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Month: January 2017

Prophetic Witness 4: The use of symbols and symbolic action.

Prophetic Witness 4: The use of symbols and symbolic action.

The missiologist Carlos Cardoza Orlandi posed an intriguing question to a group of us gathered in Bolivia. He asked us to identify and suggest a symbol of justicce that could be used in our time and context? I struggled to find such a symbol. After a few days, I bought a plumb line in a small shop. I still hang this symbol in my home office. It was first used by the eighth century Hebrew prophet Amos. And that is the weakness. A plumb line is not current.

My reading of the prophet Jeremiah made me attentive to symbolic actions that communicate God’s message. They are like parables in that they need to be interpreted. Jeremiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem wearing a yoke designed for oxen. He shattered a jug of clay before leaders of the nation. He bought land during a time of crisis. He buried a loincloth and then returned to dig it up and show that it was ruined.

I think we are challenged to discover and to use symbols or symbolic actions as a prophetic dimension to our mission. I wish I could suggest what they might be.  Here is Canada, I wonder if some of them will be the gift of our Indigenous neighbors as we work towards the healing of the wounds of colonialism.

I am inspired by an American woman named Marcia Owen. I wrote about her in Seed Falling on Good Soil. Marcia Owen was an AIDS community worker who moved from the eastern USA to Durham, North Carolina. She was overwhelmed by gun violence. She met mothers that put their children in bathtubs at night to protect them from random drive by shootings. Maria Owen responded by starting prayer meetings at each site where there had been a killing. Prayer invoked God’s presence in places of violence. People that prayed drew near to Jesus who offered his example of love overcoming violence. The number of participants in these street prayer meetings grew. These symbolic acts became the foundation for the Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham.

I wonder if there is room for prophetic symbols and symbolic action in Canada and the USA. Let me ask my readers: What symbols or symbolic actions would you choose at this time?

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4 Signs of Prophetic Witness: (3) Are borderland voices heard in our churches?

4 Signs of Prophetic Witness: (3) Are borderland voices heard in our churches?

Oscar Romero said that the testimonies of the poor informed us of the way the world really worked. The Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger understood this principle. His biography relates how he was generally suspicious of official briefings by government and military spokespeople. He got his stories by going out to rural communities and entering urban slums. He had a simple question: What is going on here? He tried to report those stories back home.

We know the power of stories. In Seed Falling on Good Soil, I drew on the socio-narratology theory of Arthur Frank. Frank believes that stories have life. Each of us is a has an inner library of stories that shapes our moral decisions and life directions. Narrative ambush happens when a story breaks through our resistance and introduces new ways of understanding the world and our lives.

International humanitarian workers tell stories in Canada and the USA about people in their program areas. These stories open insights into the way the world works and the ways that God works in a broken world. A few years ago, I was moved when Don Peters, Executive Director of the Mennonite Central Committee, told us of the unexpected hospitality of a Palestinian family in Jerusalem. The conversation in their home opened a new perspective on the challenges faced by Palestinians that want justice without violence. A few weeks ago my heart was stirred by a story told by Joanne Beach of the Alliance Church. She had visited a savings and loan program for women in Kenya. We heard more than a promotional piece for the program. One of the women had shared about the violence and limited possibilities faced by many women in Kenya. We live by stories. They shape our understanding and attitudes.

Congregations can use stories from the borderlands in three ways:

The first way is in our speaking, preaching, and writing. Do we tell stories from the underside to help congregants to enter into the spaces of people that face unemployment, hunger, violence, mental health issues, and the loss of human dignity? Narratives from the borderlands enable us to develop a prophetic critique and a more vibrant prayer life.

A second way is to feature speakers from the borderlands within our countries and from the Global South. Carlos Cardoza Orlandi is a missiologist at Perkins School of Theology. He once conducted research into the way a US denomination had used foreign visitors in their Sunday morning services. He found that some were introduced, brought greetings, or spoke to a church group. Very few were given the opportunity to bring the morning message from the pulpit.  What a waste! Sisters and brothers from the borderlands often have a prophetic voice developed from years of suffering. The stories of their lives and their people often have a prophetic quality.

The third way is to learn from borderland stories is for Americans and Canadians to travel on so-called “short term mission trips.” These trips have a greater impact on those who travel than on the country and churches that they visit. Participants are allowed to listen carefully and attentively to the stories of borderland people. They are privileged to worship with them in their churches. Research shows that the greatest impact of these kind of trips happens in the first two weeks after returning home.

About fifteen years ago a group of Canadian Baptist pastors sat in a circle with campesino farmers in El Salvador. One of the farmers explained how the war in Iraq would divert American attention and create a democratic space in Latin America. We listened to political theory, the nature of Christian solidarity, the vulnerability of farmers with small landholdings, and the role of a local church. Many of us are still talking about the impact of that trip and the stories we heard.

I believe that the renewal of our congregations may come through prophetic stories of courage and faith from the borderlands.

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Prophetic Witness in our Time: The Sunday Morning Service

Prophetic Witness in our Time: The Sunday Morning Service

 

In my circles I regularly hear a quote attributed to the US theologian John Piper. “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” I think the statement must be profound because a lot of people seem to like it. Personally, I do not understand the meaning. I know that our Lord cited the prophet Hosea when he said: “Learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I am confident that this expressed a critique of worship in the temple. The saying places greater value on compassionate acts in places of pain over sacrifices and liturgy. In our time it might be read as justice over choir music.

 

I realize that there are landmines whenever one considers the Sunday morning worship service. But let me ask: What is the purpose of the church? We would all probably agree that there are multiple purposes including worship. But surely one of the primary objectives is to encourage discerning global discipleship. We talk about this theme at Canadian Baptist Ministries. None of us have a tight definition. But we agree on the basic dimension. Global disciples are women and men who:

  • Shape their values by the teaching of the gospels.
  • Practice the disciplines of prayer to God and the disciplines of grace in social relationships
  • Live in some form of community with other people of faith
  • Serve God’s rule in their social locations through expressions of evangelism, compassion, and social justice.
  • Celebrate solidarity or fellowship with other Christian people and communities in the broader world.
  • Act as guardians of creation and protectors of people at the margins.

 

How many of these themes are addressed in the average worship service?

 

In most congregations, the only opportunity for teaching and moral guidance (shared discipleship formation) is on Sunday morning for 60-90 minutes. I am old enough to remember when the average congregation had Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday school classes, women’s fellowships, men’s fellowships, thriving youth groups, and home Bible study groups. I can play well the game of remembering the glory years of the church. There were multiple opportunities for Christian formation and discussion of themes. Now the local community of faith has Sunday morning.

 

Adding to the challenge of discipleship formation is the trend of defining faithful church participation as attending a Sunday morning service once or twice a month. What do we do in that period? Music, Prayers. Offering. Announcement. Preaching. The current mixture is not working in most places. We are losing people. Church attendance is declining. Evidently, a lot of people do not find our worship services to be meaningful. We place them in seats as spectators. There is virtually no participation except for singing hymns and putting money in the collection plate. We say hello to visitors at coffee time while trying to catch up with friends.

 

There is so much potential because we have the potential to meet with the same basic group of people 52 times a year. I was struck by Richard Rohr’s observation that at least 80% of people seeking or working for personal and social transformation are bored in our worship services. I was once a member of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver. Worship was not boring. Tim Dickau, the pastor, believed that the Sunday service was the time in which the community was welcomed to God and to one another. This time prepared us to extend that radical welcome to of God in Christ to our neighbors and the world. Music, art, and even different languages of prayer reflected the diverse cultural backgrounds of the congregation.  I remember that there was an order of service each Sunday at Grandview Calvary. But there was also a disorder of service as multiple people participated in ways that could not be scripted. Out of worship and prophetic preaching, Grandview Calvary has launched a refugee centre, a community housing program, an advocacy initiative for just wages, and community employment options. The church has grown to have a morning and an evening congregation.

 

I suspect that most of us have limited power to institute fundamental congregational change. My guess is that most local pastors feel the same way. We can at least draw attention to people and movements that point a way forward. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s faith was nurtured at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church when he studied at Union Seminary. He was obviously an outsider and yet he was welcomed into that prophetic church. I believe that we can find ways to encourage and resource new creative forms of congregational life. But we will have to find ways to bring the prophetic nature of the gospel into our Sunday morning worship.

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