Covenanting Forward

Finding the Covenant took a long time. In fact, landing anywhere with conviction or at least lasting interest has taken a lifetime. My circuitous journey of faith has seen me duck, dodge, weave, skip, and sometimes trudge my way through Canadian Presbyterianism, the United Church of Canada (where I was baptized as a child), four brands of Baptist, two of Anglican, the ELCA, the PCUSA, and finally, the ECC. Moreover, as distinctly post-modern and, what I like to describe as post-evangelical, my theology doesn’t sit sufficiently still to be any denomination’s well-behaved child. Finally, I am a reluctant Protestant, lay-Jesuit with a distinctly Celtic-Catholic spirituality that has a whiff of Pelagius, Julian of Norwich, and Scotch Whisky about it (in terms of character. I don’t drink).

I.e. I’m a hard person to please.

Voracious reader. Voluminously curious. Virulently skeptical by nature, specifically of the easy answers typically afoot among American evangelicalism. My ENFP, Enneagram 4-ishness denies me the simplicity of no-questions-asked membership in anything. It makes me a delight at dinner parties, full of jaunty esprit, self-effacing humour (ha!), and fun stories, but impossible to get along with, since I’m forever challenging some portion of something.

I’m a team player but not a company man. In other words, I’ll rarely act outside the parameters of the given protocols of any collective into which I have committed myself. However, I’m not a candidate for “my country, right or wrong.” Ideologies, protocols, approaches, and resources supplied by an organization, even one in which I am deeply invested, will generally be the starting place only for what I sense is invitation for my own fingerprint on the work of God both in, and through, me. I see myself making consistent use of the Covenant’s vast resources available in every corner of the kingdom landscape, albeit in uniquely Rife-ian ways.

I say all of that to say this. In large measure, the Covenant is also these things. In the short time I’ve been lurking around, loitering in Mission Friends’ hallways, I’ve discovered reams of others just like me. Dispossessed of (E)vangelicalism but not so dishonest or disingenuous as to deny it entirely. Weary of the religious empire ass-kissing “give us Barabbas” impetus that sent Jesus to the cross and, two thousand years later, booted him from American life. But, still socially invested enough as to seek fresh iterations of Christian citizenship that cares for the least and left behind.

In its desperation for relevance over depth, evangelicalism often attracts and nurtures a culturally-derived shininess to its approaches at times poisonous to the very spirituality it seeks to discover and facilitate. Therefore, it has the expected wow-factor with little depth to recommend it for the long-term indefinables of Christian spirituality. The Covenant however has proven a willingness to do both: enshrine a polished, corporate modus operandi, utilizing well its culture of leadership, while paying more than just lip-service to older and richer veins from which to feed.

Speaking playfully, we are newer denomination still linked to its distant Lutheran past that badly wants to be cool. It’s the playground kid from a simple family but with natural leadership skills, a twinkle in his eye, and enough savvy not to play shirts and skins with the adult football team. To this late middle-aged advocate for building bridges, Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, old and young, this is of epic importance.

When I think of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I perceive three things:

A connectivity born of joyful living in the Gospel.

A generous orthodoxy giving birth to wholistic ministry.

And, a fresh-faced entrepreneurialism rooted in a Lutheran evangelicalism.

It is the very essence of a covenant: a mutual partnership of equals toward an agreed upon end. That end? God’s glory. Neighbor’s good. Indeed. The goodness of these things in total makes a happy enough family with whom to dine, a river deep and dangerous enough into which I commit my swim.

Joyful Connectivity

I’m Canadian by birth. There are numerous similarities between the hopelessly broad girth of Canadian geography, religion, and socio-politics with that of her southern neighbo(u)r. But one major difference colours/colors our respective histories. America was birthed in revolution, the upraised fists and passionate cries of those who believed themselves oppressed who sought something better elsewhere. Canada was born as bureaucrats politely signed documents over whisky, cigars, propriety, and well-wishing. “Here, here. What, what” versus “give me liberty or give me death.” The latter has brought a certain bluster, love for conflict, and over-confidence; but keen sense of collective identity. The former, a constant quest for identity by means of the via negativa, what we’re not.

Ecclesial groups are born in similar ways. Another renewal movement among many, the Covenant is a few generations removed from the overly self-conscious Martin Luther who felt theological debate following an act of defacing public property the best way of addressing issues. We Covenanters are much more genteel by comparison.

What I have witnessed is a group of happy, post-Lutheran hipsters driven by their mutual love for Gospel and community, but without Luther’s moody self-importance or need for withering banter. We’re just happy being together. My limited experience has shown that, if corporate websites ever needed stock photography of happy, diverse, smiling, beautiful people with whom to populate their online branding, the Covenant is where to come for prospects.

Generous Orthodoxy

If stuck in evangelicalism I must be, then the Covenant represents for me a biblically-derived iteration capable of growth, imagination, and maturity. Her historic battles over the role of the church and war, baptism, Gospel multi-ethnicity, matters of social justice, and women in ministry, give her an enviable track record among Protestants, whose primary legacy is division at almost cellular level. It bespeaks a generous orthodoxy[1], a Word-centered faith powered by the creative energy of the Holy Spirit more than the soul-stifling literalism of populist religion or the polemical erudition of the academy. She has stumbled of late regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. But, if history holds true, this is a hiccup more than a rule (I pray).

Ecclesial Entrepreneurialism

The five-fold mission of the Covenant reveals two things not necessarily in opposition: a breezy, simple pragmatism easily relatable to anyone anywhere. For me, spiritual formation requires a language a bit more inspiring than “Make and Deepen Disciples”, which falls far short of the soulish electricity at work in A Cloud of Unknowing, Pensées, or The Dark Night of the Soul.

But nor are we afraid to enlist the older and better voices in the process either. Yes, we’re likely to hear from Max Lucado, Brené Brown, or Rachel Held-Evans. But, in any given Sunday School or pulpit we’d also be confronted with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Teresa of Avila. Despite its Lutheran roots, for the Covenant, the Church is still born at Pentecost, not the Reformation.

A few years ago, the Presbyterian church I was serving as Music Minister voted 98% in favour of adopting into the ECC. The PCUSA was, at the time, in meltdown over matters of governance related to human sexuality. Presbyterians worship process as much as anything and, at the level of General Assembly, had become boorish and unsophisticated, bullying many of its congregations into making choices (either for or against) they were not prepared to make by means of decree. It was classic hierarchicalism at work.

We have a number of gay and lesbian folks associated with our congregation. For us, sexuality and inclusion were never the issue. We wanted to throw in the towel, not because we felt the need to adopt some different ideology regarding LGBTQ, but because the stifling network of top-down ecclesiasticism at work was the last straw for a church who needed to have the freedom to stretch its leadership legs in directions current administration couldn’t, indeed wouldn’t, allow. 

We voted to leave a tradition that had fallen prey to its own self-importance for one, by comparison, still in its youthful infancy. We joined the ECC for uniquely entrepreneurial, congregational-leadership reasons. It has served us well ever since. At fifty-six I was one of the younger full-time music personnel in the PCUSA. In the Covenant? I’m ancient. As it should be!

In coming months, my wife and I are planning a ministry move to Great Britain. We do so as a tentmaker couple. This video gives a sense, in general terms, of our hopes and intentions. It marks the fruition of a vision planted in us over thirty years ago when we first lived as missionaries in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then, it was as two fresh-faced, inexperienced, fearful newlyweds under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, together with my geographer wife, it will be as a fully licensed minister in a denomination we’ve come to love.

We go not merely to preach the gospel. We go to be a Covenant voice in that gospel. It is a voice Britain can really use right now. Indeed, it is one all need to hear. I’m still hard to please, but at least I’ll be so in a place I can call home. Ironically, they seem okay with me.

I can ask no more than that. Thanks be to God.

[1] McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy ©2004 Zondervan Publishers

Britain or Bust: An Update

I haven’t written here much over the past while. It’s certainly not for lack of interest or desire. I’ve missed all of you, more now than ever during our shared COVIDays.

A few months back, I hinted of our upcoming Coddiwomple – an adventure into something only vaguely known and little understood. In the past year, based on what we firmly believe to be the call of God, we’ve taken action steps in that direction. 

My thirteen-and-a-half year tenure as Music and Worship Director at Yakima Covenant Church has come to a close. Now, we are enlisted to serve as “missionaries” (old language, thankfully on its way out) to Britain. 

We have before us a clear sense of call, the dis-ease but faith to begin fundraising, and a desire to build a community of likeminded individuals with whom to sojourn. Many more details are forthcoming.

For now, here’s our latest YouTube update. I invite you to watch. Consider. Pray. Consider some more. Then, join us on our adventure. My email is in the update if you’d like to be added to our mailing list. Most of all, thank you for taking these moments to poke your head into our world!

Peace to you all!

 

Corona-daze: Finding Our Hope

We all need reminders, in the Corona-daze, of Gospel basics. We leave outside (where they belong) the blustering prognostications of the fundamentalist naysayers and return to the simplicity and impossibility of eternal grace. The Gospel, birthed not in shame, but in love (remember John 3:16?), is a never-ending well of nourishing goodness and hope.

Lean into it my friends.

Find there your home,

your hope,

your calling,

your courage.

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Photo by Karen Hughes (taken in her backyard!)

Corona-daze, chapter two

What everyone doesn’t need right now:

More bad news.

More anxiety.

More uncertainty.

More xenophobic virus responses.

More conspiracy-theorist nut jobs.

More division (only now pictured by quarantine).

What everyone could use right now:

Belly laughs.

Real community.

A feeling of health and safety.

Mutual kindness.

A C19 vaccine.

Hope.

Invitation.jpgThank you, Dina Gregory, for posting this to our Facebook chat room. It’s perfect for all of us right now.

Corona-daze, chapter one

Uncertain times.

Unreliable emotions.

Unreasonable expectations.

Unfair xenophobia.

Unrealized dreams.

We are living in a strange day, and with no way of really knowing what direction the wind will blow next. As a writer, poet, musician, and pastor, it is my job and my joy to speak truth to falsehood, love to hate, light to darkness.

So, in our current Coronahaze, rather than load up the Internet with more data, as helpful as it is, I thought I’d leave you with a daily dose of hope, some of it backdoor, some overt. 

Today’s is brought to you from the queen of quirky gospel truisms, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Our responses to fear are not always our best selves. Trust me, as a recovering alcoholic, I know of which I speak. Let’s begin from via negativa and see what light may come before long, shall we?

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Friends, be wise.

Stay kind to others.

Pray and hope.

Let healing begin…

Negative capability

In my last post I shared a gorgeous prayer poem written by Richard Carter. It is one of many in a deeply satisfying spiritual treatise written by the same. My lovely wife bought it for me when last we were at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square just last November. This is the book in question: 49098535._SY475_.jpgWhat follows is from the penultimate section of the book entitled “Staying with,” in which he outlines the Rule of Life for the recently established Nazareth Community. I found it especially poignant give our current situation in which we find ourselves – in much that is unknown.

Exhilarating, yes. Motivating, to be sure. But…uncertain. I find this little segment encouraging to say the least. It is, in a word, inspiring.

I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did! Enjoy (then, buy the book!).

Negative capability

“The phrase was first used by the poet John Keats to characterize the human potential to pursue a vision of beauty even when it leads through intellectual confusion or uncertainty: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. In fact, the sense of unknowing becomes the catalyst or the very thing that focuses, intensifies and enhances the search for a greater truth. There is an importance in staying with the discomfort of the unknown, fear and the unresolved, because it is in that place that we reach the borders of what we are and discover what we could become. Thus this uncomfortable place, or place of trepidation where there are no quick fixes or easy answers, can become the place of transformation. It is often the very things we fear and our own lack of certainty that help us to break through all pride and discover the truth of living at ground zero. Perhaps it is here that we will learn what it means to live by faith and by love. It is in this hard place that the face of the unknown can reveal to us the face of the beloved.”

I want to go home

I’ve been reading a wonderful book, “The City Is My Monastery: A Contemporary Rule of Life” by Richard Carter. My wife bought it for me when we last visited St. Martin in the Fields in London last year. It outlines the Nazareth Community established by Richard Curtis, a place where all may come, whether rich or poor, whatever their background, to participate in the common life of Jesus. Curtis, on staff at St. Martin’s and a former monk, reveals his personal journey of discovering community, contemplation, and peace in the heart of London.

What follows is just one of many gorgeous prayer poems found in its pages. A highly recommended read.

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Gorgeous photo thanks to Mr. Roan Lavery

Carry Each Other – A Prayer

I love when my wife brings the Prayers of the People in our liturgy. They are prayers that live in that uncomfortable space between pastoral nurture and prophetic nudging. This was her prayer from our service this morning, Sunday, December 29, 2019.

* * * *

Preamble

The first time I stepped into a Covenant Church in December 2003, I was struck by how it felt both evangelical and liturgical, like a Baptist Oreo cookie with a Lutheran Center. Afterwards, a man explained that one of the denominational distinctives is the reality of freedom in Christ. Essentially, what that means is that, on many issues we can agree to disagree agreeably. Our new Brazilian friend, Fabio, on the Serve Globally Europe team, calls the Covenant, ‘the Dog with the least fleas.’

This morning, instead of the Lord’s prayer, we’ll close with lyrics written by U2. Bono, the lead singer grew up in Dublin in the Catholic south of Ireland the product of a scandalous marriage during the height of IRA terrorism. His father, Catholic. His mother Protestant.

From our side of the pond, we can see the fighting has little do with Christianity, and everything to do with religious tribalism. Because he’s seen the human cost of not seeking peace, his background uniquely shaped him to write songs about it.

“One” was written at a time when the band were fighting over their direction. The core lyric, ‘we’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.’  It makes Bono an ideal Covenanter!

Will you join me in prayer?

Carry each other – a prayer

Our beloved Father in heaven,

We’re closer than ever before in history to people all over the world, and yet there are growing divisions and the rise of tribalism where once there was peace. Help your church in the world to answer conflicts and divisions with love and justice. Send workers where needed to bring physical and spiritual healing, and help Christians who live in places with surplus to provide for those who go without. May the smallest pinprick of light we bring swallow much darkness (thanks to my hubby for that line!).

It seems each time it’s my turn to pray, our nation is more divided than the previous time. Across our nation, churches and communities, Lord, we thank you for those who serve graciously and honestly. We pray that where leaders fail to do their tasks well, or uphold the oaths they take, may they be replaced.

Whether we identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, let us each conserve the rule of law, be moderate in our judgement of others and wise of those who seek to use the church for their own political ends. Let us be liberal in our love toward each other, especially those who aren’t part of our tribe.

Lord, in this time of division, let us hold onto hope and not be hijacked by our fears. Let us be wary of those who tell us who is out to get us and who we should blame. Let us remember those who seek to froth up our grievances with a paycheque attached to promoting those views. Help us to remember that conflict sells.

Lord, let us remember our nation is built upon the separation of church and state and that history shows us again and again when the church gets too close to power it is weakened. Therefore, help us to be cautious of Christian leaders who have become intoxicated by the proximity to power.

And we pray for those in our own church across the nation who once attended but have lost their way. Many see the church being committed partisans, blaming others, instead of committed Christians. May we show them, Lord, that our allegiance lies to Christ above all else, and that despite our differences, in you we are one. We are not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.

Amen.