Author Archives: troydwatson

Incarnation – Do You See What I See?

It was about a half hour past bedtime when my 5 year-old son Elias asked me the question. “Is Santa real Daddy?”

We had already been through this the year prior but apparently Elias had new ‘intel’.

“My teacher told me Santa is real” he continued, “not pretend real but really real! So is he? Seriously, I want to know.” I could see the desire to believe and yet know the truth no matter what shimmering in my son’s bright blue eyes. (How accurately does this describe many of our own faith journeys?) I tried an evasive tactic telling him it was fun to believe in Santa Claus at Christmas time but he would have none of it. “Knowing the truth changes things.” I warned him. “Do you want to change Christmas?” He insisted. So I told him the truth (for the second year in a row).

Well I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say. Like my son, I have always needed to know the truth – or in more appropriate postmodern language – to know with expanding perspective and greater understanding. I recall my own questions that changed Christmas for me around 10 years ago. These were not questions about Santa but about the birth of Jesus.

I can’t say I ever remember believing Jesus was actually born on December 25th but it wasn’t till my late twenties before I began wondering why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th.

We do not know when Jesus was born. Some Biblical scholars speculate it was likely mid to late September but this is only an educated guess. Historical records indicate that most Christians may not have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all before the 3rd or 4th century and it was likely around 324CE when the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

Why did they choose this date in particular? It seems during the three hundred years between Jesus’ death and resurrection and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, the Christian church began adopting or was influenced by certain pagan practices, rituals, beliefs and observances.

In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the day worshippers of Sol and Mithras celebrated the sun god’s birthday. December 25th was known as Natalis Solis Invicti or the “birth of the unconquered sun”. December 25th was also the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, the day the sun starts pushing back against the threatening darkness. (It is December 21st according to the Gregorian calendar we use.) December 25th was also the last day of the Roman winter festival Saturnalia comprised of general merry making and gift giving.

When we look into history we find most of our Christmas traditions have pagan origins; from Christmas trees and gift giving to yule logs, hollyberry and mistletoe.

There are a number of other similarities between Mithras and Jesus in addition to many curious parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. One noteworthy commonality is our day of worship. Mithraists worshipped on Sun-Day as Mithras was a solar deity. At some point the early church stopped observing the Sabbath and began worshipping on Sun-Day, sharing the same “day of our Lord” as the Mithraists. Saint Jerome commented on this controversy in the fifth century “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”

When I first discovered these pagan origins and influences it shook my faith a little. Now I see this assimilation as evidence of the incarnational approach of the early church. Incarnation means “embodied in flesh”. When the early church saw God’s story of love embodied in other cultures, religions, rituals and practices – they saw Immanuel (God with us) and celebrated it. This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 when he saw the statue to the unknown God and celebrated it as a statue to Christ.

I have started practicing an incarnational approach myself. Whenever I see or hear something that reflects God’s story – I see Christ, Immauneal – I see God’s love embodied in the “flesh” of that culture, religion, practice or person. I am surprised at how often I see Christ these days in “unchristian” people and places. I am starting to see what Paul meant when he said “Christ is all and in all.” Jesus said even the rocks will reveal the truth of Immanuel (God with us).

Truly the story of God’s love is weaved into the very fabric of the universe if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Good Neighbourliness Day

Turkmenistan has an official holiday called Good Neighbourliness Day which is celebrated today (or this past Sunday depending on the source.)

Why don’t we get in on the action and be mindful about being good neighbours today (you can extend this all week if you want:) What are your ideas about how to be a good neighbour? Share some of your experiences practicing good neighbourliness today.

Here are a few ideas on Good Neighbourliness:

1. Invite a person/family in your neighbourhood over for a meal, coffee, activity, whatever.
2. Bake something and drop in on your neighbours bearing gifts of holiday cheer.
3. Help our neighbours in need by going to your local community services directory http://www.niagararegion.ca/social-services/wish-list-default.aspx for a list of agencies and services that serve those in need and at risk in our community and support them.

Other ideas?

btw – see Luke 10:25-37 if you are having trouble figuring out who your neighbour is.

Reflection Questions – November 28 Week

Let’s keep the conversation on the way of Jesus and money going. Here are the reflection questions from Sunday night.

1.  What does it mean for us to be in the empire but not of the empire?
How would my lifestyle, decisions, etc. be different?
Like Zacchaeus – how do we work in but not for the Empire?

2.  Reflect on Jesus & the early church’s non-violent anti-empire position
(i.e. Gerasene Demoniac story). How ought we to resist empire
today? How do we embody our allegiance to God’s kingdom instead?

3.    How do we seek the kingdom of God first in our lives?
What has worked for you or others you know?
What inhibits or hinders your seeking?

4.  Is economic growth really the god of our modern world?
What does healthy (Godly) economic growth look like?

5.  What are the implications of Jesus proclaiming salvation coming to
the household of Zacchaeus because of what he does with his money.

May 21 – The End of What?

Well it’s almost here kids – the beginning of the end of the world! I’m referring of course to Harold Camping’s bold prediction that Judgment Day will begin around 6pm (Pacific time) this Saturday evening. The big question for me as a follower of the way of Jesus is how should I respond to this kind of nonsense?

My initial reaction to Family Radio’s “fire and brimstone” announcement plastered on the imposing billboard overlooking St. Paul Street West was experiencing a flashback to the time I lived in the southern United States. You just don’t see these kooky apocalyptic proclamations in Canada very often. My second response was one of curiosity. Was this for real? Or was this a hoax, prank or some artist’s satirical concept piece on religion?

Once I realized this was serious, the foreboding forecast raised some sobering questions for me.

How did Harold Camping’s inane prophecy based on sloppy numerology and dubious Biblical interpretation spread around the world so successfully and quickly? How did this 89 year-old civil engineer’s end-times calculation come to be posted on over 2000 giant billboards across the planet and broadcast nonstop in over 40 languages on his international radio network with over 150 outlets in the United States alone? How did his Family Radio ministry accrue tens of thousands of followers, accumulate over 120 million dollars in assets and find the resources to launch this audacious “Judgment Day” campaign?

The answer: an enormous amount of time, money and labor from true believers. May 21, 2011 would have quietly slipped by like any other Spring day if not for the thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars donated by his followers.

I don’t understand how people continue to fall for “prophetic” preachers like Harold Camping. Especially given his previous erroneous prediction that the world would end in September 1994. But even more disturbing to me is that most Canadians today associate Christianity with people like Harold Camping and his undiscerning herd of sheeple.

It’s characters like Camping and the Reverend Terry Jones and his small Qur’an burning congregation that unfortunately represent Christianity to the world instead of the countless Christians who have devoted their lives working for peace and justice. It pains me that the loudest and most mobilized Christian sects have made the words “Christian” and “church” synonymous with anti-gay, anti-science, judgmental self-righteousness rather than compassion, peace, hope and joy. It angers me that we’ve allowed a few bigoted Bible bullies to so passionately and arrogantly claim to speak on behalf of Jesus, that they have drowned out the actual voice of Jesus who taught that his true followers would be known principally by their love. (John 13:35)

I don’t know when the world will end but it’s definitely time this current state of the world shaped by hatred and violence, archaic tribalism, segregating ideologies, and antagonistic relationships between world religions, faith and science and spirituality and reason, came to an end.

It’s time for Christians to stop fueling these negative energies and focus on making the earth a more Spirit filled place, by seeking to develop peace and unity with all people rather than judging or proselytizing them.

It’s time for the way of Jesus to be known as the way of peace and hope again.

It’s time for Christians to stop wasting time on distractions like eschatological speculation and start investing our energy and money into making the love of God an experienced reality for all on this planet.

It’s time to once more make the Christian message about the ridiculous unconditional love of God, not what Camping and company make it out to be – merely ridiculous.

It’s time for a different brand of Christianity to rise and represent to the world around us what following the way of Jesus is really about.

It’s time for us to see the end of a paradigm (where authentic spirituality was replaced with religion) as a good thing – as a beginning of a new thing God is doing in the world.

I hope May 21 is the end of the world as we know it.

Blessed Are The Innovators

I think the opening lyric from Buffalo Springfield’s popular protest song – “there’s something happening here, [but] what it is ain’t exactly clear” – sums up how many of us feel about the paradigm shift we find ourselves in. What is clear to anyone paying attention, is that epic change is sweeping across our planet: from the social and political revolutions in the middle East and northern Africa; to the significant role the internet and social networking now play in every aspect of life on every continent; to the shocking vulnerability of one of the worlds most economically and technologically advanced nations to catastrophic natural and nuclear disasters; to China preparing to surpass the USA as the world’s largest economy in a few years; to many scientists predicting an impending environmental apocalypse if we don’t change our ways; to the rapidly declining Christian church in virtually every Western country built upon Christendom.

Everything is in shift. Including Christianity.

So how are churches responding to this faith transition? One of four ways.

1. Denial (What paradigm shift? Postmodernity is a fad!)

2. Defiance (The remnant shall fight this rebellion against God to the death!)

3. Despair (Will all our children & grandchildren abandon our church, denomination, and faith for good?)

4. Deconstruction and Innovation (Lets look at this with fresh eyes and try something different.)

The fourth response holds the key to the future. It is the faith of present day Iconoclasts and Innovators that will move forward into the new paradigm and inspire future generations to heed the timeless call of Christ to be people of peace and love, attuned to God’s Spirit.

However, innovation is certainly not what church culture is best known for these days. Many would go so far as to label church culture a bastion of tradition and protector of the status quo.

Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory states that:

2.5% of people are innovators (creators of big new ideas).

13.5% are early adopters (support innovation and risk trying ‘crazy’ ideas).

34% represent the early majority (open to new ideas that have demonstrated promise).

34% represent the late majority (open to new ideas that have a proven track record) and

16% are laggards (reluctantly go along with the majority or dig in their heels and resist).

This would mean the vast majority of church members, roughly 84%, are wary of innovation and new ideas. This has several implications.

First, we tend to be laggards instead of pioneers, change-makers and cultural influencers (i.e. adopting egalitarian policies years after the women’s rights movement; accepting other forms of music as valid expressions of worship many years after those forms of music became normative for the culture that is our missional context and accepted in other denominations).

Second, we tend to discourage, silence or shut down the most creative people in our midst, the very innovators who could help us move forward with vitality into the new paradigm.

Third, our current decline is directly related to our fear of change and aversion to unbridled creativity. The sustainability crisis the Church is facing will not be solved by status quo mentalities – it will only be exacerbated. As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” He’s also credited with another saying that seems appropriate for some of our ecclesiological tendencies, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” I hear many traditionalists talking about our need to “get back to the basics, resurrect old programs, conduct more Bible studies and hold more prayer meetings” as if this will make the church a thriving movement that is impacting and transforming society once again. While some of these are certainly things we can’t abandon as followers of the way of Jesus, they are not the solution either. Attempting to breathe life into our dying congregational bodies by doing the same things we have been doing for decades (or even centuries)…well that’s doing the same things over and over again expecting a different outcome this time!

For such a time and place as we find ourselves – the way of Jesus needs certain kinds of leaders and certain kinds of communities. These leaders and communities will need to be:

  • In Tune with God’s Spirit
  • Iconoclasts (open to new ways of seeing God and open to surprising plot shifts in God’s unfolding story)
  • Innovators (creative, risk taking, imaginative, ground-breaking, experimental pioneers)

The good news here is that God continues to gift the world and churches with innovators – but it is up to faith communities to empower them and experiment with their ‘far out’ ideas.

This means, first, we’ll have to risk ‘failure’ because many (most) of their ideas will not work. (Remember Edison created 1000 commercial light bulbs that didn’t work before coming up with the one that did.) It is important for us to remember there are no such things as failures, only outcomes, only results to interpret and learn from.

Second, to create faith community environments where innovation is celebrated and encouraged we must elevate the status of creativity in our theology and practice. Patterning our lives after our Creator includes pursuing creativity. To be godly is to be creative.

The majority of conventional Christians may caution us to “be careful about being creative for the sake of being creative” but I think that makes about as much sense as being careful not to be moral for the sake of being moral. I am not sure why creativity has become secondary to other divine character traits we strive to emulate. We should value creativity equally alongside holiness, mercy, and honesty and make it just as much a mark of authentic Christian spirituality. When I look around at this incredibly diverse and strange universe full of platypuses, aye-ayes, Venus flytraps and the like – it certainly seems like God gets carried away with being creative! I certainly can’t think of a moral or practical reason for the creation of blobfish or the proboscis monkey.

It’s time to unleash our innovators and get carried away with the Creative Spirit.

Questions For Followers of the Way:

Are we intentionally working at encouraging and creating space for innovators in our communities?

Are we inadvertently encouraging our most entrepreneurial and imaginative young adults to pursue leadership in other fields rather than ministry because there is not enough room for innovators to experiment and flourish in church settings?

Are you snuffing out your own creativity and innovative tendencies to conform to the status quo expectations of your own faith community or your conventional belief system?

Blessed Are The Iconoclasts

In my past series of posts, I have strongly suggested the future of the church and Christianity in Canada will be markedly different than the conventional forms we have become accustomed to. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the future holds for faith in the postmodern shift, as I have misplaced my urim and thummim and it turned out my crystal ball was not dishwasher safe. As I have repeated – we are in new history now – and only God knows what the future holds.

What I can tell you with confidence is that it will be the iconoclasts and innovators who will lead and shape the next wave of Christian faith in the emerging paradigm. It will be the courageous, non-conformist, entrepreneurial pioneers, who are inspired by God – and inspiring to the disenchanted and disenfranchised spiritually hungry souls around them – that will be the radical reformers of our day. Why? Because they always have been.

The current faith crisis the church and Christianity are experiencing will require 21st century Peters and Pauls, Sattlers and Simons, Wesleys and Luther Kings – leaders who are in tune with the hearts and minds of the ‘common’ people as well as the heart and mind of God. Radical, risk-taking lovers of God and humanity will again be the ones to mobilize and empower faith communities with fresh teaching, new perspectives, reckless openness to God’s Spirit and love for all.

Today’s reformers and revolutionaries, like yesterdays, will be the daring iconoclasts.

The first major iconoclast movement in Christendom was initiated by Byzantine Emperor Leo in the 8th century. The second major one occurred in the 16th century during the Reformation. Both of these movements were primarily focused on physical iconoclasm – which is the deliberate destruction or riddance of religious icons and other symbols, usually for religious or political motives. What I am referring to is spiritual iconoclasm (or conceptual iconoclasm). Spiritual iconoclasm is eradicating or letting go of mental concepts that limit God. Meister Eckhart (13th century German theologian and priest) succinctly articulated this type of iconoclasm in his curious statement, “I pray to G-d to rid me of God”, meaning I open myself up to the God who is, as I let go of the God I have constructed in my mind with human ideas and doctrines. He believed it is only as we empty our minds of finite preconceptions about God and how God works that we are able to perceive and participate in the eternally new thing God is doing. As Jesus said, “New wine requires new wineskins.” To be continually open to God requires a perpetually renewable mind.

Revolutions always have and always will frighten the majority – from the original Jesus movement to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century to the postmodern faith renewal happening today. It is not surprising that the majority of churches and Christians are confused by, concerned with or committed to fighting the emerging spiritual paradigm shift. I do not judge people for carefully considering something before jumping in headfirst. As the saying goes, “Angels fear to tread where fools rush in.” So the questions I hear cautious Christians asking contemporary iconoclasts are very important and we need to pay attention.

Questions like:

What are you iconoclasts letting go of? The Bible? Jesus? Truth? And what are you still holding on to?

What the iconoclasts are letting go is the illusory assumption that any of us were ever holding onto the Bible, Jesus or Truth in the first place. Iconoclasts realize we are always holding onto our own versions of Jesus, God and the Bible and that notions such as – our interpretation of the truth is the truth   and              our thoughts and assumptions about God is who God really is –are wrong. Dangerous. Idolatrous even.

Meister Eckhart said the physical iconoclasts missed the point when they destroyed physical art, symbols and images of God. (Art is usually not the problem. In fact, good art often opens us up to the mystery and inconceivable glory of God.What we need to smash are our mental images of God. We need to rid ourselves of our theological pictures of God painted with finite words and dogmatic concepts. If we don’t, we become idolaters, substituting the infinite God who is bigger and beyond our loftiest mortal comprehension, with a God we have created in, and constrained to, our human minds.

All our ideas and images of God are at best incomplete and provisional and we are wise to hold them loosely, constantly humbling ourselves beneath the transcendent mystery of the great “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. It is only as we let go of the ‘God we know’ that we are able to be led by the ‘God who is’.  And to be open to the “God who is” that consistently appears and moves outside the boundaries our beliefs have limited “God” to – we must become spiritual iconoclasts. Or at least get to know one. And let them blow our minds open so we can catch a glimpse or two of the God who dwells outside the cage of our finite dogmatic assumptions.

Future of Faith Part 2: Upside Down Wisdom

Future Faith in Canada Part 2 – Upside Down Wisdom

I’ve often wondered why the vast majority of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him as the Messiah. Why a community filled with longing for the Saviour that God had promised them, refused to believe Jesus was the one they were waiting for. How did they miss what seems so obvious to us? Were they less intelligent, moral, religious, or Biblically literate than us? No, it was simply that Jesus did not fit their assumptions and expectations.

How often do our assumptions and expectations hinder us from seeing what God is doing in our midst?

The Gospels tell us it was the most educated, moral, religious and Biblically literate who most vehemently rejected Jesus, for they had the most rigid assumptions and expectations about what God’s salvation would look like. Jesus was God’s unexpected plot twist and those who knew the old plot line the best opposed him the most. Jesus was a spiritual paradigm shift for the first century Jewish community. They were entering new history and it was only the few who were able to let go of their assumptions and expectations regarding how God moved and worked in the world, that were able to develop eyes to see and ears to hear the new thing God was doing.

I believe the same applies to us in our present paradigm shift. It will only be the few who are able to let go of their assumptions and expectations regarding how God moves and works in the world that will be able to perceive the new thing God is doing in our midst. As in Jesus’ day, letting go will be more difficult for church folk advanced in the areas of morality, religiosity, education, and Biblical literacy, but if Biblical history teaches us anything, it is that those who have the least capacity to be surprised by God, will be most surprised by God in the end!

We would be ‘Pharisee-ically’ foolish to assume an infinitely creative God only weaves plot twists into ancient history. I believe God is doing a new thing in our time and culture and our need for spiritual leaders with humility, flexibility, and Spirit tuned senses has never been greater.

Speaking of faith leaders, I confess I have often wondered why Jesus chose Peter to be the leader of his revolution after he was gone. The Gospels certainly don’t imply Peter was an A+ disciple who was always ‘with the program’. So why him?

I believe it was connected to Peter’s capacity to let go of assumptions and expectations and remain open to God’s mysterious ways of working in the world. If anyone had a solid notion about what would happen to someone who jumped out of a boat in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a raging storm – it was a born and raised Galilean fisherman! But Peter radically and recklessly let go of those assumptions and expectations and hopped out of the boat to try to walk on water with Jesus. This risky openness to a God beyond his understanding was core to Peter’s qualifications as an early church leader. Jesus was looking for someone with upside down wisdom, the kind Socrates described this way, “Wisdom is limited to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”

At times Peter’s awakening to his own ignorance was painful. For instance, his assumptions about his own loyalty and courage quickly dismantled after he abandoned and denied Jesus repeatedly a few hours after boldly proclaiming publically that he would never forsake Jesus, that he would die with Jesus if need be. Less than a day later he was forced to let go of the core belief he had staked his entire theology and future upon – that Jesus the Messiah would reestablish the throne of David and Reign of God on earth – as Jesus was now dead and nothing had seemed to changed.

When the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in the closing chapter of John’s gospel, Peter is a broken, naked and hopeless fisherman who couldn’t catch a fish – surprised yet again by another plot twist. Jesus is alive! However, the most unexpected thing of all to Peter is that Jesus still wants him to lead his church!

I believe this is the moment of Peter’s rebirth, preparing him for Pentecost and church leadership. Like Scrooge at the end of Dicken’s “Christmas Carol”, Peter’s soul awakens with upside down wisdom, realizing “I don’t know anything! I never did know anything. But now I know, that I don’t know anything!”

We are all ignorant when it comes to the mysterious ways of God. What we need are leaders like Peter who are aware of their own ignorance to lead us through the paradigm shift.  I am convinced it will be the present day Peters with upside down wisdom that will shape the future of faith in postmodern Canada.

To be continued…