Posts Tagged ‘alternative community’

In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.


Conviction #3

3) The early church was not a new system of beliefs but a new community, an alternative society, into which people were called by the work of the Holy Spirit.

One of the earliest confessions of faith in the Church was “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Jesus is Lord and, therefore, Caesar, the empire, or other forms of power, are not. Jesus’ message included the declaration that in his person and in his work, the reign of God had begun: a new era, a new social order had arrived. The early church was not a new system of beliefs but a new community, an alternative society, into which people were called by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, “the reign of God launches an all-out attack on evil in all its manifestations. God’s reign arrives wherever Jesus overcomes the power of evil” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 33), especially among the lowly, the despised, and those on the margins of society. Gathered by the Spirit at Pentecost, the Church is a unique social community that is a sign, witness, foretaste and servant of God’s transformative resurrection work in the world. Its purpose is that of “representing God in and over against the world, pointing to God. . . In its mission, the church witnesses to the fullness of the promise of God’s reign and participates in the ongoing struggle between that reign and the powers of darkness and evil. . . The history of the world is not only a history of evil but also of love, a history in which the reign of God is being advanced through the work of the Spirit. Thus, in its missionary activity, the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation has already been operative secretly, through the Spirit” (Bosch, p. 391).
The mission of the church offers the reign of God in concrete forms. It invites people to allow the Spirit of Christ to adopt them into God’s story in place of the stories of consumerism, therapeutic moralism, technological mastery, or militarism.
Walter Brueggemann, in “Counterscript:  Living with the elusive God” (Christian Century, November 29, 2005, p. 22 – 28), describes the dominant script of our society as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism: therapeutic referring to ‘the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble so that life may be lived without inconvenience; technological meaning that every problem can be fixed, solved, made right through human ingenuity; consumerist describing the approach to living that turns everything (including humans) into a commodity that can be bought and sold; militarism that uses violence to protect and maintain our privilege”.

In order enact this countercultural alternative in its own life, the church will often be intentionally small so that it can offer authentic hospitality, reconciliation and healing. Its nature will be primarily relational rather than organizational so that there can be genuine accountability. It will be structured towards assisting its members to enter into Spirit-gifted service in the world.

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A)  In a church whose mission is about offering reconciliation, healing and hope to all people, the church will need to journey more and more deeply into the practice of communion — the words, the gestures, the practices that are strong enough to heal the divisions and conflicts that are part of relationships with other people. This means that the regular practice of the sacrament of Communion will take a central place in the life of the church. At the Table, the risen Lord feeds the church and gives it the strength it needs for its radical work. The vision for a world of peace where all people thrive in flourishing communities is renewed. The community receives Christ’s forgiveness and reconciliation and grace in its own relationships so that it can offer those graces in a hurting world. Leaders in such a community will need to be working on their own healing. They will need skills and resources for guiding others in the art of forgiveness and reconciliation. Leadership training will need to be highly relational, including mentoring and coaching.

B)  God’s mission involves confronting the lies that the world tells people. The community will need to be led in developing the capacity for telling the truth to one another.

The leaders of a church will themselves need to be authentic in word and in deed.
C) Leaders will need to be trained to engage the scriptures so that they have the capacity to “discern the world anew according to the script of the Bible with particular attentiveness to the character of the Bible” (Walter Brueggemann, “That the World May Be Redescribed”, Interpretation, (October 2002), 360.)

They will need to be trained in what it takes to help people relinquish the powerful dominant scripts that are killing them and killing their communities.


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The Turn Toward the Formative in Contemporary Worship (5)

This is the fifth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

One of the topics for the day focused on the “Frames” we use in crafting worship services. Leaders frame worship through the words and actions they use to “focus the attention, stimulate the imagination, shape the perceptions, or form the interactions of worshipers” (John Witvliet in the Introduction to Frames, Deborah Knapp, p. ix). The frames are often made explicit in simple, beautiful ways of expressing why the congregation is doing what it is doing.

In his writings, Robert Webber has suggested framing worship as a ‘dinner party’: you being by greeting all who have been invited, you move into the conversations whereby you catch up with what has been happening with each other, you serve a meal, you depart into the world. Worship moves through  the Acts of Entrance, the Service of the Word, the Service of Thanksgiving, the Dismissal. (Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship)

Johnathan Dobson, Lead Pastor at City Life Church in Austin Texas, frames worship as an alternative to the secular liturgies that seek to form us all week long. “These messages, rhythms, and values create a certain kind of heart posture and longing that drives us away from Christ — individualism, materialism, experientialism, consumerism” (from the handout at the seminar).The gospel’s liturgy focuses us on God instead of self and on the church community instead of the individual. Dodson also notes that their worship attends to the church scattered out in the world. The frame, then, of their worship is: God, Gospel, Community, Mission.

One presenter talked about the basic pattern of Christian living that Jesus gave in the meals he shared: we are a people who are taken up into God’s adventure, blessed, broken, and given to the world. Another described the shape of the journey as ‘singing our way into God’s preferred future” where all God’s children are welcomed home. The introduction to the eucharist could be given as, “This table will one day be a great feast where all people come from north and south and east and west”.

Aaron Niequist mentioned that in Willow Creek’s experimental service, “The Practice”, they do not use a projection system. They hand out paper bulletins. They explain (frame) it this way: We offer you a ‘tactile, analogue experience’ so that you are holding something real.

A way to frame worship intentionally is to ask in the planning process, “What journey are we going on together this morning?” That journey is shaped by the scriptures for the day. The songs and rest of the worship service help move the worshipping congregation through that journey.

I have introduced the Passing of the Peace by reminding people that there are very places in our lives where we are aware of Christ’s peace being offered to us. Then, I would say, “As you pass the peace of Christ to one another, be aware that some people’s lives are so filled with struggle and anxiety that this may be the only peace that they receive all week. What you are going to do is holy work.”

It would be helpful, perhaps revealing, for your worship planners to look at the pattern of your worship services and ask the question, “What is the shape of the journey that happens in worship in our church?”  In what ways could that journey be made more explicit so that your worship is a richer and fuller experience?

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A number of years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in his laboratory in Yale. He brought in a randomly selected group of people and told them that they were participating in research on human behaviour. Each participant was put into a room that had a one-way mirror. S/he could see another person in another room sitting on a chair; that person could not see him or her. The participant (teacher) was given a list of word pairs which s/he was to teach to the person in the other room (learner). After reading through the list of word pairs, the teacher would read the first word of each pair to the learner, along with four possible answers. The learner was to push a button indicating which answer was the ‘pair’ to the word. The teacher was told to work a dial which would supposedly administer an electric shock to the learner whenever that person gave an incorrect answer. In actuality, the person in the other room was an actor and the dial was phony. When the dial was turned, the actor would grimace as if being shocked. To Milgram’s surprise, 100% of the people administered what they thought to be an intense shock when told to do so by the white-coated researcher.

In another experiment, the person in charge was not wearing an official-looking white coat. The experiment was conducted in an old basement. Milgram offered the participants every opportunity to refuse to administer the shock. Even so, many did as they were told. They submitted to the person whom they perceived to have authority and power.

When you decide to follow Jesus, God sets you on a path of confronting who and what exercises authority and power in your life. Following Jesus means developing the capacity to resist pressure from people with power and authority when what they want you to do will betray your humanity or trespass the dignity of others. Your primary allegiance is to God: to shape your relationships according to the way of Jesus. You will find your loyalties and your actions being shaped in peculiar ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the influential atheists of the nineteenth century. He once accused the Christian Church of having taken the side of everything weak, base and ill-constituted. He believed that the world ran by the law of evolution and that its rules favoured power and competition. He was frustrated the Christians were, again and again, choosing the must un-Darwinian objects for their love.

Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity lavish their care on people whom others consider to be homeless wretches who have days, if not hours, to live. Mother Teresa considered acts of compassion for the poorest of the poor a great privilege: Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them. (http://www.verybestquotes.com/150-mother-teresa-quotes/)

Jean Vanier has spent his life cultivating communities where able-bodied assistants live with men and women with mental and physical handicaps, many of whom are unable to speak or co-ordinate their movements. While he could have done many things with his considerable gifts and talents, he says that it is this work among people whom others dismiss as unimportant that has given his life meaning.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement freely admits the folly of her soup kitchens: “What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate — to ignore the price of coffee and to go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us good coffee and the finest bread.”

There are those who would call these people insane or crazy because of their peculiar sense of what is important. The world needs more of that kind of madness. It is the same kind of madness that led Jesus to touch people whom others had labelled ‘untouchable’. It is the same madness that led Jesus to dine with people whom others would cross the street to avoid, and to challenge the people who wanted him to keep quiet because they didn’t want trouble.

It is the same kind of madness that led God to leave the glory of heaven and to dwell among us. In Jesus, God suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might experience Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death.

When we offer ourselves to Jesus, we offer to live lives which mirror, at least to some degree, his love and mercy and grace — even if those lives look peculiar to people who judge us by this world’s standards of success and conformity.

In a sense, people like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and Dorothy Day reached a point where it was easier for them than for people like you and me to live into such peculiarity. They achieved a level of renown. People no longer think them mad. They have become saints, heroes, models to be admired. It is a different story to labour quietly in your ordinary life, trying to live with integrity and compassion and courage amidst pressures to abandon Jesus’ peculiar standards. It is a different story for you and I to speak the truth, to say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’, to give extravagantly or forgive graciously, to choose to stand with people whom others are attacking.

Where do you find the courage to follow Jesus when he leads you against the flow? Mother Teresa wrote that you find it in humility: Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal ( In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers).

Brennan Manning once pointed out that Jesus’ closest friend on earth, a disciple named John, is identified in the gospels as, “the one Jesus loved.” Wrote Manning, “If John were to be asked, “What is your primary identity in life, he would not reply, ‘I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four gospels’, but rather, ‘I am the one Jesus loves.’”

That is who you are: You are the one Jesus loves. That is your primary identity. No matter what anyone else tries to have you be or do, you are the one Jesus loves. Live deeply into that identity; act courageously out of that identity. You may seem peculiar to people who know only this world’s pressure to conform. Never mind that. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that is healing this broken world. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that will give you peace. You are the one Jesus loves. Let that give you courage to act in truth and love.

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Scripture: Daniel 1: 1-21

Millard Fuller was a millionaire entrepreneur from Alabama. Rich but miserable, with his marriage on the rocks, he headed to Americus, Georgia where he became involved in an intentional Christian community, Koinonia Farm, under the leadership of Clarence Jordan. Jordan believed that Christians ought to take what Jesus said seriously. He believed that Christians ought to live out their commitment to Christ in very real and practical ways. That encounter with Jordan led Fuller to give away his personal fortune and found Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity is based on the simple premise that every persons on the planet deserves a decent place to live. Today, thousands of volunteers join in partnership with the working poor to build houses that the poor can afford to live in. Says Fuller, “You don’t have to be a Christian to live in one of our houses or to help us build one. But the fact is, the reason I do what I do, and so many of our volunteers do what they do, is that that we are being obedient to Jesus” (What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey, p. 243).

Being obedient to Jesus may not lead you to give away your personal fortune. However, it will probably lead to to live in ways that seem peculiar to others. Following Jesus will lead you to live ‘against the flow’.

Willimon and Hauerwas tell of a young man who was a bureaucrat in a state agency. On Laity Sunday in his church, he stood up and said that “he has to come to church because he has to be reminded that Christians do not lie. He has to be reminded of that because he said every day at his job, he is surrounded with lies and it is so hard to resist not becoming part of the system of lies. So, he comes each Sunday, in hopes of renewing his speech so he will not lie on the job. That may not contribute to my advancement, but I would rather be a Christian” (Where Resident Aliens Live, p. 108-109).

Imagine how difficult if must be for his co-workers to have someone among them who has made the peculiar decision that he will not lie.

The people of Israel were often considered peculiar because they refused to ‘go along to get along’ with others. They would not conform to the culture around them even when it would have been easier to do so. After the Babylonian armies had conquered Israel, they dragged the leadership of the country into exile. Then, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, selected a group of Jewish boys and offered them the opportunity to be part of a three-year executive training programme. At the end of it, each of them would be guaranteed a position in the royal service.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the boys chosen for this special privilege. They were given new Babylonian names and began their training. However, when they went for their lunch break, they refused to break Jewish dietary laws. They were being offered Lobster Newburg and Pork Medallions and baked Alaska along with some martinis to help all that food go down. “No thanks,” they said. “We’ll stick with salad and water.” Everybody else said, “What are you doing? Don’t risk the opportunity of a lifetime! Eat a bit of shellfish. Enjoy the pork. Don’t make such a fuss about such a little thing. You don’t want trouble. Remember, we’re in exile in Babylon. The Babylonians are in charge. While in Babylon, eat as the Babylonians do.”

Daniel knew that what he ate was not just a ‘little thing’, even though it seemed to be. Jewish dietary laws were part of what it meant to be Jewish: you are what you eat. The Babylonians changing their diet was a way of forming their appetites. It was a way of shaping them in the Babylonian value system.

He also knew that the Babylonians were not really in charge, although they seemed to be. Daniel knew that “the Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [King Nebuchadnezzar’s] power” (Daniel 1:2). Nebuchadnezzar thought that the had defeated Israel through his own superior military power. He thought that the victory was proof that he was a brilliant strategist. Not so says our text. The Lord let him win. The Lord let him take the temple treasures. The Lord let him take prisoners back home with him.  The Lord was God, even in exile. Daniel knew that, ultimately, his destiny lay with the Lord and not with Nebuchadnezzar.

The Book of Daniel begins by saying that the Lord let Babylon capture Israel. By the end of the book, within Daniel’s lifetime, Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, had captured Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was not that powerful, after all. Daniel had outlasted Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel was able to resist being seduced into conformity by those who promised success and power because he was clear about the authority to which he had to answer. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was. God’s power was not as visible as Nebuchadnezzar’s but it was more decisive. The Lord would have the final say. It was this faith, trust that this was the truth, that gave Daniel the courage to say, ‘No’, even under great pressure.

It is the most natural thing in the world to want to fit in, to ‘go with the flow’, to submit to people who seem to hold power and authority. We often do it with the best of intentions. We want to do well. We want our projects to succeed. But what is at stake is our very selves.

You find the courage to be different in the same way that Daniel did: you pay attention to the stories that remind you that God is present; the God’s authority is greater than any authority on earth. To God you are ultimately accountable. You gather with the people of God week by week to remember whose you are — who has claimed your life and your loyalty and your love. You gather week by week because the world would like you to forget the One who has claimed your life. You are easier to manipulate if you forget. From time to time, you renew your promise to Jesus to follow him, and you let God renew God’s promise in you to guide you in paths of holiness and truth.

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“Living in the world of God’s grace”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on September 19, 2010.

Scriptures: Psalm 14; Luke 16: 1-13

J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the last century’s greatest writers of epic fantasy tales. He is probably best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Critics often accused him of writing escapist literature. They said that he wrote magnificent, fantastic stories but those stories shifted his readers’ attention away from the issues of the real world. He replied, “Everything depends on that from which one is escaping. The flight of a deserter is viewed very differently from the escape of a prisoner.” He asked, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 218)

The poet, T.S. Eliot made a similar point: “In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.” (The Family Reunion). As followers of Jesus, we shall often find ourselves heading in the opposite direction from many people around us. The gospels are convinced that, when we follow Jesus, we are heading toward the real world. We are heading toward the way the world really is even though the values and priorities of the Bible’s ‘real world’ are radically different from the values and priorities of the world which often shapes our perceptions.

For instance, how would you define success? What does it look like? More importantly, how do you get there? Some of it is luck, of course. You were born at the right time, into the right family. Society provided you with certain opportunities. Nevertheless, from a very young age, we are told that success comes to those who hustle. Those who dream big and work hard and make the right connections and play the system will be able to be whatever they want to be. They demand their rights. They do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if ‘whatever it takes’ includes trampling over other people. There is, after all, only so much room at the top.

Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to live in a topsy-turvy world that turns our priorities upside-down. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” he warned. This is a world that is shaped by the grace and mercy of God. God’s grace is a gift. You don’t earn it. You cannot earn it, no matter how hard you hustle. God gives it. The only thing you can do is receive it. You can live with open hands and open hearts and lean into God’s grace with all the trust that you can muster.

The parable that is often called the ‘shrewd manager’ is the last of a set of four parables that Jesus tells to the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees and scribes had been complaining that Jesus spent too much time with people who had not succeeded in living according to their standards of how good, decent, religious people should behave. In response Jesus told two parables about a sheep who got lost and about a lost coin. The shepherd left ninety-nine other sheep in the wilderness in order to find the lost one. A woman tore her house apart looking for the lost coin. In both parables, a great celebration is held when the lost is found. In those parables we learn again that God loves each and every one of us as if there were only one of us. No matter how lost we think we are, God searches and finds us and brings us home.

Immediately after those two parables, Jesus told a story of a father with two sons, each lost in his own way. Then, he followed that up with the parable of the shrewd manager. This managers may have enjoyed some level of success as the world defines it, but, suddenly, everything shifted. He was accused of cheating his employer and was told he was going to lose his job.

Eugene Peterson (Tell it Slant, p. 99-108) suggests that the surprise in this story is that the manager is fired but not punished. He did not get what he deserved. He experienced mercy and grace. His next move was to extend that mercy and grace to others. He went to people who owed his employer money. “You owe 100? Make it 50 and we’ll call it even.” “You owe 100? Make it 80 and the rest is forgotten.” Then, said Jesus, the master commended the manager because he acted ‘shrewdly’.

The word ‘shrewd’ is related to the Hebrew word ‘wise’. To be wise in the scriptures is what you become as you spend your life alert to the ways of God. Wisdom consists in developing the right responses to God and to your neighbour. You are wise when you live into the grace of God. (Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, p. 124-125)

The opposite of a wise person is the fool the fool does not know what is really going on in the world. He or she does not recognize how the world really works. In Psalm 14, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’.”

If there is no God, then it really is all up to you and me to hustle, to get ahead, and to make sure everything works out the way we want it to. The problem for fools, though, is that they’re heading in the wrong direction. They’re heading into a world of illusions, mirages and false promises.

When we are fools, we receive warnings that we are heading down the wrong path, but we do not listen. Jack Higgins is the author of a number of best-selling novels. The Eagle has Landed is one of his best known books. He has once asked, “What do you know now that you would have liked to have known when you were a boy?” He replied, “That when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.” After the tennis star Boris Becker tried to take his own life, he reflected, “I had won Wimbledon twice, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possession I needed; money, cars, women, everything, and yet, I was so unhappy. I had no inner peace.” (Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths, Alister McGrath, p. 15)

Do you know how your life is measured in the world shaped by God’s grace? In the world that is real and eternal and not an illusion, your life is not measured by how much you have succeeded. Your life is measured by how much God loves you and what God is able to make of your life. It is not easy to remember that, not when there are so many other voices telling you how you do not measure up: you have to reach higher, do better, get more in order to make your life count, they tell you. When we are surrounded by so much gracelessness, we need to take small steps in learning to live into the world of God’s grace. We learn to be faithful in little things so that we become the kind of people who are faithful in much.

Author and speaker Brennan Manning suggests that we take as the slogan for our lives, “I am the one who Jesus loves”. The phrase comes from the gospel of John. John is identified there as ‘the one Jesus loved’. Says Manning, if John were asked, “What is your primary identify in life?”, he would not reply, “I am a disciple,” or “I am one of the apostles,” or “I am the one who wrote one of the four gospels.” He would not give any of the ways by which the world might say, “You’ve made it. You’re important.” John would say, “I am the one Jesus loves”.

Imagine the difference it would make if you lived into the identity. When your boss yelled at you: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When your children are crying and whining and you have picked up the toys for the one hundredth time and the house still looks a mess: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When you are sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for news you dread: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When you have been deeply hurt by someone you trusted such that you begin to doubt yourself and all you have tried to do: “I am the one Jesus loves”.

This will not make the hard challenges disappear, but you will move within them with growing confidence that even they are in God’s hands. God can take even this experience and redeem it. God will weave it into God’s good and holy purposes and you shall find life in it. The resurrection of Jesus promises us that all our conflicts and defeats and failures are no longer decisive. God is at work, wiping out the marks against us; offering us new possibilities that we had not imagined.

We live into that primary identity for ourselves. Then, that deep grounding in God’s redeeming love frees us to go out and help others hear the good news as well: “You are the one Jesus loves.” Many churches these days are anxiously looking for whatever it is they must do in order to survive, maybe even thrive. What programmes do they have to offer? What needs to they need to meet? What technology do they need to buy? Those are the wrong questions. They will lead us away from the real world — the world ruled by God’s grace. We are the ones Jesus loves. It is our privilege and our blessing to be the kind of community whose passion it is to help others hear that as well. Hearing it, we and they may believe it. Believing it, we may create together a space where grace and jove and joy shape all we do to the glory of God.

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Continuing reflections on Galatians 1: 11-24

Following Jesus on his Way takes us down paths that are different from what we have been used to. We have been trained to work very hard to maintain the illusion that we are in control in our lives. We have been taught to get what we believe is right or what we think will make our lives turn out right. Sometimes, we are even willing to trample over other people in order to make that happen. We are even prone to using religion to get us there. That is when we are most dangerous.

As Christians, at the end of the day, all our actions are answerable to Jesus who refused the way of arrogance and intimidation and coercion. This way is so odd and so counter-cultural that transformation is required. We need constant retraining in it. For Paul, that transformation began in the three years after his encounter with Jesus on the road. For us, that retraining happens every Sunday when we gather to worship. In worship, we practice being the kind of people who are formed by Jesus’ way of freedom:

We practice looking in the right direction by hearing stories of the way Jesus saw people. Our eyes begin to see them differently. Even strangers and enemies become brothers and sisters.

We sing our songs to God. If they are good and faithful songs, they re-direct our hearts toward God. All week long, there are forces that pull us toward what is happening in the world and toward what we are doing or need to be doing. Regularly, we need to intentionally direct our attention to God and to what God is doing. If we don’t, we’ll miss the signs of God’s action. Then, we shall miss out on the most important thing that is going on in any situation.

We gather regularly around the table where Jesus offers to meet us in all our diversity. At that table, we learn to welcome even strangers into our midst. We come with empty hands and we receive the gifts God has for us. Doing that in worship, we learn to receive the gifts of God in the world as well.

We spend time with our crucified and risen Saviour so that our whole life, our being, gets shaped in grace-filled ways.

Living in the freedom Christ gives does not come naturally to us, but that freedom is the atmosphere that allows new relationships to emerge — the kinds of reconciling relationships that this world desperately needs.

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A reflection on Galatians 1: 11-24

A recent edition of the United Church Observer, Ken Gallinger interviewed former moderator Lois Wilson. He reminded her that, when she was moderator, she was always ‘lobbing stuff into the political process’. He asked her, “What’s it like to be on the other side?” do you have people lobbing stuff at you?” “Not a lot,” she replied. “Hardly anything from the churches…We’ve lost our nerve. We’ve vacated the public forum…We’re so afraid of being tagged as ‘Christians trying to convert people’ that we will not say, ‘I am a Christian and this is what it means.’ We’re really good at social justice but really bad at our connection with Jesus.”

We’re afraid of being like the apostle Paul was before Jesus hijacked his life on the road to Damascus — when he was still Saul. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he describes his devotion to his religious convictions: “I went all out persecuting [people with whom I disagreed]. I was systematically destroying them.” (The Message). When we hear his story, we say, “It’s people like Saul who give religion a bad name.” Some people, then, make the leap to saying that the only way to live in peace in our global village is to get rid of religion altogether. That attitude remains popular even though there is no evidence that doing so would actually bring peace. Secular ideologies have proven just as murderous as religious ideologies. In the past century, more people were killed in the name of nation states than in the name of religion. Holding religious convictions, even holding them passionately, does not necessarily lead to fanaticism. Believing something is true does not automatically make you intolerant, arrogant and violent.

In Traveling Light, Eugene Peterson reflects on the difference between Saul and Paul. The difference, he says, is Jesus. Saul was violent in his opposition to people whom he thought were wrong; Paul was just as passionate and zealous after his encounter with the risen Christ, but Paul now used words and the power of his own suffering to persuade people. Saul, he says, “was consumed with ambition to make the world orderly and to make people good.” Saul was very busy doing things for God; making a difference in the world for the sake of God. He knew how to get things done.

Then, Jesus stopped Saul in his tracks and turned his life in a different direction. After that encounter, Paul wasn’t so much doing things for God, as God was doing things in and through Paul. It was a life-altering shift. Paul was no longer the centre of his life. God was. Religion was no longer a passion for getting things done in order to help God make the world a better place. Religion was the passion to pay attention to God: learning to see what God was up to and then letting God work through him.

Jesus did not come as a conquering hero, imposing God’s will upon everyone. Jesus refused the way of violence and coercion. He was willing to die on a cross rather than choose violence. Instead, Jesus offered grace, suffering love, forgiveness, and the Spirit who make new possibilities out of our dead ends. Jesus used words and stories to draw people in to God’s healing and reconciling love.

Because the God who met Paul on the road to Damascus is the God who comes to us as Jesus Christ, the work God does through us is characterized by the way Jesus lived.

The way God creates peace in our world is by gathering an alternative community around this Jesus — an alternative community that is willing to live trusting in the grace of God. This community keeps meeting Jesus on the way and lets Jesus re-shape its life by his Word.

As the Christian Church, we have rightly repented of our attempts arrogantly to impose our values and cultural preferences on others. That does not mean that we must deny what we believe. It does mean that we must learn to live in our pluralist culture in ways that more clearly witness to the goodness and grace and love of Jesus.

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