My Faith Story

On September 4, 2022, I shared my faith story with my congregation as part of the process of transferring my membership from my previous congregation. Here is what I shared.

If I were to sum up my faith journey in a phrase, it might be this: “Pursuing Jesus who first found me.”

I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, nominally Anabaptist. I knew my Bible. I knew about Jesus. But I didn’t know Jesus.

In my university days I went on a spiritual quest. I checked out other religions—Hinduism and Buddhism fascinated me for a while. I actively participated in a different church every year of university: Pentecostal, United Church, Lutheran, Baptist. I was baptized in that Baptist church.

Along the way I had a profound spiritual experience that pushed me back to the Bible. I read it like I’d never read it before, in huge chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Luke and Acts in another, all of Genesis in a morning, all of John in an afternoon, Romans before bed. I gorged on Scripture.

And that’s how I first met Jesus. I read the Bible and I found Jesus. Or rather, Jesus found me, and I’ve pursued him ever since.

Later, when I was teaching through the New Testament at a small Christian college and working on my Ph.D., I had an epiphany: this Jesus-centred reading of Scripture had made me into an Anabaptist. By reading the Bible to follow Jesus I had become committed to Jesus’ way of nonviolence, his way of just peace, his way of community, his way of love.

And so, when I left this nondenominational college to move into pastoral ministry, it made sense to serve in a Mennonite congregation, one that was thoroughly Anabaptist.

That was 13 years ago, and our journey since then has brought us from Alberta to Ohio to Manitoba, and now into my current role as Executive Minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba, and member of Home Street Mennonite Church. I’m grateful for this congregation, for its commitment to pursue Jesus who first found us.

Last week Ingrid shared about developing a centred-set approach to church instead of a bounded-set approach. I’ve also taught that concept since first coming across missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s use of this idea. And this, to me, is at the centre of this thing we call “Christianity,” and this thing we call “church”: Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love.

Jesus of Nazareth, crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord, and Jesus’ way of devotion for God expressed through compassion for others, especially those the world deems “last,” “least,” or “lost.”

We gather around Jesus and his way of love like people gathering around a bonfire on a cold, dark night. We draw close to Jesus and his love for light and warmth, and as we do so we find ourselves drawing closer to each other.

Around this fire we tell our stories, we sing our songs, we pray our prayers, we share our bread and wine. And we commit ourselves to following Jesus and his way of love as we go out into the world, carrying our candles lit with the fire of Jesus’ love.

As we go we proclaim the greatest revelation Jesus has given us: God is love. We should know this from Scripture, we should know this from observing creation around us, but in Jesus this is confirmed and clarified: God is love.

God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

All is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love, pointing us to the God who is love.

This is indeed good news.

What does it mean to say that “God is love”?

It’s one of the foundational beliefs of Christianity: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But what does it mean to say this? Here are a few thoughts.

“God is love” means that God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

“God is love” means that love is at the heart of who God is. The Bible says that “God is holy,” but it never says that “God is holiness.” Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

“God is love” means that all has been created in love. As all things exist out of the overflow of God’s being, so all things exist out of the overflow of God’s love.

“God is love” means that all is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

“God is love” means that all that is not-love is not-God; it is anti-God. This, then, is “sin”: thinking and acting and speaking out of apathy or antipathy, causing harm to others, ourselves, or other creatures, and thus grieving the God who is love. And this is “death”: dying, or even living, in the consequences of this non-love.

“God is love” means that you are beloved by God. This is your most basic identity: God’s Beloved. And this is true of each and every person, every creature, all of creation.

“God is love” means that when you are at your lowest, or your loneliest, you are never alone. There is a Presence always with you, embracing you in their love.

“God is love” means that when you are at your worst, and you know it, or when you have done your worst, and you know it, there is One who is already moving toward you, to forgive you and restore you, to make you whole.

“God is love” means that God is calling us into a Beloved Community, a society of friends where peace with justice prevails over violence and injustice, where love and trust triumphs over fear and hatred. It means that, ultimately, God is moving all things toward a Peaceable Kingdom, God’s vision of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life for all creation.

Then God, who is love, will be all in all.

Following Jesus Is Not Enough

Okay, let me start by saying I really do believe following Jesus is “enough,” in the sense that “following Jesus” nicely sums up what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus in his teachings and way of life, united with him in his death and resurrection, and so being conformed by the Spirit to the image of God’s Son—this is what being a Christian means.

But here’s the problem: “following Jesus” can so easily be used to mean whatever we want it to mean.

We pick and choose which teachings of Jesus we think are really important. We make morality solely about inward intentions or private sexuality. We make the cross about an individual transaction with God. We view the resurrection as something still to come, no bearing on the here and now.

And then we can go on amassing our possessions, condemning “sinners,” ignoring the poor at our gates, and otherwise living in stark contrast to the way of Jesus.

It’s a well-worn path, a broad road even, this individualizing and privatizing and genericizing and spiritualizing of “following Jesus,” so we can justify our comfort and privilege, maintain our sense of piety and morality, and otherwise feel good about the life we lead.

It’s a path I find myself on often.

And so we need something to help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus,” to be “united with Christ,” to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son.”

Here’s where I’ve been helped by Black theologians like James Cone, by feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, by liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez. Here’s where the practical theology of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. has been important to me.

It’s from these followers of Jesus and others like them that I have learned of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

“The poor” in biblical context does not simply refer to the financially destitute. The phrase is aligned with “widows” and “orphans,” “aliens” and “strangers.” Jesus used words like “last” and “least” to refer to these children of God who were left at the bottom rung of society. “The poor” is often used, then, as a kind of cipher for all who are impoverished in power—economic power, yes, but also political power, social power, the power to change one’s circumstances for their wellbeing.

“Remembering the poor”—in the sense of “paying attention to those who are impoverished in power”—was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It was a crucial emphasis of his teaching. It was the way he lived. It gives greater meaning to the cross as God’s solidarity with the powerless, the evil-oppressed. It brings Jesus’ resurrection, God’s life-giving liberation, into the here and now.

This divine attention to the impoverished in power is the lens that can help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus.” When we “remember the poor” as we follow Jesus, we begin to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. We pay attention to those marginalized or even oppressed by powerful forces beyond their control, both spiritual and material. We see the ways we might be complicit with these powerful forces, whether by circumstance or by choice. We are Spirit-prompted to repent of this complicity and to walk in solidarity with the power-impoverished, even if it means a cross.

All this recalibrates our love of God and neighbour. It realigns our sense of morality and our ethics. It reforms our theology and heightens our worship. It draws us more closely to the way of Jesus. It unites us in practical ways with Christ in his death and resurrection, revealing us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

“Remembering the poor” helps us to follow Jesus. And this is indeed enough.

David and David’s Son on Love and Power

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts there’s quite the juxtaposition between the Old Testament reading and the New Testament epistle.

On the one hand there’s 2 Samuel 11:1-15. The headings in the NRSV describe the story as, first, “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba,” and second, “David Has Uriah Killed.” More accurately, these should be “David Rapes Bathsheba” and “David Murders Uriah.” This is Israel’s favoured king, the king who would form the template for the Messiah to come. But instead of walking in righteousness and establishing justice through self-giving love, David’s lust and abuse of power leads him to rape and murder.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man”)

On the other hand there’s Ephesians 3:14-21. This is a prayer of Paul (or a Pauline disciple) for power and perception, but not the kind that David displayed. This prayer is for spiritual power, to be “strengthened in our inner being” by the presence of the risen Christ and to “know the love of Christ” in all its multi-dimensional fullness. This is a power that walks in righteousness and establishes justice through self-giving love. It’s the power of Jesus the teacher and healer from Nazareth, crucified and risen. It’s the power of the Son of David, the Messiah who surpasses the expectations of his template.

In these days of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, of #EveryChildMatters and #CancelCanadaDay, David’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we wed ourselves to earthly power and then abuse that power for our own selfish ends. Paul’s prayer points to a different way: living in the infinite love of God, the Jesus-love that compels us toward justice and peace and joy in the kingdom of God.

The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

I love Paul’s angle on the gospel here. This is good news for a prodigal child, as we all are in some way. It’s good news for one who returns thinking they’ll live as a slave, only to have their Abba run out to meet them with a full embrace and insist that, not only are they a beloved child, they are a full heir. Bring on the music and dancing! Let the angels rejoice!

You might think the whole “suffering” theme puts a bit of a damper on this party. But when we read on we find that this suffering is the suffering of Christ as he joins in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even all creation. Jesus in his life and death walked in solidarity with the most wounded of sufferers and outcast of sinners. We are invited to join in this suffering in solidarity with the world, so that all people might one day recognize the truth of their belovedness as God’s children. Cue the music once again! Look at those angels dance!

This, then, is the Trinitarian gospel of Paul in Romans 8: we who walk in suffering and sin are beloved children of God the Father, joint heirs with Christ the Son, birthed of the Holy Spirit. May this good news prompt us to praise and stir us to step out in faith and hope and love this week.

The Not-So-Nice, Not-So-Safe Spirit of God

We have walked with the resurrected Jesus to his ascension and exaltation, and now this coming Sunday we are at Pentecost. Naturally, then, our lectionary texts for this Sunday are filled with references to the Spirit.

Mennonites haven’t been entirely sure what to do with Pentecost, I’d say. To be honest, we haven’t always been sure what to do with the Spirit. Yes, we have developed our nice, safe ways of interpreting the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, mostly around things like “God’s presence is with us” and a lot of stuff about “communal discernment” as the work of the Spirit.

But I’m struck by this reality regarding the Spirit in our upcoming lectionary texts: the Spirit isn’t “nice and safe.”

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, there are tongues of fire and the sound of a rushing wind (in southern Manitoba these days, this doesn’t sound all that safe). There is a cacophony of voices and languages, exuberantly declaring God’s praises (in most of our Mennonite churches, this would be frowned upon).

There is a declaration of the Spirit’s prophetic presence, falling on old and young, women and men equally (it’s dangerous having one prophet, let alone a whole church full of them, crossing gender and class lines). There is a cut-to-the-heart repentance for complicity with state violence, and a radical turn to a generous and simple common life, a life held together by breaking bread and prayers and the teaching about Jesus (in our nationalistic and capitalistic society, these things are far from safe).

And that’s just Acts 2.

Elsewhere in our Scripture texts, the coming of the Spirit brings sudden life out of dusty, dry-bones death (Psalm 104, politicized in Ezekiel 37 as the return of conquered and enslaved Israel from exile). The Spirit groans with us in our deepest griefs and longings—indeed with all creation, groaning under the weight of human greed and hubris—anticipating with hope the fullness of redemption (Romans 8). The Spirit convicts the world of its harmful ways and guides Jesus’ followers into the fullness of truth regarding Jesus and his justice-bringing ways of love (John 16).

It turns out that while the Spirit is unquestionably good, the Spirit is not necessarily safe. While the Spirit does make us secure in God’s love, the Spirit does not guarantee our physical or social security. While the Spirit does bring us comfort, the coming of the Spirit is not comfortable. The wind of the Spirit blows the doors off our categories, it shatters our illusions and self-delusions, it turns power on its head and our world’s values upside-down.

As we enter Pentecost, let’s attune ourselves to the true Pentecost Spirit in our churches and in the world around us: the not-so-nice, not-so-safe Spirit of God. And let’s ask ourselves: how, then, can we support one another as we follow this dangerous Pentecost Spirit into the world?

Dwelling Embodied in the World

I’m writing this in our new house, looking out at a busy West End intersection. Busy—and it’s Sunday. During a pandemic lockdown.

We’re not in Morden anymore, Toto.

In the first day of our initial “campout” in the new place, I’ve seen ambulances wail by, heard fire trucks head out, watched intoxicated men stumble past, witnessed meth users yelling at their invisible demons. I’ve also seen young moms pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, and couples out for a walk with their dogs. I’ve met our next-door neighbours, a courageous immigrant mother caring for half a dozen friendly children on her own.

Cars whiz by on their way from Point A to Point B, unaware of the menagerie of life on this single block in inner city Winnipeg.

I hear this word from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the prayer of Jesus for his disciples: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15,18).

We aren’t called to whiz by the messy reality of life from Point A to Point B. We are called to live life incarnate, like Jesus, dwelling embodied in the stuff of earth. For us, now, this will mean dwelling embodied in this West End neighbourhood.

I’m also reminded of “the world” we are leaving behind in Morden. It’s no more the “rural haven” many imagine than West End Winnipeg is the “urban blight” everyone thinks it is. Within those immaculate rural homes there are untold stories of domestic and sexual abuse. The quiet streets and friendly smiles paper over the evidence of a toxic mix of unaddressed poverty and racism. And don’t get me started on anti-vaxxer religion.

“The world” is all around us, whether in Winnipeg or beyond the perimeter. “The world”—in all its dappled shadows and light, all its many-hued array of goodness and evil, love and harm. May we have courage to follow Jesus in fully dwelling embodied in the world in which we live, exposing the shadows with grace as we bear witness to the light in love.

Living and Loving in the Way of Jesus

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  (1 John 3:16-17).

The whole passage from this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings is worth reading: 1 John 3:16-24. It’s a good summary of what the Christian faith is all about.

It’s all there: a focus on Jesus, on his life and teachings of love, on his death as the ultimate example of love, on his resurrection presence in which we abide, alongside a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, praying boldly and relying on the Spirit to love not with mere words but “in truth and action.”

The passage reminds me of words from earlier in the Elder’s sermon-letter: “By this we may be sure that we are in [Jesus]: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).

And this in turn reminds me of the famous words of early Anabaptist Hans Denck: “No one may truly know Christ except one who follows him in life.”

May we keep it simple in our Christian lives: day by day focusing on living and loving in the way of Jesus. In this moment, and now in this moment, and now in this: how can I live out the love of Christ for those around me, for the person right in front of me?

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.