"Practice Ambivalence" - Life Direction with Amy Poehler

Having made several major life and work transitions in recent years and now working with young adults in that oh-so-fun time of figuring out the future, I often find myself thinking about helpful ways to approach our future as individuals.

A common attitude that guides many is summed up in phrases like, “The world is at your fingertips.” Or, “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want.” Essentially, we tell ourselves that if we make just the right choices at just the right times, life will work out perfectly and all will be well. Success, when it comes to down to it, is all about determination. Hard work wins.

Christians, while committed in belief to trust God in all things, including life direction, in practice often twist the comfort, “Do not worry,” into a motivational warning that if we don’t get our act together and make good choices, we’ll be left unhappy. “Blessed are the determined” is our paraphrase of the beatitude, “Blessed are those who persevere.” All the while we neglect the two simple words that are about facing difficulty (“under trial”), not determining to avoid it. When it comes to life direction, we risk believing determination can help us avoid any hardship. Let's be honest; this just isn't true.

Celebrities always have good advice in areas of life direction, right? Okay, maybe not. But I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and was struck by her overall transparency in telling her story, and in particular, some wisdom she’s learned on her road to success:

“Too often we are told to visualize what we want and cut out pictures of it and repeat it like a mantra over and over again. Books and magazines tell us to create vision boards. Late-night commercials remind us that ‘anything is possible.’” Positive affirmations are written on our tea bags. I am introducing a new idea. Try to care less. Practice ambivalence. Learn to let go of wanting it…

Ambivalence is key.

You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look....

You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone’s else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please,  222-225).

As I continue to process my own life transitions, goals, hopes and dreams, as well as support and encourage others in doing the same, Poehler’s reflection is timely. Life isn’t a formula. Hard work doesn’t always win. To practice ambivalence, on the contrary, suggests a posture of openness and reliance on others, that while uncomfortable and unpredictable at times, allows us to let go of our striving and live into a healthy sense of self both today and for the future.

Beyond a Fear of Difference

A significant part of my work with young adults is encouraging them to pay attention to the world around us. And then as Christians in particular, to notice and reflect on the ways in which our lives as followers of Jesus relate to this world we participate in.

Inevitably, as most committed Christians will encounter, we bump up against topics that create angst or uncertainty.Whether it's approaches to injustice that involve troubling forms of violence, or exorbitant amounts of money spent on seemingly trivial matters, or the presence of vastly differing beliefs around issues of personal morality, much in the world creates tension for the follower of Jesus, let alone a young adult in general. And really, it should (the whole New Testament is about navigating such tension after all).

But how Christians respond to the differences of our world is no simple matter. And this isn't just an issue Christians face. Society in general, for all our talk about tolerance, struggles to exist in the presence of difference. Judgementalism, violence, exclusion, and alienation are just a few of the symptoms of a cultural problem many people, Christians included, cannot seem to shake: a fear of difference. Whether it's Christians ignoring God's call, or humanity ignoring the call for tolerance in general, we end up like Jonah in the Old Testament. We see "them" and we self-righteously run the other way. We accept a posture of fear and ignore the very thing our world needs: presence.

It's often assumed by both Christians and non-Christians that the Bible is one long narrative (or rule book) about not getting too close to "them." And yes, there are warnings - e.g. intermarrying in ancient times or adopting pagan rituals in Roman times - but we risk equating these warnings with a complete disengagement and lack of presence with those who are different. We forget where Jonah's fear got him.

A fear of difference wasn't the way of Jesus. He was known as a friend of sinners for a reason - he was actually their friend. Literally. We hear the word "pagan" or encounter people who are different and feel discomfort or even fear towards "them." Perhaps we even feel justified in our judgment and avoidance, forgetting all the while that the label "pagan" is preceded by the encouragement to "live such good lives among the pagans" (1 Pt. 2:12). Among=presence.

The tension between the way of Jesus and the way of world cannot be easily navigated or reconciled, I'll admit. But fear cannot be our response to difference either. Like Jonah, we are sent into the places of difference to be a presence - friends - with those we differ from. And like Jonah, we cannot refuse this call. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way we are sent beyond a fear of difference:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18 NIV).

"Fierce urgency of now"

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States.

A group of us at the college watched his famous "I Have A Dream" speech over lunch and I was struck by the ongoing relevance of his message as I pondered conflict, violence, oppression, and various forms of segregation still prevalent around the world.

We still live in a world where there is a "fierce urgency of now." Let's not stop dreaming.

Beyond Grasping - A Posture for a New Year

When it comes to the transition from one year to the next, we get inundated with talk of looking back and looking ahead, oftentimes with the unspoken - but ever present - reality of measuring our lives. "You can do better!" frames our remembering and resolving. But much of this exercise ends up with an approach to life based on grasping or striving for something that is usually far more complex than just setting our mind to it. And we risk allowing our failures or disappointments to define us. As a result, striving itself becomes our identity, not the actual goals to which we aspire. As a famous poet has said, we end up "chasing after the wind."

Taken on my visit to Pender Island (May 2014)
As I look back to 2014 and anticipate 2015, I'm hoping for a better posture to life than the frantic striving that so easily consumes. I want to get beyond grasping.

This passage was important to me in 2014, and I anticipate it will be once more in 2015:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Mt. 11:28-30 The Message)

Happy New Year!

"light shines in the darkness"

Merry Christmas!

"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

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.