—it shares some important cultural and spiritual characteristics as well. More than lines on a map, regional observers have begun to argue that Cascadia is also a cultural and spiritual state of mind (Matthew Kaemingk)

I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Christ & Cascadia conference recently in Seattle. The conference was a gathering of scholars, leaders, thinkers, bloggers, activists, normal folk, and not-so-normal folk, all conversing around the intersection of Christianity in this region called Cascadia. The purpose of the conference, as stated, was “to know and love this place.

Having grown up in Cascadia, I find it interesting to hear how people understand and process the particularities of Cascadian culture. In the area of religion, this can be especially interesting. Cascadia is often known as the home of the “spiritual, but not religious.” Or as journalist Douglas Todd has described, people here are “secular but spiritual.” Studies show that God and spirituality remain popular, but religious affiliation continues to decline. This is the land of “religious nones.”

For Christians, this can be difficult to accept. The reality of “religious nones” fuels a general negativity towards Cascadian culture, this pagan and irreligious place. Overall, from a Christian perspective, Cascadia culture is seen as insufficient, scarcely able to offer much of anything of value spiritually. And at a conference such as this, one could expect this to be dominant theme.
But it wasn’t.

In fact, many of the presenters, myself included, while not ignoring the challenges related to Christian commitment and a “secular but spiritual” culture, offered reasons for Cascadia to instead be seen in a much more positive light. As James Wellman, professor at the University of Washington, proclaimed, Christians need to drop their “none-zone theological prejudice” and also see Cascadia from another angle: “a place of abundance!” From the abundant beauty of the environment itself, to the innovative and creative impulse of many, to the desire for authentic relationships (be it in tension with a hyper-individualism), there is much to be celebrated in Cascadia. Are traditional forms of Christianity going to face challenges in terms of integrating a vibrant religious expression in Cascadia? Absolutely! But such challenges don’t have to assume a position of negativity or hopelessness in the midst of the culture we find ourselves. Instead, as this conference suggested, cultures are always a complex reality of opportunity and challenge, and to pay attention to beauty and goodness - abundance! - can potentially reveal the ways in which Christ is already present in Cascadia.

 
 

9/11 - Somber Hope

9/11 remains a significant date in history. America pauses to remember, particularly in New York City, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. And the rest of the world watches and remembers alongside them. Thirteen years later, it’s still a somber day.
 
It’s somber because…

  • ...of the lives lost and families forever changed.
  • ...of the ensuing patterns of violence and hatred that continues to this day.
  • ...it’s easier to become desensitized to injustice then actively respond.
  • ...while we say we remember today, tomorrow we quickly forget the impact of this tragedy and its similar daily occurrence around the world.

Yet not all hope is lost. Having a chance to visit the 9/11 memorial site earlier this year, I witnessed hope through the sorrow. In this and many other situations of death and sorrow, hope persists.

World Trade Center Memorial - Feb., 2014
There is hope because…
 
  • ...countless New Yorkers volunteer time to tell stories of courage and community in the midst of tragedy.
  • ...the legacy of the victims has brought life to many in many different situations through relief foundations and other charitable work.
  • ...violence and hatred isn’t the only legacy of 9/11, as countless individuals and organizations call for peaceful responses of love and forgiveness.
  • ...of a greater reality beyond what we see today: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Words are easy

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:5)

Words are an interesting thing. We use them in all sorts of ways. Ask.com reports that on average, adults say 16,000 words per day. What we say is a big deal, literally! And so it’s no wonder we find in the book of James a warning about how we speak. Words matter.

I wonder, though, how James would address our words today. In a social media culture, words are typed as much, if not more, than they are spoken. Gone are any fears or hesitations related to face-to-face interaction. Via the Internet or texting, we can say whatever we want to someone from the comfort of our own private space. Words are easy.

For James, he was concerned with people intentionally misusing words to distract or lead people away from faithfulness. The dangers of the tongue were quite obvious. Today our problem isn’t so much an intentional misuse of words. Our ‘cursing,’ as James puts it, is far more subtle. In the world of social media, our use of words is more of a naive indifference as we blindly type this or that without ever considering what we’re saying or who we’re saying it to. An overly expressive status update; a judgmental tweet; or an ill-timed ‘LOL’ reverberates into cyberspace much like the “great boasts” James warns against.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:8-10)

James is calling for consistency in word and deed. And while our audible words remain important today, it is just as important how we use our words online. So before you send your next text message or publish a status update, consider how James’ teaching can inspire a faithful use of your tongue, whether it’s heard or typed:

1. Pause: Do I need to share this right now?
2. Think: Is what I’m saying uplifting to God and others?
3. Seek Clarity: Can this be misunderstood as selfish or insulting (“boasting”) and how can I make my words as clear as possible?
 
 
A variation of this post first appeared on indoubt.