Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Family of God

For a long time I’ve liked to use the analogy of a family when describing the Church.

We know about families.  We have brothers, sisters, in-laws, uncles, stepsisters, grandparents, cousins.

Some we like a lot.  Some we don’t know so well.  Some we find, frankly, weird.  Some we don’t even talk to any more.

The church can be like that.  Many of us have a ‘home’ denomination.  We feel safe there.  We’re surrounded by people who are like us.  We understand the language that is used.  We know what is expected of us. We know what to expect.

Perhaps we’re aware of ‘sibling’ churches.  Not quite like us, but similar.  We can get along ok.  We wish they’d change a few things, but we tolerate their quirks.

Perhaps, though, we also have an estranged ‘parent’ church.   A group or denomination that we split away from.  For some the split happened amicably, but for others it was a wrenching, violent, argument.  Maybe the split happened last year, or maybe it was centuries ago.  In both cases the wounds can still be felt.

And then there are those cousins that we’ve never met.  Those strange folks that we’ve heard are somehow related to us, that we’ve seen in pictures, but we really know nothing about.  They might even speak a different language.  Their practices are different.  They’ve focused on different elements of the faith than we have.  We might have a lot to learn from each other, but no one seems to be in a hurry to even start the conversation.

Maybe this describes you.  It certainly describes me.  But there’s something else I’ve learned, too.

I have never regretted reaching out to my family.

Frequently I have found them strange, different, weird, frustrating.  But just as frequently I have learned something important from them.  And just like my physical family, which is spread across the globe, I know I have a deep and profound connection to my distant brothers and sisters in the faith.  A connection that transcends language, culture and geography.

So I’m committed to seeking out the links that connect us.  Our shared faith, our shared heritage, our shared hope.

Because even if you’re weird, and do things differently, and speak a strange language, doesn’t mean you’re not family.

 

Why Bother with Reconciliation?

Some people have asked me why I’m bothering to undertake this church crawl.  The further I go into this journey, the more I realize that reconciliation, especially between Christian churches, is absolutely essential.

Because if we don’t reconcile, the result will look like this:

Watch that video.   When Christ was born, the angels proclaimed “peace on earth”. But today, at the birthplace of Christ, those who are supposed to be his representatives are hitting each other with brooms because they can’t agree on who should sweep a patch of floor.  Seriously.

If we can’t resolve an issue of housekeeping in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, how will we present ourselves as agents of reconciliation in a broken world?  If we are still divided by arguments that date back a thousand years or more, how can we claim to be being transformed into the image of Christ?

Reconciliation is not something that can be ‘put off’ until later while the we get on with the mission of the church.  Reconciliation is the mission of the church.

 

Church 16 – House Church

I wasn’t quite sure what to call this post, as the group I had the privilege of visiting this past Sunday doesn’t really have a formal name, structure, or building.

But they certainly do have very comfortable sofas, and plenty of time for discussion, worship, prayer and eating together in a relaxed family environment.

A couple of things really stood out to me.  The first was the inclusive nature of the meeting.  In one church I was in recently I was carefully guided to a back pew and reminded of my ‘observer’ status.  But at the house church I was invited into the family living room, and actively encouraged to join in the discussion.  Everybody’s input was expected and welcomed.  This was a pleasant change to passively listening to an hour-long lecture!

The other thing that caught my attention was the focus on discipleship.  This might be a small gathering, but there is actually a reason behind that.  We talked for a while about the fact that it’s humanly impossible to disciple, pastor, or coach large numbers of people simultaneously.  Even Jesus focused much of his attention on a small group of 12 followers.   Perhaps four or five individuals is the most that it’s reasonable to expect one person to be able to effectively disciple.

And so rather than adopt the common pattern of having many people gather together once a week to hear a teacher speak from the front, this church has deliberately chosen a model that allows intense, personal interactions between the leadership and members.  I think this is an idea that’s definitely worth exploring.  I’m convinced that the purpose of the church is the transformation of people towards the model of Christ.  But I’m not at all sure that all of our church models are very good at achieving this.  So I’m very interested in any approach that tries to create better environments for this transformation to occur.

This was also by far the longest ‘service’ I’ve been to.  I arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon and didn’t leave until 10:00 that evening.  But while I can’t imagine sitting in a pew for 6 straight hours, this felt far more like hanging out with good friends, and I was in no hurry to leave.

I’m glad I found this little group.  They may have no official title or building, but they showed me that there are some good things happening under the radar in Barrie.

 

Church 15 – Salvation Army

Having run the Santa Shuffle yesterday in aid of the Salvation Army, it seemed fitting to visit Barrie’s Salvation Army church this morning.

A couple of impressions hit you as soon as you walk in the door of a Salvation Army church.  The first, and most obvious, is the very heavy use of military style dress and terminology.  Easily half of the attendees this morning were dressed in a formal uniform.  The church is known as a ‘Corp’ or ‘Citadel’.  The leader is referred to as ‘Major’.  And the music is lead by a brass band.

I have mixed reactions to this.  Having spent time reading and thinking about the Anabaptist position, with its strong emphasis on peace and non-violence, it seemed weird to be in a church that was so keenly embracing a military style.  But on reflection, I suspect that the Salvation Army is trying not so much to adopt militaristic imagery as redeem it.  This army does not exist for the purpose of extended political power through the means of lethal force.  Rather it quite clearly exists, in their own words, to ‘be a positive transforming influence in the world’.

In fact the I came away with the impression of a church that has a very clear sense of purpose, and a very disciplined approach to achieving their goals.  The Salvation Army is well known in the city for its work among the poor and homeless downtown through the Bayside Mission.  And unlike some of the more isolationist groups that I’ve visited, these programs are run in collaboration and cooperation with several other city churches.

I also got to talk after the service with a member who’s involved in the church’s justice and prison chaplaincy ministry.  He made a very interesting point about the ‘other victims’ of crime – that is, the family and dependants of prisoners.  This is something that Rupert Ross talks about a lot in ‘Returning to the Teachings.’  The effects of any crime spread outwards through a community like ripples on a pond.  As well as the immediate perpetrator and victim, there are many others who feel the consequences.  Not least those who may lose a breadwinner if the perpetrator is incarcerated.

I’m very glad that the Salvation Army exists and is taking practical steps to address these kinds of issues.  I don’t think I’ve yet visited a church that has so clearly integrated its understanding of the gospel with a robust, outwardly focused ministry.

 

Santa Shuffle Race Report

One reason I love running so much is that even something as simple as a community 5k can contain all sorts of drama, tension and excitement.

I’m in my off-season at the moment, patiently putting in the miles to prepare for next years ultra-marathon goals, which means that most of my runs are of the ‘long-and-slow’ variety.  However, once in a while it’s nice to shake things up a bit, and this morning provided the perfect opportunity.

My plan was to run from home to downtown Barrie, a distance of about 9 or 10 km, in time to run the annual Santa Shuffle.  I’d do the race, and then run home.  A 25k total would complete this week’s distance goals.

The last few days have had very unpleasant weather; the temperature has hovered around zero and a mix of snow and rain has left a slushy surface on the sidewalks that’s nearly impossible to run on.  Fortunately, this morning was bright and sunny and the paths were mostly clear.  I loaded up my hip sack with water and snickers bars and started off downtown, an hour before the race was due to start.

I took the run downtown very gently, taking the opportunity to fuel up as I went.  I even managed to resist my usual urge of racing any other joggers that I encounter.  Down at Heritage park was big crowd, significantly larger than last year.  Mayor Jeff Lehman, who somehow manages to attend every community function in the city, gave some brief words of welcome and congratulated us on our healthy example and the thousands of dollars that had been raised for the Salvation Army through entrance fees and donations.

The one-kilometre run went off first, which meant hanging around rapidly losing body heat.  I’d planned to arrive just minutes before the race, but that didn’t work out so well.  But I’d had the forethought to bring a space blanket, which did a surprisingly good job.

Then the 5k race start was announced and I had my usual panic to find a place to dump my water bottle, take off my jacket and fight through the crowd to the front line.  I made it with a few seconds to spare, remembered to reset my stopwatch, and then,  “3-2-1 GO,” we were off.

I always feel bad just before a race, nerves and power gels combine to make my legs feel shaky and unsure of my ability to actually turn on the speed when needed.  So this time I simply yelled ‘charge’ and sprinted the first hundred metres from the start line.  Immediately I was off the front of the pack, but as soon as I settled in to my pace a couple of other runners were right with me.  A few more hundred yards and they were already pulling away from me.  I let them go; my plan was to not kill myself in the first half of the race.  I’ve gone out too hard twice already this season, and this was just meant to be an extended training run anyway.

After the first kilometre, the shape of the race was already becoming clear.  Number One, clearly a serious runner by the fact that he was wearing shorts on a snowy day, was pulling steadily away from us.  Number Two, wearing a green shirt with a ‘Cross-Country’ slogan on it had already been dropped by him.   Although he was a hundred metres ahead of me, he looked like he might already be flagging.  If I kept to my plan, maybe I’d haul him in.

There’s a slight hill at the halfway mark, which I went up carefully, trying not to blow up.  By the time I got to the top, Number Four had come up from behind and joined me.  We stayed neck and neck for a while on the way back, and even chatted a little.  Like me, he also does triathlon, and like me is planning on racing Ironman Muskoka next summer.  He also cheekily claimed that if he stayed with me to the end he’d beat me in a sprint finish!

Now it was time to get serious, I only had two kilometres left to catch up with Number 2.  I switched up from ‘hard training’ pace to ‘serious racing’ pace, and started eating up the distance.  But Number Four stayed right on my heels the whole time.  When I finally got to a few paces behind Number Two, I decided that a short sprint might be enough to catch and drop him.

Not quite.  I ‘burned a match’, and caught up to his shoulder, but that was all.  He responded immediately and pulled forward a few paces.

Ok, plan B.  Stay loose, focus on style and turnover, breath easily, let your body do what it’s trained for.

That actually worked – as soon as I relaxed I found myself drawing next to Number Two, and we were heading into the final turn.  Number Four seemed to have finally been shaken, so the silver medal was in reach.

I love it when I get to the end of a race and still have a sprint finish in me.  One of my heroes is Simon Whitfield, who seems to always be able to pull out a devastating sprint went it really matters.  And it’s gutting to get to the last stretch with nothing left, and watch helplessly as runners go past you as your body refuses to respond.

Timing is also important.  Too soon and too late can both wreck a carefully planned race.  Today I got it perfect.  In the final hundred metres I kicked into fifth gear, and got the jump on Number Two.  Even that wasn’t enough though, as he also had a fifth gear apparently, and was right back on my heels at fifty metres.

Today was my day, though, and for once I had a sixth gear right when I needed it.  Maybe it was the aerodynamic ‘Angry Bird’ hat that my talented wife had made for me to wear.  But my legs responded perfectly when I asked, and I crossed the line with a personal best on this course of 18:51.

To a serious racer that would just be a gentle training pace, no doubt.  But for me it was a chance to show that I can come back from injury and frustration, and with careful planning and training I can get my body to reach the goals I set for it.

So, then I collected my medal, shook hands with the guys that had spurred me on and made it such a fun race, and enjoyed the complimentary hot chocolate from the race organisers.

And then I turned round and ran home.