Girls Are "Pretty." Boys Are "Cool."

The topic of beauty has entered our household as our 3-year-old daughter acclimatizes herself to a culture determined to unite self-esteem with a particular version of beauty. “Pretty” is a word we hear regularly, often only said in relation to something dressed up or done up.

On top of that, her notions of “pretty” are tied into burgeoning concepts of gender stereotyping, where only girls can be “pretty” and boys are “cool” (always in reference to her dad, of course).

As parents, navigating the realities of beauty and gender can be a daunting task. With so many voices of influence, it’s easy to become frustrated or cynical towards the impact culture can have on the formation of our daughter. We can be left wondering what influence we actually have on that formation.

Behind our frustration is the question of value - what makes a person valuable? What makes a person pretty? Or cool? “Pretty” and “cool” are often statements of temporary value, based on a certain look or a momentary characteristic - they are culturally limited statements. So when it comes to a person’s value, humanity needs more. Our daughter needs more.

We’ve tried not to overreact one way or another at what’s “pretty” and what’s “cool” in our household. Parents never seem to get it right anyway. But we are very aware that these phrases can’t be all our daughter hear when it comes to recognizing her value.

One my increasingly favorite phrases from the bible relates well to this issue. Upon creating the heavens and the earth and all that is within the earth, including humans, we get this description of how God views us: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Very. Good.

The Hebrew meaning is far more than situational or about appearance. The earth didn’t just look pretty. And Adam and Eve may not have been cool. Creation’s goodness wasn’t shallow or simply God’s opinion. Genesis doesn’t say God saw that it was very good. No, God saw it, and it was very good.  This is a value - a goodness - that is embedded into the world. And into humanity. We need to remember, then, that alongside the “prettys” and the “cools” - and yes, the “uglys” and the “uncools” - is the reality that the “it was very good” echoes into history and into our very lives. And into our daughter’s life. Yes, at times this goodness dims, hidden behind sickness, pain, sorrow, and sin - goodness needs to be restored where it is missing. But the inherent value of our very being persists beyond the pretty and the cool.

Girls can sometimes be called pretty, yes. But may they always know they are very good.

And boys can sometimes be cool too. But may they always know they are also very good.

Pretty and cool are fine, but limited. Goodness is permanent. This is a message my daughter needs to hear.  This is a message we all need to hear.

The Changing Religious Culture

The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of the Columbia Contact:

From mega churches to house churches to traditional churches to community churches, the diversity in expression for the people of God in cities is vast. Yet amidst all the diversity, there is one commonality among North American urban churches: they all exist within a changing religious culture. Whether a church chooses to adapt, engage, withdraw or reject such change, they can't deny that the church's role in culture is in fact changing.

Some church leaders have identified this changing culture as a state of liminality. Liminality literally means a threshold in which something or someone experiences ambiguity and disorientation. Related to the church, Anabaptist leader and writer Len Hjalmarson explains liminality as a time of transition for the church. “When the church is in transition…confusion surfaces. Even casual conversations can become complex, with people using language in very different ways. Words like church and evangelism and even Christian carry baggage they didn’t once possess.”  Urban churches face this liminal context everyday.

This cultural transition for the church involves many different social aspects of a city, from increased diversity and multiculturalism, to changing socio-economic conditions in specific neighbourhoods, to a general suspicion of anything related to traditional religion, be it Christianity or otherwise. Canadian churches are forced to navigate commitment to the way of Jesus in a culture that is hesitant to commit to anything.

First United Mennonite Church
Vancouver pastor at First United Mennonite Church, Greg Thiessen (Dip. ’03), describes the experience of liminality for their church with “the transition of our neighbourhood from ‘Little Berlin’ as it used to be nicknamed to a very multi-cultural and predominantly Punjab area of Vancouver.” Thiessen also notices that neighbourhood transience, especially for young adults and families, further complicates how an urban church can effectively minister in their neighbourhood. Rapidly changing neighbourhoods are part of a rapidly changing urban culture that the church is left to address in one way or another.

It's into this context of liminality that some urban churches are adopting a new spin on an old concept: parish ministry. Parish ministry stresses the importance of local neighbourhoods as the primary context in which the gospel is lived out and shared. Based in Seattle, the authors of The New Parish, refer to a parish as “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.”  First United Mennonite Church, for example, has responded to their changing neighbourhood by engaging their literal neighbours and building relationships with them, including increased involvement with local community events.

Artisan's Mt. Pleasant Parish gathers here at the Grand Luxe Hall 
Artisan Church, pastored by Nelson Boschman (BA ‘93) and Lance Odegard (BA ‘02), has adopted a parish model of church planting that focuses on "reproducing incarnational neighbourhood parishes that focus on discipleship through covenant community." Artisan organizes their small groups geographically as a way to maintain a consistent presence in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Boschman and Odegard stress that “each person's gifts are required” to make this relationally-based church model work, as each person is continually invited to “participate as ‘co-artisans’ in God's movement of renewing all things.” Artisan’s first parish was based in Downtown Vancouver and they are presently launching an East Van parish.

The focus on presence in local neighbourhoods with the parish church model is just one example of how urban churches are adapting to a changing culture while remaining faithful to the gospel. Columbia Bible College is excited to have the opportunity to lead students to grow in their discipleship as future residents and leaders in our cities. As Thiessen reflects on the impact of Columbia on his urban ministry, “Columbia has helped equip me with a sense mission that is not just professional in nature – not reserved for pastors and missionaries – but for all Christians to live out.  Columbia also helped expand my own horizons of what it means to look like a Christian – that it is not just the German-Mennonite mold I grew up with but reaches across cultures in diverse expressions and understandings.”

As Columbia continues to partner with urban churches, our goal is to continue developing students who positively impact their careers, churches, and communities in cities around the world.

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.