Sometimes, firm believers quarrel with each other. Sometimes, faithful attenders migrate to other churches. And we wonder – why do God’s people, who are called to unity, divide?
The Scriptures are full of beautiful metaphors which illustrate our collective identity as God’s people – to name a few, we’re called a family, a body, and a temple. And these images also clarify how we relate to God, as believers – we are children of One Father, servants of Christ, and a dwelling place for the Spirit (see Gal 3:26, 1 Co 12:27, Eph 2:22, plus more).
Certainly, it is essential for us to know who we are and how we relate to God – and knowing these Biblical images can build good common ground between believers. But there is a whole other issue that can trip us up and divide well-meaning believers. It’s an issue that requires another set of Biblical metaphors to clarify it: How are Christians called to relate to their surrounding culture?
Why can we be focused on worship, fellowship, and discipleship one minute, and get sidetracked by politics the next minute? Why do peripheral issues hijack our conversations?
Why can sincere Christians disagree so sharply about where to send their kids to school, how to vote, or what the church’s local and global missions should look like?
I’ve become convinced that our differences really boil down to the way we answer two questions:
Is our stance toward culture optimistic or pessimistic?
Is our posture toward culture active or passive?
An optimistic stance typically results in a person engaging with the culture around them, while a pessimisticstance results in their withdrawal or separation. Those with an active posture would likely seek to change their culture, while those with a passive posture look for a way to coexist.
Now, one might ask for a definition of culture, but I’ll leave that to other authors like John Stackhouse, David Fitch, and Andy Crouch, who offer some great insights on this topic. And we could talk about the Kingdom of God – what does Jesus mean when He says the kingdom is like wheat mixed with weeds? (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).
But for now, if we focus on asking these two questions, our results will produce a chart that I’ve found helpful for understanding others:
And so, these four quadrants represent four different lifestyles, or ways that Christians relate to the culture around them. As the chart below shows, each one expresses different felt needs, values, and virtues that Christians hold:
Counter-culture Fight, Confront Justice & Power Replacing
Cultural Contribution Reconcile, Bridge Compassion & Peace Cooperating
Culture creation Renew, Create Truth & Love Transforming
Perhaps you can imagine what each of these lifestyles would look like, lived out in reality. Perhaps it can help parents understand why one would homeschool and the other would teach in the public system. Perhaps it can help people understand where the other side (politically) is coming from. Or why some Christians have founded monasteries, while others started wars; why some built hospitals, and others translated the Bible. Here are some examples from Scripture, Jewish culture, Christian history, and contemporary situations:
Patriarchs Essenes Monasteries Retreat Center Homeschool
Prophets Zealots Protestants Political Action Private School
Priests Sadducees Universities Hospitals, Daycares Public School
Now, I hope that a chart like this can help people understand the value of each other’s view. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “there is a time for everything.” Throughout the Biblical narrative, Christian history and our daily lives, there is a time for God’s people to take refuge, and a time for prophetic confrontation. There is a time for building bridges, and a time to blaze missional trails. All of these cultural responses reflect Christian values in different times and ways.
Yet, I will admit that I do hold one quadrant to be ideal. In light of our call to be Christ’s Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:14-21), to be “in this world but not of it,” (John 17:15-18) and to “live good lives among the pagans,” (1 Peter 2:11-12), I prayerfully hope for opportunities to be actively engaged with the culture around me. And, to end with one final metaphor, from Jesus:
Much more could be said on this topic, especially from its foundations in the Old Testament. From the moment of creation, humans were given dominion over the earth to care for it (Genesis 1:26-28), and no matter where they found themselves, God’s people were always called to be a blessing and light to others (Genesis 12:1-3, Exodus 19:4-6, Isaiah 49:6).
And that’s the metaphor we can take with us anywhere. As we live in this world and relate to our culture in various ways, we can always ask ourselves,
Last month, I started my “year without buying books.” It was in response to one of those inner promptings – when God’s Spirit guides us to take small steps of transformation. Like pruning, this process often involves cutting things out in order to make room, or reserve energy and time, for something better.
So, for 2023, there’d be a clean break from online-impulse buying; there’d be a dam in the stream of new arrivals overflowing my shelves; there’d be a moratorium on any additions to my growing list of un-listened-to audiobooks; there’d be a commitment, before entering a used bookstore, to only browse.
So far, I have no regrets. When you notice addictive behaviour, it can be really helpful to completely cut it out – to starve your appetite for it, and force yourself to look elsewhere for something to fill the void. Something life-giving. So, rather than accumulating more, how about adopting the practice of giving away? Or simply enjoying what I have? I do have a lot of books.
Interestingly, ceasing to purchase books resulted in a sudden increase in reading – or, more specifically, listening. After cancelling my Audible membership (to stop purchasing new ones), I realized that the end of January would bring an end to my access to all of the free titles included in my account. And I had a few on the go: Eusebius’s Church History, Sun-Tau’s The Art of War, and Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ. Knowing that this was my last chance to finish them, I frantically devoured the first two, and half of the third before my time ran out.
Yet, while I’m somewhat proud to have finished a couple more classic works of literature, this frenetic end to the month raises another issue for reflection: Are audiobooks becoming too big in my life? Are they taking up too much time and attention, and getting in the way of other things? Has the elimination of one addictive behaviour (purchasing books) cast a spotlight on another addictive behaviour (listening to books)?
So, as I entered the month of February, it seemed to me that taking a break from audiobooks would be worth a try. For years, they had accompanied me in the silence of my driving, dishwashing, home renovations, snoozing, and tedious office work. And they had added much richness to my life – insightful perspectives from non-fiction, imaginative escapes in fiction, or simply the efficient completion of an assigned reading. But were these additions subtracting anything from my life? At times, they divided my attention and distracted me from people and important tasks. At other times, they filled the space that could have been occupied by prayer, pondering, Bible study, or conversation. And why? What was the appeal? Why did I feel the need to press on and finish book after book?
It seems that with books, I face not only the temptation to over-accumulate, but the temptation to strive for accomplishment.
That’s the addiction. Reading books to add to my “completed” list, as a subtle source of pride (see me on Goodreads). Audiobooks have enabled me to read more (albeit less attentively) but what have they caused to become less? Perhaps cutting them for a month would reveal some insight.
So, with audiobooks out of the way, what would fill the void? What else could I listen to? I tried radio, and heard a lot of chatter, annoying ads, and shallow songs. I tried podcasts, which challenged by sense of accomplishment (there’s nothing to say I “completed”). While they often thoughtfully engage both sides of a culturally relevant issue (Holy Post, Munk Debates), they also take a lot of time. I’d say they sure beat radio, for someone whose mind is free while they work with their hands, but I still prefer in-person dialogue. I tried sermons – but find them less informative than books, and more suited for their particular context – better to be there, in person! I could listen to my own sermons – probably a painful but useful discipline that could lead to growth 🙂 I tried videos – which can be informative like books, without the same publishing credentials. Good for washing dishes alone, but few other times. I tried articles – less time consuming and quite efficient (especially though Twitter), but certainly lacking the depth of books. And of course, I tried to finish some books in paper – an ongoing, but painfully slow practice that is really irreplaceable for the memory it instills.
Despite the limitations of those options, some new practices also helped fill the void: Listening to people – My Doctoral research project involves interviewing new believers to hear how they came to faith. And I was blessed to hear ten stories in the space of one month – an experience that was both draining and enriching! It takes energy and focus to listen and draw out a person’s story, but the practice has been quite enlightening. I’m glad to have the time and headspace for it. Listening to God – this one might seem obvious, but when automatic go-to time fillers are removed, there can be space for prayer: reflection on His word, journaling and conversing with Him about life, and interceding for the needs of others. Playing soccer – I’ve never played on a soccer team in my life – but after the parents from my son’s team decided to form their own, I’ve found my hockey and football skills transfer fairly well to the role of goalkeeper. So, Sunday afternoon snoozes with audiobooks have given way to exercise and new friendships! Playing guitar – after taking lessons in high school, my guitar playing was basically dormant for 20 years. There was always someone else who could offer their musical abilities at church, and so, over the years, I’ve taken up other ministry roles. But, as our church has begun to lack instrumentalists lately, I’ve begun to respond to that stress by picking up the guitar again. While that might sound like a stressful endeavour to rescue the music ministry, it’s actually been much more of an inward practice that has produced outward fruit. For the first time, I’ve begun to genuinely enjoy playing for it’s own sake, and to worship God through song outside of a church service. And through that personal development, I’ve gained a capacity to serve in that area. Playing music – related to that, I’ve begun to realize that songs have certain advantages over books. While books can broaden one’s perspective by adding knowledge, songs can deepen one’s understanding, or the impact of words, by repeating them. Played to music, songs lyrics stick in our mind and can help form our thoughts and actions. In times of stress or busyness, I am thankful when a timely song enters my mind.
So, this month, I sought freedom not only from the accumulation of books, but from the need to accomplish through reading them. And, surprisingly, that freedom from accomplishment has created space for new accomplishments to emerge. While there is a time and place to disengage from the world and broaden knowledge, this month has afforded me time to engage in the world more deeply and fruitfully.
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
While I’m not buying books this year, why not look back at a few that I’ve read?
I like to write in margins, take notes as I read – the “interaction” helps me commit things to memory. Similarly, writing a quick review on Goodreads helps me process and cement my own thoughts about what I’ve read – and have something to share with others!
A fellow minister and blogger shared one of my reviews on his site, and I though I’d just put the review up here too – of quite a monumental and important book!
Here it is:
Well, this was a very thorough treatment of a very relevant and difficult topic. Honestly, it’s so thorough that it can feel overly thick and tedious. Still, I think a book like this needs to be written, showing in great detail the historical, intellectual, and philosophical foundations of our current cultural milieu.
Perhaps to put it simply, the roots of current views on sexuality and gender are found in the thoughts of Rousseau, Freud, and others of their time— who began to untether human identity from divine revelation, objective reality, or social standing.
Now, feeling trumps physical; psychology overrules biology. What was once the diversity of personality within biological genders is now biological diversity within psychologically defined categories of identity.
As people define themselves based on feelings, the author wonders which social taboo will become mainstream next—polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality? That might sound alarmist at the moment, but Trueman shows clearly that the foundation for opposing such practices has been undermined, and the only object in the way of their legalization is current public opinion.
Our society is moving away from any objective, unchanging moral standard. Trueman also identifies various fractures in the LGBTQ movement as they work out their philosophies and ally around the common identity of victimhood. Interestingly, feminism has experienced frustration and division in relation to these developments.
Personally, I can’t help but think of biblical ideas of setting aside social, gender, and ethnic identities for the sake of unity in Christ. But this is not setting aside external identities for something self-defined; instead, it is finding a new identity, our true, original identity, defined by God and restored through Christ by the work of the Spirit for anyone, no matter who they are.
I think this book will provide a good basis for others to expand on, and perhaps there are other books that are more accessible to read. He provides a lot of research to support one main point. This is a difficult read, and I think he has a more popular version of this available (Strange New World — see living theology note below).
Other authors have explored the history of modern thought and its implications for Christianity. Francis Schaeffer (How Shall We Then Live) and Lesslie Newbigin (Foolishness to Greeks) are foundational.
Trueman’s conclusion alone is worth reading. He summarizes it all and offers some very helpful advice to Christians about how to relate in a world where they find themselves foreigners in their surrounding culture.
I did it. I cancelled my Audible membership – at least for a year.
Since early 2020, Audible has been a steady companion of mine during home renovations, long walks, yard work, driving, and washing dishes. Its books have offered valuable insight for life, material for discussion in book clubs, and imaginative escapes during stressful seasons.
I can remember many times when I eagerly awaited the end of the month – for the moment when my new credit would be made available, when I could finally download the next instalment in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, that classic title on my bucket list, a textbook for class, or a new release recommended by a friend.
It’s been a great ride – so, why would I cancel such a good thing?
I have sometimes noticed what appears to be materialism in others – buying expensive things that seem to be unnecessary – repeatedly making purchases out of a feeling of emptiness that never seems to be filled. Yet, I’ve also come to see that I am materialistic in my own way – I never seem to have enough plants, rocks, and books! Others have teased me for collecting the first two, as they don’t seem to hold much practical utility. But, plants offer beauty, illustrate wisdom, and can improve their value over time. Rocks tell stories from the past – each of them unique, like people – not to mention that when polished, and placed in relish jars, they make great gifts or decorations on a bookshelf! And then books…well, as Solomon said, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
Over the years I have constantly accumulated books. Shelf after shelf have been filled in my office, in my living room, in my bedroom. Many are given to me and given away to others. Some are purchased, and some are never read. Digitally, through Audible and Christianaudio, I have also accumulated gigabytes of audiobooks. My list of “Not Yet Started” titles has grown nearly as fast as my Wish List. And the problem with such accumulation is that after a while, it begins to weigh on you. Your house becomes cluttered, and you worry about storage. Your items are valuable, and you worry about their security. And there’s that sinking feeling that you may never use the thing that you’ve purchased. The more you have, the more you have to worry about – it’s true for cars and houses and jewelry and books.
As I’ve begun study and preach through the book of Nehemiahthis year, I’ve noticed how clearly it models a process of change that believers go through. Looking at each chapter, one could identify steps of transformation: They begin with repentance – admitting their problem, and then proceed to revision a more hopeful future. Next, they get to work rebuilding, and then need to come internal and external resistance. Finally, as they make progress, they begin to reflect and reevaluate before taking time to remember, rejoice, and produce ongoing reforms.
While I’m not preaching on this book to lead the church through a building program, I do hope that reading Nehemiah can offer us space to reflect on our lives – to evaluate what we are building in this year ahead. Though I am not calling for New Year’s Resolutions (it’s too late for that), I am personally embarking on a journey of transformation in which I will seek to live without something in each successive month.
Why would I do that? Is this needless self-sacrifice? Outdated asceticism? No, I’d describe it as pruning. Making space in my life for new growth. Trimming some dead weight, or things that are actually harming me. Years ago, I kicked what felt like an unhealthy addiction to TV by cutting it out for a month. Ever since then, it’s never been a big part of my life.
Lately, I’ve had a growing sense that I need to stop buying books for a year – for similar reasons. It has become an unhealthy habit – like impulse shopping, giving a temporary high. That means no more books for my personal studies, for study groups, or for simple pleasure. That also means cancelling my subscription to Audible. While other subscriptions were easier to cancel – Amazon Prime, TSN, and Christianaudio are just seasonal treats, receiving that monthly Audible credit had become quite a routine. In fact, it had begun to create anxiety – what book will I add, this month, to my ever-growing list of unread books?
And so, it has begun. A month without purchasing books. A month to begin enjoying what I already have – a practice that is integral to the intent of Sabbath – to cease from work, production and accumulation – to take pleasure what we’ve already been given. Perfect for my seventh year at Parkdale, my Sabbatical year. And already, there have been nice surprises this month. For one thing, I’ve started a study group using a free book, Multiply. And, wouldn’t you know it, I received a new book for my birthday this month too! (see below)
Though making cuts always hurts, we know that deep down, it’s for the best. Death leads to new life. Surrender leads to rest. Repentance to hope. I look forward to discovering how God will fill the space that this year’s disciplines will create!
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?
I just finished reading “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer, a pastor from Portland. The book was both refreshing and concerning – it reminded me of some much-needed truth, and yet left something lacking.
Knowing Comer to be a young mega-church pastor, I expected a this book to be an entry-level engagement with this topic. And, while that was true for the first two sections, the third section surprised me with a pretty unique contribution to this important topic.
The first section introduces readers to the problem of hurry in our culture. Full of statistics and anecdotes, Comer grabs the reader’s attention by shedding light on the fact that we, as a society, are unwell. Rushing at our frenetic pace of work, consumption and even recreation, we are in danger of crashing and burning. To illustrate, Comer shares his own story of pastoral burnout – and his decision to step down from his role, making big changes to his life. He has me engaged – like any good gospel presentation, Comer has established the need for what comes next.
All along, Comer has been quoting and name-dropping various wise, Christian sages who agree with his prognosis. Many well-known authors have identified this same problem of hurry; in fact, Comer lifted the title of this book directly from a quote by Dallas Willard. So, as this section carries on, I have a growing desire to hear the solution – when are we going to hear from Jesus on this topic?
For Comer, the solution is found in a well-known invitation by Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is a wonderful quote – it’s been the basis for much freedom and fruit in my life, and it forms the basis for the rest of Comer’s book. However, from here, rather than diving into the Gospel accounts to exploring the ways of Jesus in greater detail, Comer pivots back to his favourite authors, and enters the stream of spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson persistently reminded people that Jesus is not only the Truth, but also the Way. Dallas Willard pointed out that Christ’s gospel message was an invitation to enter life in His kingdom. And Richard Foster famously laid out various spiritual disciplines as a pathway to open ourselves to God’s work in our lives. These authors, among others and those who have popularized their work, have formed an entire stream of Christian literature and thought – known as spiritual formation.
This is good – I like these authors, and I agree with the need for disciples of Jesus to adopt His lifestyle, and not just parrot certain beliefs about him. There are practical things that we can and should do, to open ourselves up to God’s work in our lives. I’ve read fairly widely on this topic, and Comer’s work here serves as a primer. He even freely admits that his readers should go and read the authors he quotes! I’d agree, if you’re willing and have the time. But, upon further reflection, I believe something is missing here – which I’ll explain after describing his third and final section (which was a surprise and pleasure)!
After spending the first two sections of his book identifying the problem and proposing a solution, Comer comes back down to the ground in the third section, planting his feet and offering some practical steps for his readers to try. For me, these chapters were a delight. Though they were by no means a complete and thorough treatment of spiritual disciplines, they present four particular disciplines in a fresh and winsome way. With practical examples and personal candor, Comer casts a vision for the practice of Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness in a uniquely relevant way. Above all else, this is why I enjoyed the book so much, and finished it so quickly – drawing from deep Christian traditions, the author really puts flesh on the call to live differently, and more contentedly, in our society today.
However, here’s what I found to be missing – or, at least in need of strengthening. While it could be argued that Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness are disciplines that characterized Jesus’s life, the call to follow Jesus is only part of the Christian message. It may be the part that many believing Christians need to hear – a call to live out their faith, and arrange their lives for maximum fruitfulness. But should we assume that readers truly believe in Christ and have a relationship with God?
Without the gospel’s call to repentance and faith, without an invitation to enter into a living relationship with God, then a book on spiritual disciplines remains only self-help. If we merely extract useful Christian principles and an apply them wherever they seem relevant to our current needs, then we’re trying to follow Jesus on our own steam. Jesus calls people to be born again – to surrender their lives to Him and receive new ones. Before the call to follow is the call to repent and believe in Him as Savior and Lord. Perhaps this is why various other books on Spiritual formation explicitly mention disciplines such as prayer, Scripture and worship. In this day and age of self-help, an active relationship with God does not go without saying.
Time alone in silence. Time to rest. Simplifying our consumption. Slowing our life pace. These can certainly be helpful practices for anyone – God’s truth is true, no matter where you are. These practices are ultimately based on Christ’s lifestyle and principles, and He is worth following. But trying to emulate these practices of Jesus without knowing Him personally seems like picking fruit from the Vine, rather than abiding in the Vine and letting it produce fruit through us.
I love how Comer calls Sabbath an “anchor discipline” (163). It creates time & space for good things to happen. And so do the other disciplines that he mentions. Point taken! But, based on my own experience, I don’t think it’s helpful to assume that an audience is Christian, and that they will use that time and space to truly seek Jesus. Perhaps Comer is simply targeting people in his church – Christians who need a deeper spiritual life? Fair enough. But an opportunity is lost if we skip to Jesus’s invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 before first heeding His call in Matthew 4:17. People certainly come to faith in different ways – this is my area of study! But I would argue that they need to come to faith to fully benefit from the Spiritual Practices mentioned in this book. We must move beyond therapeutic self-help, to a call to transformation – the death and new life so clearly symbolized in baptism.
So, after this primer on spiritual formation, I’d recommend digging a little deeper. Many of the authors that Comer quotes deal thoroughly with the call to discipleship and its implications – perhaps Dallas Willard being the chief of them all. In addition, Ronald Rolheiser has an interesting way of describing the process of death & rebirth in a Christian’s life. Or, to mention a favourite of my own, Andrew Murray has a wonderful way of calling people to surrender, abide, and experience the best of life in Christ. But, if I could recommend one book as a prerequisite and supplement to Comer’s, it’d be Surrender to Love by David Benner. In it, he gets to the heart of the Christian life – the basis for all of its practices and lifestyle: Before any genuine transformation can take place, we must first truly encounter the God of love, and respond with surrender.
We can’t just use God’s ideas for our own benefit. While I don’t think that this was Comer’s intent, I’d just point out the need to state the “obvious” which, to my mind, is no longer obvious to many.
Disagreement – this is a reality we live with today, woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
You walk to the grocery store, where you are greeted at the entry with signs telling us what to do and what not to do; we are told who is welcome and who is not. Strolling up and down the aisles, trying to follow the arrows on the floor, you notice an unmasked person walking towards us. Instantly, judgments begin to form in our minds. Age, gender, and racial profiles are drawn up, and stereotypes are silently reinforced. They smile, oblivious to your inner dialogue – how will you respond?
We gather for a Thanksgiving meal. We awkwardly greet each other at the door with head-nods, conscious that some guests are anxious about expanding their social bubble. Others are not with us, due to rules and feelings about vaccination status. In conversation, we remember those who have lost their lives due to Covid-19, and we remember those who have lost their livelihoods due to our government’s response. During this pandemic, some jobs have become much harder; others have disappeared altogether. Conspiracy theories are proposed. Judgments are made. Our perspectives, based on our personal experience, can feel incompatible.
We sit in church – united in our worship of God, our attentiveness to His word, and our commitment to fellowship – children of one Heavenly Father. We are told, in Scripture, that we are one. But, as we look at the person across the aisle in the next section, we wonder: are they “pro” or “anti?” Are they “fearful” or “free?” Are they “tolerant” or “bigoted?” Subconsciously, we have divided one another into categories and camps, as defined by the culture at large. We think that we have figured people out before we actually meet them – and once we’ve pigeon-holed them, we may not even want to meet them.
How did we get here? We live in a country known for its tolerance. Ever since the British won the Seven Years War in 1763, Canada has been officially multicultural and bilingual. French, English, and more. We know that a person’s ethnicity and language do not define what it means to be Canadian – just look at our Men’s National Soccer Team – our coach and top two scorers were born in other countries.
Moreover, Canadians have also been known for their tolerance of diverse values. When Conservative Leadership Candidate Kellie Leitch proposed that immigrants should be “screened for Canadian values,” it drew much criticism. Though the proposed values had to do with non-violence, gender equality, and work ethic, they were viewed as too exclusionary by her opponents.
And, until now, many have viewed our Prime Minister as the figurehead of Canadian tolerance. Columnist Licia Corbella reports that in a eulogy for his father in October, 2000, Justin Trudeau told a story of a lesson his father taught him:
“But at eight, I was becoming politically aware. And I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals. Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him. A generic, silly little grade school thing.
“My father looked at me sternly, with that look I would learn to know so well, and said: ‘Justin, we never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone, without denigrating them as a consequence,’ and, saying that, he stood up, took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man.
“He was a nice man, who was eating there with his daughter, a nice-looking blond girl, a little younger than I was. He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit, and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from another does not preclude being deserving of respect as an individual.
“Because simple tolerance, mere tolerance, is not enough. We need genuine and deep respect for each and every human being, notwithstanding their thoughts, their values, their beliefs, their origins.
“That’s what my father demanded of his sons, and that’s what he demanded of his country.”
In light of this winsome quote from so long ago, it is concerning to see how times have changed. While some have argued that his claims of tolerance have always lacked substance, Trudeau’s own words are beginning to show it. In a French-language interview during the 2021 election campaign, he referred to the unvaccinated in this way:
“They are extremists who don’t believe in science, they’re often misogynists, also often racists. It’s a small group that muscles in, and we have to make a choice in terms of leaders, in terms of the country. Do we tolerate these people?”
Surely, the role of PM would be taxing on anyone – and the amount of criticism he faces must weigh heavily on him. I, for one, know how tempting it can be to defensively counterattack those who oppose me. But, dismissing them as a “fringe minority” who hold “unacceptable views” does not square with the fact that after the spread of Omicron, a majority of Canadians now agree with the stated demands of the truckers – for restrictions to be lifted. Despite this, Trudeau continued to label his opponents in startling terms:
Such name-calling not only divides people and destroys dialogue, but it also doesn’t reflect the reality facing our country. Numerous studies have shown that the “vaccine hesitant” actually come from a broad swath of society, and have been over-represented by certain visible minorities, women and Liberal voters! Based on another study by Abacus Data, their chairman asserts,
“almost half of (the vaccine hesitant, 46 per cent) live in Ontario and well over half of them (59 per cent) are women. A quarter were born outside Canada. Their average age is 42 . . . If they were voting in a federal election today, 35 per cent would vote Liberal, 25 per cent Conservative, 17 per cent NDP, nine per cent Green.”
So, maybe the people we disagree with are not as evil as we thought. Despite what we hear from certain politicians and media sources, people who hold different views on an issue do not fall neatly into stereotypical categories. Rather, in all likelihood, we have more in common with them than with the rich and powerful voices who have been sowing division in society. Recently, even members of the ruling Liberal party have begun to speak out against the replacement of political dialogue with divisive and dismissive language. Contrast this with an Ottawa resident’s effort to speak personally with the protestors outside his window, to actually hear them out. He was surprised by what he heard!
But I digress. Politics is not the main issue here. It is only an illustration of the issue that each one of us face, each and every day of our lives. Finding a new leader will not solve the problem – politics is not the answer. Each and every one of us need to know how to handle disagreement properly.
Back in May 2021, after the BC government lifted its 5-month ban on in-person religious services, our church slowly began to re-gather outdoors. And as we did, we spent some time exploring Romans 12-16, where the Apostle Paul instructs a very diverse church about how to get along with each other and to function in this world. And while many have looked to Romans 13 for guidance about church-government relations in these times, I found Romans 14 to be even more relevant for us today. While the church must always carefully consider how it relates to the surrounding culture, its ability to function and properly witness to the world will depend on how well its people relate to each other. Consider Jesus’s New Command to His followers, and His prayer for them recorded by the Apostle John:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 13:34-35; 17:20-23
Of course, the question remains – “how do we do this?” If the church is like a family of adopted children, how can we keep from quarreling? If the church is like a body of many parts, how can we work in synchronization? If the church is like a building, how do we ensure the bricks all line up?
Well, each of these Biblical analogies contains its own answer – as adopted children, we look to our Heavenly Father and disregard any previous identities. As parts of the body, we look to the Head, Jesus Christ, for direction. And as a building, we are founded on the Word delivered by the apostles & prophets, and united by the Spirit Who dwells in us all.
But when getting down to the nuts & bolts of how to live this out, Paul offers some helpful words to the Roman church. Located in a vast metropolitan center of politics, culture, and trade, they regularly dealt with ethnic and social tensions. But, rather than taking sides in these matters, Paul offers some wise, peacemaking principles:
14:1 – “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” Here is the first principle – if someone disagrees with you about an issue that is not essential to the faith, then show them acceptance. Recognize that their difference may come from weakness – they may be extra-sensitive to an issue due to their previous experience. Show the same acceptance to one another that Christ showed us (Romans 15:7).
14:3 – “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” The second principle: both sides of a disagreement have potential to harm the other. One whose conscience allows them to exercise freedom in a certain area (alcohol, diet, Sabbath) should not look down on another who feels the need to limit themselves. And on the flip side, one who follows certain negotiable rules should not judge the person who does not. We must not let secondary issues divide us. In these days of social upheaval and political unrest, the church is in danger of becoming hijacked by political factions on either side, and taken off course from its primary mission.
14:13, 19 – “Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister…Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” The third principle: both sides of a disagreement have the ability to make peace. We can start by asking ourselves, “am I being overly sensitive?” or, “am I being insensitive?” An offended person can withhold their judgement, leaving the issue with the Lord (v.4), while an offensive person can choose to limit their own freedom to avoid distressing others (v.15, 20).
14:22 – “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” The fourth and final principle: talk less, and listen more. Some things are not worth debating; social and political issues come and go, but God’s word remains forever (Isaiah 40:8), and Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8). His commands to the church are clear, and we know what we’re here for: to love God, our neighbor and each other – and to make disciples of all nations. Delving into the latest controversies of our culture can divide the church and distract it from its primary purpose. While the church can offer a prophetic voice in response to contemporary issues, and should engage in meaningful dialogue with its neighbors, it doesn’t need to let the latest fads of culture set its agenda or define its goals. We know who we are, and where we’re going. Let’s invite others along for the journey!
Personally, I am so thankful for how Parkdale Church has continued to be a place of acceptance and love – even through these trying times. I trust that Christ will continue to build His Church, guided by His Spirit in each and every believer. My hope is the same as Paul for the Roman Church:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Here’s a message on Romans 14 if you’d like to reflect on this more:
Aside from pipeline protests, political campaigns, and the pandemic, one thing we may remember from 2020 are the race-related protests: Black Lives Matter. As a white male who has grown up in Canada, I have grown up in what I understand to be a multicultural society, and consider people of other cultures to be some of my closest friends in life and co-laborers in ministry. I have known that racism has existed in history and exists in individual exchanges, but felt ignorant about systemic issues today. It always seemed that political correctness and celebrations of diversity in our culture meant that everyone had a chance. But language of identity politics has been getting louder and louder – framing some as “privileged” and “oppressors,” and others as “oppressed.” I wanted to learn more, to understand these feelings as best as I could.
A friend recommended this book as a starting point. Unsettling Truths is written by a first-nations American (and Korean co-author) and seeks to explain the origins and effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. From Eusebius to Augustine, from Aquinas to Calvin, the authors explain how European Christianity slowly began to see themselves as God’s chosen people. This “White Christendom” mentality was used to justify slavery, colonialism, and genocide in North America.
Moving on to American history, the authors explain in great detail how the founding fathers and founding documents of the Republic reflect this same attitude, articulated in the “Doctrine of Discovery.” This doctrine laid out a framework for how Europeans would divide and conquer the land, while failing to consider the rights of native populations. This European Christendom attitude eventually took root in the New World settlers in the form of “American Exceptionalism,” with their “Manifest Destiny” of possessing the “Promised Land” like Israel before them. Obviously, this also led some to try to justify the removal or killing of the original inhabitants.
Moreover, the authors explain in great detail how pervasive these attitudes were – even in the actions and words of American cultural heroes. For example, before Abraham Lincoln was elected, he repeatedly sought to reassure voters that he would protect the privileges of whites. Then, while “liberating” slaves, he also authorized alternate forms of slavery through incarceration, and authorized the displacement and killing of natives. Or Robert McNamara, secretary of defense at the start of the Vietnam War, who supervised the fire-bombing of Tokyo, killing more civilians than either atomic bomb. The victors write the history, and determine who is a war criminal.
All of this history can begin to feel burdensome, and make one wonder – what can we do about this now? Thankfully, the authors (Charles, in particular) offers practical insights and hope for the future. I greatly admire his efforts to not simply accuse and dismiss others, but to create fruitful dialogue toward reconciliation.
He helpfully points out that apologies and friendships between individuals are nice gestures, but fall short of dealing with the root issues. He calls for a recognition that trauma can be experienced communally and be passed down intergenerationally – it can accumulate over time and space. Therefore, these issues need to be dealt with communally and systemically. More could have been said on this – the specific systemic issues and barriers that are relevant today – but I suppose that’d take another book!
Yet, reconciliation goes two ways – and the authors recognize the trauma that the other side can feel as well! Noticing the defensiveness and denial show by many whites, they contend that convicted oppressors (or those associated with or benefiting from them) can feel their own sort of trauma. Without calling them “fragile,” the authors acknowledge the need for compassion for and dialogue with one’s “enemy.”
While it’s impossible for me to say “I agree with everything,” because I don’t have the knowledge or ability to check every fact, the author assembles a compelling case that deeply rooted attitudes have had a long-term negative effect over race relations.
If I were to offer any rebuttal, it would be to ask for grace and compassion – not only for current day opponents (which he does well) but for historical figures who are seen as part of the problem. While I completely agree that “past heroes” need to be taken down from their pedestals and seen for the real, flawed people that they are, this does not mean that their good accomplishments should be ignored. So, in Lincoln’s case – yes, his words would not pass the PC test today, and his policies are backward through our present day lens. But what was considered realistic and possible in his time? What options were in his realm of possibility? Did he contribute positively, taking any steps in the right direction? I’d say yes. Did he do enough? Probably no one can say that they have. So, yes – he’s not the perfect hero we thought he was (no one is), but is he worth celebrating? To some extent – along with others who we may have missed.
Overall, I’m reminded of the need to listen to others – to hear their stories with an open mind. And also to hold my privileges with an open hand – how can they be used to help include others?
40 days ago, our church held its first online service – officially beginning its exile, its walk win the wilderness.
Forty – the days of rain that fell in Noah’s day, transforming the world for a new beginning. Forty – the years of Israel’s desert wanderings, moulding them into God-reliant children before settling into their new land (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Forty – the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, reliving Israel’s experience and passing the test – before commencing His ministry. Forty – what have we learned, and how have we changed during this time?
It can be easy to get caught up in the news: never-ending updates, statistics, bar graphs, line graphs, relief packages, and health advisories. It can be tempting to become embroiled in the public debates – the vicious attacks, the self-justifying defences, the what-ifs and the protests. And it can be difficult to make sense of unfolding events – provincial parks close while provincial liquor stores extend hours, and money is promised but potentially owed back.
There are those who look back and wish we did more. Politicians have called out out health officials for listening to the wrong sources, giving the wrong advice, and not taking the virus seriously enough, soon enough – as this timeline shows. There are those who look back, and wish we did less. Critics look at the shattered economy, the struggling families, the reeling educational system, and wonder if it was all worth it. Given what we now know about the virus, they claim that our response should have been more targeted and measured.
Some people socially shame those who they feel haven’t gone far enough in social distancing. Others protest their lack of freedom and employment, as seen recently in Michigan. People are torn between caring for public heath and caring for their next month’s bills. And governments feel this tension – with no script to follow, they write it as they go, vacillating between maintaining lockdown, and re-opening their economies, and maintaining lockdown.
That is the climate we currently live in – but the question for us is – What are we learning through this? How are we growing, and changing? How should we?
Last month, as I was personally adjusting to the changes in our world, I shared a chart about the stages of grief. Here’s a simple expression of it:
If I were to put this into put this into Coronavirus terms, it might look like this: Denial: Poor China! Good thing we’re safe over here (January-February) Anger: They cancelled sports! The world is ending! Buy toilet paper! (March) Bargaining: Well, an extended spring break isn’t so bad. Let’s renovate the house, phone grandma, and make paper hearts. (April) Depression: Is this doing more harm than good? Will we ever recover from this? Will the world ever be the same? (May) Acceptance: Some things have changed. I need to learn and adjust.
And one thing that’s clear is that we’re all learning as we go through this. There’s no script for such an occurrence, and it’s being written as we speak. We don’t yet know if the death toll of this virus will ever come close to some other regular causes (see worldometer section on health), and we don’t yet know how outcomes in different countries, with their different approaches, will end up comparing to each other. But, after these 40 days, here are some things we do know:
Some things have been lost, and we don’t miss them.
Commuting to work in heavy traffic
Eating fast food on the run
Overbooking our calendars
The rat race of competition in our fields of work
Some things have been found, and we want them to stay.
Household hobbies, like baking and gardening
Board games, artwork, books, and music
Old friendships and phone calls
Greeting neighbours and patiently waiting in line
Some new challenges have arisen, and we’ve struggled to cope
The allure of escaping in binge-watching online shows
The false hope of discerning from news updates what the future holds
The fear that people feel toward one another that blocks love and charity
The withdrawal from unhealthy dependencies on productivity, possessions, planning, and programs
Some things have been learned, and we’ve grown and changed.
Grandparents learning to use video chats
Parents learning to teach their children
Communities learning what they have in common
Churches learning that they are made of people, not programs, buildings, or events.
As we move into the month of May, we may see the economy begin to reopen. We may see restrictions lifted, and anxiety begin to ease. But, rather than hanging on and waiting for things to return to normal, let us prayerfully ask
As I look back, what has changed? What have I learned? How have I grown?
At this moment, what is God up to? Where can I meet Him and be part of His work?
And going forward, how must I continue to change? What must I cling to, let go of, and more fully grasp?
And for churches, families, and other communities, let us ask
What were we previously doing that was unnecessary?
What is really essential about what we do?
What is the best way to accomplish that?
For years, I’ve believed that churches need to be prepared to exist without buildings and without paid staff. Historically speaking, these are temporary luxuries of certain times and places. While they can be beneficial tools, they are non-essential. I had expected these to be threatened far down the road by an evolving culture – but recent events have rapidly brought this issue to the forefront.
Churches now, more than ever, need to understand their identity as God’s family, Christ’s body, and the Temple of the Spirit – collectively composed of individual members. We need to strengthen small groups, practice the “one another” commands, and embrace the priesthood of all believers – each with access to God, called to follow Jesus, and gifted by the Spirit to serve.
These are troubled times. As of today, there have been 453,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Though that represents “only” 64 people per million worldwide, it would be hard to find anyone, anywhere, who does not feel that this outbreak has profoundly affected their way of life. Stores are closed, people are laid off, events are cancelled, and we are urged to stay home if at all possible. Though the current global death toll of 20,000 is still less than the average annual number of Americans who die from the flu, we daily watch that number climb as the news speaks of little else. Though, a month ago, news headlines were inundated with American politics and pipeline protests, today we watch helplessly as our way of life transforms before our eyes. To me, the sense of dread we feel bears a striking resemblance to feelings expressed by characters in Gone with the Wind – as they faced imminent defeat at the hands of union soldiers. Their way of life would never be the same. Yet, they did their best to live and love while the world around them fell apart.
Is that being a little melodramatic? Maybe. But, feelings are real, and should not be invalidated. They are part of a natural process of responding to the events of life. Recently, some have shared charts like this one, below, which explain the Process of Grieving based on the Kugler-Ross Model:
Applied to the current situation of widespread lockdown, these stages might look like this: – Shock: Emotional shutdown/suppression – Denial: Discrediting sources of information and refusing to change (flight) – Anger: Feeling cornered, like there is no escape, lashing out and releasing bottled up emotion (flight) – Bargaining: When change feels inevitable, trying to find a “middle ground” to still hang onto some things – Depression: A sense of hopelessness and helplessness to stop change from happening – Testing: Experimenting with new ways of life and new plans going forward -Acceptance: Fully adjusting to the new reality, and learning to ruction again
Gandalf adds an encouraging thought – that there are “other forces” at work in this world, and that what has happened to him was “meant” to be. Gandalf’s sense of a greater good, and a higher power gives Frodo encouragement that there can be meaning and purpose to everything in life, and that there is hope in a better future. Gandalf’s advice helps Frodo to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.
…to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.
In fact, his advice is not unlike Mordecai’s wise words to Esther, when he encourages her to take action in a time of trouble. Like Frodo, she needed to come out of hiding and recognize her opportunity to make a difference. Mordecai, like Gandalf, added meaning to her experience, and pointed to the greater purpose that she could serve.
Another interesting expression of this attitude comes in the form of Christian Spirituality. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, describes the “Paschal Mystery – A Cycle for Rebirth.” In light of Jesus’s comment in John 12:24 that a seed must die in order to multiply, Rolheiser proposes a model of following Jesus through death, resurrection, adjustment, ascension, and pentecost – for our personal spiritual transformation. That may sound a little strange, but considering Christ’s call in Luke 9:23-25 to carry our cross, follow Him, and give up our lives to gain new lives, Rolheiser doesn’t sound far off. Moreover, Paul’s description of baptism in Romans 6:3-7 sounds quite similar – of joining Jesus in death and finding new life.
In light of this, Rolheiser offers a 5-step model for spiritual transformation: 1.) Good Friday: “the loss of life – real death“ 2.) Easter Sunday: “the reception of the new life“ 3.) The Forty Days: “a time for readjustment to the new and grieving for the old“ 4.) Ascension: “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling“ 5.) Pentecost: “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living“
While this is not identical to Kuber-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief, it shares the idea that grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed. For this to happen, one must acknowledge the death of the old, and welcome what is new.
…grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed.
However, if this process is not embraced, then we can get stuck in the past, and left behind. Jeremiah, the doomsday prophet of the last years of the kingdom of Judah, repeatedly warned his fellow countrymen of the approaching invasion – allowed by God to discipline His people, and turn them back to Him. Time and time again, he called his own people to surrender to their invaders, promising them that God had good plans for them in exile, and would one day restore them to their homeland (29:1-14). Yet, each successive king refused to give up what little control they had. They would rather stand against both God and the greatest empire on earth than relinquish their crumbling kingdom. They wanted to know the word of God from Jeremiah, but were unwilling to obey it; they were more fearful of change than of their impending doom (38:14-28). They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.
They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.
For our church, we have lost some things that are dear to us. Being a smaller size, we cherish the warm fellowship, and face to face contact of Sundays. Not that we’re an exclusive clique – we actually enjoy a beautiful diversity of culture, age, and background. And the wonderful opportunities for personal mentoring and practical service will be missed during this time of the virus. Just weeks ago, we were preparing a rotation of Sunday school teachers to lovingly teach our children; we were selecting new missionaries to support; we were approving our ministry budget for the coming year; we enjoyed a celebration meal with Daycare staff. My, how far we’ve come since then!
Yet, with loss, comes newness. We have embraced new technologies, like Zoom, which enable us to continue face-to-face interaction online. We’re learning to pick up the phone and call each other more, to check in and catch up. And we’re turning back to the Word for advice, and to God in prayer.
So, how might this time of crisis lead to positive change in your life? In this world? What will come to an end? What will take its place?
One change that has resulted from the crisis is that some people have gained a lot of free time. Whether people are laid off or working from home, there are new spaces in our schedules. With what will we fill them? What new habits will emerge from this time? How can we be intentional about the new lives we’re forming through this?
Others have experienced another change: more time at home with family. With schools closed and people working from home, new routines are required. Family members may have more time, but less personal space. Will we learn to get along through this? Will we grow through this to deepen our relationships, or will we “hold on until it’s all over?”
We need to develop a vision for life beyond the virus. If we do, then our actions can be informed by that, guided and empowered toward a new way forward. If we can move through the stages of grief, and accept the new reality, we can come to see this time as an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways. Rather than “grinning and bearing it,” fighting against change, or hiding from it, we can welcome change, and approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times.
…approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times
Where do we go from here? How do we actually process grief in the midst of change? What words can express what we’re feeling? I’d encourage you to look to the Psalms, where David and other writers are doing just that – expressing their grief to God, and moving through it to a new reality, firmly footed on faith in God.
A psalm of David.
1 Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief. 2 Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you. 3 The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in the darkness like those long dead. 4 So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. 5 I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. 6 I spread out my hands to you; I thirst for you like a parched land. 7 Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. 8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. 9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, for I hide myself in you. 10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. 11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life; in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble. 12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant.
It was Christmas Day, 1996. In Victoria, BC, it was -8.1 degrees Celsius, a record low. It had been snowing there for 3 days, and people were enjoying their “white Christmas.” But the snow didn’t stop – four feet of it fell between Dec. 27-29, and the city experienced the third-highest snowfall in a 24-hour period, of any Canadian city on record. Quite an accomplishment for the city with the lowest annual average of snowfall in the country. The city became paralyzed; roads were impassable, ferries were docked, airplanes were grounded, and doors were blocked by the mounds of white powder. It was said that the city became so quiet, that you could hear sea lions barking on the shores from several kilometers away.
Yet, in the stillness and silence, Good Samaritans came out of the woodwork. Donning cross-country skis, they delivered food and medicine to shut-ins, and shoveled their walkways. Then they shoveled them again – and again. For Victorians, snow is often seen as a temporary inconvenience that disappears in a matter of hours or, at worst, a few days. But when the city found itself unprepared for the storm of 1996, it brought people together in never-before-seen ways. In fact, for some, it was the best Christmas ever. (See Vancouver Island Book of Everything, p.90)
Now, in 2020, we have the Coronavirus outbreak. As of this moment, there have been over 155,000 cases, and 5,000 deaths. See live updates here. Now, I’m no expert on this issue, but I find it interesting to observe the social effects and ask what we can learn. Here are a couple thoughts:
Facts are Easy to Miss We read headlines. We hear soundbites. But there’s a good deal of good information out there, if we look for it. It has been said that, though we have no vaccine ready for this virus, the death rate is relatively low (compared to other such outbreaks) and that it primarily concerns those whose health is already compromised. But, this doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It is a tragedy that so many seniors are dying from this, and we need to protect them. Yet, encouragingly, the growth curve has decreased drastically in China and Korea, where the outbreak first began. Counter-measures are working, as can be shown here. Moreover, given that the virus spreads through bodily contact and transmission of fluids (through the mouth, eyes, etc.), people have been advised to wash hands, avoid touching their face, and restrict contact with others. This is essentially what people already do to avoid the common cold and the flu, which kills many more people annually than this virus. Yet, this has been declared a “national emergency.” It is certainly serious, but how should we respond? Here are some practical steps that churches can take: And some more informed, balanced advice:
The Power of Fear I have never before observed such widespread panic in response to such a threat. Perhaps people who are older than me can compare this to the nuclear scares of the cold war, when people lived in fear of an atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets (see this article quoting C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on this). But for me, after seeing various wars, terrorist acts, and more deadly virus outbreaks occur on our planet, this time feels different. People have been panic-buying toilet paper – of all things. One person has stockpiled hand wipes and is making a fortune. Stock markets are plunging. These seem like overreactions – especially given the data mentioned above. Public advisors have wisely called for gatherings of 250 or more to be cancelled, in order to decrease the virus’s spread. As a result, major sports leagues have paused their seasons, school assemblies have been cancelled, and large churches have closed their doors on Sundays. I have no objection to these recommended safety measures. But what about smaller gatherings, like school classes, social gatherings, and even small churches?My own church has needed to face this question. No one wants to be labeled as the “bad guy” and be held responsible for spreading the virus. But I have visited malls, grocery stores, parks, and restaurants that remain open, though they accommodate more people than my church. Daycares and schools have continued, due to the low risk for young people. If they cancelled, much of society would come to a standstill. Healthcare providers, who are well-trained in sanitation, continue to treat patients in hospitals, clinics, and dental offices. So, should I still host my birthday party? Should my child go to music class? Should a small church still meet? Is it offensive if we do? Can choices be left up to individuals? Sometimes, in this “age of outrage” in mass social media, it feels like the greatest thing to fear is the toxic reactions of those who are offended.
Now, to change gears a bit, how then shall we live? What can be learned and gained from this?
What is Lost For the moment, we have lost large public gatherings. Not long ago, we were wondering whether or not the Toronto Raptors will get another long playoff run, whether the Maple Leafs will finally win a playoff series, and whether the Canucks will finally see postseason play. At this point, they all appear unlikely. There are also no concerts, no school assemblies, and no large church services. A large void has been left. Is that good or bad?Without large church gatherings, is this the end of Christianity as we know it?
A Historical Perspective After instructing a course in Early Church History, I can’t help but think of the incipient church as it existed in the context of the Roman Empire. Christianity was officially illegal, so Christians gathered in homes, in catacombs, and public squares. Christian gatherings had to fit into their everyday routines and the common places of life (see the book of Acts in the New Testament for more on this). Yet, before it became Rome’s official religion in AD 380, before priests wore fancy robes and led services in opulent cathedrals, the young church grew rapidly, as Sociologist Rodney Stark calculates:
And how did the church grow? Rodney Stark also shares some ideas about that. Apparently, during plagues in 161 and 251 that killed up to a third of the population, the Christians were known for staying in urban centers in order to care for the sick. They also became famous for saving abandoned infants, who were usually female. Not only did this add children to their numbers, but it demonstrated their value and respect for women in general. These factors, in addition to their willing martyrdom for their faith, added weight to their message. Considering this, one might wonder what was lost when the church became wealthy and politically powerful. For more on this, look at St. Antony and the beginning of the monastic movement.
I have often told my church that buildings and pastors are “temporary luxuries” that we enjoy and use in this particular time and place in history. They can be useful tools for strengthening the church and serving the world, but they are not essential to it. Moreover, legal status and tax exemptions should not be taken for granted. If they are ever removed, along with the ability to hold large gatherings, what would be left?
One need only to look to countries like that today for examples. Who would have guessed that Iran would have the highest Christian growth rate in the world? Yet it is doing so “without buildings and central leadership.” Afghanistan is second highest. Moreover, the growth of the church in China has become well-known, despite the difficulty of many churches to gather publicly.
So, back to the question – when we lose large gatherings, what is lost? Have we placed too much emphasis on Sunday gatherings, while neglecting our more basic calling to discipleship and being good neighbors?
What is Found Perhaps, rather than worrying about what is lost in the case of a pandemic, we can look for what opportunities come through this. With the loss of professional sports and other large forms of public entertainment, a void has been created. What will fill that void? Will we binge-watch shows on Netflix? Or, just as in the snowstorm of ’96, will we look up from our own affairs and look to our neighbors? Now that we are forced to stop many things, will we discover that we never really needed them in the first place? Will we, in the quiet, in our free time and enforced space to ourselves, find that God has always been there, waiting for a moment like this, to connect? I’ve sometimes found, in moments of enforced stillness (computer crashes, car breaks down, bus is missed, a meeting is cancelled), that they come just when they’re needed most. And periods of extended rest can often be wonderful times to reconsider our life priorities!
So, in this time of great anxiety, as we feel a sense of loss and lack of control, what will fill the void? Where will we turn? What opportunities will God bring, and what is He saying to you?
Psalm 62 1 Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. 2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
3 How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down— this leaning wall, this tottering fence? 4 Surely they intend to topple me from my lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. 6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. 7 My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. 8 Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.