In Praise of Small Beginnings

Capernaum

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my son in Bethlehem. It was both wonderful and disruptive. And it was the least festive Christmas I’ve ever had, at least measured by my childhood memories of baubles and carols and angels and all the family gathered to feast. My son and I ate Christmas dinner alone in a cold cafeteria. We had lamb meatballs in tomato broth, and no dessert. We exchanged not a single gift, other than the best ones: words of blessing and thanksgiving.

Bethlehem is, of course, no longer a little town lying still in deep and dreamless sleep. It is a sprawling and dangerous Palestinian city, surrounded by prison-like concrete walls, teeming with military police, simmering with discontent. We got caught in a small riot on Christmas Day – an angry mob, finally dispersed by canisters of tear gas, hurling rocks in sling shots, burning garbage and tires, strewing debris across roadways, chanting angry slogans.

It was not a scene of peace on earth, good will toward men.
This was my first visit to Israel and Palestine. Many people told me, when they heard of my plans, that the trip would transform me: that walking where Jesus walked, reading stories in the places where the actual events happened, touching the water from which Peter pulled nets and across which Jesus strode – all this and more would breathe fresh life into my faith.

Yes and no.

No in the sense that the “places Jesus walked” are mostly buried beneath layers of subsequent development and pious tradition. The actual sites are largely lost to us. But yes in the sense that the landscape remains virtually unchanged since the first century, or even a thousand years earlier, from the time of David. To stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is to see the world much as Jesus and his disciples saw it. To sit in the heights of En Gedi and look out across the canyon walls toward the shining expanse of the Dead Sea is to behold what David, running from mad Saul with his gang of malcontents, beheld.

That’s why Capernaum had such an impact on me. Except for a church and a monastery, and a parking lot to accommodate fleets of monstrous tour buses, Capernaum remains the town where Jesus lived during the days of his ministry in Galilee. Here lie the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached, the crumbling walls of the houses in which he ate and spoke and healed, and in one of which he would have slept.

The town’s ordinariness overwhelmed me. Its mundane quality riveted me. Capernaum was a hick town. It played no pivotal historical role. It was never an economic driver, a strategic military location, a cultural innovator, a political flashpoint. It was a little fishing village where a small population, among them Peter, eked out an existence.

And it’s where Jesus lived. Not in Athens, or Alexandria, or Jerusalem. Not in some thriving epicenter, some crossroads of power and wealth and culture. No, he set up shop in a hick town on the margins of everything.

That invigorates my faith. That it was this place (plus a few other hick towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth) that the God of heaven and earth chose to send his one and only son to live among us – this thrills me. It is God’s strange and wondrous habit to choose unlikely people and insignificant places to do the most spectacular and transformative things.

Today, Christianity claims 2.4 billion followers – a third of the world’s population – spread throughout the entire globe. The faith Christ established has launched some of the world’s greatest institutions – universities, hospitals, science, abolition, universal suffrage, civil rights – and inspired some of culture’s greatest artifacts, from cathedrals to symphonies to masterpieces of art.

And it all began in a place which, except for one remarkable inhabitant, no one would otherwise remember.

God doesn’t need the props and trappings and infrastructure of worldly accomplishment to remake the earth. It turns out, any old hick town will do. From nowhere, he can change everything.

That does breathe fresh life into my faith.

On the Trail of St. Patrick

 

                                                            

I'm currently in Ireland, in the lovely seaside town of Bangor, a suburb of Belfast. I started the week here, then drove down the coastline to Dublin to view the book of Kells and other historical wonders, then spent a night in Armagh, with its rolling green hills and red brick mills. I'm back here now in Bangor, to do a week of teaching.

            This past week I have been on a guided tour of the St. Patrick Trail, led by Arrow Leadership's CEO Carson Pue. It's been a fascinating and faith-building journey. We've gone from the bay in Northern Ireland – Strangford Lough – where Patrick first made landfall in the country, to the place, not far from there, where he lies buried beneath a flat rock, shaped as God made it except for Patrick's name chiseled atop. And we visited several of the monasteries and churches he established, including the cathedral in Armagh where he is listed as the first pastor.

            Of all I've learned about his life and times (Carson is an expert, and just finishing a book on Patrick), two things stand out. First, unlike other monks, Patrick never intended his monasteries to be cloisters where monks lived sheltered lives of quiet scholarship: he intended them as boot camps where monks were trained up and sent out as evangelists. This is a brilliant model for the church. Too often we regard church as our refuge, a place to escape the world, rather than as our training ground, a place to prepare to subvert and win the world. More than ever, we need to measure the church's success, not by its attendance records, but by its obedience factor; not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.

            Second, Patrick taught his monks to choose, long before they ever arrived in the place they were sent, the values by which they would live. In that way, the world would not define them. Patrick chose a life of purity, integrity, humility, simplicity and courage in a  culture where most of that was lacking. In his day, he had "rock-star status" – Carson's phrase – women threw themselves at him, chieftains and pretty kings offered him land and wealth. He never indulged any of it. He had resolved long before to be satisfied with Christ alone. It was this resolve, more than anything else, that empowered Patrick and his monks to effectively Christianize within a single generation a deeply pagan culture. This, too, is a good model for the church. Some of Patrick's counter-cultural approach to living the faith would strengthen us, within and without, and be a more effective way to reach the world.

 

The Gospel in Motion

         

 

       

 

          This week our church ministered alongside First Nations musician and evangelist Cheryl Bear and her family, and I watched God answer our prayers that through their ministry and presence the Kingdom of God would become a little more visible in the Cowichan Valley. The fulfilment of that prayer was especially obvious Wednesday evening on the Native reservation. Food. Music. Games. Friendship. Laughter.

          All night, the gospel was spoken, sung, lived out, and set in motion.

         Cheryl and Randy Barnetson (Bear is Cheryl’s clan and stage name) and their sons Paul, Randall and Justice, are prophets to the church and priests to the Nations. As prophets, they speak God’s blunt truth. As priests, they disclose God’s tender heart. Cheryl and Randy shared on Tuesday night, at our church, that many of our assumptions about Indigenous people are completely erroneous and have contributed to our impotence in reaching them. Then Cheryl spoke on Wednesday night, on the rez, about Jesus’ deep deep love for all people and his power to save and to heal. Afterward, men and women and children crowded around her and Randy and the boys to meet them and hear more.

           Cheryl said something that simultaneously encouraged me and devastated me: that in the over 400 First Nations communities they have visited in the past 3 years, only in the Cowichan Valley has she seen the church present on the reservation. I am thankful that we have walked through this door. But I am heartbroken that so few others even attempted it.

           But it took us this long to get this far, and we have a considerable distance to go yet. I pray all of us grow in our understanding that the gospel is for all people – every tribe and tongue and nation, as the Bible frequently puts it. And that we are sent with good news, not merely asked to caretake it. God has made us ambassadors, not custodians, of the gospel. God sends us out to “preach good news to all nations.”

          None of us are exempt. All of us have a role.

           Are you setting the gospel in motion?