‘Silence’ ~ Stepping Onto A Faith Of Kenosis

(Spoiler Alert: This post contains depictions and stories from the film ‘Silence’.)

It has been some time since I was this hungry to see an upcoming film. For the last month I have been excitedly waiting for the movie ‘Silence’ to be released with more then an eager imagination to engage the story and dramatic scenes of cultural and religious reflection. With such an internal build up, it was ironic as we sat in the theatre following the show and I shared with my wife and friends that it was not at all what I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie was brilliant and it is easily one of my favourites to date. I can’t wait to be able to read the book this summer. But I had expected it to be an emotional rollercoaster for me and instead of pulling out the kleenex box I had tucked in my backpack (all while under the loving mockery of my wife), I found myself engrossed into theological intrigue and intellectual imaginative bliss!

Playing with the cultural dynamics of each of the characters and allowing my thoughts to focus on the themes and ritualistic scenes in the movie, my mind raced with questions, thoughts, imaginative metaphors and life like comparisons. What are sacraments and Holy Relics and what significances do they have in faith? Where does theosis or katharsis meet inner sanctification and authentic transformation? What is the gospel and how does it morph positively and negatively within time, space, and culture? What does it mean to be a “Christian” and how has its meaning changed since Jesus called his first disciples? Perhaps most of all, when and how do you embrace kenosis and the emptying of ones self for the sake of the other and what forms does it embrace?!

Perhaps in an ironic mirroring of characterization, I had become the Inquisitor?!

Sacramental Idolatry and Holy Relic Imagery

It’s really only a formality.” These were the encouraging words the priest Rodrigues heard from his Interpreter, played by Tadanobu Asano, as he was challenged to publicly denounce his Christian faith and step onto the clay tablet bearing the image of Jesus. The internal horror and anguish of such a task was unbearably written on Rodrigues face and yet I found myself questioning, what power or authority does this image have over him?! (Psalm 115:4-8)

Throughout the film the image of the sacraments within priestly duties and the giving of Holy Relics were dramatically highlighted as Christian markers of identity. Perhaps most strikingly we can see it in a scene where Rodrigues narrated his role in bestowing religious elements upon the Japanese villagers and finding himself short of materials, began giving the beads of his Rosary away as though each bead encompassed a redeeming significance to the holder.

Since the early church, images like the cross, the fish, and artistic depictions of Jesus have been used to tell the story of the gospel and create a cultural narrative of belonging through worship. But we cannot allow these depictions and Holy Relics to become graven images and objects of our worship. (Ex. 20:3-5) The story of the gospel internally carries the sacraments and relics of its past, but it can also embrace the reflection of new forms in the cultural narrative it is contextually a part of and being introduced. The sacraments and relics of today can be found in cultural arts and contemporary elements such as shared meals with friends, family members, and strangers. Perhaps instead of a fish signifying a disciple, one might find the other in a holy hug embrace. Or, while the symbolic representation of the cross projects a spirit of forgiveness, a person might find the sharing of a family heirloom while seeking reconciliation just as spiritually impactful.

The Despisal Of The Mokichi In All Of Us

mokichiBless me Father, for I have sinned!” It had to be maddening for Rodrigues as Mokichi repeatedly over and over would come to him smelling of filth, wrecked with the lack of personal care, and begging for a seemingly shallow desire for repentance and restoration. It was probably around the third time he would, in Judas like fashion, betray his friends and family that I felt this burning anger of despisal against him. Why would Rodrigues waste his time with this shallow character and man of seemingly no virtue?!

Wrestling with this disgust of Mokichi and his character I realized something; despite our rejection of his lack of virtue, our anguish over his constant betrayal and life of self serving drunkenness and filth… Isn’t there a little of Mokichi in all of us? This self preserving pride of seeking personal pleasure apart from others? This mind set of, “Well, nobody can be perfect“, and so we give into the little temptations of justified failures? All the while quick to repent and cry out in there public revealing, “Forgive me! I am weak and in need of your grace!

It is a belief that is captured in the early parts of the film that the Japanese people needed the priests so that they could impart the Word of God, present the sacraments of communion, and receive the confessions of the villagers so that forgiveness and restoration could then be given. The early church called this practice theosis or katharsis and while the outer actions of the priests were performed, it was believed the inner transformation would then take place.

Jesus uses a metaphor that dramatically reverses this process. While rebuking the Pharisees and Priests, Jesus tells them that they are cleaning the outside of the cup while leaving the inside still full of greed and self indulgence. Rather, they need to clean the inside of the cup so that the outside may also become clean. (Matt. 23:25-26)

Rodrigues would later not only forgive Mokichi, he would embrace him as part of his life and even thank him for always being there. By recognizing the Mokichi inside each of ourselves I ponder the journey of inner repentance, our wrestling with the self hatred and despisment of constant moral and practical failure, and our reliance for the need of our relationship with the Rodrigues’ in our life who grant mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Ironically you can almost see the reflective imagery that it is Jesus who becomes the priest that lastly embraces us, coarse and rough like the wood of the cross, and thanking us for always being there, always returning in the hopes that we might do better despite our weakness.

A Swampland Of Certain Glory & Kinds of Poisons

war-lordsThe price for your glory is their suffering.” These words seemed to echo as Inquisitor Inoue spoke them to Rodrigues. He would go on to compare Japan to a swampland and Christianity to that of a poison. But what is the Christianity that he is speaking of and who’s glory is he really reflecting upon?

While the character of Inquisitor Inoue is fictional, the times depicted in the movie are not. During the early 1600’s there was a Japanese puritan movement where the War Lord’s of Japan were asking the question, “What is a pure Japanese?” Then, hoping to maintain that ideology, they began persecuting and eradicating anything considered not Japanese, particularly the Christian church. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians would be killed during this time and it was extremely dangerous  for missionaries to travel in the islands of Japan.

We might reverse the question of the Inquisitor however; what does it mean to be a pure Christian? While Rodrigues and the other Catholic priests that came to Japan brought a gospel proclaimed by the universal Christian church, it seemed rote with dogmatic doctrine and institutional teachings that were far from the words of justice, mercy, love, and forgiveness embodied in the story of Jesus. In many ways, the Christianity Rodrigues and the other priests brought was a movement of conquest driven by the pride of western self-righteousness and with the goal institutional glory.

Perhaps Rodrigues’ mentor and teacher, Father Ferreira, brought this point to the surface of his young protégé’s heart as he spoke the words to him, “I do because you are just like me. You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as His. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don’t have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell. And I acted.

In the same Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) It is intriguing to think that Jesus used the words of “laying down one’s life” as appose to “death” or “dying”. Far simpler to understand the martyrdom of giving ones self over to death for the sake of those you love then to imagine the complexities of laying down ones life, ones hopes and beliefs, ones very identity, for the sake of those you love!

I wonder, were it you in that cell, what decision might have you made? Or perhaps the better question would be, who would you love most?!

Apostatizing And Stepping Onto A Faith Of Kenosis

Step on your Jesus! Apostatize yourself!” the Inquisitor Inoue challenges the priest Rodrigues. We’ve come full circle and now the words of the Interpreter rings out again, “It is really only a formality.” While the words of the Interpreter had us question the power and authority within the outer images and elements of the stone tablet, the words of the Inquisitor have us question the authority and power found within Rodrigues the individual.

To apostatize himself, Rodrigues would be publicly renouncing everything he stood for; not just his beliefs in Jesus, but his identity as a priest, his recognition of authority in and for the church, his western philosophical world views, and even ultimately, his own name! But just as we asked if the stone tablet that he was challenged to step on would have any authority or power over him, we can also ask, does any of the outer acts of renunciation he makes change the inner authority or power found within him?

The apostle Paul uses a word in Philippians 2 to describe a similar act; it is the word “kenosis“. It means to completely empty one self of all significance and meaning and he uses it in the depiction of the incarnation of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:1-11) It is as though God’s love for his creation was so great, he apostatized himself so that he might redeem us!

I found it so powerful to contemplate that all the time Rodrigues spent in the outer works of the Christian church he believed in, all the efforts and religious rituals he sacrificed himself too, and all the while in anguish over God’s seemingly silence to his labours; and yet it is in this moment of his public apostasy that the deafening voice of Christ speaks to him, “It is ok. I am here with you. It is for this moment that I died for you.” And then, without a sound Rodrigues seems to not step on the stone, but find himself on top of it.

It seems that the message of the movie ‘Silence‘ becomes heaviest when we are willing to contemplate that the authenticity of the Christian walk is not necessarily in the silence of our outer self serving institutional blind actions but in our willingness to apostatize ones self and step onto the deafening absolute complete submission of Christ’s authority and power through our own inner actions of kenosis for the sake of others!

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” ~ 2 Cor. 12:9

Rochester Rule of Life: Living Within a Relational Covenant

CovenantIt was a little over a year ago that I was introduced to the practice of keeping a Rule of Life by my fellow cohorts in the MREML Program I enrolled in at Rochester College. To be completely honest, I was hesitant to its practicality at first feeling it was a bit juvenile and institutional with the implications of the word “rule“. Over time though, it began to take on a different meaning in my life as I began to recognize it as a practice not so much about rules of institutional authority but rather more about the relational organic practices of covenant that begin to shape who I am and the person I am becoming.

In its meaning, a covenant is defined as a binding contract between two parties. It can be both personal and/or economical. I suppose it also can be communal in some contexts too. In any form however, it is always relational and transforming to those who are a part of them. In the context of my covenant with Rochester, I find that transformation in three ways.

As an image bearer of God I find the nature of my covenant being rooted in my relationship with the Trinity. As he is the first mover in defining my nature I must first look to his voice and presence as he speaks to the person I am meant to be. Any transformation that is or going to take place in my life should be rooted in the guidance of His nature and wisdom.

Secondly, the nature of a covenant in identity must also be intertwined into the relational community I am a part of. While this includes the fellow cohort of students I am a part of, it also extends into the locality of my relationships in my neighbourhood and my tribe. Transformation in the academia of Rochester is not just for the stretching context of personally acquired knowledge but rather the exercised practice of learning for the sake of transformed community practices.

Lastly, the embrace of an organic relational covenant brings transformation to the environment we are a part of. While finding new and renewed understandings of who we are through covenant we also see the environment we are a part of in a new and transformed way without ever leaving it. Marcel Proust stated, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” While the nature of our covenant transcends the distance of many states and countries even, each of us finds a shared transformational renewal in our own personal contexts of locality which can become inspirational to one another as we share our stories.

The authors of the book ‘Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals’ write that, “When we weave together the human and the divine, we are attentive to another story that is not completely our own, a narrative that has the power to transform.” While we begin to embrace the ritual, and tell the story of a Relational Organic Covenant to which we are a part of over the coming months, let us always remember that this covenant is not unto its own self a declaration of who we are personally, but also those who are in covenant with us!

He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant.” (Psalm 105:8-11)

With that in mind, here is my Rochester Relational Covenant…

  1. Because we believe God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus and continues to make his home with us through the Holy Spirit:

We will care for our own bodies as we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We will care for one another as we share our lives, particularly by praying for one another.

We will care for creation

I am committed to alternating workouts throughout the week between the weight gym and wheeling the pathways while the weekends are elective.

I will be attentive to healthier food choice while maintaining a diet which treats food as fuel for purpose and not self gratification.

I will seek to model a holistic and healthy lifestyle both for my wife, my tribe (Expressions), and the community around me through the growth of my mental understanding, physical conditioning, and spiritual awareness.

I will read one chapter of scripture every day for the purpose of meditating in it through the rest of the day.

I will seek to apply my learning within the Rochester cohort and MRE to the growth of my tribe and The Edge.

I will seek to engage in my studies through reading, writing, and practice, to the best of my abilities with the intent of growing closer to God’s call upon my life.

I will practice daily morning prayer and throughout the day.

  1. Because we believe that God has reconciled the world to himself through Jesus and reconciles us together to God by the power of the Holy Spirit:

We will create hospitable spaces in our lives to welcome others as Christ has welcomed us.

We will work toward peace and reconciliation within the body of Christ so that our unity might be a testimony to God’s reconciling work.

We will welcome the hospitality of God extended to us by others as they share in peace with us.

I will continue to open my house as a sanctuary to the work of God in all those who enter it through Tribal Gatherings, suppers, leadership gatherings, and social events.

I will seek to meet with all the tribal leaders a part of The Edge at least once a month one on one either by phone, coffee/meal, or online.

I will continue to model and invite others to be a part of the discipling culture our tribe is a part of (I-Living) while continuing to develop a discipling culture within The Edge.

I will attend and be a part of all Edge leadership suppers, gatherings, and retreats while fostering the relationships we have.

I will meet with my ministry partner John every two weeks to learn from his modelling, wisdom, and instruction while dreaming and discerning on the future movement of our tribes.

I will be open to the invitations of my nieghbours to any community gathering point.

I will continue to publish my thoughts and writing in public spaces (blog, Face Book, Email) with the openness of engaging others in conversation around them.

  1. Because we believe God’s love has been revealed to us in the self-giving death of Jesus, and because that love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit:

We will cultivate practices of steadfast love in our own lives.

We will bear each other’s burdens, weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice, in order to participate in a trustworthy community.

We will find ways to make our neighborhoods places of God’s trustworthiness through self-giving love.

I will seek to be involved in at least two community or YYC projects per month for the purpose of creating a better neighbourhood.

I will seek to show love to my wife through dating often, meaningful gifts of beauty (yes, it might be sentimental but, the occasional rose goes a long way!! 🙂 ), and making time to listen to her.

I will also seek to be a better husband through reading, council of friends, and podcasts/video.

I will love my tribe through being present in their lives while shaping my discussions with them solely through the language of encouragement and empowerment.

I will seek out every opportunity to engage my neighbours in conversation while being attentive to the opportunities to bless them within the context that they are in.

I will continue engaging the story of the Calgary Centre for Global Community & being involved in its activities.

Rochester Rule of Life: Finding a Rhythm

Rule of Life

1. We acknowledge that God is our Father Who desires intimacy with His children and is the source of life and desires to impart life.

AND

We vow to welcome and receive intimacy with God by the practices of silence, solitude, simplicity, prayer, and scripture.

  •  I will practice the openness to recognizing whatever scripture I am in daily, that it will speak into the experiences, events, and life practices I partake in.
  • I will seek the invitation of God and His story in all people I meet while inviting them to be a part of my story.

2. We acknowledge that God’s Trinitarian nature reveals a mutual submission among His Persons.

AND

We vow to practice mutual submission as we live in the context of community.

  •  I will give myself in service to the needs of my wife, my tribe (church), and my community as they have need or desire for the work of the Kingdom.
  • I will pursue the understanding of my community’s needs by developing and fostering a relationship with community leaders and civil servants.

3. We acknowledge that God is a welcoming, gracious, merciful, lover of all people Who stands in solidarity with us and desires to be with us.*

AND

We vow to practice both giving and receiving hospitality and neighborliness.

  •  I will seize every opportunity to pursue a relationship with my neighbours while creating environments of connection by being personally visible on the street as much as possible.
  • We (Bonnie & I) continue to have an open house as we welcome any and all to out table over visiting and tribal gatherings.
  • I continue fostering relationships with the other amidst diversity in beliefs, understandings, and cultures.

4. We acknowledge that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is a redeeming God Who is in the process of restoring all things.

AND

We vow to participate in practices that actively restore shalom.

  •  I will continue serving at the Calgary Mustard Seed while developing friendships and relationships with the many homeless on Calgary’s streets.
  • I will seek every opportunity to speak out against injustice, prejudice, and worldly labels particularly in the issues of euthanasia, mental illness, and those considered “disabled”.

5. We acknowledge that God is the creator of this world and all things belong to Him and are for Him
AND
We vow to live as faithful stewards of God’s creation including our bodies and resources

  • I will seek to live a healthy life by educating and developing a greater understanding of the workings to a holistic life.
  • I will seek to train my body through exercise every week by weight training, wheeling, and healthy eating habits.
  • I will submit to the continued understanding that I am not my own person, I am a temple to the Holy Spirit, and therefore under the possessive communal dwelling of his continued eternal presence amidst my own.

Captured in the Word of God and the Rule of Life

Carpe DiemI will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.[1] God’s words here leaped in my heart as I reflected on the meanings to a rule of life. A rule of life must not be one of doctrine, complexity, or teaching, but rather an embrace of breathable naturalism and simplicity to which we ascribe in living communal practice with an expectation of becoming that which we are. Fyodor Dostoevski put it as, “The whole law of human existence lies in this: that man be able to bow down before the infinitely great”[2]

The submission to communal life as a Christian is not sustainable through the life of just one and as our creator, it is God who first makes those relational ties with our inner being as he seeks intimacy and knits the fabric of life into the community around us (Jer. 1:4-10). Miroslav Volf rightly identifies that, “The Christian faith is not primarily about human doing but about human receiving. The barebones formal injunction to which the gospel can be produced is, ‘Receive yourself and your world as a new creation.’”[3]

Catalyzing this receiving of new life and intimacy is the reality of God’s being in the foundation of love. This is not a reaction of motivated love but rather, “God’s love for humanity [as] freely given… The one true God does not need anything from humans, but exists as self-complete and yet not self-enclosed plenitude of self-giving and other receiving of love.[4] It is in a submission to receiving that love that we can then reflect it in response as an attribute to our being in the imago Dei. This existence however is not limited to our relationships solely between God and us but also in creational community. As we live deeper into this rule of life we recognize that love is not quantifiable and therefore not ours to give and receive, rather there is only one love in the identity of God which is shared and mirrored by all of his creation and intrinsically woven into the DNA of communal practice.

The universal inclusiveness of the Christian community gives birth to an alienation of its practice from that of the world’s understanding. Volf reflects the thoughts that, “through the new birth into a living hope, a ‘sect’ is born. And indeed, before the new born child could take her first breath, her difference, her foreignness, was manifest.[5] Hospitality and acceptance in the world’s perception is founded on a belief that it is quantified through personal individual meriting and yet, as Christians we fully live out an inclusiveness of hospitality and acceptance for all, despite difference, diversity, or social dictums. We love and entertain as God loves and entertains all!

The freedom in this endeavor to pursue God’s love and redemption of all things, returning his love to that which he creates, brings not a sense of enslavement, but a radical becoming and returning to who we are and who we were meant to be. No longer are we trapped by the self-consuming rules of ego but catalyzed by the movement towards communal self-realization and the rule of life. In Volf’s terms, “Every act of knowing God both satisfies and engenders human curiosity, every encounter with God both quenches and deepens human thirst. In the infinite being of God, the incessant movement of the human spirit begins to arrive at its final rest.[6]

Rest… indeed, a life long meditation on the practice of Sabbath!


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Je 31:33–34). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Dostoevski, Fyodor, Quoted in Philip Yancey’s, Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find. (Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000),123.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 51

[4] Ibid, 140.

[5] Ibid, 89.

[6] Ibid, 177.

Identity Crises: A Practice of Listening and Responding

IdentityBefore I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” (Jer. 1:5)

God knew me! What does that mean? How does he know me? It seems incredibly powerful to think about the fact that God dreamed of what I would be like! The things I’d say and the things I’d do! To fathom that he even knew my faults!

The reality is I am still learning about myself and I don’t fully know who I am in the course of life. That is what I really am about; I am journeying through life slowly learning more and more deeper, who I am. The realization being that if I really want to know who I am, I need to seek the one who created me as only he can fully know who I am.

Still, I can make some key notes in my characteristics…

  • I am a man. It seems silly to note but the reality is my sexual identity creates a defined role I have in existence. That role being not only individual but also in my community and society.
  • I am a husband. This of course creates a intrinsic reality that my character and identity not only shapes just who I am but also that of my wife too. Of course the reverse of that is also true in that she shapes who I am too.
  • I am intelligent. It’s not meant to sound in any kind or arrogance but, God wants me to learn and as such learning is meant to be done not just in knowledge, but also in exercise. Intelligence is the willingness to take knowledge and process it into wisdom.
  • I am passionate and emotional. I cannot lie, I shed a few tears every once and a while when a good movie is on. Joking aside, I can be very passionate about the callings I have and the people who are a part of my life. I do not think I should separate my emotions from the decisions I make in life. Of course, I don’t think my emotions are the sole elements I rely on for my decisions.

I could go on here with some other notes but this is a start.

I think it is interesting that God also said he “consecrated” me. In that way, my separated sense of self consciousness and self awareness was given by him. There is, in a sense, a piece of God inside of me as who I am. A finger print of sacred exists in a way. I am unique!

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)

There is a realization here that God created me with a purpose, a mission in mind. A prophet is one who not only hears from God but speaks with and for him. It is a vocational calling to which transcends my identity in everything I do and am. I have a deeper calling to listen to God and respond to him whether in actions or words.

That vocation however, is not separated from the appointment of that calling to which is the “nations”. A nation is not necessarily a political country, but rather it can be a people group of affiliation or locality. In that sense, I realize that my identity is to listen and respond to God’s presence in the midst of all the people who are around me in life. This means in work, at home, on the street, and anywhere I find myself at any given moment.

These are a few thoughts I have had while meditating through Jeremiah 1:4-19 as a start.

Old Tongues, Translators, and Jumping Back In the Deep End

ListenIt’s been a week of Face Time and Skypeing into Dallas Texas with a new tribe out of Rochester Michigan as I start my studies for the MRE (Masters of Religious Education) and Missional Leadership out of Rochester College. I wasn’t sure what to think of hitting the books again and although being unable to travel, I was a bit nervous to using Skype as I had never done so before. It took a few days to settle in but even sitting in the comfort of my home, the Intensive Week lived up to its name. I am exhausted!!

Listening to the stories of the other students really moved me and inspired me as I could see the awesome impacts of God in their lives! Story after story of deliverance, compassion, suffering, redemption, and God led mission left me feeling very small in the world and yet recognized as a brother in a Kingdom far greater then I or you could imagine! I greatly look forward to growing closer and learning from this tribe in the years ahead!

A few days in, the language began to incline and I recognized the old familiar tongue of missional latitude that I suppose I should expect from higher education and deeper waters of missional thought. From the discussions of narrative and meta-narrative to the formulation and defence of hermeneutical interpretation, I recognized a need to brush up and grow my linguistic skills. This left me with a pondering to our roles in community and how we embody biblical, or God’s word, in the community narrative? (Ah yes, it seems to be taken an old road again! 😉 )

A few days ago, a fellow student made the statement, “I’m struggling with the big words.” My mind reflected to seven years ago as I left the Bible College and started enacting the call of mission in my community. Over and over my family and friends would tell me, “We don’t understand this missional language you are speaking. You have to speak to us like a normal person!” Epiphany hit me, Alan Hirsch was right! Even as missional leaders, we need to learn the language of the community and for the next seven years that is exactly what I learned to speak!

The role of missional leadership is to take the missional narrative and linguistics and in a sense, learn to become a translator who embodies God’s word not only in action but in spoken word. The meta-narritive is taking the hermeneutic and putting it into the story of… the Simpsons! 😉

Yes, I’m back into the deep end of the pool again and I’m sure there are some sharks about, be they institutional or my own endurance to tread water and keep my head up. I just pray that as I swim away from the boat again, that as I come ashore, Jesus is there waiting by the fire. (Interesting note of thought – the last boat I swam from was the institutional church (See Here). Now I’m swimming from the “missional” front lines!)

Bridge Nets, Meaning and the Co-curricular By Ron Fraser

Bridge NettingThis fall tens of thousands of young people have begun studies after high school. They have worked hard for this. Having won the prize of admission reserved for those disciplined in study, they will enter rich academic environments, richer then they have ever known, to pursue the promise of a good job.

They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which they will search in vain: the question of life’s meaning, of what one should care about besides a job and why, of what life and living is for.

I’ve been thinking about this vacuum recently. Western public education began with the notion that life’s most important questions are appropriate subjects for students to explore. This has all but disappeared. It is perhaps truer to say that what is most important in life has been collapsed, within education itself, to economics. Economic globalization of the last three decades or so has been the final squeeze to push questions of value and meaning out of formal learning. The disciplines with the oldest, deepest connection with these questions, the humanities, including the study of religion, have been badly weakened, even within secular universities. Research, the capacity to produce “true value” for new economic opportunity, is now king. Education is about commodities and the quantifiable. The question “What is life for?” is homeless here.

The loss of the quest for meaning has come at a staggering price. The September 2012 Maclean’s headlined Canadian students  feel hopeless, depressed, even suicidal. Among other things it discussed the results of a 2011 survey of 1,600 University of Alberta students, where “about 51 percent reported that, within the past 12 months, they’d felt things were hopeless. Over half felt overwhelming anxiety. A shocking seven percent admitted they’d seriously considered suicide, and about one percent had attempted it.” Canadian universities don’t have a monopoly on these things. At Cornell University in New York, the solution for hopelessness and depression has been to install bridge netting under the seven bridges leading to campus to catch jumpers on their way to class. Sadly even the article itself reduced the problem to one of “mental health“. Mental health is serious stuff, and important to acknowledge and deal compassionately with. The issue though is complex. Hopelessness, depression, and anxiety has much to do with the conditions of life, like prior to a major assignment. There will, as the saying goes, “always be prayer in schools as long as there are exams.

Despite globalization, the quest for meaning persists. At one level it helps us cope. With a “why“, Victor Frankl observed, we can deal with any “how“. For Christians though, our longing for transcendence empowers us to invest in riches that can be enjoyed forever. The scriptures call it “hope in Christ” (1 Cor. 15).”Hoping in Christ” helps us to endure too. It also gives us the Model for living, a Christ shaped character, and a horizon far past the hollow promises of consumer culture, a reason to spend life for the sake of others.

Since questions for meaning are always questions of the spirit, and the right and proper subject of Christian education, it would be easy to say here “Hooray for Christian education!

However, life’s meaning is far more than “a question” of the spirit. It is rather a quest, a hunger of the spirit. That’s why not all churches or even places like ABC are automatically places of authentic spiritual food. Sometimes Christian institutions  bear a strange similarity to religious studies classrooms where information about God or belief systems is passed off as sufficient for Christian discipleship. Information however, while important and necessary, is hardly sufficient for becoming a follower of Jesus.

At the heart for our quest for meaning is Jesus who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He didn’t say, “I’ve come to tell you ‘Ten steps to walk in the Way.‘” He didn’t say, “I’ve come to tell you the Truth.” He said, “I am the Truth.” He offers Himself. This of course matches our yearnings precisely. They are for Love Himself. Information is not enough for the quest!

Jesus knew all of this! He knew that what disciple-learners needed more than anything in their quest was a model of loving surrender to the Father. This was a lengthy process, even under the master Teacher! Along the way there were questions, doubts, fears, denials, prejudices, jealousies, and a host of other distractions. Their enemy was ours too: they thought that the “Way” was the way of privilege and power. All of them desert Him at one point. After three years of instructions they still think that (Acts 1:8). Throughout this jagged journey to learn Him, every moment was a teachable one. He never gives up on them.

Regardless of how that quest unfolded in particular cases, the common thread was that Jesus was always with them, entering life with them, challenging, encouraging, whittling away their self-preoccupation. All this to say that for Jesus curriculum was not enough. He longed for them to experience His inner life. His presence was key!

Dallas Willard puts it this way: “…spiritual formation rests on the indispensable foundation of death to self and cannot proceed except in so far as that foundation is being laid and sustained. You cannot follow Jesus from a distance. You do life with Him.” (Renovation of the Heart, Page 64)

The quest for meaning is satisfied through the challenging conversation and encounters where life’s big questions are faced honestly. In fact, our gospels are both declaration and a “working through” of the conversations about what it means to live for Someone else. Without those conversations, they wouldn’t exist! Peter Berger is correct: “Worldview hangs on the thin thread of conversation.

As they walked with him, Life seeped in. Jesus’ own dreams of a new, Other-oriented life took shape. They learned to serve by serving. They learned to love by loving. They learned to be loved, by being loved. Meaning arrived not by armchair philosophizing, but through fresh encounters with Life Himself. Jesus knew that the transformative turning points of life are already in the journey, not just in the synagogue.

It is easy, and so tempting, to think of what is done outside the classroom as unimportant. It is not. The stakes are too high, the consequences too stark, the possibilities for Others too rich, and the horizons of meaning to beautiful, to abandon the co-curricular.