Sunday, April 27, 2008

Valedictory Address

A few people asked me to post my valedictory address from our graduation ceremony at Briercrest College & Seminary. Here it is.

Board of Directors, faculty and staff, colleagues, family, and friends:
Thank you—for inter-twining your lives with ours—for sacrifices made, support given, for grace and for truth.

You know, as I considered what to say with my few minutes today I recalled when I first stepped foot on this campus. I was going to come to seminary and figure it out—after having grown up in the church and been disillusioned with it, gone to college, pastored a church, and been disillusioned with myself—I was gonna figure it out; get it right.

I’d watched many of my generation give up on the church, and certainly understood. With them I’d quoted William Temple: "I believe in the holy, infallible church, of which I regret to say at present I am the only member." We joke, but we mean it.

George Barna has now called this idea a revolution and said we can follow Christ better without the church. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Does the church need to be how I want it before it’s worth anything? Besides, even after this revolution, we’d re-congregate. Surely we can get it together first.

But I’d also listened as some of the generation before mine spoke and acted like they had figured it out. With vision and the strategy, modernworship, and strategic social programming we’d be the hope of the world. We’d show them Jesus once and for all. We’d make them want to be like us. But this doesn’t seem quite right either. Eventually we’d mess something up. Besides, do I really need to take a church from 60 to 600 (or 6000), or make the breakthrough that gets us into the 21st century, or win 100 souls, or be the next Nooma video guy before I’ll register on the scale of success, make this school proud, validate my degree, feel fulfilled?

I feel like if I could promise those things from this grad class it would make today’s ceremony feel important. I want to be important. Is that wrong?

Who knows? Maybe you see mega-church pastors and upcoming record deals in these grads. That’s not bad, it would probably be worth celebrating!
But the truth is that, even if we grads go from here and do everything right, apart from the odd alumni update you’ll likely not hear from any of us again. You heard it here: The entire class of 2008—an abysmal failure.

That’s not the case, is it? So what are we after?

I am reminded of Elijah, who won a miraculous victory for Yahweh against the prophets of Baal and brought the drought in the land to an end—and the next morning had nothing to show for it but a death threat from the Queen. With his face on all the wanted posters for all the wrong reasons he immediately saw his ministry in terms of failure, and he asked God to let him die. And he added the intriguing line that he was no better than his ancestors.

I think we all think we’ll do better than our ancestors. We’ll figure it out. So we spend our lives on it, figure some stuff out for ourselves, clean up some messes—and make a bunch of new ones. As far as it concerns our goals, we claim success. But they evaporate in time. Even if we find ourselves, that may be all we’re left with.

You know, for every irrefutable law of successful leadership that you can glean from the stories of the Bible there is also a corrective to the tempting lure of self-reliance and measurable successes.

The sin that kept Moses from the promised land was that he struck the rock for a water-miracle, just like last time, the only difference being last time God told him to and this time he thought he had it figured out. The sin that really got David was taking a census. What’s wrong with that? One time God had even asked him to take a census! But last time it was a humble act of obedience to God and this time it was about the numbers.

He and Moses both were taking it upon themselves. Getting the strategy and demographics right so they could step in for God, put on his backpack of timeless solutions and get to work; figure it out; go it alone.

So, do we do nothing and just let God do His thing? No! God wants us involved: Have courage, run the race, strive, seek, find, don't hide, engage! But I charge us today to follow Christ and serve His Church in love even if it gets you crucified rather than getting you the book deal; or the mega church; or the masters degree, or the valedictorian award. That is difficult for me to say. I like my degree. I think God is happy with it too. But what good is it if I sell out for it?

I can’t look at God like one more self-help resource or put him in my backpack of solutions to success. He’s not a commodity. He is the living God, moving toward the world in love, and taking part in that story of communion what this life, this adventure, is all about.

I spent much of my time at seminary battling personal depression and vocational disillusionment. It wasn’t this place, but the troubles of life and my perception of failure —some of it accurate, some not. Rallied by the seminary community, I slowly began to tell God about it; to lament. As with Elijah it seemed that God understood my disappointment but disagreed with my assessment of failure.

Indeed He has nurtured me and is sending me back out—buoyed not by a guarantee of "success" but by His faithful presence. And as Chesterton said: "The mystery of God is more satisfying than the solutions of man."

When the resurrected Jesus handed out breakfast on the beach Peter hung on his every word. Given another chance he would get it right; figure it out. But all Jesus kept saying was, "Do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep."

Thank you Briercrest, for not just giving me a backpack of self-help solutions for success—though it would raise your enrollment—but for teaching me to follow Christ and serve His Church in love. Thank you for drawing me from despair into community, into that Triune Communion so wonderfully shared with us in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Music Links

Good news everyone: Matthew Wilkinson has gone and made all of his music available for free download at myspace. I have been talking about this guy on here for at least a year, and now there is no excuse but to go hear his stuff. Go to his myspace page and check out his albums in his friends section. I recommend starting with Sinners (I can't stop listening to it), but everything is worth checking out. Some fanastic songs here. For real. Stop reading my useless blog and go listen to them.

I decided to get a myspace page again so I could keep better track of some of my favourite music. If you are any where near open to getting some new music in your system I highly recommend you check out indie musicians such as my brother Jeff Coutts, he and Dave McGregor's band The Young Wire Wicks (who have an album forthcoming), Nathan Carroll, and Brock Tyler. You won't regret listening to any of them. Carroll and Tyler are on a Canadian tour (with the Wire Wicks at some venues as well) soon so if you can see them nearby you may want to try.

I should also mention that on my myspace page I put my one and only recorded song. It is called Alone. It was written first for my own prayers, then adapted for our seminary chapel, and then my friend Dale offered to record it. My wife Angie sang with me and my friend Dale did all of the fiddling with the drums and bass and mixing. I am not saying it is the greatest song ever, but it is a lament from the heart, and I think we need more laments.

Finally, I told a few people in my Barth reading group that I'd post a link to this stupid theology quiz, so here it is. It is pretty artificial and full of questions that are false dilemmas or misleadingly vague, but I must admit it labelled my theology pretty accurately as neo-orthodox, and even picked up on my holiness/wesleyan background, my recent catholic leanings, and my felt-disconnect with charismatic stuff. If you want to blow 10 minutes and see what it tells you, check it out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Snow on the Dome at St. Paul's Cathedral

On Sunday of our Europe trip my wife and I woke up to the surprising sight of large flakes of snow flooding the sky and caking the London street in white. For a second I thought I was back in Canada. I imagine it happens often enough in April over there but to me it felt a little eerie and/or magical, especially since this was the morning we'd be heading to St. Paul's Cathedral.

In my favourite novel the man known as Thursday is involved in a nightmarish flight from the apparently decrepit but now speedy Professor de Worms, and in that bizarre chase scene the snow begins to fall freakishly on the streets of London. Thursday stops to ponder the appearance of snow on the dome and is motivated by the sight of the ball and the cross. This morning I would have the same treat. Kind of cool if you are a Chesterton nerd like me.

Besides that little peice of literary novelty, Sunday morning at St. Paul's was a wonderful experience. My wife and I happened to make it there for the first service of the day and were pleased to be allowed to participate. We were a wee bit late, and when I saw the order of service I hoped we hadn't missed the reciting of the Apostle's Creed. I was delighted to learn we hadn't.

It was awesome to sit there in that centuries-old church and speak aloud the ancient confession of our faith in a room where the sounds of the congregation not only echoed off the awesome ceilings and artwork but also echoed through the ages. It just felt like I was a part of something timeless, worshiping and confessing faith in the same room as countless others from the past whom I admire and owe so much. Then to say the Lord's Prayer there only deepened the experience. It was a highlight of the trip.

When the Reverend got up for the homily, being a Protestant I was curious what I'd hear. There is much I have in common with the Catholics (as alluded to obviously already), but some that I dispute. I wondered what the topic would be for the day. Interestingly, he spoke about a man who had read The God Delusion and asked the church to have his baptism revoked. He talked about how in Catholic canon law there are concessions allowing for the annullment of marriage, and the revoking of a few other things I can't remember, but he said that there was no provision for the revoking of baptism. What was most interesting to me were the reasons he gave.

First of all, he said, baptism is not ours alone. As Catholics we offer the sacrament of baptism but we do so along with many other churches, from Anglicans to Methodists to Anabaptists. We don't have sole authority over it. However, he went on, even if they were the only church (and it was refreshing to hear him say they weren't), baptism still would not be theirs to revoke. Baptism belongs to God. It is not a glorious act of salvation earned by the person's strength of will or faith, it is a gift of God.

Although I don't think it is the best practice, I must admit that this is what is so powerful about baptizing infants (and as long as there is a knowing confirmation later in life I don't have a huge problem with it actually). In infant baptism the helplessness of the recipient before the grace of God is true and beautiful. Too often in Protestant circles we can get the idea that baptism is all about us and our great faith. Not so. It is about the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, which we align ourselves with and recieve as a gift by faith.

So this preacher reminded us that he could neither revoke this man's baptism any more than he could judge the man's place before God in time or eternity. That would be for God to know. Certainly the man could choose not to live in the ramifications of his baptism, but the church was not going to take it upon itself to take back something it thought God had given in good faith.

There are some things there I might quarrel with, but my only point here is that I was overcome with a feeling of gratefulness and awe at the magnitude of the faith story in which I am not ashamed to say I've found my place (be it ever so small). Even in one of the most historic and massive churches of our time it was proclaimed that humans are but a breath and God is the giver of life and redemption.

To participate in such a service of worship, and to lift my voice to the ceiling along with all those saints, past and present, and feel myself enfolded in that great cloud of witnesses who boast not in themselve but the grace of God---that was an experience I'll never forget.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Reflections on Return from Europe

My wife and I just returned from our first ever trip to Europe and it was awesome. We spent two days driving the English countryside, three days taking the underground around London, and two days walking Paris. I will probably have a few more observations to make in coming weeks but here are some fairly random reflections on the experience:

~ London just may be the cleanest city I've ever seen. Strangely, however, there are very few garbage cans. One time I saw a lady picking up a speck of "rubbish" (as they call it) with a long claw-like mechanism, so I'm assuming there are either people like her working all over the city or else Londoners are just really clean people.

~ Tourists are morons (myself included I am sure). The fine people at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are kind enough to open the doors to the public for free. The sign on the door says no flash photography. The chapel spaces ask for quiet so people can pray. Instead you have a wall to wall sea of people in there and you've got flash bulbs going off everywhere you look, noisy people walking right in and around those sitting in prayer, and a basic trampling of one of the most beautiful churches you will ever see in your life. Did I take pictures? Yes (flash off). You can't help it. Did I walk into some of those chapel spaces? Yes. You can't help it. Was I a tourist? Yes. But as I sat there in the chapel with my wife we marvelled on the total lack of reverence and respect shown by so many and I admitted that if I were in charge of the place the riff-raff would not be allowed. Then I realized that the people of Notre Dame are more gospel than I am. It was a humbling place to be.

~ Nudity is pretty normal in art. I think you see roughly the same amount of nudity per minute at the Louvre as you might on contemporary television. Somehow it seemed more appropriate though. Not sure why.

~ Driving on the left (sitting on the right side of the car) is hard, but you get used to it. What is more difficult is getting used to the roadways and road signs. You don't realize how much you take your driving habits and sign shorthand for granted until you are having to interpret another society's signage and navigate different intersections. As a road sign flies toward you, you really only have a second or two to figure out all that it is telling you. I think the signs there are pretty simple, but I will confess I did a couple loops of a few traffic circles just trying to figure out which off-ramp to take, and several times still got the wrong one. Having said that, I liked there system better. I would just need more time to get used to it. It is more collaborative than ours. Here we have stop lights and can't imagine how one person could go without another person stopping. There you all enter the traffic circle and get out where you need to. You stop for a moment but not very long. You are always moving. There is a lot of collaboration going on. It is really cool, actually. Does it betray a different, and better, philosophy of life? I don't know. It would be cool if it did.

~ The BBC is superior to North American news stations. We heard so much more about international news there than we do here. We also heard more about issues and less hype. Watching CNN in the American airport was an exercise in wasting time. Watching the BBC in our hotel room felt like education.

~ Canadians are indeed the politest people in the world. I won't say Londoners or Parisians are impolite, but you do notice less apologies and overall thoughtfulness in those places in comparison to what you get used to in Canada.

~ London is very multicultural. I felt like I heard more languages there than I ever hear in Canada. I don't think it was just the tourists either. You heard other languages just as much as you heard English. Even the English felt like it needed translation sometimes. The slang is so different than over here.

~ It is great to experience other cultures. I hope I will be a better person as a result. More about this in the future. Right now I'm still relishing in the wonderful experience of sipping coffee in the streets of Notting Hill (pictured above), having a croissant in the place where croissants were born, and walking the historic streets of London, Oxford, Paris, and so on. What a treat. Would go back in a second.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Karl Barth and Dr. Seuss and Other Links for a Mental Masseuse

For those looking for a good, humourous, simple, yet profound introduction to Karl Barth and/or Dr. Seuss, follow this link. My favourite lines:

Yes, I like the Son of Man!
Yes, I choose him, says I Am.

For an interesting perspective on confession, check this.

And for an inspiring muse on the running of a marathon and the life of faith, go to the latest Random Colin.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Across the Pond

Tomorrow my wife an I are crossing the ocean for the first time and this is one of the places we'll be going.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was a favourite hangout of a certain Gilbert Keith and his cronies and we plan to take in a meal there for sure. While we're at it we'll also be hitting up C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein's old haunt at Oxford: the Eagle & Child.
When I think of visiting London, England, I don't really think of particular places I want to see--I just want to be there. There is so much of what I've read and what I'm into that comes from there it feels like going home, in a way.
We'll see how it feels once we're there. It is supposed to rain most of the time. I don't care. I'm from British Columbia.